Adam Johnson's new novel The Orphan Master's Son began as a short story he was going to call "The Official Short Story of North Korea, 2004" because the communist nation has essentially one official narrative. But as he became more fascinated with the culture and his personal reading morphed into research, the story continued to grow until 2007, when he was able to visit North Korea, which energized his writing and helped to shape the book.
I saw Adam read an excerpt of The Orphan Master's Son as part of ZYZZYVA's latest outing at The Booksmith and was so affected that I shot him an email, and we eventually did a back-and-forth over the phone. Below, after his recent reading, are some highlights of our conversation.
What was the original inspiration to write the story?
Well, the book is set in North Korea, and I kind of figure it's a Peace Corps story sometimes where an American goes to a foreign country and he's like the bridge character for the reader, you know, and the American encounters a different culture and he's greatly changed and then he goes home and he's different. But all my characters are North Korean, and, you know, I studied Korean culture a fair amount to write the book -- I'm sure I got a few things wrong, but... As a writer and as a teacher I became really curious about how our stories in the West are usually about a central character who has motivations and desires, and wants to obtain something, and must overcome challenges and look inward, and face the past if they're to move forward, and you know we expect characters in the stories we tell ourselves in the West to grow and change and find insights and things like that.
But in the stories I read about North Korea it was the exact opposite. You know? There's only one central character and that was Kim Jong Il [chuckles]. And there were 23 million secondary characters, and they were like conscripted to be unwilling cohorts in the national narrative, and in North Korea you have to give up your dreams, your wants and desires, because those things are dangerous -- you know love and freedom and expression -- and so you can't be your central character and you can't do what you want; you must follow this script. And I just kind of wanted to write a character that didn't really have free will, and so at the beginning of the book my main character's name is Jun Do, he is a kind of a hero of the state: he does everything he's told, he's a model citizen, and he forgoes all his own desires. But by the time he reaches the end of the book he's kind of a Western character: he's decided to risk everything to get what he truly wants.
One of the voices in the book is the official state narrative. Tell me about that.
So in the early '70s Kim Il-sung -- who is the father of Kim Jong Il and kind of the ruler of North Korea from the late '40s until his death in '94 -- he wired the nation with cable radio and put a loudspeaker in every house and on every factory floor and, you know I've never seen one -- I don't know anyone who's actually seen one -- but the defectors all testified to them -- but there's no dial on it: you can't turn it on or off or the volume up or down, and it just plays propaganda in your house all day long. And, you know, he said it was kind of an air raid, a national air raid system, but of course that's not what it's used for. And so the people of North Korea have to listen to lies all day long. I don't know if they know they're lies or not but certainly the story -- that they live in the greatest nation in the world, the most free, a worker's paradise with universal healthcare and all of these things, and all the other nations of the world are impoverished or corrupt or imperialists, like America, capitalist, you know... things like that.
So I wanted to get that feel, that oppressive feel of propaganda into the book, but it's so intolerable and boring, it was a real challenge. And the weird thing is there's also something kind of hilarious about propaganda, because it's so ridiculous to our ear. So one of the voices in my novel is the state's loudspeaker -- it has short chapters that address the reader, you know: Citizens, turn up your loudspeaker, and it will be like the daily news of Pyongyang, and... it also forwards the plot in many ways, but it's both creepy and spooky and, I think, hilarious.
So these loudspeakers are still present throughout the country to this day? I'm confused because you said you didn't see any...
Oh that's right... well, it used to be total loudspeaker propaganda but when I went there I saw none of that. It's all you know probably just going on in people's houses. One thing about North Korea that we really are in the dark about: it's so controlled that people make a lot of speculations about North Korea but except for the testimonials of defectors, and you know, Google Earth satellite pictures, the average American can't discover, really, too much about that place. And it's illegal for a North Korean citizen to speak to a foreigner. You have to go through special training. So when I went there I didn't have a single interaction with a North Korean; I just had my group of 'minders,' who all had special training to deal with me. In Pyongyang when you go there they have a hotel called The Yanggakdo Island on Yanggak Island, and that island is in the Taedong River that divides Pyongyang, and you need a special permit to get on the island and once you're there you're not allowed to leave without escorts. And all the people who work at the hotel are Chinese workers under contract -- so you don't even get to meet a North Korean maid or waitress or something like that.
Wow. How long were you there?
North Korea kind of opens up twice a year: one is in the spring and then again in the fall. They have two festivals -- and that's the only time they let in tourists -- but if you get a visa to North Korea they just kind of tell you, "You will come on this date and leave on that date," so you don't have any choice about anything. About where you stay or how you fly in. And so I was there for 5 nights, I believe -- I think that's right.
