The publication of Helie Lee’s IN THE ABSENCE OF SUN could not be more timely. During a period when Americans fear North Korea as a volatile threat, Lee’s book exposes the brutality of its government and the innocence of its people.
Following the success of STILL LIFE WITH RICE, IN THE ABSENCE OF SUN functions as both a sequel and a testament to the horror of life in North Korea. Lee’s narrative reveals not only the necessity or rescuing her family, but also the desperate circumstances of the North Korean people. The political oppression, the impoverished conditions, and the ever-present military menace converge in a story that illuminates a world caught in time, harkening the back to that tragic date when the 38th parallel was defined. Lee finally details the understandable paranoia North Koreans are conditioned to feel, a paranoia she comes to experience herself during the rescue.
IN THE ABSENCE OF SUN begins where STILL LIFE WITH RICE left off; an exchange of letters between her lost uncles family and her own lead Helie and her father to shocking extremes in order to rescue a total of nine family members. And this is where Helie Lee is at her finest. She fearlessly illustrates the extraordinary circumstances of the rescue and its impact on her uncle’s family as well as her own. Most poignant is the impact the journey had on Halmoni, Lee’s grandmother, who had not seen her son in over forty-seven years. Yet, the story succeeds on many levels: as an adventure story, as a political testament, as a journey of self-discover, and as a commentary on relationships between men and women. Unafraid to share her conflicted feelings, Lee’s interaction with men reveal the Korean perspective on gender roles that Lee has difficulty reconciling with her independent American identity. This ambivalence threads through the work in her relationship with her rich Hong Kong boyfriend, a mysterious guide, and ever her father who echoes her grandmother’s concern with Helie’s single status. Ultimately, both STILL LIFE WITH RICE and IN THE ABSENCE OF SUN subtly explore what it means to be a Korean Women in a world still dominated by men.
As we travel with Helie Lee and her father on their treacherous journey, we share her family’s triumph and her acute concern for a peaceful Korea. Her experience reminds us that valuing an individual can impact an entire nation. Yong Woon and his family’s escape have had a remarkable impact on both Korea and the United States. Still, Lee’s final question remains: “But there are still so many warn-torn families agonizing. There are still so many people trapped in North Korea struggling to survive famine and oppression…Who will come to their rescue?”
“The account is a gripping and inspiring one, and Lee’s prose resonates with a poetic sensibility"
Mark Rotella; Sarah F. Gold; Lynn Andriani; Michael Scharf, Publishers Weekly
IN THE ABSENCE OF SUN “…refers as much to the literal dark and cold of her journey to smuggle her uncle and his eight family members out of the oppressive communist regime as to the loss her grandmother endured when she fled North Korea at the beginning of the Korean War in 1950 with only four of her five children.”
Ruth Andrew Ellenson, The Los Angeles Times
“…the book is important for the glimpse it offers into a closed and oppressive society.
Mary Ellen Quinn, Booklist
“…her story and background information on conditions and places in China and Korea are compelling and truthful.”
Kitty Chen, Library Journal
• In what ways was the publication of Still Life With Rice both a blessing and a curse for Halmoni’s family?
• In Still Life With Rice, Helie grapples with what it means to be Korean in America. How does this issue resonate in The Absence of Sun?
• Describe Helie’s romantic relationship with Steven and the mysterious guide. How are these relationships connected to Helie’s self-discovery?
• Describe the impact of the journeys on Halmoni. What qualities does she possess that allow her to survive the rescue?
• When Helie returns home after her third journey, is the paranoia she describes on page 261 warranted?
• What do we learn about North Korea’s treatment of its people from Helie’s account?
• Why is Yong Woon’s family suddenly conflicted when they finally have the opportunity to defect?
• What political motivation does the South Korean government have when they finally assist Helie and her father with the rescue?
• Discuss the unique significance of the title for Halmoni, Helie and Yong Woon’s family.
• How does this story affect your perspective of North Korea, in terms of both politics and the treatment of their people?
• What finally convinced you to write the book?
There were so many lives we couldn’t save. Not a day goes by when I don’t fear for those who were left behind or the two hundred thousand, perhaps more, North Korean refugees hiding out in China in absolute fear of being captured and repatriated back to North Korea where they will surely face severe punishment, or even execution. For those who have no protection, no voice, no family to aid them, I wrote the book. It was not an easy or speedy task. Every page I felt the burden of all those lives weighing down my shoulders, strangling the hand that held the pen. There were many times when I doubted myself, and my ability to live up to the hope of this book. But I was more terrified to let everyone down. I forced myself to keep writing one day at a time, one page at a time, and pleaded with God to guide me. Two and a half years later and ten pounds lighter, I finally completed In The Absence of Sun.
• You comment often on the changes in your relationship with your father over the course of the journey; how has this experience changed your father and your relationship with him?
1997 was quite a tumultuous year. It was a year of heartache and victory, of constant disharmony and uncertainty. It changed my father. It changed me. It changed our relationship. Growing up I never really rebelled in front of my parents because they were rarely home. They worked long, grueling hours, six days a week so that their children can live the American dream. Knowing this, I tried to spare them as much as I could from my growing pains and identity crisis. I lived a dual life. At home, I was the good Korean daughter, who did her homework, washed the dishes and went to bed on time. At school, I wore skimpy miniskirts, super freaked and flirted with boys. But in China, I could no longer play the role of nice obedient daughter. Too much was at risk, too many lives were at risk. I demanded to be heard and treated like an adult, but it only exploded in my face and I looked like a raging woman-child.
Today, my relationship with my father continues to evolve, revolve. But always I will forever be his little girl. And that’s okay.
