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May 2013

North Korean Defectors

We continue our tenth anniversary celebration with writing from North Korea. In compiling our September 2003 issue, we discovered North Korean writers can publish only propaganda, and are restricted to official outlets.  As this opaque nation becomes more visible, and threatening, on the international stage, we turn for insight to the only writers free to tell the truth: defectors. From the safety of exile, Gwak Moon-an, Jang Jin-sung, Ji Hyun-ah, Kim Sung-min, Kim Yeon-seul, Lee Ji Myung, and Park Gui-ok document famine, corruption, and the soul-crushing pressure on writers to sacrifice art and individuality in the interest of promoting the state. We thank our guest editor, Shirley Lee, who provides an illuminating introduction. Our special section showcases writing in Swahili by Abdilatif Abdalla, Mwenda Mbatiah, and Ken Walibora.

By Shirley Lee
Two days ago, I stood at the DMZ with one of the authors in this issue, Jang Jin-sung. We looked across toward North Korea together from a guardpost on the South Korean side. Only a barbed wire fence…
I Want to Call Her Mother Again
By Park Gui-ok
My mother’s last words to us as we stood in the middle of the empty potato field, her voice carrying above the razor-sharp wind that seemed to carve away at our flesh, still ring in my ears. “You’re…
Translated from Korean by Sora Kim-Russell
The Poet Who Asked for Forgiveness
By Gwak Moon-an
At its essence, the purpose of North Korean literature is to praise the Korean Workers’ Party. While South Korean poetry deals with topics such as love or life, North Korean poetry refers only to…
Translated from Korean by Shirley Lee
By Jang Jin-sung
Both the seller And the buyer Have nothing to offer but themselves In Pyongyang’s marketplace The filters of cigarette butts Provided cotton for this blanket on display “Face-wash for sale!”…
Translated from Korean by Shirley Lee
The Arduous March
By Ji Hyun-ah
We stayed in the mountain village up until we left the North. Before that, when we had been living in the farming village, we couldn’t afford to visit our relatives in China. But after a few years…
Translated from Korean by Sora Kim-Russell
A Rice Story
By Kim Sung-min
1 As harvest season begins, the field slowly reveals its bare body. The thousand-year-old promise is that you reap what you sow. The land of promise stretches out behind the footprints of man. Winds blow.…
Translated from Korean by Shirley Lee
A Blackened Land
By Kim Yeon-Seul
So many miracles have happened to me in the last few months. I left behind my beloved homeland where I was born and raised and made my way through hell, just under the nose of the grim reaper. Today,…
Translated from Korean by Sora Kim-Russell
After the Gunshot
By Lee Ji Myung
Dark clouds were scattered low and despondent in the sky, loitering above the creeping flow of the river. As it always had, the Aprok River echoed through the deep ravine. The water was rising after a…
Translated from Korean by Shirley Lee
By Abdilatif Abdalla
I too have words; I’ll join those already speaking; I’ll gild my verse so it pleases those who’re reading; Untwist these words, for their sense may be misleading. There’s a croc…
Translated from Swahili by Meg Arenberg
The Wretched of Uhuru
By Mwenda Mbatiah
After Uhuru, a new scramble began. A race for wealth and riches. As one member of parliament who cared about the country’s future put it: with Uhuru had come, sadly, a new contest for lucre. In…
Translated from Swahili by N. S. Koenings
Poor Grandpa!
By Ken Walibora
I never wanted to remember at all, let alone write about, what transpired when I took a walk with Grandpa to the sprawling Kariobangi slum area, that part of the slum known as Korogocho. I didn’t…
Translated from Swahili by Ken Walibora