Drifting House by Krys LeeDrifting House by Krys Lee

Drifting House

byKrys Lee

Paperback | December 24, 2012

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Set in Korea and the United States from the postwar era to contemporary times, Krys Lee's stunning fiction debut illuminates a people struggling to reconcile the turmoil of their collective past with the rewards and challenges of their present. Amid the famine in North Korea, the financial crisis of South Korea, and the cramped apartments and Koreatown strip malls of the United States, Krys Lee's vivid and luminous tales speak to the political and financial hardships of life in Korea and the uniquely unmoored immigrant experience.

            In the tradition of Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker and Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, Drifting House is an unforgettable work exploring love, identity, war, and the homes we make for ourselves, by a dazzling new writer.

Krys Lee is the author of Drifting House and How I Became a North Korean. She is a recipient of the Rome Prize and the Story Prize Spotlight Award, the Honor Title in Adult Fiction Literature from the Asian/Pacific American Libraries Association, and a finalist for the BBC International Story Prize. Her fiction, journalism, and literar...
Title:Drifting HouseFormat:PaperbackDimensions:224 pages, 7.7 × 5.1 × 0.6 inPublished:December 24, 2012Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0143122932

ISBN - 13:9780143122937

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Bookclub Guide

INTRODUCTIONCarrying the scars of war, famine, dictatorship, and a shifting political landscape, the characters in Krys Lee’s stunning debut story collection, Drifting House, experience the dramatic upheaval of the postwar decades in North and South Korea and in the Korean immigrant communities of the United States. Bold, honest, and ambitious in scope, Lee’s stories bring to life some of the darkest aspects of Korea’s cultural history yet also demonstrate a lightness of touch, revealing the hope and humor that fuel the human spirit.The title story follows two young boys trying to escape the starvation and misery of North Korea and the horrific act their desperation inspires. Indeed, survival and sacrifice color many of the stories, whether in the struggle to stay alive in the face of deprivation or, more subtly, in the strength to endure and even rise above loneliness, isolation, family turmoil, or poverty. In many stories, the immigrant experience of navigating a foreign culture, of cherishing old traditions in a new context, and of living through both an American and a Korean self figure prominently; the makeshift family in “At the Edge of the World” attempts to create a life straddling the line between past and present, determined to find a degree of peace and break free from the guilt of painful memories.Lee’s characters are bound by circumstances beyond their control and cultural rules they cannot ignore, no matter which side of the Pacific they live on. Whether through physical or emotional separation, the distance between parents and children and between husbands and wives resonates throughout the collection. While a mother’s death inspires the events of “The Pastor’s Son,” in “The Salaryman” a father sinks into degradation and homelessness rather than shame his family with his unemployment. When faced with the choice, characters sacrifice their own happiness in an attempt to improve the lives of those they love.There is great heartache in Lee’s stories, but there is also the celebration of a culture, of the optimism and bravery necessary to create a new life for oneself, or even a new self entirely: a lonely father and husband is renewed through a bizarre friendship with his young tenant in “The Goose Father,” while a wife shares a moment of intimacy with her husband’s lover in “A Small Sorrow.” The desire to connect and the power of shared experience invigorate and sustain even in the direst conditions.Drifting House offers challenging, frank stories that do not shy away from complicated cultural and political issues and demonstrate a deep respect for the history of a fractured nation and its resilient people. The work of a brave and honest writer with a sharp eye for detail, Krys Lee’s stories are subtle and elegant, graceful in offering horror and hope in equal measure. This arresting collection marks the introduction of a brilliant new voice in short fiction. ABOUT KRYS LEEKrys Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in the United States. She was a finalist for Best New American Voices in 2006 and received a special mention in the Pushcart Prize 2012 anthology. Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Narrative magazine, and Asia Weekly, among other publications. She divides her time between South Korea and the United States. This is her first book. A CONVERSATION WITH KRYS LEEQ. Korea has been in the news a lot over the last year, particularly regarding the successor to Kim Jong–il. Could you say something about politics in Korea at the moment?The death of Kim Jong–il on Dec 17, 2011, created great uneasiness across the Korean peninsula. The successor, his youngest Swiss–educated son Kim Jong–un, was known to be in his late twenties and inexperienced, and not fully supported by the government. One possible scenario was a power struggle between senior members of the government and army. As of Feb 2012, the transition looks smoother than before, though no one really knows how much control the government has. Even the so–called North Korean experts know so little of what goes on in that country; it’s one of the most mysterious countries in the world, an Orwellian bubble where little information gets out. It’s also a country notoriously brutal toward its own people, with an appalling human rights record. For the sake of its people, I hope––we all hope––that the country slowly opens up and changes for the better.Q. The title story of the collection is bleak and heartbreaking, and the details make the boys’ experience very immediate. Do you have any personal experience with North Korean refugees?For several years I’ve been close friends with defectors from North Korea. Some have experienced incredible hardship and loss, and others have been smuggled to South Korea with relatively less trauma through the help of family members who had defected earlier. The