As I’ve possibly mentioned once or twice (or thrice maybe?) on this blog, I find the country of North Korea morbidly fascinating. Even in an election season where the impossible-to-believe comes true on what seems like a daily basis (not in a good way), North Korea remains an unknowably impossible sort of country to have in the modern world. So I obviously was always going to read How I Became a North Korean.
This debut novel by Krys Lee, who has worked with defectors from North Korea herself, follows three characters on a long and strange journey to find a reality that they can accept. Yongju is the son of privilege in North Korea, forced to flee after the Dear Leader kills his father in cold blood; while a pregnant Jangmi allows herself to be sold into marriage in China in the hopes that her new husband will believe the baby is his. The non-North Korean of the group is Danny, a Korean American teenager in search of meaning.
How I Became a North Korean is a weird fever dream of a book for a weird fever dream of a country. If some of the plot twists seem unlikely, it can’t even compare to the unlikelihood that a country like North Korea could exist, this rarefied environment in which the country’s leader acts with utter impunity against his own people, and of which so little is reliably known that we can’t even assess what needs to change.
(Except, you know, everything.)
Krys Lee is writing about something I haven’t encountered before, which is the difficulties that North Koreans face after crossing out of their own country. Though rescue organizations do exist, Lee has had some experience with predatory Christian agencies less interested in helping refugees than gaining more donation money from visitors. This experience informs the bulk of the book, as North Korean refugees find not safety but a new kind of captivity when they leave their country.
Also appreciated: our dude narrator has feelings about our lady narrator, but he doesn’t make his feelings her problem. He is kind and supportive of her and I appreciate it. Also:
I was alarmed and amazed that she had somehow freed herself. She hadn’t been broken after all, only hoarding her strength.
Have you read/reviewed this one? Let me know and I’ll add a link!