Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son: A Roundup

The Orphan Master's SonI don’t know about you, but I spent all of last week glued to Twitter, following the manhunt in Boston, the explosion in West Texas and the earthquake in China. I knew the Pulitzers had been announced (and that this year’s board had avoided last year’s misstep in the Fiction category) but until this weekend I hadn’t dug into the list of winners. As soon as I did, I became fascinated by Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son.

It’s the first I remember hearing of Johnson, and now that I’ve looked him up, I can’t imagine how I missed him. It seems everyone has interviewed this Stanford professor. And despite the fact that his novel about North Korea took seven years to write, it could not be more timely, given the regime’s increasing nuclear threat.

So for the sake of other readers like me looking to get up to speed, here’s my roundup of links about Adam Johnson and his newly-minted Pulitzer for The Orphan Master’s Son.

Tina Brown, in an NPR piece on writings about dictators, called the novel “vivid.” “You never think about what it means to live in a world of lies,” she says, “which is what you get through the consciousness of Pak Jun Do [Johnson’s protagonist].”

Adam Johnson wins Pulitzer for The Orphan Master's Son

Alden Mudge at BookPage has an excellent short interview that delves into Johnson’s visit to North Korea in 2007 and the remarkable culture he observed.

…in North Korea there is a national script, conveyed through propaganda. There is one notion about who the people are and what the national goals are, and you as a citizen are conscripted to be a part of this national narrative. . .  You have to relinquish your own personal desires.

Johnson explains how this severely non-Western notion challenged him as a writer:

My tradition is formal realism, but in North Korea what is real is in question. So I couldn’t try to cram this story into ways I was familiar with. Things that I had taken for granted about how characters work, stories unfold, and how plot, momentum, pacing, tension and withholding work had to be different here. I was really open to taking risks, trying new things.

One of the risks he took was making Kim Jong Il a full character. In a conversation at The Rumpus with Lauren O’Neal, a former student of Johnson’s, he describes how he came to this decision:

…the script of a nation was really written by one person, and it was him. It meant that if he had total control over everything, he was actually responsible for every action that happened under his watch….At some point I realized we had to look at this scriptwriter. We had to see this person up close. That meant that he couldn’t be a joke, that he had to be fully fleshed out…

This narrative decision left Johnson with some anxiety about what would happen to the book if Kim Jong Il died before it came out. Which is exactly what happened. But the situation played out unexpectedly.

When Qaddafi died, and when Saddam died, they were immediately demystified by the people they’d oppressed. The citizens opened up their palaces, they took pictures of everything….We saw those [dictators] drug into the light. We saw them on a human scale. All the secret files from bunkers were opened, and people learned the truth.

But with Kim Jong-Il, the opposite happened. He actually became more mysterious in his death, because we don’t know how he died. We don’t have an autopsy, we didn’t have a body, and we never will.

That mystery makes Johnson’s book all the more compelling. We don’t really know what’s it like to live in this world. Even Johnson, who spent time there and asked his official minders as many questions as he could (to which they always had regime-preapproved answers), was unable to crack the surface because there is no individualism there. He told Diane Rehm in her fascinating, in-depth interview that there’s only one North Korean story:

It’s written by the regime, by Kim Jong-il himself actually and Kim Il-sung before him and now Kim Jong-un. And in that story, there’s one, beatific, benevolent leader bringing a nation forward into prosperity and that leadership assigns roles to everyone else in the country and that’s makes a nation of millions of secondary characters.

I had to use my imagination and research to do that because it was impossible. And I don’t know if my version is the right one. Only when North Korean artists and painters and filmmakers are finally free enough to tell their own stories will we finally know.

That day is something the international community must continue to work toward. In the meantime, we have Adam Johnson’s novel as a starting place, and I can’t wait to read it.

Other interesting links:

Audio of Adam Johnson’s appearance at the Kansas City Public Library in 2012

A humorous interview at last year’s Litquake, San Francisco’s Literary Festival

An old Barnes & Noble interview (from 2003) that includes a list of his favorite books and other traditional questions about his writing and personal life

A Guardian review that lauds the book but cautions readers to get their facts from non-fiction sources

A positive Washington Post review that calls it “an audacious act of imagination”

A longer, thoughtful review at the New Yorker

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