Interview | Mirinae Lee: ”In the rightminded world, everyone should be a feminist”

Read the Romanian translation of this interview. Citește aici interviul în română.

Mirinae Lee was born and raised in Seoul. She published short stories in Antioch Review, Meridian, Black Warrior Review, Pleiades, Shenandoah, and Massachusetts Review. She lives in Hong Kong with her husband and their children. Lives of a Century-Old Trickster is her first novel.

I was captivated while reading Lives of a Century-Old Trickster – published in a Romanian translation by Trei Publishing House – and I was impressed with the main character precisely because women tricksters are rare in literature. The violence and abuses in Comfort Stations remain confessions that are too hard to swallow and only fiction can make these inhumane things make sense, while the prose of this Korean writer offers us a brief moment of redemption through the eyes of the main character.

I discussed her debut novel with Mirinae Lee, about the fact that she wrote it in English instead of Korean, about the wonderful choice of creating a feminine trickster character, a female whose identity fluctuates and varies, contouring the realities and historical contexts that it faces.

Lives of a Century-Old Trickster is a book you can hardly put down. It tricks you, if you will, into diving deeper and deeper. Why did you choose to write it in English rather than in Korean? 

It wasn’t something I had planned on doing. I was born and raised in Seoul, with only standard Korean education. I began to learn and use English as an academic language after I became an adult.  So naturally when I started writing fiction, I did so in Korean. I thought writing literature in a foreign language, to which you hadn’t had an early in-depth exposure, was nearly impossible. I had no idea that I would prove my own prejudice wrong one day. But my decision to write my first novel in English wasn’t a calculative one at all. Because of my husband’s work, I had to move to Hong Kong after we got married. And the creative writing program I had signed up for at a local grad school was taught in English, which is the official language of Hong Kong, so I had no choice in fact but to switch to writing in English. For some strange reason that I still don’t understand well, English turned out to be a better literary tool for me to write fiction with. Not long after I switched to English, my short stories began to get published in literary journals in America.

Your inspiration for the trickster was your great-aunt who escaped North Korea alone. Were stories passed down to you about her experience? Could you tell us more about how your book came about and what part was played by your great-aunt? 

Although my great-aunt was the seed of inspiration for 8 Lives, it isn’t really about her life. When I wanted to sit down and interview her properly, she couldn’t tell me a coherent story due to her Alzheimer’s disease which was advancing fast. So the novel in the end became a mix of my own wild imagination and some research I’d done on relevant historical subjects. But the key characteristics of my protagonist come from the personality of my great-aunt. She was so far removed from most women of her generation, who had been educated to be humble and to sacrifice their lives for their husbands and children. My great-aunt loved showing off her intelligence and ability to speak foreign languages; she escaped from North Korea alone in her 60s, leaving her husband and children in the dark; and she was an ingenious storyteller whose flamboyant tales at times verged on fantasies.   

I found it extremely intriguing that you chose the term trickster to identify the tough main character. A trickster is, of course, a deceiving person. It is also someone who is witty and crafty and, quite at the same time, is exempt from moral judgment. Or rather it is difficult to pin them as plainly good or evil. I would like to know more about this choice of wording and what exactly it covers & uncovers. 

What a wonderful definition of a trickster. Thank you. Yes, I love the English word “Trickster” as it entails such a dynamic and complex variety of meanings. It is a kind of word that can’t be translated adequately into other languages, and therefore, most non-anglophone publishers of 8 Lives have no choice but to change the word to something quite different in their own languages as they see fit. I found it fascinating that my Romanian publisher decided to keep the English word in the title. It is such a special word for it contains both good and evil in it, and in a certain way, it even elevates human craftiness into something estimable, shining light on the complex gray zone of human nature. Growing up, I hadn’t seen many female protagonists in literature that resides in the gray zone of morality, for the role of a trickster had been traditionally assigned to men. Most central female characters in literature I had known – especially Asian ones – were either virtuous women or femmes fatales, either helpless victims or witches. So I wanted to create an unconventional heroine that is both virtuous and sinful, equipped with a sense of justice as well as calculative cunningness. 

There is a certain violence in your book. Of course, since it is filled with hard, war times, the violence is inevitable. However, I was marked by certain details regarding violence against women and the way they were used as prostitutes by the military force. Moreover, it is perhaps not only the act in itself, but the manner in which they are regarded as bunkers for carnal satisfaction and have their uteruses pulled out as if they are mere nails or strands of hair. How much of such traumatizing details can we read as historical and how much is fictionalization? 

Sadly, almost all of those atrocious details are either directly from or based on the testimonies of Comfort Station survivors. In fact, the most appalling parts of their testimonies, the most inhuman abuse that Comfort Women had suffered, couldn’t make it to the novel. The level of human cruelty of the Comfort Stations was so extreme and absurd that I couldn’t make it seem believable enough in my fiction. It’s a tragic irony that sometimes reality is stranger – more extreme or dramatic – than fiction so you need to tone it down to make it seem real

Did you wish your readers to explore this violence in terms of feminism? As a reader, I see the trickster as a wholesome, impenetrable woman who is, by nature or circumstance, a fighter and a feminist. And it is perhaps irrelevant if such denomination is present if we think about the condition of a trickster. 

