Category Archive: Peony Author Press

Dear Leader By Jang Jin Sung, Publishers Weekly

A North Korean defector finds fleeing the Kim dictatorship as nightmarish as living under it in this harrowing memoir. Jang, now a journalist in South Korea, worked in the North Korean government’s United Front Department for espionage and psy-war penning propaganda; he won fame, riches (“individual rations on a weekly basis, instead of household rations”), and a Kafkaesque audience with Kim Jong-Il for a fulsome poem praising the Dear Leader (“Lord of the Gun/ Lord of Justice/ Lord of Peace/ Lord of Unification”). Jang’s rare high-level insider’s perspective on the North Korean system is especially eye-opening; drawing from secret archives, he relates how devious bureaucrat Kim Jong-il usurped the power of his father Kim Il-sung, but he hits hardest in scenes juxtaposing the frenzied glorification of the Kim cult with the starvation and brutalization he witnessed among ordinary people. Much of the book is a thriller-like narrative of Jang’s 2004 escape into the netherworld of illegal North Korean refugees in China, where he drifts, penniless and hunted by the police, through the glittering wealth and hard-edged anomie of modern Chinese cities, dependent on the kindness of random strangers. Jang’s almost impossibly dramatic story is one of the best depictions yet of North Korea’s nightmare. (May)

http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-4767-6655-3?utm_source=Publishers+Weekly&utm_campaign=727cd991d8-UA-15906914-1&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0bb2959cbb-727cd991d8-304623993

Dear Leader By Jang Jin Sung, CNN

http://edition.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/world/2014/05/08/intv-amanpour-north-korea-kim-jong-il-un-jang-jin-sung-devine.cnn.html

Dear Leader By Jang Jin Sung, The Economist

WHEN Jang Jin-sung fled North Korea across the frozen Tumen river into China in 2004, he carried with him a small bundle of poems. These harrowing vignettes of North Korean hunger and suffering were later published in South Korea under a pseudonym.

Mr Jang had once composed paeans to Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s former ruler. In a new memoir, Mr Jang retraces his conversion from patriotic court poet to the Kim regime to one of its fiercest critics; from a privileged life within Pyongyang’s elite as one of Kim’s “Admitted” to being a destitute fugitive, on the run from North Korean agents in China, where he sought asylum in the South Korean embassy in Beijing. If his personal poems laid bare how the Kims gained power through cruelty and repression, Mr Jang’s latest account exposes the reach of their cultural dictatorship, which put literature and history at the service of an extraordinary and lasting personality cult.

Mr Jang was employed in North Korea as a poet in the United Front Department, an important party unit involved in organising psychological warfare against Koreans of all stripes. This made him familiar with its propaganda machinery. In the 1980s its literary output was directed at South Korean democracy movements, then resisting their own military dictator, in the hope of kindling pro-North sympathies in the South. By the 1990s the unit had turned inward, but still used many of the same South Korean tropes and idioms. Its authors pretended to be Southerners praising Kim Jong Il. To help him prepare, Mr Jang was given access to prohibited South Korean newspapers, television and books.

A paper shortage after the economy collapsed in the early 1990s led novels, a form that had been popular under Kim’s father, Kim Il Sung, to be replaced by epic poems. One of these, “Spring Rests on the Gun Barrel of the Lord”, composed in 1999, earned Mr Jang a rare meeting with Kim. He was admitted to an inner circle of six court poets and given immunity from prosecution.

North Korea’s leading propaganda poets were rewarded with imported cars and large flats. Officials, desperate to prove their loyalty to the Kim cult, vied for honours. But a chance encounter with Byron’s poetry (among works that were limited to a secret print run of 100 copies in North Korea) proved a delicious deviation from the strictures of Kim’s “Juche Art Theory”, a set of linguistic expressions to which all North Korean works must adhere.

As a state historian, Mr Jang was allowed to read banned portions of the country’s unvarnished history, the better to distort it. The more he read, the more he recognised how Kim had wrested power from his father. The swelling of the Kim Il Sung cult, which his son set in motion, legitimised Kim’s rule while justifying a shift of power away from his father. Under the pretext of lightening the Supreme Leader’s load, all proposals were routed through the party’s revamped Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD), headed by Kim. Eventually, only those that were deemed important were passed up to his father. Kim transferred the power to appoint and dismiss personnel to the OGD. Political enemies were watched and then purged.

