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In Order To Live by Yeonmi Park: Courageous Bid For Freedom

Front cover of In Order to Live, a memoir of a North Korean girl by Yeonmi Park

In her memoir In Order To Live, Yeonmi Park lifts the veil of secrecy that surrounds life in the brutal and paranoid dictatorship of North Korea.

Its leadership loves to posture on the international stage, getting into stand-offs with the US and South Korea and using parades and rocket launches to show off its military might.

One thing that’s harder to discover is what really goes on inside  the so-called “hermit kingdom.” Visitors are not welcome and the media is so strictly controlled that few details ever make their way outside the borders, unless through the testimonies of defectors.

Childhood In World of Fear

Yeonmi Park defected in 2007, spending the next two years in constant fear that she would be discovered and returned to North Korea, to face either starvation or imprisonment. In Order To Live is her frank account of a childhood in a country where mind control, servitude and fear are used to subjugate an entire population.

Her family was initially prosperous but their status plummeted when her father was imprisoned for trading on the black market. Her mother was then taken in for questioning and other family members were penalised. Without the required status, Yeonmi’s future hopes of attending university and training as a doctor, evaporated. Soon after, the family began a decline that they believed would end only one way – death through malnutrition.

At the age of 13 she and her mother fled the country, escaping to China in a perilous night-time journey across a frozen river. They believed they had reached freedom only to discover in the first hour on Chinese soil they had been duped. Though they had food they were the victims of human trafficking.

We had come to a bad place, maybe even worse than the one I left.

Park’s narrative chronicles the pair’s harrowing ordeal over two years when they were exploited by Chinese marriage brokers. It took another dangerous journey, walking across the Gobi desert at night, in sub zero temperatures, to escape into Mongolia and subsequently to South Korea.

Today Yeonmi Park is a human rights activist, speaking out against the North Korean regime and appealing to the world to help the people still suffering in her home country. She got that coveted university place, became a television personality (appearing on a talk and talent show featuring North Korean defectors) married and became a mother.

Confronting The Past

It’s an astonishing and powerful story. One that Park was initially reluctant to tell, wanting – understandably – to put the past behind her and to blend more easily into her new life. But she realised that in order to be “completely free,” she had to confront the truth of her past. The turning point was when she read a line from Joan Didion: “We tell our stories in order to live.”

I felt the truth of those words echoing inside me. I understand that sometimes the only way we can survive our own memories is to shape them into a story that makes sense out of events that seem inexplicable.

It’s a remarkable book. Questions have apparently been raised about the accuracy of her narrative and inconsistencies between different accounts of her experience. I suspect that she has skirted over some details of her time in China and her relationship with her handler. But I’m left in no doubt from reading this book that Yeonmi is a young woman who has huge reserves of strength and determination to survive against tremendous odds.

Reading To Live

When she arrived in South Korea, for example, she had the education level of an eight year old. But she was determined to achieve her goal of a university place. When local schools didn’t meet her study requirements, , she stayed home and just read.

…all I did was read. I inhaled books like other people breathed oxygen. I didn’t just read for knowledge or pleasure. I read to live. … I read to fill my mind and to block out the bad memories.

As much as her story pulls on the heartstrings, it was Yeonmi’s reflections on opinions among North Korean people towards their leadership that I found particularly interesting.

She skilfully details the ways in which North Koreans are taught from birth that their leaders are like all-powerful gods. Such is the level of indoctrination that as a child, Yeonmi Park considered it unthinkable to show disrespect for the leadership. Like her classmates she joined enthusiastically in military games (nobody wanted to be on the hated “imperialist American” team ) and believed their leader Kim Jong II to be a benevolent father to his people.

Truth And Reality

Yet there were people, including her father, who (silently) questioned the propaganda of a North Korean socialist paradise. Illegal access to Chinese and South Korean television programmes showed people in “enemy nations” enjoying plentiful food, clothing and reliable power electricity while in North Korea, emaciated bodies regularly turned up in rubbish heaps and the streets were full of people crying for help.

