Adam Johnson

NEA Literature Fellow
Adam Johnson

Photo © Tamara Beckwith

When Comrade Buck was gone, Dr. Song turned to Jun Do. "Where we are from," he said, "stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he'd be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change." Here, Dr. Song took a sip of juice, and the finger he lifted trembled slightly. "But in America, people's stories change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters. Perhaps they will believe your story and perhaps not, but you Jun Do, they will believe you."

Jo Reed: That's 2010 NEA Literature Fellow Adam Johnson, reading from his 2013 Pulitzer-Prize winning novel The Orphan Master's Son

Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.

The Orphan Master's Son takes us into the totalitarian state of North Korea where every aspect of a person's life is tightly controlled. Everyone follows a central story as dictated by the Supreme Leader.  In The Orphan Master's Son, we follow Jun Do, an orphan whose own biography is interwoven with the official North Korean narrative. He's a model citizen until he begins to realize a life outside the one assigned to him.  The Orphan Master's Son opens the door to the closed world of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea-- the DPKR--under the dictatorship of Kim Jong Il. The novel allows us to witness the cost of living in a nation of oppressive conformity, with responses ranging from acceptance and brutality, to startling courage and heartbreaking poignancy.  I spoke with Adam Johnson when The Orphan Master's Son's was first published, and I began our conversation by asking him to sketch out the story of his novel.

Adam Johnson: The book is about a person named Jun Do. He's a citizen of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. He lives on the margins of society, in the city that's farthest away from Pyongyang, and therefore the wildest and most repressive in many ways-- a city called Chongjin. Growing up in Chongjin as an orphan, Jun Do has to perform several unpleasant tasks there. An orphanage in North Korea is really like a child labor place with no hopes for adoption, so he's farmed out to do various things, and as an orphan he joins the military early, as all orphans do there, and they get assigned the most dangerous jobs. And he goes down a path of being, really, a model citizen. He's given unpleasant work to do, he does it well, he doesn't complain, and when he has a chance to defect, he doesn't. But along the route, a couple pieces of caprice happen to him. He meets a couple Americans, he gets posted to a place where he can listen to foreign broadcasts, and he begins to formulate a notion that life might be different than the life that was assigned to him. And as he moves through the book and discovers that he's truly disposable to his government, he decides to take a risk and to make of his life what he wants, and to get it dedicated to the thing he cares about, which turns out to be love.
Jo Reed: How did you come to set a book in North Korea?

Adam Johnson: I became fascinated with the topic as a general reader. I think in, perhaps, like 2003, I read a book called The Aquariums of Pyongyang, by Kang Chol-Hwan, which is the memoir of Kang's nine years in a North Korean gulag-- a camp called Yodok, or "Camp 15." In North Korea, when you do commit an infraction against the state that's worthy of being sent to a labor camp, not only do you go, but your family often goes with you, and Yodok is a family camp. Your parents go, your children go-- usually, about nine or ten people go. If you don't have relatives, they send your friends, and that's like a big way to terrorize the populace and to keep them monitoring each other so that no one commits an infraction that costs the whole family. There are 50,000 people in Yodok right now, as we speak. So I read that book, and I couldn't quite wrap my head around a place that functioned like this, and I just began to read more. I became fascinated with propaganda and started reading the North Korean newspaper every morning. The Rodong Sinmun, the Worker's Party paper, is put out by the KCNA, and it's translated by the Japanese into Spanish, Japanese, and English, and every morning I wake up and read the news in Pyongyang.
Jo Reed: It's online?

Adam Johnson: It's online, yes. Just Google KCNA and it'll come up. Like I said, the Japanese translate it. I've read it every morning for the past six years, and the notion that there's one official narrative of a people that's promulgated by the state challenged me in a certain way as a writer, and I wondered what a corporate official story might be like, and I began playing with that material. That was the first entrance.
Jo Reed: You know what it reminded me of? It reminded me of books that I've read about Trujillo and the Trujillo Regime. In the same way, that cult of personality inserted into every single household in that country brought up what you illustrated in The Orphan Master's Son.

