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2 July 2010

Barbara Demick wins the 2010 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize

The judges commend her account of ordinary lives in North Korea.

By Mike Sweeney

Barbara Demick has won this year’s 2010 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. Her book, Nothing to Envy, is an account of ordinary life under North Korea’s authoritarian regime.

Evan Davis, chair of the judging panel and a BBC radio presenter, said: “It is the personal detail in Nothing to Envy that makes it both gripping and moving. Nowhere will you find a better account of real life in North Korea, a society that is all too easily comically typecast by massive parades of co-ordinated flag-wavers.”

The book was reviewed by Charlotte Middlehurst for the New Statesman in February:

The award-winning journalist Barbara Demick tells the stories of six North Koreans and their journeys away from Kim Jong-il’s totalitarian communist regime. These are tales of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, accounts of their struggle to reconcile the mantra of their beloved leader – “Father is here, there is nothing to envy” – with the fear, famine and repression engulfing them. The description by Mi-ran, a young teacher of a kindergarten class in 1994, is typical: “They looked like they were growing younger . . . their big heads lolled on top of their scrawny necks; their delicate ribcages protruded over waists so small you could encircle them with your hand.”

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Demick, who became the first Los Angeles Times bureau chief in Korea in 2001, weaves such stories, derived from interviews and conversations conducted over a number of years, into a compelling narrative. Her book is a reminder that oral history is one of our greatest resources. Its use in Nothing to Envy makes for a valuable contribution to the literature on North Korea.

Nothing to Envy
Barbara Demick
Granta Books, 272pp, £14.99