Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

“It was a laugh riot” is not something you expect to hear yourself say when referring to a book about North Korea. But Guy Delisle’s comic book account of working for two months as an animator in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, is a delightful romp with appropriate bits of sadness and seriousness.

Only the privileged North Koreans who demonstrate their devotion to the Dear Leader by snitching on their neighbors get to live in Pyongyang. Guy Delisle notes the fear people live with on a daily basis. His hotel, which is eerily empty except for a few other foreigners, is on an island. Delisle is not permitted to speak to North Koreans or go anywhere without his guide, but when he bravely sneaks out to wander the streets, he is astonished by people’s indifference to his presence. They barely glance at him, perhaps out of fear that they will be corrupted by his western wickedness or that they might be accused of conspiring with the enemy.

Delisle brings his copy of 1984, which he loans to his guide just to see his response. His brazen rebelliousness is really shocking at times. He sings Bob Marley, makes sarcastic remarks about the Dear Leader, and does not condemn Americans during a discussion on how evil Americans are. He drags his feet through all the propaganda museums and museums dedicated to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, and when he’s asked to write in the guest book about the wonders of one of the museums, he writes, “I’ve never walked down longer hallways in all my life.”

The scariest part is when Guy Delisle inquires about the absence of handicapped people and his guide responds that North Korea has no handicapped people. He balances these terrifying revelations with the ridiculous restrictions in North Korea, such as women being forbidden to ride bicycles because it would be “hazardous.” Therefore, women are only allowed to ride tricycles.

Humor is a gift and finding humor in depressing situations is a rare gift. I’m not sure how I feel about laughing at a book about North Korea. I feel slightly ashamed, but nevertheless, I highly recommend this book.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Hungry. Anything Helps

Years ago, on a downtown street, I saw a wheelchair-bound man. The cardboard sign on his lap read, “Hungry. Anything helps.” Angling his apple with one hand and holding the sign with the other, he lost his grip. The apple fell and rolled in front of me. I picked it up. Dirt clung to the apple’s exposed flesh. “Do you still want it?” I asked him. The man’s lips quivered into a frown. “No, just throw it away.” He stared at the sidewalk. The hopelessness on his face was heartbreaking. That wasn't just an apple. It was a source of enjoyment and it was ruined. I tossed the half-eaten apple into a metal garbage can. “Do you want me to buy you lunch?” I asked. I pointed to a Mexican restaurant across the street. “Yes,” he answered in a flash. To my surprise, the man stood up and sprinted diagonally across the intersection. By the time walk signals permitted me to catch up with him, he had already ordered a meal at the counter and was waiting for me to pay. He smiled and said, “Next time. I’ll buy you lunch."

Thursday, October 13, 2011


This is a poem I illustrated for the poet Carl Adamshick. I dyed the paper in tea and used white watercolor and black micron pens to make the images pop off the page. I also made a coffee cup stain on the crossword puzzle. I really enjoyed collaborating with Carl on this project and I hope I get a chance to illustrate more poems in the future.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Kim Bob? Back to the drawing board!

Organizing a project runway competition between my high school students this past week gave me some insights into gender differences in Korea. I drew the outline of a man’s body on the blackboard. Then I drew the outline of a woman and as soon as the boys saw the shape of breasts and hips they let out oohs of anticipation. I told the class, “These people are going on a date and they need to get dressed.”

“Couple?!” some students asked.

“No, this is only a date,” I said. “They might not like each other. We are going to have a contest to see who is more fashionable. Let’s play boys versus girls.”

In one class, the girls named the chalk figure Meri, after me. The boys picked the name Kim Bob for their eligible bachelor. “Great,” I thought. “I’m going out with a Korean redneck.”

I asked students to draw articles of clothing. “Harry, will you please give Kim Bob some PANTS?” I’d say, emphasizing the most essential word.