North Koreans have two stories running in their heads at all times, like trains on parallel tracks. One is what you are taught to believe; the other is what you see with your own eyes. It wasn’t until I escaped to South Korea and read a translation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four that I found a word for this particular condition: doublethink.

This “doublethink” is how you can shout slogans denouncing capitalism in the morning, then browse through the market in the afternoon to buy smuggled South Korean cosmetics.

If you’ve ever wondered how it must feel to live in an oppressive society and to yearn for freedom, this book is one you won’t want to miss. I suspect it’s a selective account, emphasising some of the darker elements to give more of a mass-market, commercial appeal. But it’s no less valuable for that. It’s not only an account of one of the most secretive nations in the world, it’s a narrative that demonstrates the strength of the human spirit and one young woman’s incredible determination to live.

In Order To Live: Endnotes

Portrait photograph of Yeonmi Park, author of In Order to Live , a memoir of a girl who escaped North Korea

Yeonmi Park was born in North Korea in 1993, escaped to China in 2007 and settled in South Korea in 2009. She rose to global prominence after she delivered an emotional speech at the One Young World 2014 Summit in Dublin, Ireland, calling on the world to help the millions of people suffering at the hands of the North Korean regime. Her speech received 50 million views in two days on YouTube and social media

Her memoir In Order To Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey To Freedom, was written in collaboration with Maryanne Vollers and published in 2015.

Questions have been raised about the accuracy of some parts of her narrative and inconsistencies in details. For example, whether it was true, as she describes in the book, that her family was so close to starvation that she and her elder sister would forage in the countryside for “wild plants and insects to fill our stomachs”, and her father would eat snow to fill himself.

Yeonmi has defended herself against the accusations in The Diplomat, explaining that some of the inconsistencies were due to her lack of English language skills. She also apologised that her childhood memories were not perfect.

Her co-writer Maryanne Vollers told The Guardian newspaper in 2015 that she had verify Yeonmi’s story through family members and fellow defectors who knew her in North Korea and China. 

2014 Speech at One World conference, Dublin

2015 Interview (BBC)

Slatehead by Peter Goulding: Passion For Heights [book review]

Slate is boring isn’t it? It’s just the stuff used to make roof tiles or – if you’ve adopted the trend of recent years – to decorate your garden borders and paths. Definitely not something to get excited about. 

But for the people who class themselves as “slateheads”, slate is anything but dull. They revel in the way it changes according to the light and moisture. Far more significantly, they view climbing great slabs of slate as an unsurpassable, exhilarating experience. 

The abandoned slate quarries of North Wales are a magnate for these enthusiasts. Among them is Peter Goulding, a northerner by birth who has fallen in love with the ridges, fissures and square-cut galleries in the rock faces and the waterfalls of scree that plunge down to old quarry buildings and lakes. 

Slatehead: The Ascent of Britain’s Slate-climbing Scene is Goulding’s award-winning account of a slate climbing culture that has grown up since the 1980s. He was a latecomer to the party but, just like his predecessors, he fell in love with the quarries around Snowdonia. He has become, he says,  “a connoisseur of the beauty and fear of the quarries.” 

Slate carved from this part of North Wales was once sent all around the world. At their peak, each quarry employed thousands of men. But then the industry largely collapsed and, one by one, the quarries closed. The abandoned tunnels, train tracks, and explosives sheds present an alien almost apocalyptic vista, made doubly eerie by the noise of the rock plates as they rub against each other.

I can remember seeing these quarries on a family holiday in North Wales when I was a child. Driving through them in the mist and rain (yes it does rain a lot in Wales), they looked desperately bleak and ugly.

Penrhyn Slate Quarry, about 1900, one of the two largest slate quarries in Wales. Photo: Wikipedia, creative commons license

Slatehead illustrates both the awful magnificence of this landscape but also its natural beauty.

On a climb one day Goulding takes a backward glance at his route. Behind him is

the black chasm of Hades, a great split in the rock into which the screen pours down. The waterfall trickles away into the fissures and hollows of the mountain, never filling it up. I shudder, and not from the cold of the damp shadows.

On other days it’s the way the light catches the slate that attracts his attention, making flashes of purple and pinkish grey visible among the heather and moss.

