I often have trouble with the blurring of the line between fiction and non-fiction. Or, to be more accurate, I have trouble with fiction spilling into non-fiction. The other way, I have no qualms at all. Recently reading The Woman Warrior for the Bitches Book Club helped me see that a bit. At least in that instance I suppose you could argue artistry or truth of a sentiment as opposed to truth of facts.
However, and this might all sound very cynical of me, I recently had a thought that led to a thought about verifying stories from North Korean defectors. Why? Well, I’m interested in the North Korea situation (probably sparked by having read Without You, There Is No Us). But the question popped up of how to know what is real and what is emphasised to capitalise on the West’s craving for sensational stories of torture and brainwashing and subjugation. So, of course, I did some googling about what methods of fact-checking are in place for the bestselling memoirs and biographies of North Korean defectors.
And, indeed, there are several articles written about dubious or inconsistent stories from some of the defectors capitalising off their impressive stories. That is not to dismiss or lessen the things these people have gone through. And it’s not to say that no understanding can be taken from what they’ve written. But I don’t think exaggerated or false claims helps anyone. Other North Korean defectors have often spoken out against obvious lies in these famed stories because they also value the truth and worry that false or exaggerated stories will make the world doubt everything that is said of the country and that no help will come to their families and countrymen left behind.
One of the North Korean defectors and bestselling memoirists is Yeonmi Park, whose book I was looking forward to picking up. Now, I’m not so sure. I don’t think her story is entirely fabricated, but inconsistencies like the ones I’ve seen cited (some bigger than others) cannot all be explained away because of ‘bad translation’ or even the ‘shame’ excuse (as with the Mongolian detention centre tale which seems likely untrue), does make you wonder about how much is real and how much isn’t.
Does it matter? We all know North Korea is a terrible place; so what if some stuff is exaggerated. I think it matters. And I agree with Mary Ann Jolley in her article for The Diplomat:
…[I]f someone with such a high profile twists their story to fit the narrative we have come to expect from North Korean defectors, our perspective of the country could become dangerously skewed. We need to have a full and truthful picture of life in North Korea if we are to help those living under its abysmally cruel regime and those who try to flee.
For me, the difference between Yeonmi Park’s inconsistencies in her stories and Maxine Hong Kingston’s fictionalised memoir is that Hong Kingston’s memoir is almost over-the-top to let you know what parts are invented. You can pick out when it would have been impossible for her to have given as detailed an account as she did: times she wasn’t present, wasn’t born yet, or wasn’t a centuries-old legendary warrior, for example, but spoke as if she had witnessed things. Park’s story is presented entirely as truth. Not ‘the artistic truth of a feeling/sentiment’, but as ‘everything here is what actually happened—to me’.
All of that to say, I probably won’t be bothering with Yeonmi Park’s memoir after all and will likely be carefully vetting future reads from DPRK defectors. I know how elusive any real insight into the Hermit Kingdom is to find, but I’d like to make at least a little effort not to muddy my views too much, blurring what is with the horror stories the west has come to expect…and maybe even crave. That is not to say that the things claimed in Yeonmi Park’s book or any other defectors’ stories are not real things that happen there every day. And I didn’t want to single Park out (though I have because she was the subject of two of the main articles I’d come across) or to write her off. But I don’t believe I have enough information on the whole situation to even necessarily know when I should try to fact-check something. Maybe I would get to know from reading lots of these accounts no matter how laden they are with falsehoods. But if I’m reading a non-fiction firsthand account like this, I don’t want it to be flooded with rumours presented as personal experiences if at all possible.
I had another thought too. Maybe, being from the DPKR where lies are a part of life—constantly being lied to and lying to survive with no way to fact-check anything—Yeonmi Park and other defectors like her, haven’t quite gotten to grips with the idea that, in the outside world—especially in the west—everything is so easy to replay and check and compare past stories to present ones. You don’t even have to write anything down, but with everyone’s phones and cameras and such at the ready, you are constantly being surveilled in another kind of way and for different reasons than the DPRK. It is not easy to tell so many different stories and not be found out. The reasons for the deception might be completely understandable (like Shin Dong-Hyuk lying to cover the fact that he informed on his mother and brother and implicated them in a murder they were not guilty of leading to their execution). But the fact of the deception points the attention away from the fact of the more important, real problems.