Were there any standout experiences other than kind of the general strangeness of everything?
Well, it's kind of hard to explain the experience. When you land, there's an eerie quiet because there are no planes in the sky; there's the once-a-week flight from Beijing, and that's it. And the last plane that tried to fly over North Korea was shot down in '89. It's pretty strange that we're so used to having planes above us that when they're not there you really notice it. Secondly there are no cell phones, though there are cell phone towers that I saw. There are no advertisements because it's a complete communist state and there's no business. There's nothing to sell. People get their goods with ration carts. And to be in a world without advertisements -- we're so inured to it as Americans, we see it on every t-shirt and shoe, taxicab and park bench -- it's really creepy to see a land devoid of that. And there are four haircuts for men that are legal, and so all men basically have the same haircut. Kim Jong-un, the new leader, wears the #2, which is the sleek battle haircut [chuckles], the same as his grandfather. You know, everyone's clothes are the same: the men all wear the exact same vinylon jacket that they make. There's one shade of lipstick, so all the women have the exact same color lips, and you can't imagine how creepy that is. Unless you've seen like 10,000 women all looking robotically similar.
In Pyongyang all the roads are 100 meters wide -- which is a soccer field wide, it's really big -- for air raid evacuation purposes, but there are very few vehicles, and so they don't have traffic lights even because they don't need them. When I walked down the street -- there aren't bicycles either, really, to speak of -- people walk everywhere in huge, fast-moving throngs, and you know, I'm 6'4", I've got a buzz cut, I look very Western, and when I would walk through throngs of people no one would even dare glance at me; anything spontaneous was dangerous, and so they all pretended I didn't even exist; that was the weirdest thing in the world, actually. Because I knew that I was probably one of the most foreign-looking people they had ever seen, and yet they couldn't even let themselves steal a quick glance at someone who leads a different life because it could get them in trouble. And in North Korea there's only one punishment for anything, and that's the work camp; that's the labor farm.
Wow. It's all pretty overwhelming. I don't even know what to say about all of that.
Well you know my minders kept wanting to show me gigantic monuments of socialist realism, of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong Il. At the Pyongyang art museum they have rooms and rooms and rooms of art, but the only thing that's legal to depict there is images that pay homage to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong Il. So there are no paintings of a beautiful woman, or a nice landscape [chuckles], or a boat sailing; only portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong Il -- hundreds and hundreds of them. Desperately surreal. And you know they take you to the Korean War Museum, where they teach you how the Koreans won the war.
Whenever North Koreans lack evidence for something, they either paint a big painting to show you the facts of how things work or they make a diorama [laughs]. So they had, you know, all these dioramas of how the tank battles worked, that allowed the North Koreans to route the Americans and drive us out and ensure victory. And how the Americans did a sneak attack on North Korea instead of the opposite. You know, there's nothing you can do but smile. The people who work at the museums aren't historians; they're people who have been trained to say a speech and not tolerate anything else.
I'll tell you one of the most sinister, surreal moments, was when I went -- they took me to the Korean history museum, and the first exhibit was kind of a plexi-glass box, and in it was what they claimed was a skull fragment. It looked very old, like a fossil. And they said this skull fragment was found on the shores of the Taedong River, right there in Pyongyang, and that it was 4.25 million years old, and they had a diorama there about how humanity had begun in North Korea -- specifically in Pyongyang -- and how the human diaspora had spread out of Korea, across Asia into Europe, and finally settling in Africa and America. And, you know, I said, "Are you sure humanity didn't come from, like, the Rift valley in Africa?" They were like, "Oh, no, Korea; everyone came from Pyongyang." And in the end they informed me that therefore I myself was Korean [laughs].
Right, but you still have to have minders.
Oh yeah, yeah. I had a head minder, there was a sidekick minder who was quite hilarious. He was clearly just out of the academy, and he was trying on his new lines on me. He would say, "Hm, do you think --" he would say, "Professor Johnson" -- that's what they called me -- "Professor Johnson, do you think terrorism is good, or bad?" I would say, "Well, I think terrorism is bad." And he would say, "Let me tell you what Kim Jong Il thinks of terrorism [laughs]." And everything was a ploy to relate the true word of Kim Jong Il. It got very boring very fast.
Yeah I can't imagine having to hear it relentlessly in my own house.
