Suki Kim’s “The Reluctant Memoirist” in The New Republic
Where is the line between first-person investigative journalism and memoir and who gets to decide? Suki Kim’s book Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, is a work of investigative reporting that could be seen as part of the school of “new journalism” –narrative nonfiction used by the likes of Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and so many others since that it is no longer considered “new.” Instead, her publisher chose to add the words “A Memoir” to the cover of her book. (Kim pushed back: “This is no Eat, Pray, Love,” she argued, but it was a battle she didn’t win.) In this essay, Kim examines the fallout of that decision.
By casting my book as personal rather than professional—by marketing me as a woman on a journey of self-discovery, rather than a reporter on a groundbreaking assignment—I was effectively being stripped of my expertise on the subject I knew best. It was a subtle shift, but one familiar to professional women from all walks of life. I was being moved from a position of authority—What do you know?—to the realm of emotion: How did you feel?
While a sales agenda was probably driving her editor/publisher’s decision to label the book as a memoir, Kim believes that there is something else at play. In an interview with NPR she muses:
[I]f I were a white male who is the only person to have infiltrated to live undercover into the biggest gulag nation in the world, and I’ve come out with documentation that marks the final era of Kim Jong Il living with future leaders, there’s no way that the public, or the publisher, or the reviewers would look at that fact and say, “Let’s call it a memoir.”
I was shocked by David Greene’s follow up question: “Could there be something naïve going on that you might find offensive but might be forgivable?” he asked. Offensive but forgivable? Kim responded on point: “I think that racism and sexism, even when they’re naive, are racism and sexism.” At the end of her piece, Kim points out the irony of having to use memoir in the form of this essay as a means to legitimize herself as journalist in the U.S.
I write to make sense of these jarring worlds, from internal to external, and to save lives, both mine and others’. This is why I risked going into North Korea undercover: because I could not be consoled while the injustice of 25 million voiceless people trapped in a modern-day gulag remains part of our society. To have my reporting on this brutal truth so systematically undermined is symptomatic of what scares me about America.
Rebecca Altman’s “American petro-topia” in Aeon
“Plastic is part of our inheritance,” states writer and environmental sociologist Rebecca Altman in her sinuous, brilliant essay about the legacy of plastic in the United States. This line could be the summary of her piece (first published last year and re-posted this week), but the route to uncover just how complicated that inheritance is takes several unexpected turns and dips into both her personal past and our nation’s manufacturing legacy. Beginning with a phone call to her father, whom we later learn has survived cancer, Altman’s writing takes us to the now-desolate Union Carbide plant in New Jersey where, in its heyday, her father used to supervise the manufacture of polystyrene, then helped in the production of phenol, formaldehyde and hexamethylenetetramine. It takes us down to Toms River, New Jersey, where years ago an outside company hired by Union Carbide dumped 5,000 barrels of chemical waste, which were later discovered to be empty, having leaked into the river. Over 50 children later died of cancer there.
Altman takes us into a search for the etymology of the word “plant,” how it became synonymous with “factory,” and although she doesn’t uncover the root of the word she pauses to ponder over how several southern factories situated between New Orleans and Baton Rouge sit where hundreds of antebellum plantations used to loom and which oversaw the production of cotton, indigo, and sugar. Now they produce synthetic versions of these crops. “The descendants of former slaves now share a fence line with some of the most polluting industries in the nation,” Altman writes. We dip into the history of plastic production, of Leo Baekeland’s Bakelite resin, first produced in the early 20th century, how plastics were almost mass-produced with carbohydrates instead of oil. And then we follow the trajectory of the breakdown of plastics–out to the ocean where fish eat plastic along with plankton; to the beaches of Hawaii where a new sedimentary rock, part plastic, has been named; and into our own bodies: “how some plastic additives have come to live in us – in our bloodstreams, and even in our mother’s milk.”
The way Altman’s essay tentacles in many directions is a simulacrum of the subtle pervasiveness of plastic itself and the ways in which it permeates our lives. It’s around us, in us, of us. We are a petro-topia. And, Altman points out, we’re also dependent on plastic: “We are past the point of simple dichotomies such as good/bad, nature/plastic, innocent/complicit,” she writes, which is why her essay, satisfyingly, never spirals into a screed or a dark lament. It’s much more complicated than that. This complication is reflected in the ways Altman writes, always eloquently and at times movingly, about her father–his guilt, his reasons for quitting plastic with the rise of the environmental and civil rights movements, his reasoning that there must be a “higher calling,” and his eventual development of a recycling program. Altman doesn’t miss an opportunity here, noting how we call recycling centers redemption centers: “Recycling might be an imperfect solution to the problem of everlasting waste, but we name the place where plastic is recycled in hope of our salvation.”
Is there salvation from the havoc plastics have wreaked on our environment and humanity? It’s hard to say, but the idea of plasticity, Altman proposes, could be a sort of solution in itself:
For biologists, plastic refers to a species that responds quickly to environmental change, one capable of rapid evolution and self-preservation. Many species of plants exhibit adaptive plasticity, I’m told by the botanist Chris Martine.
Plasticity could well be the ironic answer to the environmental dilemmas we face after more than a century of petrochemistry: to be more plastic and willing to evolve as conditions change.
It’s a complicated piece that has left me with a lot to think about, that has made me more aware of my own surroundings and the particles whose legacy continues to live on, both in me and all around me.
Stacia L. Brown’s “For Alton. For Philando. For All.” on her blog
The black writers in America covering issues of culture and justice must be so tired: tired of explaining why the latest incidence of an un-armed black person needlessly killed by police is merely the most recent in a long line of deadly bias; a more widely publicized tragedy that’s indicative of the broader, deeper, and longstanding issues of racial profiling in the justice system and of just plain-old hateful racism. Did we not believe them the first hundred times they wrote about it? On one hand, I’m glad the media is starting to understand that it might be good to hear thoughts about these incidents from black journalists. The last thing many of us want to see is more middle-aged white pundits waxing philosophical about police brutality against blacks. On the other hand, it’s insulting. After video upon video has captured the brutal bias in indisputable full color—and now even in real-time—no one owes us an in-depth analysis on why this is wrong. We can see that it’s wrong. And witnessing and re-hashing these instances of deadly racism, since they occur with such devastating regularity, can actually harm the health of people who identify with the race of those persecuted. I’m glad to see so many black writers have chosen to speak out. But ultimately, they shouldn’t have to explain it to the rest of us.
I hesitate to say that any piece of writing about such hateful crimes could be beautiful, but in this case, it is warranted. Stacia L. Brown’s essay on her own blog about the back-to-back killings of two black men is some damn beautiful writing. Let’s make sure she never has to write anything like this ever again.
We have not considered the mostly silent, daily terrors stalking other towns. By the time the national press gets involved, by the time they see something salacious enough to remind us, we are awestruck, woebegone …
They are both dead, regardless of the details, when they should both, by most accounts, still be alive. Alton’s 15-year-old son should not be sobbing for a father who can no longer reach out and envelope him. Philando’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds’ four-year-old should not need to console her mother. Still so certain of her toddler-body’s invincibility, of her spirit’s ability to heal whatever hurts, she should have no cause to put either superpower to the test.