Our 2019 Children’s Books of the Year stand out from an increasingly troubling crowd
This summer, I’ve read two collections of short stories: The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution by Chen Jo-hsi and The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea by Bandi. The two books were written in different places and times, but both tell what it’s like for ordinary people to live under a communist regime.
Chen, the author of The Execution of Mayor Yin, is a Taiwanese native who studied in the United States, where she married a Chinese graduate student. They moved to mainland China in 1966 at the start of the Cultural Revolution, the left after seven years: Chen wrote the eight stories between 1974 and 1976.
The author of The Accusation, on the other hand, is an anonymous dissident still living in North Korea. Bandi—the name means “firefly” in Korean—wrote stories depicting life under the totalitarian Kim regime between 1989 and 1995. The manuscript was smuggled out of the country in 2013 and published in 17 languages around the world.
Both Chen and Bandi capture the absurdity and contradiction of life under communist rule. They depict a world where one’s background determines his or her worth, where everyday relationships are strained with distrust and fear, and anyone—no matter their position—can fall out of favor with a wrong word, a wrong action, or a poor harvest. Even those who strain to follow the rules could be punished as the rules shift with a leader’s whims.
In Chen’s collection, ambitious Red Guards execute the eponymous Mayor Yin, a well-respected leader who fell afoul of the latest campaigns, even as he shouts “Long live Chairman Mao!” Neighbors are called on to catch a woman’s adultery. An old man goes to the market to buy a fish for his sick wife, only to find the fish on display can’t be purchased: They’re only a prop to convince foreign visitors that the town is doing well. A lonely bachelor has his marriage prospects repeatedly dashed as the women he chooses are deemed politically unacceptable.
The depiction of North Korea in Bandi’s stories is even starker, the characters more desperate: A man is sentenced to a labor camp for traveling without a permit to visit his sick mother. An old man works hard on a soybean farm, even leaving his family, but is punished when his crop fails. Citizens strip hills bare picking flowers to place on altars dedicated to the recently deceased Kim Il Sung, and those who don’t show sufficient sorrow are labeled reactionary.
What might happen in a communist regime when kids act like kids and inadvertently offend the country’s leader? In Chen’s story “Chairman Mao Is a Rotten Egg,” parents panic after learning their 4-year-old has repeated that reactionary slogan from a classmate. They fear their young son will receive a permanent mark on his record that will come back to haunt him.
In Bandi’s story “City of Specters,” a toddler is deathly afraid of the portraits of Karl Marx and Kim Il Sung visible from the family’s apartment window, leading his mother to close the blinds. The local party secretary then complains of the family’s disrespect towards the leaders and the family is “relocated” to the countryside for its anti-revolutionary crimes.
As one character in Bandi’s stories notes, “A sincere, genuine life is possible only for those who have freedom. Where emotions are suppressed and actions monitored, acting only becomes ubiquitous, and so convincing that we trick even ourselves. … Surely you know that whatever the play, the curtain always falls in the end.”
Reporting for the party?
The U.S. Justice Department has ordered China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency and China Global Television Network (formerly known as CCTV) to register as foreign agents. This means they must register with the Justice Department and must include disclaimers on their broadcasts and published material stating that they are foreign agents. Their reporters could also lose congressional press credentials.