Yeah relentlessly in your house. You know the main newspaper of Pyongyang is called the Rodong Sinmun, and the Japanese translate it every morning and so, you know that's kind of my homepage; every day I wake up and read the daily propaganda in Pyongyang, and if you do it for a long time you can kind of really read the code of it and really gain a lot of insight about what lies they're telling and who their audience is, and things of that nature.
Speaking of news, if you could talk about Kim Jong Il's death for just a minute. Have things changed any since he died and do you think that things will change?
Mm. Well you know in my novel Kim Jong Il is a character, and I wrote for a long time, and really the more I researched and studied the more I came to understand that the entire reality of that nation was formed by two people: Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong Il, and that nothing happens without the authorization of Kim Jong Il. And because he was like the black hole that warped the reality of an entire nation I felt like I had to make him a character, and as a writer I had to make him a human character with strengths and flaws and complexities. And in my book he's really quite funny; he's a real scene-stealer. He plays pranks, and is quite bright, and is kind of one step ahead of everyone for most of the book. So I at least grew fond of my character Kim Jong Il, though he's a creation of the imagination, but you know the thing about North Korea is there's only one script and it really hasn't changed in 60 years. And there is no other reality at all.
North Koreans know that Paris is the capital of France and that Mogadishu is the capital of Somalia, but to them they're both the same. Like they don't really know anything about the world, and so they think that Zimbabwe is a great place; just as great as London is. And they think Haiti is just as fine as Japan is. So, you know, they don't even know basic facts about South Korea. So they're like -- when you're there there are no movies, there are no magazines, there's no magazine store because there's no way to get -- you know, the radios come pre-set to the national station and you can't change it -- there's no dial -- and if you rigged it to get South Korean radio you risk going to the Gulag. And, so, if you're an artist in North Korea you must do propaganda. And as far as I know no one has written a literary novel in North Korea in 60 years. I mean, even Solzhenitsyn got his novel out of the Gulag. But if you're a painter, an actor, a musician -- there's nothing. If you express your own views, which is the duty of an artist, you go to the Gulag. And that also means that no North Korean has read a book, as we think of a book -- as a work of art whose job it is to illuminate the human experience -- in three generations. They don't even know what a book is there.
So that's one of the reasons I wrote my book is because it was this huge human mystery, and fiction hasn't fleshed it out because there is no fiction. You know the testimony of the defectors is, they're so broken -- you know, they're trained their whole lives never to reveal anything; it's very difficult for them to tell their stories, especially since they're deeply traumatized by their escapes and their whole lives. So, I mean, to get back to your question, I think nothing, unfortunately, is going to change. You know, there's only one story there, and that's that they're the greatest nation in the world. And that they, that life there is awesome. And that, you know, for 60 years there's only been the story that Kim Il-sung is a god, and the father, and without them they would be leaderless children. And there isn't even a crack of light for any other narrative to get in there. It's like asking someone to change their religion in some way, and say, "Hey, let me tell you about this other thing." They don't know what one other religion would be. Except the Kims'. So I don't know what it's going to take for people to be free, but it's like Plato's Allegory of the Cave: they're all laboring in a cave, looking at shadows; they don't know there's a world out there. Or, they know there's a world out there but they have no idea what it is.
Right. It's interesting to me how you said, you know, in the book you had to make Kim Jong Il human. It seems to me like that might have been a challenge for any of the characters. No one's allowed to express themselves, right, so what is it that makes them human, even?
It's a real question. There's this, you know, amazing memoir The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan, and he went into the Gulag as a child, I think he was 9, and he spent 9 years there before he got out. And there's only a couple dozen humans that have gotten out of the Gulag, escaped North Korea; then you have to escape Southern China, where you often, you know, become a slave. And in Chol-Hwan's memoir, which he couldn't write himself -- he had to have someone help him write it because they're so traumatized they don't know what their stories are, how to shape them, what their stories mean; they've been trained against making meaning and understanding. He gets his story out but it's just like a chronological listing of events, and how he managed to survive. Never once in his entire memoir does he say, "You know, what I really wanted was this. Or, gosh I loved that person and missed them. Or, someday I hoped to be." That defining humanness of wanting and of desiring and of loving and of feeling and communicating -- that dimension was completely gone from the book, and I found that as a real attribute of a lot of narratives I read of people who had gotten out of North Korea: that their humanity, that human part of their voice was just missing. And so, really, I had to use my imagination to a great degree. But, then again, that's the thing fiction can get at that nonfiction can't.
Adam Johnson celebrates the release of The Orphan Master's Son on Tuesday, January 10, 2012 at 7:30pm at The Booksmith, 1644 Haight Street in San Francisco. For more information visit booksmith.com.