Novelist and subject share parallel livesWhen Soonae Lee-Fink began writing her fictionalized biography of Francesca Rhee, South Korea’s first first lady, it wasn’t difficult to step into her shoes.
As a Korean woman who immigrated to Austria, Ms. Lee-Fink felt a natural kinship with Ms. Rhee, an Austrian woman who immigrated to Korea after marrying Syngman Rhee, a dissident in exile who became South Korea’s first president.
“I felt there was a natural tie between us, which is why I studied her for 15 years,” said Ms. Lee-Fink, in an interview with JoongAng Daily in a Seoul coffeeshop.
“Just as my marriage with an Austrian man brought a change in my life, I had strong empathy for Francesca. She probably had to go through a great deal [after marrying Mr. Rhee],” said Ms. Lee-Fink.
Ms. Rhee went through a great deal, indeed. As an Austrian, she lived through World War I in Europe, and later had a front seat to the political intrigue behind her husband’s rise to power. As the wife of South Korea’s first president, she endured the Korean War. After her husband’s death in 1965, she remained in Korea, living in Ehwajang, their grand private estate in Jongno.
The book that Ms. Lee-Fink wrote, “Francesca Rhee Story,” is a love story set in turbulent times, spanning Geneva, New York, Seoul and Honolulu.
Researching the little-known former First Lady was not easy for Ms. Lee-Fink. Many Koreans are even confused about where Ms. Rhee is actually from ― mistaking Austria for Australia, people commonly referred to her as “hojudaek,” or “the bride from Australia.”
“See what a shaky start I had?” says Ms. Lee-Fink.
Even her Austrian friends had no idea that an Austrian had been the first lady of Korea. As Ms. Lee-Fink tried to answer her friends’ questions, she realized how little she knew about the woman she felt a strange kinship with. So she decided to write a book about her.
The project began with a piece of good luck.
When Ms. Lee-Fink visited Seoul in 1988 for an alumni meeting at Ewha Womans University, Cho Hye-ja, a daughter-in-law of former president Rhee, asked her to drop by her house, where Ms. Rhee still lived with her adopted son and his wife.
“We weren’t able to talk to each other for a long time because she was so weak and fragile,” said Ms. Lee-Fink. But they held hands and asked each other how they were doing.
From then on, Ms. Lee-Fink scraped around for material on the life of the former president and Ms. Lee. She visited Seoul several times a year whenever new material was discovered in libraries at Yonsei University, the National Assembly and Ehwajang.
However, what made her research difficult was not the scarcity of data, but people’s criticism that she was delving into the life of a “pro-Japanese dictator.”
The former president is often regarded as an autocrat in Korea’s modern history, as he served four consecutive terms as the president. He was overthrown by a military coup in 1961 and fled to Hawaii, where he lived until his death in 1965.
“Some urged me to stop the research,” she said. “But this is a part of our history we cannot turn away from.”
Despite the controversy about the former president, Ms. Lee-Fink left out political views from her novel, instead telling the story from the perspective of a young woman in love.
Ms. Lee-Fink’s novel will be translated into English and German by next year. She has also received offers to make it into a film and an opera.
by Lee Min-a