Krys Lee reports for PEN Atlas from the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where she appeared on the panel ‘New American Voices’. For more on the festival, please also see Daniel Hahn’s piece
The Edinburgh International Book Festival is one of those rare events that bring readers, critics, and writers together in an atmosphere of comfort and challenge. Hundreds of discussions happen simultaneously during the panels, at the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, in cafes, and in the authors’ cozy yurt (which actually is a yurt). Many will disagree among one another; there are not many clear-cut answers when it comes to literature. But the festival is the beginning of a conversation between writers and moderators, writers and readers, writers and writers, and readers with each other, as well as a celebration of books. I don’t think there was a single panel I went to where there wasn’t at least a slight difference of opinion between panelists or where audience members weren’t contradicting one another. This colorful cacophony, perhaps, reflects the liveliness of readers and reading and mirrors the complexity of literature. But the best conversations begin in challenge and disagreement.
On the panel I participated in, some of the conversations circulated around dislocation and belonging. The panel was titled New American Voices. Panelist Nell Freudenberger’s latest novel The Newlyweds braids the narrative of a 24-year old Bangladeshi woman named Amina who has left her native country for America to marry a man she corresponded with online. The Guardian sees it as an effort to translate the American experience for the 21st century. My own story collection Drifting House focuses on outsiders and survivors in the Korean diaspora, spanning South Korea, North Korea, and the United States. The books, ostensibly, have been paired up to reflect America’s roots as a nation of immigrants.
The most interesting comment raised was by a young man that ended on the note that, we can live for a long time in a country and yet never really understand it. This American man had lived in Japan and never felt as if he was accepted by or quite comprehended the country, and he questioned the ability of anyone else to do so. It was a comment disguising its challenge to us, the panelists, and our ability to successfully write the stories of people whom he saw as ‘the other’. While I sympathize with his frustrations, ironically, Freudenberger’s entire body of work questions his assumption that one may not be able to inhabit other worlds through the transformative act of fiction, directly challenging such sceptics. The Newlyweds was also based on the true story of a Bangladeshi woman whom Freudenberger struck up a friendship with on a plane ride. As for myself, I had spent over half my life in Seoul, South Korea, and at this point, am more intimate with South Koreans and Korean culture than America. My everyday spoken language is Korean and Seoul is my hometown, and most likely, my hopefully distant future burial site, will be in South Korea. I was literally writing about what I know, and not the ‘otherness’ that he indicated.
What he was really getting at was the question of authenticity and who has the right to speak for another. The indeterminate space between two cultures, from his perspective, disqualified one to speak for another. This was the narrative space that he was challenging.
But literature, not to mention history, society, and culture, has always been about dislocation. Some of our greatest modern writers, including Joseph Conrad, T.S. Eliot, and Ernest Hemingway made it their subject, and more recently Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Yiyun Lee, Nam Le, Salman Rushdie, Yi Munyoland Xiaolu Guoall assume a form of dislocation at the heart of their narratives.
We live in a time of dislocation. Perhaps we always have. The story of immigration, that great passage of people making their way to an unknown world, is only one kind of dislocation. “Displaced” is a synonym for “dislocated”; as is “to be put out of place”. Dislocation is also one form of discomfort and, in its most extreme form, alienation. In this sense dislocation is also timeless. It is the story of migrations, journeys that sometimes end badly, as well as the displacement from being one kind of person to being another.
The poet Susan Mitchell says, “The world is wily and doesn’t want to be caught.” Writers attempt, or in some postmodern literature, question the attempt, to capture the elusive. This despite the challenge by the well-intended audience member: is it even possible for a writer to inhabit and understand other worlds and other voices? I suppose the next natural questions are: how do you define what is your world, and what is your voice?
About the Author
Krys Lee is the author of Drifting House recently published by Faber and Faber in the U.K. and Viking/Penguin in the U.S.. She was born in Seoul, South Korea, studied in the U.S. andEngland, and lives in Seoul. Her work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, Narrative magazine, Granta (New Voices), California Quarterly, Asia Weekly, the Guardian, the New Statesman, the Huffington Post and Condé Nast Traveller, UK.
Also by Krys Lee for PEN Atlas
Susan Mitchell (born in 1944) is an American poet, essayist and translator who wrote the poetry collections Rapture and Erotikon.
Nell Freudenberger is the author of the novels The Dissident and The Newlyweds and the story collection Lucky Girls, winner of the PEN/Malamud Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, and a Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Fellowship from the New York Public Library, she was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists and one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40.” She lives in Brooklyn with her family. The Newlyweds was published in the UK by Viking in August 2012. Read more about The Newlyweds here at Curtis Brown.