Krys Lee’s lyrical collection of stories resists being summarized and remains memorable after reading. As a poet and fiction writer, Lee is both vibrant and restrained with detail; she neither exaggerates nor depicts sentimental reactions from her characters mired in tragic situations. Instead, she conjures a world of strange yet sympathetic individuals with whom we can identify and portrays them as realistic survivors of a chaotic world that shifts among the aftermath of the Korean civil war, postcolonialism and globalized modernity.
As the title of her collection suggests, Drifting House assembles its literary themes in a collage of haphazard patterns—of dislocation, nostalgia for a homeland that does not exist, and itinerant identity—around the domestic household and family. Far from being the happy, nuclear American family, the families in the collection exist in-between as members of the Korean diaspora: former North Koreans settling in Southern California, modern-day cosmopolitan “goose father” families, bohemian artists post-1988, violent fathers who claim religious righteousness, and mothers who desire missing or separated daughters. In her own words, Lee says that her focus on marginalized people comes from a desire to portray them in an authentic, humanistic way: “I’m suspicious of books that tackle themes or identities that don’t seem to be driven by anything more than sensationalism or timeliness, but books that give voice to the underrepresented and help us see them as individuals within the larger context of time and the historical moment that delineates our lives will always be important” (www.kryslee.com).
Indeed, the first story, “A Temporary Marriage,” sets the dark tone for the rest of the narratives. The odds are already stacked against the protagonist Mrs. Shin, who leaves behind Korea for Southern California in a green-card marriage to locate her young daughter with the help of a private detective. Due to patriarchal laws in Korea that automatically reward custody to the father, her daughter Yuri has been sequestered away with her affluent ex-husband in Beverly Hills, a separation that drives the middle-aged Mrs. Shin to live precariously, without hope, “because hope was painful, dangerous” (10). One day, on a reckless impulse she catches a bus out of Koreatown and walks out into a dangerous neighborhood just to feel anything other than her own existence, a gesture toward escapism. As the story nears its inevitable conclusion, we become aware of more than just the parts that make up the loss and grief that Mrs. Shin must reconcile. Just as the title suggests, transience and impermanence mark the lives of many recent immigrants. Mrs. Shin has few tools at her disposal to rise above her condition and consequently, turns her rage inward.
The story “A Small Sorrow” similarly takes up the subjects of motherhood-as-identity and feminism. The daughter of an activist poet, Eunkang wrestles with conflicting notions of who she is as a progressive, female artist in the newly-turned democratic Korea, 1988. Her husband, a more famous and renowned painter than she, has now capitalized on his reputation as an imprisoned activist during the Park Chung Hee dictatorship and has many young, adoring mistresses. Once proud that she flouted the conventions of a traditional housewife and mother by being an activist and painter, Eunkang now doubts that her choices are liberal and nonconformist. In fact, she has sunk into a stagnant, bourgeois marriage – she declares half-heartedly, “So this was marriage.” When she confronts her husband’s apprentice and mistress, a young and beautiful painter, Eunkang has an unexpected shift in consciousness. As she becomes aware of the more important desires she submerged in her attempt to be an outsider, she gains a deeper sense of her own power: she “heard the woman she had imagined herself being” (143). Moving from the more expected perimeters of the subject of jealousy and infidelity, Lee deftly turns to the interior drama of self-truth.
While each story is a variation on a theme of displacement, a strong sense of past injustices, both political and domestic, shapes them into tales that engage with the universal theme of transformation reminiscent of Greek tragedies. Her writing begs us to ask: how can we move forward while trying to reconcile our memories and find closure with the ruptures of our past? While one of the central literary tropes of exile and immigrant literature has been nostalgia for the homeland that does not exist, Lee complicates this theme with characters who would be better off breaking their attachment to their nations.
This is precisely the conflict in the centerpiece story, “Drifting House,” in which Lee turns her lens on three young children trying to cross the Tumen River to escape the North Korean regime. While many writers and documentary filmmakers have compellingly documented the widespread famine and gulag-style prison camps, not as many have focused on the individual survivors who are ordinary yet resilient children. Risking their lives and imprisonment, eleven-year-old Weonchol and his two younger siblings make the courageous trek through freezing snow and frostbite temperatures. But early into their trip, too weak to continue the journey carrying his crippled sister on his back, Weonchol makes a horrific decision that no one—let alone a child—should have to make. Reminiscent of the chilling sacrifice in Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, the decision by Weonchol haunts the rest of the book like an open wound. Where men are hung for cannibalizing their parents out of starvation and people are driven to the edge of madness, nothing is sacred. “Hunger changed people, destroyed the strongest bonds between parents and children, and young and old, and a woman with disgraced flesh was already a broken woman. As the old saying went, If you starve three days, there is no thought that does not invade your imagination” (115).
Resisting closure, Lee leaves us with the unsettling image of this haunted dystopia, as “[…] Across the frozen river, the thud of an approaching soldier’s steps faded as Woncheol now saw the phantom world that had always been there” (126-7). As if it is an indirect commentary on the future of North Korea as a specter state, “Drifting House” reminds us of the precarity of existence ensnared by a dystopian, totalitarian government. She reminds us of the empathy required to see beyond the easy vilification of North Korea communism and to look at the real subjects.
Attributing her an aesthetic sensibility as akin to Henry James, Lee also describes her tendency toward portraying emotionally fraught, traumatic situations as originating in the autobiographical: “Our house was a Little Korea, and I was fascinated by the homes of American friends that I’d visit because their way of being was so culturally different. There were other, more violent and painful fractures that influenced my life and inevitably, my stories” (www.kryslee.com). Indeed, Lee’s bicultural perspective lends itself to her ability to portray the less apparent and inherently complex features in these characters’ lives.
More edgy than safe, Lee’s collection of short stories reflects an aesthetic sensibility of postmodernist lyricism. Daring to explore underrepresented and taboo subjects, Lee creates a psychological terrain for readers who are willing to explore the darker undersides of familiar subjects. Focusing her lens on the fringes of society, she shows us a different view of Korea and the U.S. as a troubled pair of countries intertwined by military occupation, colonialism, and refuge. As Flannery O’Connor once remarked that “a story really isn’t any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase,” it is a fitting description for the dynamic assortment of characters in Kry Lee’s first short story collection. Drawn to the way that Lee writes in a spare, realist style and surrealist in others, I admire the complexity in her range of diasporic voices from North Korean defectors to South Korean cosmopolitans and newly-settled Korean-American immigrants. Unflinching and spare, these stories are as beautiful as they are haunting and chilling. Her first collection is a promising harbinger of her next literary project.