Mainland hooked on 'China that hasn't grown up'

Story of North Korean defectors popular over the border - even though it's not available there

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 July, 2014, 6:20am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 July, 2014, 6:20am

Barbara Demick's prizewinning work about the lives of six ordinary North Koreans isn't available on the mainland, let alone in Chinese, yet it is proving popular across the border.

"I've been really shocked to find that Chinese readers are so interested in the book," Demick said after giving a talk at the Book Fair. "They've read it by downloading it off the internet - which normally I would discourage, but I'm glad they're reading it."

Demick, who is Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, published Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea in 2009, after interviewing North Korean defectors in China.

It has received widespread acclaim in the West and in Asia, winning the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2010.

"Chinese people are fascinated because North Korea is China as it once was - it's a China sort of stuck between the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution," she said. "It's a China that hasn't grown up and I think when readers read the book they can see how far their own country has come."

While the book has not been published on the mainland because, as Demick explains, North Korea is still a sensitive subject for the government, she hopes that it might one day find its way into book stores there. "I think China is portrayed in a favourable light - it allows people to take stock of things and see what could have gone wrong and what didn't."

Demick believes the stories of North Koreans living in deprivation are relevant to mainland Chinese readers, who feel more "intimately involved in Korean history". One family wakes to find their son lying dead next to them, having starved to death.

But she said her aim was to inspire empathy in readers, regardless of where they lived in relation to the world's most secretive state. By telling stories such as that of a mother trying to feed her children, or a young man in love, readers could imagine how they might survive in the same circumstances. "The idea is to bring a very faraway experience close to home - so that these difficult, unpronounceable names become just like you, and just like your neighbour," she said.