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A Review of Bandi’s The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea

A collection of fictional short stories about life in North Korea, the content of Bandi’s The Accusation is presented anonymously (Bandi is a pseudonym) after being smuggled over the border to the South. Despite being presented as fiction, the stories seem to contain a large kernel of truth.

Passed from a defector to a member of the Citizens Coalition for Human Rights of Abductees and North Korean Refugees in Seoul, these stories deal largely with the dynamics of everyday life in the North. In one, a large group struggles for sustenance and direction as a gruelling train journey is held up by the safety requirements of Kim Jong Il on the move.

Another portrays a tiny moment that changes lives, as a young child grows to fear the symbolic portraits that occupy Pyongyang, and the entire family suffer the consequences. In a third, a man’s efforts to spend time with his dying mother take a tragic turn as he battles red tape.

The characters are at mixed levels of society, but largely not on the bottom rung of the North Korean social scale; while there are references to prison camps, no story is set in one. Instead, they portray everyday types in cities and villages, often non-specific in their location, and take in family life, political interference and the practical difficulties of survival. Whether about food or family, there’s an underlying desire to escape Pyongyang’s more obvious suppressions of freedom.

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Mosaic depicting Kim Il Sung;s homecoming, Pyongyang, North Korea

Dated in the late-80s and early-90s, these tales – simply for portraying the Kim regime in an oblique but obvious bad light – would constitute an act of severe rebellion in North Korea. The best-case scenario for the author, were he to be caught, might be an extended spell in a prison camp, yet at first glance, these passages portray such simple aspects of life in the Hermit Kingdom.

The simple nature of the stories lends itself to a suppressing, overbearing view of horrors and hardships. The presence of fear is like a constant background hum crawling from and between the lines of every page. The ‘citizen’s perspective’ lacks the horrifyingly grandiose nature and exaggerated ridicule of books closer to the leadership, but aligns with the ‘don’t draw attention to yourself’ life of the average person portrayed in many escapees’ memoirs.

Insider Knowledge: 10 Insights I Got from Speaking to Writers

In recent months, I’ve developed a passion for writers’ events – small gatherings where novelists and potential novelists gather to compare notes and talk about their approach to the written word. The events tend to have dual themes: dealing with the nuance of putting pen to paper successfully (be it in marketing, editing, structure, or dialogue), and the presence of talented and acclaimed authors. Those authors who are present tell you their thoughts, processes, and struggles, including the harsh realities of their experience writing, and what they’ve learned on the way to selling a whole lot of books.

I’ve found that listening to writers has impacted heavily on how I read. Certainly, it’s impacted how I read these particular authors’ books, as I have a small sense of where they’re coming from, but it’s also influenced how I see fictional texts in general, from what to read between the lines, to how I shop for books.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. For the writer, characters often run far deeper than a story might suggest.

For a long time, I was confused why J.K. Rowling kept adding little details to the Harry Potter books over the years. From confirming or denying fan theories to assigning sexualities and exploring motivations, Rowling’s clarifications of what was originally written in her award-winning novels have been regular and varied. Recently it clicked for me, when a series of authors told me they’ve already thought about all these unwritten characteristics of their own characters.

They’ve connected with their characters in a way that runs far deeper than the words that actually make it in the final version of book. They’ve envisaged sitting down for a coffee together, they’ve played out scenes in their heads, examined the hidden reasons the characters behave in certain ways, and thought about their belief systems. This works wonderfully when it is passed on subtly to the reader. Whether it’s in surmising a nationality that’s never actually been given, placing a character in a social class, or relating a fictional being to someone you know, the tenuous mental links that come into play because of character development can be what elevates a book. It’s scarcely surprising, then, that authors insist in defining their characters so carefully.

2. A lot of authors don’t like their first books.

In fact, it seems to be a firmly established theme. No doubt we’d all like to think we get progressively better at what we do, but equally, there’s certainly an argument to be made for the very best stories being written by people who’ve been storing them up for a lifetime before putting pen to paper (I can see a logical case for a bookish equivalent to ‘second album syndrome’).

For self-published authors, this dislike of first books seems to come down in a large part to editing. The ability to spot something you’ve written that doesn’t quite deliver your precise meaning in the way you intended is an acquired one, and it takes a great editor to interpret words that never left the mind in inky form. For others, it’s about clarity of point: getting across what you intended, only what you intended, and doing so unambiguously and eloquently. It’s not universal, of course, but there is a definite theme: most writers believe they’re at their best second, third, or fourth time around.