I don’t often read non-fiction. I suspect it’s because I have always used books as a means of escape, in the same way some people watch soap operas. I like losing myself in a good story with memorable characters. Of course, what I am forgetting is that non-fiction can be just as good, even better, than anything an author can dream up.
And so it is with Nothing to Envy, a non-fiction account of people who lived in North Korea and later defected. The story had me gripped from the beginning.
I am ashamed to say that my knowledge of North Korea is extremely limited. I know the country is plunged into darkness every evening because of a lack of electricity; I know it’s the last true Communist regime on the planet; I know it had a crazy dictator as head of state, who largely kept his citizens in a state of precarious poverty. When Kim Jong-il died recently, I was aware that he passed control of the country to his young son, of whom the world knows almost nothing.
The book is an eye-opener. It’s part love story, part history lesson and part tragedy. It’s also, ultimately, a story about the courage and resilience of ordinary human beings living in extraordinary circumstances.
In the 1990s famine took hold of North Korea, a country of 23 million. The collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea’s old ally, caused the creaky economy to totally disintegrate, plunging the country into ruin. Journalist Barbara Demick, who wrote Nothing to Envy after extensively interviewing North Koreans for the Los Angeles Times, estimates that between 600,000 to 2 million North Koreans died as a result of starvation by 1998. The numbers are hard to verify because the North Korean government did not allow starvation to be stated as a cause of death.
Against this grim, desperate backdrop, Demick weaves the story of several people who lived through the worst of the famine and who eventually defected to China and South Korea despite threat of severe punishment. It’s incredible to read in detail how they survived in an oppressive and cruel regime.
It’s also astounding to learn how much these people were duped by their government and led to believe that they were living in the greatest country on earth. Because of the intense propaganda, many could not even dream of how different life could be just across the border in China. All of them were fed lies about how people lived in other parts of the world.
In one passage I am struck by how a young doctor, defecting to China, comes across a bowl of stale white rice and scraps of meat left on the ground of a farm. In her constant state of starvation, she cannot comprehend why the food is left unattended; she hasn’t seen white rice in years. It dawns on her that it’s for a dog. It’s then the harsh truth hits her – dogs in China eat better than doctors in North Korea.
I am most drawn to the story of Mi-ran, a young teenager in the late 1980s, who would probably be about my age today. She falls in love with a boy outside her social class. Their love, were it to be discovered, would be forbidden and could have serious consequences. In the nine years they dated they did nothing more than hold hands. As close as they were – they would talk for hours when they could see each other, about twice a year – it’s a sad truth that not even they dared to confess their serious doubts to each other about the world they were living in.
How different life is for me. I was waiting for the bus the other day and the Chatterbox announces suddenly: ‘Mommy, I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I thought I wanted to be a tube or a bus driver, but I might want to work in a zoo or be a vet or maybe I could be a doctor or a teacher.’ Mi-ran becomes a teacher in her twenties and watches as her students starve to death before her eyes.
I thought, how lucky it is that we live here, whether ‘here’ is the United States or the UK. As much as I get frustrated by modern life and running myself ragged every day, I am incredibly lucky and so is my child. She can dream about what she wants to be, even if she never realizes her ambitions. It takes an outstanding book like Nothing to Envy to make me realize how many children can’t even contemplate what we take for granted.
Does anyone have any more suggestions for non-fiction books worth reading?
I can recommend two more:
- Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption (Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton and Erin Torneo)
- If This Is A Man (Primo Levi)