Wednesday, February 20, 2019

A last look at ConDFW – conversation with Yoon Ha Lee

Part II:

Earlier this week, I promised to give readers a peek at the writing guests of honor from last weekend’s final edition of science fiction/fantasy convention, ConDFW. First up was the prolific, genre-bending Charlaine Harris. Today’s entry is another multi-published writer those cross-genre talents might tax even Harris’s imagination. Enter Yoon Ha Lee, the Locus Award-winning author of Ninefox Gambit and its sequels, as well as middle-grade space opera Dragon Pearl, published last month, and multiple short stories.

“I’m queer, I’m transgender, I’m bisexual,” Lee said, explaining how he foreswore his teenage allegiance to Ender’s Game after discovering the political opinions of its author, Orson Scott Card.

(For the record, Lee is a native of Houston, Texas, of Korean ancestry. He is also a former mathematics teacher, is bipolar, married to a quantum astrophysicist and parent to a 15-year-old daughter. Oh, and he has a very spoiled cat.)

“I spent half my childhood in Houston and half in South Korea,” he told moderator (and planetologist and fellow cat lover) John DeLaughter. “We came home (to South Korea) a lot for reasons my parents never explained, because they didn’t explain stuff to kids.”

Lee originally started writing science fiction with “all white characters and Western settings” because these were the models he had grown up with. But after hearing about the phenomenon of cultural appropriation he realized, “Yes, I’m Korean. I can write Korean characters.”

Yoon Ha Lee
He also, however, loves ancient Greek myths. After learning that Rick Riordan, author of the Lightning Thief series based on classical mythology, was interested in writers immersed in other mythic cultures, Lee decided to give it a try.

“I bet no one else is going to pitch Korean mythology space opera,” Lee said. “And I was right!”

Still, Lee confesses a yearning to write an Iliad as space opera. “But without Achilles, because he annoyed me, particularly because he got Patroclus killed. When I was eight, I thought Achilles and Patroclus were just friends. Then I read the adult version and realized – oh, they didn’t tell me that when I was eight in Houston.”

“They still don’t tell you that at age eight in Houston,” DeLaughter said.

Other themes of Lee work include non-Homo sapien intelligences (which he ascribes to the influence of Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz ), and societal hierarchies influenced by the Confucian culture he experienced during his childhood years in Korea. 

“We stole Confucianism from the Chinese and then became more Confucian than Confucius.”

“Is that something you would like to see go away in Korea?” DeLaughter asked.

“It’s not all evil,” Lee said. “Teachers are very respected in Korea, so they are able to manage their classrooms better than in America, but there are a lot of things that are problematic.”

And then there are the names, which often are based on jokes and numbers. “I know a lot of people say numbers are dehumanizing, but as a person who majored in math, I find numbers fascinating.”

Admittedly, what everyone in the ConDFW audience wanted to know was the prolific Lee’s advice on how to write.

“Finish your things,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how awful a manuscript is, it can always be fixed in revision.”

And given his mastery of short stories, did he find that writing them gained credibility for his novel-writing efforts, an audience member asked.

“I did the old-fashioned thing of writing short stories, which I did for 17 years, before writing a novel. Which is not time-efficient. Having that credibility from short stories helps, but if you want to write novels, you must write that novel!”

(And for readers who want to hear more from Lee, mark your calendars for this year’s North Texas Teen Book Festival, (, March 22-23 in Irving, Texas, where he will appear again.)