greatest trauma often occurs in the actual escape, and then, during the unprotected life of a refugee in China. Then they arrive in South Korea. For many, this high–tech, capitalist society is as strange as landing on Mars. They’ve been through so much, then meet suspicion and nearly insurmountable resettlement issues once they arrive in South Korea, so the focus of my friendships with them has always been on building a life and a future in Seoul. When you’ve lost your past, all you feel like you have is a future. I cook with these friends, go to bathhouses, go shopping, and, throughout, talk about education, saving money, getting a job, and all sorts of practical matters. I’ve been very lucky, given where I began in my own life, and am trying to be an older sister to my friends who are living in a strange new world.My work with North Korea-related organizations is more complicated. I’ve played a part in the community in whatever capacity I’ve been needed in, from teaching to translating to organizing. Most recently I was required to be in the border area of China, which led me to encounter several unsavory aspects of the activism surrounding North Korean refugees. Afterward, I ended up cutting back my involvement in the community. I realized I’m not a joiner of groups, but I care about the suffering of others and do what I can to help. A man whom I had smuggled out of China arrived safely in Seoul and will soon leave the resettlement center. Bringing together a community of activists to help him navigate that difficult first year is my next, and most important, goal.Q. The stories are arranged in a very deliberate order. Was this your original intention for the collection or did this plan develop organically? How do you think the reader’s response to the stories would change if “Drifting House” appeared earlier in the collection?The order of the stories developed organically, as did the collection itself. I hadn’t intended to write a collection, but each story I wrote seemed to be linked to the greater story of a people and a nation. A reverse chronology became the order of the stories, but even if that hadn’t been the case, I wouldn’t have wanted “Drifting House” too close to the front, as I think it has the most impact when readers better understand the greater story of the Koreas surrounding that particular story.Q. What is your writing process like? How long did it take you to write the entire collection? Which piece did you write first?I try to start weekday mornings working on my novel draft at home, or else writing gets swallowed up by the day’s obligations and my lethargy. Occasionally when I’m writing a difficult scene or feeling the limits of my imagination, I’ll write on the subway to the end of one line and back, so there are no distractions. I don’t particularly enjoy riding the subway for three hours voluntarily breathing in fumes, but sometimes it’s the only way to write a scene I’m trying to escape. I also trick myself when words dry up by writing in longhand by the Han River or while camping, writing lying down on my stomach. The habit of writing is difficult; if I can squeeze out another sentence or idea by writing in the bath, I’ll do it. At least twice a day, I fantasize about a writing retreat or a clean cabin in the countryside without the Internet, complete with a large goblin outside as sentry guard. But I had many more work obligations when I was writing Drifting House, as well as fallow months when I didn’t have time to write at all, and somehow completed the stories.The time frame is difficult to talk about because the oldest story, “The Salaryman,” was drafted when I first transitioned from poetry to fiction, but I was so afraid of failing that I committed little time to writing, even when I began the MFA program at Warren Wilson College. The program slowly helped me overcome my fear, and by the time I graduated, I was cautiously ready to commit myself to risk. I learned to have persistence and faith in the worlds I was creating.Q. Do you have a favorite character within these stories or one that you found particularly challenging to write?My favorite character is probably Mrs. Shin in “A Temporary Marriage.” It’s probably obvious that I’m obsessed with emotional, physical, and spiritual violence and how these forms of violence affect individuals. This story surprised me by revealing to me the self–hatred that remains with the victims of violence. While writing Mrs. Shin, I tried to protect her from this knowledge as much as I was protecting myself, but as you search for the truth of a story it leads you where it needs to go. When I could no longer protect Mrs. Shin, I was finally able to see who she really was.Q. The challenge of being an immigrant is highlighted in a number of stories, particularly the need to separate from a difficult past while choosing which aspects of one’s heritage to preserve. Is this a struggle that can be surmounted with time, or is it simply a fact of life for new Americans? Which of your characters best demonstrates this?Unless a person is well connected to the local community or privileged with money and education, I do believe it’s a fact of life for immigrants. The degree of hardship can differ depending on how traumatizing the circumstances were before leaving and, of course, how functional the family unit is. Koreans of a particular generation grew up with the Korean War in their DNA. A modern history with such catastrophic consequences—a divided country ruined on both sides of the thirty–eighth parallel, and often divided families, tyrannical rule on both sides of the border, widespread poverty—all of this has scarred several generations of people, whether they’re aware of it or not. I look at my family and my relatives, and I can see so many ways that the upheavals in Korea have affected them, then ultimately affected me.Q. As someone who spends time in both South Korea and the United States, do you feel your identity shift when you move from country to country? Are you equally at home in either country?I’ll state the obvious first: geography changes a person. In my case, living half my life overseas and the other half in the United States has left me between cultures, a kind of “drifting house.” Like most, I longed for a sense of belonging, so this used to disturb me. Over time I’ve come to be grateful for the fluid sense of home and identity that living between countries