NEA Literature Fellowships

Adam Johnson

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(2010 - Prose)

From the novel The Orphan Master's Son

They took a cab through a shopping district and what looked like university buildings. When Jun Do saw that colored lights controlled the flow of cars, he thought, as it should be. Gil asked the driver many questions, and the driver listened warily to the way he spoke, but by the time they reached the opera house, the two were laughing.

The two were ill-dressed for the opera in their kidnap victims' clothes. Gil bought tickets, and inside, under the spiraling crystal lights in the lobby, Jun Do's decision to feign normalcy at everything he encountered was tested. In the bathroom, of course there was no water barrel, no ladle. Of course the toilets flushed themselves and the water turned on and off. Of course the hi-balls of scotch Gil bought for them at the bar cost six months salary and of course the bar itself was hammered from pure copper.

Gil closed his eyes when he sipped his drink. It was more like he was visiting an old friend than trying something new.

Jun Do didn't quite have words for the flavor in his mouth. Like smoke, perhaps. Like scorched sugar. "The Pyongyang elites in your language school must have talked about this stuff." Jun Do tried to phrase it as a casual question.

Gil shrugged. "I don't know anything about that crowd. My language school was in Kaeson."

"A couple times I heard factory owners talk about western whiskey," Jun Do said. "There was always a story about what distillery made the bottle and how someone almost died smuggling it in."

"I don't know anything about that," Gil said. "I thought I'd just give the stuff a try."

"What town did you say you were from again?"


"Oh, yeah," Jun Do said. "That's near the border. There's a lot of land mines around there."

Gil changed the subject. "Look at the women," he said. They watched them go by in the bar's mirror. "Look at them, when have you seen beautiful women like that, when have you been near them? Here they walk right past you, letting you smell their hair."

Gil opened the program, and over their drinks, the two of them marveled at Rumina. She had dark eyes under sharp bangs with high, smooth cheekbones. Jun Do could tell that she had known sadness, and yet how could she know that her greatest trials lay ahead, that this evening, when darkness fell, her life would become an opera, that Jun Do was the dark figure at the end of the first act who removes the heroine to a land of lament. Only this land was real--in this land, people had legitimate reasons to bemoan their fates in every octave. Jun Do looked around, at the sharp, brightly colored lights, at the crimson of the carpet. How could you go from this place to Hamhung or Chongjin?

"What does it say about her?" Jun Do asked.

"Nothing. It's just where she studied and what performances she did."

The lights flashed, and from inside the opera hall they heard instruments tuning. Drinks in hand, they found their seats. The matinee was a medley of excerpts from operas the troupe would stage over the coming season, so all the singers took turns offering brief arias. Rumina mounted the stage in a dress the color of graphite. She was small, but she had broad shoulders, and her chest seemed made only to wring a sound deep and resonant from her lungs. When she snatched breaths, it was as if in ransom for a music that had taken her over.

She sang in Italian and then German and then Japanese. When finally she sang in Korean, it all came clear to Jun Do. The song was beautiful, her voice light now, singing of two lovers in a boat on a pond, and the song was not about the Dear Leader or defeating the imperialists or the glory of self sacrifice or the pride of a North Korean factory. It was just a song about a girl in a white Hanbak and a boy with sad eyes and a temperamental stare.

She sang in Korean, and her dress was graphite, and she might as well have sung of a spider that spins white thread to capture all her listeners. Jun Do and Gil wandered the streets of Niigata held by that thread, pretending they weren't about to abduct her from the Opera's summer village. A line kept ringing over and over in Jun Do's mind about how in the middle of the water the lovers decide to row no further.

Adam Johnson teaches creative writing at Stanford University. He received an MFA in creative writing from McNeese State University and a PhD from Florida State. A Whiting Writers' Award winner, his fiction has appeared in Esquire, Harper's, Paris Review, Tin House and Best American Short Stories. He is the author of Emporium (Viking, 2002), a short story collection, and the novel Parasites Like Us (Penguin, 2004), which won a California Book Award. He lives with his wife and three children in San Francisco.

Photo by Tamara Beckwith

Author's Statement

I have been at work for several years on a novel set in North Korea. In 2007, I traveled to Myohyang, Pyongyang, Kaesong City and Panmunjom. This fellowship from the NEA will allow me to do more travel and research for the book. I feel deeply fortunate and indebted for this support. It's a particular honor to have my work selected anonymously from so many fine fellow applicants by so distinguished a panel of judges.


Adam Johnson

NEA Literature Fellow


Audio Tabs

2010 NEA Literature Fellow Adam Johnson talks the challenges of setting a novel in North Korea. [29:00]

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