Author: Steve K. Feldman

The Descending Wing of Justice: How Tobias Wolff Made Me a (Slightly) Better Person

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by Steve K. Feldman

When was the last time a work of literature changed your life? I mean, the day after you finished it—or even the same day—you were inspired to go out and do something, or to stop doing something. And again, I’m talking about literature. Not a self-help “7 Habits of Highly Effective etc.” or a guide to quitting smoking, or a non-fiction book about what goes into a chicken McNugget. Nor a simple children’s fable with a simple moral, like “The Ant and the Grasshopper” or “The Tortoise and the Hare.” I’m not talking about religious tracts, either. While the Quran and the Bible can certainly be read as literature, dogmatic religious instruction usually veers either toward the blindingly common-sensical (Thou Shalt Not Kill) or to the laughably arcane and archaic (If there is a man who lies with a menstruous woman and uncovers her nakedness, he has laid bare her flow, and she has exposed the flow of her blood; thus both of them shall be cut off from among their people. –Leviticus 20:18)

The truth is, while literature can and often does better us, it’s seldom in a direct “go out and do this” kind of way. The process is more complex, deeply-rooted, and mysterious. Literature works on us by stirring and stoking empathy, enriching our inner-lives, and making us more mindful and contemplative. Literature makes us feel more connected to others (again, empathy), allows us to better know and understand our own hearts and minds, and draws us into moral debates (rather than delivering simple moral pronouncements) that help us toward becoming better people.

Are people who read literature better people than those who don’t? No, it’s not so. The world is full of saintly illiterates and well-read monsters. Consider the example of Ieng Thirith, the sister-in-law  of Pol Pot who just died on August 22nd. She was key collaborator in the Cambodian genocide and only avoided trial by UN Tribunal due to dementia. What kind of education led her to willingly participate in the Khmer Rouge’s experiment in mass misery? Why, only a degree from the Sorbonne in Shakespeare studies! Or read the chilling essay “The Book of My Life” by Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon, about his favorite literature professor from the University of Sarajevo, a warm, humane, incredibly well-read man who ended up becoming a high-ranking member of the Serbian Democratic Party and basically the right-hand man of Radovan Karadzic, the savage Serbian nationalist who ended up becoming the most-wanted war-criminal of the 1990s. For some, all the literature in the world can’t drum up a dime’s worth of empathy.

And yet I would argue that literature does provide some kind of map of the minefield of life, some fortification of the soul’s ramparts. It’s a cliché to say that great art “elevates” you, but in a sense, it’s an accurate verb, because reading a great work of literature does make you feel lifted, almost like an out-of-body experience, like you’re being lifted into a better version of yourself.

However, (long-winded introduction finally coming to an end, now) this essay isn’t about that complex, nuanced, intangible kind of betterment. It’s about the first, more direct kind. It’s about a recent reading moment that, in a small but tangible way, stopped me from being an asshole. Or as much of an asshole.

How often does this happen to you:  you’re walking down the street, and a guy with eyes glued to his new Galaxy S6 smartphone barges into you. Maybe you weren’t quite looking where you were going either—maybe you had your eyes on your own smartphone, facebooking, ka-talking, whatever-ing. Maybe you were just deep in thought or had your eyes on a pretty girl across the street, but for whatever reason, you didn’t see the guy, and there’s a mini-collision. Maybe one of you drops your phone and the battery pops out, or, horror-of-horrors, the screen cracks. Tough titty, pal. Watch where you’re going.

Now, has THIS ever happened—you actually see the guy coming at you, you know he’s engrossed in his 3G unlimited-data world, you see he’s heading straight for you, but you do nothing to avert the collision. Fuck it, you think. I’m entitled to my clearly-established direction of movement. I’m the one playing by the rules—looking where I’m  going. So . . . you let the guy plow into you. Or you just plow into him. Intentionally. Maybe sometimes, as you see head-down guy coming at you, you stop dead, becoming a fence-post, a human pylon, making it even more embarrassing for the guy who isn’t looking. Contact is made, and you feed him an icy stare that says, hey friend-o, I was just STANDING here, so it’s CLEARLY and TOTALLY your fault.

Psychologists have technical term for this—it’s called “being a total spiteful dick.”  And I wish to come clean—I have engaged in said dickishness, not extremely often, but not totally infrequently, either.  Nobody really likes getting jostled, shoved and bumped in public, and there’s nothing wrong with holding your own space on a crowded subway and shoving back when necessary.  And yes, if you are trying to walk and play Candy Goddamn Crush at the same time, a pox on you. But Jesus Lord, what sort of righteous idiocy is it for me to not simply get out of the way? Now, mind you, I have never intentionally moved into the path of the on-coming no-lookists.  There is a difference between being a dick and being evil. That’s a line I haven’t crossed. But it’s still plenty bad to give somebody an entirely avoidable thump just to make my smug point. What do I think I’m accomplishing? Is this guy going to actually learn his lesson and watch where he’s going? Maybe, for the next 30 minutes. Hell, maybe permanently. Who the hell cares either way? Why not just accept phone-blind strollers as another minor, itchy bug bite on the wondrous Body Electric of our modern age of miracles?

Enter Tobias Wolff.

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Tobias Wolff is a contemporary American writer. Although he isn’t a household name on the order of Cormac McCarthy or Toni Morrison, he is still a total heavyweight who has enjoyed popular success and critical respect.  He is probably best known for This Boy’s Life, a memoir of his adolescence which was made into a movie starring a young Leonardo Dicaprio and Robert De Niro. The bulk of his work is in the short story genre. He has several collections, all of which are excellent, and there’s a sort of “Greatest Hits” called Our Story Begins which I’ve taught in high school English classes. His stories have regularly appeared in the high-echelon venues for fiction—The New Yorker, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, etc. He’s getting up there in age (70) but he’s still writing and he still teaches at Stanford University.

Wolff’s short stories are almost all contemporary slice-of-life tales which usually present their climaxes in the form of subtle ephiphanies—flashes of understanding in their main characters’ consciousnesses that they have crossed points-of-no-return in their lives, either for good or for ill. In that sense, he gets grouped with short story contemporaries like Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie. But what sets Wolff apart is his pervasive tone of dark, comic irony as well as the much more active authorial insight we have into his characters’ thoughts, either directly in the 1st person or through 3rd person omniscient commentary (see the devastating last line in the masterpiece “Hunters in the Snow.”) Wolff expertly slices apart and lays bare his characters’ foolish pretensions, arrogance, and hubris with scalpel-like precision.

In this passage from In Pharaoh’s Army, an army cadet in basic training observes the sad-sacks who regularly get reamed out by the drill sergeants for falling behind in marches and drills. At first, he hangs back with them and urges them on in soldierly camaraderie. However, he soon realizes his “band of brothers” spirit has its limits:

I learned to spot them, and to stay clear of them, and finally to mark my progress by their humiliations. It was a satisfaction that took some getting used to, because I was soft and it contradicted my values, or what I’d thought my values to be. Every man my brother: that was the idea, if you could call it an idea. It was more a kind of attitude that I’d picked up, without struggle or decision, from the movies I saw, the books I read. I’d paid nothing for it and didn’t know what it cost.

It cost too much. If every man was my brother we’d have to hold our lovefest some other time.

wolff3Now that is great interior exposition, and it’s vintage Wolff—with grim wryness, he pulls the rug out from under the way we delude ourselves about our own goodness and the purity of our motivations. In Pharaoh’s Army, actually, is non-fiction, and the “I” in the above passage is Wolff himself, in training to become an Army Special Forces lieutenant in the Vietnam War. The book is the greatest 1st person memoir of the Vietnam War I’ve ever read. Tom Bissell, the author of the excellent father-son Vietnam War memoir The Father of All Things, calls In Pharaoh’s Army “so well written it’s almost cruel.”

I want to write about a passage from this book that jolted me about as strongly as any passage in literature has ever done.

Lieutenant Wolff is stationed near My Tho, in the Mekong Delta. He is serving as an advisor to a South Vietnamese Army artillery battalion. It’s a cushy post. With the harrowing exception of the Tet Offensive in 1968, Wolff saw little direct action. His main challenge was avoiding ambush in supply runs between the his unit in My Tho and the PX at the American base several miles away, where he would trade fake Vietcong souvenirs for steaks, stereo equipment, and TVs.

With just a few days left in his tour of duty, the Army HQ sends over another officer to take over Wolff’s duties when he leaves, a certain Captain Kale. Wolff describes Kale as a gung-ho, arrogant, ridiculous blow-hard. Kale sizes up Wolff for what he readily admits he is—a lazy, feckless officer with little-to-no leadership ability, but with the good luck to have received a relatively soft post where his incompetence didn’t matter, as the South Vietnamese Army was a thoroughly corrupt, undisciplined fighting force whose members basically ignored any American advisor’s attempt to whip them into shape. Captain Kale, in Wolff’s description,

. . .had a round glistening face as pink as a boiled ham. It was the face of soft little man but in fact he was tall and bulging with muscles. In the odd moments when we were stalled somewhere, waiting for a ride, when [everybody else] found some shade and lay back with their caps over their eyes, Captain Kale knocked out push-ups by the hundred . . . While he worked out he told me how he was going to turn his future battalion into a killer fighting unit, unlike this one, and how it was a good thing I was leaving the army, because if every officer were like me the VC would walk off with the whole country inside a week.

One day, Kale notifies Wolff that division HQ has ordered him to move one of the howitzers, and a big Chinook helicopter will come in to lift and move the gun. Kale wants the helicopter to come in above a courtyard in the populated area where their base is located. Wolff says there isn’t enough open space—the wind from the chopper’s rotors would damage or destroy many of the peasant hooches nearby—and suggests the open roads or fields nearby. They argue about it, and finally Kale puts his foot down:  “You are fucking with my shit, Lieutenant. I will not have my shit fucked with.”

The helicopter comes in and Wolff goes over to the base’s radio to guide it in while Kale stays with the gun. The copter pilot says he doesn’t think he has enough room to safely descend, just as Wolff thought. This is the key moment of decision. Wolff realizes clearly that he has been given an “out”—he could tell the pilot to come back in 20 minutes after they move the gun outside the village, and cover his ass by telling Captain Kale that it was the pilot’s decision. However, Wolff goes ahead with Kale’s plan:  “I wanted Captain Kale’s will to be entirely fulfilled. I wanted his orders followed to the letter, without emendation or abridgment, so that whatever happened got marked to his account, and to his account alone. I wanted this thing to play itself out to the end. I was burning, I wanted it so much.”

So  the Chinook comes in and, just as Wolff had warned against, the rotor-wash lays waste to the flimsy hooches.  First roofs are torn off, then walls collapse as the terrified Vietnamese run for their lives. The courtyard is filled with whirling dust and debris. The gun gets hooked up to a sling and the copter departs, leaving Wolff and Kale to survey the scene as the stunned villagers pick through the wreckage to find their belongings. The physical description of the scene is brilliant, as usual. However, it’s Wolff’s withering introspection that imbues the passage with its most singeing fire:

This was my work, this desolation had blown straight from my own heart. I marked the discovery coolly, as if for future study. This was, I understood, something to be remembered, though I had no idea what that would mean. I couldn’t guess how the memory would live on in me, shadowing my sense of entitlement to an inviolable home; touching me, years hence, in my own home, with the certainty that some terrible wing is even now descending, bringing justice.

This passage chilled me with its simplicity and precision. What a brilliant choice of imagery, embodying “fate” or “karma” or “regret” or “justice”—abstractions always at risk of cliché—as a “terrible wing . . . descending.” It’s an eerie, ghostly, haunting image, the idea of something slowly coming at you from above, floating, wafting down in the dark, ready to smother you, violating you in your “inviolable home” with your wife and children and your career. (It also subtly mirrors the imagery of the descending helicopter which destroyed the Vietnamese’ homes.)

Now, none of villagers were killed or even injured (in Wolff’s description). Certainly American soldiers were guilty of much, much worse in Vietnam. A reader might even chuckle at the ridiculous Captain Kale eating his humble pie. But the laughter dies in our throats as Wolff puts it into perspective. The whole incident, without Wolff even directly saying so, becomes a metaphor for the whole war—how we sacrificed people we never knew and only pretended to care about to prove a point about . . . what? Our resolve? Our power? Our prestige? It’s bad enough, especially given how avoidable it all was, how easy it would have been for Wolff to change Kale’s orders. Wolff allows dozens of people’s homes to be destroyed for simple spiteful pride.

Cut to 2015, Busan, South Korea. There’s an American walking the streets who makes it a point to nimbly step around phone-distracted Koreans, or gently warn them with a “jo-shim ha-seyo” or a “shillye hamnida” (“be careful” or “excuse me, please”). Obviously, it’s a bit apples vs. oranges here, both in scale and particulars. The Vietnamese were completely innocent, unknowing pawns in Wolff’s game of “Fuck Captain Kale.” In what used to be my game of “Fuck Mr. Smartphone Zombie,” the only victim was the phone-zombie himself.  Still, I can’t help thinking of that torn-apart Vietnamese village, and I think of Wolff, more than 45 years after the fact, still waiting for cosmic payback, that terrible descending wing of justice. Why bring even a quantum of negativity into this world to spitefully prove a point, if it’s so painlessly avoidable?

