A Must Read: “The Girl With Seven Names”

“The Girl With Seven Names” is an autobiography written by North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee. She escaped from North Korea at the age of seventeen and the book leads the reader through her journey of hardship, danger, and finally, freedom.

Book Cover

I started reading “The Girl With Seven Names” this morning, and found myself unable to put it back down.

She begins with her childhood in North Korea. She eloquently explains her feelings as a child as she grew up surrounded by propaganda. They were taught from the earliest age that the Great Leader was godlike and was the nation’s hero. They all believed that North Korea was the greatest country in the world. The personality cult was deeply embedded in the culture, and hinting at any disloyalty to the Leader or regime meant the disappearances of multiple generations of a family. Neighbours, classmates, and coworkers were encouraged to denounce each other to the secret police. Reading this, I linked all the pieces together with what I had learned about the Nazi regime and saw the mirror images. Perhaps the most astounding factor of this part of her life is the way she reflected upon how profoundly she believed in the regime’s teachings, especially now as, as a free woman. Her details also reveal the corruption of the country; bribery and back deals with government officials were essential for a family to live sufficiently in North Korea. With food rations dangerously scarce, a family had to be competent in illegal tradings or suffer the consequences. It is nothing like the strict laws and social structure we have here in the West.

They all believed that North Korea was the greatest country in the world.

Lee leads us through her early 20's as she escapes to China and attempts to rebuild her life, alone, in Shanghai. This part of the story is full of paranoia, disappointments, and suspense, dotted with fleeting signs of hope. My stomach clenched as she dodged bullets from every direction. She had been illegally presiding in a country that would surely send her back to North Korea if she had been caught. The highlight of this part of her life is her astounding bravery and intuition. She managed to hold herself together emotionally while slipping by countless potential threats involving the people she was unavoidably surrounded by.

The most difficult and probably the most terrifying chapters to read were the next part of her life: when she finally makes it to South Korea, but goes back for her mother and brother who are still in North Korea. The difficulties that the three of them go through are much more than those of Lee’s first entrance to South Korea. She recalls some parts of this journey with blunt quick sentences, and summarizes weeks of activity within a few lines. It is in this part of the story where the reader finds frustration and fear. The corruption of government officials in parts of Southern Asia, the policies associated with illegal travellers, and the daunting consequences of one slip of the tongue. All of these shine through as Lee recalls her family’s struggle in China and Laos.

I found myself holding my breath through many parts of this story, but more often than not, I found myself crying. The hardships that Lee and her family endured were so titanic that I struggled to even comprehend their multifaceted situations.

The moment I remember the most (spoilers alert) is when Lee finally reunites in South Korea with her mother and brother after seven months in Laos. In that moment, she didn’t have to explain it in detail — I was overwhelmed by her unspoken emotion.

I often reflected upon my own life as a comparison to hers at the time. In this year, she was trying to smuggle her family across a river, and I was in high school, pouting over a small mishap. I shook my head in disbelief.

In this year, she was in Shanghai trying to avoid revealing her identity while working full time. I was in seventh grade, a foolish girl, also visiting Shanghai to be showered in gifts and food by relatives I thought I had nothing in common with. I thought about how at some point when I was in Shanghai, I might have seen her in the market streets. Had I shared a sidewalk with her? What if I had sat beside her on a bus? I shuddered at the thought. How many North Korean defectors were in Shanghai at this moment, posing as ordinary people in the streets, seeking freedom? The thought made me cry again.

I was overwhelmed by her unspoken emotion.

When I had finally finished the book, I looked up at the clock in the kitchen. Four and half hours had passed since I started. I realized I hadn’t gotten up to use the bathroom or have a drink. “The Girl With Seven Names” transported me into a different universe, a journey through another’s eyes. Yet when I reappeared at my couch in my living room, I realized that it was not an alternate universe, but reality. I still feel unable to grasp the book’s truthfulness and complete lack of fiction.

I am recommending this book to you, now. Read it and have your eyes opened to a gripping world that is not at all fantasy. If you are interested in Lee’s story or as a sneak peek, she has a 12 minute TED talk on Youtube:

But for the ever-important details and for a more personal experience, I would definitely flip through the book instead.