About The Author
Born in South Dakota and raised in Arizona, Adam Johnson studied journalism and English; he is currently associate professor in creative writing at Stanford University. His writing has won numerous awards and has been published in publications such as Esquire, The Paris Review and Harper's Magazine.
His first collection of short stories, Emporium, was published in 2002, followed by his first novel, Parasites Like Us, a year later.
His second novel, The Orphan Master's Son, is already winning accolades as one of the most imaginative and original pieces of fiction of recent years, described in a New York Times review as "a novel that not only opens a frightening window on the mysterious kingdom of North Korea, but one that also excavates the very meaning of love and sacrifice". In 2013, the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Set in the North Korea of despotic Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il, it follows the life of Park Jun Do, brought up as an orphan and trained as a spy, who finds himself taking the place, and name, of national hero Commander Ga. Replacing Ga also makes him the husband of Sun Moon, the actress whom Jun Do has tattooed upon his skin.
It's a book that's absurdly surreal, hilariously witty and movingly romantic while never shying away from the true horror and despair of a life in a brutal and paranoid totalitarian state. It's a story that will stay with you for a very long time.
Adam is one of the few westerners to have had a glimpse of the real North Korea and below he talks about his experiences in the self-styled 'most glorious nation in the world'.
When I arrived at Pyongyang's Sunan Airport a few years ago, my head was still spinning from a landing on a runway lined with cattle, electric fences and the fuselages of other jets whose landings hadn't gone so well. On the plane, a Soviet Ilyushin II-62 from the 1960s, I'd been handed a copy of the Rodong Sinmun, North Korea's daily newspaper. The front page informed me that hunger and flooding were widespread in South Korea. Help was on its way, however, as Kim Jong Il was reportedly sending sandbags and food supplies to poverty stricken Seoul. The poles of reality, I understood from that article, had now been reversed, and even though I'd spent three years writing and researching a novel set in North Korea, I realized I was unprepared for what I was about to encounter in "the most glorious nation in the world".
Driving south toward the capital, the roads were largely abandoned. I had yet to learn to recognize the sight of a tank trap or the guard towers placed at the corners of corn fields. I was unaware of North Korea's "Let's turn grass into meat" campaign, so I assumed the roadside portraits of dancing rabbits and goats were intended to delight local children. As we drove, one of our guides, a clean-cut young man, informed me that I was now in the most democratic nation in the world, where crime was unheard of and health care was universal. He stared earnestly into my eyes as he explained that no one in his country wanted for anything.
Suddenly, a vehicle on the road caught my eye. It was a dump truck headed north toward the countryside, and its bed was filled with residents of Pyongyang. The truck was decades old, and it lacked a tailgate so the people in back were crammed together to avoid falling out. One bump, I thought, would send half of them tumbling into the road. As the truck flashed past, I saw clearly a man in a suit holding a briefcase. Beside him was a woman in a white lab coat. Despite the wind, her eyes were open as she stared without expression at the horizon.
"Where are those people going?" I asked our other guide.
"They're volunteers," she answered. "They're going to help with the harvest."
"They volunteered?" I asked.
She seemed not to understand the question. "Everyone must volunteer," she told me.
One of the limitations of being human is that we're each stuck in our own experience, forever forbidden from knowing the true thoughts of another. It's for this reason that the power of storytelling holds such sway over us, especially in the form of the novel, which, perhaps of all art forms, is most capable of communicating the private lives of others. On that North Korean highway, I wondered who the woman in the lab coat was, what she had been thinking as the wind whipped her hair, where she'd been headed that morning when Pyongyang's Minister of Mass Mobilization conscripted her to work in the rice fields. And I understood the only way I'd ever find out is if I made her a character in my novel.
I'd started writing about North Korea because of a fascination with propaganda and the way it prescribes an official narrative to an entire people. In Pyongyang, that narrative begins with the founding of a glorious nation under the fatherly guidance of Kim Il Sung, is followed by years of industry and sacrifice among its citizenry, so that when Kim Jong Il comes to power, all is strength, happiness and prosperity. It didn't matter that the story was a complete fiction — every citizen was forced to become a character whose motivations, desires and fears were dictated by this script. The labor camps were filled with those who hadn't played their parts, who'd spoken of deprivation instead of plenitude or who'd acted as if they lived in despotism rather than the purest democracy.
When I visited places like Pyongyang, Kaesong City, Panmunjom and Myohyangsan, I understood that a genuine interaction with a North Korean citizen was unlikely, since contact with foreigners was illegal. But I hadn't planned on the pain and sadness I felt being surrounded by thousands of people for whom a spontaneous moment was too dangerous to contemplate. As I walked the streets, not one person would risk a glance, a smile, even a pause in their daily routine. They all wore the distant, expressionless gaze of the woman in the dump truck.
In the Puhung Metro Station, I wondered what happened to personal desires when they came into conflict with a national story? Was it possible to retain a personal identity in such conditions, and under what circumstances would a person reveal his or her true nature and to whom? These mysteries — of subsumed selves, of hidden lives, of rewritten longings — are the fuel of novels, and I felt a powerful desire to help reveal what a dynastic dictatorship had forced these people to conceal.
Of course, I could only speculate on those lives, filling the voids with research and imagination. Back home, I continued to read books, articles and histories. I sought out interviews and personal accounts. Testimonies of gulag survivors like Kang Chol Hwan and Shin Dong Hyok proved invaluable. But I found that most scholarship on the DPRK was dedicated to military, political, nuclear and economic theory. Fewer were the books that focused directly on the people who daily endured such circumstances. Rarer were the narratives that tallied the personal cost of hidden emotions, abandoned relationships, forgotten identities. These stories I felt a personal duty to tell. Traveling to North Korea filled me with a sense that every person there, from the lowliest laborer to military leaders, had to surrender a rich private life in order to enact one pre-written by the Party.
To capture this on the page, I created characters across all levels of society, from the orphan, the soldier, the sailor, the bureaucrat, the general, the actor, to the woman in the lab coat. What should have been obvious at the outset (but didn't become apparent until I was deep into the book) was this: all narrative paths led back to Kim Jong Il. In the end, the narrative of North Korea didn't make sense without its author, and I realized that to achieve my goals, I would have to bring to life the great script writer himself.