Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
Ann Shin’s affecting debut novel, The Last Exiles, is an attempt to pull back the curtain on the lives of ordinary North Koreans and reveal their constant struggle to create an existence that is somewhere close to human. The outside world knows little about these people. Occasionally news will leak about the famines and the sorry state of the North Korean economy, but mostly we hear only about Kim Jong-Un and his sabre-rattling, despotism, and murderous treatment of any who challenge him. There are no independent media in North Korea. News from the outside is nonexistent, and domestic bad news is stifled. Television, newspapers, films all have to toe the Party’s line and spread only positive news, heavily larded with extravagant praise for their Dear Leader, lest they incur his wrath. For to anger the Dear Leader is basically to sign one’s death warrant. As a result, ignorance of not just the world, but of their own society is the rule for the North Korean people.
Ann Shin is an award-winning poet and documentary filmmaker. The Defector: Escape from North Korea won her the award for Best Documentary Director at the 2014 Canadian Screen Awards. The film shines a light on the world of North Koreans living illegally in China, “defectors” who, if returned to their home country, face a death sentence. Their underground existence in their country’s much larger and more prosperous neighbour is better materially—but not necessarily much kinder.
In her novel, she uses the research from her documentary to add true-to-life grit to the narrative. The Last Exiles is the story of two lovers, Jin and Suja, who meet at university in North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang. Suja, the daughter of a newspaper journalist, is a member of the privileged class living the Pyongyang. Jin, the son of a factory worker, is from Kanggye, a country town in the centre of the famine-stricken countryside. He has come to university on a scholarship to try to create a new life for himself. The two share a crackling intelligence, and that becomes their bond. Their love is idyllic and hopeful, as with any young couple around the world. But the reality that is North Korea soon sets in.
Shin’s narrative describes not just the harshness of life in North Korea but its surreal quality. By controlling information, the government has essentially brainwashed the populace. Everything is subordinate to maintaining the shining image of the Dear Leader. The true horrors of life in the countryside are hidden from the privileged urban residents of Pyongyang. Even though Jin’s family has had to eat pine bark to stay alive, when he arrives in Pyongyang, Jin still buys into the fantasy of the benevolence of the Dear Leader. Suja, too, accepts the Party line, even though her father is a journalist. But slowly little events cause them both to question things, and their trust in their Dear Leader starts to fray.
Each in their own way, Jin and Suja begin to see the deep wrinkles in the supposedly smooth face of their country. Events separate them, and then each crosses the border illicitly into China—Jin to escape the authorities, Suja to find Jin. There, they discover what it is to be a “Northern,” that is, a defector from North Korea with neither rights nor legitimacy. As they struggle both to survive and reconnect with each other, they shed the last vestiges of their youthful naivete.
China is vastly different from North Korea. Fantasy has no part in the lives of anyone there—not the Chinese, not the Northerns. It is a hard reality, and Jin and Suja learn first-hand the necessary compromises of survival. Perhaps because she spent time in this part of China and saw things first-hand, Shin’s portrayal of the plight of the Northerns is particularly vivid, as are the characters she creates who live there, both Chinese and North Korean. From Chinese farmers who want cheap workers to smugglers bringing foreign goods into North Korea, to the thriving market selling North Korean women as wives to Chinese, Shin fleshes out the reality and the difficulty in maintaining any sort of idealism in such a world.
Yet, if for Suja and Jin ignorance and naivete give way to a realization of the harshness of life, that awareness does not destroy all hope. Shin’s point, based on what she herself has seen and reflected in the diverse characters she has created, is that people are resilient and try to persevere.
Shin has created an enlightening, often shocking, and frequently moving story, opening wide a window on the lives of a part of humanity hidden from the rest of the world for much too long.
The Last Exiles is published by Harper Collins.