Tales From North Korea at The Cheltenham Literature Festival

In 1989 a North Korean dissident writer, known to us only by the pseudonym Bandi, began to write a series of stories about life under Kim Il-sung’s totalitarian regime. Smuggled out of North Korea and recently published, The Accusation provides a unique and shocking window on the world’s most secretive of countries. Do Hee-Yun, the South Korean activist responsible for bringing the manuscript to publication and Jieun Baek, author of North Korea’s Hidden Revolution join Rosie Goldsmith to discuss these remarkable tales – and their extraordinary journey to public view.
— http://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/literature/whats-on/2017/tales-from-north-korea/

The Cheltenham Literature Festival will be discussing Bandi's The Accusation in October. You can purchase tickets here.

A Collection of North Korean Stories and the Mystery of Their Origins

“The Accusation” may be the first work of dissident fiction by a living North Korean writer ever smuggled out of that country. Photograph by Gavin Hellier / Alamy

“The Accusation” may be the first work of dissident fiction by a living North Korean writer ever smuggled out of that country.

Photograph by Gavin Hellier / Alamy

The story goes something like this: nearly thirty years ago, a talented North Korean propagandist secretly began writing fiction critical of the North Korean regime. When a catastrophic famine beset North Korea in the mid-nineties, the propagandist’s misgivings about his country’s leadership deepened. Over the next several years, he chronicled the deprivation and disillusionment of his countrymen in a series of stories that he shared with no one. Roughly two decades later, a close relative defected to South Korea, and the writer saw an opportunity to get his work across the border. In 2014, a book of his stories was published in South Korea under the pen name Bandi, which means “firefly.” It is believed to be the first work of dissident fiction by a living North Korean writer ever smuggled out of that country.

Earlier this year, an English translation was published by Grove Atlantic, with the title “The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea.” In an afterword, the writer Kim Seong-dong chronicles the journey of Bandi’s seven-hundred-and-fifty-page manuscript. According to Kim, Bandi is a member of the official North Korean writer’s league, and wrote the stories between 1989 and 1995. Bandi’s defector relative alerted the South Korean human-rights activist Do Hee Yun to the existence of the secret manuscript, and it was Do who took up the task of getting the work out of North Korea. He enlisted a friend based in China, who had relatives in the town where Bandi lived. The manuscript travelled hidden inside a copy of “The Selected Works of Kim Il-sung.”

Read more of the article in The New Yorker

Welcome, Kaja Malanowska to our agency !

kaja malanowska

Malanowska (born 1974) has published a short story collection and three novels, including “Fog”. Her debut novel, the autobiographical Drobne szaleństwa dnia codziennego [Small Madnesses of Everyday Life, 2010], established her as one of Poland’s most promising young writers. In 2012, her second novel Patrz na mnie, Klaro! [Look at Me, Klara!] was nominated for two of Poland’s most prestigious awards – Paszport Polityki and Nike (shortlist). Malanowska has been noted for her complex and realistic characters and her courage to address taboo subjects such as mental health or social and political justice issues. “Fog” is sort of experiment in writing for a broader readership: the fact that genre fiction functions according to strict parameters and is less forgiving than literary fiction challenged her to hone her craft as a writer. Malanowska is a columnist for the prominent left-wing intellectual periodical Krytyka polityczna (Political Critique) and has provoked public debate by highlighting the precarious conditions of writers in Poland. She holds a PhD in 2 bacterial genetics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and speaks fluent English. She is currently working on the prequel to “Fog” – a psychological thriller featuring the same female lead.

The Muslim Butcher by SON Hong-Kyu

translated by
MerwinAsia/WEL - contract up in 2019.

Twentieth-century South Korea has promoted itself as a highly developed, affluent, and coherent society, but not quite everywhere in the country, and not even everywhere in its showcase capital, yet conforms to the official image. Son Hong-kyu sets The Muslim Butcher in the Seoul that the official branders would prefer visitors didn't see: the grimy hillside slums crowded
with illegal dwellings and their occupants too poor, disturbed, disgraced, or foreign to dare emerge from the margins.

