Raised in California and living in Seoul, novelist Krys Lee wrestles with Korean identities

by Victoria Kim

From: Los Angeles Times

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Standing in the heart of Koreatown, novelist Krys Lee is turned around.

Was this the direction to the Korean market to which her family made a pilgrimage every weekend, and her mother would rent her cache of Korean videotapes? Which way was the tofu restaurant she and her pastor father walked to countless times, after her mother died and there was no one to cook him Korean food?

And where was her father’s final apartment, where he lived, broken and lost, until he suffered a heart attack mid-sermon at the pulpit?

The gleaming new condos and countless new restaurants are disorienting, and in all the years she moved around all over Southern California following her father’s restlessness and church assignments, Lee never actually lived in Koreatown. But it nonetheless holds an important place in her imagination, in the world she mines for her fiction.

“Koreatown, symbolically, imaginatively and literally, it is a kind of locus for me,” Lee, author of the new novel “How I Became a North Korean,” says on a recent Thursday. “Coming to Koreatown was definitely a kind of ritual, in some ways one of the few positive family memories I have. … This is the place that inspires my work.”

Lee’s novel, her first, is set in the harsh, unforgiving hinterlands near the border of China and North Korea, a world away from the sprawling, sun-soaked Southern California of Lee’s youth.

The book follows three young protagonists — two escapees from North Korea and an ethnically Korean Chinese-national runaway — who endure the family rifts, betrayals, abject despair and unbridled fear that abound along the human smuggling routes out of North Korea through China. Their stories are inspired and informed by the more than a decade Lee has spent working with and befriending North Korean refugees, both in Seoul, where she now lives, and at the China-North Korea border.

As the title of her novel suggests, it is only in being torn away from home, crossing a border and landing in a new, foreign place that Lee’s protagonists discover the burden and ramifications of their identities and feel the yoke of where they come from — an experience immigrants to the U.S. are familiar with, if on a smaller scale. The book also unflinchingly portrays the mixed motives behind the Christian missionaries who dominate the underground network.

There are tinges of Lee’s own life in the character Danny, who leaves behind the comforts of San Bernardino County, where he had immigrated with his family, to return to China. He ends up with a ragtag band of North Korean refugee boys, all in search of a place to belong.

Danny’s meandering, convoluted path is not unlike Lee’s own lengthy, ongoing search of a home, of a tribe. Read Rest of Review Here

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