Right, I know: big fucking deal. Yay me. Wolff himself would be the first to lacerate such self-congradulatory twaddle. He would probably observe that I only barged into people in the first place knowing that Koreans, bumping into a waygook, would be too shocked and embarrassed (and too polite)  to muster any indignation against me. Would I do this in America? With a dude bigger than me? Probably not. Definitely not. As Wolff might stay, I stood up and made my point as long as there was no cost whatsoever to be paid for doing so.

Still, I think this is as good example as any of how literature can set us to work on ourselves, at first in small ways, then later on in larger ways, chipping away at vanity and self-delusion, nudging us toward our better angels. Literature is merely a series of black squiggles on a white page, yet with miraculous, incantatory power it creates a canvas on which a simulacrum of life is painted. And that canvas somehow becomes a mirror, as it is we ourselves who are painted. For many years, Tobias Wolff has been holding up such mirrors for us. I hope I can always muster the courage to take a long, brutal gaze, taking honest stock of what’s looking back at me.

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72 Hours in Goa

 by Mordecai Feldman

  Editor’s note:  My cousin, Mordecai “Morty” Feldman, occasionally writes articles for the Travel section of the New York Times. Last winter, Sweet Pickles & Corn’s Eli Toast and I joined him and his wife for a trip to Goa, India. He sent me the following story, which will soon be published in the Sunday magazine supplement, pending a few revisions and editorial streamlining. In exchange for me and Eli keeping quiet about a few indiscreet moments of the trip, he agreed to let the readership of SP&C have the first look at his dispatch. You’ll note that Eli and I do not appear in his article. This is not because we asked to be left out, it’s because Morty told us that he didn’t like us very much.

–Steve K. Feldman

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Good old Goa!  Good-as-gold Goa: the golden jewel of the Indian Ocean coast, former Portugese trading colony, cradle of Full Moon Party hedonism, famed stop on the Hippy Trail from Istanbul to Bangkok in the swinging 60s, and my home for a month the summer after my sophomore year at Dartmouth, where I truly found myself.

Laugh if you want.  Yes, I was strolling along Goa’s fine white-sand beaches, watching the sun, the color of a ripe pomegranate, sink into the placid sea, watching a team of locals drag a fishing scow up onto the sand. When they finally had the boat stowed next to a grove of coconut palms, they collapsed from near-exhaustion, but smiling and laughing in easy camaraderie, sharing cigarettes, their thin, lithe brown bodies oily with sweat—perfectly at ease and peace, content with their hardscrabble existence.  They had everything they needed in their little world right here—and how lucky I was to share just a sliver of it.  It was at that moment I decided to switch majors from Hebrew literature to finance and management. So I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Goa, and let me tell you, as an Options trader at JPMorgan-Chase, I don’t often get accused of having a soft spot for anything, except for making great gobs of money.

Of course the whole Full Moon rave has long since moved on to Koh Phagnan in Thailand, and Goa has a whole seems to have suffered from the “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded” Yogi-Berra-ism, with most of my friends these days, when heading out for Asian vacations, opting for eco-tourism in Myanmar, Sumatra, and Borneo instead of the sandy stalwarts of Goa, Phuket, or Bali.  So, with my trading desk closed for a few weeks as SEC agents combed through our hard drives looking for the  evidence of insider trading I’d erased months earlier, I found myself with time on my hands. I thought Goa was fresh for a re-visit to see if the tandooris, the masalas, the chais, and of course the fiery vindaloos were as good as I remembered, or at least were better than Sammy Najapur’s on W. 53rd St., which always catered our casual-Friday lunches until our real estate subsidiary bought their building and tripled the rent, forcing them to move to Hackensack but hey what are ya gonna do?

My first pleasant surprise came when we found out that Goa had its own international airport. ( “We” being my latest wife of 10 months Tayghan, who insisted on being mentioned in this article. Okay Tayghan, you got your wish. You got mentioned in the New York Times Travel section!  Congrats! Happy now? Do your friends and family down in Richmond even read the Times? ) With its own airport, that meant we could fly straight in from Charles de Gaul without mucking about in Mumbai, which still seemed to be reeling from the latest Pakistani-funded terrorist attacks. It would have been nice to stay at the Taj Hotel again, and taste the excellent brioche from their patisserie, but apparently the last of the jihadists had holed up there, and the Indian security forces’ elite Black Squad had to pry them out with tear gas and flamethrowers, and since then, word is the espresso there just doesn’t taste right anymore—residue from the tear gas perhaps?

From the airport, I decided to rough it for the ride to the beach. I was already in the spirit of my old backpacker days, so we hired a private car for $80 instead of a private limo for a still-reasonable $250. Tayghan protested, but I insisted we start out by getting an up-front, up-close-and-personal, boots-on-the-ground taste of Goa, and what better way to start than by sitting only 3 feet away from our private driver, instead of 9 feet away and separated from him by a plexi-glass divider?  India is all about the smells, and I wanted to smell our driver—that strange cumin / coriander / fenugreek / turmeric smell that Indians tend to faintly exude even when freshly bathed.

Goa’s accommodations truly run the gamut—there is something there for every taste and every budget—from the flashy 5-star resorts like the Amari Golden Mandala upwards of $1200 a night for an ocean-view suite, all the way down to charming little boutique resorts like the one we opted for, called the Anjuna Beachcomber Inn, at a wallet-friendly $280 a night!

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Upon check-in we were greeted by the owner  himself, a charming rotund little Bengali gentleman named Naresh who had somehow escaped the “shithole of Kolkatta” (his words! His words!).  He was now living his dream running a little beach hotel, serving spicy curries and cold Mai-Tais and making friends from all over the world (You just made two more, Naresh!  Good job! You have the cutest little head-wobble!)

After stowing our bags, Tayghan immediately wanted to go shopping. I thought she might have been all shopped-out from the Duty Free in Paris during our layover—but guess again!  So I forked over my credit card and we strolled along the little strip of shops in the lane behind the beach. We bought some silk saris ($70 each), a teak incense holder in the shape of a hooded cobra ($135), and some bronze wind-chime mini-gongs at ($325). Make sure you bring your hard-bargaining skills to Goa—you can easily get 30-40% of the first quoted price, if you’re not worried about being seen as a cheap Jew. Tayghan was soon oohing and ahhing over some driftwood sculptures of Shiva and Vishnu that she thought would look great at our cottage in Easthampton, and picked out three or four. Tayghan stayed to work out the shipping details with the owner, and I continued on down the street.

