By Kalau Almony
The value of literature is often credited to the way literary texts allow us to vicariously experience places and events we otherwise would have no immediate access to. The argument goes that literature thus enables us to expand our own limited worldviews and become better people, capable of making more ethical decisions. From this perspective, Hwang Sok-Yong’s Princess Bari, translated by Sora Kim-Russell, is an unquestionably valuable book.
The story is narrated by Bari, the youngest of seven daughters born to a North Korean family sometime in the mid to late 1980s. While her family is initially fairly well off, North Korea’s failed attempts at modernization in the 1990s hit them hard, and ultimately she must flee with the remaining members of her family across the Tumen River to China, where she lives in a hut with one sister, her father, and her grandmother. After her father leaves and her sister and grandmother die, Bari, not yet a teenager, embarks on a solo return trek to North Korea in search of her remaining family that leads her through ghost towns and raging fires. Bari then settles in China where she learns both the art of foot massage, and that she has a gift to see the life story of anyone whose feet she touches. She then makes the long journey to London in the belly of a ship and starts a family of her own.
Princess Bari deserves praise for offering the opportunity to confront difficult and timely subjects such as the environmental destruction caused by rapid modernization and the complicated nature of immigration and human trafficking. This work, however, has much more to offer than a window into another world. At its core, Princess Bari is an exploration of the magical power stories have over our everyday lives. And when I say magic, I mean it quite literally. Bari comes from a long line of female shamans and, as I mentioned, has certain powers herself.
Bari’s supernatural sensitivity serves as a way to confront often-forgotten human suffering. Along her return journey to North Korea in search of her family, Bari stops to sleep in an abandoned house where she encounters a family of ghosts. The mother ghost explains that “We can’t leave . . . We’re waiting for [the children‘s] father” who went to look for food. The mother and father had previously left to find food and returned to discover their “children frozen and starved to death.” The mother ghost “died right then of shock.” Their yard too is full of the spirits of their neighbors “clumped together and wavering like dark smoke,” presumably also dead of cold and starvation (82). When Bari offers the spirits food, they vanish.
This stretch of Bari’s journey is at once a realist journey of a girl on the hunt for her lost family, but also a reminder of the incalculable human suffering that is so often invisible. She lays it out for us quite clearly:
Each time they brushed past me on those empty village roads, I heard a low, spooky woooooo, like a heavy wind blowing through giant trees. Later, when I travelled to other parts of the world and saw numerous cities and glittering lights and the vitality of those crowds of people, I was struck with disappointment and disgust at how they had all abandoned us and looked the other way (84).
An offering of gaetteok rice cakes may not be much, and maybe it’s not the food itself the ghosts were hungry for. Maybe it was for someone like Bari to come along and hear their story. The food may just be a symbolic offering, but one that shows Bari really did listen.
While Bari’s magic usually functions as a kind of sensitivity, it also has the power to transform. In one of the most demanding stretches of the book, Bari’s journey to England, magic serves to refigure her whole experience. Dumped in the cargo hold in the belly of a ship, physically abused, and given virtually no food or water, Bari survives her travels by “stripping off [her] shell of a body” and embarking on a spiritual quest (116). Guided by her grandmother and dog, Bari descends into what seems to be hell where she sees ten kings of the undead, countless hungry ghosts, and then is hacked to bits by “evil spirits with concealed faces, dressed in back.” Bari watches as her “flesh disappeared, and all that was left were the bones. The dark spirits snatched up my tibias and danced” (127). Bari’s grandmother then reassembles her skeleton and sings her spirit back into place. A page later, we’ve arrived in England with Bari.
One could choose to interpret this scene as a sort of dissociation, a rejection of the real in favor of a more easily processed spiritual fantasy, but to phrase a reading so negatively would rob Bari of her agency. It’s through her own ability (and the help of her grandmother) that she detaches herself from the world and makes this violent movement across the ocean something survivable. By rewriting her own journey into myth, she manages to summon the stores of power needed to last out the journey and arrive in London fully formed.
The second half of the novel deals with Bari’s life in England. While it can feel a bit heavy-handed at times compared to the first half, and occasionally the praise of immigrants verges on tokenizing, Kim-Russel’s reserved rendering of Bari’s voice manages to keep these tendencies in check and provides the work with powerful earnestness in its most touching moments. One beautiful example is the scene where Bari has tea with a neighbor, an illegal immigrant from Nigeria who is worried her husband may have been deported. After the neighbor explains that they left their children behind and still have not paid off their smuggling debt, it occurs to Bari that though she “wasn’t in a position to trust anyone yet” and thus couldn’t say she was in the same predicament, she had to console her neighbor in order to console herself (170).
In its strongest moments, Princess Bari suggests not a uniformity of immigrant experience, but enough shared experience to build a new kind of identity. It also serves as a challenge to readers to remember the voices of those who may choose not to speak. Bari uses the “we” to refer to all immigrants when she reminds the reader that,
We stopped telling our stories in detail, but whenever the subject of our home countries came up, it always seemed to end in fighting and starvation and disease and brutal, fearful generals seizing power. There were still so many people dying in every corner of the world, and people crossing endless borders in search of food, just so they could live without the constant threat of death (190).
If Princess Bari offers a window into an immigrant’s life, it is not merely to depict something novel. It is to remind us that there are countless other windows, countless other views we may never understand. Bari tells her story to remind us that there are voices out there we may not be able to hear, and people too tired to raise their voices themselves. Bari tells her story to remind us that even in the most degrading of circumstances, sometimes a story is what helps one make it through.
Sok-Yong, Hwang. Princess Bari. Translated by Sora Kim-Russell. Scribe Publications, 2019.