Jia: A Novel of North Korea by Hyejin Kim
This novel is based on the life of a young woman whom the author met during a one-year stay in China while doing humanitarian work near the North Korean border. Having just read two harrowing memoirs about coming of age in North Korea, it seemed awkward to be reading a novel about similar circumstances, but I think it was because the fictionalized voice of the narrator felt startling in comparison to the other two books, both autobiographies by men. Jia is the daughter of a dancer of high-class NK pedigree (by NK standards) and a father who was considered a political reactionary and was eventually imprisoned. Because three generations of all family members are punished for the “crimes” of an individual, Jia’s mother, who refused to divorce her father as the state advised, was removed along with her husband’s parents to live in a restricted village, one that existed to serve the guards of the political prisoner’s concentration camp nearby.
Jia grows up in a kind of isolated captivity. She catches the eye of a guardsman who once had a daughter her age, and with the grandparents’ agreement, at the age of 7 she leaves with this fellow to find her maternal grandparents in Pyongyang in order to have a better life (though she knew little of this plan). She ends up in an orphanage, is eventually rejected by the grandparents, and because she had inherited her mother’s talent for dance, becomes a dancer in the regime. Her lack of solid identity, however, continues to dog her, and her exposure to disappearances, cruelty in the name of the party, and impending betrayal by a right-wing boyfriend lead her to cross the border to China. There she finds equal amounts of hardship and abuse and is rescued, still “untouched”, from a brothel by a decent Korean-Chinese man who helps her become acclimated and starts her on a new life. There the novel ends abruptly.
The narrative is sometimes awkward in its attempt to give voice to another couple who suffered dearly, both in NK and in China, but this book adds to the growing narratives coming out of the brutal oppression, and offers a female voice in the mix.