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Book Review: The Hard Road Out: One Woman’s Escape From North Korea (January 31, 2023)
one month in on Substack, current reads, and some tiny joyous things.
📚 Every Tiny Thought is where I share book reviews (occasionally before the publication date), tiny joyous things, and finding home in America. If you stumbled upon it, welcome!
It’s been almost a month since I started my Substack, and many amazing things have happened. For those who recently subscribed, welcome and thank you for being here.
In just one month, I have connected with numerous amazing fellow writers and readers on Substack who welcomed me with open arms and sent me words of encouragement. If you are one of them, thank you.
I am also immensely grateful that three publications have recommended my newsletter:by , by , and by . These are all wonderful newsletters in their own unique ways. Check them out when you have time.
This week I am sharing another review on an advanced reader copy that I received and read over the holidays.
The Book Review
The Hard Road Out recounts one woman’s harrowing escape from North Korea, not once, but twice. This riveting memoir details Jihyun Park’s childhood growing up in North Korea, and her later humanly impossible escape from her country over the course of several years. It provides us with a rare glimpse of what daily life was like in North Korea and an account from a survivor who made it to the other side.
Park’s childhood, although very different from the outside world, was overall a happy one: playing games, such as “kill the Americans“, with other kids, living with her loving grandmother in the countryside, and secretly devouring pork with her family from her mother’s pork-raising “side business“ masked by the effort to help feed the military. Her father was a factory worker, and her mother was a community caretaker while hustling under the table to provide more for the family. Despite her family’s seemingly stable roles, her grandfather’s earlier escape to South Korea brought her family bad songbun (social rank). As a result, both Park nor her sister could not go to the top universities in the country, and visits from the government were often.
Shortly after Park became an elementary school teacher in her hometown in the 1990s, the North Korean famine started and left millions dying on the streets, including many of her students. When people died from hunger then, the official death certificates always showed the cause of death as another disease, such as measles or tuberculosis, because “one does not die of hunger in a socialist country.“
The famine also depleted everything that Park’s family had. She finally made up her mind to escape with her sister’s family after her uncle’s death, leaving their father on his deathbed. Park’s arduous escape from North Korea took her several years, experiencing the most traumatizing events along the way, including slavery, rape, sexual assault, and family betrayal before she was finally able to claim asylum in the UK in 2008.
This book is co-written by two authors, Jihyun Park, to whom this book’s story belongs, and Seh-Lynn Chai, a South Korean author now living in London who typed up the story that Park told her. The bulk of the book is told in Park’s voice (although written by Chai), with the occasional voice switching back to Chai. Chai describes their initial encounter at a human rights event that sparked this collaborative book project and her perspectives on Park’s story as someone born and raised in South Korea. Chai’s narration, in my opinion, carries a subtle saviorism undertone. As if by writing Park’s story that was told to her, Chai becomes the person that gives Park a voice.
However, Chai’s voice only consists of a very small part of the book and does not discount this book’s strong narrative and its rare, gripping story. I hope you check it out when it comes out on January 31, 2023.
If you want to learn more about North Korea beyond the news headlines, I recommend
The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia by Andrei Lankov.
An interesting episode from This American Life: Same Bed, Different Dreams (2015).
Thank you NetGalley and HarperCollins for sending this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
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Last Night at the Telegraph Club (2021) by Malinda Lo, a story set in the 1950s San Francisco Chinatown where two girls fall in love.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants (2019) by Bill Bryson. I am listening to the audiobook version, narrated by the author himself. He brings so much passion into telling you all the incredible things that our bodies can do and simplifies complicated biomedical terms into easily understandable ones.
Tiny Joyous Things
A friend was in town from Singapore and brought us two jars of kaya, or coconut jam. They are soft, creamy, not-so-sweet (the highest praise possible from an Asian person for something that’s meant to be sweet), and make the perfect spread for our breakfast bread. The pandan flavor is my favorite.
My mom sent me two books from China, along with other goodies. Although it’s easier to find Chinese books here in the San Francisco area than in other places I have lived in the U.S., it’s not every day that I can just pick one up. So these days, I cherish the times when I can hold and read physical Chinese books, even more so when they are from home.
It’s been rainy and wet here, but small joys like these have made my week go better. What have you been reading these days? And what are some of the small things that have brought you joy?