‘Art is an essential, not a luxury’

October 2, 2013
Krys Lee

Krys Lee

By Kwon Ji-youn

Krys Lee, a Korean-American author of the collection of short stories, “Drifting House,” has stressed that one of the most practical needs in life is the need to create art.

“When you think of children who write or draw on walls, it’s reflective of our desire to make things,” she told The Korea Times on Wednesday.

“If you stop, you dry up and wither because part of your brain and emotional intelligence are not being exercised,” she added.

She said that if one is in a position unable to create art, he or she should look at art and read.

“I argue against those who see art as an accessory to life,” she said. “Literature is about life, and about how to think, learn and love. It’s about how to push against a world that is pushing against us.”

Lee is a professor of creative writing at Yonsei University’s Underwood International College.

“As a creative writing professor, in theory, I’m practicing as well,” she said. “It’s a synergistic thing.”

“Drifting House” drew public attention for one of its short stories about a North Korean defector who could not adapt to the immigrant community living in California.

Only two of her stories are about North Koreans ― the rest are mainly set in South Korea, where she currently resides.

“I’m not consciously seeking out worlds that I’m unfamiliar with because it doesn’t feel urgent or inherent to me,” she said. “That would lead to abstract constructions of what you want people to be and it would be easy to fall into cliches and stereotypes.”

For her next book, Lee is interested in writing about misfits in Korea ― people who look like they belong but don’t, or those who obviously don’t fit in.

This is largely due to her experiences as a misfit, both ethnically and culturally, in her youth.

“One girl looked at me and exclaimed, ‘You have no eyelashes!’” she recalled. “I would wonder, why is it that as an Asian girl, I’m considered cute, but probably never pretty?”

Lee also found herself drawn to people who she thought she “should” be seen with, not those who she was naturally attracted to.

She preferred reading books to hanging out with friends, and was rather closeted, solitary, unsocial and, in her own words, disagreeable at times. People assumed that she was conservative because she tried to look and play the part.

“But I’m more attracted to people who are colorful, solitary and independent,” she said. “The tribe I feel closest to is the tribe of artists. Most writers and artists never feel quite comfortable with themselves and their surroundings.”

As a “misfit,” one thing she learned to do at too early an age was to adapt.

“I became assimilated too well,” she said. “In turn, I lost something crucial,” she said. “At that age, you shouldn’t need to try to adapt at all.”

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