A powerful, emotionally engaging and sometimes shocking account by a very courageous woman.
Through her own shrewdness, presence of mind and intelligence, Hyeonseo managed to transform her life and that of her family by escaping from North Korea at the age of 17, undergoing a long and hazardous journey through China, and ultimately gaining South Korean citizenship status for them all 12 years later – and then marrying an American (“one of the reviled Yankee jackals of North Korean propaganda”.) She also saved her mother and brother, guiding them on the same arduous journey she had herself taken through China and onto Laos to seek asylum at the South Korea embassy.
Some of the most shocking details in this account come from the author’s description of life inside North Korea under the control of Kim Il-sung (‘Great Leader’ who founded North Korea); and his son Kim Jong-il ‘Dear Leader’ – to whom was attributed a nativity story very similar to that of Jesus Christ (though the brainwashed population of North Korea weren’t to know that).
Hyeonseo shares with us what the North Korean people were told: that his birth was foretold by miraculous signs in the heavens, including the appearance of a bright new star in the sky. From early childhood she and her classmates were encouraged to draw pictures of the snow-covered wooden cabin of his birth with the sacred mountain behind it and the new star in the sky. They came to associate the Great Leader and the Dear Leader with gifts and excitement in the same way that children in the West think of Santa Claus.
She was in South Korea at the time Kim Jong-un took over and this time she was at a safe distance viewing on TV the crowds she herself had once been forced to stand among, weeping at the death of the god-like predecessor, knowing that guards circulated among them ready to mete out severe punishments to anyone who was faking it.
In fact the first time her beliefs about North Korea ‘the greatest nation on earth’ were challenged, was through the impassioned outburst of her uncle Jung-jil, her father’s cousin, whose family had fled North Korea during the Korean War and now lived in Shenyang 8 hours drive into China.
The details the author gives of life inside North Korea, worshipping the Great Leader and the Dear Leader, are stunning. Amongst the highlights are these facts: everyone had to display on the walls of their homes a trio of air-brushed portraits: The Great Leader, The Dear Leader, and the Dear Leader’s first wife, also accorded almost god-like status. Everyone had to keep this trio of portraits in pristine condition – or risk severe punishment by white-gloved government inspectors who would visit monthly to find any specks of dust.
The author describes many other extraordinary events which are a simple fact of life in North Korea, such as the summary executions; the year-long rehearsals by thousands of schoolchildren for the mass display of the Leaders’ portraits; the hierarchy of society determined by one’s family history of loyalty to the Leaders.
She also gives a harrowing description of the famine that gripped North Korea in the mid 1990s when more than a million people died, and she recalls walking past a train station and seeing a dead woman in her early twenties lying on the pavement clutching an emaciated child to her, and being ignored by all who walked past. And she describes the lies of the Great Leader, who claimed in his propaganda broadcasts that he shared the suffering of his people, and was confining himself only to riceballs, to show his solidarity with them – yet remained as portly and well-fed as ever.
The other outstanding fact is the very low regard held for truth or historical fact; the fact that government officials can be bribed with money to do anything – including changing official records.
But even the details of life inside North Korea are not necessarily the most shocking thing in this story. For me, that honour is held by the callous behaviour of those people in China and Laos, who hold it in their power either to show compassion for North Korean defectors, or to destroy their lives. For many of them, not one simple act of common human decency can be carried out without a demand for money. The cruel and inhuman attitude that prevails towards North Korean defectors is sickening, to a Western reader.
Hyeonseo had to bribe her way through China, in order to save herself. Her journey was a journey through the vast underworld of people smugglers, Chinese ‘brokers’, fake IDs, false documents and changed records: all at considerable financial cost to herself and to those family members who were kind enough to transfer money to her (which she later paid back in full). It is truly a chilling vision of humanity to see corruption so deeply woven into a society, infecting everyone, every human interaction.
So when Hyeonseo encounters the Australian, Dick Stolp, and he shows her the generosity and compassion born of altruism, which is so severely lacking elsewhere in her experience, it comes across as a miracle. Interestingly, she was praying to the spirits of her ancestors for help just before he approached her in a coffee bar.
Through this account, sometimes harrowing and upsetting, Hyeonseo’s character shines, together with her love for and devotion to her mother and brother. She demonstrates brilliant presence of mind when she distracts the guard on the bus who is, contrary to expectations, checking everyone’s IDs and studying their faces, and she saves her brother from capture (for he has at this time no ID).
Another very impressive scene is when she is interrogated by an official who is determined to find out if she is North Korean. He looks deep into her eyes and asks her all sorts of tricky questions, but she ends up convincing him she is Chinese. This is largely because of the foresight of her father years before who insisted on her learning Mandarin – which she now speaks without any trace of a North Korean accent.
