Suki Kim is an investigative journalist, novelist, and the only writer ever to live undercover in North Korea. In 2011, Kim Jong Il’s final year, Kim spent six months posing as a Christian missionary and an English teacher in Pyongyang, documenting the psychology of the future leaders of North Korea, which resulted in her New York Times bestselling work of literary nonfiction, Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite. Kim has also written for the New York Times, New York Review of Books, Harper’s, and The New Republic, where she is a contributing editor. Her first novel, The Interpreter, was a finalist for a PEN Hemingway Prize. Born and raised in Seoul, Kim lives in New York.
EB: How did you begin writing nonfiction?
SK: My first book was a novel. But the very month The Interpreter was published was actually the same month that my first longform nonfiction was published. For me, it was always a natural transition. They are both prose I feel comfortable in so I can’t recall a point when it all began. Perhaps it’s about the subject. Some subjects require nonfiction, and in this case, the topic of my first nonfiction was North Korea.
EB: Was writing your novel a different experience than writing nonfiction?
SK: I think of [writing fiction and nonfiction] as exceptionally separate and yet similar. The nonfiction that I have done has mostly been reporting-based, and that is such a different process—the reporting itself creates material. With fiction, with my first novel, I also did in-depth research. The story was about an interpreter, so I got a job as an interpreter for a year for to get into her mindset. From then on, fiction takes over, and you can go anywhere with it. With nonfiction, you don’t have the same kind of freedom because it’s all fact-based. I don’t “create” facts, but I can enrich and enliven those facts with my language and writerly intention and instinct.
EB: Do you see each of the genres in nonfiction as differently as you see fiction versus nonfiction? Your essay “The Reluctant Memoirist” for The New Republic is about your frustration with your publisher’s decision to call Without You, There Is No Us a “memoir.” How do you understand the divisions in nonfiction?
SK: It’s an interesting division within the genre. Literary investigative nonfiction is how I would define my book. There are types of nonfiction writing that are not reporting-based, but Without You, There Is No Us is entirely reporting-based. Yet, my book is not a straightforward reporter’s nonfiction.
The book has a lot of personal details and uses the first person perspective, but I used those in order to explain the subject better. I myself have a history with Korea, and to deliver that strange, surreal world of living with the sons of North Korea’s elite to the average reader outside, I had to also become a character of the book. Whatever personal details I put in there were to approach the subject of North Korea in a literary way, and to bring the readers closer.
Memoir has to have some sort of spiritual awakening for the writer. There are powerful things that memoirs do, and my book doesn’t do any of that. Memoirs don’t use undercover investigation, and memoirs are about the writer. My book is not about me, but about North Korea.
EB: Can you give an example of how you used your personal story to enhance your reporting?
SK: One of the devices I used was the concept of a lover as an anchor and a human connection. If millions of families [in North and South Korea] are forcefully separated and have spent seven decades missing each other, I needed to bring in the concept of a profound longing for the “beloved.” But once the book was labeled a memoir, everything became literal, and very few people understood that intention. That one thread, about a lover back in Brooklyn (the symbol of a contemporary world that was so far from Pyongyang), was used as a literary device, but people thought I was just talking about some boyfriend, talking about my life—I mean, who cares about that? What I was doing creatively, with a precise authorial intention, was overshadowed and misunderstood and clouded by the mislabeling of the genre.
EB: When your publisher told you Without You, There Is No Us was going to be sold as a memoir, did you have to rewrite your book to make it “memoir-y” to fit the category, or did your book remain the same as it always was and only the label changed?
SK: Just the label changed. I had a book contract going into North Korea—the whole time I was there I knew I was writing a book—but it was just a general nonfiction contract. I finished editing the manuscript, delivered it to my publisher, and only when the book cover arrived, I saw it said “memoir.”
EB: Wow. You went to bed an investigative journalist, and woke up a memoirist.
SK: I think what is so unfortunate about genre is that people think about it as so black and white. It’s either reported nonfiction or it’s a memoir. But that’s not true. There is a whole tradition of literary nonfiction that involves blending [genres]. There are the bones of the story, which would be the reporting, but then you try to build the story in a literary way—not just handing over information but handing over ideas. But depending on how the publisher packages the book, people only look at it as one way or another.
EB: Because I’m sure, of course, that people pick up a memoir expecting something different than when they pick up a work of investigative journalism?
SK: Yes. The judgment is different, and the expectation is different. The book reached a different audience than it would have, had it been labeled correctly.
EB: That is so incredibly frustrating. When I first picked up Without You, There Is No Us, my first impression, from reading the back, was that you were this English teacher who had spent time in North Korea, and only after the fact, decided to reflect on her time and write a memoir about the experience. Only once I started reading did I realize that you were undercover, that you knew you were writing this book the whole time, and that you were putting your life in danger to write it. Don’t get me wrong, I love memoirs, but I feel that labeling your book as a memoir really undermined the major risks you took as an investigative journalist.
SK: It undermined everything. The writing got undermined, which is why almost no reviews acknowledged the literary value of the book, or the actual investigative findings or the weight that comes with the fact that this was the first ever undercover account from within North Korea. And then also, the book wasn’t eligible for any awards except in the memoir category, where, certainly, the book would have been a misfit.
EB: You talk about this a bit in “The Reluctant Memoirist,” but how do you think being a woman and being a woman of color, specifically an Asian woman, has affected your experience as a writer? Do you think if a man wrote your book, the agents and editors would have even considered selling it as a memoir?
