“On nights like this, it feels as if we’re the only people remaining on the planet,” says Yongju, a young man whose family had been Pyongyang aristocracy until the Dear Leader decided otherwise and shot his father. But Jangmi, who crossed the border because she was pregnant with the baby of a comrade who was married to someone else, replies with a clarification: “No... it’s more as if the entire world is elsewhere and we’ve been forced out.” The two have recently met in a cave in China. And although they’ve made it that far, Jangmi and Yongju still have a long way to go. Lee (Drifting House) structures her novel across four successive parts, “Crossing,” “The Border,” “Safe,” and “Freedom,” as it follows the two, along with Danny, a Christian Korean-American teenager from Fresno, through each stage of their escapes. Though the three characters all start from very different places, geographically, economically, and emotionally, they meet in the cave. From there, each will then make his or her way across another border to South Korea, again finding themselves together in the home of a Christian minister with more nefarious inclinations than his generosity initially indicates. Their haunting stories reveal the darkness of life in North Korea as well as the enormous risk of escape, resulting in a vivid and harrowing read. (Aug.)
"A forceful debut novel...not just another simplistic indictment of a country in thrall to its Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, but a compelling vision of both North and South Korea." —Alexander Chee, The New York Times Book Review
"Krys Lee invites us into a world Westerners rarely glimpse and can barely imagine...While tackling weighty themes of power and politics, Lee zooms in laserlike on minute details to create moments of startling intimacy...Despite the violence it encompasses, at the heart of the story is a belief in the human capacity to transcend hardship, and to hope." —O, The Oprah Magazine
"The plot is full of drama and the writing is crystal clear...The more confusing and horrible our world becomes, the more critical the role of fiction in communicating both the facts and the meaning of other people’s lives. Krys Lee joins writers like Anthony Marra, Khaled Hosseini and Elnathan John in this urgent work." —San Francisco Chronicle
"[Lee] eloquently draws attention to issues of displacement, loss and identity, and to China’s record of human rights abuses against North Korean refugees." —The New York Times
“An intense, unforgettable, compassionate study of human resilience...What Lee teaches us is that there is hope in the most desperate of circumstances, that the human spirit can still sputter to life after the worst has happened.” —Miami Herald
"[An] elegant, devastating novel." —The Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Krys Lee is a superb writer...Lee has worked with North Korean refugees and she knows intimately their terror when trying to survive in a world where it is impossible to distinguish between friend and foe." —Barbara Demick, The Guardian
"A novel of great sincerity and moral courage, a book that can stand as a resonant response to the challenge that fiction has no place in the white heat of political turmoil." —Financial Times
"Lee's story throws light on a place we know little about, in heart-wrenching, lyrical detail." —Elle.com, "11 Best Books to Read in August"
“Lee successfully creates well-formed characters and makes readers care about their struggles...[It's] impossible to read this novel without remembering...that many real-life refugees have faced similar tough decisions and horrors in order to escape." —Christian Science Monitor
"A masterful portrayal of the personal side of world politics." —BookPage, "Six Stellar Summer Debuts"
"A powerful tale." —Ladies Home Journal
"An ode to friendship. And freedom." —New York Post, "This Week's Must-Read Books"
"Krys Lee takes readers past the border and deep into the lives of defectors...How I Became North Korean is both delicate and menacing; the book’s details are fascinating, along with its social and political background. However it is, most of all, an overwhelming, emotional story. Lee’s book is shaped by its characters’ fragility, but mostly driven by their courage." —The Millions
"An extraordinary narrative that is both contemporary testimony and literary achievement . . . [Krys Lee is] one of the most elegant, impeccable voices of her youthful generation. Devotees of authors able to navigate effortlessly between short and longer forms, including Jhumpa Lahiri and Adam Johnson, will certainly be blessed to discover Lee’s work." —Library Journal, starred review
"Haunting . . . A vivid and harrowing read."
“With How I Became a North Korean, Krys Lee takes us into urgent and emotional novelistic terrain: the desperate and tenuous realms defectors are forced to inhabit after escaping North Korea. With heart and passion, Lee forges a world no other writer could create, one where the only response to longing and loss is learning to trust and hope again.” —Adam Johnson, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning author of The Orphan Master’s Son and Fortune Smiles
“This is one of the best books I've read in a good long while. Krys Lee inhabits three wildly different individuals with precision and heart. While North Korea is at the center of the novel, the themes of love, family and our debt to our fellow human beings will resonate universally.” —Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story and Little Failure
“How I Became A North Korean proves that in literature, no story is too small, nobody is forgotten. With empathy and insight and a deep sense of place, Krys Lee brings us to one of the most hopeless corners of the world yet gives us hope and beauty. What a brave and moving novel.” —Yiyun Li, MacArthur Fellow and PEN/Hemingway award-winning author of A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Kinder Than Solitude
“I was entranced by How I Became a North Korean, and read it with increasing admiration. It's such a penetrating work, an education, really, powered by a determination to salute the stories that have hitherto passed us by.” —Sunjeev Sahota, Booker Prize shortlisted author of The Year of the Runaways
“Terrifying, poetic and precise, How I Became a North Korean captures the crushing human cost of fleeing a dictatorship.” —Blaine Harden, New York Times bestselling author of Escape from Camp 14
Praise for Drifting House
"Haunting . . . [Lee] is well on her way to a promising literary career." —NPR.org
"It is [Lee's] 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." —San Francisco Chronicle
"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. . . . [A] textured, knowing and brilliant debut." —Kansas City Star
“Superb.” —Junot Díaz, The New York Times Book Review
Glimpses of a hidden world from the award-winning author of Drifting House (2012).Lee's debut novel begins at a party in Pyongyang. Government officials and celebrities show off Rolex watches and fur coats. They eat fish imported from Tokyo, they toast their Dear Leader with Chivas Regal, and they watch girls in hot pants dance to forbidden American pop. It's a surreal display of wealth and privilege overshadowed by terror. These elites are protected from the famine and despair that plague their country, but they're still subject to the whims of a mercurial, all-powerful dictator. This scene is narrated by a young man, Yongju, and it culminates in the assassination of his father. This fall from grace leads to an escape into China, and that's where he meets the novel's other narrators. Danny is Korean by heritage, Chinese by birth, and a permanent resident of the United States. While visiting his Christian missionary mother back in China, he runs away, is robbed of his passport, and joins a group of other young outcasts in order to survive. Jangmi is a young North Korean woman who smuggles herself across the border to marry a Chinese man; she's forced to flee her new home when this man realizes she's pregnant with someone else's child. The best parts of this book are in its beginning. The banquet where Yongju's father is assassinated, for instance, is quite particular in its weirdness and horror. Jangmi's reaction to the bounty she finds in China is both an appreciation and a critique of consumerism. And the ways in which all these characters must confront prejudice are interesting. All too soon, though, their stories converge into a tale of survival that is both familiar and flat. Lee barely explores the contrast between Yongju's sheltered upbringing and the depredations he endures in China. Hunger and homelessness are also surprisingly easy for Danny, a kid from the suburbs of southern California. Only Jangmi's travails are believable and compelling. Promising start; disappointing finish.