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A powerful new book shares dissident stories smuggled out of North Korea

Knowing that the anonymous author of The Accusation is still living in North Korea adds another layer of discomfort; the book you hold in your hands carries huge risks for him and his family.

The Accusation, a collection of courageous and confounding short stories, is an unprecedented work of fiction by an author known only by the pseudonym Bandi. The manuscript, smuggled across North ­Korea’s borders by a relative, is the first piece of non-Juche literature (Juche ideas extol the country’s leader) to be published by a writer still living inside the Hermit Kingdom since the peninsula divided in 1945.

The stories are expertly translated by Deborah Smith, who brought Han Kang’s Man Booker International Prize-winning novel, The Vegetarian, to English-speaking readers. Each has at its heart an accusation, enabling the book to highlight masterfully the ways in which everyone – from an ageing party official to a two-year-old baby – is debased by the fear of committing an unavoidable or unforeseeable crime.

What happens to the parents whose baby is scared of posters of the Great Leader, or to the boy who is caught holding hands with a girl while picking flowers for display during the endless period of mourning for Kim Il-sung? How about the man who accidentally “murders” rice seedlings intended for collective farming, or the son who travels without a permit to visit his dying mother? “What crime have I committed?” he wonders to himself. “Am I a thief or a murderer?” These questions are private thoughts that can never be vocalised and the unpredictability of each “offence” is so unnerving, the punishment so severe, that Bandi’s craftsmanship often lies in his ability to eke out the details, as if this were some dystopian detective drama. The volatility of each scenario makes the outcome feel at once unthinkable and horrendously predictable.

Even though his work shows similarities of both quality and content to stories by authors as various as Gorky, Solzhenitsyn and Chen Ruoxi, or even Chinese contemporaries such as Yan Lianke, it is humbling to realise – given the continued blackout on any non-state-approved literature in North Korea – that Bandi has found his voice alone. And it is clear from his plaintive preface how little he knows of the way the outside world views North Korea: he fears that we, too, must be blinded by its propaganda.

We are used to poking fun from the outside at the state’s unintentionally hilarious news stories, from Kim Jong-il being “the best golfer in the world” to North Korean scientists confirming the existence of unicorns and inventing waterproof liquid. At the same time, the testimonies of those who escape – from high-ranking officials to political prisoners – leave us in no doubt that the human rights abuses under this totalitarian regime have no equal in the modern world. Only last month, we witnessed the bizarre assassination of the estranged half-brother of Kim Jong-un, apparently attacked at Kuala Lumpur Airport by two women, one of them dressed in pink tights and a top emblazoned with “LOL”, who say they thought it was a prank for a reality-TV show.

This chilling coexistence of comedy and tragedy is exploited beautifully by Bandi in “On Stage”, which centres around a young actor who has been investigated for improvising two sketches, “It Hurts, Hahaha” and “It Tickles, Boohoo”. His father, a government official responsible for assessing the “sincerity” of people’s grief during mourning for the Great Leader, is mortified: first by his son’s transgression and later by his own complicity in a world where expressions of sadness and joy are intentionally inverted. In “Pandemonium”, the only way to understand this warped reality is to make up monstrous fairy tales. As an old lady asks, “Where in the world might you find . . . such a den of evil magic, where cries of pain and sadness were wrenched from the mouths of its people and distorted into laughter?”

The Accusation spans the period 1989 to 1995, covering the final years of the reign of Kim Il-sung, whose birthday is still celebrated as the “Day of the Sun”. As a lone representative for ordinary people living in what he calls “fathomless darkness”, Bandi (the name means “firefly”) offers a much more vulnerable form of illumination. Indeed, knowing that he is still living in North Korea adds another layer of discomfort; the book you hold in your hands carries huge risks for him and his family.

It’s a quiet privilege to be given access to the voiceless by listening to such vivid and uncompromised storytelling. And yet, emerging from Bandi’s “fictional” world, where news that doesn’t suit a ­government’s biases has no value, and the leader fixates on how many people attend the celebrations for National Day, this collection of stories seems both a flickering light in North Korea’s darkness and an unintentional reminder that it is getting darker here, too. 

The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea by Bandi, translated by Deborah Smith is published by Serpent’s Tail (256pp, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist