Replacing statistics with narratives
I spent my Halloween weekend shuffling between panels at the Singapore Writers Festival, listening to horror stories. I had been assigned to attend sessions on a variety of discourses, from jazz and poetry to writing about the female body. Instead, I found myself sitting front row at every session featuring Jang Jin-Sung, a North Korean defector, Loung Ung, a survivor of the Pol Pot regime, and Mukesh Kapila, who was the UN commissioner in Sudan as genocide in Darfur broke out.
I have always been curious about mass atrocities, but have reconciled with the impossibility of comprehending certain aspects of human nature. I'm intrigued by tales of survival, by personal memory and collective memory, by how telling their own stories has allowed these individuals to feel like they have control over the world in some way. In writing, meaning emerges from chaos. In reading, empathy replaces apathy.
I read Jang's book, Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee — A Look Inside North Korea, earlier this year. The first version, before the English translation, had been centred on his flight from North Korea, running across the frozen Yalu River into China. It recounts how he survived through the help of various strangers. He didn't talk about the regime that he wanted to forget. When translator Shirley Lee met him, she knew the world wanted to hear about the workings of the most elusive country in the world. Jang made changes, adding details of how the system works to his memoir. In doing so, Jang has written a very real record of the history of North Korea from the inside.
Jang said, with Lee as his translator, "Pardon me. Because I came from the most closed-off country in the world, I don't know English." He left North Korea when he was 30. Now he's 40. "I'm only 10 years old in the free world," he said.
I have looked at every picture of Kim Jong Il looking at things, at Photoshopped variations of Kim Jong Un visiting a lube factory. I had a laugh when a Chinese newspaper picked up The Onion naming Kim Jong Un as 2012's "Sexiest Man Alive" without irony. But I had never thought about how these jokes about North Korea have detracted from the unimaginable cruelty going on in the country. Jokes about Hitler always teeter at the edge of political correctness and are more often in poor taste. Jokes about rape are never acceptable. How, then, are jokes about North Korea defensible?
Jang remembers clearly the moment he became disenchanted with Kim Jong Il. (He was one of the very few individuals who ever had the opportunity to be in the presence of the Dear Leader). Jang saw God in person, and that God wasn't that impressive. Kim Jong Il was wearing a pair of heels.
The soles were about 6cm tall on the outside, with more hidden heels inside the shoes.
"He was probably about 162cm tall," Jang said, of the pivotal instant of disillusion.
I'm struck by the specificity of each personal story, filling the space between sections in history books. The three writers, in telling their own stories, are committed to getting the truth out.
The atrocity committed by the Khmer Rouge has often been glossed over in the scale of the history of the world, Loung Ung pointed out.
As in North Korea, Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge regime were not allowed to have feelings. The regimes worked to silence their subjects — they thrived from it.
She first recognised that her humanity, her freedom, was being stripped away in an incident soon after her family was forced to evacuate Phnom Penh to the countryside, where surveillance on citizens could be more easily conducted. In the span of 72 hours, 2 million people had to leave the city. She remembered the soldiers forcing everyone to stand in a circle, taking the last of their belongings that they had carried on their backs and putting them a pile. She watched her red Chinese New Year dress burn to ashes. She was five years old. Later, she had to stop using her favourite Teochew phrase, which translates to, "Huh? Mosquito bites, butt grows a big bump." Everyone had to wear black all the time.
Kapila spoke of the time a distraught woman fought her way into his UN office in Khartoum. He said she refused to sit on the sofa. She had travelled far, was filthy and didn't want to dirty his furnishings. She sat on the floor and told him how she was raped, how 200 other women were raped in "a public raping ceremony". He represented the UN, the international ideal of goodness, and didn't know what to do.
"What do you want me to do?" he asked her.
What drew me to these stories of these remarkable individuals was not a morbid fascination, but a sense of obligation of conscience. I felt like I was given the privilege of gaining access of their subjective experiences.
The stories about how it happened perhaps bring us closer to understanding, replacing statistics with narratives. They widen the limits of empathy. The horrors become less distant.
Pimrapee Thungkasemvathana is a feature writer for the Bangkok Post's Life section.