Without You, There Is No Us...A review.
You may think this is veering off topic from my documentary month, but it actually fits right in. This book is a long-term documentary project. Author Suki Kim lived in North Korea for half a year. She was a journalist, undercover and posing as a devout Christian missionary, and teaching at a school with other Christian missionaries, who were posing as teachers.
Phew, that's a long explanation. She moved from South Korea to the States when she was 13 and had a strong connection and pull to go back. She reported a few times on North Korea before going as a teacher, and really wanted to immerse herself in the culture.
And immerse she did. She taught English to the sons of North Korea's elite. Her portrayal of the country is one of the most heart-breaking things I've read. You can tell how empty she felt; it's portrayed in her writing. It's almost as if she doesn't want to use too many adjectives, because they would be too bright to describe such a gray place.
Because of that flat feeling to her emotions and writing, the book can drag at times. For me, it only enhanced the point she was trying to get across: this is one of the only places in the world still so secluded from the rest of it. These boys were absolutely clueless as to what went on outside their country, but absolutely convinced there was nowhere else like it.
The magic of this book isn't in the pages itself, it's in the process she had to go through to get it into my hands. The whole time, I had questions for her: Where did you keep your writing while you were there? How did you avoid talking about God with the other teachers? How did you keep your mouth shut while the boys were telling you blatant lies about their country?
She answers some of them in the book, but not all. Though the writing isn't quite there yet, I'm putting her in the same category as Tracy Kidder and John Krakauer. Anyone who has the diligence to stick with a story that long deserves credit for it. And documenting something as dangerous as North Korea takes some serious guts.
Who is this book for?
People who know nothing about North Korea: Yes.
Missionaries in dangerous places: Probably not. I think her viewpoint would be offensive to people trying to witness to people.
Journalists: Sure thing. This was an exercise in patience and observation, a valuable lesson for anyone wanting to document the truth about any topic.
What does this book say?
Time there seemed to pass differently. When you are shut off from the world, every day is exactly the same as the one before. This sameness has a way of wearing down your soul until you become nothing but a breathing, toiling, consuming thing that awakes to the sun and sleeps at the dawning of the dark. The emptiness runs deep, deeper with each slowing day, and you become increasingly invisible and inconsequential. That’s how I felt at times, a tiny insect circling itself, only to continue, and continue. There, in that relentless vacuum, nothing moved. No news came in or out. No phone calls to or from anyone.
The nationalism that had been instilled in them for so many generations had produced a citizenry whose ego was so fragile that they refused to acknowledge the rest of the world.
I was not sure if, having been told such lies as children, they could not differentiate between truth and lies, or whether it was a survival method they had mastered.