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Hyejin Kim: A praised young novelist among GVO authors

Hyejin Kim by Oso

Global Voices celebrates, this month, Hyejin Kim‘s first anniversary as the GVO Korean Language editor. Settled now in Singapore after living in Korea, China, the United States and gaining her Rutgers University Ph. D. in Global Affairs, she works as a development adviser for the Singapore Korean School and as a technical interpreter facilitating exchange between Korean and Singapore markets and governments. Besides, she is a freelance writer: apart from the Global Voices articles, she has written for numerous publications, such as Asia Times and on OhmyNews.com.

Hyejin Kim is also a celebrated young novelist: her debut book, ‘Jia: A Novel of North Korea’, has been highly praised as a very vivid and moving novel set in 1990’s North Korea. Perhaps more poignantly, this was an experience that changed for ever Hyejin's typical post-war upbringing views about not considering ‘North Korean as a real country and North Koreans as real human beings’. But is this first book of hers just a novel? Hyejin lets us know in this interview.

When did you start blogging? What is Katong Couple about?

Honestly speaking, I'm really bad at blogging and the reason why I (and Erik, my husband) made a blog was due to Erik's efforts and Preetam's lecture on how good and how useful it is. I'm still a rookie. Katong Couple is about our lives in Southeast Asia, but not limited in Southeast Asian issues. I know I always have excuses not to write it. We always talk about issues together, but Erik is the only one who writes it. I feel pressure that the next post should be from me, but it hasn't happened yet.

It has been one year since you started collaborating for Global Voices. How did it all start?

I was a citizen reporter of the English section of OhmyNews.com, an online newspaper which citizens can participate in as journalists in Korea. At the OhmyNews Conference in 2006, I met Global voices staff members. For those staff members who have not been in Korea before, I took them to Seoul as a volunteer guide after the conference. It was the first time for me to get to know about what Global Voices is. At that time, I heard that they don't have a Korean editor. Several months later, Georgia contacted me whether I'm interested in participating as the Korean editor. Preetam Rai, Southeast Asian editor, was the one who supported to put me in.

Which is your most memorable post for GVO so far and why?

Hard to choose one. I like all posts when I can see what's really going on in other countries through GV authors and bloggers.

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“While you travel to a new place, reading books about that area whenever you have time is a significant key to travel. Indulged in a book at Borobudur, Yokyakarta, Indonesia”

Which are the main issues reported by the Korean blogosphere?

It is interesting to observe the Korean blogsphere. Korean portal sites are always full of many colors and graphics. There are a lot of popular things that they talk about. Fashion, entertainment, graphics, and their private lives…. But one major issue that netizens love talking is about politic and social parts. Major portal sites have blog reporters. Netizens focus on talking about politics and express their opinions. Arguments over politics are always hot, hot, hot.

Your book has been described as the first novel about present-day North Korea to be published in the West. Is it true that ‘Jia’ is more than just fiction?

Long story… I went to China after finishing my master's degree in 2001. While I studied Chinese and taught English at schools in Northeast China, I had the chance to meet a person who helped North Korean defectors (I only learned this much later after I became a good friend of his). In addition, while I got used to living in Northeast China and traveling in the region, I encountered North Korean children who wandered around the streets. The longer I lived there, the more stories and gossip about North Korean defectors I heard. Another world existed, one that I hadn't recognized or had just ignored. During the time I stayed in Northeast China, by chance I joined a South Korean group who visited churches that were building up missionary activities in towns in the region. Even though I was not a Christian, I was allowed to join their travel after serious consideration (I was rejected twice; when I had given up, they contacted me the night before their travel started). Through the travel, I was able to obtain more stories about North Koreans through direct and indirect interviews.

At one point, my friend and I stayed with a North Korean family that had run away from North Korea. The father, according to his own story, escaped North Korea after the leader of an underground, anti-regime group to which he belonged was executed. During the interview with him, a professional soldier who had worked as a guard at one of the most famous hotels, the idea of writing a story first hit me. Around the same time, a North Korean woman I got to know through my friend became the inspiration for the character ‘Jia.’ In real life, she ran away from North Korea and married a Chinese man who could not communicate with her due to the language barrier. Even though she had a chance to go to a safer place, she rejected the opportunity to leave China because of the child she had left in North Korea. She wanted to live in a place closer to her hometown and child. Due to guilt and stress about being caught, she suffered from chronic headaches and depression, but never begged for financial support and never stopped putting on a cheerful face.

