Tuesday, March 4, 2014

North Korean Literature from Words Without Borders

Juche Tower in Pyongyang
Something pushed me to set aside my work for a minute and Google "Arduous March" this afternoon. I wanted to find out if "March" referred to the month or the movement. The first search result was Wikipedia's article on the North Korean famine of 1994-1998. As it turns out, that march lasted much longer than a month.

The second result was an excerpt from an autobiography written by one Ji Hyun-ah that described her family's experiences with "the shadow of hardship" and the lengths to which they had to go to feed themselves as hundreds of thousands of North Koreans starved to death.

The excerpt was from a literary magazine called Words Without Borders, and I had a look around its website. Before I knew it, my entire afternoon had been sucked into reading piece after piece of literature in translation from around the world. I couldn't believe that I hadn't known about Words Without Borders before now.

In particular, I wanted to read more works by North Korean defectors (keep in mind that the only literature to come out of North Korea is propaganda). To my surprise, an entire issue last year was devoted to this very group. In May 2013, seven defectors' prose and poetry were published, and I quickly read them all. Here are some standouts:

A Blackened Land by Kim Yeon-seul tells a story of anger heartbreak with hard drug use as its culprit and the despotic Kim regime as its architect. It is accusatory and starkly bitter, almost enough to taste. Last fall I criticized the media for its sensationalist coverage of North Korea's rampant drug use; reading this firsthand account has surely altered the lens through which I look at the issue. Also of note: Kim Yeon-seul is from Chongjin, the hometown of the six defectors profiled in Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy, which I am reading currently.

The Poet Who Asked for Forgiveness analyzes the poetry of Kim Chul, following its evolution as the government punished his failure to conform his art to party ideology with separation from his family and forced labor. The strict regulations over the substance of art reminds me of how Shostakovich composed magnificent symphonies during World War II but was creatively controlled by Stalin the whole time. But the communist prohibition of artistic freedom isn't just a smudge in the history of culture; it's still happening in North Korea, where every song on the radio and every movie in theaters grinds the gears of the juggernaut propaganda machine.

Another poem, "Pillow" by Jang Jin-sun, narrates a harrowing and heartbreaking scene in a Pyongyang marketplace. It reads very quickly, but it's easy to see the difference in theme in style -- even in translation -- between the work of a North Korean state poet and that of a North Korean state poet who has defected to South Korea, whose memories of life there are already ten years in the past.

I Want to Call Her Mother Again is tragic. It also offers a peek inside the hanawon where defectors go to adjust to life in South Korea. If you read only one thing to try to understand the experiences of North Korean refugees, this should be it.

Although North Korea was spotlit last year, literature from elsewhere on the peninsula has popped up more recently. The most recent "graphic lit" issue of Words Without Borders includes I Am a Communist, a translated excerpt from a graphic novel detailing a man's difficult life choices in the tumultuous years before the border between the Communist North and the not-so-Democratic South was sealed.

A few years earlier, there was a feature on a translated North Korean comic book (meaning that it was geared toward kids) titled "The Secret of Frequency A". In it, doe-eyed North Korean child geniuses help unravel a conspiracy theory that involves evil American and Japanese scientists killing all the animals in Africa with fatal acoustic signals.

And the final two pieces that I read which stayed with me powerfully were The Chef's Nail, a work of short fiction about a woman from Seoul who rode line 2 of the subway in circles all day -- powerful and mindbending -- and a short comic about mother tongues in Taiwan called Tongue-tied which resonated with me personally.

I'm thrilled to have stumbled upon something new, interesting, and of such high quality, but I'm vacillating over whether or not to subscribe to the magazine, because my Reader is already swamped with hundreds of articles, blog posts, and random junk that I'll never get around to... Nevertheless, I exhort you to check out Words Without Borders, especially if you're into literature in translation or literature of marginalized peoples, and especially especially check out the North Korea issue if you want a large and immediate dose of... tsuris? Litost? Pathos? Conviction.

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