But Seoul's redevelopmental churn has obliterated most of these areas thatexisted in the 1970s or 80s in which Son sets his novel, a time with the cop show Chief Investigator still at the height of its popularity and enough Korean War veterans still alive to regularly gather in reunions by the hundreds. If its particular neighborhood ever did exist, it hasn't for along time; the book ends with its young protagonist awaiting the bulldozers that will clear away the only home apart from orphanages and churches he's
ever known.
From the perspective of adulthood, the narrator recounts his early adolescence in this milieu of societal outcasts without futures as he struggles with his own lack of a past. Having lost all memory of an apparently harrowing early childhood that left him without parents and a body inexplicably covered in scars, he rebels against the structure of each institution in which the system places him until the day the Muslim butcher of the title, an aged Turk named Hassan, shows up to take him in.

"Uncle Hassan," as he becomes, runs one of Seoul's countless pink-lit butcher shops. There he spends all day carving up pork, a surprising occupation for a Muslim but one whose low status suits his own as an outsider. "Of the customers, the local Koreans pretended they didn't know Uncle Hassan if they ran into him outside the shop," the narrator remembers. "The threshold of the butcher shop wasn't merely a threshold but a border that divided this world from that."

The other denizens of "this world" include Aunt Anna, the proprietor of the blood-sausage soup restaurant at the center of the tumbledown community, a middle-aged woman apparently without a family, and Uncle Amos, the Greek who lives upstairs, penniless and a compulsive liar to boot. Not long after settling into Hassan's apartment (the only home in Korea he'd ever seen, he notes, without the president's portrait on display), he soon finds friends his own age.

The slum's children, though, seem even more damaged than its eccentric adults. Kim Yujong, the stuttering son of a coal-seller unattractive to the point of deformity, claims both literary ambitions (modeling himself, it seems, after the occupation-era novelist of the same name) and, with eerie confidence, an ability to understand the language of animals, converting it,
the narrator says, "into the language handed down by our parents" but "mixed with various inflections and unknown vocabulary."

The presence of Yujong, a youngster preternaturally "mesmerized by the inaccuracy of language," establishes this as a novel deeply concerned not just with issues like prejudice and discrimination in an ostensibly economically classless and ethnically homogenous country, but with communication itself. Though profane, the language of the slum convinces the narrator that "the world is made in such a way that simple language wins: money, love, honor, friendship, happiness . . . Even swear words were
trapped by the vernacular, gradually losing their sharp edges and vulgarity before being integrated into it."

Under these basic exigencies, its people cohere into a makeshift family, with all the passing resentments and unlikely allegiances that implies: the narrator describes an elaborately delusional veteran and an unhealthy child, briefly inseparable, as "noun-like characters, so when they walked side by side, they became something of a compound noun." Toward the story's end, Son
gathers nearly all the characters into a truck for a hog-slaughtering picnic out in Aunt Anna's hometown. On the way, "Yujong reminded us of the meaning of picnic, sopung, so meaning strolling and pung meaning wind, walking in
the wind."

Yujong's lesson brings back to mind the first thing Hassan teaches the narrator about the meaning of Islam: "submission, sunjong in Korean." Hassan, not without dignity, submits to fate that first brought him so far from his homeland as a soldier in the Korean War, relegates him to a livelihood at odds with his religion, and ultimately consumes that livelihood itself. But despite the "adoptive father's blood" flowing in his veins, the equally tempest-tossed narrator, Son hints, won't live his life so passively.

Sine Ergün: 2017 European Union Prize for Literature

About the author:

Sine Ergün (1982) is a writer based in Istanbul, Turkey. She has published three books: Burası Tekin Değil (It’s not Safe Here, Yitik Ülke Publishing, 2010; Can Publishing, 2012), Bazen Hayat (Life, Sometimes, Can Publishing, 2012) and Baştankara (Titmouse, Can Publishing, 2016). In 2013, she received the 59th Sait Faik Short Story Award for her book Bazen Hayat(Life, Sometimes). Her translation works, essays, interviews, poetry, and short stories have been published in several literature magazines, and Ergün herself has worked as an editor at Notos Book and edited Notos magazine. Since 2012, she has been working as the founding director of the art initiative maumau. She is currently preparing her next show as a curator as well as working on an anthology on Bartleby Syndrome – the Writers of No.

