Category Archives: Julia Leggett

Jang’s memoir shows brutality of North Korean regime

Stars between the Sun and Moon:
One woman’s life in North Korea and escape to freedom

By Lucia Jang and Susan McClelland

Douglas & McIntyre

287 pages, $32.95

Reviewed by Julia Leggett

Stars between the Sun and Moon, Lucia Jang’s memoir (as told to the journalist Susan McClelland) is an engrossing account of Jang’s childhood and early adulthood in North Korea, before her escape to Mongolia, then South Korea and eventually Canada. In the face of hardship, hunger and the grinding drudgery of oppression, Jang, or Sunhwa as she is known, shows herself to be spirited and resilient. Surviving two imprisonments (in appalling conditions that quite frankly boggled my mind) and an escape from a human trafficker, she remains unbowed and determined to find a better life for her child.

Jang’s North Korea is portrayed as almost hermetically sealed, claustrophobic, a world without horizons, where entire families are disappeared on a whim and what you truly think can never be spoken.There’s no sense to why North Korea is the way it is, the logic of the regime is deliberately hidden from view and people’s suffering appears arbitrary and meaningless. Life is reduced to the physical needs of the body. The bonds between people are worn thin by desperation and pain. Close and loving personal relationships become almost impossible under a persecutory State.  

Jang shows how hard it is to rise above such all-encompassing cruelty, and act from a place of kindness and integrity when our own basic needs are not met and we live in constant fear. And yet Jang strives again and again to support her family, to find solidarity with fellow prisoners and to resist being broken down to her basest instincts.

While Stars between the Sun and Moon gave me a glimpse of the anguish and adversity within North Korea’s borders, I thought that insight into the conditions in North Korea was missing from this memoir. It was a story told in close-up and I wanted the camera to pull back, so I could take in the whole view in order to gain some understanding about how and why North Korea continues to function as it does. I would have liked to learn more about how Jang processed and made sense of this kind of despotism, of how as a child and young adult she reconciled the disjunct between Kim Il Sung’s representation of North Korea as the best place on Earth and the grim reality she actually faced, and of how her perceptions changed as she adjusted to life in Canada.

Though perhaps I am asking too much, perhaps this kind of oppression, by its very nature, is beyond comprehension, its madness and depravity inexplicable. Either way I was continuously awed by Jang’s grit and resourcefulness and her refusal to succumb to the helplessness and sheer injustice of being born into a totalitarian and autocratic country, where your life is never your own and where even the smallest comforts must be fought for.

Julia Leggett is a Victoria-based writer. Her debut short fiction collection, Gone South and Other Ways to Disappear, is available from Mother Tongue Publishing.

Genre-bending novel raises questions

Adult Onset

By Ann-Marie MacDonald

Knopff Canada, 

384 pages, $32


Reviewed by Julia Leggett

Adult Onset, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s latest book, is genre bending. A sort of fictional autobiography, the novel explores a week in the life of Mary Rose MacKinnon, a part Canadian-part Lebanese, lesbian woman who spent her early years on a military base in Germany and is now a writer with two children living in Toronto with her theatre-director partner.  As shrewd readers will know, Ann-Marie MacDonald was also born in Germany to a Lebanese mother and Canadian father in the military. She is also a lesbian writer with two children who lives in Toronto with her theatre-director partner, Alisa Palmer.

At the start of the novel, Mary Rose receives a positive and loving email from her father about the It Gets Better video, a message of hope and resilience for LGBT youth. Yet years before, when Mary Rose came out to her parents, she was met with their shame, disbelief and vitriol. Through the course of this ordinary week — a week so dense with the minutiae of middle class urban parenthood (Ikea furniture, strollers, yoga mats, toddler tantrums, mild sleep deprivation, non-chemical cleaners, Feminism, Google as a conductor for enlightenment, nannies, organic food, mothering angst and a subplot involving the incompetence of Canada Post) that I often felt smothered — it becomes clear that Mary Rose, despite her efforts to push her feelings aside, is still under the thrall of her complicated childhood. Her father’s email is the tipping point, and the past collides forcefully with the present. Little fault lines appear in her parenting and her relationship, out of which her rage seeps, threatening to poison her carefully constructed world.

All this too has its mirror in MacDonald’s real life. In her 2014 pride speech, MacDonald discussed the lingering effects of her rage over her parents’ initial failure to respect her coming out and how that stifled rage turned towards her partner and — almost  — her children. Curiously, the novel does not tackle the process her parents went through on their journey to acceptance.