Music was coming from several different shops and beach bars, creating a hypnotically  mellow mash-up  entwining Bob Marley, sitar-and-bamboo flute melodies, Hindu chanting, and Coldplay.  I passed by a incense and wall-hanging shop with its owner standing in the doorway surveying the passers-by with an easy grin and a twinkle in his eyes.

“What do you need, Boss?” he said.  “Weed? Coke? X? Acid? Anything you want, no hassle, boss!”

Well! Soon I found myself sitting on a coach in the shop’s back room, waiting for the runner to return with my order, the owner and I chatting about the changes to Goa in the last 20 years. “So many Russians now, my friend!” he said. “They are completely exasperating, I must admit to you!” And then the head wobble, followed by, “But they do have lots of money you see!  And so we must be welcoming to them!”

“The men are pigs, but their women are hot!” I remarked.

He gave me another wobble, and said “On that we can agree, my friend!” and then the runner came back with my order. Three hits of Israeli ecstasy (Flash! lightning-bolt imprint–$25 dollars each).  A gram of coke (Columbia, shade-grown coca leaves, fair-trade certified–$80). Two tabs of acid (Amsterdam, Snoopy Sopwith Camel imprint—$15  each). And a half-ounce of cheap Cambodian weed ($30). I added 10 Goa keychains and bottle-openers (50 cents each) for our secretaries and cleaning staff back at the office. Can’t forget the little folk!

With both Tayghan and I worn out but satisfied from our shopping haul, we spent the rest of the afternoon lounging by the pool. For dinner, we opted for the restaurant at the Imperial Lisbon Coconut Hideaway, where the pistachio-crusted sea bass and curried king-prawns with the truffle glaze were simply to die for! The wine list was surprisingly impressive—as I sipped from an impressive bottle of Argentinian Torrontes Ugni blanc ($280), I thought, wow, am I really in Goa? And as I did a line of coke in the men’s room while Tayghan was chatting with the young Russian couple at the adjoining table, I thought, “oh yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah. Whooooooo, FUCK!”

I came back to the table, and found that Taygan’s new friends Dmitri and Sasha had invited us to a rave party on the beach by their resort! Well, I was a little too old for raves, but what the heck! Goa was truly a place for making new friends, and the X and the acid would make the music palatable, I thought.

“So are you guys married?” I asked our new friends while Tayghan was off in the ladies’ room.

“No, not married,” grunted Dmitri. Sasha, a thin, stunning blond rolled her eyes and looked away, an expression on her face of perfect boredom.

“Ah, how long have you been dating?”

“We are not dating. She is Ukrainian whore.”

“Oh, how interesting,” I said. “Um, how much was she?”

He gave me the rundown:  $300 an hour, $2000 for all night, $4000 for 24 hrs, long-term engagements negotiable with her pimp back in Kiev. “Yes, I bring three with me,” he said. “You want one?  I give to you, no problem.  You have threesome with wife.”

“Oh, haha.  Thanks, but I don’t think Tayghan would go for that!” I said.

“You are man, you make the money. You tell her—this is your vacation, you fuck who you want to fuck. You must be hard, and she will understand. You American men, so afraid to hit a woman!”

goa5Tayghan came back and soon we were off to the beach rave, where Teghan and I danced with one of Dmitri’s whores while the other two fellated him as he stood knee-deep in the ocean, hands clasped behind his head, gently swaying as the beat of techno matched perfectly the rhythm of the twin blond pony-tailed heads bobbing at his crotch. It was the perfect ending to our first day in Goa!

Up next for tomorrow: paragliding, an Indian cooking class (yum yum!), and visiting a Hindu temple while tripping BALLS!

George of the Jungle

 

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by Steve K. Feldman

If you travel around Southeast Asia these days, it’s hard to avoid the souvenir peddlers hawking bootleg copies of famous literary works about whatever country you happen to be in. In Ho Chi Minh City, every five minutes somebody is sticking Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried in your face. In Cambodia, eight-year-old kids walk around with backpacks full of Khmer Rouge horror for sale:  A Cambodian Prison Portrait, First They Killed My Father, Cambodia Year Zero, Voices from S-21, and other books that make for fine beach reading in Sihanoukville. And in Myanmar, where I just spent a (mostly terrific) month, one book dominates this suddenly trendy section of the Banana Pancake Trail—George Orwell’s 1934 debut novel Burmese Days.

I downloaded Burmese Days on my Kindle back in Korea before I left, before I realized it was a certifiable “thing you’re supposed to do” as a tourist in Myanmar. I was actually rather excited about doing a bit of Orwell-related sight-seeing. Orwell served for five years as a policeman in various locales around colonial Burma from 1922 to 1927 (he was known then as Eric Blair—Orwell was his later pen-name). The novel, of course, drew heavily on his own experiences there, as did the seminal, much anthologized essays “Shooting an Elephant” and “A Hanging.” Like most Orwell fans, I got into his work as a teenager by reading his two bleak yet compelling primers on totalitarianism, Animal Farm and 1984, books it’s still hard to escape an American high school without reading. Later, as an AP English teacher in both American and Korea, I grew to appreciate Orwell for his beautifully flowing, descriptive, yet tightly controlled prose and the razor-sharp moral clarity of his politics—two things that beautifully come together in his essay “Politics and the English Language.”

burmese-days-nice-cover Our Myanmar itinerary didn’t include ground-zero for the Orwell freaks,  Katha, a small town located a punishing twelve hours by train north of  Mandalay. Katha was the real-life counterpart to the fictional Kyauktada,  the town on the Irawaddy River that serves as the setting to Burmese Days.  Apparently several buildings described in the novel still stand, including the  British Club, scene of endless gin-and-tonics, card games and racist  banter. However, I would get to see Mawlamyine—colonial Moulmein–the  town where Orwell, as police chief, actually shot that elephant in the famous  essay. I would also see Yangon–old Rangoon, the colonial capital–where  Orwell probably spent a lot of time whoring.

