AAADS lecturer Hannah Michell’s debut novel, “The Defections,” published in February, 2014, is a narrative set in the backdrop of the turbulent geopolitical climate between modern day South Korea and North Korea. The novel follows the stories of three displaced characters, each suffering from a sense of “unbelonging” in the metropolis of Seoul: Mia, a half-English, half-Korean translator at the British Embassy whose headstrong nature, troubled childhood, family’s political history, and attraction to her boss look certain to catch up with her. Mia’s boss Thomas, the handsome and seemingly composed English diplomat, whose rocky past and dark habits end up endangering his career until Mia saves him. Though a married man, he inevitably falls for Mia and eventually finds himself in a predicament when he is commissioned to investigate Mia’s mysterious background. And lastly, Hyun-min, a young North Korean defector cared for by Mia’s family, who has a secret that could throw all their lives and the entire peninsula into chaos.
Michell does an excellent job depicting Seoul as more than just the modern metropolis of South Korea. She also captures the grit, the struggle, and the disparity that cause her characters to all experience a different Seoul from one another. “The Defections” not only highlights the tension with North Korea from the South Korean perspective, but also comments on the legacy of the dictatorship period in South Korea. Behind South Korea’s miraculous rise from a war-torn, impoverished country to the world’s 15th largest economy, there is also a dark history of undemocratic policies and strongman rule. Starting in 1961, with the assumption of power by Park Chung-hee, South Korea would be governed by military men for thirty years. Today, Park Geun-hye, the daughter of Park Chung-hee, is South Korea’s elected president.
Michell also drew inspiration for the novel from her personal experience growing up mixed-race in Korea and England and her fascination with “characters who are in between places.” She notes how Korea has changed so much over the past 30 years, and she wanted to capture some of that ambivalence to her presence and how she was perceived in the 80’s in “The Defections,” and more specifically, Mia.
“The Defections” took Michell four years to write. She is currently writing another novel that takes place in South Korea. Michell studied Philosophy and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, then received an MA in Creative Writing from City University. Today, Michell teaches an AAADS class titled “Hallyu: Understanding the Korean Wave, Korean Pop culture and its Consumption,” which examines South Korea’s encounter with modernity, capitalism and gender against the backdrop of the global popularity of its pop culture.
The Center for Korean Studies at UC Berkeley will be hosting a reading of “The Defections.” Details will be posted at http://aaads.berkeley.edu/ and on our Facebook and Twitter pages. Come meet the author and pick up a copy!