Mislabeled As A Memoirist, Author Asks: Whose Work Gets To Be Journalism? | KUOW News and Information

Mislabeled As A Memoirist, Author Asks: Whose Work Gets To Be Journalism?

Jul 1, 2016
Originally published on July 1, 2016 10:38 am

Suki Kim spent 10 years researching and visiting North Korea. In 2011, she spent six months teaching at a university in Pyongyang — and working undercover as a journalist.

During that time, Kim secretly documented the lives of 270 of North Korea's elite — young men who were being groomed as the country's future leaders — at the center of the country's regime change.

Kim's reporting turned into the book Without You, There Is No Us, which — much to her dismay — was marketed as a memoir. She wrote in The New Republic recently that the book was not only miscategorized as a North Korean Eat, Pray, Love -- a memoir of self-discovery by the writer Elizabeth Gilbert — but it was also trivialized. Kim argued that her investigative reporting would not have been confused for a personal narrative account were she not Korean or a woman.

"As an Asian female, I find that people rarely assume I'm an investigative journalist; even after I tell them, they often forget," Kim wrote. "Having spent my formative years in America not speaking English, I know how to be mute; my accent sometimes makes people assume I am naive. I am good at disappearing. I am aware that such apparent weaknesses can in fact be advantages."

Kim spoke with Morning Edition's David Greene about reaction to her book, and how all that's intertwined with her identity as a South Korean-born American journalist.


Interview Highlights

On calling her book a memoir

I did not know that this was going to be a memoir until the very last minute, when the book cover arrived and I saw the words. And I immediately said, "I don't under[stand]. I mean this is not a memoir." I never thought of it as that. The book has personal perspectives, but all of that was used to explain this foreign world. Now suddenly my reporting was not acknowledged once you call it "memoir."

On being a Korean female journalist

At the time, all the professionals who are book makers were certain and said to me, "We need to put memoir on the cover because that's what this is." But you know, that decision, when I finally said yes to that, had a whole chain of reactions and wrong path that I had not envisioned. Much of it had to do with, you know, the racist and sexist reception of it. But to be honest, also, to look at this as a memoir, whether its a shrewd business decision or not, if my name was not Suki Kim, if I was not Korean female, that would have never happened.

On whether or not it was better business to brand the book as a memoir

I just think that in a general way, if I were a white male who is the only person to have infiltrated to live undercover into the biggest gulag nation in the world, and I've come out with documentation that marks the final era of Kim Jong Il living with future leaders, there's no way that the public, or the publisher, or the reviewers would look at that fact and say, "Let's call it a memoir."

On whether "cultural cluelessness" was at work in how her book was marketed

I think that racism and sexism, even when they're naive, are racism and sexism. The result is the same. There's an invaluable information that was investigative, and it was not credited as that or looked at as that.

On having to "beg for acknowledgement"

It's constantly having to explain myself, you know? Like, I wrote the book — that's what writers do. You research it and then you write it as best as you can. It took me a decade to do that on this book. And once it was published, I had to constantly explain who I am and what I did. And it's as if I was being muted. I came to America, and actually English is my second language, and I felt mute in my teen years. And this book that was unbelievably impossible for me to pull off when I finally did, I felt muted here in America.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK. The journalist Suki Kim spent months working undercover in North Korea as a teacher in Pyongyang. We spoke to her about her book, "Without You, There Is No Us: My Time With The Sons Of North Korea's Elite," back in 2014. But that is actually not the book's whole title. Kim's publishers added the words a memoir to the end of it. In a column in the New Republic this week, Kim says they were trying to brand her story as a North Korean "Eat, Pray, Love" instead of investigative journalism.

Could you start by just reminding us what you had to go through to write your book?

SUKI KIM: I wrote a book about what's inside North Korea, so my fifth time in North Korea I went in to live there. And I ended up posing - working in this school that was run by evangelical Christians in collaboration with the regime to educate the sons of North Korean elite. And then, you know, of course I - basically, what I ended up documenting was the final six months of Kim Jong Il's life and the psychology of those young men. You know, Kim Jong Il died when I was there. I was one of the only witness - foreign witnesses of that era and that time. And that's what the book was.

GREENE: Certainly one of the only foreign journalists, if not the only foreign journalist to be there witnessing this moment.

KIM: I think I am actually - I mean, the only one to actually have to lived there undercover. People have gone in. It's not that hard, in a way, to go for a few days on these media junkets. But you can't really get anything behind North Korea by doing that because it's such a land of propaganda. And I knew that, which is why that took so long in order to find a way to actually live there. That's the only way - going undercover was the only method to get to the deeper side of the story. It's just - it's a country that is the perpetrator of the greatest violations against human rights according to the U.N.

GREENE: So when your publisher markets your book as a memoir, explain to me what exactly bothered you.

KIM: I did not know that this was going to be a memoir until the very last minute when the book cover arrived, and I saw the words, and I immediately said this is not a memoir. I never thought of it as that. The book is - has personal perspectives, but all of that was used in order to explain this foreign world. Now, suddenly, my reporting wasn't acknowledged once you call it memoir.

GREENE: Is there an argument that your publisher, you know, in the shrewd world of book publishing, had decided that the way to sell the most books for you and for them was to market it as a memoir?

KIM: You know, that's - it looks like that is what happened. At the time, all of the professionals who are bookmakers said to me this book has - you know, we need to put memoir on the cover because that's what this is. But, you know, that decision when I finally said yes to that had a whole chain of reactions and wrong path that I had not envisioned. Much of it had to do with the racist and sexist reception of it. But to be honest, also, to look at this as a memoir, whether it's a shrewd business decision or not, if my name was not Suki Kim, if I was not Korean female, that would have never happened.

GREENE: You don't think so. So - which makes it sound like it wasn't necessarily a business decision. You see something deeper going on.

KIM: Well, I just think that in a general way, if I were a white male who is the only person to have infiltrated to live undercover into the biggest gulag nation in the world and have come out with documentation that marks the final era of Kim Jong Il - living with the future leaders, there is no way that the public or the publisher would look at that fact and say let's call it a memoir.

GREENE: Suki, it - could there be some sort of cultural cluelessness at work here? I mean, people, you know, knowing that you grew up in South Korea on the peninsula sort of thinking that this made it more of a memoir because it was a country that was so close to where you grew, up, could there be something, you know, naive going on that you might find offensive but might be forgivable?

KIM: I don't know. I mean, I think that racism and sexism even if - when they're naive are racism and sexism. The result is the same. There's an invaluable information that was investigative and it was not credited as that or looked at as that.

GREENE: You wrote at the end of your essay that part of you writing about this was feeling like you need to beg for acknowledgement.

KIM: Because I just couldn't, you know, it's constantly having to explain myself, you know? It took me a decade, this book. And once it was published, I had to constantly explain who I am and what I did. And it's as if I was being muted. You know, I came to America and actually English is my second language. And I felt mute in my teen years. And this book that was just unbelievably impossible for me to pull it off - when I finally did, I felt muted here in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: Suki Kim is a contributing editor to the New Republic. She's also author of "Without You, There Is No Us." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.