It’s one of the reasons why, after his first visit in 2014, he fell in love with slate climbing. With each visit he challenged himself to tackle ever more technically difficult ascents and routes.

The technical aspects of the book passed me by. I know what a carabiner clip looks like but I’ve no idea what a belay involves (it’s a safety mechanism apparently) or the difference between clove hitch, lark’s foot and Italian hitches.

But that mattered not a jot because what kept me engrossed was the spirit of determination and adventure that unites Peter with the pioneers of quarry climbing. Working class climbers like the legendary Joe Brown, were followed by drop outs, punks, the unemployed and petty criminals.

Together they created some of the toughest, scariest climbs in the region, with ever more creative names. Cemetery Gates and Cenotaph Corner give you an inkling of the danger they present but where did Disillusioned Screw Machine, Jumping On A Beetle and Orangutang Overhang come from? I don’t imagine any of them are as much fun as their names suggest.

I’m certainly not in a hurry to get close and personal with any of them. Slatehead was an absorbing account of a deep and abiding love for rock and the joys and thrills of ascending its heights.

Slatehead by Peter Goulding: Endnotes

Peter Goulding, author of Slatehead. Photo credit: credit Benny Hiscocke

Peter Goulding is a climber from the north of England who spent most of his working life in pubs, kitchens and on building sites. He currently works at a Center Parcs village as an instructor. He completed the creative writing programme at the University of East Anglia.

Slatehead, his first book, won the 2019 New Welsh Writing Award for Writing with a Welsh Theme or Setting. It was published by New Welsh Rarebyte, an imprint of the New Welsh Review in June 2020.

I’m counting this towards my #20booksofsummer reading project.

Reality Versus Idyll of Owning A Bookshop

The Diary Of A Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

The Diary of A Bookseller is essential reading for anyone who indulges in the fantasy of one day owning a bookshop. Just a few entries from Shaun Bythell’s journal should be enough to convince them that bookselling is an enterprise suited only to people with skins thicker than a rhinoceros and pockets deeper than Loch Ness.

Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell

Shaun Bythell owns The Bookshop in Wigtown on the remote coast of Galloway, Scotland. He bought the shop when he was 31 years old and struggling to find a job he enjoyed. He was naive, imagining that the world of selling second-hand books was an idyllic existence.

… sitting in an armchair by a roaring fire with your slipper-clad feet up, smoking a pipe and reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall while a stream of charming customers engages you in intelligent conversation, before parting with fistfuls of cash.

The reality is of course nothing like a bookish paradise.

The fistfuls of cash never seem to materialise for one thing. Each day’s entry in the Diary of a Bookseller ends with a total of the number of customers in the shop and the amount they spent. It’s sobering reading.

Diary of A Bookseller

The entry for February 6, 2014 for example shows six customers and till takings of £95.50. That figure doesn’t take into account online sales but since those average only £45 a day you can see that this bookshop owner isn’t rolling in money.

Some days are better, but many are worse. On January 5 the following year Shaun Bythell unlocked the shop at 9am but by 2pm the door had been opened only three times : by the postwoman, his father and the howling wind.

By 3pm I was giving up hope of having even one sale..

Initiatives such as opening his doors to a ladies art class, welcoming eminent writers and renting out a bed in the shop during the Wigtown Book Festival, help. But even on days when the footfall is more healthy, there’s no certainty it will result in more cash in the bank. The bane of Shaun’s life is the customer who spends hours sitting near his fire, taking loads of books off the shelves, but leaving empty handed.

Shaun’s fond imaginings of a profitable prove equally as misplaced as his idea his customers will be charming people with whom he can enjoy robust discussions about literature. Actually, his customers are often boring, particularly when they insist on regaling him with their family history research or want to offload copies of their self-published novel.

Unflattering Picture of Bookshop Customers

Few customers are depicted in a flattering light. Some are stubborn, refusing to accept they got an author’s name wrong. Others are misguided, thinking all first editions are valuable. Some have questionable personal habits or tend to wear strange ensemble of clothes.

