Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Banned Book Club by Kim Hyun Sook, Ko Hyung-Ju, and Ryan Estrada

This is the story of Kim Hyung Sook.

No, not the same Kim Hyung Sook as the author.

Well, sort of. It's complicated.

South Korea in 1983 was under a military dictatorship that ruthlessly suppressed speech but was still generally popular - at least with older Koreans - because it and the previous regime had been successfully driving development of the country for a generation, and a good economy makes everything else less urgent. That year, a young woman named Kim Hyung Sook went off to college, and got caught up in the growing protest movement against that government, a movement almost entirely run by college students and painted by the regime as foreign and communist and evil...all of the usual slanders used by a deeply illegitimate regime to hold onto power as it realizes it will eventually lose.

That much is true of both reality and Banned Book Club. The book, though, takes some liberties with other people's lives: their stories are not Kim's to tell, so she (and her writing collaborator Ryan Estrada) have combined stories, obscured specific details, and set the whole thing at the fictional Anjeon University. Some of the people in this story are abducted by the police and beaten repeatedly over the course of days; the reader assumes the same, or worse, happened in real life. (I wouldn't be surprised at all if at least one person "disappeared" entirely; military dictatorships love to do that.)

So this is the story of a young woman: Hyung Sook are her given names. She goes to college to study literature in English, joins the banned book club thinking it will mean reading Fahrenheit 451 and The Scarlet Letter but learns they are reading really banned books: Che Guevara, Noam Chomsky, Betty Friedan, Paulo Freire, North Korean writers, global writers about revolution and oppression and what makes a government legitimate.

No one tells her that the personal is political. No one has to. She at first wanted to avoid being political in college, but all roads lead to protest: the regime is so corrupt, so oppressive, that the student population is largely unified in opposition. And so Hyung Sook learns the secrets of protesting in a regime that tortures and prosecutes and imprisons young people almost without bothering to choose them: dead drops, cell-based structures, masks for protests, the importance of having a member or two in every group who never engage in violent activities.

She does not topple the regime. She does make it through, as the real-world Kim did. And the book tells us how that regime fell, and how the survivors of the fictional group the fictional Kim joined met again, decades later, for another protest against another corrupt regime. (Lots of regimes are corrupt, as any American who lived through 2016-2021 knows well.)

So this is not just a good book, but a useful one: it tells readers what they can do, should they find themselves in an oppressive regime, and what they may have to face. And it, I hope, can give them the courage to face up to smaller-scale oppressive regimes: voting barriers and trans bans and "stand your ground" laws carefully crafted so they are always applied in favor of white people killing Black ones. Even if your President is not as deeply corrupt - well, this year - as President Park (either one) was, your governor may be, your school board may be, your town council may be. And it's good to remember that.

I've neglected to mention Banned Book Club's artist, Ko Hyung-Ju, up to this point. Ko's work is strong here, with lots of inky blacks and a good eye to differentiating the faces of a large cast. Korean comics creators often interestingly walk the frontier between American style and Japanese style, and Banned Book Club also sits well within that frontier, with some clear influences from both sides.

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