But she grew up elsewhere. She writes.
And she has a book just recently out in the stores. It’s called Drifting House, and you can read the short story that gives the book its title online here at Granta. It’s about North Korean children, abandoned and attempting to make the passage into China in the winter. The story is fiction, but it probably does not stray far from what is really happening. It deserves a warning label. Though perhaps not especially graphic, it contains pure horror, and you will feel something – and perhaps what you feel might turn out be something you’d rather not.
The younger brother Choecheol ran ahead. Like a child, Woncheol thought, frowning, though he too was still a child, an eleven-year-old with a body withering on two years of boiled tree bark, mashed roots, the occasional grilled rat and fried crickets on a stick. He picked across the public square, afraid to step where last month, the town had watched two men dragged in necklaces of bones and then hung for cannibalizing their parents. They passed a vendor and woman haggling as if on the frontier of madness. On the straw mat between them one frozen flank of beef? Pork? Or human? No one knew any more, though they pretended to.
‘She’s slowing us down,’ Choecheol said as he circled back, his whine like a roomful of lost children. ‘We’ll be dead before we reach China.’
‘Shut up.’ Woncheol tied his brother’s laces in symmetrical bows. For younger children obeyed the older one who obeyed the mother who obeyed the father who obeyed the Dear Leader. For the school textbooks stated that a swallow had descended from heaven at the Dear Leader’s birth, trees bloomed and snow melted in the Dear Leader’s presence. He stubbornly ignored the salmon fishery and the town’s vegetable gardens that the soldiers guarded, shooting intruders on sight. For there was an order to everything. Or there used to be.
Apparently, there is quite a lot of buzz about this writer at the moment. Take a look at her personal webpage. Lee is bilingual, but she’s taken most of her education in the US and England, so she writes in English. A podcast of an interview can be found here.
I was profoundly affected, and even went so far as to recommend it to some of my students. So, I’m doing you the same favor.
I haven’t read the book this story comes from, but I probably will as soon as I can get off my chair long enough to make it over to Kyobo bookstore. My thanks go to Charles Montgomery of Korean Modern Literature in Translation for pointing me at this author.