ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

A journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998.


"Vignettes" by Alzo David-West


Thumbnail Gallery

We were bored, so we decided to go to the Grand People’s Study House after school. The weather was baking us, and we were boiling in our black school uniforms. I asked Dongyol what he wanted to do when we got there.

“Not read,” he said.

He had a USB stick, and he wanted to show me what was on it. I asked him what was so special, but he didn’t answer.

We kept walking under the sun and came to the fountain park with the white statues and the trees in front of the study house. When we got to the building, we climbed the stairs, and Dongyol stopped and turned around to look at the scene. I was getting restless, so I spat out my throat mucus, which landed on the back of his head because of the direction of the hot wind. He stared back at me, with an angry face, not saying anything, only wiping the back of his head with his hand and wiping his hand on his pant leg. He turned and looked at the scene again. We saw two of our women strolling by, holding hands, and three stupid foreigners in t-shirts and shorts, like Americans, taking selfies with us in the background.

After that, we went inside the building, past the front desk, and into the main hall with the chandeliers and columns like huge zelkova trees. We saw old men standing at the computers against the side of a wall and shabby, fat tourists walking into an English-language tutorial room. We went by the room and peered into another one since the door was open. A woman teacher, covered up in a dark red two-piece dress, stared at us suspiciously, while the men and women inside had their heads bent over their desks. We went away, wandered about, and eventually found a computer on the second floor, in a corner by some stacks with pink, green, and brown books. Dongyol pointed, and we went there. He brought out the USB stick and put it into the port.

“Chongho,” he motioned, “look at this.”

I focused my eyes and opened them widely at the images in front of me—a thumbnail gallery of hundreds of undressed women.

“Our women,” he said.

I became nervous and started looking around in a panic. He told me to stop it, or the woman librarian on the floor would report us, and we’d disappear like human garbage. So I tried to control myself and stay calm. We navigated through the pictures for a while, clicking on them and enlarging them one after the other. He seemed to have gone through everything many times already. We started talking quietly, and he told me he preferred the women this way. We went through more of the pictures and more.

After a while, a little boy in the Korean Children’s Union ran up to us and cried out, “Comrade big brothers!” I quickly put my hand on the monitor. He wanted to use the computer, but I said we needed it for our intranet research on granite coating gel, and I felt like an immoral bastard. When the boy bowed and ran off, I looked back frantically at Dongyol and saw a smile break from the side of his mouth. He took out the USB stick.

“We should go,” he said.

As we arrived, we left, through the main hall, past the giant columns, down the stairs, past the fountain park and the trees, down the road, past our senior middle school, and back to our neighborhood. Before going our separate ways, I asked him where he got the USB stick with all the pictures. He told me someone left it in one of the computers at the study house the week before.



Love on Mars

She and I were sitting outside the observatory, looking up at the ten constellations in the night sky, and I wondered aloud if we could live on Mars.

“With our great scientific and technological achievements, it is possible,” she said. “After all, we are fast becoming an international space power, so we will naturally extend the people’s paradise in our country to a paradise on Mars.”

She was always so confident and forward looking. And why shouldn’t she have been, when her father was an astronomer and an award-winning mathematician at the State Academy of Sciences and had written a book on Kang Po’s cubic interpolation. I asked how we could go there, and she began to explain the flight paths from Earth to Mars relative to their orbits around the sun.

“Lodestar 3-2,” I suddenly recalled, “our satellite two years ago. So maybe we can go there soon.”

“Very soon,” she assured me.

I believed her because she was beautiful, with her wonderful mind, with her face and arms under the lunar illumination, with her white shirt and pleated dark blue skirt.

“We will succeed,” she continued. “I know because it is our fourth artificial satellite, our first successful Earth observation satellite, and there will be many, many more.” She paused and resumed, “Copernicus, Kepler, Galilei, Newton, and Halley,” and began to muse, “isn’t it a wonderful prospect? We will fulfill their legacy here in our country. Only in our country is it possible now.”

