let's start by stating the obvious: dear lord, it's hard reading in another language, even if it’s a language you grew up with. these posts about the accusation are inevitably going to be as much (or more) about reading in korean as the stories themselves because reading is proving to be an adventure in and of itself, so here’s a little background about my korean.
technically, korean is my first language. my father came to the states to do his ph.d after he graduated from seoul national university, and he didn't actually plan to get married here, was going to go back to seoul once he'd finished his studies. he met my mum, though, (she immigrated to the states when she was ten), and, by then, his parents and four of his five sisters were stateside as well, so my parents got married, committed to a life here instead.
my dad understandably wanted his children to know korean, to be connected to their ethnic heritage and roots even if they were raised in the states. the intense part of it was that he was so dead-set on this that he wouldn't let my mum teach me english at all, only korean, which was fine when i was a tiny little kid in jersey because both my parents worked and i spent much of my days with my paternal grandparents, neither of whom spoke english. when i was four, though, we moved out to california, away from our extended family, to the suburbs of los angeles where my parents, of course, enrolled me in an american preschool.
(a few years later, they enrolled my english-speaking brother in a korean preschool ... my parents, lol.)
once i started school and learned english, i might have lost my korean had my paternal grandparents not moved out west to live with us. the result was that i grew up amazing koreans with my ability to speak and understand korean -- and i say "amazing" because koreans really expect nothing from korean-americans as far as korean goes (i also lack the accent that would otherwise automatically label me korean-american). weirdly, though, it was that ability to amaze that always made me feel self-conscious because my korean has never met my personal standards for excellence -- i'm hyper-aware of the limitations of my korean, constantly frustrated by my limited vocabulary, and i've always wished i was more fluent, a better speaker, and infinitely better reader.
regardless! i can understand, speak, read, write to what my career counselor in law school told me is "conversational ability." i comprehend roughly 75% of korean dramas (set in contemporary times). previous to the accusation, i've read one novel in korean, kim young-ha's memory book of a murderer, and i had less difficulty reading that than anticipated, vocabulary gaps and all because, for the most part, i could fill in the blanks. technical speak and business/political jargon are beyond me, though, which brings me to ...
the first story was more difficult than i anticipated. the vocabulary was tougher, partly because of political terms and partly because of words that are either outdated or unique to north korea. the korean publisher included definitions for the latter in parentheses, for which i am grateful -- and for which my dad's also unknowingly grateful because he was spared what would have been a fair number of texts ("what does xxx mean? what about xxx? and xxx?"). that said, while i had no problems understanding the story overall, there are definitely details that i missed; the primary example is that the narrator's father is punished for what i assume is anti-party something; but the precise political terms still elude me (and my dictionary).
also, wow, i'm slow. painstakingly slow. i read korean out loud, which slows me down more but helps me process, and it's good in that it forces me to read not only every single word but also every single freaking character -- i can't rush through passages (not that i could even if i wanted to), and i have to be 100% fully engaged, which admittedly isn't always the case when i'm reading in english. i have slowed down considerably when i read in english, compared to ten years ago when i'd speed read like crazy (rather impressively, if i say so myself), and i do take in every word, but i can read and comprehend while also having other thoughts simmering in the back of my brain. i can't do that with korean. if i did, i'd be taking in sounds with very little meaning.
one weird thing i struggled with in this story: names.
sometimes, on the rare occasion a name was mentioned (and not many were), i'd go to highlight it only to realize that it was someone's name, and, to be completely honest, i didn't even get the narrator's name until 3/4 of the way into the story. i still don't remember what his wife's name is, if it were even mentioned. i had no problems with the nephew's name, though, but it's a name also commonly found in the south, so there's that.
(fun fact: rhee is a common surname in the north but is uncommon in the south.)
(this whole north/south delineation makes me feel squirmy and sad and furious inside.)
