Thursday, 30 May 2013

Seeds of a new North Korean literature

North Koreans in exile are the only North Koreans who right now have any chance of having their voices heard; the May issue of the on-line magazine Words Without Borders lets us listen to seven of them.

Guest-editor Shirley Lee, who also edits New Focus International, a website offering analysis of news from North Korea, told me her aim: “I hope to provide a record of the scattering of the first seeds of a non-state North Korean literature, which allows North Korea's writers to reclaim their language and literature from their politicians. It sounds a bit grand, but the emphasis is on 'seeds'. I would like to think that we are witnessing the beginnings of a new North Korean literature, that is written in something other than the language of the regime.”

If North Koreans are to reclaim their language from their politicians, they must be able to distinguish truth from lies.  Lee has selected pieces that all deal, in differing ways, with exiles’ struggles to understand that the dark fantasies the regime spun them at home were precisely that: fantasies, and not reality.  Beneath this overarching theme, three concerns recur: drugs, maternal love, and hunger.

Did you know North Korea has a large population of junkies?  Or that the regime, as a (presumably?) unintended consequence of trying to raise foreign capital by selling drugs abroad, has encouraged large numbers of its own people into becoming pushers and users?  If these are new ideas to you, as they were to me, then read the only fictional offering in the issue, After The Gunshot, by Lee Ji Myung, translated by Shirley Lee, which is about drug smugglers on the Sino-North Korean border, or A Blackened Land, a memoir by Kim Yeon-seul, translated by Sora Kim-Russell. This is an account of the devastating effects of crystal meth addiction. When the content is so distressingly compelling, it feels wrong to comment, even positively, on the style, but, through the veil of translation, this struck me as strong writing. Here Kim Yeon-seul describes her junkie husband lighting-up: “When he rolled (crystal meth) up in the shiny aluminum lining of a cigarette pack and touched the lighter to it, bluish gray smoke would curl up from it, like a cobra dancing to a flute.”  Isn’t that an apt simile, beautifully ugly and sinister?

Meanwhile, The Poet Who Asked For Forgiveness, by Gwak Moon-an, translated by Shirley Lee, is a factual account of how a poet is bullied, as a strategy for survival, into writing a hymn praising The Party as Mother - a superhuman mother to be revered over any mere biological mother.  All North Koreans are now required to learn this hymn by heart; expressions of love between biological mothers and their children have become subversive acts.

I Want to Call Her Mother Again by Park Gui-ok, translated by Sora Kim-Russell is about stripping away the regime’s falsehood that a child’s real Mother is the Party.  It is a harrowing account of a mother’s abandonment of her children in a potato field, so they can have a chance of a better life, in South Korea. Park Gui-ok is for a long time filled with resentment and hatred of her mother, but after thirteen years of freedom she is able to understand that her mother was not to blame for her suffering: “All at once, the hatred and ugliness I had harbored toward her turned to longing and flooded my heart. How she must have suffered! How bad things must have been for her to abandon her babies! When I think back on that potato field all those years ago, the image of my mother removing all of her clothes, dressing me and my younger sibling in them, and keeping nothing but a layer of tattered rags for herself fills me with such pain. Now, as I picture her hands, blistered and scratched from digging through the frozen earth in search of even a single potato no bigger than a bean, the memory tears at my heart.”

And so to hunger. The Arduous March by Ji Hyun-ah, translated by Sora Kim-Russell, and A Rice Story by Kim Sung-min, translated by Shirley Lee, are both about the struggle to survive famine. A Rice Story is billed as a poem, although in English it reads more like brief and vivid prose.  It was written during a campaign in South Korea urging people to eat more rice as there was a glut of the stuff. Kim Sung-min compares this situation with that over the border: “The greens that have been dried for three days, the roots of trees gnawed and abandoned by beasts in the mountains, and one small sack of barley—mixed together on the stove. Food bartered for your sister’s chastity. Rub your stinging eyes, make sure the smoke rises into the night. So what if I’m a father who’s let his children starve? I’ve shaken hands with this enemy, life, just to stay alive, to stay alive. Facing those who grip their spoons and wait by empty bowls, Seoul is left with too much rice.”

Pillow, a poem by Jang Jin-sung, translated by Shirley Lee, combines the two motifs of motherhood, and hunger. It presents a mother lying to her son about the contents of a sack, to motivate him to go to school:
                        The ultimate act of motherhood
Was a rice-pillow lie
For deceiving her beloved son
The final pang of hunger
Was a pillar of faith giving way
For the ruin of a young boy’s life

I urge you to read the rest of Pillow, and all the other pieces in the May issue of Words Without Borders.  Find them at New Focus International is at