SK: Gender absolutely has everything to do with it. I can name a bunch of male writers, and they would never end up in my situation. We know so little about North Korea, and that’s what makes the information in the book invaluable. No one had ever gone into that gulag of a nation undercover to live there, amongst North Koreans, and came out with 400 pages of notes, taken in secret, yet, if a male had done it, why would anyone look at it as not an investigation? I think [the publishers] could not look at me as that and give me the credit of having done this incredibly important and dangerous reporting. I feel embarrassed saying that even to you, that I did something that no one had ever done before. Women are perhaps trained not to be so forthright that way; whatever we say ends up being construed as either bragging or complaining. If a man had done it, they would have announced it to the world, and heightened the “danger” aspect, but in fact, I kept that more understated because the book wasn’t about the danger I was in, but about the young North Korean men and the lives they were leading.
Not only that, then my book gets confused with all the memoirs about defectors of North Korea, because apparently that is the only category allowed for Korean women when writing about North Korea; most books on North Korea are by white journalists based on interviews with those defectors. Some people dismissed the book as me, a Korean person, merely having gone home. I am an American writer of a South Korean origin, and I live in Manhattan. I certainly did not go home to North Korea, and calling it that undermines the risk I took.
EB: I can’t even… I don’t know what to say. I can’t imagine how upsetting this is.
SK: Also once people look at my book as a memoir, then they can accuse me of lying, [of pretending to be someone I was not]. I often now get described as a “Korean schoolteacher,” which is not true. I’m not a schoolteacher, I’m a writer! I’m not a defector, I’m a writer! No one called Ted Conover [the author of Newjack] a prison guard. He is a writer who went undercover as one. It’s so clear in his case, so why is it so hard to fathom in my case?
It’s all there: orientalism, sexism, racism. I gave a TED Talk, which was very successful, but for a long time the title was “How to be a teacher in North Korea,” instead of “This is what it’s like to go undercover in North Korea,” which is what I had asked to call it. Something as simple as that. Because for some reason, even my book wasn’t enough of a proof that I was a writer.
EB: The accusation of lying must be especially painful, after you took such great care as an investigative journalist to keep precise notes and check facts.
SK: It’s only once the world could look at me as a journalist, then they could give me the credit of going undercover. Until then, my undercover reporting is simply “lying.” It doesn’t seem to matter that I already had a book contract, that I had written about North Korea for years, that my nonfiction had been published widely. None of those evidences seem to matter to those who accuse me of lying. I also get accused of selling out my students. But I didn’t, because they weren’t my students, they were my subjects. And I protected them [by changing names, obscuring their identities], which is what journalists do for their subjects.
EB: But I’m sure people saw that protection as “more lies.”
SK: Thinking about the book as a memoir makes it seem that I went and lived my life and wrote about it afterward, in safety, with no repercussions. Even the incredibly smart people at the New York Times wrote a feature about my deception. But there isn’t any other way to write about North Korea besides undercover.
Shane Bauer, who went undercover as a prison warden for a Mother Jones feature, recently wrote to me to offer his own puzzlement over the bias in the reaction, saying that he has only been getting praise [for his undercover work], while I’ve been maligned in every way.
Perspective changes everything. If people read my book as investigative journalism, then they are reading for facts. Instead, it reached a different readership as a memoir. My book proved, if you look hard enough, that the regime change was meticulously planned in 2011, as if Kim Jong-il’s death by that December was also being planned, because the whole school was formed as a shelter for young leadership during that transition.
Mislabeling genre can erase a book. I really care about this topic. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have jumped in undercover. People who are living there cannot get their story out, so I went in, and all that corruption––sexism, racism, Orientalism––did an unforgivable disservice in silencing that brutal truth.
EB: Well. Clearly you’ve had to deal with a lot of challenges when it came to writing this specific book. What has been challenging about writing nonfiction in general?
SK: I wrote a profile of Marco Rubio during his campaign, and a report on a smuggler on the border of China and North Korea, and for both pieces I did a narrative portrait, very reporting-heavy. With Rubio’s campaign, I spent a month, retracing his childhood in Florida, and going to his talks in Iowa, all in order to gather enough information, and character, and spirit, to write a feature. Narrative nonfiction is getting into the character, and balancing the facts and my perspective. The balance is always a challenge. As much as I bring myself [into these stories], I also need to disappear. What I was trying to get at was my vulnerability. If I can break down that barrier, I think the readers can reach through me to that subject.
You read news for information, not for empathy. However, when you’re reading a great novel, you feel like you’re the person you’re reading about—we can all become that character. So that is the gap that narrative nonfiction fills. We don’t own Marco Rubio, but with enough insight in reporting and description, we can feel as though we understand as much as we can.
EB: And what has been rewarding about writing nonfiction?
SK: I don’t really enjoy reporting. I am an introvert. It’s really hard for me to be out in the world and gather information. Reporting doesn’t come naturally to me, and approaching strangers, and having to connect intimately and as sincerely as you are able, so they tell you their story, which feels like a paradox but real reporting happens through sincere connections, I believe—I get little panic attacks. Most days, it’s a struggle for me to even open emails, and I find social media overwhelming. That’s probably why North Korea was so hard, every time I had to go and make all these calls to strangers, my stomach would sink every time. But then of course, everything also becomes really high-pitched.
When I was writing about Marco Rubio, I didn’t have to live in Florida for a month, but I did, as I had to about North Korea or even about being an interpreter. [The writing] has to honor that difficulty, and that is when it becomes really rewarding. I am trying to deliver that world, not just that information, to the reader. I had to make it seem like you could really touch this place.
[Kim’s most recent piece about how she became embroiled in the Lionel Shriver controversy at the Brisbane Book Festival ran in The New Republic in September.]
EB: Finally, what is a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer?
SK: “What gives journalism its authenticity and vitality is the tension between the subject’s blind self absorption and the journalist’s skepticism. Journalists who swallow the subject’s account whole and publish it are not journalists but publicists.”—Janet Malcolm
E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, The Rumpus, Ploughshares, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.