I suspect a great deal of fiction is thinly veiled autobiography but Adult Onset deliberately alerts the reader to this fact, creating a curious doubling effect for me. I was jolted from the text. As I read, I was always asking, “Is this part real? Is this part real?” Extracts of Mary Rose’s own YA novel ended each chapter but, at the mid point of the book, tapered off unfinished. The extracts did not deepen the story but simply seemed like another unnecessary nod to the meta nature of this work. Perhaps for MacDonald, the fictionalizing of her life created distance, and enabled her to cleanly excavate meaning. While art often lets us get at the truth in a way that the bone-dry facts do not, and I am sucker for pushing the boundaries of any genre, in this case, as her reader, I did wonder if straight forward memoir might have been a better vessel for this story. And yet, in this slow moving hybrid of fact and fiction, MacDonald can still be droll, moving and astute as she painstakingly peels back the layers to show us what it takes to truly release the past.

Julia Leggett is a Victoria-based writer. Her debut short fiction collection, Gone South and Other Ways to Disappear, is available from Mother Tongue Publishing.


Novel not quite adult fiction, not quite YA

The First Principles of Dreaming

By Beth Goobie

Second Story Press

265 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by Julia Leggett 

The First Principles of Dreaming is veteran young-adult author Beth Goobie’s first novel length work intended for adults. Goobie delves into unsettling and challenging territory here, just as she does in her work for younger readers. A coming-of-age tale, the novel traces the awakening self-awareness of the aptly named Mary-Eve Hamilton, a teenage girl stifled within a deeply religious and damaged family. As the story progresses, Goobie persuasively lays bare the connection between personal suffering and a proclivity for religious extremism. Mary-Eve’s mother’s grief and madness manifests as Christian visions and glossolalia; her psychological anguish is harnessed to advance the power of the church, while Mary-Eve’s father, a man given to violence, hides his rage behind a pious mask.

When Mary-Eve befriends the worldly Dee, a girl who appears to be everything she’s not, a splitting takes place. Dee nicknames May-Eve Jezebel and initiates her into the world of boys, lipsticks and the backseats of cars. The structure of the novel mirrors this split, switching between first- and third-person narration. This move to third-person narration creates a sense of detachment, as though what happens to the Jezebel part of Mary-Eve is merely observed by her, rather than actually internally experienced. In a sense, the whole novel is a meditation on splitting, on how we disassociate from our pain or attempt to transcend it, and on twinning, that endless quest for our mirror image, for our other half, in a bid to make ourselves whole.

At first, Dee’s friendship seems to offer Mary-Eve a way out, but Dee’s life is not without its own darkness. Both girls have demons to vanquish before they can begin to heal. Goobie creates a nebulous world in which the spiritual, the psychological and the physical spill into each other, where apparitions become corporeal and vice-versa.

The book is an uncanny and surreal read: Goobie adeptly taps into the novelty and intensity of being a teenager where things are sensed and felt, rather than known. However, as a reader, I felt a lack of rootedness. While Dee and Mary-Eve/Jez’s relationship is well-drawn and complex, the relationships between the other characters are less tangible. The lyricism and ethereality of Goobie’s language sometimes borders on vagueness and there is a tendency for plot twists to simply happen, somewhat out of the blue.

The themes of The First Principles of Dreaming are adult in nature and yet both the novel’s scope and voice struck me as being distinctly for a YA audience. We’re always in the midst of the action, with no sense of a world beyond these teenage lives and no authoritative adult narrator to guide us forward. Like Mary-Eve herself, who seems to inhabit several planes of reality at once, The First Principles of Dreaming straddles the realms of adult and YA fiction, being not quite one and not quite the other.

Julia Leggett is a Victoria-based writer. Her debut short fiction collection, Gone South and Other Ways to Disappear, is available from Mother Tongue Publishing.

Debut collection embraces female experience

Gone South and Other Ways to Disappear, Julia Leggett’s debut collection of short stories (Mother Tongue Publishing, 188 pages, $19.95) is both polished and compelling. She was born in Calgary, but grew up in Zimbabwe, which she left at age 18. Leggett makes her home in Victoria now and is pursuing a master’s degree in counseling psychology. Her poetry has also appeared in Force Field:  77 Women Poets of British Columbia (Mother Tongue 2013), edited by Susan Musgrave. Leggett recently answered Lynne Van Luven’s questions for Coastal Spectator. Gone South will be launched in Victoria on Saturday, Oct. 18 at 8 p.m., at the Martin Batchelor Gallery.