Adam Johnson: Well, the DPRK is the most extreme example of these cult-like figures and repressive regimes all put together. It is absolutely insular, and it is a place where nothing spontaneous can happen in any way. It's hard to get a sense of scale, of the type of control that goes on there, unless you really read a lot and study a great deal. But the examples are just manifold of the ways in which no one is allowed outside the confines of their own self-censorship.

Jo Reed: Well, I think because death of Kim Jong Il we have a better idea of how that self- censorship works. Because we saw those crowds and crowds of people just lining the streets and crying as the caisson rolled by.

Adam Johnson: Right. It's something we don't have a reference for in the West, I believe. We don't really know what to make of those people mourning. We ask ourselves, "Are they really grieving or are they faking it? Are they really crying or are they afraid of being punished for not being seen to lament the loss of their leader enough?" But I think that's a fairly kind of Western way to look at it. In North Korea, there really is one narrative, and there's no alternative. There are no other newspapers or magazines or books or broadcasts. The radios come out of the factory without a dial because they're preset to the official news station. And if you try to tamper with it to capture VOA, or something like that, that's an offense that could get you sent to Yodok. So people don't know what the alternative is. There's one story, and, whether they believe it or not, they don't know what something else could be. We live in a land of choices, of possibilities, of alternatives, where there's always another side or another position to a story. But there, the false thing and the real thing are one. There, you must grieve or you're punished, whether you are grieving or not. They're folded together. The idea that you could say, "Oh, I really feel sad," or, "I don't feel sad," is a notion that we would have here. It's just not possible. They live lies every day that they know are lies, but there's no other way to live, and they just do them, and they're folded together.

Jo Reed: That's so wonderfully illustrated in so many points in the book, and what comes to mind is the character we meet in the second part of the book, who is an interrogator who's actually interested in capturing stories. And the way he has even lost the ability to communicate with his parents because there can be no speaking outside of that.

Adam Johnson: Right. We know pretty clearly that everyone involved in an inhumane endeavor loses their humanity, even the people who benefit from it. So the book starts in the far reaches of North Korea, and slowly moves toward the center of power, Toward Kim Jong Il, the black hole who warps all the gravity around him. I really wanted a character at this level of society-- a bureaucrat in the capital, one of the chosen people-- to maybe help get a portrait of life there. But even though he has food and he has a nice apartment and he lives in the capital, he's still lost his humanity because of what role he must play in the government endeavor. And by hurting people all day long, he's confused hurt and love, he's confused how people should be treated, and he's really actually inverted the process, and the only way he knows to interact with people is through sublimated violence, which we see borne out.

Jo Reed: Nonetheless, one of the most moving parts of that book was a memory he had when he was a little boy, and his father would just muss his hair, explaining how the world works. It was just such a tender moment--talk us through that.

Adam Johnson: Well, I'm a father. I have three children, and I contemplated a great deal my life in America while studying North Korea, and I also contemplated what it would be like to be transported there. I'm a writer, and I wondered what it would be like to be a writer in North Korea. Of course, I would have to write propaganda novels or propaganda journalism. Everything would be censored and approved by the state. A literary novel hasn't been published there, that we know of, or has even made it out in 60 years, and before that was 35 years of Japanese occupation. It's a country in which self-examination through art really doesn't exist. No one's read a book that examines the human condition as we know it, and so it seems to me the most difficult place in the world to be fully human. And I tried to think about the ways in which I would have to express my humanity, because those citizens are just as human as we are. They have the same needs and desires and wants and wishes for fulfillment. And yet, when saying something personal could be misperceived or used against you, or could be a threat to your family unit, self-censorship becomes the norm when people around you are paranoid. When would you risk a private moment to tell your loved one everything you knew-- you thought you knew-- was a lie? When would you risk telling your children the truth about their existence, or would you? When would you reveal your own wants and desires, when they could get you in trouble, when they would run counter to your role in the state? And these intimacies, these moments at which we define ourselves by giving voice, were what I wanted to try to find there, and I had to use imagination to do it.
Jo Reed: Well, tell us about that moment and what he told his son.