Publishing house:
Can Yayınları

+90 212 252 56 75

Book awarded:
Baştankara (Chickadee), 2016

The book's 23 stories in 80 pages are succinct: the shortest story is just one page long, the longest six pages, plainly written with depth and variety. Each story is an independent being, inviting the reader to start a new challenge.

Her Decree With Force of Law (Kanun Hükmünde Kararname) is a political satire on a highly abstract level: it is realistic, though also dreamlike. That story in itself could be considered sufficiently enlightening with regards to the situation in Turkey.

The concluding piece illustrates the overall atmosphere succinctly: a truck driver, after many years of solitary driving, is unable to leave his truck any more and sits nailed to the steering wheel. This indeed is an unnerving parable of the human condition.

In her stories, the themes she deals with are: alienation to oneself and to others; facing mediocrity; coming to terms with the past, the present and the future; revolt to inner and outer pressures; challenging your reality; seeing your city, your environment and your surroundings with different eyes; making choices; and looking deeper and deeper into one's soul.

Translated from Turkish by Ümit Hussein


“And I do not value solitude at all.

I do not value myself when I’m alone.”

Peter Handke, The Left-Handed Woman

The woman did not choose the man, nor the man the woman to accompany him on a long journey. When it was time for them to leave they looked first at each other, then all around them, and having no other option, set out together.

Until they left the city, they followed the roads they knew. When they arrived at the city’s edge they saw it was surrounded by silver soil. There was a narrow path before them. The man advanced quickly, but paused to survey the area, while the woman walked without altering her pace, with a dull curiosity.

The road neither narrowed nor widened. From the first day, it was narrow enough for them to touch one another when they walked side by side, an option they strongly rejected. When the sun came out, the soil shone so brightly it was a job to make out even a single path. At night, first the stars, then the soil, would light up and go out, the two blurring into one another. No one knows how much time passed in that way. After a long while the man said, Everyone’s left; they went on, listening to their footsteps, A long time ago, said the woman. Why did they leave us behind? I wasn’t able to choose who I went with, said the woman, I didn’t notice them leaving, no one told me. The woman paused. Haven’t we walked enough for today, she said, No, we might be able to catch up with them.

First the path, then all the soil turned into a shade of red never seen before. They continued walking without coming across a single footprint. After countless days the man said, Your silence is getting on my nerves, You’re silent too, said the woman, if you spoke I’d listen. Again they walked for days.

When they reached the waterfront they weren’t thirsty, but they drank. They sat down for the first time since setting out. They touched the red soil for the first time. When I was a child I killed a bird, said the man, I didn’t kill it, my friend killed it, he wasn’t even my friend, we just happened to be together that day. He said let’s eat it, we plucked its feathers, but still, when I bit into it I kept getting feathers in my mouth. Why did I go along with him? He stood up, reached out towards the water, drank, and turned, in anger, Why didn’t they take us? I, said the woman, wasn’t able to choose who I went with, You think you’re superior, that’s why, said the man, that’s the reason why you’re lonely, I watch you all the time while you’re walking, you think you’re even more superior than the soil you tread on. Your silence is getting on my nerves, I’d be better off by myself, at least then I’d know I was alone. I’m sleepy, said the woman, I think I’m going to have a dream.

In her dream the woman was moving through the depths of the water. There was no sign indicating where she was headed. She knew.

In his dream the man was at the tip of a slope. He knew he could fly. That was all.   

When they awoke the woman was talkative, the man silent. I gave away all the books I loved, said the woman, I never gave away anything I loved, said the man.

The woman said, After this the path will disappear, we’ll have to choose where we go. You’re going to want to go in one direction and I in another. It won’t matter where we go, what will matter is that we stay together. The path will vanish, said the man, I’m going to want to go in one direction and you in another. If we go our separate ways then so be it. What will matter is where we’re going.           

