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“Without You, There Is No Us”: a review

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Suki Kim’s book Without You, There Is No Us: My Secret Life Teaching the Sons of North Korea’s Elite was written in 2014. It was gifted to me by a beautiful friend of mine in 2017 because she knows I am a huge fan of nonfiction (specifically memoirs) and North/South Korean literature.

I really enjoyed this book. It was a powerful and eyeopening read. After I finished it, I decided to check out the comment section on the book’s Goodreads page and found very mixed reviews. A lot of people could not seem to see past the book’s genre definition, or lack thereof. The text was labelled a memoir, some people including Kim herself have called it investigative journalism, and some people are not happy with either of these definitions. However, does the genre definition of Kim’s novel really affect how good the book is? I guess put like this, if someone gives you a book and tells you it is a fantasy novel and it is actually a user manual for a mechanical shoe shiner, then you might be a bit disappointed. Whilst the latter is a rather extreme example of expectations vs. reality, I could see how this could affect how some people have interpreted and therefore understood Kim’s book. What I would suggest to people wanting to read Kim’s text is to throw genre definitions out the window. The fact that Kim’s novel is part memoir, part secret-agent, part travel story, part political commentary, part family history, and part social criticism is what makes it such an interesting and nuanced way of viewing not only North Korea’s relationship with South Korea and subsequently its people, but also North Korea’s relationship with the world.

If you have ever wondered about the complex disparities of North Korea’s politics and its people then this is a heartfelt explanation of the intricate and often volatile sociopolitical environment of North Korea. The repercussions of the separation of Korea into two countries still echoes in the hearts of all Koreans today. Many, like Kim herself, have broken families and stories of people being kidnapped (often being taken into North Korea), and/or disappearing in the night and never being seen again. Kim takes the time to reflect on her own cultural understanding of ‘Korea’ and makes thoughtful commentary on how this differs in the North and South. The bittersweet part of it all being that at the very centre of it all, there are many cultural similarities that still endure between the two nations despite the separation and war.

In recent times, North Korea has been in the international media (Twitter and Trump is all I am saying…) and if you want to try to understand the complex nature of this ongoing conflict then Kim’s novel is a good place to start. This is no history book, so you are not going to get dates and the names of prominent battles and generals, but you will get one heart showing you its scars.

Have you read Suki Kim’s memoir? What did you think? Are you an avid reader of Korean literature? As always, share the reading love.

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