“Drifting House” is the title story of Krys Lee’s debut collection (Drifting House, Viking Penguin). Her work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, Narrative, Granta (New Voices) and elsewhere. She was a finalist for Best New American Voices and she received a special mention in the 2012 Pushcart Prize XXXVI. She lives in Seoul with intervals in San Francisco.
Lee said this about the writing of “Drifting House:” When I volunteered at Liberty in North Korea (Editor’s note: see below) in Seoul many years ago, I was shocked to learn of the enormous human rights crisis happening across the thirty-eighth parallel. I began doing research in order to better understand the North Korean defector community – my friends – without prying into their past troubles. In my wandering, I stumbled upon a secret video taken in the late 90s during the height of the famine. The settings were the improvised outdoor markets of North Korea and some of the footage focused on homeless children, who are called “flower swallows”. The entire time watching the video, I couldn’t stop crying.
It was a silent documentary, unsentimental and hard to watch, taken at great risk by an anonymous individual. The footage stayed with me for a long time as I continued to wonder how these very young kids – some of them looked to be four or five – learned to grow up and survive on the streets, and what difficult choices they were forced to make in order to live, especially in a time of widespread famine. Having a particular obsession for escape and survival stories, I wondered what would happen in a short story if I set three young kids on the road to escape North Korea and try to make it to China. Like so much of my fiction, “Drifting House” resulted from all the questions I couldn’t stop asking myself.
(Editor’s note: In the mid-1990s, a million people died in North Korea. People starved, hundreds of thousands were imprisoned in camps, and tens of thousands crossed borders seeking food, protection, and escape. Liberty in North Korea (LINK) was formed in 2004 by Koreans in order to spread awareness of the humanitarian crisis.)