As you read the book you cannot help feeling that she is a total inspiration, not purely as a successful North Korean defector, but as a woman in her own right, with immense strength of character and inner resources.
After so many traumatic details in this account, it is good to read at the end how things are changing now, due to the international exposure Hyeonseo achieved after her February 2013 TED talk. She writes that some of the most inspiring messages she received afterwards came from China – a country which she says she loves but where she suffered many hardships – many of the messages expressing their writers’ shame at the complicity of their government in hounding escaped North Koreans.
Even after all that happened, her mother and her brother were sorely tempted to return to North Korea – such is the love people can have for their homeland, despite all other circumstances.
It is particularly poignant to read at the end of her account, these words: “Among the 27,000 North Koreans in the south, two kinds of life have been left behind: the wretched life of persecution and hunger, and the manageable life that was not so bad…. for the second group life in the South is far more daunting. It often makes them yearn for the simpler, more ordered existence they left behind, where big decisions are taken for them by the state, and where life is not a fierce competition.”
These words are particularly astute because they reflect what some people from East Berlin felt after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The irony is that for some, life under a totalitarian regime can be simpler, with far fewer options, all big decisions made for them by the State. This is something they prefer to what we might call “freedom.” This is a paradox we would all do well to muse upon and always to hold in mind.
SC Skillman, psychological, paranormal and mystery fiction and non-fiction. My next book ‘Paranormal Warwickshire’ will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15h June 2020.
I remember Andy asked me about my interest in being at the conference and I told him I too was a writer. He asked me about what I write and when I said fiction (psychological suspense / paranormal thrillers) he said, “Oh they sound much more interesting than my book.”
The two authors take us through some of the great biblical heroes: Joseph (of technicolour dreamcoat fame); Elijah (who beat the 400 prophets of Baal in a fantastic challenge as to whose god could call down fire from heaven); Ruth (who chose to go forward into a new and very different culture, to support her bereaved mother-in-law Naomi, and who then met Boaz); Daniel (captured with his friends and taken to Babylon where he eventually became famous to us for his survival of the Lions’ Den and the Fiery Furnace); and David – great King and Psalmist, formerly the lowest of the low as a shepherd boy, famous to many for his showdown wth Goliath).
We also hear of John (the Beloved Disciple, and writer of letters, a gospel, and the book of Revelations); and Mary of Bethany, who scandalised everyone by pouring perfume worth thousands of pounds in today’s money, onto Jesus’ feet at a dinner party in her home.
Interspersed with tales from contemporary life and plenty of anecdotes we can relate to and identify with, this book moves along at a sparkling pace.
The two authors, with their own colourful personalities, demonstrate their ability to relate the circumstances of those heroes to our own situations, translating from a very different culture into ours, in a breathtaking display of what we know as ‘dynamic equivalence.’
The stories surrounding these heroes are among the most outstanding, captivating and dramatic in the history of story-telling. They abound with human interest, transferable messages that are sharply relevant to us in our culture, and the most stunning imagery that burns them upon our imaginations.
These heroes genuinely are people who stand out – for courage, personal commitment, self-sacrificial giving and love – all of them through various human weaknesses. In every way these people are heroes not only for their times but for ours to us today, right where we are, in this culture that pays homage to individualism, freedom of expression, and the vital importance of being independent and somehow ‘true to ourselves’.
‘Less than Ordinary‘, published by Instant Apostle, is a non-fiction inspirational self-help book, an account of one woman’s journey from low self-esteem and negative self-limiting beliefs to a place of wholeness where she is able to blossom, nurture her relationships, rejoice in her own inherent worth, and offer her gifts to the world.
A quote attributed to Nelson Mandela: As we let our own lights shine we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.
During the early part of the book, as I read Nicki’s story, I found myself wondering where all these ideas about herself had come from. What messages was she given when she was a young child? But later I thought that maybe the people who gave her those messages had no idea they were doing something so destructive; perhaps no such intention lay behind their words.
And then I realised I was identifying with some of her experiences, and I recognised the mindset. It may be that cultural presumptions about the role of women have something to do with it – even in our society, male/female equality still has a long way to go – but I also know there are men who feel as Nicki describes in these pages.
On a lighter note, I might mention that PG Wodehouse’s novels are full of young men browbeaten by domineering aunts and other authority figures, who are too shy and timid to express their true feelings, or be assertive. Light or not, the issues Nicki shares with us are not just a female thing.
What interested me in the book was Nicki’s description of how she came out of all this. She says that she ‘gradually began to consider…’ or ‘it occurred to’ her that… or she ‘slowly realised….’