Adam Johnson: This is just me considering whether I would let my child grow up to be an instrument of the state, perfectly conforming to the expectations of a regime, or whether I would try to foster in him some internal humanity, some personal spark that he would keep alive, but then would have to hide at great risk. And in that setting, and in reading the tales of defectors, I read about people-- real people-- who had to make Sophie's Choice-like decisions all the time. To escape North Korea, to get out-- we often hail the people who defect and make it to freedom as people who took great risks, who chose freedom over repression. But the truth is, often the people that get left behind are put into the camps. And so nobody makes it out without paying a price, and you either sacrifice yourself to help others, or you do something at someone else's sacrifice. And there's a moment in the book in which a father says, "You know, someday ugly things might happen, and you might see your mother denounce me to protect you. But you should know that inside, we love each other. And if someday you must save yourself at my expense, know that we're together."

Jo Reed: The notion of narrative and who actually gets to construct a story -- their own story -- is really a central part of The Orphan Master's Son.

Adam Johnson: I'm a writer and I'm interested in narrative. I help my friends write narratives -- I teach creative writing and help people find their paths through stories that matter to them.

In America, we have a sense of a national story that's an individual one, and it's one we tell each other in fiction; it's one we try to live. In the story, every person in America is the main character in their own lives, or in their own stories, and no matter how much you love everyone else around you, they're secondary characters. We're individuals, and we feel that we must define ourselves by what we decide we need and desire out of life. It's then our duty to move forward to becoming that person who has attained those things. Along the way, we encounter obstacles and conflicts, and to overcome them, we reach inside to discover our true selves. Sometimes we look back in history to mistakes that we need to correct, or wrongs that have to be righted. We overcome these things, and we end our stories, in life and in fiction, in a different place than where we started. We are changed, we have grown, we've perhaps even attained some insight and wisdom. Maybe there's even an epiphany. But in North Korea, there really is one story. It's personally written by Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, or now Kim Jong Un-- literally, personally written. In a dictatorship with that much control, the leader finally has ultimate responsibility for everything. So there, as a child growing up in North Korea, you would be given aptitude tests early on. Whatever abilities would channel you down paths to becoming a farmer or a soldier or a ballerina, perhaps, and these roles would be assigned to you based on evaluations by the government, and you would be sent to different places to live accordingly. So we have a central character. A single character, like Kim Jong Il, had 23 million secondary characters. They're given their roles. And in North Korea, your own wants and desires really are hindrances to performing your state-assigned role well. They'll actually get you in trouble if you express other kinds of desires than fulfilling your factory quotas. So, instead of looking inward, revealing yourself, discovering yourself, and communicating this, as we are trained to do, these all become liabilities. They become detrimental toward being a person who, in North Korea, learns to survive, but has to lose what they have to live for, in my estimation. This different kind of story intrigued me a great deal. And in the novel, our character starts off as a model citizen who's given a role, and as he moves forward through the book, he tries to become maybe a more Western character in that way.

Jo Reed: It's interesting in a novel that is looking at a country with a unified story, one of the major stories is in fact an actress, who takes on many roles, but that seemed to have a similarity.

Adam Johnson: Well, Sun Moon is one of my favorite characters in the book. She's an actress-- she's a perfect actress-- but she's worked her whole life in propaganda movies. And I've seen them. You can watch them on the Internet. And she thinks she's a wonderful actress. She's prized by the whole system, and is the favorite of Kim Jong Il. But when she meets our hero, he has a movie that he's gotten a hold of, and the movie's called Casablanca, and this is a movie that's a work of art, and it's the first work of art that she's ever seen in her life. And the point of the movie Casablanca is not to glorify any regime; it's about people actually trying to evade fascism, trying to find love and hope and possibility under a repressive regime, and they try to escape to a land of freedom. But, of course, a great sacrifice must be made in the movie. And when our actress, Sun Moon, sees this movie, she realizes that everything she's done her whole life has been a lie, and she decides at that point in the book that she has to get to this place where real movies are made, called America.

Jo Reed: Have you traveled to Korea at all?
Adam Johnson: South Korea or North Korea?
Jo Reed: Let's start with South. I mean, North is very difficult to get into.

Adam Johnson: That's right. I went to North Korea in the year 2007. Actually, I have not been to South Korea. It's something I want to do with my whole family, actually. I love the Korean language and the music and the food, and I want to go and take a long trip there and celebrate it. I put all my efforts into visiting the DPRK because I felt that was a necessity for the book, so that was my whole focus during my research.
Jo Reed: Well, tell us about that trip. How did you get in? How long were you there?