Beyond that, I was hoping Orwell’s general descriptions of the landscape,  the flora and fauna, and the Burmese people still bore some resemblance to  what I would be seeing almost 100 years after he was there. I wanted to feel  some kind of connection with the man’s mind and pen here in modern-day  Myanmar. This wasn’t as ridiculous a notion as it might seem. Those of us  who have lived in Korea for 10+ years often see the passage of a decade  render a neighborhood almost unrecognizable with all the balli-balli development. Then, how could anything in 2015 Myanmar resemble Orwell’s 1920s Burma? Ah, but you’re underestimating the power of a socialist military junta to retard progress! In Balkan Ghosts, historian / travel writer Robert Kaplan wryly called communism “the Great Preserver” of Eastern Europe during the Cold War. So too did General Ne Win and his band of vampiric cronies freeze their country in perpetual third-world misery, reviled by and isolated from the rest of the world from 1962 until just a few years ago.

But now, with the democratic reforms in 2011, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung Sang Suu Kyi ‘s release from twelve years of house arrest, it was suddenly PC to visit Myanmar. Foreign investment and tourist cash were pouring in, and “the canvas was growing dull,” to borrow another phrase of Kaplan’s. Myanmar was marching proudly into modernity, for good (free elections! freedom of speech! economic development!) and ill (deforestation! Chinese casinos!). Feburary 2015 seemed somehow almost like a last chance to see some bits of this place as George Orwell saw it.

Little bursts of recognition from the novel popped up the entire trip. Of course, there was the betel leaf and nut chewing, and spitting. I saw, in Orwell’s words, “lips stained redder than blood by betel juice” and Burmese bending to “spit out scarlet mouthfuls of betel,” and the floors, paths, roads and sidewalks “much splashed by lime and betel juice.” Chewing betel leaves is alive and well in modern Myanmar, I can attebetelst to. My travel companion David, who had sampled betel-chewing last year in Bangladesh, gave the Myanmar version a try, and pronounced it sweeter and overall more pleasant than the Bengalis’ concoction. Expect him to start a “Betel Afficianado” blog soon! After booking a domestic Air Bagan flight from a betel-chewing travel agent, my other travel-mate, fellow Sweet Pickles & Corn scribe Eli Toast, remarked, “For fuck’s sake, how do you expect to be taken seriously as an adult when it looks like you’ve got a whole pack of Twizzlers in your mouth?”

As for the local wildlife, David and Eli were both passionate bird-watchers, and made several sightings of these small, almost flourescent green-breasted birds with long, thin beaks. David promptly ID’d them as “bee-eaters.” Lo and behold, a few days later, on the bumpy train down to Yangon, I read the following lovely passage in Burmese Days:

Flory went outside and loitered down the compound, poking weeds into the ground with his stick. At that hour there were beautiful faint colours in everything—tender green of leaves, pinkish brown of earth and tree-trunks—like aquarelle washes that would vanish in the later glare. Down on the maidan flights of small, low-flying brown doves chased one another to and fro, and bee-eaters, emerald green, curvetted like slow swallows. Chestnut-headed Bee-eater (Merops leschenaulti)And speaking of that bumpy train ride, the novel describes a train journey from Yangon up to Katha as follows:

The train, fuelled with wood, crawled at twelve miles an hour across a vast, parched plain, bounded at its remote edges of blue rings of hills. White egrets stood poised, motionless, like herons, and piles of drying chilis gleamed crimson in the sun. Sometimes a white pagoda rose from the plain like the breast of supine giantess. The early tropic night settled down , and the train jolted on, slowly, stopping at little stations where barbaric yells sounded from the darkness. . . The train plunged into forest, and unseen branches brushed against the windows.

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Eli Toast on the train to Yangon.

We must have been on those exact same tracks, taking the trip in reverse, from Bagan down to Yangon. And when I say “exact same tracks,” I mean that 100% literally—I don’t  think they’ve done 100 kyat worth of maintenance on the  tracks since Orwell wrote that passage. I think some of my dental fillings came loose on some of the roughest stretches. The only thing that made sleep possible in those 17 hours of shake-rattle- and-roll were double-doses of Xanax, purchased from a shady street vendor in Bangkok. Ah, sweet, sweet, Bangkok street-Xanax!

Mawlamyine—Orwell’s elephant-shooting locale— was a lovely little city hugging the Thanlwin River right before it emptied into the Bay of Bengal. It didn’t offer up much in terms of Orwell lore. When we got to our hotel, a quick check of the famous essay on the internet revealed that he had actually done the deed in some village outside of town. Some historians allege that it never even happened (at least not with Orwell as its central character). What—did I expect a big bronze statue in the central square, with Police Chief Blair sticking the wide-bore muzzle of his .585 rifle in the ear of the almost dead, bullet-riddled elephant, about to turn the poor creature’s brains into a prismatic spray? Well, kind of, yeah. A plaque, a marker, anything. Yes, he was your colonial oppressor, but at least he knew he was, and wrote as much years later. But no. No Orwell statue or memorial plaque. There probably should have been one for the elephant, which would have been a nice little “fuck you” to the British.

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My pic of present-day Mawlamyine from almost the same spot

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Colonial Moulmein in Orwell’s day

 

The biggest zap of recognition came during our two-day jungle trek outside of Kalaw. It involved Myanmese women. Now, before I continue, let me say that trying to describe the women of a particular country or ethnic group is difficult, if not impossible. The nature of the task requires a delicate tip-toe through the minefield of generalization. You risk vagueness, cliché and inaccuracy at best, sexism and racism at worst. Even attempting it, a writer, especially a male writer, can easily fall into the trap of lookism—defining women only by their appearance, not by intelligence, personality, ability, or talent. The political correctness refs are calling a tight game these days, which on balance is a good thing. By all means we should judge women, to paraphrase MLK, by the content of their character, not by the smoothness of their skin or the perfection of their “S” line. Also, in Myanmar, I was nothing more than a tourist for a little over three weeks. I looked, I watched, I observed. I did meet and have some very pleasant conversations with some Burmese. However,I didn’t come close to digging deep enough to attempt writerly insight into the hearts and souls of the women (or men) of Myanmar. My impressions here are strictly that of a tourist, someone just passing through with a backpack and a Lonely Planet, probably equally interested in finding the next cold Myanmar Lager on a hot, dusty afternoon as he was in experiencing Burmese culure. So, with that said, here, from my lofty, privileged perch, are my observations.

