graphic novel · memoir

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea- Guy Delisle

Another one down for Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge! I’m pleased that I’ve been able to continue progress on my reading challenges, even in captivity. *grin* The prompt here was to read a graphic memoir, which is actually a genre I love, so pretty much everything on the list of suggestions looked good to me. But I’m always trying to keep my TBR at a manageable level (*nervous laughter* let’s not discuss that right now…), so I went through my want-to-read list on Goodreads and found Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle (Drawn & Quarterly, 2003). I’d read and enjoyed Burma Chronicles by the same author (before mailing it off to a friend!), and I was fascinated to learn that he’d spent time in North Korea and had written another book about his experiences. Onto the list it went!

I had no idea before reading this that North Korea has an animation industry. At one point, it was apparently pretty bustling, although it seems to have slowed down a bit since then. But animator and graphic novelist Guy Delisle, who has a sense of adventure that I seem to be lacking, was invited to work there and jumped at the offer. Upon arrival, he confronts a bizarre country where everyone spouts the party line, shortages of everything are commonplace, pictures of the leaders plaster nearly every surface, and he’s rarely left alone.

North Korea really is the upside-down, even by 2020 bizarro-world standards, even in the capital city of Pyongyang which is meant to be shown off to foreigners. Mr. Delisle’s stripped-down illustration style lends well to the bleakness of the regime and the stark realities of life in a country where an admission of doubt of the President’s nearly supernatural status can get a resident killed, or thrown into a reeducation camp for life. Even the restaurants seem to fall well short of basic health and cleanliness standards, and the museums and ‘tourist’ destination he’s taken to are nothing more than state-created propaganda tools designed to further the myth of North Korean greatness and world domination. The entire experience is bizarre and creepy and leaves the reader with a both a sense of relief to know that Mr. Delisle survived his time in country and a deep feeling of sadness that what he showcased in this graphic memoir is the best it gets there.

I don’t know that this is the best Delisle book to start with. I got a better sense of who he is as a person in Burma Chronicles and I don’t think I would have necessarily been inspired to read more from him if this is where I started. Part of that is because of the stark nature of the subject, I think; a sojourn in such an oppressive regime doesn’t necessarily lend for warm and fuzzy feelings about much of anything. I’d start with another one of his books first. Nor do I think this is a great place to start if you’re looking to learn anything about North Korea. Pyongyang is their show city, and although it comes off as a run-down communist-era Soviet nightmare, it’s still far beyond anything else the country has to offer in terms of, say, their citizens not dying in the streets of starvation and lack of medical care. If you’re looking to learn more about the hideous wasteland that North Korea truly is, start with some personal memoirs of escapees, such as In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park or The Girl With Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee, or for a more journalistic account that covers both the history and the horrors of the country, I highly recommend Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.

What Guy Delisle does offer here, though, is a fascinating perspective on a foreigner’s view of North Korea’s capital city. In the memoirs I’ve read, escapees have talked about the absolute splendor and privilege of a visit to Pyongyang, and to them, this city absolutely was the pinnacle of creation, leagues above and beyond what their daily lives offered. But to an outsider, it’s run-down, lacking in basics such as electricity and teeming with North Koreans doing forced ‘volunteer’ work. It’s absolutely worth your time if North Korea is a subject that fascinates you; it s a perspective that my reading has been lacking and I’m glad to have been able to ‘see’ Pyongyang from a non-North Korean’s viewpoint.

I’m in more than a bit in awe at Guy Delisle’s sense of adventure. Had I received the offer to work in or travel to North Korea, accepting wouldn’t even occur to me as a possibility. There’s no way I would ever feel comfortable traveling there, not as long as the country is in the state it is, with its leadership the way it is (*glances around, laughs nervously*). Its own citizens aren’t safe; I wouldn’t labor under the delusion that I’d be safe, either. But I’m grateful that Mr. Delisle has written and illustrated his experiences in this book. His story does beg the question of how his story would have differed had it been a woman traveling there for work, but it’s fascinating to see North Korea through an outsider’s eyes.

Visit Guy Delisle’s website here. (En français!)

Follow him on Twitter here.

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Burma Chronicles- Guy Delisle

Another book that’s been sitting on my shelf for a bit. I found this copy of Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle (Jonathan Cape, 2007) at a thrift store a few years ago. It had all sorts of paper clips marking different pages. I never did figure out what those clips were marking, but it intrigued me enough to pick the book up, leaf through it, and say, “A graphic novel for a quarter? Heck yeah!” I have major thrift store privilege; the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store near me has tons of books and their prices are amaaaaaaazing.

Guy Delisle followed his wife, a doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) to Burma/Myanmar (he covers the discrepancy between the names right away; if you’re interested, check out the Etymology section in the Wikipedia article on the country), along with their infant son. He chronicles his adventures in the country, pushing his son’s stroller along the streets, in markets, taking him to playgroups with other foreign parents, sending him to some sort of school, visiting a monastery, shopping for food, interacting with the locals and the local people they’ve hired to work for them. Occasionally Delisle and his wife travel within the country; he also writes of living within walking distance from Aung San Suu Kyi but, as she was on house arrest at the time, he was never able to approach her house.

Burma Chronicles is a graphic memoir and doesn’t have a plot or overarching structure to it; it’s a portrayal of one man’s experiences in the country in his time there. It’s not comprehensive enough to give the reader a good feel for the country, but it did whet my appetite to learn more (which is good, because I have another book on Myanmar on my TBR). His drawings are simple; it’s a style that meshes well with the complexities of the country and the difficulties his wife deals with at work, red tape for miles and miles and miles.

This is a bit difficult to review, since there’s no story to recount, no plot to pick apart, no characters to ponder, but I enjoyed the book. I was impressed by Mr. Delisle’s constant wanderings around town with his son; I’m pretty anxious and wouldn’t really feel comfortable pushing a stroller around an unfamiliar place where I didn’t speak the language (and most locals didn’t speak mine). That’s either serious courage or brash foolhardiness right there; I’m a little envious and wish I were more adventurous, although unfortunately, the stakes are probably a little different for me as a woman than they would be for Mr. Delisle.

I’m deeply curious about his other books, however. Guy Delisle has also written a book about the time he spent in Pyongyang, North Korea, appropriately titled Pyongyang, and I absolutely smashed the Want-to-Read button on that. He’s also lived in China and Jerusalem that I can see; what a fascinating life! If I can’t live in all those places, traveling there through books is the next best way, so I’m looking forward to more travels with Guy Delisle.

Do you have any graphic memoir recommendations for me? I love memoirs, so graphic memoirs are nice way to get my memoir on and add a little art into my life. 🙂

Visit Guy Delisle’s website here. (En français!)