The red soil turned irremediably black, while the sky turned spectacularly white. When night fell, not a single star came out, nor did the moon. And if there were a path before them, it had disappeared from view. The man found the woman’s hand within the cloying blackness and pulled it, This way, he said, the woman was undecided, she acquiesced, they continued.

When the stars slowly began to appear within the relentless darkness, the man could not contain his cry of joy. Releasing their hands, they looked first at the sky, then at each other. The woman told the man that the stars had once been a large family all living together, but had separated after a quarrel that no one wanted to talk about and that, to avoid causing each other any more hurt, they had promised not to go within more than a certain distance of each other and spread themselves out in the sky. The man listened to the story, distracted, Let’s go, he said.           

By the time the soil regained its colour, enough time had passed for them to forget what shade it had been. The straight road curved up a hill. They walked. They saw a tiny hut on the other side of the hill. They went in. It was the woman’s house. It was the man’s house too. Only they didn’t remember that. They sat down. Enough time passed for blue veins to sprout on their hands. 

A noise. Dull shooting. At first it seemed to be coming from far away, then from themselves. The man stood up, he paced around the room. He listened to the room, to himself. When he headed for the fridge door he knew he would find a man curled up into a ball inside. It took so long, said the man-who-came-out-of-the-fridge reproachfully, I was about to freeze as I fought for all I was worth to get out of there. The man sat down again, the man-who-came-out-of-the-fridge stuck with them. His coldness shrouded first the room, then their bodies. 


Although everyday life was disrupted during the first few days when the Ban on Stepping on the Street came into force by Statutory Decree, over time everything returned to normal.

Right from the first day, nothing changed for the people whose journeys consisted of going from one car park to another, and they were delighted to see the back of the pedestrian traffic. As for everyone else, they travelled to work by means of ropes suspended between apartment buildings. Although it took longer than it used to, somehow they still managed to fulfill their daily obligations.

Naturally, the population hadn’t taken the ban lying down. Many a columnist had used strong language to criticise the City Council’s decision, on the grounds that the streets were an important part of city culture and summoned the people to take to the streets in protest. However, the ban itself and the severity of the measures the City Council took against anyone who flouted it made it impossible for the summons to bear any fruit. The need to get to work weighed heavily on even the ban’s most vehement opponents, and people found ways of carrying on with their lives without stepping on the street.

Enough time passed for people to forget that stepping on the street was banned. With time, stepping on the street took on the status of one of the surreal events in the stories that grandfathers tell their grandchildren. 

Like everyone else, Selim, who worked on the top floor of the city’s tallest skyscraper, had never stepped on the street. The closest he had come was when he had descended to a distance of some ten metres from the ground on a day when the ropes had grown slack in the heat.

One day, as he was smoking on the skyscraper’s roof terrace, he saw a bird. Given that he saw more birds than people in his day-to-day life he was used to them, but this bird was unlike any of the others that he saw. Its wings were so small, it was a miracle they had managed to carry it up that high. There was a black mark on its head. It eyed Selim without moving. Then it started flying somewhere above him and was out of sight in an instant. In the days that followed, the same incident recurred countless times.

That day Selim went to work with a rope with a longish hook attached to the end. When he went up to the roof terrace the bird was there again, staring, waiting. They gazed at each other for a while, then once again the bird flapped its wings towards the same destination and vanished out of sight. Selim swung the rope in the air. And with a sharp clang it hooked onto something. Anyone looking up from below would think the rope was hanging in mid-air, but as the hook had hooked onto something, it clearly led somewhere. He started climbing. He disappeared out of sight.

The next day no one noticed that Selim wasn’t at work. In the days that followed, one of his colleagues noticed the rope on the roof terrace hanging in mid-air, climbed up and he too disappeared out of sight. With time the number of people in the city tossing ropes up into the sky and disappearing increased.

When a ban on climbing up into the sky was issued by Statutory Decree there was hardly anyone left in the city.


It was morning when she reached the city. She could barely remember a thing. She had got on the bus and gone to sleep.

She got off the bus. She entered the station. There were lone individuals sitting on metal seats in the centre of the glass-enclosed building. No one spoke to anyone. Yet she could hear murmuring. She went out. She walked. She walked for a long time, in fog so thick she could barely see her footsteps. It was an effort to make out the buildings. They were all tall, greyish yellow, without balconies.