gives a person. You might always be an inside–outsider, but that also gives you an incredible perspective on many rich worlds, as well as a broad range of experiences that change you. There’s a loneliness that most people carry with them, whether they are conscious of it or not; in some sense, each of us is a kind of drifting house.Q. Drifting House is your first published book. What has surprised you about the editing and publication process? Has your writing changed in any way because of this experience?The amount of attention and care that such a large publishing house has given Drifting House has changed the way I view the publishing world. There are many stereotypes of publishing as soulless and mercenary, but the people I have encountered, from editors to marketing staff and booksellers, have shown me that publishing is also an industry of readers who love books. The entire process was collaborative, from the editing process, to the front cover, to publicity efforts. I’ve been told that first–time authors often don’t get any input into the process, but that wasn’t my experience.I can’t say my writing has changed overall, as it’s important for me to keep the writing of an original rough draft as pure as possible. You have to leave the noise outside the door when you write and let your characters and their world take over. But the editing process certainly helped improve Drifting House. I’m looking forward to turning in my novel to my editors, as I know it will become a better book through their efforts.Q. When the book is published in Asia, do you think Asian readers will respond to the book differently from American readers?A Korean journalist recently read a galley of Drifting House and told me that I had captured the sense of what it is like to live in Korea and be Korean. That was important to me, as my fear was that the portrayals of some of Korea’s problems would be resented by the local population. Each story was written out of love and respect for the country and its people, so it’s a relief that so far, Korean readers who’ve read the galleys are responding to the characters as individuals, rather than as representations of a nation’s image to the world.Q. Do you feel there are many voices in contemporary literature speaking for the Asian experience?Yes, we’ve moved far beyond a time when half a dozen voices represented the experience of so many disparate countries and people. There’s a lot more daring in terms of the range of stories, styles, and voices surrounding Asian experiences, which is healthy for the Asian American community and for literature. There are still many more stories to be told, and hopefully to be told well and sensitively, by Asian and non–Asian writers about the culture that they navigate on paper. It’s upsetting when writers mine Asia for material without a true understanding of or sympathy for the people they are writing about, and that goes for writers both within and outside the culture.Q. What is your next project?Last summer I started a novel about the Los Angeles riots but abandoned it for a novel concerning North Korean defectors, a world that I’m more intimate with. It’s best not to reveal too much, except to say that it is about love, betrayal, the oblique nature of evil, and desired redemption within the complicated reality of escaping North Korea, then once again escaping China.At first I tried to avoid this subject matter and urged a North Korean writer I knew to write a novel instead, but it was a world with immediate emotional ties to me, and a few defector friends expressed the hope that I would write their story in English; a friend even regretted that we had not co–written his memoir together. Only after reading existing novels about North Korean defectors with one–dimensional treatments of character, I decide to abandon my first project and embark on the new novel. The characters in what I had read had been made subservient to the greater political story or were mere types, while the North Koreans I know are anything but types. I’m not writing the novel based on the people I know or their stories, out of respect for their lives, but the people I know and the experiences I’ve had will hopefully make me a more sensitive and sympathetic writer. DISCUSSION QUESTIONSThe title story in the collection, “Drifting House,” tells of two young brothers attempting to escape from North Korea to China. Why did Lee select that story as the title story? What does the title refer to?What concerns and emotions unite the stories in this collection? If you had to describe the book to a friend in a sentence or two, what would you say?Certain characters appear in more than one story; identify these stories and characters. How do the narratives influence each other and alter your understanding of those characters? Why did the author choose to connect the stories in this way?Drifting House focuses specifically on the Korean and Korean American experience. If this setting is foreign to you, does it make it harder to connect to the stories? If the setting is familiar to you, does Lee’s representation strike you as accurate?In “The Goose Father,” the narrator makes reference (see pp. 83 and 87) to the formalities of interpersonal relationships between older and younger Koreans, formalities that seem to restrict comfort and honesty. Do similar formalities exist in North America?The scars of war and deprivation mark the older characters and influence their behavior. Find two examples of this in the stories.Many of the stories are challenging, even disturbing, because of the various types of domestic violence exhibited and their casual acceptance by the characters. How did you respond to this?In “A Temporary Marriage,” Mrs. Shin says, “I prefer a world without men” (p. 3), a comment that could easily be echoed by other women in the book. Which of the stories best illustrates the limitations and frustrations of being female in Korean culture? Do you believe that similar issues challenge American women?How has this collection of stories altered your perceptions of Korean culture specifically and immigrants in general? Was there one particular character whose experience struck a chord with you?Thinking of your own racial, religious, or cultural history, what similarities can you find with the characters in the stories? What have you overcome and what do you value? What has been troubling to you and what makes you proud?

