In 2011, a journalist named Suki Kim posed as a missionary posing as a teacher. Using this layered disguise, she got a position at a school in Pyongyang, North Korea. The school, PUST, catered to the sons of North Korea’s elite. This book details Kim’s experiences of the school, the boys, and the limited view of North Korea that she was permitted to see.
I first heard of this book sometime this summer. I read an interview with the author, who talked about her surprise that the book was being marketed as a memoir rather than a journalistic piece. Because I’m not fond of memoirs, I wouldn’t have looked at this book without that interview, and so I’m really glad I came across the article! The book, while containing a few bits of memoirish pieces, was far more sociological in nature, and a very in-depth look at a microsection of a hidden culture.
Let me state up front: I know just about nothing when it comes to North Korea, and almost as little about east Asian history and culture. It’s an area of knowledge where I’m woefully ignorant. Probably partly because of that ignorance, this immersion into North Korea was equally fascinating and horrifying. I was reminded in many ways of my first readings on the Middle East and central Asia, books like Reading Lolita in Tehran, Kabul Beauty School, and In the Land of Invisible Women. Those books not only taught me a lot, they exposed me to new worlds, and piqued my interest in cultures, religions, history, and lifestyles far from what I’d known. In reading Without You, There Is No Us, I feel the same emerging interest in a new section cultures, religions, history, and lifestyles, previously left unexplored in my reading and study.
I’m not going to say much about the specific content of the book. Kim’s experiences are already once-removed – from lived to words – and to add a second layer of remove would only decrease the words’ power. The book is a remarkable study, an attempt to understand and show this hidden world fairly and completely. (Having read some “journalistic” books where the author exploits a culture to push preconceived biases, I’m very appreciative of nonfiction that reports with as little bias as possible.) Kim doesn’t hide the horrors of North Korea, but she doesn’t paint the people of North Korea as two-dimensional monsters, either. The book is fair, balanced, and insightful, and I highly recommend it.
Performance: Janet Song reads the audiobook, and she did a wonderful job. I was especially impressed (and relieved) by the way she handled the students’ broken English, without caricaturing it in any way. The narrative (both written and spoken) flowed nicely, making the book an engaging and quick listen.