Monday, December 22, 2014

"Without You, There Is No Us" by Suki Kim

I've talked before about my interest in North Korea, though it's only coincidental that I got around to writing this review just as North Korea entered the news again with the Sony hacking and cancellation of the movie The Interview. But I picked up Without You after hearing an interview with author Kim on NPR. The other books I'd read on North Korea were about everyday people, largely dissidents and defectors. Kim's book, on the other hand, is about young North Korean elite: the men who attended a Christian missionary-funded university at which Kim taught English.

The whole set-up immediately exposes the craziness that is North Korea. They oppose Christianity, but they're happy to allow the missionaries to set up their school (they're forbidden from proselytizing or mentioning God/Jesus, of course). They hate the U.S. but want to ensure the elite men can speak English. Kim teaches at a STEM-themed school, but the students have little access to technology and no access to the internet. The college is for 19- and 20-year-old men, yet they often come across as young teenagers, innocent to the world around them.

Of course, the school's very set-up exposes craziness in others. Though Kim doesn't really go there (and I wish she had), you have to question the missionaries' very purpose. They fundraise back home to open this school, knowing they can't profess their faith to the students. They just want an "in" in the country should the dictatorship eventually fall. But, in the meantime, they're raising money, in the name of God, to support the privileged elite in a country where most of the population is barely surviving. How is that Christian?

As a narrative, though, Without You feels fairly empty. Kim's existence as a teacher is heavily guarded and structured, which means she doesn't have much to talk about other than feeling isolated and down. She's purposefully kept from developing close relationships with any of the students, which means most of them stay vague, rather than emerging as characters. Thus there's no real continuing narrative to string together her time at the school. The book reads as tiny vignettes pieced together with repetitive descriptions of her emotional state.

I also found her attitude somewhat problematic. She wants to covertly expose the students to elements of the world beyond, which seems a good thing. But she goes about it mostly by showing off--describing her world-wide travels or parading her laptop or Kindle in front of the students. She's put off when they don't show more interest. Why would they? They're smart enough to recognize they don't have such items, and they're old enough to buy the government line (which, in this case at least, is probably correct) about American arrogance. I feel like she could have taken a better approach, as she does when she teaches them essay form. In a culture not used to having to use evidence to support an assertion, the essay is a radical departure.

Without You does show that even the elite in North Korea are also heavily censored, but it doesn't offer a lot to the enigma that is the country.

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