Books that transport me to another world always have a special place my heart. The Girl With Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee took me to North Korea, a country which is secluded and nobody knows anything about it. While reading the book, I went through a roller coaster of emotions; from curiosity to horror and then a melancholic feeling of losing one’s country and family.
2017 has just begun, but I can say that The Girl with Seven Names, for me, will be the best book that I read in 2017!
North Korea, a secret country with universe and laws of its own. We might have heard of human rights violations taking place in this country, but do we really know the inside truth? The Girl With Seven Names, Hyeonseo Lee shares them with you in this incredible book.
Lee grew up in the northeast province of Ryanggang, bordering the Yalu River with China, and her family home was in Hyesan. The first part of the book largely deals with the background of Lee and her parents. Her father was in the military when he met her mother on a train journey. He persuaded her mother for a long time to marry him, but in the end, fate had some other plan. Her mother was married off to somebody else, and from the matrimony, Lee was born. After an unfateful turn of events, Lee’s mother was divorced and she rekindled her romance with the military man. They both got married and Lee was adopted as their own, and that’s where the story begins.
Growing up, Lee witnessed many things which were normal in North Korea for children, but some of the things were really odd for the curious mind like hers. The protection of Kim Portraits, the Bowibu keeping an eye on citizens, the capital punishments and the cut off from the whole world intrigued Lee since childhood, but she never questioned it. The family secret that Lee’s father was, in fact, her stepfather, was kept hidden until few days before Lee’s father was captured, tortured and left to die by North Korea army.
From that point onward, Lee’s life took another direction. Teenage hormones and the world full of new opportunities left her bedazzled. Until one wrong turn. At the age of 17, across the river, the lights from China blinked and mesmerized her, and she crossed the river thinking that she will be back after 2-3 days of freedom. What she didn’t realize that she may never go back to her home again.
In China, her first point of contact was her mother’s trading partner and then her father’s relatives in Shenyang. While she was enjoying her break in China, and days turned into months, she gets a call from her mother worried and asking her not to come back! The authorities were looking for her, a traitor to the regime who has crossed over and if she is ever caught, she will be returned back to the hole that is North Korea. Nobody can go in and nobody can go out. The rules were simple.
As the understanding of never returning home settled in, she started adapting China as her home. She learned Mandarin aggressively and was shielded by her relatives for many years. They tried to arrange her marriage with a Korean Man so that she could also be called Legit in the country. But Lee never wanted to settle for that. She ran away the second time at the eleventh hour to Shanghai, where she started working as a waitress. The job provided her bit of invisibility from Chinese authorities, but the danger was always lurking around her.
To blend in, Lee managed to get a Chinese ID with a different name and landed a better job. And that’s when the inner power to get in touch with family overtook her headstrong nature. She devised many ways to get in touch, sometimes successful and sometimes too dangerous. As the trials grow ever more painful, Lee devises a master plan to seek asylum in South Korea and then get her family out from North Korea.
Now, that’s just the personal side of the story which is melancholic. The factual side is horrific and unbelievable, and that side is North Korea. From the very beginning, The Girl with Seven Names has shown a very real picture of North Korea, things that are unheard of in a world where we live. In a home fire accident, Lee’s father saves the Kim Portraits and not the possessions, but why? Because Lee knew what was at stake if they didn’t save the portraits. Months of torture from the hands of the military and a black mark on their lives that they are not patriots.
And not just this, many other gruesome and dark details are shared by The Girl With Seven Names. In North Korea, there are state commissioned shoes and furniture for every household. The families are run on Songbun, a caste system determined on the basis of what your father was doing during the time just before, during and after the founding of the state in 1948. If you were descended from workers and peasants and fought on the right side of the Korean war, you would be classified as loyal. However, if you were landlords, helped the Japnese during war or escaped to South Korea, you would be categorized as hostile. Even the food was distributed on the basis of your Songbun. A very gruesome picture of famine in North Korea is also shared which will leave you shocked.
There are sacred portraits of Kim under which families dine, socialize and sleep. You need to upkeep the portraits and nothing can happen to them. Specially designated officer’s come to your home to check on the portraits from time to time! You need to clean them with a special cloth provided by the Government which could not be used for anything else! You need to wear a pin of the Great Leader’s face, and there are vigilantes who prowl the streets to catch the defaulters.
The schooling system which is assumed to be free runs on the donation given by kids parents. The donations are considered to be a patriotic duty, to be undertaken without fail by every family. Everything the North Korean kids learn about America is negative. North Koreans believe that America has turned South Korea into a living hell, and the children are famished and begging on the streets, tortured and sometimes killed. Also, it is mandatory from elementary school to attend public execution that happens at the airport!
While reading the book, I was not able to decide what is chilling, Lee’s story or the country that North Korea is. With a very mixed feeling, I finished this book, my eyes enlightened with new knowledge and sadness of people still living under Kim regime. A remarkable and brave story recounted in such a way that it will leave you shocked and melancholic by the end, and goes without saying, The Girl With Seven Names is a must read for this year.
I indulged in some google search after reading the book, and here are some links that I found. Please note, not everyone may not like what I read, so please read at your own discretion: