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BBC Prize for Nonfiction winner: L.A. Times' Barbara Demick

July 1, 2010 |  5:31 pm

The $30,000 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction, Britain's leading nonfiction prize, was awarded Thursday to Barbara Demick for "Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea." Demick, chief of the Los Angeles Times' Beijing bureau, was selected from six authors who had been shortlisted for the award.

"As a reader I've always been interested in dystopian novels like 'Nineteen Eighty-four,'" she told the Associated Press, referring to George Orwell's book about a fictional, controlling state, "and North Korea seemed to be the real thing."

Demick tells the story of six former residents of Chongin, North Korea's third-largest city. Two lovers fear to criticize the regime to each other; a factory worker sees her husband and son starve to death before fleeing. Demick conducted extensive interviews to capture the stories of lives lived in North Korea, one of the world's most closed countries.

"Nowhere will you find a better account of real life in North Korea, a society that is all too easily comically typecast by massive parades of coordinated flag wavers," said Evan Davis, chair of the judging committee. "I think we knew this book had something when we found ourselves reading it out loud to spouses and partners. And it is a real testament to Demick’s writing, that a book on such a grim topic can be so hard to put down.”

The book, published in the U.S. as "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea," was published in Britain by Granta Books, an independent press connected to the literary magazine.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Wall painting of Kim Il Sung in Wonsan, North Korea. Credit: yeowatzup via Flickr

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