Well, I thought Burmese women were beautiful. Tiny—probably the shortest and most petite of any Asian country I’ve visited. The men, too.  A function of average GDP and therefore nutrition? Perhaps, yet unlike what I’ve heard about North Korea, people didn’t look underfed or malnourished or stunted at all. They looked healthy, by and large, just really small. Delicate, yet not weak-looking.  Actually, your average leggy, gorgeous 5’8” Gangnam K-pop trainee seems more fragile than a 5’0” 85-pound young village woman in Myanmar. The skin—coffee-colored? Mocha? A creamy light brown? Here, I’ll defer to Orwell, who describes the face of Ma Hla May, John Flory’s 22 year-old mistress in Burmese Days as “the color of new copper .” In fact, I’ll just give you Orwell’s full description from the first appearance of Hla May:

Ma Hla May was a woman of twenty-two or –three, and perhaps five feet tall. She was dressed in a longyi of pale blue embroidered Chinese satin, and a starched white muslin ingyi on which several gold lockets hung. Her hair was coiled in a tight black cylinder like ebony, and decorated with jasmine flowers. Her tiny, straight, slender body was as contourless as a bas-relief carved upon a tree. She was like a doll, with her oval, still face the colour of new copper, and her narrow eyes; and outlandish doll and yet a grotesquely beautiful one. A scent of sandalwood and coco-nut oil came into the room with her

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The most common cover of the novel I saw on sale in Myanmar.

Strangely, Orwell never mentions the ubiquitous Thanaka wood paste that most women from big cities to tiny villages smear on their cheeks and forehead as a cosmetic / sun cream. This is probably the first thing that strikes tourists about Burmese women. It’s a centuries-old custom, yet it never pops up in Orwell’s writings on Burma.

As I said, my sharpest memory involving women came during our trek outside of Kalaw, an old British hill station near Inle Lake. Our guide was Montay, a thin, wiry, tough-as-shoe-leather Nepalese whose grandfather had been a Royal Gurkha soldier in World War II. On the first day, we tromped about 25 km, up and down two mountains, and at about 5 pm we staggered into the village where we were to spend the night. We were dog-tired, our legs a few notches beyond sore. The village was like a movie set of a perfect little jungle or mountain tribal village. There was a small cluster of bamboo huts raised on wooded stilts; pigs, chickens and water buffaloes wandering up and down the packed mud paths, wood smoke from cooking fires, women and men coming in the from neighboring hills and valleys where they grew tea, yams, corn, lentils, chilis, mangoes, and collected mushrooms. (No opium poppies anymore, Montay informed us. The government had stamped that out in this area about ten years ago, which was too bad, Montay added, because he liked to skim a little raw opium from the scored bulbs and get high.)

The Di-nou / Thong-yo village where we stayed overnight on our trek.

The Di-nou / Thong-yo village where we stayed overnight on our trek.

Despite the eradication of the crazy-lucrative opium, this seemed like a prosperous village. It had about 25 families, maybe about 120 people. We saw lots of small children (who mostly stared at us, dumbstruck). There were lots of livestock. People seemed well-fed and well-clothed. The hut we were staying in was rather spacious. It had two large communal rooms a third room as a kitchen. They had rigged up solar panels that were connected to a TV with a satellite dish. (This wasn’t such a surprise—the Lonely Planet mentioned TV was fairly common in many of these tiny villages.) After drinking a few cups of revivifying tea and rubbing our aching quads and calves, we were bidden to go wash up for dinner. We went over to the well, where large wooden troughs of water were stored for all the washing and cleaning needs of the village. There was a small group of maybe five or six villagers washing as well, the men stripped down to skivvies, the women wearing a bosom-to-knee wrap as they soaped up, scrubbed, and washed themselves off with bowls of water. We surely got some odd looks and giggles, but the three of us coming upon the evening wash-up didn’t seem such a big deal. While our trek wasn’t as popular as the daily Kalaw-to-Inle Lake mob-scene trek, Montay said he brought about one or two groups through here every month. The villagers seemed fairly used to big, tall whities on the premises, even if the kids still seemed a little freaked out.

As we awkwardly washed our faces and hands, we couldn’t help but noticing one of the women washing herself among us. She was young and beautiful, probably in her early twenties. Her long hair was tied up in loose bun, and the soaked brown cloth wrap clung to her body, revealing her curves. We were only 20 minutes or so from sunset, and the sun’s long red rays picked through the dense forestry, illuminating the whole scene with a soft, magical glow. Her wet, smooth, perfect light- brown skin glistened in the dusk—just like new copper, as Orwell wrote. I can’t use any other word here: she was glistening. A glistening, exotic native beauty washing herself at sunset. We tried not to stare. There were other villagers there, including men. An older married woman with large breasts wobbling beneath her wrap playfully splashed water at us, laughing at our awkwardness and shyness, but we kept sneaking glances at the young bathing beauty. It was magnetic, a gravitational force dragging our eyes towards her. I can’t say it was erotic–that word somehow cheapens the memory. A better word is sensual: an epitome of female sensuality and beauty coupled with an epitome of exoticism. Later on the trip, at the touristy trinket shops in Bagan, we notes lots of cheap oil paintings and watercolors for sale, many of the depicting typical scenes of village life—including the scene that we were now witnessing: young women bathing themselves. Yeah, somebody else had noticed. Or at least somebody had noticed people like us noticing.bathing2How many times had a scene like this taken place over the previous centuries, and in how many different countries, how many different continents? How many white men gazed, gawked, and ogled a young brown or black-skin woman, finding something basic, elemental and profound , an object (because of course it was, is, and always will be objectification) of perfect grace, beauty, exoticism, and eroticism? I thought of Orwell witnessing a similar sight. But I also thought of Gaughin and his Tahitian paintings, Joseph Conrad’s “Wild Woman” from Heart of Darkness, Charles Marion Russell’s “Keeoma” paintings of Native American women, and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” Doing a little research, I came upon the term “Orientalism” which described art, music and literature mostly from 19th century Europe that focused on idealized Asian and Middle-Eastern subjects and themes. And boy, there was a lot of it. Were we “perving out” with that young woman bathing herself? Call it that if you must, but at that moment I felt firmly placed within hundreds–thousands of years even–of pervy tradition.

However, while I could feel that connection stretching back through the centuries, I knew, of course, there was a huge difference between being here as visiting guests and Orwell being here as a representative of imperialism. Orwell knew he was an agent of domination, subjugation, and exploitation—“despotism with theft as its final object” as John Flory, clearly a cipher for Orwell himself, thinks. That Orwell could perceive and understood the contradictions of colonialism with such clear-sightedness while standing in its midst is still startling today. In “Shooting and Elephant” he writes (not filtered through any fictional mouthpiece this time): “I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing and the sooner I chucked up my job and got out of it the better . . . the British Raj [was] an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down . . .upon the will of prostrate peoples.”  Orwell, by virture of being British, was a pukka sahib—a most honorable, first-class gentleman, though he knew he was anything but. In the novel, Flory purchased Ma Hla May for 300 rupees from a dirt-poor Burmese family. When he falls in love with a young visiting Englishwoman, he gives Hla May 50 more rupees and tells her to scram. She was disposable to him, nothing more than a long-time whore. The scenes with her are among the book’s most powerful and excruciating.

