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Bestselling Fiction writer Adam Johnson at Stanford, where he teaches creative writing.
The Orphan Master's Son
In a nation of lies, sometimes only fiction tells the truth.
About the Author
Adam Johnson is a former Wallace Stegner Fellowand Associate Professor who teaches writing at Stanford University. His fiction has appeared in Esquire, Harper's, and The Paris Review. He is the author of Emporium, a short story collection and the novel, Parasites Like Us, which won the California Book Award. His new novel, The Orphan Master's Son, is set in a country that, along with Iran, is one of the planet's foremost pariah states, North Korea. Johnson approached North Korea as inspiration for short storias about the comic opera sort of life led by the "Dear Leader." Then became fascinated by all of the people of North Korea, both the oppressors and the oppressed, of this ultimate closed society and the need to tell the stories of a people who could neither write nor tell their After six years of difficult research, the book was born. The Orphan Master's Son was published a month after the December death of longtime dictator, Kim Jong il, an event that heightened interest in the book. And The Orphan Master's Son hit the New York Times bestseller list almost immediatelly after it was launched.
About the Work
The Orphan Master's Son, already a New York Times bestseller, may offer new insights about North Korea, the country the author says is too often dismissed as a mélange of "buffoonery, madness, and evil."
Johnson's novel, published by Random House, traces the career of Pak Jun Do, a homonym for "John Doe," the son of a kidnapped singer and a man who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. He becomes a soldier patrolling the dark tunnels beneath the DMZ, the "demilitarized" zone between North and South Korea. He's a professional kidnapper, a surveillance officer, and eventually a player in the circles closest to the nation's leader. The book is part romance, part adventure story, part spy novel and mostly the dark, absurdist drama for which Johnson is celebrated – though the parts that seem most like comic-book excess often hew closest to the truth. Some said Johnson's
story was exaggerated.
Was it over the top? Not so, says award-winning author and Korea expert Barbara Demick, who read a published excerpt from the book last year. She said in The Guardian: "I assumed it had to be part of a memoir by a North Korean, so accurate were the details . . . Johnson has made just one trip in his life to North Korea, but he's managed to capture the atmosphere of this hermit kingdom better than any writer I've read."
John said in an interview that with the passing of Kim Jong Il, "we've had the first serious discussion of the place in a long time. We have a duty to tell the stories of others. Even if we have to invent them," said Johnson. "North Korea is the most extensive national psychological experiment ever created. And we need to examine it. What is this place? Is it really this crazy? What is its future? You always know that a country has gone off the rails when they invent their own calendar," Johnson added. "The Juche calendar, introduced in 1997, resets the calendar to 1912 – just like Pol Pot's "Year Zero" recalibration in Cambodia, or the French Revolutionary Calendar two centuries ago."
A Dynasty of Dictators
Kim il-Sung, left, the "eternal President" of North Korea, left, his son, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un, right
In advance of the launch of a satellite-bearing rocket on April 15, Johnson had predicted: "They're going to send up a big-ass rocket and whatever happens, the North Koreans will call it a startling success. It's not about science. In North Korea, everything is a message. Often, it's a message about survival. Even if it appears malicious, it's just a message. The April 15 event provides a clue: the date will be "the biggest party ever" in the lives of most North Koreans. Not because of the satellite that will purportedly be put into orbit, but rather because it's the centennial of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the current dynasty (and grandfather of the Kim Jon Un, the young man who assumed power when his father died). He's the eternal president of the nation," Johnson said, but insisted that the title is not just a flowery Asiatic honorific. "Seriously, seriously. It sounds absurd to us. If you were in North Korea and said he was not the eternal president, you would be sent away. The message in this case is about the consolidation of power so Kim Jong Un doesn't get murdered in the night."
The launch as it turned out fizzled and for the first time the regime issued a statement that the mission had failed. Johnson has instructed us to watch out for messages from North of the demilitarized zone and try to figure out what they mean. Is this an early indication that under the new young leader North Korea may hope to open its windows to the world?
How He Got the Story
The Orphan Master's Son is the fruit of nearly six years of research – a research carried out with a stunning absence of reliable data. "There are great books about the economy of North Korea, its military dimensions, its geopolitics, and its nuclear issues. But the human dimension? About that there's little," said Johnson. "We have satellite images, propaganda, and the stories of people who have escaped."
"For example, we don't know when or how Kim Jong Il died. We've heard rumors of four or five coup attempts," Johnson says – but who knows what the truth is?
The truths that wash up on foreign shores are scary: North Korea's economy apparently depends on state-sponsored organized crime, a mafia class that runs counterfeiting operations for international currency (the United States purportedly had to change its $100 notes for that reason) and which has run a global international insurance scam, involving hundreds of millions of dollars. It reportedly also deals in heroin, opium, methamphetamines and munitions.
The nation has had a long tradition of international kidnappings – including one South Korean film director who was imprisoned until he agreed to make a series of bad movies for Kim Jong Il, who acted as executive producer.
Such accounts invite parody. In his research, however, Johnson focused on devastating accounts of those who have escaped: "Every story is gripping, heart-rending, and utterly unverifiable," said Johnson. Every citizen makes some variation of Sophie's Choice just to survive in North Korea. Those are the stories he's reinvented for his book.
War, war and occupation
The bizarre enigma of North Korea is less incomprehensible in view of its history. "What they remember is war, and war and occupation," says Johnson. "These historical traumas are so deeply engrained that Pyongyang streets are 100 meters wide to allow quick evacuation in the event of another, always-feared American attack. But for a while the postwar North Korea was more prosperous than the South. There was prosperity but also the the nation's massive gulag system that incarcerates perhaps 200,000 people, including entire families. Starvation, forced abortions, execution and infanticide are routine, Johnson reports. The fall of the Soviet Union meant that North Korea lost both a market and a source of foreign aid. The 1990s brought a famine that killed about 10 percent of the population, as well as floods of biblical proportion. In a grimly comic note, the loss of Soviet fertilizer meant "the whole nation now has to save feces for fertilizer," said Johnson.
Johnson's previous books include a collection of short stories, Emporium, which featured a bomb-defusing robot and a teenage sniper – in that, he explored "autobiographical" material, he said. His first novel about an apocalyptic plague, Parasites Like Us, took on "my family issues for three generations."
This time, he decided he was going "to write fiction, instead of writing about my own life." The research he did filled him with a sense of obligation.
"My first duty is to the novel," he said. "We have a duty to tell the stories of others. Even if we have to invent them."
Material above was compiled from various stories in the media, including a story in the Stanford Review.
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