Every Falling Star, the first book to portray contemporary North Korea to a young audience, is the intense memoir of a North Korean boy named Sungju who is forced at age twelve to live on the streets and fend for himself. To survive, Sungju creates a gang and lives by thieving, fighting, begging, and stealing rides on cargo trains. Sungju richly re-creates his scabrous story, depicting what it was like for a boy alone to create a new family with his gang, his “brothers”; to be hungry and to fear arrest, imprisonment, and even execution. This riveting memoir allows young readers to learn about other cultures where freedoms they take for granted do not exist.
Below, co-writer Susan McClelland talks to Sungju Lee about Every Falling Star and the things he loves – and doesn’t love.
Every Falling Star is available now.
Susan McClelland: Why did you want to write your book, particularly for a YA market?
Sungju Lee: After I got to South Korea and started to have an education, I met so many young people who wanted me to share my story. I then met teenagers in Canada and the United States. Some of them had really unfortunate lives and families and they blamed their parents for their circumstances and environment. I don’t want to show off, “look, I am ok and look at all I’ve been through.” I wanted to encourage young people that no matter what their circumstances, they can change their lives for the better.
I also wanted to write a book because I am searching for my mother hoping that somehow, even though she can’t speak English, someone will tell her my story and she will recognize me.
What themes do you feel readers, regardless of their nationality and experiences, will identify?
Hope, courage and love.
When I was 12, I lost everything, except hope that I would meet my parents again. When I got to South Korea, I was so depressed by my studies and the different environment but I met so many good people who encouraged me. There was one boy who told me that my story changed his life. That gave me huge courage.
I am still looking for my mother. I love her. I have love among my street brothers and father and my grandfather who never stopped looking for me.
Where are some of the characters in the book now? – your grandparents? Mother? Father? Your brothers?
My father is in South Korea now. My grandparents, mother and brothers – I have no idea where they are.
What do you think happened to your brothers? What is the fate of most street boys in North Korea?
Some may have ended up in the public labor sector. When I was in North Korea, usually the street boys, as they got older, had to work for the government: cleaning streets, fixing bridges, fixing the railroad. If they are still alive, maybe they are working for the government. I hope that they have a good life and they have their own families.
You only meet one street girl in the book. What is the fate of most girls who end up in situations like yours? Where are they?
The girls on the street died from starvation, disease and cold weather. If they managed to survive, they would enter prostitution. Being a girl on the streets in North Korea was not a good life.
In the prologue, you talk about the work you do rescuing North Koreans trapped inside China. Can you share a bit more their struggles? Why they became trapped? Why you didn’t?
After the great famine, many North Koreans tried to escape. The only way for them to do so is through China. The Chinese government sees them as illegal immigrants not refugees. That is why the Chinese government hunts them down. If China catches North Korean defectors, they send them back to North Korea. That is why defectors try to avoid the government in China. Especially the women, they do not know how to speak Chinese, so they find themselves working as prostitutes or being trafficked into marriages with Chinese men. Those who are lucky can make the contacts and work on farms to raise enough money to go to South Korea.
The reason North Koreans become trapped inside China is because they cannot manage to raise the money needed to escape China for South Korea. To bring one person out of China to South Korea costs between $1,700 – $2,000. My organization is helping them.
In North Korea today, young people are considered by those in the know as a real force to overthrow the regime. They are building an underground economy and have access to technology. Can you explain more how young people – and we’re talking street boys who were your age in the book – are making a difference today?
When I was in North Korea, people still believed the government. Under Kim Il-sung people had a good life. There was no starvation. Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, Kim Il-sung’s death and North Korea’s huge economic failure and famine, people tried to survive by themselves, not depending on the government. They now know how to trade goods as a result. They know how to buy things. They know about money and capitalism. An entire generation of children and young people now in their 20s, only know life post Kim Il-sung and thus care about money. They do not care about the government and only pretend to listen to the propaganda. They know how to make their own decisions and can feel some kind of freedom. They have technology also, coming in through China, so they know how the rest of the world works. The government still puts strong pressure on people, so it is difficult to have a revolution. But this group of young people is growing and maybe in 20 years, these people will have power to overthrow the regime.
Your favorite food?
Your favorite North Korean food?
Anything made with tofu.
Your favorite Western food?
I don’t like Western food.
What do you like to do when you’re not studying, speaking or running the non-profit organization?
I like to read and watch movies and play football (American soccer). I also like reading history books and I like happy, family movies and movies based on true stories.
What is your favorite movie?
Amazing Grace. I also like The Crossing. When I feel sad, I watch this movie. It motivates me to move on with my work and studies.
Your favorite color?
Your favorite sport?
Football (American soccer).
Your favorite book?
George Orwell’s 1984.
What do you miss most about North Korea?
I miss my friends.