Yes, David, Eli and I were not imperialists “fortifying their dullness behind a quarter of a million bayonets.” However, were we just imperialists of a different sort? I can’t blithely dismiss the staggering disparity in wealth between the people in that village and the three of us. Sure, it would have been absurd, insane even, for one of us to even think of “buying” a young native woman from this village to be a “mistress.” And yet, we began and ended our trip in Bangkok, a city where plenty of flesh gets purchased pretty much 24/7/365, quite a lot of it by white Westerners. Even back in Korea, I know a few ex-pats who have brought back, er, companionship from Thailand or the Philippines on a long-term basis.

I mentioned that it seemed like a prosperous village. The house we stayed at had solar-cell electricity that they used mostly for lighting up the disco-style lights that adorned their Hindu mini-shrine, and for TV. After we ate dinner, the whole extended family, about 10 people, from babies to grandmothers, came in and fired up the ol’ boob tube, watching some modern Burmese drama clearly set in the big city of Yangon or Mandalay. We watched with them for awhile until the grotesque sight of our starched white, bearded faces in the TV glow made a baby cry, and we retired to the next room, where we dropped off to sleep like dropping off a cliff, zonked by about 9 p.m.

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Day two of our trek, leaving the village at daybreak.

 

I would like to spout the cliché that these simple people seemed content in their simple lives, but reality is more complex than that. I wish I’d asked Montay if, or how often, a young person left this village behind to try to forge a life in Kalaw with its 10,000 people about 25 km away, or perhaps Taungyi, the Shan State capital with a population of about 350,000. It more than likely happened. After all, they were not some primitive “uncontacted” Amazon tribe. Our guide Montay was a connection to Kalaw. Some from this village probably made trips there now and again for supplies they couldn’t make or grow themselves. Of course, the trekkers coming through here every month, with their hiking boots and backpacks costing unimaginable sums, were totems of the rich Western world. And then there was TV. I saw how transfixed they were by the images of middle-class or wealthy Burmese from Yangon or Mandalay. As they were flipping through channels (yes, these villagers were channel surfing), we saw snippets of . . . Korean dramas! Good lord, what they must have thought of all those sculpted (literally) faces, expensive clothes, furniture, and cars? Could it be that that young beautiful woman, bathing in the twilight, saw those flickering images on the screen, or saw those European or American or Australian trekkers passing through her village, and never wondered what life would be like in Kalaw, Taungyi or Mandalay, or Paris, Geneva, San Francisco or London? Did she ever look at one of us and think, Take me with you?

Back in 2009, I did a 3-day trek in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan province in far-Southern China, along the Laos / Myanmar border. Our tour guide, the very young and pretty Sing-la, was from a Be-lan mountain village. She had learned English down in the city of Jinghong, and married a young, handsome French guy whom we met after our trek. She was now probably the chief earner (at least in terms of hard currency) for her village. (You can read more about Sing-la in The Worst Motorcycle in Laos, the latest book by Mr. Motgol!) Could that same relationship happen in the Myanmar village David, Eli and I trekked through? Who knows? Why not? Like any marriage, there’s no guarantee it would work out, but at least there were no longer any John Florys to buy that beautiful young village woman for a pittance from her parents, only to throw her out like an old newspaper when he saw a proper Englishwoman to chase.

Orwell despised what colonialism was doing to its subjects and what it was doing to his own soul. However, he was under no illusions that what would come next would be any better. In a much-quoted line from “Shooting an Elephant,” he admits that the British Empire was “a great deal better than the younger empires that are going to supplant it.” Looking back at the staggering misrule by Burma’s own rulers after independence, once again Orwell seems to have had his finger firmly on the throbbing pulse of history. Myanmar is still being economically exploited by her own rulers, and by her larger, richer, more populous and powerful neighbors. Of that, there’s no doubt. However, in our quick look about the place in 2015, with the tourists beginning to stream in en masse, with free elections coming later this year, there’s also no doubt it’s getting better. At last, I can imagine Orwell thinking. At last.  

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Warped Tour

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by Steve K. Feldman

Suki Kim’s excellent new memoir Without You, There Is No Us: My Year with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite surely ranks as one of the greatest Gonzo journalistic feats ever, right up there with Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels, or Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between (about a guy who walked across Afghanistan in the months after 9/11). You think you’ve got a tough teaching gig? To get her story, Kim, a Korean-American, lived for a year in Pyongyang, North Korea, teaching English composition at the Pyongyang University for Science & Technology (PUST), a university run by Christian missionaries.

I mean—just imagine . . . having to live with Christian missionaries for a whole year!

And, sure, I guess living in a repressive totalitarian state was pretty tough, too.

Her remarkable undercover stint has resulted in one of the best books on North Korea in recent years. Without You, There is No Us belongs squarely in the first tier of works that seek to illuminate the darkness of this mysterious, closed society. To be sure, Kim’s access was limited to just a geographic and demographic sliver of North Korea. However, no book, not even the best defector accounts such as The Aquariums of Pyongyang and Nothing to Envy, detail such real, extended, relatively unscripted interaction between real North Koreans and an “enemy” American.

At first glance, there aren’t any big revelations here. Much of what Kim presents should be very familiar to anybody who has read any travel accounts in North Korea: the constant presence of the “minders” who “mind” (spy on) your every move; the “sightseeing” mostly restricted to mind-numbing, eyeball-glazing monuments to the Great Leader and Dear Leader; the endless demonization of America; the grinding poverty of a ruined economy lurking behind the paper-thin façade of modernity. This is all well-trodden territory, but Kim presents the familiar themes of barren / creepy / repressive North Korea with her novelist’s sharp eye for telling detail.

Where the book really breaks new ground, however, is in the author’s day-to-day accounts of teaching—or attempting to teach—the fully indoctrinated young men of the book’s title, the “sons of the elite.” All of her students were sons of Pyongyang’s elite ruling class (though she never talked to, let alone met, any of her students’ parents). How do you teach opinion or persuasive essays to people who have been taught—warned, even— never to argue, never to have an opinion? How do you teach them to back up their ideas with supporting evidence when “facts” or “the truth” have always been simply what the Dear Leader declares them to be? “Their entire system was designed not to be questioned, and to squash critical thinking,” Kim writes. In North Korea, “there was no proof, no checks and balances—unless, of course they wanted to prove that the Great Leader had single-handedly written hundreds of operas and thousands of books and saved the nation and done a miraculous number of things.” She sums up trying to teach essay-writing to such blinkered students in one word: “disaster.”

