North Korean refugee Sharon Jang, center, poses with her book “Girl with Black Makeup” with FSI co-founders Casey Lartigue Jr., left, and Lee Eun-koo. Courtesy of Freedom Speakers International

Two weeks ago, I briefly told the story of my birthday gift battle with North Korean refugee Sharon Jang. She started it by sending almost $200 to me to celebrate my birthday a few years ago. When it was her birthday a few months later, I sent her almost $200. We have been sending that $200 to each other for a couple of years now, probably confusing any bankers wondering why neither one of us is claiming that $200. There is much more to the story with Sharon.

On March 19, she visited the Freedom Speakers International office in Seoul's Mapo District to sign a book contract. Just 12 days later, on March 31, FSI co-founder Lee Eun-koo published Sharon Jang's memoir, "Girl with Black Makeup," on Amazon. While it may not be a record, it is certainly unusual for an author to sign a contract merely 12 days before a book's release.

Sharon first began working on the book with us in 2018 but was sidetracked by personal circumstances, and then we got sidetracked trying to save FSI during COVID-19. We resumed work on the book again in 2022.

No signed contract and not even a memorandum of understanding six years later? Authors should protect themselves at every step of the way during the book publishing process. In this case, because of our reciprocal relationships with North Korean refugees, FSI was in the role of both publisher and protector. During the process of writing the book, we explained to Sharon what we knew about book contracts in Korea and the United States so she could exercise her options. We discussed that we could work with her to prepare to publish her book with a larger publisher, but she rejected that option and said she wanted to publish the book with us.

When Sharon visited our office Wednesday, I asked her why we had not signed a contract until mid-March. She was clear about the first reason: "I trust you and Eun-koo. FSI is always with me."

Sharon first joined FSI in early 2015. She has been a student in our English Empowerment Project, a public speaker, donor, fundraiser, office staffer and now our third North Korean Refugee Author Fellow. Every interaction with her has fostered cooperation, deeper understanding and harmony.

Like many North Korean refugees, Sharon bears scars from her experiences in North Korea, her escape to freedom and her adjustment to a new life. She has many reasons to be cynical and skeptical, yet she remains optimistic.

When I asked Sharon to explain a bit more about not being concerned about the contract, she explained a second reason. Writing the book bolstered her self-confidence. It allowed her to reflect on her life, grow as a person and adopt a more positive outlook on life. "I reflected on my life. It fed my soul and made me a better person," she shared. She hopes her experience can inspire others who may also be going through difficult times.

In North Korea, Sharon was condemned to life as part of the "hostile" or "despised" class due to her grandfather being a South Korean soldier captured by North Korean forces near the end of the Korean War. Her parents were condemned to work in a coal mine because of their respective family social class, and Sharon suffered the same fate, assigned to work in the infamous Aoji Coal Mine.

Voiceless and working long hours in a dangerous coal mine without consideration of her desires, the idea of writing a book was unthinkable when she was in North Korea. The North Korean government controls all publishing and would have severely punished her family even further for daring to express themselves independently.

In freedom, she has the opportunity to tell her story. Some critics accuse North Korean refugees of hastily writing memoirs. Sharon escaped from North Korea in 2011 and arrived in South Korea in 2012. A dozen years doesn't seem like she was in a hurry to complete a book.

Jang Jin-sung, a former "psychological officer" for the North Korean regime and also an author, praised our engaging with North Korean refugees. He said we empower North Korean refugees who were "stripped of their identity at birth in North Korea." He said, "An important aspect of adjustment is about helping people gain confidence in themselves as humans. That's one reason that I tell people, including politicians and NGO leaders: There are many NGOs for helping North Korean refugees, but FSI is the best model for helping refugees practically and productively. Refugees can gain confidence in themselves as they adjust to living outside of North Korea, gaining the skill of speaking English that enables them to interact with anyone in the world."

Jang Jin-Sung, a former psychological officer for the North Korean regime, meeting with FSI’s co-founders in 2018. Courtesy of Freedom Speakers International

Of course, it isn't only North Korean refugees who feed their souls by reflecting on themselves. One of my favorite examples is the late NBA Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain. He said in an interview decades ago that writing his autobiography "was very therapeutic. Everybody should write a book. You get a good look at yourself. It helped me to change a lot. I was talking about a lot of things that I now take a look at from that book, and I am doing something about it."

Many authors and commentators throughout history who are not from North Korea have discussed how they learned about themselves through writing books, journals and diaries. The ancient Stoics advocated engaging in self-reflection to gain a better understanding of ourselves, suggesting that people start every new day by writing about gratitude and what they are thankful for.

After we published Sharon's book, she felt more thankful for being alive. She found something else she had not anticipated that also built up her confidence: South Koreans respected her more because she had published a book.

Of course, most of the more than 2 million people who publish books in print and online want to make a lot of money with their books, but Sharon said that making money is not what motivated her. This may come as a shock to researchers and others who say there is a "cottage Industry" of North Korean refugees trying to "monetize" their "trauma stories."

