Forging an identity in a faceless world | July 12, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

- July 12, 2013

Forging an identity in a faceless world

Pulitzer Prize-winning novel gives a voice to North Korea's mysterious citizenry

by Audra Sorman

"The Orphan Master's Son" by Adam Johnson; Random House; 480 pages; $15

In "The Orphan Master's Son," North Korea comes to life in the form of a fiction novel, a medium befitting the country's aura of illusion.

Adam Johnson, whose novel was recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize, immerses the reader in the North Korean world of the book's protagonist, Jun Do. Jun Do — a man in a country tyrannized by its "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il — is one in a citizenry asked to sacrifice his individuality and own pursuits for the good of the country at large.

In his book, Johnson illustrates a place in which Jun Do, a model citizen, is not immune to the horrors of a life where asking questions and partaking in introspection are crimes worthy of torture, prison and death.

Having lost his mother to a state-sanctioned kidnapping and growing up in an orphanage run by his father, Jun Do is considered an orphan by the government and, in accordance with North Korean bureaucracy, is destined to serve in North Korea's military. The concept of choice is foreign to the book's characters, Johnson explains.

"In the United States, we have narratives; each of us is supposed to be the central character in our own story — we are supposed to look inward, to grow and change and become a better self."

"In (North Korean) society, there's a notion of a state-sponsored single narrative."

Jun Do's narrative is ostensibly straightforward even though his occupations range from kidnapping Japanese citizens to working as an undercover spy (listening for "enemy" radio transmissions) on a North Korean fishing boat.

An associate professor of English at Stanford University, Johnson presents a vivid description of North Korea and its people's daily lives, which should have been challenging for someone who says that it would be difficult for just about anyone to know what truly goes on in a country that isolates itself from the rest of the world.

"It's such a mysterious place that the word 'expert' doesn't quite apply," Johnson says, though he seems to have become more of an expert than not.

Johnson, who teaches fiction writing in Stanford's Creative Writing Program, says that before he began writing his book, he had no direct ties to North Korea. Johnson's interest in North Korea and its people began in 2004 when he first read a book titled "The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag," a nonfiction account of Kang Chol-hwan, a survivor (and defector) of one of North Korea's prison camps.

Subsequently, Johnson began combing through online North Korean news sources and even a blog dedicated to the "Dear Leader" and found himself immersed in a sea of propaganda; the only thing coming out of North Korea is an idealized version of their country and its people, many of whom take great pride in their communist ideology, he says.

Johnson experienced some of North Korea's bizarre view of reality firsthand when he visited North Korea in 2007 on a state-sponsored trip, during which he was chaperoned and presented with a romanticized version of the country and its people.

"You can't talk to a human. You can't travel where you want and you can't design any aspect of your trip — they're in total control."

After Johnson arrived at an airport about 30 kilometers north of Pyongyang and was whisked away into a vehicle, he saw his first striking image, which he later adapted in the novel.

"On that lonely, strange drive, one of the first things that I saw was a dump truck filled with citizens of Pyongyang being transported to the countryside."

When Johnson asked his North Korean guide where the people were going, she replied, "'Oh, they're volunteering to help with the harvest.'"

"I looked at those people in the dump truck wearing suits, lab coats — who would wear a suit to help to volunteer with the harvest?

"I said, 'They're volunteering?' And she answered, 'Everyone must volunteer.'"

"Volunteering isn't voluntary in North Korea," Johnson points out, delivering a paradox that underpins the book. While North Koreans are starving and lack adequate healthcare, one of the book's narrators, the voice of propaganda, describes its country as having bountiful crops and says that North Korea gives aid to less fortunate countries like South Korea and the United States.

In his novel, propaganda is just one of a few narrators that Johnson employs. Johnson utilizes a shifting narrative voice, which serves to disorient the reader and gives them a sense of the loss and distortion that plague North Korea's populace.

At one point, the narrative voice of propaganda relays an account in which Kim Jong Il was giving an inspirational speech to workers when "many doves were seen to spontaneously flock above him, hovering to provide (the) Reverend General some much needed shade on a hot day."

Though Johnson says he generally relies on humor in a lot of his writing, the amusing aspects of the outlandish propaganda help offset the brutality that befalls some of the book's characters. In addition to reading the daily news coming out of North Korea, Johnson spent a lot of his time reading personal stories told by North Korean defectors.

"I could just read the raw stories of the North Koreans, and that human dimension in literature was what was lacking."

That human dimension — the inner thoughts, struggles and desires of North Korea's citizens — is created by Johnson when he breathes life into a country often seen as being one-dimensional in its search for status and power.

The narrative of North Korea, Johnson notes, has one main character: the Dear Leader. In the book, Kim Jong Il's presence permeates many scenes. His image and ideology is everywhere, from portraits to the "state-sponsored single narrative," which comes in the form of closely-monitored arts, academics and media broadcasts.

But in "The Orphan Master's Son," Johnson fills out some of North Korea's "23 million secondary characters" and thrusts them to the forefront of the story.

"North Koreans are just like us. They want the same things out of life: safety, security and better things for their kids," Johnson says.

And in a world where dominance is maintained through propaganda, the most dangerous thing of all is something that Jun Do must do: look inward and break from his state-mandated role in order to find love and determine his own destiny.

What: Adam Johnson, in conversation with Anthony Marra

When: Friday, July 12, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Kepler's Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park


Audra Sorman is a local freelance writer who teaches literature at Foothill College.