How I Came to Write This Book

Posted by on Jan 20, 2017 in Author's Korean Connections, Novel: In the Shadow of the Sun, Novel: Research & Process | Comments Off on How I Came to Write This Book

Writing this novel has been a ten-year journey of research, hard work, conversation, and reflection, especially on the subject of identity. I’m a white American whose own identity was profoundly shaped by moving from New Hampshire to South Korea in 1960, when I was seven years old. Korea, where my parents worked as medical missionaries, was our family’s home base for twenty-one years.

 

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I speak fluent conversational Korean, spent my junior year of college at a Korean university, and have returned to Korea many times throughout my adulthood. Korea is “home” to me, even as my connection remains that of an outsider-insider. But prior to this book, my sphere of personal knowledge, experience, and interest in Korea had never included the North. Even when I was a child and teenager in South Korea, the country occupying the other half of the peninsula seemed unknowable, foreign and menacing — a feeling exacerbated by the bellicose threats and posturing of the DPRK, and its 1968 assassination attempt on South Korean President Park Chung-hee.

Ten years ago, a chance interview question about reunification led to the idea for a novel about two American kids on the run in North Korea. I did some reading and daydreaming, but I felt uncertain about my connection to the material until I met Reverend Peter Yoon, a member of the Council on Korean Studies of Michigan State University. In 2007 he had traveled into the DPRK from China by train and had an hour and a half of video footage of the countryside between Sinuiju and Pyongyang. The images were spellbinding, and to my surprise, they were familiar.

Rural North Korea in 2007 — wide plains filled with rice fields, farmers planting in flooded paddies, people pushing carts and riding bicycles, clunky concrete apartment buildings painted pink and blue — looked exactly like the South Korean countryside of the 1960s where I grew up. I realized the DPRK was not unknowable and foreign; despite its government, it was part of a land I knew and loved. Over the years of research and writing that followed, North Korea came into focus more and more as a place of enormous complexity and contradiction, and most of all a place full of real people.

Indeed, contrary to the popular image of a country shrouded in mystery about which we know almost nothing, I’ve found an extensive amount of information available about the DPRK.

 

More About Growing Up in Korea:

Of Longing and Belonging (Korean American Story)
Considering North Korea (Korean American Story)

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Review from a Young Reader

Posted by on Sep 19, 2017 in Novel: In the Shadow of the Sun, Novel: Press & Reviews | 0 comments

Thanks to Amanda Kang, who wrote this review:

In The Shadow Of The Sun by Anne Sibley O’Brien

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I am 13 years old going into the 8th grade, and felt that it was a good fit (part of that may have come from the fact that Mia’s character and I have a lot of similarities, being Korean-American, about the same age, having to go to Korean school/한글학교, etc).  In general, I enjoy these kinds of books about semi-hardcore survival (like The Boxcar Children) because it’s exciting to read about people my age staying alive due to their own resourcefulness.

 

I myself have only ever been to South Korea, although my grandpa was born in Pyongyang and my dad has been on the other side of the border twice.  I learned some valuable information by reading this book, whether it’s how heavily a family’s fate depends on the time that one of their children flips her card at a performance, how accidentally dropping an important person’s portrait could send you to reeducation camp, or simply how dangerous it is to be associated with someone/something that the North Korean officials do not approve of.  It’s scary, especially at this time.  On the bright side, it’s helpful to know that I could change the meaning of my middle name if I wanted to.  That’s not something many of my friends can do.

 

Of course, there is also the element of Simon and Mia’s relationship.  I liked how the whole experience of being stuck there brought them closer together, the way they should be as siblings (but who am I kidding?  I never get along with my sister).  It was nice to see how their working together was what saved them in the end.

 

Anyhow, I am glad that I read this book and will give it four or five stars on goodreads as soon as it’s published (I also don’t think I mentioned that I have never read an advance uncorrected proof before, so this is a first for me).  I believe that it’s really important, especially for people who assume ideas based only on what they hear in the news about places like North Korea (a kid asked me on the playground “why are you reading a communist book?  That’s where Kim Jong-un is from, and we don’t like him”), to read this book and books like it, because then they’ll have a better idea of why these things happen while still reading from an outsider’s perspective.  Speaking of perspectives, I really appreciated those grey sections in between the different chapters, because it is always better to have multiple viewpoints in a complicated story.  I am also glad that those parts–while short–connected to the main story, because otherwise you would just have random parts mixed in with the plot and you wouldn’t get the background of the tertiary/secondary characters that you meet briefly in the narrative.

 

Because of this book, I now have a better understanding of the more misunderstood side of the country that my family is from, and for that I am grateful.

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Activity Guide from Island Readers & Writers

Posted by on Sep 18, 2017 in Novel: In the Shadow of the Sun, Novel: Tools for Educators, On Events & Presentations , On Other Resources for Educators | 0 comments

In October I’ll be traveling from my own Maine island to make author visits at three schools on the islands of Islesboro, North Haven and VinalHaven, hosted by Island Readers & Writers (IRW).

In preparation, IRW has created this wonderful activity guide for In the Shadow of the Sun, including discussion questions, art and writing prompts, companion titles and resources for further exploration.