She made out the light, Hotel, she entered, One night she said, the man handed over the key without a word, she paid and went up to the room. Greyish yellow walls, a bed with a blanket, a table, a mirror. She locked the door and left the key in the lock. She drifted off to sleep.

She awoke to the sound of the telephone. I’m going to ask you to vacate the room, said the voice. Why, she asked. Did you come here for a rendezvous, we don’t allow rendezvous in this hotel. She didn’t remember if she had gone there for a rendezvous. Why, she repeated. I don’t know, said the voice, you don’t look like the kind of person who would come here. What kind of person did she look like, she didn’t ask. She looked in the mirror, first she made out her eyes, her nose. Then her lips, her wide forehead, her eyebrows, her cheeks. As she looked her face changed, instead of looking at her, the eyes reflected in the mirror searched the room uneasily. Her nose began to grow indistinct, her eyes disappeared into their sockets. All that wasted effort, she thought. When she drifted off to sleep, the fog had shrouded the room.

Once again she awoke to the sound of the telephone. You need to vacate the room, said the voice. No, she replied. I’m not asking you, vacate the room. She would not, besides, she couldn’t. She looked in the mirror, she tried to make out her face through the fog, there was nothing there. How long had it been, what had she looked like before, she couldn’t remember. But still, no one could evict her from the room for not looking like anyone. She drifted off to sleep.=

She awoke to the sound of knocking at the door. Vacate the room, said the voice on the other side. I’m not going to ask where you came from, I’ll give you your money back, I’ll pay you extra if you like, as long as you leave. No, she said, but she couldn’t hear her voice. If you don’t leave I’ll smash the lock, you’re leaving no matter what. I’m telling you for your own good, people like you shouldn’t come here. She waited. She heard the footsteps growing faint. She drifted off to sleep. 

She awoke to the sound of talking. It’ll cost you, said a voice, this is a sturdy lock, I don’t care, said the voice, just as long as you smash it. Under the blanket she waited for them to smash the lock. Some time later, she heard the sound of footsteps in the room. She must have climbed out of the window, said the voice. How, asked the other voice. I don’t know, said the voice, the only thing that matters is that she’s left.

A Gift from Darkness review – harrowing account of a Boko Haram kidnapping



his harrowing book, subtitled How I Escaped With My Daughter from Boko Haram, tells the story of newly pregnant 19-year-old Nigerian Patience, whose husband and mother were murdered by militants. One day, she is kidnapped by Boko Haram and her ordeal is recounted in unflinching detail: the beatings, rapes and torture meted out to her and fellow prisoners and how she escaped and survived with her baby daughter, Gift. The book is co-written with Andrea C Hoffmann, a journalist and expert on victim traumatisation, and switches between Hoffmann’s account of visiting Nigeria, the challenges of interviewing Patience about her painful past and vivid accounts from Patience herself. Translated by Shaun Whiteside, this is a valuable document, contributing raw experience of terror, trauma and recovery, as well as insight into the techniques of telling the most traumatic of stories.

• A Gift from Darkness by Patience Ibrahim and Andrea C Hoffmann is published by Little, Brown (£13.99). To order a copy for £11.89 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Despotic North Korea prompts ordinary people to do extraordinary things

Bandi (it means firefly in Korean) is the pseudonym of a male dissident writer still living in North Korea. This extract is from one story in a collection titled The Accusation. The stories were smuggled out in 2013. The South Korean publication in 2014 was a historic first; nothing like it has emerged in the 68 years since the peninsula was divided. It has since, according to the New York TImes, been published in 20 countries and translated into 18 languages. 

