Politics is the seedy foreplay of governance. All the speeches and absurd campaign promises eventually lead to getting someone elected, and then shit gets real because government officials wield enormous power. Democracy’s great leap forward is that we the people elect the leaders who control everything from our military and police to whether and how we fight climate change.
We’re not telling you anything you don’t know, but it’s something to keep in mind when, as happened recently, our president’s personal attorney argued that when the president does it, it’s not illegal. Citizens of any great country need to stay vigilant. It’s our job, after all, to keep this republic from going to the dark side.
This week’s interview takes us to another great democracy: South Korea. Like most, if not all, democracies, South Korea had a rocky start, and it took the courage of everyday people like Kim Hyun Sook to risk their lives for the greater good. Hyun Sook is the co-author of Banned Book Club, an extraordinary graphic novel that details how books played a role in inspiring South Korea’s young patriots. Peter Dabbene reviewed the book in the January/February issue of Foreword and he jumped at the chance to ask Hyun Sook and her husband and co-author, Ryan, a few questions. Kudos to Iron Circus Comics for bringing this important project to press.
Peter, you’re up.
Banned Book Club was eye-opening for me, as I (and perhaps many Americans) think of South Korea as simply the free, democratic alternative to North Korea’s totalitarian regime—the worse North Korea seems, the better South Korea looks, by comparison. But as your book shows, it has never been that simple.
Hyun Sook: Korea used to be all one country. The border was not drawn by us, but by the US and Russia, at the end of the Korean War. Families were split up, just based on where members happened to be standing the moment the line was drawn.
So both countries came from the same point of uncertainty, and in both cases, very dangerous men grabbed hold of power. It is what has happened in the years since that have made a difference. Looking at the history of North and South Korea shows the difference between a country where the people stand up for their rights, and a country where they do not.
While brutality and suffering persist in North Korea, within my lifetime, South Korea has grown into a wonderful, peaceful democracy where the people know their power. We still have problems, but we know the path to solving them and the people are ready to join together by the millions to do the work.
Hyun Sook, the book documents the risks and costs of political activism to you and your friends. Do you have any regrets about what happened and how? Is there anything you would do differently, in hindsight?
Hyun Sook: I wish that once I learned the truth, I had done more. I watched the leadership of our book club disappear for days at a time and come back bruised and beaten from days of torture and interrogation at the hands of military police. I heard my professors drill into us that we could be kicked out of school if we joined the protests. I heard other students dismiss the activists as simply annoying attention seekers. I heard my parents beg me to stay out of trouble.
But now, I can see what an amazing impact their actions had. The country swung so far in the opposite direction that within a few years one of the authors my friends had been arrested for reading was elected president.
You, Hyun Sook and Ryan Estrada, are married to each other. Tell us about who first thought of doing this book, and what the working process was like. Ryan, was this story known to you already, or were there aspects of it you only learned as you worked on it?
Ryan: What’s funny is, to Hyun Sook, everything that happened in this story seemed so ordinary that she’d never thought to mention it, let alone write about it. We had known one another for fifteen years, and been married for five of them, when one day we were taking our daily hike up the mountain behind our house, Hyun Sook was talking about meeting some old friends from college and casually mentioned “the time I was interrogated by the military police.”
I froze in the middle of the trail and asked “the time you … WHAT?”
“Oh,” she asked. “Did I never tell you about that?” I was blown away and dug for more details. She wasn’t hiding anything, she just thought it too minor to mention. When we got home I tweeted about it. A few weeks later, in a subtweet I was lucky enough to see, Spike from Iron Circus included the story in a roundup of books she’d like to publish.
I asked Hyun Sook if she thought we could make a book out of it and she responded, “I guess, but who would want to read it?” We heard that exact line from every banned book club member we interviewed while writing the book, even as they told us all of their amazing stories.
That’s what fascinated me about this story. Our book is not about the power hungry leaders, the coups, the wars: it’s about ordinary people going about their everyday lives in the middle of it all—going to class, joining clubs, having romances, maybe a little Molotov Cocktail practice. People don’t always think of themselves as part of the bigger story but the choices we all make are important.
How did Ko Hyung-Ju get involved as the artist?
Ryan: I am a comic artist, and I’ve lived in Korea on and off since 2002, but Banned Book Club is such a Korean story that I wanted a Korean artist to illustrate it. I’m a big fan of people telling stories in their own voices. So I went on a hunt across Korea for an artist, and when I found Ko Hyung-Ju, who was the same age as the characters and had an amazing style, I knew it was the perfect match!
In the book, an interest in literature becomes the gateway to a larger education about political control and standing up to tyranny. Does it give you a sense of pride that this book, Banned Book Club, might serve the same role in some young student’s life in South Korea, or the United States?
Hyun Sook: I never imagined that my story could inspire people, but I am so proud that it has. History is always repeating itself, so learning about the past is important to building a better future. Especially if you look at more than one perspective on the same history.
I learned about how some of my favorite authors, like Nathaniel Hawthorne and William Shakespeare, used history to make points about their present that people of their day were not as open to hearing. That’s what helped me look back and question what I had been taught. When I grew up I was taught that Korea’s leaders had saved and rebuilt our country. Only by reading the perspectives of those hurt by the regime did I realize they had come to power with a violent, bloody coup that stripped away the rights of many.
If my story can help someone make the same kind of realization, I will be very happy.
Hyun Sook, the creator bio in Banned Book Club mentions that you now run a new banned book club near your home in Busan. Who belongs to the club? Can you tell us some of the books you’ve discussed, and why?
Hyun Sook: The group I have now is not about studying banned books, but about bringing together people who have had experiences like mine to talk about our experiences and, if they’re ready, share them. It’s not just people who read books that were banned in Korea. My friend Amy Rose was raised in a cult in America. She was forbidden from reading books because the leader told her that the world was ending and it was a waste of time. She snuck into a secret abandoned library, and the banned books she read helped her escape.
We have met even more amazing people while traveling for Banned Book Club. We met Denise Chávez, who runs Libros Para El Viaje. She provides books to migrants on both sides of the US southern border. She told us about children who had been locked up in detention centers, forbidden from having books, and how special it was when they finally got one.