Thursday, June 18, 2020

Those Who Learn the Past

I noticed that I've been accentuating the negative around here for quite a while -- okay, I did post about walking-tour videos last month, but that was the exception that proves the rule.

As it happened, though, this book arrived in yesterday's mail, and I read it before the day was out.

banned book club

Graphic memoirs are comparatively easy to read anyway, and this one was fascinating.  The main author, Kim Hyun Sook, was a student activist in South Korea during the early 1980s; she wrote Banned Book Club with her husband Ryan Estrada, and Ko Hyung-Ju drew the artwork.  The other characters, Kim explains in a note at the end, are composites drawn from the people she worked with.

Hyun Sook begins college in 1983, a few years after the assassination of Park Chung Hee, the accession of Chun Doo Wan, and the Gwangju Uprising.  A student of literature, she naively joins a Banned Book Club, which studies not just books that have been challenged in libraries or schools (as "banned books" mostly means in the US), but books it's illegal to own or read: mostly leftist works such as Chomsky and Herman's Counter-revolutionary Violence, Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Guevara's Motorcycle Diaries, and the works of Marx, Engels, and Mao.  Hyun Sook learns that professors and students alike are recruited by the police to spy on the university.  Most of the club members fall into the hands of the police, and some are beaten and tortured, though only one of them is actually sent to prison.  All of them participate in demonstrations, coping with baton-wielding cops and tear gas.

This was all familiar to me, of course, not just from my own reading of Korean history but from Korean friends who lived through the period, plus TV dramas and films set in the period.. I'm not so sure about the writers of the various reviews I found online, one of whom thought that "Kim" was Hyun Sook's first name rather than her surname (though she is never addressed as "Kim" in the book), and none of whom had any grasp of the history or the global context that cut Korea in half after World War II and turned the South into a military dictatorship.  Kim and Estrada fill in a lot of the background, which is reasonable enough because, as the story shows, most South Koreans were kept ignorant through the period.  But the book was written for an American, or at least an English-speaking audience.

Banned Book Club is often a harrowing read because of the interrogation scenes, but it's also often exhilarating, and just for that reason young Americans presently caught up in demonstrations and anti-fascist activism really ought to read it.  One of its weaknesses is that it doesn't give any idea of the breadth of the South Korean democracy movement, how students worked with labor activists, Christian churches, Buddhists, journalists, and others -- students didn't bring down the dictatorship by themselves.  Still, as an introduction to what an ultimately successful democracy movement looks like, it's a great place to start.