• The Seoul Broadcasting System seemed at times invasive yet ultimately useful; how did you manage the SBS crew during the rescue?
Invasive is an understated word. It felt more like Big Brother was watching, recording on tape our every move, tear, drool and human flaw. Then I became accustomed to the camera. Its constant presence and the presence of the crew made the mission at times seem unreal, like a Hollywood production. But then reality would smack me across the face and I’d realized I could get killed or someone else killed.
As the mission stretched into months and became more complicated and dangerous, something unusual and amazing (some might call it unprofessional) happened. Our crew crossed the line from simply being observers to participants. They became our aids and protectors of my uncle’s family. To them, what was once a job, an assignment was now living, breathing people yearning for freedom, reunification, and it moved them to action.
• If you could go back and do it over, what would you change in how you handled the rescue?
If I could change or do over one thing I would have spared Halmoni. I would have kept her at home, safe and unknowing, until her son and his family all made it out of North Korea and into the South. But in truth, we could have never kept Halmoni home. She was determined to see her son and to keep me safe.
• How are your uncle and his family today?
My uncle and his growing family remain in South Korea. We felt it was better for their emotional adjustment to settle there rather than to bring them to America. America, with its variety of languages and customs, and enormous size, would have been too overwhelming for people who just escaped from a depraved, primitive and totally homogeneous existence.
Six years later, I’m grateful to report everyone is doing fantastically well. Ae Ran’s baby and Hak Churl’s son have no memory of North Korea nor suffer from lasting health problems due to the famine. They are both bright and happy boys getting into mischief, as children should. For them, anything and everything is now possible.
My uncle did, however, visit us in Los Angeles in 2002. We took him to the usual tourist hot spots: Universal Studios, Disneyland, Magic Mountain and Venice Beach. He loved every minute of it, but it was a bit of a sensory overload.
• How has the publication of your second book contributed to public awareness of North Korea’s “obscene dictatorship” as you call it on page 342?
It is my greatest hope that my family’s story will not only shine a bright light on North Korea’s obscene dictatorship and pressure them to be accountable, but humanize the people of North Korea. They are no different from us. They desire and deserve liberty and dignity and happiness. If America is ever on the brink of war, please remember the people. They are the innocent victims who have and will suffer the most.
• Should we fear North Korea?
The enigmatic leadership of North Korea has always been a thorn in the side of the international community, especially South Korea and Japan. But the threat Kim Il Sung, now his son, Kim Jong Il, posed was a containable threat in the past. Financial and food aid had calmed their bark. However, after President Bush marked North Korea as one of the three “Axis of Evil,” it has not only elevated a second rate dictator to a world class threat, but caused Kim Jong Il to lose face.
• How is Halmoni?
Halmoni, my beloved grandmother, passed away on May 26, 2002, two weeks after her ninetieth birthday and Mother’s Day. Just as she lived her life, she died on her own terms –peacefully in her own bed with her youngest sister, Baby Halmoni, singing her a church hymn.
My eyes cloud with tears and my lips curl up into a smile whenever I think of Halmoni’s final day. It was as if she knew her life was about to come to an end and she wanted to prepare herself. The day before she passed, Halmoni, suddenly filled with energy, decided to get out of the house and get her hair done. Halmoni and her eighty-four-year-old sister, on their own, took a taxi to Koreatown where they both had their hair cut and permed, then afterwards shared a hearty bowl of chajangmyun, a Chinsese Korean noodle dish. When they returned to their apartment in downtown Los Angeles, Halmoni retired early to bed pleasantly filled and pleased with her appearance.
At the funeral, as Halmoni lay in her white satin coffin, clothed in her pink hanbok, I couldn’t help run my fingers through her short silver curls. It was her crowning glory, she had earned each strand. Feeling the soft curls through my fingers, I was propelled back to the time Halmoni and I were hiding out in Shenyang, China. To keep Halmoni’s mind off our dangerous mission, I convinced her that she needed to get her hair styled. She stubbornly refused at first, wanting to stay hidden in the safety of our hotel room, but finally I guilted her into submission.
The rescue mission earned Halmoni at least a thousand more silver strands and aged her ten years. How I wish we could reclaim those ten precious years. How I wish I could have taken Halmoni on a cruise to Europe, to Bethlehem. How I wish I could have received one more ch’iryo treatment from her. How I wish she could attend my wedding. How I wish I had been there to hold her hand. So many regrets…
And yet Halmoni had no regrets. She lived her ninety years and thirteen days to the fullest, and more. Born in Pyongyang in 1912, she lived to see her father wearing a topknot and a horsehair hat to women flying to the moon. She was a daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother, great grandmother, healer, believer, and warrior. Her only regret was all those wasted years of forced separation from her child because of Korea’s tragic division.
I used to believe reunification might be possible. Today I have total confidence it will happen now that Halmoni is up there holding her own personal conversation with God.
• What is your next project?
After returning from Asia, my anger and frustration resurfaced. I was angry about the fact that men had it so much better in every society. Just once I wanted to know what it felt like to be a man. I wanted to sniff and taste and feel how green and lush the grass really was on the other side of the gender fence. So, I cut my hair, changed my clothes, and moved to a place where no one knew me as Helie Lee, a woman. For twenty-four hours, seven days a week, six-and-a-half months, I lived as a man.
No one believed I would go through with my plans much less pass. So I decided to document everything with a video camera. That would be my proof.
It was an adventure I will never forget. I’m glad I did it, but I never want to be a man again. Men have it so much harder than I ever imaged.
The documentary, memoir and one-woman show are titled “MACHO LIKE ME.”