For me the process was the same. Observation of people and experience of life eventually teaches you a stunning truth: that many of those who appear confident are not, underneath; that probably the majority of people shrink from meeting strangers; and that, in fact, when we humans seek to achieve our goals, we seem to be hard-wired to take what Robert McKee describes, in his book Story, ‘the most conservative action first.’
In Story, McKee points out that when constructing a plot, the author sets the main protagonist a challenge to overcome, a goal to achieve. Then the protagonist considers how to get what they want. And they always take the most conservative action first. In other words, they expend the least amount of energy to get what they want. This seems a rule of human nature and in the natural world too.
And if that works, good. But if it doesn’t – then you’ve got to spend a bit more energy, exercise more ingenuity, and do something a bit less conservative. And so on, until only the most extreme measures will do. It’s often only when people are pushed to the limit that they conquer great challenges.
So we can apply this rule of life to what Nicki says in her book Less Than Ordinary. All her early presumptions about herself were utterly false; and when the truth of human nature and behaviour finally broke in on her, she threw those false ideas away and she let her light shine.
I do believe there is great value for us when an author describes this process as well as Nicki does. If you feel this book sounds like one that would speak to you, I’d recommend reading it and pausing every once in a while to think about it, as you go through Nicki’s story.
Courage doesn’t consist of being naturally ‘confident’, and having high self-esteem written into your DNA and grasping challenges eagerly.
Courage is all about those who go on a long journey from out of a dark place, and discover the truth through life experience, then change in the light of it using the new knowledge to transform their lives.
I first heard of this book via my local independent bookshop Warwick Books, and planned to go to an evening with Gaby Koppel, to hear her talking about ‘Reparation‘.
The subject of the book – a young Jewish woman’s research into her mother’s past as a survivor of Nazi persecution during World War II – immediately appealed to me, but in the end I wasn’t able to get to that evening. Instead I ordered the book later, and now having read it, how I wish I had been there to see Gaby Koppel and hear her talk about her inspiration for the novel. When you’ve finished reading a novel, that’s when you are hungry to find out details about the author’s personal biography.
This is one of those books which will surely increase your knowledge in a number of areas, not least insights into how Hungary is currently addressing its baleful wartime past, and a vivid description of the fiercely insular life of the Hasidic Jewish community in Stamford Hill, in London; and indeed into how a modern Jewish person with no religious belief feels.
Alongside that, it is a heartfelt and passionate exploration of a mother daughter relationship. And the book helps you to understand wherein Jewish identity lies. It is undoubtedly based on the author’s real life experience of her Hungarian mother and her German father. And the main protagonist, Elizabeth, works in TV production just as Gaby does in real life.
As I began the story, for some time I found the first person narrator’s attitude to her mother Aranca very judgmental and sardonic, expressed in waspish style. Then gradually I began to see how Elizabeth had developed this attitude, and to understand the pressure on her of her mother’s volatile and temperamental behaviour and alcoholic episodes.
As my reading of the novel progressed I liked Elizabeth more and more, with her sharp and sassy wit, and her habit of always saying exactly what she thinks. She is a character who never wears a mask, and I often felt myself identifying with her thoughts and feelings.
As for Aranca herself, known always as Mutti to Elizabeth, she comes over as very challenging and exasperating, but the more we understand what she has suffered in the past, the more we empathise with her. And I was captivated not only by her quest to seek reparation from the Hungarian government for her past losses, but also by Elizabeth’s accounts of her relationships with Dave and with Jon, and by her exploration of how being Jewish profoundly affects every area of life.
I was fascinated by what we learn in the story about the Jews, about their feelings, beliefs and attitudes, and in particular about the Hasidic Jewish community. Reading this book opens up the lives of others to us, and I believe stories like this teach us to respect and accept our differences, and the various ways in which people seek to express their identity.
Psychological, paranormal, mystery
fiction and non-fiction
Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path
My next book Paranormal Warwickshire will be published by Amberley Publishing in June 2020
I’m pleased to announced that I have signed a contract with history publishers Amberley Publishing for a book about Warwickshire to be published in June 2020. This will be a highly illustrated book full of stories arranged under themes from Shakespeare’s ghosts and spirits.
The book will explore some of the supernatural and spiritual stories in the region. It describes a number of Warwickshire’s most iconic locations which I believe have spiritual resonance and which I’ve visited many times.
I’m weaving into this insights from Shakespeare’s ghosts and spirits. And I’ve also been out and about interviewing and listening to people closely associated with the properties who have rich and fascinating stories to tell.
More news on this to follow!
psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction
Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit & Perilous Path
At the UK Games Expo 219 a vast array of games creators and players gathered together to celebrate the joy of roleplay and fantasy. Amid an atmosphere buzzing with excitement a team of novelists gathered on the Author Stand selling and signing books in a variety of genres: YA fantasy, historical adventure, time travel, psychological suspense and paranormal thrillers.
