Teaching Essay Writing In Pyongyang

In reexamining a terrible tangle of a situation, one can sometimes pinpoint that single moment when everything went wrong.

During my decade-long research, I had always feared that this would happen in North Korea, where I would have no control over my fate.

How did we feel about the spiritual journeys we had undertaken? I had no idea how I was supposed to answer, for a simple reason: My book wasn’t a memoir.

As an investigative journalist, I had been researching and visiting North Korea for over a decade.

The code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists states that reporters should “avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.” It is hard to imagine any subject more vital to the public, or more impervious to open methods, than the secretive, nuclear North Korea; its violations against humanity, the United Nations has declared, “reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” My greatest concern had been for my students, and I had followed well-established journalistic practices to ensure that they would not be harmed.

Six months before publication, my editor sent over the design for the book cover.

Something caught my eye: Below the title—Without You, There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite—were the words, “A Memoir.” I immediately emailed my editor.

“I really do not feel comfortable with my book being called a memoir,” I told her.

I did not quite understand then that this was a sales decision. By casting my book as personal rather than professional—by marketing me as a woman on a journey of self-discovery, rather than a reporter on a groundbreaking assignment—I was effectively being stripped of my expertise on the subject I knew best.

I later learned that memoirs in general sell better than investigative journalism. “This is no Eat, Pray, Love,” I argued during a phone call with my editor and agent. It was a subtle shift, but one familiar to professional women from all walks of life.

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