Julia, this is such a strong first collection of stories, and you have an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. Is Gone South an aspect of your master’s thesis?

The collection is essentially my thesis. Though a few of the stories are in quite different places than they were when I submitted. The entire collection is longer too. I went into the MFA program really only writing poetry and so my fiction tended to be tightly wound. I had to learn to elaborate. The opposite I think of what a lot of writers struggle with. I know when I started my MFA, there was more talk about how “writers aren’t taught, they’re born,” but without doing my MFA, I do not think I’d have ever written this book. The MFA not only gave me permission to focus on writing, it demanded I do.

The title story of your collection is incredibly powerful, a relentless epistolary record of a young woman’s diagnosis of melanoma. In your Acknowledgements, you thank your “fellow melanoma warriors,” so I’m deducing this work is based upon personal experience. Can you talk a little about that?

It is a deeply personal story. I was diagnosed and underwent treatment for melanoma when I was 28. Luckily, I am currently [showing] no evidence of disease because melanoma has a pretty appalling survival rate, and not very exciting or effective treatment options. I thought I understood what it meant to be mortal before my diagnosis but I don’t think I really had any idea.

“Gone South” was a very challenging story for me emotionally. I wrote the first draft in two intense weeks about a year after my treatment ended, and in hindsight, too soon. In visualizing Ruth’s progressing illness in such detail, I felt as if was staring into my own future. I had to rewrite the story in short bursts or else I became consumed with anxiety, convinced I would experience a reoccurrence. Not all writing, it turns out, is therapeutic. I did write letters about my own illness when I was sick, as Ruth does in “Gone South,” and that was helpful. The act of telling people the story of my cancer enabled me to make meaning out of my illness.

Women’s lives – their struggles minor and major – are the focus of these stories, and that’s wonderful to see. Do you have a list of women whose writing has given you the courage to create your own characters with such humour and insight?

My literary influences are a little odd for my age I think.  I am up to date on the one-hit-wonders and the best sellers of the 1930s. Zimbabwe was under sanctions before 1980, and after independence, Mugabe kept the country insular and self-dependent until the mid-1990s, and so the library had very few books from after about 1960. I read Elizabeth Goudge, Daphne De Maurier, Stella Gibson, Miles Franklin and the modernists; Jean Rhys, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf. I read my mother’s books from the ’60s and ’70s too, like Lynne Reid Banks, Doris Lessing, Bessie Head, Nadine Gordimer, Angela Carter and Marilyn French.

Readers who know you grew up in Zimbabwe might expect African images in your fiction, but there is not a one in this book that I can find. Is that part of your life going to be a whole other story?

I imagine I will come around to writing about Zimbabwe. I know Canadians are often surprised and, perhaps, disappointed my work does not directly address Zimbabwe. Particularly Canadian writers, who I suspect view a childhood in Africa as the equivalent of a literary pot of gold! But the truth is I find Zimbabwe very hard to fictionalize. For me, it’s not really a place where imaginary things happen. The story of Zimbabwe itself (colonialism, independence, dictatorship, violence, economic collapse) is so big and still unresolved — Mugabe remains in power and the country remains in a state of uncertainty and suffering — that, at this point, Zimbabwe could never simply be a setting for me.  It would always be the protagonist.  The human experiences I was interested in exploring in this collection would have been dwarfed by Zimbabwe.

I do feel some guilt about not setting my fiction there as I think it is vital for a country to tell stories about itself. Our literature connects us to each other, it shows us what it is possible and points out alternative ways of living. And if the fiction you are reading is all about America or somewhere else, your own country, in an odd way, can lose it’s sense of “realness,“  become ersatz to you.

I left in 2000 during a time of extreme political and economic turmoil. I was 18 and leaving home for the first time, and felt exiled, orphaned by my country. My parents have stayed on in Zimbabwe, which isn’t in fact reassuring, as the situation is often dire. For years, I was homesick. As a child I had never thought I would live anywhere else. I was Zimbabwean, where else could I go? I lived in England in my early twenties, as though I was in a waiting room, just killing time, hoping eventually I would go home. Losing your country was a trauma I talked to death and at some point, without really noticing, I simply let go of that story and moved into the present. And presently my life is here in Victoria.

I understand you are now working on a master’s degree in counseling psychology.  How does that inform your pursuits as a writer, especially your poetry?

Poorly. I am beginning to believe the more therapy you go to, the less poetry comes out of you.  I don’t actually buy into the “insanity makes good art” myth but there is pragmatism to the therapeutic outlook that I think is better suited to short fiction or the novel.