This week on The New Yorker Radio Hour, I interviewed Heinz Insu Fenkl. Fenkl is in the process of translating the poems included in that mysterious manuscript said to have been smuggled out of North Korea. He talked about the unusual, propaganda-inspired poetic devices at work in “The Red Years,” and explained what the poems reveal about the North Korean dream of reunification.
Earlier this week, I interviewed South Korean human rights activist Do Hee-yun– the person said to be responsible for helping the manuscript of “The Accusation” escape North Korea– at the New York Public Library. He told me that he hoped to make contact with the author, Bandi again this spring, and– incredibly– that he believed the stories in “The Accusation” may actually have been the work of not just one writer, but a group of writers (!). That conversation was part of an extraordinary evening, with readings from Min Jin Lee and Heinz Insu Fenkl, and a performance from the opera-in-progress based on one of Bandi’s stories. (UPDATE: Audio and video of the event are now online.) Here’s my original piece on “The Accusation” for The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/a-collection-of-north-korean-stories-and-the-mystery-of-their-origins
When Mark Twain died, in 1910, his literary output slowed but did not cease. In the decades since, Twain’s posthumously published works have included a novel, two short-story collections, four essay collections, a book of letters, a book of notes, a translation of a German children’s story, and a three-volume, twenty-three-hundred-page autobiography. This month, Doubleday will add one more work to the list: “The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine,” a children’s book.
I interviewed Daniel Mendelsohn for Virginia Magazine. It was a treat to sit down with a critic whose work I’ve admired for a long time and talk about how he approaches his work. The headline comes from his take on Love Actually. I’ve always loathed that movie, but on his urging, I’m going to try to let my guard down next Christmas when it’s on TV.
Do you believe in “guilty pleasures” of cultural consumption?
I really do believe that the high-low distinction is more invidious than not. The aesthetic components of “guilt”-inducing pleasures are usually melodrama and sentimentality. I have a great aversion to the aversion to sentimentality. To me, what made Mad Men unbearable was its own incredible overweening need to be cool. And because it was so cool and so cynical about everything, I just didn’t care about it, whereas in the first five minutes of watching Friday Night Lights, I thought I was going to die if I didn’t know those people were going to be okay.
Why not love something like Love Actually? What’s so terrible about just caving into your crazy human heart every now and then? You don’t always have to be armored.
This story has been in the making for quite a while.
In 2011, I first got curious about Korean writing in translation; this past fall, thanks to a generous grant from the International Center for Journalists, I was able to follow the story to Seoul and spend two weeks talking to writers, translators, publishers, scholars, and book-lovers.
I’m so happy the resulting piece found a home on The New Yorker’s site.
Another winter storm, another revolution. With more terrible weather expected overnight, I’ve packed up for yet another stay in a hotel across the street from my office — keeping tabs on Al Jazeera’s ongoing Egypt coverage all the while. If today’s developments are any indicator, this week’s looking to be another very busy one at work. News from the Middle East has been nothing short of riveting, and I’ve been proud to be part of The Takeaway’s standout coverage of protests in the Middle East (including the brand new podcast launched today).
I’m still gathering my thoughts — and, like everyone else watching developments in Algeria, Yemen, Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt from afar, “monitoring a very fluid situation,” to say the least — so for now, I’ll leave this post with just one question that’s been on my mind. It stems, in part, from an anecdote relayed by Wendell Steavenson, blogging for The New Yorker from Cairo:
A girl who had collapsed with stomach pains was brought in, carried in the arms of an Army captain. Her parents had taken their four children to the square in the morning and the family had been there for six or seven hours. Her father, Amr Helmy, a former Army officer, told me that he believed it was important that they see the demonstration. “They need to start getting used to them!” he joked, “so they learn that they don’t have to be afraid. Our generation wasted our life in nonsense.”
A courageous sentiment. But why now? That’s what I’ve been wondering. It’s also the question that was posed on The Takeaway this morning by Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sedat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland:
For me as a political scientist, I’ve always said (and I’ve repeated it over and over again), the puzzle to me has never been, ‘are there reasons to revolt?’ The puzzle has always been, ‘why haven’t people revolted already?’
I’ll be mulling this over as events in Egypt unfold — and maybe when the storm passes, the answer will be more apparent.