FTC Disclosure: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.
“Without You, There Is No Us” by Suki Kim (2014)
Genre: Memoir, History, Non-Fiction
Page Length: 304 pages (hardcover edition)
Every day, three times a day, the students march in two straight lines, singing praises to Kim Jong-il and North Korea: Without you, there is no motherland. Without you, there is no us. It is a chilling scene, but gradually Suki Kim, too, learns the tune and, without noticing, begins to hum it. It is 2011, and all universities in North Korea have been shut down for an entire year, the students sent to construction fields—except for the 270 students at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a walled compound where portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il look on impassively from the walls of every room, and where Suki has accepted a job teaching English. Over the next six months, she will eat three meals a day with her young charges and struggle to teach them to write, all under the watchful eye of the regime.
Life at PUST is lonely and claustrophobic, especially for Suki, whose letters are read by censors and who must hide her notes and photographs not only from her minders but from her colleagues—evangelical Christian missionaries who don’t know or choose to ignore that Suki doesn’t share their faith. As the weeks pass, she is mystified by how easily her students lie, unnerved by their obedience to the regime. At the same time, they offer Suki tantalizing glimpses of their private selves—their boyish enthusiasm, their eagerness to please, the flashes of curiosity that have not yet been extinguished. She in turn begins to hint at the existence of a world beyond their own—at such exotic activities as surfing the Internet or traveling freely and, more dangerously, at electoral democracy and other ideas forbidden in a country where defectors risk torture and execution. But when Kim Jong-il dies, and the boys she has come to love appear devastated, she wonders whether the gulf between her world and theirs can ever be bridged.
So first off I this book was way different from any genre I’ve ever read before. I’m not a huge reader of non-fiction novels, but I really wanted to read this book ever since I saw it on a recent trip to the book store. I’ve heard a lot of things about North Korea, but I wanted to learn more about the country from the perspective of someone who has been there.
Though the book is a memoir of Suki’s experiences as a teacher, she helps readers out by giving historical background of events and conversations happening throughout the story. This especially helps readers, like me, who have some knowledge of the North Korea’s history, but still need a small guide to understand her story.
While reading this novel, it was upsetting to hear about the conditions that the people were living in, especially those who lived in poverty. Even the “young gentlemen”, as Suki calls her students, try to enjoy themselves, but they don’t seem to be fully happy with their life at PUST.
I also felt bad for the teachers who constantly had to censor themselves not only around students, and other teachers, but also censor and limit contact with their families on top of already being severely homesick. I was annoyed with the Suki initially in the first part of the novel because I felt she was naive and jumped into the teaching position at PUST. It seemed she didn’t fully realize what she was really getting into until the stress of her life in North Korea started to wear her down.
An intriguing book that offers one journalist’s perspective on life in North Korea as a teacher. Recommended for those who enjoy memoirs or are interested in reading about North Korea. 4 out of 5 stars.