Simple conversations with students in the lunchroom or classroom were just as difficult and fraught with dangers. Every day was a dance through a DMZ minefield of forbidden topics. In answering students’ endless questions about the world outside their hermetically-sealed borders, Kim knew that revealing anything about the wealth, openness and freedom of “out there” was risky, for both herself and the students. A simple, honest answer to an innocuous question like “How many countries have you been to?” would let students plainly see the opportunities available to her that were utterly denied to themselves.

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Yet as abhorrent and alien as much of their views, behavior  and upbringing are, Kim, like any good teacher, can’t help but  grow attached to them over her two semesters at PUST. She  often calls the students “beautiful” and “lovely” and refers to  them as “her children.” Throughout the book, Kim explores  the wrenching ambivalence of wanting to open up their minds  yet not wanting to get them in trouble—either as students or  in the future when they would supplant their parents as the  top-echelon leadership of the DPRK. In dealing with one  particularly inquisitive student, Kim and her young T.A. Katie realize that saying too much might get themselves deported, but could very well get the student killed. “Until then, I had hoped that perhaps I could change one student, open up one path of understanding,” Kim muses. “But what kind of a future did I envision for the one student I reached? Opening up this country would mean sacrificing these lives. Opening up this country would mean the blood of my beautiful students.”

Her portrait of her students is fascinating, empathetic, and immensely sad. In South Korea, foreign English teachers often bemoan their students’ lives that are equal parts grindstone and pressure cooker, yet the most haggwon-oppressed, sleep-deprived South Korean student would not survive a week in the shoes of Kim’s North Korean students. They are never alone—never, not a single moment. They are partnered up in a “buddy” system for the clear purpose of keeping an eye on one-another. It’s breathtaking how carefully the State raises a population of snitches. Also heart-rending is the physical labor that students are submitted to—most of it either pointless or made pointlessly difficult by the absence of tools or technology: cutting crass with scissors; standing guard in freezing cold weather over the ridiculous shrine to “Kimjongilism;” being carted off during school vacations to work in harvesting or construction sites. Even as sons of high-ranking party members, life is an brutal, endless slog, even if they will never face starvation. For them, attending a weekend math haggwon would be like lounging pool-side with a fruity drink.

Despite the glibness of my lead graph, living with Christian missionaries was, for Kim, its own brand of, well, hell. At times, her evangelical colleagues spur as much forehead-slapping disbelief and anger as the North Korean authorities. When Kim wants to show students a Harry Potter movie, the idea is shot down not by the North Korean officials (who must approve every book and every lesson plan), but by the school’s head teacher who calls it a piece of anti-Christian “filth.” “What would Christians around the world say about our decision to expose our students to such heresy?” the woman rages with staggeringly misguided righteousness.

At one point, a colleague openly talks with Kim about how her reason for being there was to “bring the Lord to this Land,” how “this life here is temporary,” and that the suffering North Koreans “will be received by Him in heaven.” Kim explodes at her, accusing her of delegitimizing the suffering of the North Korean masses: “So are you saying that it’s okay for North Koreans to rot in gulags because in your estimation it isn’t real? . . . If the eternal life waiting for them in heaven is so amazing, should the millions who are suffering here just commit mass suicide? Why don’t you go check out a gulag and then dare to tell me that it’s temporary?”

Kim’s portrayal of the school and its Christian faculty has garnered some controversy. The school has openly expressed hurt and anger over what they call a betrayal by Kim. They deny that they are Christian missionaries at all, and that Kim both misrepresented them in the book and misrepresented herself when she landed the job.

On her website, Kim counters these charges with a simple, powerful statement:

There is a long tradition of “undercover” journalism—pretending to be something one is not in order to be accepted by a community and uncover truths that would otherwise remain hidden. In some cases, this is the only way to gain access to a place. North Korea, described only recently by the BBC as “one of the world’s most secretive societies,” is such a place. [….] I did not break any promises. I applied to work at PUST under my real name. I was not asked to sign and did not sign any kind of confidentiality agreement, nor did I ever promise not to write about PUST. Meanwhile, in the six decades since Korea was divided, millions have died from persecution and hunger. Today’s North Korea is a gulag posing as a nation, keeping its people hostage under the Great Leader’s maniacal and barbaric control, depriving them of the very last bit of humanity. So what are our alternatives? How much longer are we going to sit back and watch? To me, it is silence that is indefensible. (read the full statement at http://sukikim.com/ethicsnote)

Given the fact that Kim didn’t hide anything about her past or her career, it’s strange she got the job at PUST in the first place, a point she also makes in the book and in the full text of the above statement. She wrote several articles for Harper’s and The New York Review of Books about previous trips to North Korea, most notably an outstanding account of the New York Philharmonic’s trip to Pyongyang in 2008. That article, unlike a lot of the accounts in the mainstream press, dug underneath the official North Korea-sanctioned feel-good story of “we’re not here for politics / music can bring us together!” Instead, Kim focused on the pointlessness of interaction with North Korea when the interaction was entirely on their terms. Also, her well-received debut novel, The Interpreter, has enough sex to make a evangelical Christian blush (which is to say, any sex at all). Ten minutes of internet browsing might have suggested to school authorities what Kim had in mind in seeking this job. Equally puzzling was North Korea granting her another Visa after those earlier articles—they even assigned to her one of the same minders from the New York Philharmonic trip.

Indeed, Kim worrying about having her cover blown—by both the North Koreans and her Christian colleagues—makes her day-to-day life even more stressful and adds another layer of dark tension throughout the book. In the end, the tension, the stress, the isolation, the bleakness, the cold, and the unceasing vigilance of the State—Orwell’s Big Brother incarnate—grind down her spirit of resistance, as it all was surely designed to: “The sealed border was not just at the 38th parallel, but everywhere, in each person’s heart, blocking the past and choking off the future. As much as I loved those boys, or because of it, I was becoming convinced that the wall between us was impossible to break down, and not only that, it was permanent.”

However, in an incredible coincidence, on Kim’s very last day at the school—a day filled with the bittersweet teacher-student goodbyes that any of us who have taught for a living might recognize—something happens that suggests just maybe that this wall might one day vanish into history: Kim Jong-il dies. Her final glimpse of her students as she’s leaving for the airport is of them in the cafeteria eating breakfast, refusing to look at her, “their eyes swollen and red, [with] no expression on their faces. It was as though the life had been sucked out of them.” She makes no comment on whether or not these tears are real or forced, or perhaps some of both, but simply wonders if their world will change for the better. Three years later, we’re still asking that question.

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