Earlier in the year, the sociopathic North Korean regime released video footage of two citizens, a pair of brothers, being interviewed about their allegiance to their state, and especially their allegiance to their current chief sociopath, Kim Jong-un. Both men were citizens of North Korea, both spoke the language fluently, and both appeared content with the direction that their society was headed.
That’s weird enough. The really weird thing is that they are white.
Their names are Ted and James Dresnok. They’re the sons of an American defector to North Korea, James Dresnok, Sr. The Washington Post covered the story here, and the elder Dresnok has been the subject of an excellent documentary, Crossing the Line. I found his story so compelling, in fact, that I used him as the model for William Yaris, a supporting character in The North Korea Onyx.
Part of me, the irrational part, wants to find these two brothers and tell them it’s time to come back to the West. After all, it feels like they belong here—maybe in a garden apartment in Chelsea, in a house in Houston, in a suburb of Toronto. Another part of me refuses to believe the truth. Their lives must be fake. How could two Caucasian men exist in such a xenophobic society as North Korea? In a place that the late Christopher Hitchens memorably described as “a nation of racist dwarves”?
The answer is simple: Their lives aren’t fake. They never were in the West. Those are their true lives, the lives they were born into.
The same way that you and I were born into ours.
TESTING OUR BOUNDS OF CREDULITY
In moments like this, our imagination gets tested. Life is pushing her fingertips against the rubbery outer walls of our consciousness, seeing how far we can stretch before we break. As I have already written, truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
I’ve been reading an excellent book by Stephanie Coontz on the history of marriage, aptly titled Marriage, a History. It’s tempting for us to tsk-tsk the current decline of that arthritic institution. Many of us moan about the forty-percent divorce rate signifying the end of morals. Some of us gossip about how mobile phones, dating apps, and no-fault divorce laws make maintaining a committed union all but impossible. Still others wring our hands about rising rates of Cluster B conditions such as narcissistic, histrionic, and borderline personality disorders. All of us who have attended the nuptials of couples under the age of twenty-five have stood by quietly, knowing full well how their marriages are likely to end up.
Coontz, however, takes the long view, and in the first chapter she explodes a lot of preconceptions. For example, she notes that for most of recorded history, love and marriage weren’t in fact yoked together. Some of the stories she sets out to illustrate this are downright bizarre. She describes the way that ancient Babylonian Jews allowed a sage to request a “wife for a day” whenever he entered a new town. In these temporary marriages, the man and the woman had no obligation toward each other once the contract was over. To me, that sounds a lot like a Vegas wedding, followed by a quickie Reno divorce.
My favorite story in the book, though, involves dead marriages. In parts of traditional Chinese and Sudanese societies, women who wished to live unencumbered by a husband would sometimes marry a dead man. That’s right: a corpse. However, they couldn’t marry just any dead man. They needed to marry a dead bachelor. It was often difficult to find such a prize, however. That’s why, on the rare occasions when a local elderly man without a wife fell prey to pneumonia (“the old man’s friend”), women competed viciously for the right to take his cold hand for a trip up the aisle. I’ve already got too many other projects in the queue, but somebody needs to write a series of historical novels about weird marriage customs.
So here’s the takeaway: If we stay inside the little lifeboat of our single perspective, we will never learn just how wildly varied the world really is.
KEEP IT ALL IN PERSPECTIVE(S)
It’s an uphill battle, though, since we get more entrenched in our individual worldviews as we age. We shrug and accept the hand that’s been dealt to us, whether it’s a royal flush or something to be flushed. Eventually, that perspective becomes calcified, as stiff as the walls of an atherosclerotic blood vessel. Eventually, if it goes unchecked, the person becomes totally intolerant of different perspectives. That person has come to believe that her point of view defines reality, and that it is morally right. The truth, however, is that our opinions are often formed by accidents of fate—an imbalance of hormones while in utero, a father who reaches for the belt to punish the smallest transgression, a religious community that insulates its young from anything that contradicts its dogma.
This sort of personal hardening gets even worse as we age. Look at how men in particular often grow more stubborn as they get older—they begin to believe that their home is their castle, that they rule over everything they see. This is particularly true for men who’ve had some business success. In the past, I’ve often examined the compact discs on display in people’s homes (this was before streaming music). A glance at the copyright dates could often pinpoint the exact year that the person stopped buying new music. That was the year that the vision narrowed.
In fact, neurologists tell us that one of the best things people can do to maintain mental openness and agility—other than eating blueberries and drinking red wine—is to learn a foreign language, particularly in mid-life.
I did that recently.
Confession: Despite the novels I’ve written set in South America, the Caribbean, and the Iberian peninsula, and despite all my travels to those countries, I had never been fluent in Spanish. It’s been a minor badge of shame. I’d always chalked it up to an inferiority complex that dated back to college, when I’d been slapped with my first and only C for my failure to memorize the subjunctive conjugations of two hundred Spanish verbs.
Recently, as I saw the guardians of middle age starting to roll out the welcome mat, I dedicated myself to changing this. Out came the pocket language books, out came the lists of vocabulary, out came the one-way plane ticket to South America. For months I lived abroad, socializing, dating, dancing, touring. I put myself into real-time situations with real-time context. I was helping my future self avoid the ancient compact disc scenario.
As a result, I’m nearly fluent today. My brain rewired itself—and my perspective on the world was changed. It’s been nothing short of a rebirth.
A UNIVERSE OF STORIES
For those of us unable to travel, books serve the same function. Some books, such as Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles or The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker, lead us through the interior landscape of another person’s thoughts. Different books, such as The Da Vinci Code, lead us through the external landscape of foreign lands. The Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery series leads us through both.
After all, a book is a cheap, transportable way to learn about another person’s experience—which then helps us to improve ourselves. As Kafka wrote, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” This has been borne out by science. In fact, a recent study found that people who’ve read just five books rate higher on levels of empathy than people who have not.
That’s why I say that all books are self-help books.
Personally, I don’t understand why a novelist wouldn’t want to include at least some interior travel. Novels carry us into a character’s psychology better than any other form of storytelling. For example, to show introspection, filmed entertainment usually shows a character looking into a mirror. We look at his face, study his features, but unless he starts talking to himself, we’re left to fill in the blanks. The novelist, however, can get into what the character’s actually thinking.
The other standout quality of novels is their ability to transmit analysis and information, which also have a place in fiction. For most people, reading a hundred and fifty words about the history of stock-car driving is a lot easier than listening to a narrator read those same one hundred and fifty words in voiceover. This can also potentially give a book a new dimension. That’s why I find ways to include interesting anecdotes and history of unusual foreign lands such as Uruguay or Portugal or North Korea. It’s what the medium does best.
This doesn’t mean that reading thousands of novels is the solution to the world’s problems. In college, I took great delight in skewering an arrogant bookworm classmate who’d boasted that she’d read All the Kings’ Men by Robert Penn Warren in a day and a half. She couldn’t remember anything about the story, not the plot, not the characters, nothing. Her eyes had basically just scanned words. (She was an exception to the reading-builds-empathy rule.)
Today, I’m fond of pointing out that the same culture that invented mass literacy via the printing press was, less than five hundred years later, slaughtering six million people in a frenzy of ethnic cleansing. So color me skeptical about the ability of reading to change the arc of humanity overall.
But even if they rarely change societies, travel and reading often do change individuals—and that’s really the whole point. Make yourself the very best you can be. Travel and reading will help you do that.
It’s a big world. Go see it all.