The boys did such a slap dash job of getting Kim Bob dressed, I was thinking, “Kim Bob better have an amazing personality.” For Meri, the girls painstakingly drew a mini tube dress with a flower pinned to the front, fishnet stockings and stiletto heels. They got my hair right, but they made me look like a cheap whore. The girls were taking such a long time getting Meri dressed, I had to think of extra accessories for Kim Bob’s outfit just to kill time.

To convey the meaning of suspenders, I had to walk around jauntily with my hands holding invisible straps. When both Meri and Kim Bob were finally ready for their date, Kim Bob had tattoos, suspenders, lots of bling bling, glasses, a scarf, mittens, a mustache and beard, a belt, three watches, clown shoes, cut off shorts and fishnet stockings inspired by my outfit. At my suggestion, the boys also drew Kim Bob holding a bouquet of flowers.

I was the judge of the fashion contest and I hesitantly gave the award to Kim Bob, basing my judgment purely on creativity. I asked students about the date. Unless it was Halloween, I had a feeling this date would be a disaster.

“Where are they going on their date?"


“Okay, that’s great. What about dinner?”

“Gangster circus!”

“Cool. What is Kim Bob’s job?"

“Gangster CEO.”

“Does he give Meri compliments, like ‘Meri, you are so beautiful’?”


“Does Meri like him?”


“Okay, I think this is their last date.”

In every class, the girls took the assignment seriously and the boys tried to create the most ridiculous outfit and distorted face imaginable. I thought of all the stories about ugly men who prove themselves endearing to the women they are pursuing: Beauty and the Beast, The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Cyrano de Bergerac. I have never read a love story about an ugly woman and a handsome man living happily ever after. The closest thing I can think of is Calypso and Odysseus in The Odyssey, but Calypso kept Odysseus prisoner, so that’s not a good example. In "Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story" by Russell Banks, the narrator admits with embarrassment that he dated an unattractive woman, but he turns out to be cruel.

I have to turn to the songs of the 60s like “Happy for the Rest of your Life” by Jimmy Soul and “Beauty Is only Skin Deep” by The Temptations to find evidence of men seeing past a pretty face. But in the Jimmy Soul song, he seems to be telling men that being with an ugly woman has its benefits, because then you can treat her like dirt. “An ugly woman puts beers on tap. She will give you peace of mind.” Not exactly on par with Rumi’s poetry.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

It's Kind of a Funny Story

“It’s Kind of a Funny Story” is a modest title. This book is extremely funny. Ned Vizzini writes from the perspective of Craig, a 15-year-old who attends Executive Pre-Professional High School in Manhattan. Craig is average but he wants to be exceptional. He suffers from depression and anxiety. How Vizzini turns topics like depression and suicidal thoughts into comedy beats me. At the end of the book, Vizzini reveals that he spent a month in an adult psychiatric ward in Brooklyn and that he wrote this book between12/10/05 and 1/6/05. That tells me that Ned Vizzini is like Craig in more than one way. Apparently, the author is also an overachiever who likes to show off that he wrote a novel in less than one month.

This YA novel can be enjoyed by older readers as well as teenagers. The dialogue is spot on. Vizzini makes his characters funny without making fun of them. One thing I admire besides Vizzini’s strong voice and talent for writing humor is his ability to write lists. Take this passage for example:

The party was like a movie-it should have been a movie. It was the best movie I'd ever seen-where else did you get shattering glasses, a kid trying to break-dance in the living room, a dictionary being thrown at a roach, a kid holding his head in the freezer and saying it could get you high, orange vomit spread out in a semi-circle in the kitchen sink, people yelling out the windows that "school sucks," rap music declaring "I want to drink beers and smoke some shit," and one poor soul snorting a Pixie Stik, then hacking purple dust into the toilet . . .? Nowhere.

"It’s Kind of a Funny Story" was made into a movie, which I am going to watch one of these days, but after this book, the movie will be a tough act to follow.