The Diary Of A Bookseller is a grumpily amusing account of one year in the shop. The titles of books ordered on line provided me with a constant source of amusement. I can just about understand why someone would want Cuckoo Problems but are there really people keen to own Collectible Spoons of the 3rd Reich or The Colliery Fireman’s Pocket Book (1935 edition)?.

Adding to the humour factor is Shaun Bythell’s assistant Nicky. Invariably late to report for work, she often arrives bearing the fruits of a rummage in the waste food skips outside supermarkets. One entry reads:

Nicky arrived in her black ski suit as usual, with a pasty from the Morrisons skip. It bore more resemblance to a giant scab than to an edible treat. ‘Eh, it’s delicious. Go on, have a bit.’ It was revolting.

This episode came only a few days after she’d offered him a reduced price (out of date) cinnamon roll minus its coating. “I licked the icing off it on my way into work this morning,'” she blithely explained.

Humour Masks Harsh Reality

But beneath the humour, frustrations abound. The chief of which is the near impossibility of a bricks and mortar second hand bookshop competing against the on-line behemoths. The latter’s vast warehouses and heavily discounted postal contract are only part of the problem .

The issue is that customers have become accustomed to discounts and they expect them from shop owners like Shaun Bythell. A refusal usually results in a comment along the lines of ‘DISGUSTING’ as they bustle out of the shop announcing they will buy the book on line. These ‘bargain hunters’ are the target of his most acerbic comments.

Strip away the quotidian dimension and the real heart of the book becomes clear. The Diary of a Bookseller is a heartfelt appeal to book buyers everywhere to wake up to the reality of the impact of the mega-size online providers. Bythell doesn’t set out to have a go at suppliers like Amazon, or to lay all the blame for the woes of the publishing industry, on that company, but does make it clear that the benefits enjoyed by consumers have been to the detriment of authors, publishers and businesses like his.

… authors have seen their incomes plummet over the past ten years, publishers too which means that they can no longer take risks with unknown authors and now there is no middleman. … The sad truth is that unless authors and publishers unite and stand firm against Amazon, the industry will face devastation.

This is a wonderfully entertaining book for anyone who takes an interest in how books are bought and sold. But it also provides food for thought. Shops like The Bookshop, Wigtown, can survive only if every one of us who buys books, support them with our feet and our wallets.

The Diary Of A Bookseller by Shaun Bythell: Fast Facts

The Diary of A Bookseller was published by Profile Books in 2018. It was so successful that Shaun Bythell published a follow up – Confessions Of A Bookseller – in August 2019.

You can support The Bookshop in Wigtown by becoming a customer. If you can’t visit in person, you can give them a helping hand by taking out a subscription to their Random Book Club or buying via their online store at Abebooks.

If you want to get to know Shaun Bythell, take a look at his You Tube channel

Dazzled By Ground-Breaking Memoir of A First Lady: Becoming by Michelle Obama

Of the million or so photographs featuring Michelle Obama, two will be forever etched in my memory.

One shows the First Lady of the United States jumping about and getting sweaty with a bunch of kids on the front lawn of the White House.

The other image dates from her first visit to the United Kingdom. During an official reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth II, Michelle Obama put her arm around the monarch.

To say the resulting photographs astonished royal watchers is putting it mildly because touching the Queen is strictly forbidden. It’s not treason as such (an offence that could see you carted off to the Tower of London) but it’s definitely one of the most heinous transgressions of royal protocol.

What was astonishing about both these images was that they turned on their head everything we’d ever seen from previous holders of the role of First Lady.

There’s no position description for the First Lady. But we got used to the idea over the decades that they’re in a supportive role to the star turn of The President. Always gracious, always immaculately dressed; a walking advert for American fashion designers. They can engage in charitable endeavours but rarely speak out about issues.

Michelle Obama broke that mould. Never before had we seen a First Lady dress so casually in sneakers, leggings and t shirts; Never before had we seen her get down and dirty while digging and planting a vegetable patch. And never before had we seen someone so touchy-feely.

Becoming  by Michelle Obama

Her memoir Becoming was similarly ground breaking. It’s the first completely honest account from a First Lady of the experiences that shaped her personality and influenced her attitudes.

