Sunday, March 10, 2013

Nothing to Envy

As a writer of speculative fiction, I am a firm believer in reading non-fiction. How else can you create a believable world (sci fi, historical, or otherwise) without first reading about the world we live in? Our world and our history as a species is stuffed full of amazing stories and often unbelievable circumstances. Whether you draw inspiration from the current political climate, the oral traditions of native cultures, or the story of a prison colony formed 200 years ago, absorbing all you can about human societies and our history will enrich your writing to a degree that reading only fiction can't.

One of my favorite topics is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, more commonly known as North Korea. As a lover of all things dystopic, how can I resist the only true example of a dystopia in the modern world? For those of you who may be less familiar with the concept of a dystopia, think of it as a utopia gone wrong. It may look perfect on the surface (and often whatever force is in control tries to convince everyone that it is), but in reality it is deeply corrupted. The corruption often comes in the guise of totalitarian control (George Orwell's 1984), dehumanization (Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale), or environmental disaster (The Maze Runner by James Dashner). And with the rise of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, dystopic fiction has taken on a new popularity with the general public. 

But in the real world, there's only one example. North Korea. It can be hard to get information on this small, isolated country. The iconic image of a completely dark North Korea above the vibrant, capitalist South Korea, shows the extreme poverty of a nation where the citizens are told that they have "nothing to envy." Even though the government, now headed by the notoriously private Kim Jong Un, keeps a suffocating hold on all information going in or out of the country, there are some who manage to defect. It is through the eyes of these refugees that we can catch a glimpse of their struggle to survive and the difficulty of fitting into the world they escaped to. Studying the country and the people who live there has given me more insight into how to control people and the emotional response of those people than all of the dystopic fiction I've read combined.

One book in particular, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick, is especially good at putting a human face on an inhuman society. She chronicles the stories, dangers, and emotional journeys of six North Korean defectors. What makes this book so compelling is the author's ability to weave objective fact with the subjective narration of the individuals involved. It reads like a novel. A novel more terrifying in its truth than any work of fiction. 

But my main point is to read. Read everything you can get your hands on, fiction and non-fiction alike. My bookshelf holds topics as diverse as Victorian London, a memoir of a slave girl, a biography of J. Edgar Hoover, examinations of why some societies conquered others, and many, many more. Everything will make your writing richer, but if you're unsure where to start, just pick a topic that interests you. History and anthropology are two of my favorites. Then READ!

What was the last nonfiction book that inspired you?

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