Read more: http://www.afr.com/lifestyle/arts-and-entertainment/books/despotic-north-korea-prompts-ordinary-people-to-do-extraordinary-things-20170418-gvmphp#ixzz4etpJNfhW 
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On the DMZ’s ‘Bridge of Freedom’: Rare North Korean Fiction

The recent reading from North Korean author Bandi’s ‘The Accusation’ on the Bridge of Freedom in the Korean peninsula’s Demilitarized Zone. Image: Provided by Barbara Zitwer

The recent reading from North Korean author Bandi’s ‘The Accusation’ on the Bridge of Freedom in the Korean peninsula’s Demilitarized Zone. Image: Provided by Barbara Zitwer

Now in a second printing by Grove Press in the USA, ‘The Accusation: Forbidden Stories From Inside North Korea’ finds a growing international audience.

Read the full article here.

Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg review – a Polish childhood

*Article via the guardian


There is something perpetually fascinating about coming-of-age narratives, especially when they unfold in a secret country of the past where they do things differently from that of our own childhood. Better yet if they come from the mind of a poet who understands brevity. This enchantingly elliptical fiction debut by British-domiciled Polish poet Wioletta Greg (right) sparkles with a gem-like quality. Thanks to Eliza Marciniak’s crisp translation, it brings freshness even to the crowded genre of the novella-sized bildungsroman, and can be devoured alongside the best coming-of-age translations of recent years, such as Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera and The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov.

Set in the fictional but autobiographically inspired village of Hektary in southern Poland during the 1970s and 80s, Swallowing Mercury is a richly textured portrait of a culture now lost: rural life under one of the milder communist regimes. Though the translator’s contextualising note at the end is useful, Greg straightaway plunges us into a deftly signposted world where jarring elements coexist almost magically. The opening scene of survival and superstition sets the tone: the narrator Wiola is born shortly after her mother is enlisted into a five-year building plan involving cement mixing. An unwilling Stakhanovite, the mother is loyal to pagan custom and ties red string around the baby’s wrist to ward off evil spells. A church ritual follows. With a surprising level of state tolerance for religious practices, every second chapter revolves around a ritual, half-Catholic, half pagan. In Hektary, children cross themselves at roadside shrines, adults say “Holy Mother of God” a lot, and tales of Jerusalem are invoked by mother and grandmother.

In the early childhood scenes, Wiola’s take on her world leans towards the sweetly folkloric – women gather on “feathering evenings” to tear up feathers for stuffing, make cakes on Fat Thursday and refer to periods as “the blood-relation from America” – but any tonal feyness morphs into a wry candour as Wiola’s gaze evolves. Her drawing of a potato beetle is interpreted by a regional art committee as portraying “the crusade of the imperialist beetle”; the friendly children’s doctor puts his penis in her hand “like a roll of modelling clay” – the disparity between the magnitude of the child’s experiences and their unspeakability to the distracted adults is the grit that creates an affecting narrative. In a world of gruff affections and few words, Wiola survives and even thrives thanks to a sly resourcefulness and a country child’s sensory attunement: bread tastes better in the dark; after rain the air smells of “watermelon pulp”; at a provincial wedding “trotters quivered on a plate”. While selling sour cherries at the market with her grandmother, Wiola is devastated by an emotional event whose only outward expression is an infected splinter in her palm.

There are timeless images of country life and death here, one-line descriptions brimming with untold stories, as when her grandmother is glimpsed crossing the fields with a pram full of poppy heads instead of her first-born who has died. Greg is brilliantly humane and subtle in her character studies. An unnamed man on a bus tells Wiola of love and murder in his rural childhood with shocking casualness. But then, in sleepy Hektary, everybody has shocking secrets – even the straight-laced seamstress. In one haunting scene, Wiola lies next to her mother, chewing poppy seeds, and listens to the story of her mother’s schoolmate who went mad because she had to “finish dreaming” the dreams of a local girl executed by the Germans. Never more than a shadow, “the Germans” and the Soviets nevertheless loom behind all village and family history. All characters, even peripheral ones such as Gienek the Combine Driver, are subtly double creations – archetypical and rooted in a specific twilight of history.

Greg moves back and forth across time with a poet’s panache. It is refreshing to find a fiction writer so free of stylistic pomp, so and finely attuned to the truth of her material, a novel so sensually saturated. The full cumulative power of Greg’s prose is felt towards the end, as it accelerates alongside Wiola’s adolescence – until we are swept into the unknown.