Cleis Press & Viva Editions Recommends This Timely Read and Listen of Life in North Korea—Jia, a Novel by Hyejin Kim

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Jia: A Novel of North Korea tells the story of what's really going on from the insight of a Korean woman.

Newly released in audiobook, Jia: A Novel of North Korea is the first novel about present-day North Korea to be published in the West. A moving and true-to-life tale of courage in the face of oppression and exile, it follows the adventures of an orphaned young woman, Jia, who has the grace of a dancer but the misfortune of coming from a politically suspect family. In the isolated mining village of her childhood, Jia faces the same restrictions in life that plagued her grandfather, considered ideologically tainted by his years in a South Korean prison, and her father, who suffered for his family’s lowered status. A science teacher, Jia’s father casually questioned government intrusion into his classroom, and was taken away by police, never to be heard from again. Her mother died in childbirth. Now Jia, leaving the village where her family had been sent as punishment for her father’s supposed treason, must carve a path for herself. Her journey takes her first to Pyongyang, and finally to Shenyang in northeast China, dodging the informers and police eager to return these illegal refugees to North Korea and imprisonment. Along the way, she falls in love with a soldier, befriends beggars, is kidnapped, beaten, and sold, negotiates Chinese culture, and learns to balance cruel necessity with the possibilities of kindness and love. Above all, Jia must remain wary, always ready to adapt to the “capricious political winds” of modern North Korea and China.

As a child in South Korea, Hyejin Kim was taught to fear and revile North Korea. "I had never thought of North Korea as a real country, and North Koreans as real human beings," she writes. Every year, on the anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War, she was required to hand in an essay and painting vilifying North Korea. At fourteen, she learned that her own father, a history teacher who dared to read socialist books, had been falsely imprisoned for five years as a North Korean sympathizer. She had good reasons for regarding North Korea as "both a constant threat and a beguiling Pandora's box"—until a chance encounter on a bus in northeast China led to a friendship with "Jia," the inspiration for Hyejin Kim's affecting debut.

Michelle Orange of The Rumpus conducted an interview with Hyejin Kim about her book. What she had to say about North Korea is very relevant in light of recent conflicts.

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Brenda Knight
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