Editorial Reviews

“In nine haunting tales, this Korean-born author . . . writes of the psychological fallout from Korea's troubled history and the toll on families living in a fractured world. . . . The metaphor of the drifting house serves as an apt, unifying roof over these harrowing, tragic stories about unmoored characters who find themselves neither here nor there. Lee . . . is well on her way to a promising literary career.” —NPR.org“When reading the stories of debut author Krys Lee's Drifting House, the simplicity and restraint of the writer come to the fore: declarative sentences, no fulsome descriptions despite the exotic locales of some of her stories. It is in this quiet confidence that the true strangeness and beauty of the work can emerge. . . . It is the cool telling that allows the tectonic plates of history, social forces and circumstances to move beneath these stories, conveying the feeling that something urgent and profound is at stake, beyond the lives of these striving, damaged and unforgettable characters.” —Marie Myung-Ok Lee, San Francisco Chronicle“This powerful debut collection takes an unflinching look at the reality of life in Korea. . . . Lee plumbs the darkness on both sides of this divided nation. . . . Hers is a unique approach. . . . By showing these authentic, everyday people at dramatic and pivotal moments, Krys Lee strips them to the core of their humanity. Her vision is a solemn one, but an important one too.” —Financial Times“Krys Lee . . . is already a precise stylist and an unflinching observer of the unfortunate lot of her compatriots, those who stay [in Korea] and those who make it to the States. . . . In the best stories, like the tragic yet luminous ‘A Small Sorrow,’ the story of a flawed marriage and an artistic rivalry, Lee's psychological acuity is empathetic under its unsentimental portraiture.”—The Minneapolis Star Tribune“Drifting House has shades of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth in its rendering of split cultural identities. But even more, it recalls Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness, holding beauty and brutality in an elegant equipoise. . . . In her textured, knowing and brilliant debut, Lee tells hard truths, tenderly.”—The Kansas City Star“If there's one thing Krys Lee knows how to do it's use history and culture as the boards and backdrop of a narrative while allowing her characters to take centre-stage. . . . The two finest stories in the collection, ‘Drifting House’ and ‘The Believer,’ achieve extraordinary feats within a few pages— murder, madness, haunting, loss of faith and more.”—The Guardian (London)“Insightful. . . . A keen observation of the layers of Korean society the past few generations, and of the dualities that have shaped the peninsula and its people. . . . The collection is at its best in exploring the duality of past and future, of memory and hope. And it is often at its best. . . . A part tragic and part nostalgic perspective of modern Korea.”—The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette“Drifting House offers a rare look at how damaging politics takes a personal turn, undermining even what we are able to call home. . . . The greatest strength of these nine stories is Lee’s ability to locate them in the strange and brutal dimensions of lives distorted by dictatorship, exile, expatriation, and even hunger. Her stories also slide through the quiet violence of divorce, loneliness, parenthood, and erotic attraction. . . . Lee is a patient storyteller with a distanced, mostly omniscient point of view. Such a sweeping, plain-style narration is essential for lacing together a collection that unfolds in three countries. The even tone lifts these stories out of melodrama and turns them instead into pristine things that are as unsparing as they are compassionate.”—The Daily Beast“Identity, loneliness and survival haunt Drifting House, Krys Lee’s debut collection of short stories. . . . Ms Lee has a natural gift for storytelling and her writing displays a rare clarity. The dark images embedded in these stories reveal a world ravaged by pain and conflict, and explore what drives human beings at their most primordial.”—The Economist“If you are a short story lover, a reader who isn't afraid of true things, a person who knows every other person around them hides multitudes of both light and dark secrets, read Drifting House.”—The Seattle Post Intelligencer“However dark their fates might be, Lee blesses her characters with passions forged from the flames of suffering. The survivors of Drifting House are those who dare to find their salvation in small moments of beauty and connection, who have endured great losses, but pick themselves up and keep moving forward. . . . Drifting House reminds us of the illumination that comes from recognizing the shakiness of the ground under our feet. We tell ourselves that we are in control of our stories, but we never are. Lee’s survivors know the truth: Control isn’t possible. Once we accept that, we take our first, small steps toward grace.”