Alongside the wonderful parade of cosplay characters, we enjoyed the atmosphere and somehow a jolly musketeer and Professor Snape managed to infiltrate our team of authors.
Professor Snape certainly managed to attract the book-buyers.
I can recommend the UK Games Expo to you for next year, if you love playing games, and can keep up the hectic pace for three days in the Birmingham NEC.
Psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction
Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path
On a recent visit to Bletchley Park I learned many new things about exactly how an elite group of mathematicians, chess- playing and crossword puzzle solving experts, numbering ten thousand in all, came together here during the Second World War to break seemingly impenetrable codes and ciphers – all under the veil of great secrecy.
The Nazis didn’t even know of Bletchley Park’s existence – and never realised their ingenious codes were being broken.
On the surface, this is a lovely Victorian manor house in an idyllic park – but it became the centre of an extraordinary community, the site of several huts housing codebreakers and the amazing machines some of them invented. Throughout the war years, those who worked here – many recruited through the medium of a crossword puzzle, whose solution was a job advertisement – undertook painstaking, repetitive, patient work, revealing the messages being passed by Hitler to his commanders, and other messages which gave vital information about Nazi plans and intentions.
It has been estimated by several historians that the work of the codebreakers probably shortened the Second World War by two years.
As we went around the park using the audio tour, and visiting the exhibitions in the various huts and in the manor house itself, I felt humbled and awed by the work of the codebreakers – and in particular I was impressed to stand in the office Alan Turing himself used.
For generations, the true achievement of all those people went unrecognised – because of the Official Secrets Act. But now we know, and since so much is known and understood now about the Second World War, and because there are so many films and books and first-person accounts available, we can comprehend the significance of what was achieved. And we also have the memories of those veterans who, during their twenties, worked at Bletchley Park, using their mathematical and deductive skills, their intuition and their mastery of logic.
It is sobering to reflect upon those who worked so long and hard and so patiently, to great ends. Each of them played a small but vital part in a massive undertaking. Many were modest and self-effacing in their later lives. Those who have seen the film The Imitation Game know of the great tragedy that befell Alan Turing later – a man to whom those who persecuted him, and millions of others, owed their lives. Because of the secrecy that shrouded his war work, the true nature of his achievement then was not widely known.
As I listened to the audio tour I heard accounts given by some of those who had, as young people, worked there in those huts. One of the ladies who spoke of that time said, “everybody here was a bit odd.” And I thought, yes: they would have been eccentrics, single-minded geniuses, those whom we might describe as idiots savant; those with autism and Asperger’s would have been numbered among them, capable of intense focus, of patient and tireless application to a long task with a greater objective in sight.
We owe them all an enormous debt, and their story is an inspiration of the highest order.
psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction
author of Mystical Circles, a Passionate Spirit and A Perilous Path
I visited London one day recently and whilst there took the opportunity to do a bus tour of the city.
London was my home in the past (in the Bayswater area) for eight years. Also I was a regular visitor from Orpington during my childhood and teens, since I lived twenty five minutes train ride away. But on this occasion I thought it would be fun to view the capital through different eyes – those of a tourist – and to see if I learned anything new.
And I must admit the only new thing I recall learning was the location of the residence of Elton John. And the interesting information the tour guide revealed, that this was a nice little earner from him in between whiles, as he, a struggling musician, strove to get paid gigs for himself and his band.
But it was also a wonderful opportunity to take a variety of photos upstairs on the open top bus.
So here are some of the images I collected on that day, some taken on foot, and others from the top deck of the tour bus.
Perhaps it’s because I no longer live there, but instead am a frequent visitor, that I see London at its very best. I don’t think regular commuters, or those who live there, would necessarily see only the most delightful, intriguing and colourful aspects of the city!
But take a look at this post on my blog from seven years ago. There you will definitely see this great city through the eyes of one who can afford the luxury of a certain “distance” from the mundanities and challenges and stresses of city life, which may nevertheless give the space needed for fresh insights…
Psychological, paranormal mystery fiction
Author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path
I recently made another visit to Kew Gardens, where we were enchanted by several glass sculptures by artist Dale Chihuly.
Placed in the most surprising areas – at the top of the Sion Vista, just outside the Temperate House, hovering over the pond in the water Lily House, or cunningly nested in amongst the tropical foliage in the Palm House, they enhanced and playfully transformed the natural shapes and forms to be found throughout these gardens.
A day of wonder and joy, as Chihuly’s multi-coloured art twisted and curled and rose and nestled among the already abundant beauty of Kew Gardens.
Psychological, paranormal, mystery fiction
author of Mystical Circles, A Passionate Spirit and Perilous Path