My Holiday in North Korea, Wendy E. Simmons

Every time I read anything about North Korea, I spend the next two weeks collaring everyone who comes near me and screaming my new North Korea information into their faces. I have still not recovered from the image Barbara Demick left me with in Nothing to Envy of dozens and dozens of North Koreans squatting at the sides of all the roads, waiting and waiting for something that was never going to come. So it was with photographer Wendy Simmons’s My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth.

My Holiday in North Korea

The full post here could just be moments in this book wherein Simmons’s guides are telling her obvious lies, and you as the reader are open-mouthedly trying to figure out whether it is okay to laugh at a story so fundamentally sinister. Because no matter what laughably obvious lie Simmons is receiving from her guides, the truth that they’re trying to conceal isn’t funny at all. The truth is always repression and loss, a country full of people forced to work and regularly denied their basic human rights by an uncontrolled dictator.

Simmons does an amazing job of conveying how quickly your sense of reality is destabilized in North Korea. Even when she knows that her handlers are lying to her, it’s not always clear which parts are lies, or what, specifically, is motivating the lies, or what, specifically, they’re trying to keep hidden from her. And the handlers (slash, entire country) seem to go to such insane lengths to keep her from seeing anything true that she starts to question whether her own perception of what reality could possibly be was wrong all along.

Frex: A time slot opens up on Simmons’s very busy tour schedule. Her handler offers her many options for how to fill that hour, and Simmons chooses football match. By tremendous good fortune, her handlers tell her, a football match will be happening at the exact time slot she now has available. They go watch the match, along with a handful of other apparent North Korean football enthusiasts. Halfway through, several hundred additional supporters file in, lined up in an orderly manner, and sit to watch the second half of the game.

So was this a real, previously scheduled, Monday-morning-at-9:00-a.m. football match? And had I just been super lucky to have a Monday-morning-at-9:00-a.m. slot on my schedule that needed filling? Possibly, given the damned good luck (knock wood) and propensity for remarkable coincidences I tend to have.

Or had a country just pulled together an entire football match (minus a few thousand fans) in less than twelve hours solely for my benefit? It was a thought too absurd, too egomaniacal, too lunatic, and too paranoid, to even consider. . . . right?

Wrong! (Probably?)

Thanks to MW Gerard for the recommendation! What a goddamn bonkers book and country.

  • Oh, this sounds PERFECT. On the library list it goes.

  • Even the thought of North Korea makes me nervous. Everything about the situation there is frightening. How did Simmons come to be visiting?

    • Apparently there’s a tour company that’ll organize tours out of Beijing? And you can go in with your handlers and spend X number of days there. Simmons spent, I think, ten days, and she said it was probably way too long to spend there. She said she felt like she was going crazy by the end of it.

  • OK, just checked the link to MW Gerard. Adding book to my list!

  • Katherine Koba

    North Korea is my JAM. Which I guess maybe makes me a weirdo. I usually have a pretty good grasp of what’s coming out and what’s just released but somehow I missed this one? Adding it to the TBR!

    • Mine too, I will read anything about it I can get my hands on!

      Bit random, btw: I can’t comment on your site anymore! The OpenID site I was using is shutting down, so I switched to a wordpress plug-in, and now it says my connection is not secure and I can’t comment anymore. I DID NOT STOP LIKING YOUUUUUUUUUU. Blogger is just foiling me!

      • Katherine Koba

        *shakes fist* BLOGGER!!

  • I found this book fascinating! So many of her stories left me not sure whether to laugh or cry.

    • Same here! She tells the stories in such a funny way, and yet at the same time it’s sooooo disturbing.

  • JeanPing

    I need this book! You know I’ll read anything about NK I can get my hands on. There *is* this bizarre funny/horrific thing. So much of the surface is absurd, but it’s invariably covering something unthinkably awful.

    • I know! I thought of you while I was reading it, actually! It’s not like the Suki Kim book or Nothing to Envy where it gets into more detail about the people’s day-to-day lives, but it’s super interesting in terms of what it reveals about how North Korea wants to present itself to western nations.

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    Wow, this does sound completely bonkers. It’s like if Donald Trump had is own country. Scary thought. I think I have to put it on my tbr list!

  • Citizen Reader

    OOOooohh…I must have it–thanks for the review. Now here’s a woman investigative/travel writer–will the reviewers be able to talk about her without belittling the book in some way or saying that it’s really a book about “relationships” more than it is journalism?
    Me? A bitter woman? Nah…..

    • Hahahhahaha, I haven’t read too many reviews so I cannot speak to this. But that is SO a thing, and SO frustrating.

  • Read Diverse Books

    How many books about North Korea have you read? Seems like a lot! I need to catch up! D: My next one sould be Suki Kim’s memoir, but that one’s been around for a while. There’s also Yeonmi Park’s memoir, which I want to read this year.
    This one sounds really unsettling too. It’s unbelievable the lengths they would go to give even one person the illusion of normalcy. I shudder to think what the regular people of the NK must think about before they go to sleep.

  • I am also down for anything about NK. It’s just so insane to me that this is reality.

  • Rachel

    Great review! I’d really like to look into reading this book. Since I’ve read “Without You, There Is You No Us” by Suki Kim, I want to read more books about NK. It’s so sad to read about the conditions in the country, and I can’t believe some of the things I’ve read over the years.

  • What what what!? Okay this is completely nuts and super creepy, I ened to read it. I haven’t read any books about North Korea, though I have the Park memoir on my tbr. Must read more!

  • 🙂

  • I started listening to the Reading the End bookcast from three weeks ago and just caught your first tidbit about twins and triplets in North Korea. And now this football story?! So freaking insane. I just… it doesn’t seem real.

  • I do the same thing! I read a graphic novel on it recently and couldn’t shut up about it. I’m definitely going to read this.

  • I haven’t read any books about North Korea (yet) – I think in this case I have preferred to be in the dark. But your review of this book is tempting me…
    If you had to choose one NK book that you’ve read, which would it be?

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