Born in South Korea, raised in America, educated in England and equally comfortable speaking Korean or English, novelist Krys Lee has trouble pinpointing her “home.” She is now based in Seoul, where her world is “intimate yet alienated,” but when she returns to her old lives in the U.K. and U.S. — places that “should be immediately close to me” — she feels no different.
“I return feeling more a prodigal son (or daughter) who no longer knows what home is,” she says.
The idea of home is a complicated one for Lee, and she examines and reexamines it through her writing. It’s a theme that runs through the recently published, critically acclaimed “How I Became a North Korean,” a haunting, aching novel about three characters — two of them North Korean and one Korean-American — who are stuck in China waiting to travel to South Korea.
Lee is similar to other non-Western writers who, after being educated abroad, have chosen to return to their country of origin. She describes these individuals as “caught between many worlds” and belonging to “many places at once.” To Lee, they’re living “elsewhere.”
She moved with her family from South Korea to the U.S. as a 4-year-old, and returned to live and work in Seoul as an adult. It has not been quite like returning home — the world she and similar writers left behind only resides in a memory colored by nostalgia. They are living in a country where they can pass for an insider, but they are outsiders for having gone out and experienced other cultures and languages. Unlike writers who embraced the language of their adopted countries, such as Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Brodsky and Milan Kundera, we increasingly see younger writers relocating to the home of their mother tongue while still writing in English.
Lee says that writing English novels in a country that speaks Korean has been a source of comfort and loneliness for her. In Seoul she is freed from the pressures of the New York publishing world — it’s “literally, me, language, and the imagined world,” she says. Her attachment grows as she “follows the current events here.” But though she may begin to feel at home as she “speaks and thinks in Korean” and “dreams and curses in Korean,” she lacks a community of like-minded writers to interact with.
“I write in English, but even when I’m in America, it still takes me about two weeks to adjust,” she says. “Around that point my sister will exclaim to me, ‘You sound more American now. You’ve finally returned!’ “
This in-between space is Lee’s “elsewhere,” a zone the characters in “How I Became a North Korean” also seem to inhabit.
There are many synonyms for the word “refugee.” However, none of those words convey the situations these characters — Yongju, son of an elite North Korean official, Jangmi, a pregnant defector, and Danny, an American missionary — find themselves in. They are not exiles, because they lack the romantic notion that an exile’s longing for home conveys. And they are not exactly displaced, because their homelessness is due neither to war nor natural catastrophe. They are not expatriates either, because the word “expat” carries a connotation of privilege — that is, of being able to choose a new country based on one’s preference. Expats often find themselves cocooned in the culture and community of people who are like-minded and of the same class. Instead, these characters reside in a borderless terrain where, from their viewpoint, they are neither North Korean nor South Korean — or, in the case of Danny, no longer American.
Even outside of home, their identities remain intertwined with memories of the homeland they left behind.
These characters are caught in a gray zone as they wait in China to be taken to South Korea for their new lives to start. For them, home exists in the past. These memories haunt Yongju to the point that he views them as a “prison sentence.” The two other characters are also running away from troubled backgrounds: Danny’s is “a body returning to the past to escape the past,” and Jangmi is trying to get out of a life of dire poverty and abuse.
Lee tells their stories through alternating chapters and, with each, we glimpse their pasts, present and their hope for a future where borders do not exist and where their links to the past will not continue to blemish them. But even in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture — a Chinese region just north of the North Korean border, and the metaphorical womb where they hope for a rebirth — they are already marked beyond redemption, and the future home they seek is as elusive as the home they left behind.
“I wrote ‘How I Became a North Korean’ because I had to write it,” says Lee. “It was the world I knew best and cared most about at the time.”
Before writing the novel, Lee had worked as a volunteer at an agency helping North Korean defectors settle in South Korea. When she got to know these defectors as friends, she found that they were — like her — caught in limbo: the South Korea they dreamed about was alienating and cold, a place where they did not feel at home; North Korea was just as inaccessible.
Similar to her previous book, “Drifting House,” a collection of short stories about the Korean diaspora, Lee’s newest novel offers readers a glimpse into the minds of “elsewhere” individuals who have rich stories to tell, stories that create an uneasiness in readers about what it means to be adrift and what it means when the sense of self is constantly shifting — depending on who they are talking to or where they are.
When asked whether she considers herself an American or South Korean writer, Lee says that she is both: she is at home in Seoul writing in English; she is at home in her dislocation. But where will her home be in the next five or 10 years?
“I see myself in South Korea because my life partner is South Korean, and because I’m a professor at a university here. I am trying to spend more time overseas during my vacations, however, if only to remember my other selves.”
Mariko Nagai is the author of “Histories of Bodies: Poems,” and “Dust of Eden.”