It’s a work of stellar storytelling taking us from her modest background in Chicago, through academic success to an unfulfilling career in corporate law. The life she envisaged was “a predictable, control-freak existence – the one with the steady salary, a house to life in forever, a routine to my days.”

But then came the event that changed her life entirely – she was asked to take a young, mega talented law student under her wing during a summer placement. Barak Obama put her life on a completely new trajectory, catapulting her into the uncomfortable world of politics and to the highest office in her country.

Confronting Challenges

It’s a career progression that in some eyes would be considered a fairytale. What I loved most about Becoming is that she is so candid about her struggles and disappointments.

Most of the issues she describes are those that ordinary people can relate to easily. The struggle to balance work with family commitments; the heartbreak of miscarriages and the challenge of maintaining a relationship with a partner who is away from home for much of the week.

Taking up residence in the White House presents a whole new set of difficulties. She can’t open a window because it’s a security risk. She can’t go out with her husband without entire streets being closed down. She can’t even go to a shop to buy him an anniversary card. Being in the public eye means every thing she says or wears is subjected to public scrutiny; even a change of hairstyle has to be agreed in advance by the Presidents’s staff.

Chief of her concerns however is the well-being of her daughters. The constant question for Michelle Obama is how to make sure the girls enjoy a normal childhood experience when they have to be accompanied everywhere by protection offers. Not much fun when you want to go out on your first date.

Dealing With Criticism

And of course, there is the constant threat to her projects from detractors who see her as a threat.

I was female, black, and strong, which to certain people, maintaining a certain mind-set, translated only to ‘angry.’ It was another damaging cliché, one that’s been forever used to sweep minority women to the perimeter of every room, an unconscious signal not to listen to what we’ve got to say.

What comes through strongly is that Michelle Obama is a woman with an exceptionally strong streak of determination. She learned at an early age to never give up and that the best way to deal with people who wanted to thwart her ambition, was to ignore them. It’s an attitude she saw exhibited by many of the highly talented people she met later in life.

All of them have had doubters. Some continue to have roaring, stadium sized collections of critics and naysayers who will shout I told you so at every little misstep or mistake. The noise, doesn’t go away, but the most successful people I know have figured out how to live with it, to lean on the people who believe in them, and to push onward with their goals.

Self -belief is one of the lessons she wants to pass on through the book, as she did with the groups of young women she met throughout her time as First Lady.

Becoming A Role Model

Becoming has been one of my best reading experiences of 2019. It’s an account of extraordinary life told with intelligence, humour, warmth and oodles of self-awareness. 

This is a woman who had a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring about changes. While her husband focused on changing attitudes to healthcare and gun control, she focused on child obesity and job and education opportunities for ex servicemen.

In doing so she became a role model for young women around the world. But Michelle Obama is emphatic at the end of the book that she has no intention of going into politics herself.

I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten
years has done little to change that.

That doesn’t mean she is going to disappear – the initiatives that she lead while First Lady are so close to her heart that she is continuing to work on them. But what lies ahead is an interesting question. The title of her book refers to the idea that each of us is perpetually changing, evolving, not stopping at some set point — with the implication that we can always become better.  It’s a clue that we can expect to see more of her in the future. A clear case of Watch This Space.

Be the Expert: An Introduction to 21st Century Feminism

I have spent my entire academic life focusing on gender history: any essay that I could manipulate to have a sex and gender angle, I most definitely would. It’s the area of study in which I’m most well read on, the idea of feminism (and particularly the world of academic feminism), can be intimidating to many people.

I’m not going to try and define modern feminism here (that would require a thesis word count), but the books I’ve detailed below provide an initial way entry point in exploring different aspects of feminism in the twenty-first century

Now, I admit that all of these books are targeted at a younger audience – particularly towards millennials and Gen-Z in the case of Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and Everything I Know About Love. And I know that I am a millennial myself, but I do feel that there is a universality and inclusivity to each work, that hopefully makes them accessible to a wide audience.

Each is flawed in its own way – these are not academic texts, and I’m not claiming that any of these are a bible which provides all of the answers, or is even representative of all types of feminism or all women.

