My second NetGalley read of the month and a very interesting one at that. Who would have thought you would read a book about someone from West Africa moving to North Korea?

Monica Macias – “Black Girl from Pyongyang”

(08 November 2022, NetGalley)

From that day on, I realised that I had no choice but to accept the order and discipline of the school, and finally embraced the rigours of the life I had been given. Even now, as an adult, structure is threaded through my daily habits. This lifestyle has helped me to focus on my tasks and goals, to be productive and manage stress successfully.

As seen in the quote above, this book records an exercise in taking what you’re given and trying to do the best you can with it, and you can’t help but admire Macias for doing that under the circumstances. Born in Equatorial Guinea, West Africa, to a Guinean father and Spanish mother, Monica and her siblings and mother are sent to North Korea when she, the youngest, is seven, for their own safety as her father becomes president of the country after its independence from Spain (and quite soon afterwards is assassinated by his own nephew in a coup). From then on we are given a life story which involves quite a lot of work but also quite a lot of flying around the world, and a narrative that the two strong man country leaders she is raised by are benevolent and misunderstood by the rest of the world.

Monica is placed in a military-style school (there are no others) and we are surprised to read that girls are introduced to the school just for Monica and her older sister to have classmates, matched to their height so a few years older, as Monica is really tall for her age! It seems to be that you are not allowed to have real friends, too, as the child she is closest to is only allowed to be a friend and watcher. Then her mum goes back home to look after her oldest brother, who had been sent to Cuba, and Monica resolves to forget her previous life and become only Korean, to such an extent that she forgets Spanish, her native tongue, then can’t communicate with her mum (there’s a long string of regret about their relationship).

Monica’s eyes are gradually opened to the single-perspective education she’s received, and matures from running away from an American she encounters on a permitted trip to Bejing to living in New York for three years. She moves to Spain first, then various countries, hustling away doing cleaning and shop jobs to keep going, spending quite a lot of time researching her father and their home country and working out whether their reputation is warranted (she apparently interviews thousands of people and presumably there’s another book in that). The main person she quotes and bonds with is one of her father’s former colleagues, who becomes yet another father figure for her.

At some time in the 2010s she publishes the book up until then in Korean, then promotes it when living in South Korea. Then later she’s written the rest again herself and published it all in English, after various encounters such as meeting North Korean defectors. She also puts herself through a Master’s at SOAS so as to understand her father’s actions and reputation. Some of the book is a little dry and/or repetitive, and she uses some unusual terms when defining language around racism and world unity, but it does in the main hold the interest, and it’s certainly an unusual story that makes you think about the reputations different countries have in other countries. There isn’t much self-reflection or acceptance of what might be true in bad reputations – North Korea’s food insecurity is brushed over as a difficult time for the country that people don’t really understand.

Thank you to Duckworth for selecting me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “Black Girl from Pyongyang” was published on 02 March 2023.

An interesting Bookish Beck Serendipity: in this and “How Green Was My Valley” (review to come), we find people entering an educational institution (here university, there the second school the narrator attends) and being forbidden to speak their native language, instead only English.