I have to admit to not being the greatest fan of biography, autobiography and memoir. Too many of the people who get published or written about seem to have done little more in their lives than been famous for five minutes or starred in a popular TV show. And too often ‘memoirs’ seem to have been written to eradicate all trace of a personality or a life, resulting in a stilted and clinical narrative in which any occurrence which might reflect badly upon the writer is erased or glossed over. Obviously a memoir is a recollection, subject to the vagaries of the writer’s memory and their own interpretation of their life, but I have read many where I feel that the real story has been carefully hidden behind the words that ended up on the page.
Not so in Yeonmi Park’s memoir ‘In Order to Live’, subtitled ‘A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom’, which is a brave and insightful examination of the realities of life in the secretive state and the fate that awaits many who try to flee the regime. Yeonmi was only 21 when she wrote the book, younger than I am now, but has lived so many unimaginable lives already that it’s extraordinary that she still has the presence and grace to write such a book. I expected the segments about life in North Korea to be tough but was totally taken aback by the helplessness and brutality involved in Yeonmi’s ‘escape’ through China and her subsequent re-settlement in Seoul.
Told in a very simple style, Yeonmi’s prose has real force. She doesn’t beat around the bush when relating her experiences, which include near-starvation, rape, sexual slavery, kidnap and a constant fear of being caught and returned into the hands of a regime she has given everything to escape. What really surprised me was the way in which North Korean defectors are treated like pawns in a political game and how often their desperate circumstances are used as an excuse to treat them as lesser human beings. The brutal reality of Yeonmi’s story is that so many of the defectors we hear about in The West are likely to have suffered at the hands of human traffickers, been forced into prostitution or slave labor or have sold everything that have in order to survive long enough to make the journey south.
This does make for bleak reading at times. The segment in China is especially hard to comprehend, particularly when you realise that many of the events Yeonmi relates take place in the run up to and course of the 2008 Beijing Olympics when the world was apparently watching the country. In spite of the difficult subject matter and the frank narrative however, this remains a memoir filled with hope and affection. Yeonmi’s deep and abiding love for her family shines through and, despite everything, she retains an abiding affection for her homeland and for the North Korean people. Now based in Seoul as a human rights advocate, Yeonmi’s desire for her people and her homeland to be united is the abiding message of this book.
Whilst researching this review, I came across a number of people who doubted the veracity of Yeonmi’s account of her escape and her subsequent life in China and Seoul. All I can say to that is that, as with any memoir or biography, the narrative is probably subject to the memories and to the wishes of the person telling the story. Personally, I don’t feel that Yeonmi shies away from difficult sections of her memoir and she doesn’t always recount her own actions in the best light either. Everyone in Yeonmi’s account felt real to me, from her father whose love for his family is sometimes in sharp contrast to the danger his actions place them all in; to her Chinese ‘husband’ Hongwei, a human trafficker with a surprising sense of honor. Yeonmi doesn’t deal in heroes and villains – the people in her account are just that, people, with all their good and bad traits on display. To me, that gave an honesty to the narrative which is the best I think you can hope for in a memoir.
Personally, I felt this book was brave and inspirational. It clearly took great courage and strength of character for Yeonmi to have come this far with her life and I hope that she carries on with her advocacy and with raising awareness about the plight of North Korean refugees. This isn’t the most amazingly written book I’ve read this year, nor is it the most groundbreaking or original, but I do think it’s probably one of the most important. As Yeonmi herself says “I have seen the horrors that humans can inflict on one another, but I’ve also witnessed acts of tenderness and kindness and sacrifice in the worse imaginable circumstances. I know that it is possible to lose part of humanity in order to survive. But I also know that the spark of human dignity is never completely extinguished, and given the oxygen of freedom and the power of love, it can grow again.” Inspirational words from a book that is well worth giving some time and attention to.
‘In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey toFreedom’ by Yeonmi Park is out now in hardback, priced £18.99, from Fig Tree (Penguin Group UK) and is available from all good book retailers. My thanks go to Anna Ridley at Penguin UK for providing a review copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.