You are Korean and came to the US with your parents when you were young. You grew up in California and Washington State and England, but now you live in Seoul, South Korea. You are part of a new wave of reverse immigration happening where the second generation of Asians living overseas returns to the country of their parents. Why did you go back to the country from which your parents fled? Do you consider your home to be the US or South Korea?
Originally I returned to Korea with the intention of studying the language for a year before returning to England, where I was living at the time. But it was also an instinctual return to a wound–to find out what had happened to our family, and to understand the relationship between the individual and the country, and the past and the present that is always haunting it, for so many families that have immigrated.
I end up staying for many years because I felt the need, and have now lived in Seoul for half my life, if I count my childhood. Those years have been a process of discovering the language, culture, and values that made the puzzle of what our family was in America complete. But as my formal education and formative years took place in the West, I will always be a kind of outside-insider in Korea, just as when I return to America, I return to an old self that is no longer me. At this point, I consider myself between cultures, a kind of drifting house that becomes a home wherever I happen to live.
You work with a Korean literature government organization and North Korean refugee related organizations. What does this work entail?
I’m a co-editor for a Korean literature quarterly magazine, an editor for book proposal projects, and an occasional translator of poetry and fiction. I’ve also taught American students on fellowships at the KLTI Translation Academy.
My work with North Korean related organizations is more complicated. I’ve always played a part in the community in whatever capacity that I’ve been needed, from teaching to translating to organizing. But most recently I was required to be in the border area of China, which, for various reasons, has led to my cutting back involvement in the community. I’m not a joiner of groups—I like to do what needs to be done. I can’t go into too much detail, but I was able to hire a reliable smuggler and have a North Korean brought safely out on my own. It was a long journey, but he is finally at a resettlement center in Incheon and calls me once a week with updates and just to chat. The great challenge now is gathering activist friends to help him in the arduous year ahead adapting to South Korea. A few of my closest friends are North Korean defectors, and certainly a few of the activists I respect most are defectors as well.
DRIFTING HOUSE is a beautiful collection of short stories that portray life in South Korea, North Korea, and as a Korean-American in the US. They depict a fractured world. Where did the stories come from: personal experience, observations, or something else?
The stories arose from personal experiences as well as my observations and reactions toward the societies around me. Fractured is an interesting, important word for me; being animmigrant in the United States with parents who were afraid of America lends itself to a kind of fracturing. 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. But my sense of story is usually more Jamesian; the autobiographical impulse is buried in character and thematic obsessions rather than in the plot.
The world around me was also a large influence. When I wrote “The Salaryman’, for instance, I was in a relationship with a Korean man who was diminishing as a personality while working inhuman hours at a Korean conglomerate. “Drifting House’ was written after I became friends with activists and North Korean defectors. I cried many times, hearing and reading stories about people I knew, before this sadness changed into anger at a regime that destroys its own people. “The Goose Father’ was also written after people I knew personally began departing South Korea, leaving their husbands behind to fund their family’s flight to an overseas education for their children. Though all sacrifice in this situation, my sympathies were with the men who, in my view, had become cash-generating machines for their family.
“At the Edge of the World” the nine-year-old boy “knows everything,” facts that aren’t common knowledge, such as that dogs make nose prints the way humans have fingerprints and that 99 percent of what people bought, they didn’t use after 6 months. Are the facts this kid knows real or did you make them up?
All Mark’s facts are real. I had a lot of fun writing the world from his perspective, as his curiosity and innocence in a world of hurt was attractive to me.
What do you think literature can reveal to us about a people or a society that reportage cannot? Do you think this is especially true in a closed society, such as North Korea? Do you think writers continue to play an important role in the political process by giving a voice to the unseen and underrepresented factions of a culture?
The best literature helps us care about the people facing the issues and problems that the news brings us. In the case of a country as secretive as North Korea, it is easy to forget that the country is made up of individuals, some who are funny, cruel, ambitious, or restless; some from divorced families, or long to travel; who, for the most part, are trying to live normal lives despite the difficulties in their society. But when literature merely tries to deliver information or push an issue, it becomes reportage rather than a vehicle. In these cases, often the characters become types, a standard issue South or North Korean rather than an individual who happens to be South or North Korean.
