By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
“In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom”
By Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers
Penguin Books, 2015
When she was 13, Yeonmi Park and her mother were smuggled across the Yalu River from their North Korean border village to China. Not only were the two escaping their harsh and brutal life in their country’s repressive society, they were also leaving to search for Park’s older sister, who had escaped days earlier and hadn’t been heard from since.
But instead of being welcomed by the Chinese, Park and her mother are separated and sold into sexual slavery, as “wives” to Chinese men who bought them.
“In Order to Live” tells the true story about the harrowing and unimaginable things Park — now in her 20s — and her mother had to do to find each other and survive.
In this memoir, readers will catch a glimpse of what life can be like in North Korea — from neighbors informing on neighbors, to Park and her sister being left alone for a month in the middle of winter while their mother went to the capital for information on her father’s interrogation by the regime, to the constant power outages that would leave some people without electricity for months at a time.
In addition to the harsh conditions citizens have to endure, Park’s story shines a rare light on a country that has been nicknamed the “Hermit Kingdom,” for its isolation from the rest of the world. She shares how the country’s brainwashing of its citizens left her family ignorant about the rest of the world. This ignorance nearly cost them their lives and left them wholly unprepared for the freedom they sought.
Park also does a good job putting her family’s struggles into context with what was happening in North Korea and how that bigger picture affected everyday people.
While Park’s story is not always easy to read, she balances the darker moments with some of the good memories she has with her family and friends, showing their resilience, optimism, and humanity’s ability to remain hopeful even in the darkest of times.
“How I Became a North Korean”
By Krys Lee
Yongju is a North Korean university student from a prominent family. Jangmi has had to learn to survive on her own since childhood by smuggling goods across the Chinese-North Korean border. Danny is a Chinese-born Korean boy who has been deemed an outcast in his California high school.
When each of these young people are forced to flee their homes for different reasons, they find themselves in a small Chinese town just across the river from North Korea. A series of events brings the three of them together and they (along with a few others) become a sort of adoptive family, as they have to work (sometimes reluctantly) together to survive. From government informants and thieves, to angry husbands and shady missionaries, the trio are presented with danger and obstacles at almost every turn.
“How I Became” switches perspectives between Yongju, Jangmi, and Danny, showing what is going through each of their heads and what they each have to endure.
While this is a young adult novel, Lee does not sugarcoat the struggles the trio face. She may not always go into great detail, but she doesn’t leave things out, such as Jangmi being forced to “work” in online video chat rooms and talk to men who have paid to see her naked.
The hardships the three protagonists face are not something most young people in the Western world will have experienced. Lee does a great job in showing readers the realities that some people in other parts of the world must live with.
Lee also shows the strength young people have. Despite all of the challenges and obstacles Yongju, Jangmi, and Danny are faced with, they continue to persevere and do what it takes to survive and find their way to safety and freedom.
“Ink and Ashes”
By Valynne E. Maetani
Lee & Low Books, 2015
Seventeen-year-old Claire Takata does not remember much and does not know much about her father, who died 10 years ago. But on the anniversary of his death, while looking through an old journal of his, she finds a letter from her father addressed to her stepfather. Until then, Claire and her brothers never realized that the two even knew each other and this knowledge only raises more questions.
And as they seek more information, they learn that their father was a member of the yakuza, a Japanese mafia. This discovery brings danger to Claire, her family, and her friends. She has to figure out what all of it means, where she fits in this puzzle, and find a way to keep herself and the ones she loves safe.
For mystery lovers, “Ink and Ashes” is a fun story with a strong heroine. As the middle child of three and only girl among her siblings and close-knit group of friends, Claire knows how to stand up for herself and be heard. But Maetani strikes just the right balance so Claire doesn’t come off as pushy or bossy. Claire also realizes she can’t do it all alone, consulting with her brothers and their friends and working to come to a consensus before any big decisions are made — a nice change from stories that often have the hero or heroine setting themselves apart from others and going it alone.
In addition, Claire also has to deal with the everyday challenges of being a teenager in high school — from school work and soccer practice, to the changing dynamic among her inner circle, as some are preparing to graduate and leave for college.
Maetani also does a good job of portraying a second- and third-generation family of immigrants who may participate in traditional activities and practices, but may not always understand the significance. This could be a common feeling among those who live with two cultures.
Samantha can be reached at email@example.com.