Kashmir and North Korea. We see both in news headlines, both as political flashpoints, both as tough places for outsiders to comprehend.
They both exist in my imagination today in a way they didn’t a week ago – thanks to two women writers I met at the Oslo Freedom Forum – and their books, “In the Valley of Mist” and “Nothing to Envy”.
“In the Valley of Mist” (2009) by British journalist Justine Hardy is subtitled “Kashmir’s long war: a family story”. It starts simply and lyrically, introducing us to Mohammad Dar, houseboat owner, carpet seller, family patriarch. Then it deepens.
Hardy has known Kashmir for most of her life. She unfolds its culture for us gradually – beginning with the story of the “pheran”, the heavy wide-sleeved woollen winter garment. She paints gentle pictures – the way children used to paddle small boats across the lake to school, when schools were safe to go to. But then she peels back the surface, to show how the peace of the valley vanished in 1989, when the mujaheddin of Afghanistan swept in with their guns and their anger.
As we get to know the Dar family, we get the inside story of Mohammad’s struggle to keep the militants from destroying his family. We learn the tactics of those who recruit teenage boys for jihad. We read about training camps known to the Pakistani government. We also read about brutal crackdowns by Indian security forces – including the author’s story of smuggling herself into the village of Kunan Poshpura twenty years ago, the day after it’s alleged every woman in the village was raped.
“A fact finding group was sent. A 300 page report was produced from the visit that concluded that all the women in the village had lied.”
When I talked to Justine this week, she told me she’s not “political” and doesn’t use political language. She does show vividly how men and women in Kashmir are traumatised by their decades at the heart of a conflict zone – a fact of life I also found described in this piece on the BBC website.That’s why she came to Oslo, to talk about her work on mental health. Her book is one you feel you “should” read, but it’s rewarding – a moving experience.
Barbara Demick’s North Korean epic made me angry. A foreign correspondent for the L.A. Times, her 2010 book “Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea” weaves together the stories of refugees to describe the life of one blighted city, Chongjin, in this most blighted country, the state that outdoes George Orwell.
We’ve all heard news stories about repression, about famine – the way North Koreans are entirely cut off from the outside world, entirely unaware their appalling lives are the choice of their leaders.
But Demick’s book goes into such raw detail, that you see the picture of these everyday lives swimming in front of your eyes, whether you want it there or not. Small boys drowning a dog to barbecue its meat. Parents rummaging through animal shit to look for undigested kernels of corn. A kindergarten class visibly starving in front of the teacher who leads them through the required daily songs of praise for the Dear Leader. Hospital patients using beer bottles to fashion IV drips. Bodies being carted away in barrows from the ranks of the homeless at the railway station.
There is no alternative – except escape. Physically, the country is a prison camp. Socially, each of its inmates is ranked within fifty-one categories – with families of South Korean descent at the bottom, publicly shamed for three generations for their “tainted blood”.
When one North Korean, a young female doctor, staggers across the river and into a Chinese farmyard, she realises the Big Lie she has lived in one awful moment.
“On the ground she saw a small metal bowl with food. She looked closer – it was rice, white rice, mixed with scraps of meat. Dr Kim couldn’t remember the time she had last seen a bowl of pure white rice. What was a bowl of rice doing out there, just sitting on the ground? She figured it out just before she heard the dog’s bark.”
There’s an astonishing wealth of detail. It’s not lyrically told; it doesn’t flow like Justine Hardy’s book. But it’s a very fine piece of reporting. Barbara Demick’s revelations are hard to believe, appalling to think about, impossible to shake off. You can read more from her here.
I read most of the book in a day. During ten hours flying home from Oslo to Boston, the lives in North Korea seemed more real than my own, and my own seemed impossibly privileged.