Adam Johnson: It used to be impossible to visit there, and then it became very difficult. I applied for a Visiting Scholar visa and a Scholarly Exchange visa, but I finally went with a gentleman who had an NGO in the North, and he knew about my book and thought it was important, and maybe kind of named me as his assistant in getting me in there. The DPRK really only opens up for a week or two a year, unless you're there on business or official matters, and that's around April 15th, which is Kim Il Sung's birthday-- it's the Great Day of the Sun in North Korea, the most important day of the year-- and for the fall Arirang Festival, and that's when I went. They tell you the day you'll arrive and the day you'll leave, and when you're there they show you exactly what they want you to see. It's completely scripted. It's illegal for a citizen to interact with a foreigner, so that opportunity isn't there. It would actually get them into great, great trouble if that happened.
Jo Reed: What did you see? What was--

Adam Johnson: Oh, sure, sure, sure. Well, I could speak at great length about some of the things that we saw, but the propaganda was kind of total. It's surprising, the degree to which they attempted to give their version of the world. They had me as a captive audience, so they kept telling me on the bus, as we went from different cities to cities and sites to sites, how they were the most democratic nation in the world because their voter turnout was 99.9 percent, whereas ours was often 50 percent. They talked about their universal health care, though it's a place where, if you go to the hospital, everyone famously brings Ryulk Yong [ph?] beer bottles with them to hold their IV fluids. And they talked about how they won the war, and they lectured me on American atrocities, and one of the minders was a great guy. He was young and fresh out of the academy, and really bright-eyed, and he'd just memorized all these scripts that he was supposed to use on Americans, and he would surprise me with them. He would say, "Professor Johnson, what do you feel about terrorism?" And I would say, "Terrorism is bad." And he would say, "Let me tell you Kim Jong Il's views on terrorism," and then begin a great, unending lecture. But the things I saw, it's not easy to wrap your head around North Korea. I flew there on the most dangerous airline in the world-- Koryo Airlines. It has one star out of five for safety from the FAA-- the lone airline to do that. I flew on a 1963 Aleutian, so a plane that was of great age. When you land at the airport, the runway seems no wider than the wingspan, and of course you can see all the husks of all the other airplanes that have crashed kind of rolled into the grass there. In the capital, I asked questions that were troubling to them. I wanted to capture the surface of North Korea for my novel, so I asked where the fire stations were. I said, "I don't see any mailboxes. How do people get their mail?" All the women wore a single, common shade of lipstick, which was very haunting. It was a dark red. I asked my minder the name of that shade, and she stopped talking to me for a while. I asked where all the handicapped people were. When you're there, you just realize there are no planes in the sky. The last plane to fly over North Korea was shot down in '89. There are no cell phones, even though there are cell phone towers. There are no pets, there are few cars, there are almost no bicycles, there are no advertisements. There are no logos, there are no stores, because there's no free trade. Everyone works for the government, so there are no shops or kiosks or-- every single thing has a bureaucratic purpose.

Jo Reed: In the book, you mimicked, in some ways, your minders going on about the glories of North Korea and Kim Jong Il's ideas of democracy when they visit Texas.

Adam Johnson: That's right. You know, about 100 pages in, because of a coincidence, our character encounters Americans in the Sea of Japan, and because of this, he gets to go on a delegation to Texas. And after about 100 pages, I went to Texas with my North Korean characters, and I saw Texas as a foreign land, and that's the first time I thought, "You know, this book just might work. I feel like I have their perspective." Everything American seemed strange to me. The Americans try to be "down home," and so they drive the North Koreans in classic American cars, like a '56 Thunderbird. But the North Koreans see this as a great insult, these old clunkers. They like black, new Mercedes. The Texans try to be folksy, and have their guests cut brush, like George Bush used to do for his visitors, and do some outdoor things. Again, great insults to our characters, that would asked to be-- to have to cut weeds or fish for their own fish; what a menial, peasant task. And then the Americans feed them barbecue outside on picnic benches, and the idea that they would eat with their hands in front of dogs, on wooden tables outdoors, greatly offends our characters. It's a source of great humor. I enjoyed that section a lot.

