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An unflinching portrayal of the Korean immigrant experience from an extraordinary new talent in fiction.
Ranging from Korea to the United States, from the postwar era to contemporary times, Krys Lee's stunning fiction debut, Drifting House, illuminates a people torn between the traumas of their collective past and the indignities and sorrows of their present.
In the title story, children escaping famine in North Korea are forced to make unthinkable sacrifices to survive. The tales set in America reveal the immigrants' unmoored existence, playing out in cramped apartments and Koreatown strip malls. A makeshift family is fractured when a shaman from the old country moves in next door. An abandoned wife enters into a fake marriage in order to find her kidnapped daughter.
In the tradition of Chang-rae Lee's Native Speaker and Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, Drifting House is an unforgettable work by a gifted new writer.
Krys Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea, raised in California and Washington, and studied in the United States and England. She was a finalist for Best New American Voices in 2006, and her work has appeared in The Kenyan Review, Narrative Magazine, California Quarterly, Pacific Ties, The Korea Times, and Asia Weekly. She divides her time between South Korea and the United States.
His name was Myeongseok Lee at home and Mark Lee at school, he was nine years old, and he knew everything. He knew that in Peru, one bush held more ant species than all of the United Kingdom, and that rainforests above three thousand feet were called cloud forests. That dogs had nose prints the way humans had fingerprints, a violin contained more than seventy pieces of wood, and that ninety-nine percent of what people bought, they didn't use after six months. He knew that his sixth grade teacher Mrs. Whitney didn't like him and kept trying to make him skip another grade because he corrected her grammar mistakes out loud and slept during reading time, and that his parents were sad for some confounding reason when they ordered him pizza for dinner instead of making rice, and spoke quietly about their hometown and family that might be dead or alive, they would never know, or about America passing the North Korean Human Rights Act in 2004, but so far, had only let eighty-six of their people—only eighty-six, including their family!—into the country. […] He knew you were supposed to have friends but he didn't care. […] Today was May 17th, 2009. He knew everything.
For example, no matter how normal his parents pretended they were, he knew they were different. Sure they worked at normal jobs, his mother as a waitress in a galbi restaurant and his stepfather exterminating bugs and managing the duplex they lived in. […] Then suddenly the State Department would call, or his father would notice someone following their used Kia. Last week, an official in charge of the four, now three, North Koreans in Los Angeles County—he, his mother, father, and a man who had killed himself last year—visited. He congratulated them on how quickly they had adapted, calling them "model refugee cases." His father's eyebrows knotted together but he smiled, said, "I've never considered myself some case," then changed the subject. […]
On May 22, the most important day of the year since it was the day Mark was born, the new renters knocked on their door. When Mark's family had moved in, the other half of the duplex had been full to the roof with people and noise, and at night he would stand outside and try to catch the disco ball's rainbow streaming out the window until his mother's large hand collared him by the neck. Then one day, there were gunshots and police spilled out of their cars and arrested everyone.
Now a woman bowed, pausing as her waist dipped down ballerina-style, then rose again. Her dress reminded him of a cloud. Though everything looked wrong about her—the sharp nose against the pillowy softness of her face, her snowy head of hair and wispy eyebrows—she carried herself with a grace more swan than woman. Hiding behind her were puzzle fragments of a girl his age. Mark looked for a limp, a missing finger, a wig. That was their neighborhood—everyone was missing something.
"Come in!" his mother boomed, her voice fiercely friendly, squeezing her bountiful, three-tiered waterfall of a stomach, as she greeted them at the door. When she wasn't wearing makeup or a dress, people thought she was a man. […]
"I'm pleased to meet you for the first time," the woman said, her lips barely moving as she spoke. "We've come for the keys."
"Oh, don't run away, have some cake," his mother said, and tugged the woman into the house by the arm. "Wouldn't your granddaughter like some cake? It's our son's birthday."
The woman said in that feathery voice, "This is my daughter."
His mother looked displeased at being contradicted. She expected obedience. His father tugged nervously at his belt.
The awkward pause seemed an ideal time to announce himself.
"I'm Mark Lee and Myeongseok Lee."
He held up his handkerchief with his name custom-printed in Chinese characters for everyone to see.
"These are the characters to my Korean name. It means I'm brilliant in Chinese characters. I was able to write the characters myself when I was five."
His father's peaked eyebrows relaxed as he said, "Please save us. You'll be doing our health a favor if you help us with my son's cake meant for twelve people."
Behind the clownish twist of his father's face, there was a carefulness as he studied them, as he studied all strangers, like a textbook. […]
The girl finally stepped out from behind her mother's back, a finger in her mouth, her eyes on his cake. Mark stopped breathing. She looked like a cartoon character: copper pennies for eyes, two ponytails as aerodynamic as rockets, a fancy cupcake of a dress that covered nine-tenths of her, making the friendly sun her nemesis. He stared at her, a girl so serious she seemed afraid to smile, while his mother brought out plates and a stinky tea that was supposedly good for your health. The girl stared back.
[…] His mother began to fire away with questions. She liked to know what was what. Husband, hometown, hobbies, work.
"I'm a shaman, widowed," the woman said, each syllable separated, her head tipping higher with each word. "You should know this about us."
"Jesus saved us," his mother said empathically. "I don't do shamanism anymore."
His father, embarrassed, poured more stinky tea. He said, "Everyone's welcome here."
The woman sat, hands folded impassively together, her eyes watching and waiting. […]
The girl had gone very still, like her mother; she was watching the old people.
"What's your name in Chinese characters?" Mark asked her, then saw that like her mother, she didn't understand English, so he switched to Korean.
She made the Chinese strokes for him in the air with her pinky finger.
"I'm Chanhee," she said. The words came out crisp but slow, as if she wasn't used to talking.
"And little boy," the girl's mother turned to him with her sad smile. "What's that around your neck?"
[…] "This is a stethoscope."
"He wants to be a doctor," his mother said.
"I'm going to be a heart surgeon, so I'll make a lot of money and buy Omma and Apba the smallest eco-friendly house in Beverly Hills with a swimming pool. And I won't do bad things with my pager, either. It's all planned." […]
They began talking again more quietly, their bodies turned away from the children.
"You're weird," Chanhee said faster this time.
He studied his feet. "Depends on your definition of weird."
He knew small talk was important to fueling a conversation, so he said, "You know the 29th U.S. President Woodrow Wilson? He used to carry a stomach pump with him everywhere he went, his digestion was that bad."
She shot back with, "Can you wiggle your ears?"
She made her white lobes flutter like pale butterflies.
Her mother, his mother, his father, all of them were lost to the importance of the moment when Chanhee's ears went pink and tilted his way. She said shyly, "If I'm your friend, will you check me with your steth—that thing around your neck?"
A friend. So what if there were oil wars in Iraq, ritual dolphin murders in Denmark, Los Angeles pollution blackening his lungs? He had Chanhee as a friend.
from Drifting House