—Heather Havrilesky, The Los Angeles Review of Books“Stunning. . . . There is a stark beauty to Lee’s writing. Drifting House offers a poignant glimpse into lives divided by history. . . . If you were to substitute the copious soju (a strong Korean spirit similar to sake) consumed here for bourbon, this could be Raymond Carver.”—The Daily Telegraph (London)“As they sift through the emotional wreckage left by civil war, political brutalities, financial collapse, and the prosaic details of getting by in places they're unwelcome, the individuals in Drifting House reach for resilience amid nearly unimaginable hardship. Lee, who splits her time between South Korea and the United States, is an empathetic chronicler of a perpetually displaced people, writing with the immediacy of someone who has lived their experience.”—SF Weekly“What wonderful and haunting worlds Krys Lee illuminates—a goose for a goose father, a sympathetic wife made bold by her husband’s infidelity—all facets of a Korea and a Korean America made new by this exciting writer’s entrancing vision.”—Janice Y. K. Lee, author of New York Times bestselling The Piano Teacher“Impressive. . . . The moral battle between good and evil that resonates through this collection reminds the reader of much of Flannery O’Connor’s short fiction.”—Asia Literary Review“Krys Lee has written a book of unforgettable stories, each one building on the other to create a complex, moving portrait of contemporary Korea and its diaspora. She guides us surely through the fallout of war, immigration, and financial crisis, always alert to the possibility of tenderness, transcendence, and even humor along the way. Lee is a writer who really understands loneliness, but her voice is so appealing, and her perceptions so wise, that we feel all the less lonely for knowing her characters and experiencing their lives.”—Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, National Book Award finalist; author of Ms. Hempel Chronicles“Set in both America and Korea, these are subtle, haunting stories that explore the lives of people caught between two cultures.”—The Sunday Times (London)“Almost every story in Krys Lee’s collection Drifting House pulls you in, and begins to work with you as patiently as a novel. A bit of deft characterization here, a subtle pull at your sympathies there, and twenty pages pass quickly by.”—The Seattle Star“Drifting House . . . lays bare [the] wounds of Korea and draws the reader into this fractured world. . . . Krys Lee does not work on a small canvas, and her vision and imagination startle and shock.”—The Washington Independent Review of Books"Krys Lee’s fascinating stories take place in gaps in the world, the surreal places that are in fact reality for her Korean characters, both at home and abroad. In those interstices there is horror and humor; there is sometimes haunting sadness, and there is on occasion grace."—Jane Hamilton, New York Times bestselling author of A Map of the World and The Book of Ruth“Affecting stories about the conflicts between Korean and American culture. . . . Lee writes with a clarity and simplicity of style that discloses deep and conflicting emotions about cultural identity.”—Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)“Breathtaking debut. . . . Readers in search of exquisite short fiction beyond their comfort zone—groupies of Jhumpa Lahiri ... and Yoko Tawada—will thrill to discover Drifting House.”—Library Journal (Starred Review)“Sometimes, with luck, passion, and great skill, fiction accomplishes things nothing else can, things of magical and abiding significance. Krys Lee’s debut story collection is such a book. Drifting House is important for its heartbreaking depiction of the often horrifying plight of North and South Korean immigrants struggling to find dignity and self-definition in their new lives. It introduces us to a subject as old as human struggle itself, and a powerful new writer of highly lyrical gifts.”—Philip Schultz, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Failure“A shimmering, variegated collection. . . . Masterful. . . . Lee reminds readers . . . that hardship is worth paying attention to, not just for the empathy it draws forth, or for the strength found in characters who manage to come out on the other side, but for its ability to connect people across time and cultures.”—BookBrowse“Krys Lee’s debut collection literally takes your breath away in its unflinching portrayl of displacement. . . . Even in her darkest, most startling depictions, Lee is full of grace.”—Pop Culture Nerd“[An] excellent debut. . . . Lee explores and highlights several aspects of Koreans and Korean Americans that are never discussed outside of the confines of those cultures. . . . Lee manages to accomplish a massive task: to explore modern Koreans and their place in both the U.S. and at home, in Seoul. Lee herself straddles both of these cultures, and proves to be a worthy ambassador for both.”—Hyphen“Elegant.”—Kansas City Star