The Accusation by Bandi: Hannah Westland on short stories smuggled out of North Korea
When Serpent's Tail publisher Hannah Westland bought Bandi's The Accusation last year, she knew she was onto something special. The Guardian immediately reported on the collection, predicting it would be an 'international literary sensation'; at the end of last year, it was awarded an English PEN Translates Award. Here, Hannah describes what makes these short stories so important.
Quite a lot has been written about North Korea, but how much do we really know about life under one of the world’s most secretive regimes?
You might have heard of books such as Krys Lee’s How I Became a North Korean, Barbara Demmick’s Nothing to Envy and Hyeonseo Lee’s The Girl With the Seven Names. But all of these are either works by people who have escaped from the regime, or by South Korean writers, or by Western journalists.
The Accusation is, to our knowledge, the first book of fiction to emerge that was actually written by someone living within the North Korean regime.
This is a collection of stories written between 1989 and 1995 by Bandi, a pseudonym for the author whose real identity cannot be revealed. We know that Bandi is from the North East of North Korea, that he is part of the regime’s official writers league, and that his gradual disillusionment at the regime’s corruption and cruelty led him to secretly document daily life as he saw it around him.
We know that he kept these writings hidden for many years, until recently one of his relatives defected to South Korea, and was able to arrange for the manuscript to be smuggled out.
When we think about North Korea we often think about it in monolithic ways – we think of giant posters of Kim, mass demonstrations, people in identical uniforms. This makes it quite hard to imagine it as a place of individual human beings. The Accusation takes us beyond that surface, and presents us with stories about the reality of daily life for individuals and families under the regime.
So we have family disputes and fighting husbands and wives and petty local politics. Small communities riven by gossip, suspicions and informants, the challenges of caring for an unwell child in a country short of resources. The regime hovers over every part of every person’s life in these stories, but the character’s emotional responses, usually hidden to us, are on full display. So we have people raging against the regime in their heads or the privacy of their own homes and we have people trying to escape.
These stories are simple and plainly written, but devastating in their impact. The author’s bravery in writing them and having them smuggled out cannot be overestimated.
This is why over fifteen international publishers will be publishing them across the world this year. This book is a major international event – not just a literary event but a political event too.
The Accusation has been translated by Deborah Smith, who translated Han Kang’s Man Booker-winning THE VEGETARIAN. We hope you will be as excited as we are about this extraordinary book.
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