“탈북기" (pronounced "tahl-book-gee," "g" like in "god") means "the record of a north korean refugee," and the story is told essentially in two parts -- the first is narrated by the husband, il-cheol, who discovers that his wife is on birth control but doesn't confront her about it, suspecting her instead until he finally has to address her "suspicious" activity. she gives him her diary to read, and the second part is taken from that as he comes to learn how much his wife has actually thought of him and grieved on his behalf and his nephew’s. il-cheol's father was banned/exiled for (as i said above) anti-party something, and, as is the case in north korea, not only was the father punished, but that black mark has also been placed on his children and grandchildren (three generations are punished and/or executed).
to me, “탈북기” reads in many ways like a portrait of a marriage. in some ways, if you look at it on the surface, it’s not very different from other portraits of marriages — of two people who don’t communicate with each other, who simmer in their suspicions or fears or doubts, who lack affection and seem tied together if only for duty. there’s nothing quite unique about that because marriage has its difficulties and bad marriages aren't uncommon, but then you go in closer and examine this portrait of a marriage in an oppressive regime, and you start looking at it from a different perspective.
you can't remove the human element from it, though, the fact that marriage is, at times, hard work, requires communication and trust and respect, that, as people, we exist in relation to each other -- no man is an island. sometimes, i wonder if there isn't a reductive way of looking at stories (whether fictional or non-fictional) through that one lens of "this is north korea; it is a regime of terror" that's much too prevalent, and to approach the accusation with such a perspective would be to do it a disservice. it would be easy to look at “탈북기” and see it solely as a portrait of life under a punishing regime, but one big thing i appreciated about the story is that it doesn’t lose itself to that. bandi is interested in the human first and foremost, and the story is one about people who live in this country, how they live, who they are. i anticipate the entire collection to maintain this.
going back to "탈북기": the north korean regime is built upon the extreme worship of a cult personality, and it's a society that's class-based, that's about the unit, not the family unit but the greater social unit. it's not about the individual, which means that, in extension, it's not about individual marriages, not about individual families -- hell, it's not even about the individual generation, given that one generation's crimes are passed on to the following two.
you can see that bleeding into the marriage -- how, when a fear of the individual (how ever that is defined) is engrained, there is no room to trust even within a marriage, which requires trust in order to grow and thrive, and that lack of trust and communication, that fear injected into all interpersonal relationships, is another way of enforcing loyalty to a regime, whether that loyalty is assumed intentionally or not.
you can see that with il-cheol's wife, how she wants to protect him, to protect his nephew, but to do so requires secrecy. it requires silence. it means that she can't confide in anyone; she can't even tell anyone how much it infuriates her or breaks her heart that the consequences for the actions of her husband's father extend even to her nephew because, to someone else, that could be a traitorous sentiment. it becomes something she must swallow, words she can only write into a diary she must then hide, and it becomes a secret, something that seems good and born of kindness and love -- it becomes something that must be hidden, not only for her sake but also for the sake of her husband and their families.
thus, love is twisted into something dangerous, and that's what really gutted me about this story. it even extends to motherhood, how there is a guilt and twistedness about wanting to bring a child into such a world. in one passage, his wife writes,
이 땅에 생명을 낳을 때 어미는 그 생명이 복되기만을 바랄 것이다. 한 평생 가시밭을 헤쳐야 할 생명임을 안다면, 그런 생명을 낳을 어머니가 이 세상 어디에 있으랴! 만약 그런 어머니가 있다면 그것은 어머니이기 전에 죄인 중에도 가장 잔악한 죄인이 될 것이다! (45)
when she delivers life onto this earth, a mother can only want that life to be blessed. if she knows it's a life that must push its way through a thorn field all its life, can there be a mother in this world who would give birth to such a life! if there were such a mother, then, before she is a mother, she would be the most cruel sinner among sinners. (45)
it might sound extreme to us, but, looking at it from the perspective of a woman in an oppressive regime, maybe it isn't that extreme at all.
there's strangely (or maybe not so strangely) quite a bit of fear to wrestle with when writing these posts -- a fear of sounding provincial and superficial, of not knowing enough, of not being a smart enough reader, all tied up with a fear that stems from my limitations of language. there's quite a lot of frustration, too, and that's probably also tied into the current in-between status of my life, into a smidgen of regret, too -- and now we're getting confessional here, but i did feel like throwing that bit about the fear out there at least.
i am so curious to see how the accusation will be translated. i wonder how the translator will convey the different ways of narrating — in “탈북기,” the narrator speaks in [what i think is] a particular way of speaking. typically, korean sentences end in “했다, 됐다, 있었다” (haet-dah, dwet-dah, eess-ut-dah) or in a similar variation, but the narrator here ends his sentences in “했네 됐네 있었네” (haet-nae, dwet-nae, eess-ut-nae). maybe the pity here is that i can’t actually explain why this is noteworthy, except to say that it's all about rhythm and cadence, about the way the language flows off your tongue, how something sounds softer or harder, more formal or more casual, more structured or more whimsical based on these grammatical choices. the real pity, though, is that it is impossible to translate because the grammatical structure of english doesn't allow for it; the best a translator can do is capture the tone and convey that in english instead.
like i said in a previous post, translation is an art of loss, in this case, a loss of rhythm and cadence, but part of me thinks that's what makes it such a beautiful art.
i think one of the things we hope stories do is allow people to tap into a deeper sense of understanding than they may naturally be wont. we hope that stories help people access greater sympathy, greater humanity, greater humility even, a sense that we exist in a big, full world populated by all kinds of people in all ways of life — and, in extension, all kinds of people experiencing all kinds of suffering.
one of the books i'm currently reading is rina by kang young-sook (in translation). it tells the story of a teenage girl who escapes from an unnamed oppressive country and tries to get to the country of p, and it makes me think of the refugee narrative, how that is the desired and, in a sense, accepted narrative in the west. we like these stories here, to hear about the hardships, the hunger, the prison camps, the brutality, the cult of kim, and we like the stories of escape, of people driven by desperation to cross the border into china, risking repatriation and death for a chance of something better.
it makes me wonder how much of reality we actually want to know. we hear about girls sold into slavery, the exploitation of refugees, the gross human rights violations going on within north korea's closed borders. we hear about the rape and forced abortions of women in the prison camps. we hear about the cost of escape, how refugees need to pay off so many people just to get out of north korea, to get into china, to get out of china, to get down to southeast asia, to get, eventually, to south korea and/or the united states. do we think about it, though, what that actually means, how that translates into the day-to-day, into the practical? because, when you have nothing to exchange, to barter with, what do you sell?
because what does it mean, on the human level, to decide to escape, to become a refugee, to know that you are putting not only your life but your whole family's life at risk? it doesn't matter if they don’t all try to escape with you; they'll still be punished for your attempt, anyway.
it's something bandi gets at -- at the end of “탈북기,” il-cheol writes,
물론 위험천만한 탈출 방법이네. 해안 경비대나 순찰정의 총알에 맞을 수도 있고 풍랑에 나뭇잎처럼 삼켜질 수도 있으니까. 허나 이렇게 살아 최악의 고뇌에 시달리느니 차라리 죽어 잊어버리는 것이 낫겠기에 목숨을 걸어야 하는 탈출 방법도 서슴없이 선택한 우리들이네. (52)
of course, it's an extremely dangerous way to escape. because we could be shot by the coast guard or by patrolmen, and we could be swallowed up like a leaf by the sea. however, rather than live like this, suffering the worst anguish, it would be better to die and forget, so we have chosen without hesitation even an escape route on which we must stake our lives. (52)
it's sobering, isn't it, the refugee narrative. it's one of life and death, not simply a good story to tell -- and, lest anyone misunderstand, i'm not trying to be patronizing, and these aren't judgments i'm making of other people but questions i am actively asking myself as i read and learn more about north korea and, in a way, as a korean, examine my position in relation to korea, whether north or south. sometimes, i think to be a korean-american is a funny position to be in, all these divisions and delineations we must make in our lives -- but that is something i'll likely continue to touch on in the future.
for now, on to the next story! "유령의 도시," or, in english, "the city of ghosts"!