It’s important for writers to give voices to those that are underrepresented in books, but what’s most important is that writers write from a need and respond to the material that feels urgent and personal. I’m suspicious of books that tackle ?ig’ 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.
DRIFTING HOUSE is a collection of stories. What do you like about this medium? Is there anything about it you find particularly limiting? Anything you find particularly liberating?
Stories force you to economize and think like a poet in terms of language and scene. This compression creates a challenge that I like, but for me, people carry their history with them, and that history is not just a family’s history but the history and culture of a nation; how they absorb or react to these histories interested me. Trying to get everything in without having the story’s momentum broken by back story and context was difficult. Each time I wrote a draft, well-intended students in my MFA program would say there’s seven interesting things happening in there; you need to get rid of six. Or I would be told this story would make a good novel. But there are story writers like William Trevor, Alice Munro, and John Cheever, who managed to maintain a novel’s sense of complexity and illumination without simplifying. The world is complex, and I wanted my stories to reflect that complexity or they wouldn’t feel true to me. My decision was to try and keep all seven things in each story.
You have created an eclectic mix of characters who are such individuals, each with a unique identity and role. Are they based on anyone? Did you create the characters and then the stories came to you or did you create the characters to fit into your stories?
I wrote characters the hard way, by making them up. At that point I was uncomfortable with the idea of borrowing elements from people around me, so most of the stories were journeys in discovering who were these rudimentary characters. The most frightening thing was that while revising each story, I would realize that in each character there was a little bit of me, usually aspects that startled me with their surprising inevitability.
Sometimes a situation seized my interest, sometimes the characters, and once or twice, an image. Either way, the character ended up dictating what each story actually became. In “A Temporary Marriage’, for example, once I understood how different Mrs. Shin’s secret self was from her public image, the entire story changed.
Who are your literary influences?
I have no idea. I know the writers who inspire me. Poets are high on that list, particularly W.H. Auden, John Donne, John Ashberry, Richard Hugo, and W.S. Merwin. Fiction writers include Kurt Vonnegut, Virginia Woolf, Joseph Heller, Anton Chekov, Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julie Otsuka, Salman Rushdie, Lorrie Moore, Charles D’Ambrosio, Philip Roth, and many other contemporary writers that I won’t get into as the list is extensive. What this disparate group of writers has in common is a use of language and ideas that wake me up.
What is your writing routine?
I try to start weekday mornings writing at home, the library or caf? or else writing gets swallowed up by the day’s obligations and lethargy. Occasionally when I’m writing a very 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 in a row, but sometimes it’s the only way to write a scene I’m trying to escape. I also trick myself into writing when words dry up by writing longhand by the Han River or while camping, writing lying down on my stomach, and a few times, writing in the bath. The habit of writing is so difficult; if I can squeeze out another sentence or idea by writing in outlandish spots, I’ll do it. At least twice a day, I fantasize about a writing retreat or a very clean cabin in the countryside without 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 most important thing was persistence and faith in the worlds I was creating.
What do you want people to take away from reading DRIFTING HOUSE?
When Drifting House was being sold, one of the most incredible memories for me was having conversations with editors who actually liked the stories. They found the cultural context of Korea interesting, but most said that it was the characters and their lives that moved, even haunted them. Similarly, it would be ideal if readers viewed and understood the characters and their fates as individuals first, rather than as South Koreans, North Koreans, and Korean-Americans, who are shaped by both their personal histories and political and social forces.
What are you working on now?
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 am more intimate with. The novel is growing and changing, so I’d rather focus on its origins. 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 defectors 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. I finally embarked on the new novel after reading existing novels about North Korean defectors with one-dimensional treatments of character. They had been reduced to characters subservient to the greater political story or mere types, when the North Koreans I knew were 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.