A lump of anger burst in my chest. My parents had broken the rules, but what did they do that was so bad? - Jia by Hyejin Kim
I was a little sick this weekend, which was bad news in a lot of ways (I missed a Darjeeling tea tasting I was really looking forward to and, well, I was sick which is never a good thing), but on the plus side, I got a lot of reading done. In addition to finishing Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, I also read Jia: A Novel of North Korea.
This is another book I picked up because of the East and Southeast Asia Challenge and since this is my third country, it actually means I've met the bare bones criteria for the challenge. I plan to continue with it, though. I actually have my eye on Please Look After Mom for South Korea.
Jia is the story of the daughter of a girl who born outside a North Korean mountain prison where her grandparents and sister were sent after her father was imprisoned for his criticism of the government. Her paternal grandparents smuggle her out in an attempt to reunite her with her maternal grandparents. Jia's mother was a famous traditional dancer and her paternal grandfather was a high-ranking army official. Jia grows up in an orphanage in Pyonyang and becomes a successful dancer herself, taking part in the 1989 World Festival of Youth and Students. Unfortunately, despite her talent, her family's status as a member of the reactionary class not only limits her ability to advance, but also her freedom.
I can't help but compare and contrast Jia to The Vagrants. Both take explore similar societies and show the problems faced by the average person in the societies. The Vagrants was a much grittier read and the brutality and hopelessness were always at the forefront. In contrast, Jia was set, for the most part, in a more affluent part of society. Though the influence of the government was always very clear and though the brutality and poverty are just as horrifying (if not more), it seems to exist between a thin veneer of prosperity and normalcy.
Perhaps the most horrifying part of the novel (worse than the torture of prisoners, the disease and poverty face by the beggar children called the kkot-jebi or "flower swallows," and the trafficking of women) is the fact that many North Koreans flee to China. That's right. The lives of North Koreans are so horrible that they consider life as an illegal immigrant in China to be a step up.
As with The Vagrants, Jia is well-written and absolutely worth reading, but also utterly wrenching. For my sanity, I plan to avoid novels about communist governments with long histories of human rights violations for the near future, regardless of how worthwhile they are.