24 Jan / The Hard Road Out: One Woman’s Escape from North Korea by Jihyun Park and Seh-lynn Chai, translated by Sarah Baldwin-Beneich [in Booklist]
Jihyun Park is a twice-escaped defector. Seh-lynn Chai is initially her hired English translator, then her friend, even sister. “Jihyun is from the North and I am from the South,” Chai writes, “but we share a single identity: we’re both Korean.” At their 2014 first meeting in Manchester, Chai interviews Park in Korean for an Amnesty International documentary.
Two years later, perhaps the time “needed for trust to grow,” Park asks Chai to write her story. Chai accepts because she “want[s] to give voice to history’s invisible people.” Polyglot Chai, interestingly, writes in French, which translator Sarah Baldwin-Beneich English-enables.
Middle-child Park grew up fervently believing in the resilient post-war miracle that was North Korea. But adulthood brought undeniable awareness of the regime’s brutality and the widespread starvation. She escaped to China, only to be sold into slavery by her mother and sister. Her harrowing journey eventually brought her to safety in England.
Chai attentively ciphers Park’s survival, intertwining her own soul-awakening empathy for their Korean history and heritage. Any literary shortcomings are overshadowed by the gravity of Park’s testimony; caring audiences won’t turn away.