Jia by Hyejin Kim

Title: Jia
Author: Hyejin Kim
Genre: Fiction
Paperback: 300 pages
Publisher: Cleis Press (June 14, 2007)
Source: Library
Set in: North Korea
Rating: 4 out of 5

My Thoughts:
Jia is a novel based in North Korea written by a South Korean. Interesting right? It’s also supposedly the first novel about present-day North Korea to be published in English. The author was inspired to write this novel when she met a women, she calls Jia, while traveling on a bus in China.

In the book, Jia spent the first 5 years of a life in a North Korean Mountain Gulag where her elder sister and her grandparents have been sent as a punishment for something their son did. Her grandparents manage to smuggle her out of the gulag so that she could have a better life. Jia is sent to an orphanage in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, where she lives for the next 15 years of her life.

The rest of the book is how she struggles to survive in her own country by hiding her identity. As she says in the book

I didn’t understand why my life couldn’t be my own, why there was always a chain, emerging from deep in the past, stretching into the present, that bound me to my fate.

I’m sure there are(were?) thousands of North Koreans who think that way, whose present and future revolves around their past. It’s sad to see to see how much a government can control the lives of their citizens.

The author brings out the desperation and loneliness of Jia very well. When Jia has to leave North Korea to survive, we also get to know how Jia and the people she meets along the way have to run from North Korea to seek a better future in-spite of all the risks. It’s a heartbreaking book for sure, but it’s also a glimpse into thousands of North Korean lives.

I loved how this book could take me to a place I’ve never been before. She describes the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students that was held in the country. She describes how the government puts up a front for the international audience. She also shows the state that the country and it’s people went into during the The North Korean famine. I found many parallels in this book and Long Road Home by Kim Yong, a memoir of an escaped prisoner from North Korea.

On the flip side, the writing was very amateurish. I could tell this was the authors first book. It was also not properly structured and the narrative kept jumping from one person to another. I think the author wanted to include everything that she learned about the North Korean lives while she was working with the refugees in China. It reads more like a page turning memoir than a novel.

Nonetheless, this is one book I would definitely recommend because this book and the events are still fresh in my mind and I keep thinking about all the characters in it. If you know nothing about North Korea, this book might fill that gap in some way. If not for the writing, this book could have been excellent, but I guess ‘very good’ is not bad either.

This counts for the East and SouthEast Asia Challenge.

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