Here’s one prompt:

Write up a pack list of items you would bring with you on a harrowing trek through the North Korean countryside. Based on Mia and Simon’s experiences, what would be some of the most important supplies to have?

 

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October 24 Event: “North Korea: The Stories Behind the Conflict”

Posted by on Sep 7, 2017 in Novel: In the Shadow of the Sun, Novel: North Korea, On Events & Presentations  | 0 comments

Date: Tuesday, October 24 – 6:00pm – 7:00pm

Location: Rines Auditorium, Portland Public Library, Portland, Maine

Audience: Adults, Teens

North Korea: The Stories Behind the Conflict

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“To Recognize the Humanity of the Other”: Korean Consulate Book Talk

Posted by on Sep 7, 2017 in Author's Korean Connections, Novel: In the Shadow of the Sun, Novel: North Korea, On Events & Presentations  | 0 comments

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On Thursday, August 24, Consular General Song Jun Ohm hosted a Book Talk featuring In the Shadow of the Sun, at the Korean Consulate in Newton, MassachusettsAn audience representing the Korean American community of Boston, including academics, activists, business people, policy analysts, and others with deep interest in North Korea, were invited to share their expertise and reflections. In his opening remarks, Consul General Ohm said,
 

As a diplomat, my interest in [Anne’s] novel is about the promotion of understanding Korea and North Korea among Americans… Questions arise such as why North Korea is obsessed with nuclear weapon; why North Korea is attempting to make threats directly to the United States; what is the origin of North Korean hostility to the United States, etc.

I suggest that we need to see the North Korean people as human beings and see them differently and separate from the dictator and his subordinates. This novel provides me with the new and fresh perspective, because South Koreans also need to understand North Koreans better, and that will be possible when they meet by people to people, not when they see solely through news media or official channel.

I gave a short talk about my childhood in South Korea, the inspiration for the novel, the process of writing it, and the ways in which empathy for the people of North Korea gradually became my focus. Wellesley English professor Yu Jin Ko and Reverend Sung-hyuk Kim followed with reflections on themes in the novel, with Professor Ko emphasizing that “to recognize the humanity of the other” must be the basis for reunification. Audience members responded with their own observations on the importance of a “human-centric” approach to North Korea.

I was deeply honored and humbled by the event, and felt buoyed by the foundation of guidance and support as I communicate the themes of the novel to a wider audience.

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FAQ: Have you ever been to North Korea?

Posted by on Jun 27, 2017 in Author's Korean Connections, Novel: In the Shadow of the Sun, Novel: Research & Process, On Travel to Asia | Comments Off on FAQ: Have you ever been to North Korea?

No… and yes.

I’ve never officially visited the DPRK, but I have been in a speedboat cruising along the border with China — in North Korean waters!

I didn’t intend to do this.

In 2015, I was invited to speak at a school in Mongolia and a teachers conference in Malaysia. In between, I took myself to two Chinese cities, Beijing and Dandong. I wanted to see the Great Wall — the regular one, and the piece of it that’s in my novel: Hu Shan, or Tiger Mountain Great Wall.

When I got to my hotel in Dandong and stepped to the window of my room, I discovered that I had a view straight across the river to North Korea, just half a mile away.

Two days later, I set off on my journey to see Hu Shan Great Wall, a 20-minute drive east from Dandong. Through a series of unexpected developments, I ended up in this speedboat with a pilot and two Chinese tourists, cruising west on the Amnok/Yalu River. To the right (north) in this photo is China. To the left (south) is North Korea.

When we got near the North Korean coast, our boat pilot told us to stop taking photos. This is the closest one I got.

To the north, Hu Shan, or Tiger Mountain, from the river. You can barely make out the Wall, climbing the slope.

 

We got close to this island, to the north of us. I don’t speak Chinese, but I’d picked up the names of the two countries: “China?” I asked, pointing to the island. The pilot shook his head. “North Korea,” he said. So if it was North Korea to our right, and to our left… then we were technically in North Korea!

I waved to the woman on the shore tending goats, and called a greeting to her in Korean. She beamed and waved back.

On the way back to the boat dock, we pulled up to this sandbar where a couple of North Koreans had a boat with products for sale — cigarettes, preserved eggs. When the Chinese men didn’t buy anything, the entrepreneurs muttered curses about them in Korean.

A few hours later, I was sitting on Tiger Mountain Great Wall, looking out over the North Korean countryside (the straight line cutting diagonally through the middle of the photo is the border; beyond is the North Korean island, then the river where we cruised, and finally the North Korean mainland).

So that was it, my trip to North Korea.

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Listen to the Opening of the Audiobook

Posted by on Jun 26, 2017 in Novel: In the Shadow of the Sun | Comments Off on Listen to the Opening of the Audiobook

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A “nuanced portrayal of North Korea”

Posted by on May 28, 2017 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on A “nuanced portrayal of North Korea”

From Publishers Weekly:

 In her first novel, picture book author O’Brien (I’m New Here) presents a nuanced portrayal of North Korea; the government is restrictive and the police force divided, but the citizens’ complex perspectives and attitudes are revealed in thoughtful, interspersed dispatches. Mia’s reflections about being Korean in Connecticut versus in Korea are powerful, as is her assertion that she is “growing into both her names.”

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