Both of us had read in the party youth daily that capitalist globalization, imperialist war, and space militarization were threatening the existence of everything on our planet and of all humankind. I was scared, knowing our dreams were rich but our paradise was poor, hoping we could have somewhere to go if our world should, one day, come to an end.

“So … what if,” I began again, and she listened intently and carefully while looking at the tail end of Scorpius, “what if … we … could love each other … out there … on Mars?” and she was quiet for a while, crying softly, realizing that when I had said “we,” I had actually meant her and me.




He stands there, holding the heavy box of army support goods, talking to her and nodding.

As you can see, he’s uncomfortable with the burden. But he doesn’t mind, struggling with the box, arms stretched out, laughing and talking, leaning from one side to the next, balancing, raising the box back up to his chest, wiping his forehead. He’s looking at her and smiling and wiping his forehead, again, and nose.           

She stands with her brown jacket and black skirt, her legs and beige high heels, and her hair bunched up in the back, one hand under her elbow, another at her mouth. Giggling and laughing, chuckling at his jokes and his words, she tilts her head to the left. She shifts her posture to the right, bringing out her left leg.

He balances the box under his left arm and puts his right hand on it as if to pretend he’s okay with the weight. Still, he’s nodding and smiling and talking and arching his back, settling the box against his hip. He straightens his right leg and brings his left leg out, putting his right hand on his other hip and back onto the box.

She is waving a pen in the air, indicating something with rotations and cycles, her right hand still under her elbow. She stands erect, and they laugh, and he nods.

He briefly points to something in the sky and lowers the box, resting it on his thigh, diverting the weight to the ball of his left foot, his left leg at a slight angle.

They laugh; he arches his back again; and the wind blows her skirt, which swishes gently.

She gestures with her hands, twirling them, and puts the pen to her mouth.

He nods his head.

She gestures again, and brings her left leg forward, too. They laugh. They chuckle, her hands swaying.

You can see he’s trying to hold the balance. He shifts the weight to make it more comfortable, to ease the burden, the burden of his attraction.

She’s shaking her hand, commanding him in good humor, and she turns serious for a moment, but bursts into a smile once more.

He nods. He nods. He nods and smiles. His smile gets bigger. He nods again.

She puts her pen into her mouth, and he adjusts the box, shifting it to his right thigh this time.

A group of people on their way to the Grand Monument on Mansu Hill pass by.

The two of them change positions, moving to the right, to the left, and make a little distance.

She waves her hand, waves her pen.

He walks backwards with the box. He bows at her.

She bows at him. She carries a paper for the party committee meeting, and they go in opposite directions.



Pyongyang Metro

I saw them sleeping on the train, near the door between the passenger cars, under the two smiling portraits of our great leaders. Her head was resting on his right shoulder, and his face was resting on her head. She was holding a white handbag close to her, and they were holding hands at the same time, with her other hand. Light aquamarine-blue stripes fell in diagonals on her white dress, with patterns of orange-dotted yellow ribbons, next to his pink short-sleeved shirt and light-brown trousers. They slept deeply in that young people’s sleep, and I wondered where they were in that moment, in that dream: heedless to the shaking, the stops, and the riders coming in and going out. Her dress rode up her thigh, where the handbag was, yet her legs sat sideways, ladylike, while his knees stood confidently upright and apart, like a man. I looked at her arms and the little sleeves and at her feet with the high platform heels with white straps. I had borrowed a novel from the people’s library, but every time, on their own, my eyes looked up at the sleepers, self-absorbed and unbothered by the noisy world … and the train traveled for a while. At the last station, everyone stepped out, leaving the two of them alone. I got up and tapped him softly three times on the shoulder. He shifted, and she started to come to. Afterwards, I joined the busy crowds and drifted away under the slogan sounds.


Alzo David-West writes literary fiction about North Korea (past and present). His short stories have appeared in Cha #15; Eastlit #4.27; Offcourse #55, #56, and #58; and Transnational Literature #5.1 and #6.1. Email:

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