Check It Out: Traveler’s trip to N. Korea a surreally gripping tale

By

Published:

 

Jan Johnston is the Collection Development Coordinator for the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District. Email her at readingforfun@fvrl.org.

Banned Books Week is coming up soon (Sept. 24-30), and if you follow “Check It Out,” you know that I’ve highlighted this event more than once.

It’s on my mind this year, too, of course, but the context is slightly different. No, that’s not accurate. The context is very different. I just finished reading “My Holiday in North Korea,” and while I didn’t pick it up because I was thinking about Banned Books Week — instead I was struck by both the title and the photograph on the cover (wait, did I just judge a book by its cover?) — I couldn’t stop thinking about banned books after I finished the book.

While challenges to books are not uncommon here in the U.S., we are fortunate to have strong laws regarding freedom of expression, and a citizenry, in general, who support the freedom to read. Now, imagine living in a world where not only do you not have the right to express yourself, you are forbidden to read anything that is not government (read regime) approved. Yeah. Welcome to North Korea.

Wendy Simmons is a writer and a traveler who says she “won’t stop traveling until she visits every country in the world.” And that includes North Korea. So, on June 25, 2014 Simmons landed at the Pyongyang Sunan International Airport in North Korea and spent the next ten days touring — or should I say, being led around — the country.

Unlike most visitors to DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), Simmons wanted to see the country on her own. She was never really alone — handlers accompanied her everywhere — but traveling solo meant no fellow travelers to commiserate with when trying to process the mountain of absurdities that exist in this shadowy East Asian country.

Such as standing in the rain with her handlers and making a comment about the rain only to have one of her handlers reply, “Very lucky. Nice sunny day.” Um, no, she knew it was raining because they were standing outside in the rain. Or how about her visit to the Concrete Wall? According to her handlers, the “Concrete Wall” was built by the South Koreans and runs along the entire length of the DMZ (demilitarized zone).

Oh, and it’s invisible from South Korea (again, according to her handlers). In point of fact, it’s invisible from North Korea, too. Because it doesn’t exist. But her handlers insist she look through several pairs of ancient binoculars to marvel at a wall that isn’t there.

If all of this sounds like a wacky remake of the film “The Manchurian Candidate,” you would be right, except for the fact that North Korea isn’t just a movie setting; and the sad reality is that “American imperialists” are not the only people they’re trying to brainwash — every North Korean citizen is told what to think and how to behave by their government.

Hilarious, weird, poignant, and to the point (if offended by expletives, this book may not be for you), Wendy Simmons’ engaging story reveals the mix of emotions an outsider feels when visiting a country that is essentially cut off from the rest of the world. When it becomes clear to Simmons that hardly anything happens spontaneously during her visit — and when it does it prompts immediate DISCUSSIONS (Simmons’ capitalization, by the way) among her handlers — she begins to track what she calls “S*** I think might be real.” Because so much is staged during her trip, the need to connect with something that is true becomes a personal mission.

Each chapter is prefaced with a quote from either Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” or “Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.” These quotes perfectly capture the author’s feeling of having “fallen down a rabbit hole” during her ten-day adventure. For me, the quote that appears before chapter eight says it all: “Well, now that we have seen each other, said the unicorn, if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”