But they’re a good jumping off point.

How to Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran

Caitlin Moran

Ah, old reliable. Caitlin Moran’s memoir seeks to make feminism more approachable for every woman by telling stories from her own life, and this is the book which first ignited the strident feminist in me.

Mr O’Neill, my Government and Politics A Level teacher, declared to his class of nine seventeen-year-old girls that before we could start studying feminism as a political ideology, we all had to read How to Be a Woman.

By the time we reconvened a few days later, all of our outlooks had changed, and none of us have looked back since that point over six years ago. (I do see the irony in being introduced to the topic by a male teacher!)

The entire book has Moran’s signature style, using humour to tackle serious topics, to make issues such as abortion less intimidating. It’s a riot from start to finish, and is still as relevant as it was when published in 2011.

Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (and Other Lies), curated by Scarlett Curtis

Feminists Dont wear Pink

Considering I have just written an MA dissertation with this book as a case study, there are many things I could say (and have said) on the topic of Scarlett Curtis’ curated collection of essays.

Published in 2018 to an enormous amount of fanfare, the collection Feminists Don’t Wear Pink sees contributions from fifty-two different authors, from many walks of life. Some authors give their verdict on 21st century feminism, others muse on the female body, or offer insight into their own journey to feminism.

So we have Keira Knightley discussing the interpretation of women as the weaker sex. Activist Amika George considers the power of the menstrual cycle while academic Claire Horn provides a ‘short history of feminist theory’.

I do have quite a few issues with this publication which could warrant a blog post of their own (or a dissertation!). Overall however, the contents are inclusive and wide-ranging, and thus provide a more varied introduction to feminism than you would normally get in a singular book.

Everything I Know About Love, Dolly Alderton

Potentially a slightly odd choice, as it is not a book explicitly about feminism. Dolly Alderton’s intimate memoir recounts the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of growing up and navigating a multitude of different types of love along the way.

In its entirety, Everything I Know About Love is truly a testament to female friendship, and the power that comes with realising that you alone are enough. Personal stories, satirical observations and even recipes all weave together to strike a note of recognition with women of all ages – whilst genuinely making you laugh.

To be honest, I also had a series of little cries along the way.

This is just a shortlist of books on this vast topic. If anyone wants some further reading suggestions, particularly on the academic side, I would only be too happy to oblige! I have many bibliographies to call on…

Please comment below if you have any additional suggestions for a jumping off point – it’s a topic I will truly never be tired of, and I would encourage some healthy debate!

Non fiction november

This is the second of two posts for week 4 of Non Fiction November 2019. You can find the first post which is a request for recommendations of top notch memoirs here

2019 In Non Fiction

The time for vacillation is over. My dilemma whether to join Nonfiction November, was resolved by all the reassurances from bloggers that there’s no expectation to read any more non fiction than normal. So I’m diving in with the first week’s discussion topic.

Julz Reads has given 4 questions all on the theme of Your Year In Non Fiction

What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

I’m cheating here by choosing two books. They’re both memoirs which deal with sobering social issues (homelessness and health provision) but do so with a huge dollop of humour.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn . This is a spectacular book which traces the way Raynor and her husband Moth dealt with the loss of their home and business. Just days after Moth received a devastating medical diagnosis the couple embarked on a 630 mile walk along the South West Coast Path. They experienced the kindness of strangers but also hostility.

This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay . Who would have thought gynaecology could be so funny? Kay reveals some of the bizarre medical emergencies that confronted him as a junior doctor (read this book and you’ll be astonished the things people manage to insert into their bodies). But this book has a serious message – the unbelievable strains imposed on these doctors through lack of funding and indifference.

Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?

I’ve read 6 non fiction books this year and will shortly finish another; Becoming by Michelle Obama. They had nothing in common except that all but one of these books was a memoir.

What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

The Salt Path .

What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

There are loads of novels that feature historical figures or episodes I know little about so I’m hoping to get some ideas for non fiction books to help fill in those gaps. Next week’s topic is in fact ‘book pairings’ where the idea is to match a fiction and non fiction book on the same topic. I suspect my wishlist will grow as a result.

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