As I said earlier, Trickster is definitely an unconventional heroine who has both virtue and violence in her. She can feel deep empathy and love toward others but at the same time she isn’t afraid of using means of violence to save herself and those whom she loves when all the peaceful endeavors have failed. In this light, Trickster is the opposite of the traditional Asian female characters in literature or cinema, who weren’t allowed to have the full spectrum of human qualities and emotions, all the good parts as well as the evil ones. If Trickster were alive today and asked if she were a feminist, I think she would say of course yes. By definition, a feminist is someone who believes in the equality of the sexes, who believes women should be regarded as fully human as men are. So in the rightminded world, everyone should be a feminist. 

When we reach The Sixth Life, the narrator says: „In the end, taking on different identities is like speaking different languages.” I thought that was a fascinating analogy. Can you please expand on it? Does the writer Mirinae Lee feel the same about this? And, if so, how do we adopt various identities without dissipating the self? 

“Without dissipating the self” is such an interesting expression. The idea of the stable self, however, is an illusion according to neuroscience. What we perceive as our true identities are just the ways our brains are wired, which are of course subject to changes depending on our experiences and practices. Although we are born with certain strong predispositions, our identities naturally change over time as we undergo different events in our lives.  Learning a foreign language is such a unique experience that could teach us about the mutability of the self. A human language is not only a tool with which we express our thoughts but also a potent frame that shapes and influences the way we think. To achieve a high-level understanding of a foreign language, you cannot avoid absorbing the culture and history that the language represents. To speak a foreign language fluently means to expand the way you think, by adopting new concepts and ideas that you haven’t known in your native culture. It is not a coincidence that most successful spies who can perform different identities effortlessly, like Trickster, are multilinguals. 

Storytelling is extremely important for the trickster. She can weave stories and identities, therefore she can be a trickster. Oftentimes I felt that that was the core of power, the flame from which everything else sparkled. One can’t help but wonder if you share some of this view. Did you always know you wanted to become a writer? How important are stories for you? 

Storytelling is one of the most powerful tools that humans possess. The fact of evolutionary biology tells us that human lives have no special meaning, that humans are simply there as the survival machine to carry and pass down human genes. But our ability to invent and invest in stories enables us to create our own meanings in this world through our narratives. We should be of course wary of the fact that it can become a tool for mass manipulation and thus cause tragedies in the wrong hands that merely seek power. But in general, in terms of ordinary human lives, storytelling is one of the most valuable sources of entertainment and comfort, and also a way people can make sense of their lives in times of difficulty, as my female characters do through their painful times of wartime slavery. 

At some point, the character Mihee thinks something along the lines of: „People who know Communism only by the book, Mihee thought. To them poverty was words on a page, never woe in the guts.” Never woe in the guts was an expression I found terrifying and beautiful. I also felt guilty reading it. I was born 4 years after the fall of comunism in my country and, unfortunately, I’ve been doing for years something that the journalist Maria Ressa warns us against: taking democracy for granted. Though far from any moralizing intentions, how important are such matters for your book? 

I think I rather wanted to poke fun at certain Western philosophers from the mid-20th century, who tried to analyze the problems of the “Third World” without understanding each country’s peculiar situation in reality. They had, for example, quite extreme or polarized views on communist countries in Asia: the rightwing intellectuals simply saw them as evil while most leftwing ones inadequately romanticized their ideologies, both sides failing to see all the distinctive shades among them. Nowadays the economic and political situations of North Korea are very different from those of Vietnam for instance, but if you see them merely as a lump of communist countries, you cannot comprehend adequately why they are treading such different paths these days. I guess in general I wanted to show the danger of knowing something only by the book without much experience rooted in reality. 

Mook Miran, the trickster, eats dirt. It somehow becomes an important motif. Why does she do it?

I think she does it because she simply feels like it. As she narrates in the novel, she feels at times a strong urge to do so. This was actually inspired by my own experience of eating earth as a child. Although I eventually grew out of it, I still remember the smell, taste, and the strange impulse that made me eat earth.  

Thank you for the interview and congratulations on writing such an interesting book. 

Thank you for such complex and in-depth questions. 

Read the Romanian translation of this interview. Citește aici interviul în română.

Ramona Boldizsar
Poetă, mamă, podcaster, blogger, expertă la visat cu ochii deschiși și inventat povești. Scrie despre cărți pentru că le iubește. A absolvit Filosofia și a debutat în 2021 cu volumul de poezie „Nimic nu e în neregulă cu mine” (Casa de Pariuri Literare). E gazda podcastului literar Perfect Contemporan. O găsiți frecvent pe

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