Kim’s hereditary succession was not guaranteed at the start. Mr Jang offers considerable detail about how he set out to usurp his father, revealing the factional infighting and what he calls the “subterfuge and machinations” that pitted son against father; even Kim Il Sung’s own bodyguards came under OGD control. The dual structure of the Kim Il Sung cult, with the young Kim the real power behind the throne, allowed the son to confound outsiders. Foreigners scrutinised the seven pallbearers at Kim Jong Il’s funeral in 2011, but none held real power, Mr Jang says.

“Dear Leader”, which includes three personal poems, is a testament to Mr Jang’s literary flair. He chooses poetry to express painful episodes, whether the hunger of a young girl or the public execution of a farmer in his home town. He paints a bleak portrait of his village, to which he briefly returns to discover a swarm of wasted bodies “waiting for death”, a childhood friend eating rice by the grain and tap water for sale. Desolation creeps even into better-off Pyongyang: a mother, close to death, and her daughter stand in a marketplace; a sign hangs from the girl’s neck: “I sell my daughter for 100 won ($0.11)”.

The contrast with China’s bright cities, to which Mr Jang first escapes, could not be starker. He marvels at the “boldness of mankind in defying nature’s darkness”; at advertising hoardings more impressive than the Kim iconography. Yet, there too, he is hounded by North Korean and Chinese officials. He meets North Korean women who have fled both their country and their Chinese captors. Theirs are chilling tales of human trafficking. Graded and priced like pigs, many spend their lives “rotting”, shackled at night so they cannot escape. They also show great courage.

Mr Jang makes no claim to speak from within Kim Jong Il’s closest circle. But as a poet laureate, on the inside of the Kims’ mythmaking machine, he sheds new light both on the dynasty’s ideological underpinnings and on what he calls “the tantrums of a defeated man”.

http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21601485-fascinating-inside-account-how-kims-used-propaganda-cement-their-hold

Emperors Once More By Duncan Jepson, Crime Pieces

I’ve recently read a couple of books set in the near future, all of which were united by the sense of impending catastrophe. Emperors Once More by Duncan Jepson is set in 2017 but the world, at first, doesn’t appear to be vastly different to that of now. However, all of the European Union is in economic crisis and has been bailed out by China. It is about to default on its debts and many Chinese feel it’s now time that old slurs and insults are avenged. Detective Alex Soong from the Hong Kong police is asked to investigate the murder of two Methodist ministers, whose deaths are quickly followed by the discovery of a gruesome massacre. The brutality of the killings has echoes of the atrocities of the Boxer Rebellion, which results in Alex approaching a renowned historian to help identify links to the past.

Despite its 2017 setting, the book has the feel of a present day thriller. Hong Kong hasn’t changed beyond recognition although the ever-watching presence of the media appears to have escalated to the extent that there is a running commentary on everything that Alex does. He is given an interesting back story: his parents were forced to give up their daughters under the one child policy and Alex is determined, one day, to track them down. He is married to the beautiful Jun, who refuses to engage in any discussion about the darker side of his job but is unwittingly dragged into the investigation.

The book is a compelling read both in terms of the pull of the narrative and enticing the reader into empathising with the central characters, which is key given some of the events that occur later in the book. One of the Jepson’s greatest strengths is the way in which he manages to write about the ferocity of the violence with a restraint that can be missing in other crime fiction writers. There is clearly more milage left in Alex Soong; Emperors Once Moreis the first in a trilogy and it will be interesting to see how the characters develop given  the changes that have taken place in their lives.

