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[Herald Interview] 8 lives in 1 saga: Debut novel transcends time and identity in '8 Lives of a Century-Old Trickster'

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : Oct. 5, 2023 - 19:24

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Mirinae Lee talks in an open discussion with the students at the Chadwick International School, Incheon. (Chadwick International School) Mirinae Lee talks in an open discussion with the students at the Chadwick International School, Incheon. (Chadwick International School)

Mirinae Lee's genre-defying debut novel, inspired by her great aunt who defected from North Korea, weaves eight dark yet spellbinding chapters spanning the eight different lives of the main character, Mrs. Mook, who begins her saga by declaring that she was born Japanese (under occupation), lived as a North Korean and is now dying as a South Korean.

Lee's "8 Lives of a Century-Old Trickster," published by Harper, the fiction imprint of HarperCollins, hit the shelves in the United States in June.

The novel takes an interesting approach with its novel-in-stories format, where an overarching narrative tells the tale of a person, while each chapter stands as an independent short story.

These distinct "lives" across different periods are mixed in an unchronological order. They occasionally transcend time and space, but the arch of the narrative revolves around Mrs. Mook and her family as they struggle to survive during the most turbulent times of modern Korean history -- the Japanese colonial period, World War II, the Korean War and the transition to modern Korea.

Throughout the interconnected chapters, Mrs. Mook emerges as a multifaceted storyteller, embodying multiple identities -- sometimes a slave, an escape artist, a murderer, a terrorist, a spy, a lover and a mother.

"8 Lives of a Century-Old Trickster" by Mirinae Lee (Harper)

Lee drew inspiration from her great aunt, one of the oldest women to escape alone from North Korea in her 60s, in crafting the complex character of the protagonist.

“She was such an unusual person. Ever since I heard about her, I always thought that if I ever write a book, I should write about her,” Lee said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald.

However, because her great aunt suffered from Alzheimer's, Lee could only gather bits and fragments of her life to work with.

“In the end, the story became a story of its own -- a mix of bits and fragments, historical research with my wild imagination.”

Lee said her great aunt shared similarities with the protagonist, both being ingenious storytellers. The character's personality, ego and pride were also shaped by her real-life relative.

“She was quite fierce, had her own strong opinions and was very different from the other women of her generation. She loved to show off her knowledge and skills, whereas most women of her generation were taught to be very silent and docile. I had never seen a grandmother quite like her.”

Lee's own journey as a storyteller began at a young age. She always wanted to become a writer. Born and raised in South Korea, Lee left her home at the age of 20 to study English literature in the US.

She began writing the story in Korean but eventually abandoned the Korean version and rewrote the story in English. To her surprise, she felt more at ease writing in English than in her native language.

“Normally, when I text and do a very simple kind of writing, it's much faster to do it in Korean,” she said.

“I still don't understand this. When I first started writing fiction, I thought I wouldn't be able to write in English because it wasn't my native language. But somehow (my Korean writing) felt awkward and sounded like a translated version. It just didn't work for me.”

She attributed this to her experiences living in Hong Kong for 12 years, where she participated in creative writing programs in English from time to time. Maybe this was why she found it quite natural to write in English.

“I think (that we often) limit many things to our own ability, but once you try, you can do a lot more than you think. I think that was the case for my writing literary fiction.”

"8 Lives of a Century-Old Trickster" has recently secured a deal for a Korean translation, and is set to be published early next year.

Lee is working on her second novel, also in English, set in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, which revolves around a dog trainer who tackles various issues faced by pet dogs.