Jo Reed: And of course the whole notion of voting comes up during that visit, as well, and Dr. Song saying Kim Jong Il said, "Ask not what North Korea can do for you, but what you can do for North Korea."

Adam Johnson: That's right. You know, the North Koreans are famous for appropriating great phrases from leaders around the world, because the citizens can't verify them, and so, that's not one of them, but it's representative of the kinds of phrases that they appropriate, and it was, I thought, very hilarious.

Jo Reed: Will you read a little bit more from your book, please? Throughout the book -- and I'll just say this to set you up -- the book is told in different voices, and one of the voices is the voice of the national narrator, shall we say?

Adam Johnson: That's right. This is the opening paragraph of the book:

"Citizens, gather round your loudspeakers, for we bring important updates. In your kitchens, in your offices, on your factory floors, wherever your loudspeaker's located, turn up the volume! In local news, our dear leader, Kim Jong Il, was seen offering on-the-spot guidance to the engineers deepening the Taedong River channel. While the dear leader lectured the dredge operators, many doves were seen to spontaneously flock above him, hovering to provide our reverent general some much needed shade on a hot day. Also to report is a request from Pyongyang's Minister of Public Safety, who asks that while pigeon snaring season is in full swing, tripwires and snatch loops be placed out of the reach of our youngest comrades. And don't forget, citizens, the ban on stargazing is still in effect."

Jo Reed: Is that a real ban? I could go either way with that-- by the time I was done with the book, I was convinced it was real.
Adam Johnson: I did make that up, but it's just the place where people would order you not to look at the sky, and people would stop looking at the sky.
Jo Reed: Adam, when did you begin your career as a writer? When did you know this is what you wanted?

Adam Johnson: Hmm. I'm not a big believer in epiphanies, but I did kind of have an epiphany about writing fiction. I probably wasn't the greatest student, and after high school I went and worked construction for a few years. I did mid-rises and industrial construction. I drove tunnels for a year. I worked on mid-rises in Phoenix, Arizona. But when I got to college, I went to my local school, Arizona State University. I was taking some tough classes, and I honestly needed an easy A, and I sought the counsel of some friends, and they said, "creative writing." They said, "You can go in there, write anything you want, everyone talks about how deep it is, and it's easy and fun." So I did it, but the class was taught by a man named Ron Carlson, who's one of my favorite writers. He directs the program at U.C. Irvine right now. And suddenly, in the creation of a story, all of the perceived flaws that people had mentioned I'd had in life-- that I was a rubbernecker, that I was a daydreamer, that I lacked focus, that I was a liar, or, even worse, an exaggerator-- it was actually one of my habits, is exaggeration-- but these things all combined to make something good, something that really struck other people, and I felt a sense of satisfaction from writing fiction, and then later from really studying fiction, that I hadn't quite known, and I became a decent student, who maybe partied, to a guy who sat home on Friday nights, eschewed the parties, and wrote stories.

Jo Reed: You've gotten many awards, including an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. When did that come in your career?

Adam Johnson: That was actually a couple years ago. I was still hard at work at the book. I was not a professor yet, I had three kids, and that support just proved invaluable. It also meant a lot to me because the NEA is a blind reading. Your work is submitted anonymously, and it doesn't matter if you're famous or what kind of accolades you have. I really felt that a serious panel of judges had judged all the works that were awarded by their merits alone, and that's something that was particularly special to me.
Jo Reed: Did the NEA award help you continue work on the book?

Adam Johnson: Well, it was not cheap to go to North Korea, and it actually cost me a great deal of money, and the NEA allowed me then to buy more time to do more writing, to not quite teach as much. I had to use all my savings to get to North Korea, but the NEA then allowed me to buy time to finish the book.
Jo Reed: Tell me what you're working on now.

Adam Johnson: You know, I had a project I put on the back burner once I really became committed to this North Korean novel, and now that The Orphan Master's Son is finished, I'm going to kind of go back to a book that I hope is still alive.

Jo Reed: That was 2010 NEA Literature Fellow Adam Johnson, talking abouthis 2013  Pulitzer-Prize winning novel The Orphan Master's Son. 

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
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Next week I talk to the creators of the new app Poems by heart from Penguin classics. It's a game designed to help you memorize poems.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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