But, in North Korea, it's just the opposite. There's one story. It's written by the Kim regime. And 23 million people are conscripted to be secondary characters. There, as a youth, your aptitude towards certain jobs is measured, and the rest of your life is dictated, whether you'll be a fisherman or a farmer or an opera singer.
I'd known that the visit would be highly scripted and that genuine interactions with citizens wouldn't be possible, since it's illegal for them to speak with foreigners. Still, I'd thought I'd had a unique look at North Korea, only to discover I was wrong.
It's true. In America, you can reinvent yourself at any turn. And, you know, if things aren't going well for you in life, everyone says, change, become someone different.
The reader feels as if he is in Chongjin, where starving people ate the bark off trees; or atop Mount Taesong with the elite of Pyongyang, whose existence is a mix of sadism and whimsy; or with the masses who are bombarded day and night with the propaganda of North Korea's alternate reality.
For an entire populace, change, growth, and spontaneity were dangerous. Acting upon a personal desire, whispering a hidden longing, revealing your true feelings - all the human actions we think of as essential to a character - had be censored by the self lest they be punished by the state.
In America, the stories we tell ourselves and we tell each other in fiction have to do with individualism. Every person here is the center of his or her own story. And our job as people and as characters is to find our own motivations and desires, to overcome conflicts and obstacles toward defining ourselves so that we grow and change.
I thought that, with so much current attention focused on the topic of North Korea, I might share what I think are three books which cast a rare light on the elusive realm of North Korea.
Imagine a world in which no writer has written a literary novel in sixty years. Imagine a place where not a single person has read a book that is truly about the character at its center.