Monday, February 2, 2009

Jia: A Novel of North Korea

A few weeks ago, Sarah dropped a book on my lap. Hyejin Kim's first novel, Jia, is based on her work with North Korean refugees living in villages along the Korean-Chinese border. It is a fictionalized version of true stories related to the author by the refugees. I am curious what parts are real and what are invention, although I certainly understand the safety risks to her friends if their true stories were exposed. I feel that her research journal for this novel would be at least as interesting a read as the final product.

As with most of what I read about North Korea, it is difficult to separate my powerful emotional reactions to the content from the quality of the writing, and therefore it is difficult to do a true "review" of this book. I would definitely recommend it, though I believe I found Charles Robert Jenkins's story more compelling than Jia's, but only perhaps because it was my first time reading a daily-life account of the most 1984-esque country in existence. The writing is poetic in places, but clear; it is a quick read. Jia's struggles are shocking (though the plights of some of her friends are certainly more heartbreaking), but she ends up one of the "lucky" ones. The main character's voice is straightforward and generally stripped of the emotional extravagances that would have ruined this book.

Themes of loss and loneliness are strong throughout the novel. Strangely, I found echoes of Frederick Douglass's autobiography, particularly related to the experiences Jia has once making it to China and Douglass's overwhelming fear upon first arriving in New York City. That the regime of Kim Jong Il (and that of his father Kim Il Sung) places its own citizens (even once loyal citizens) in a position the emotional/psychological equivalent of American slaves suggests that the tragedy that is North Korea is not likely to be resolved and fully healed for several centuries hence.

I am a little sad, but seeing literature like this gives me hope. Because if we continue the analogy, it was only about 10-20 years after major abolitionist literature such as Douglass's autobiography and Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared that it was abolished (leaving the next century and a half of emotional/political/legal battles to cope with).

Although Kim's work is being praised for being the first English/Western publication of this kind, I would actually like to see both her novel and Jenkins's story translated into Korean. I don't think that many publications popular in South Korea present such a stark view of the poverty and suppression that are part of North Korea's daily truths. But I could be wrong...

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