When I had chances to go back to South Korea, I started gathering information and research materials related to North Korean defectors and life in North Korea. Based on interviews and fieldwork, I framed the story. After returning to the U.S., I started writing the whole story.

Jia: A Novel of North Korea

Jia: A Novel of North Korea's paperback cover

What does it tell the world about North Korea, this country which is so closed to outside world?

The reason why I felt compelled to write this story was that I wanted to share what I have felt when I encountered North Koreans in a third place, not in North Korea and not South Korea. I also wanted to focus on PEOPLE's lives, not just repeat what the media tells us about how bad the North Korean regime is and how crazy Kim Jong Il is.

The novel format gave me the opportunity to relate the amazing stories of the North Koreans I met. Indeed, I hope readers come away from the book having learnt something about the kinds of struggles some North Koreans face. In addition, through ‘Jia’ I tried to allow North Koreans to tell their own stories. Too often we hear about North Koreans from the perspectives of others. Reports often portray North Koreans as ‘victims’ or North Korea as ‘evil,’ but those characterizations don't do justice to the experiences of individual North Koreans. I tried to allow the personal struggles of North Koreans to come though in ‘Jia,’ without obscuring those stories in the political lenses of international security, human rights, or the Korean desire for reunification.

Are you working on another book at the moment? As a writer, what inspires you?

I am working on an article for a book that is part of a series of a book, Reading Current TV, with Manchester Metropolitan University. It is about the role of broadcasting and language policies in Singapore. It will discuss how language policies that have been implemented in Singapore have been connected to major TV channels in Singapore. A little bit academic style…

Besides that, I'm jotting down several stories in my computer or my notebook now, but I don't know whether they will come out as a book. It's just my habit to write memos when ideas arise. I make a story based on my messy memos.

As a writer, talking with people from different cultures, and encountering them would be one of the biggest inspirations for me. It always makes me look at myself.

You have been “based in a different country almost every year”. Any good tips for packing and unpacking and traveling? Which is your favorite place in the world?

Now I'm based in one place and try to travel as much as possible whenever I have time. Good tips for packing and unpacking? Try not to pack so much. Try not to unpack so much!

My favorite place is anywhere I can see local people and anywhere I can see their lives. I love wet markets and small alleys. When I travel, I try to harass my feet as much as possible.

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“Myself, exhausted after walking for several hours in a tropical area. Physical tiredness seems not to take my cheerfulness away”

About her book:

Jia: A Novel of North Korea
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Cleis Press (June 14, 2007)
Language: English

Read a review of Jia at the Asiance Magazine and see other reactions.

5 comments

  • Nice meeting you Hyejin! All the best with your writing adventures and Thank You Paula for yet another amazing insight!

  • […] There is an interesting interview with Global Voices contributor, Kim Hye-Jin, a Korean contributor to Global Voices, who has written a novel called Jia — A Novel of North Korea. The interview is here. […]

  • Hi! I wish you the best of luck on your writing ventures, Mrs. Hyejin. I liked these sentences:

    “I studied Chinese and taught English at schools in Northeast China”

    “she suffered from chronic headaches and depression, but never begged for financial support”

    “It’s just my habit to write memos when ideas arise”

    “When I travel, I try to harass my feet as much as possible”

    –beautifully written.

  • […] 4月 29, 2008 · No Comments Title: Jia: A Novel of North Korea Author: Hyejin Kim […]

  • […] Kim Hyejin has a varied career background. She worked in private, public and non-profit sector organizations, holding positions in China at a Dubai-based transnational education firm and in Singapore as managing director of an international school. She currently works as the deputy convener of the Global Studies program and lecturer in political science at the National University in Singapore. As an interdisciplinary scholar of globalization, Kim researches topics of ethnicity, education and transnational business. She holds degrees in anthropology, Chinese studies and global affairs. Kim has written four books – two in English, two in Korean – based on her fieldwork in China and Korea. One is an academic work on tension between South Koreans and China-born Koreans. Two others are aimed at wider audiences, discussing issues of food and education in China. Finally, her most important work for North Korea watchers is a novel about North Korean people: Jia: A Novel of North Korea, is based on tales from people she met while traveling in northeast China. Kim explained to NK News that she never intended to write the book: “I simply encountered many interesting people and heard their stories. I kept notes. These are the habits of someone trained in anthropology who is curious about the social world around her. One day those notes formed a story in my head.” […]

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