Sharon said she hopes the book will be successful so she can donate more to support FSI. She told us that FSI is family for her and she hopes it can grow bigger and help more North Korean refugees tell their stories. It certainly felt like a loving family when she visited last week.

Before arriving at the office, Sharon made a donation to FSI because she unexpectedly made some money with the online Atomy shopping mall.

Additionally, she brought a cake and pastries to the office. Most staffers and volunteers remarked the cake was too beautiful to eat, but I made it clear that beautiful cakes are made to be admired and then devoured. One staffer agreed with me, and we waited for the cake to be cut so we could both eat.

FSI co-founder Lee Eun-koo cuts a cake at FSI's office in Seoul. Courtesy of Freedom Speakers International

FSI co-founder Lee Eun-koo wanted me to cut the cake, but I said that was not a good idea for them because I would claim half of it for myself. It was, as always, a wonderful time with Sharon. Even staff members who go running or hide when I say it is photo time wanted to be in the photo with Sharon.

FSI staffers and volunteers pose with North Korean refugee Sharon Jang, center, Wednesday, at FSI's office in Seoul’s Mapo District. Courtesy of Freedom Speakers International

Trust goes both ways. Sharon trusted us enough to delay signing a contract until it was necessary. Last week, I asked if she was okay with me going on a campaign to promote her book. She is not active on social media, she doesn't have a large network, and she is busy with her life and raising her two children. That means the rest of us need to help.

North Korean refugee author Sharon Jang with FSI co-founder Casey Lartigue Jr., at FSI's office, Wednesday. Courtesy of Freedom Speakers International

Sharon's e-book is now available, and under the leadership of FSI co-founder Lee Eun-koo, we are preparing the paperback version. Sharon has shared her life openly, discussing even private and embarrassing moments. She treasures every Amazon review, grateful that her story is resonating with readers and that others take the time to make a comment.

She was stripped of her identity at birth and silenced when she was in North Korea, condemned to work in a coal mine. In freedom, she struggled to adjust but found trust in others, including us at FSI. She gained confidence in herself during the process of writing the book and that has continued as others have learned she has written a book. She was patient about signing the contract because of what she experienced writing the book. She does hope with book sales that she can donate more to her favorite non-profit NGO in the world so we can empower more North Korean refugees to tell their stories in English.

Casey Lartigue Jr. (CJL@alumni.harvard.edu) is the co-founder of Freedom Speakers International with Lee Eun-koo and co-author with Han Song-mi of her memoir "Greenlight to Freedom: A North Korean Daughter’s Search for Her Mother and Herself.” He is leading the support team for Sharon Jang’s book “Girl with Black Makeup” on Amazon com.

QOSHE - Sharon Jang: from voiceless in North Korea to author in South Korea - Casey Lartigue Jr
menu_open
Columnists Actual . Favourites . Archive
We use cookies to provide some features and experiences in QOSHE

More information  .  Close
Aa Aa Aa
- A +

Sharon Jang: from voiceless in North Korea to author in South Korea

14 0
31.05.2024

North Korean refugee Sharon Jang, center, poses with her book “Girl with Black Makeup” with FSI co-founders Casey Lartigue Jr., left, and Lee Eun-koo. Courtesy of Freedom Speakers International

Two weeks ago, I briefly told the story of my birthday gift battle with North Korean refugee Sharon Jang. She started it by sending almost $200 to me to celebrate my birthday a few years ago. When it was her birthday a few months later, I sent her almost $200. We have been sending that $200 to each other for a couple of years now, probably confusing any bankers wondering why neither one of us is claiming that $200. There is much more to the story with Sharon.

On March 19, she visited the Freedom Speakers International office in Seoul's Mapo District to sign a book contract. Just 12 days later, on March 31, FSI co-founder Lee Eun-koo published Sharon Jang's memoir, "Girl with Black Makeup," on Amazon. While it may not be a record, it is certainly unusual for an author to sign a contract merely 12 days before a book's release.

Sharon first began working on the book with us in 2018 but was sidetracked by personal circumstances, and then we got sidetracked trying to save FSI during COVID-19. We resumed work on the book again in 2022.

No signed contract and not even a memorandum of understanding six years later? Authors should protect themselves at every step of the way during the book publishing process. In this case, because of our reciprocal relationships with North Korean refugees, FSI was in the role of both publisher and protector. During the process of writing the book, we explained to Sharon what we knew about book contracts in Korea and the United States so she could exercise her options. We discussed that we could work with her to prepare to publish her book with a larger publisher, but she rejected that option and said she wanted to publish the book with us.

When Sharon visited our office Wednesday, I asked her why we had not signed a contract until mid-March. She was clear about the first reason: "I trust you and Eun-koo. FSI is always with me."

Sharon first joined FSI in early 2015. She has been a student in our English Empowerment Project, a public speaker, donor, fundraiser, office staffer and now our third North Korean Refugee Author Fellow. Every interaction with her has fostered cooperation, deeper understanding and harmony.

Like........

© The Korea Times


Get it on Google Play