Click away from this blog immediately and go read Suki Kim’s angry and disturbing article “The Reluctant Memoirist” about the marketing and reception of her book Without You There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite. It’s a fascinating exploration about the intersection of journalism, marketing, race, and sex.
Some of you may remember hearing about her book, which recounts her daring and adventurous mission to penetrate and report on North Korea by working as an ESL teacher at an evangelical Christian university that catered to the DPRK’s elite young men. In her article for The New Republic, where she serves as a contributing editor, she recounts the potential danger she faced in the service of reporting on the world’s most locked-down and closed off dictatorship, or “virtual prison state,” as Kim calls it:
North Korea is a place where the act of journalism is nearly impossible. Talking to citizens will get you nothing more than the party line, and most information about North Korea is related by Western journalists, who either visit the country on brief press junkets or record and repackage the unverifiable accounts of defectors. Having been born and raised in South Korea, I am fluent in the country’s language and culture, which enabled me to glean the subtleties beneath the surface, without the censoring presence of an official translator.
As I taught, I lived in a locked compound under complete surveillance: Every room was bugged, every class recorded. I scribbled down conversations as they happened and buried my notes in a lesson plan. I wrote at night, erasing the copy from my laptop each time I signed off, saving it to USB sticks that I carried on my body at all times. I backed up my research on an SD card, which I hid in the room in different spots, always with the light off, in case there were cameras. After six months, I returned home with 400 pages of notes and began writing.
When she finished a draft of her book, her editor read it and loved it, but when it was returned to her, two words were subscribed to her title: A Memoir. Kim recalls,
I immediately emailed my editor. “I really do not feel comfortable with my book being called a memoir,” I told her. “I think calling it a memoir trivializes my reporting.” Memoir, after all, suggests memories—the unresolved issues of the past, examined through the author’s own experiences. My work, though literary and at times personal, was a narrative account of investigative reporting. I wasn’t simply trying to convey how I saw the world; I was reporting how it was seen and lived by others.
My editor would not budge. She noted that my book was written in the first person—a device I had employed, like many journalists, to provide a narrative framework for my reporting. To call it journalism, she argued, would limit its potential readership. I did not quite understand then that this was a sales decision. I later learned that memoirs in general sell better than investigative journalism.
The bulk of Kim’s essay described the racialized and gendered landscape that investigative journalists face both in their reporting and then in the marketing of their writing. Her profession–like all of them–assumes that objective authority is vested in white men only, in spite of the fact that white men are in many if not most places around the globe too conspicuous to do serious investigative journalism. It also assumes that women–especially nonwhite women–write from a personal and subjective viewpoint. Hence her editor’s decision to market her book as a memoir, rather than as a daring and hard-hitting look at the DPRK from the formative years of the next generation of its leaders. Her two-word analysis: “Orientalism reigns.”
So with her book branded as a memoir, then, she not applauded for her intrepid adventure, but was accused by reviewers (official reviewers, and random Twitter a-holes alike) of dishonesty and “deception” because she reported under cover:
[W]hen my book was finally published in the fall of 2014, the backlash came not from North Korea, but from a source I had not expected: other reporters. As my publisher began to promote my book, several journalists took to the internet to denounce me. They called me “deeply dishonest” for going undercover. They slammed me as a “selfish person” for using my access at the university to write a “kiss-and-tell memoir.” They accused me, without any evidence, of “putting sources at risk.” In their eyes, it seemed, I was a memoirist treading on journalistic turf, a Korean schoolteacher who sold out her students for a quick buck.
For the most part, the attacks ignored the substance of what I had written—my investigative findings—and focused instead on my methods. “What she wrote is nothing too shocking or new,” went a typical tweet. “She lied and risked people’s lives for financial gain.” When I was interviewed by the BBC, the radio hosts read aloud a damning letter they received from the university in North Korea, and accosted me for betraying my employer. In discussion threads on Facebook, people accused me of going to North Korea for “the sole purpose of using the experience to make money by producing a book,” which might or might not have to do with the fact that my book made the New York Times best-seller list. My inbox began to be bombarded with messages from strangers: “Shame on you for putting good people in harm’s way for your gain.” One morning, I woke up to a Twitter message that read, simply: “Go fuck yourself.”
When the first review was published by Kirkus, I was shocked to see the words “deceive” and “deception” three times in the first paragraph. The Chicago Tribunequestioned my ethics: “Her book raises difficult questions about whether this insight is worth the considerable risk to these innocents, none of whom knew her real reasons for being there.” The Los Angeles Review of Books went even further: “Her dishonesty has left her open to criticism, and rightfully so. The ethics of her choice cast doubt on her reliability (another de facto peril of memoir), and her fear of discovery appears to have colored her impressions and descriptions with paranoia and distrust.”
Additionally, she discovered that with her book marketed as a memoir, it wasn’t eligible for journalism prizes! As the kids say these days, “cool, cool–.” She admits that she benefits from the assumption that because she’s a small, Asian woman, she can’t be anyone who’s terribly important or informed or dangerous. At the same time, she gets little of the credit for the substantial risks she takes as a reporter.
As an Asian female, I find that people rarely assume I’m an investigative journalist; even after I tell them, they often forget. Having spent my formative years in America not speaking English, I know how to be mute; my accent sometimes makes people assume I am naïve. I am good at disappearing. I am aware that such apparent weaknesses can in fact be advantages. The less threatening your subjects perceive you to be, the more careless they are in revealing information, which makes it easier for the writer to infiltrate a world without being conspicuous. Joan Didion, inSlouching Towards Bethlehem, notes a similar quandary: “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate, that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests.”
The decision to put “memoir” on the cover of the book had further repercussions, such as the choice for reviewers made by many publications–other memoirists or other Asian American women, not (for example) foreign policy experts or journalists on the Asian beat.
Just go read the whole thing, and let me know what you think. Have you experienced anything like what Kim reports in your academic writing and publishing? I may have, in terms of a book’s packaging. I found Kim’s remarks on the power of two little words on the cover of the book to be so revealing: a memoir. I’ve long wondered about how my first book, Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England might have been reviewed differently if I had merely transposed two words in the subtitle, from War and Gender to Gender and War. On the one hand: the military historians found and reviewed my book immediately. On the other: most of my first reviewers weren’t women’s or gender historians, which puzzled me because I think it’s clear that I’m much more of a women’s and gender historian than I am a military historian. (And some military historians agree!)
Kim is angry, and her article is one helluva screed about the politics and marketing of investigative journalism and journalists. I was fascinated by this book when I first learned about it in 2014, but of course, I have so many other books to read that it fell off my radar. I’m going to go find a copy to read for fun over the holiday weekend. What better way to celebrate American independence by reading about a “prison state” like the DPRK? Although Kim is right that it’s a tragic irony that she got more flack about her work in the U.S. than she did from North Korea, it seems like her book is a fitting one for thinking about American values, intellectual liberty and a free press above all, and how we must work to make them a lived reality for us all.