Thanks to Quercus for my review copy.

http://crimepieces.com/

Emperors Once More By Duncan Jepson, Asian Books Blog

500 Words From…is a series of guest posts from authors, in which they talk about their newly-published books.  Here Duncan Jepson explains the background behindEmperors Once More, which is published today.  The novel is the first in a Hong Kong-based crime trilogy featuring Detective Alex Soong.
Duncan Jepson lives in Hong Kong. His first novel was  All The Flowers In Shanghai.  A founder and former managing editor of theAsia Literary Review, he writes regularly for the New York TimesPublishing Perspectives and the South China Morning Post.
Emperors Once More is set in the near future. It’s Hong Kong, 2017. China has bailed out the West, but the West has defaulted on its debt. On the eve of a crisis summit for world economic leaders, two Chinese Methodist ministers are killed in an apparently motiveless execution in Hong Kong’s financial district.
It appears that luck alone makes Detective Alex Soong one of the first officers at the scene.  But is his involvement more than incidental? Is the crime itself more than a senseless assassination? It seems so: Soong is contacted by a mysterious figure, and more massacres follow.
With the eyes of the world’s media fixed on Hong Kong, Soong must race to intercept his tormentor, and thwart a conspiracy born from one of the bloodiest confrontations of China’s past, which now threatens destruction in the present.
So: 500 words from Duncan Jepson…
It is known as the century of humiliation, a term that arose in China in the early 1900s to describe a number of events that started with the First Opium War in 1839 and was thought to have ended with the Communist Revolution in 1949. Those years included painful suffering at the hands of imperial powers and unequal treaties signed requiring China to pay what would now be billions of Renminbi. But it also involved some self-inflicted injuries such as the Taiping Rebellion and a general failure to modernise as needed to defend against foreign powers.
Yet, it had not ended, following a few productive years, China fell headlong into another twenty years of madness through the 100 Flowers Campaign, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. In the 1970s, Chinese people emerged from isolation to find that after 5000 years of civilisation, the last one hundred plus years had left them decades behind people in the West, who barely claim half the history. It seemed an unbelievable situation and the reaction was what some psychologists call the superiority inferiority complex – bitterness at a lost rightful place in the world but also doubt in the belief that perhaps it was deserved at all. For several generations there was a feeling of inferiority, a terribly heavy burden, to some it became a belief and way of life.
Emperors Once More is a story about an angry and bitter person from the generation which feels it has been betrayed by history and a young man from the new generation of modern global Chinese who are as comfortable in Europe or the US as they are in China. I wanted these generations to clash in an open forum but I also wanted to create a story that was entertaining and that pushed me as a writer. One particular story point was the demand by the older generation to return to better days regardless of the high cost and confused reasoning.
Longing for the familiar and fear and resistance to change can push people to try to stem whatever is next and spend vast resources on avoiding confronting the inevitable. Most wasteful is expense on war and revolution just to force a return to the past. Chinese history and culture is full of examples of attempts to maintain the past and a belief in the unquestioned respect for that which once was. To be declared a great classical artist was to have copied perfectly the masters before, to honour one’s parents was to follow their instruction, perhaps even forgo one’s own life for them, and at work one would be commanded without question. So much of the future given up, but not in humble deference to wisdom, often only in blind eagerness to nothing more than age.
The main character is hurt deeply by his own and his parents’ past and he transfers all his anger to reinstating the values and beliefs of something largely best left to fade into history. But he cannot, and instead must recreate it from jagged pieces of confused understanding and mistaken belief. Only a person who wants even more a new and unfamiliar future to succeed can defeat him and the two figures repeatedly clash as the story develops, each teasing the other that they are delusional and set to fail.

 

Another important element was to try to write a story with a faster pace than my first novel, and to meet the conventions of a crime novel. The level of difficulty was much more demanding and complex than I had imagined. A crime novel must meet the reader at pace and then maintain that momentum. I can only hope that I have succeeded in some way and that there is interest in a sequel as there are other relationships that I would like to explore in this narrative structure which might not be so successful shaped into another form.
Emperors Once More is published by Quercus. The hardback should be widely available in Asia, priced in local currencies, and the eBook  can be purchased from on-line bookstores, or else here direct from Quercus.

Emperors Once More is eligible for the ABB Book of the Lunar Year inthe Year of the Horse – see the post of Jan 30, 2014 for details. If you want to vote for it, please do so by posting a comment, or by e-mailing asianbooksblog@gmail.com.
http://www.asianbooksblog.com/2014/03/500-words-from-duncan-jepson.html

Breaking News

Peony has sold US rights for Jang Jin Sung’s memoir, Crossing the Border. The book will be translated by Shirley Lee. After a fiercely contended bidding war amongst US publishers at auction, the highest bidder, with a good six figure number, was Simon & Schuster US. Simon & Schuster will be publishing early spring next year. More news to come.