North Korea: truth is stranger than fiction

17:00, May 03 2014
The Orphan Master's Son author Adam Johnson
POP-CULTURE EXPERT: Adam Johnson is interested in the human dimensions, rather than the politics, of North Korea.

He's a Stanford University professor and Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, but Adam Johnson has somehow also become the accidental pop-culture expert on North Korea, that most strange and insular of societies.

Evoking the old cliche about the kingdom of the blind, Johnson only spent five stage-managed days inside the regime, but his six years in total of researching The Orphan Master's Son - his critically acclaimed, lyric, cruelly beautiful novel set in North Korea - left him knowing more than most. It also bequeathed him an enthusiastic obsession for North Korea: While his novel has been on the shelves for nearly two years, and Johnson is just one tale short of finishing his next work, a volume of short stories, he still reads North Korean propaganda most days and talks to defectors when he can, most recently interviewing Kim Jong Il's eccentric former chef, Kenji Fujimoto, for an Esquire profile.

Johnson, who teaches creative writing at Stanford University and who is a guest at the Auckland Readers and Writers Festival this month, is ready for the questions - they follow him wherever he goes. "I know readers are curious," he says.

The Orphan Master's Son
The novel was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

After all, he certainly was. "A lot of my research made it in, and lots didn't," he reflects, on the phone from his home in San Francisco. "And I think the reportage on North Korea often depicts the place as a centre of evil or madness, or of foolishness and clownishness, and it is that, but it is so much more: It's a place where 23 million people are unfortunately trapped for their whole lives and whole spectrums of human emotions are proscribed."

Johnson has an air of grudging admiration for some of the regime's idiosyncrasies - in another interview, he mentions the ingenious energy efficiency of the on-off switches installed on escalators, and he tells me about how the Koreans have converted trucks to burn carbon vapour from woodfires: "They are a very ingenious, creative people struggling to survive." But for every log-burning truck, he says, there are the cruelties such as Kim Jong-Il's decree that rural peasants must save their own faeces for fertiliser.

Johnson was halfway through the book when he took his heavily-supervised trip to Pyongyang. "It's an amazing trip," he says. "I recommend it. It's not like going to Fiji. Of course, you know it is going to be very managed and controlled . . . it is illegal for a citizen of North Korea to interact with a foreigner [without permission] so it is the one place in the world [where] you can't actually talk to a North Korean. You can talk to a North Korean in Australia and in California and South Korea, but not there.


"The only people you interact with have had special training, so I knew I wouldn't get any human contact. For a fiction writer to walk among thousands of people in downtown Pyongyang knowing that if I could just stop and talk to one, and see their apartment and hear their story, all my questions would be answered; everything could be resolved if I just talked to one North Korean in North Korea. It was frustrating. It also fuelled the inspiration."

It also, he says, gave him the "verisimilitude": "I didn't know what kind of shoes they would wear, what haircuts, or whether the streets would be concrete or asphalt, if they had mailboxes or fire stations, or even how it would smell."

For example, he learned that the North Korean Government was running a campaign to raise grass-feed animals and so were breeding rabbits and goats on rooftops - leading to a scene in the novel where a baby goat plummets from an apartment block onto a character's car windscreen.

As we talk, the 46-year-old Johnson drops in fascinating bits of ephemera - a story of how a Japanese corporation gifted a thousand grain-fed cattle, which had to be slain because they began to eat into the reserves of corn, the Koreans' staple crop, before digressing into how this corn deficiency has led Korea to suffer badly from pellagra, a condition caused by vitamin B3 deficiency.

He's not sure what the reaction to the book within North Korea's ruling elite would be, largely because the novel emerged during a tumultuous time of leadership change (from Kim Jong-Il to his son, Kim Il-Sung), when they were distracted with more important things.

He has been interviewed (and translated) by radio stations broadcasting into North Korea's range, so anyone listening illegally might have heard of his book. But to comprehend it might take a leap; he calls the North Koreans "the most voiceless people on earth".

The Japanese made Korean arts and culture illegal when they invaded in 1910, and the subsequent totalitarian dictatorship permitted only state propaganda. It leads to a grimly moving passage in The Orphan Master's Son where two children prove almost incapable of imagining a story that doesn't parrot state-sanctioned myth.

Johnson's assumption is he must be banned from returning: "But, honestly, I wouldn't go unless there was freedom there; they would just show me the exact same things. People go and some of them get the exact same guys showing them around. It would hurt my soul to be there and not be allowed to talk to people again."

The Orphan Master's Son is a subtle, unique tale of life and love in the most spirit-testing of circumstance. Ambitiously structured, the eponymous protagonist, Jun Do, tells his story as an obedient state servant - spy, kidnapper, national hero. But then, midway through the novel, Johnson makes an ambitious narrative shift. After his capricious removal to the gulags makes Jun Do realise he is disposable, the story is told by multiple voices, an anonymous state propaganda broadcaster and a troubled state interrogator among them.

Johnson says he struggled with addressing the issue of gulags, filled not with criminals but political prisoners, and also their friends and families, from which, he says, only 32 people are known to have escaped, out of North Korea and then out of China. That motivated the "big artistic manoeuvre".

"I felt a big duty to try to depict them so for six months I tried to write my character in the gulag," says Johnson, "and eventually my wife asked me to stop. ‘Adam, you are depressed, you don't like what you are writing and nobody wants to read it'."

His solution was to adapt something he'd taught his creative writing class at Stanford - the techniques people use to re-tell painful personal stories. Johnson knew from studies from Bosnia and Rwanda that using methods such as telling the tale in fragments or backwards or in the third person could minimise the trauma.

Johnson's lesson on distancing oneself from pain isn't evident in his most recent work, the $30,000 Sunday Times short-story competition winning effort, Nirvana, a bleak, near-future tale which he openly admitted was inspired by a friend's suicide and his wife's battle with cancer.

''It's my job to face up to the important things in society and in our own lives," he says. "It was my way of processing it."

Not surprisingly, he says, "I find writing very draining and emotionally exhausting . . . but I find teaching very invigorating, and while a morning of writing will drain my batteries, an afternoon of teaching will recharge them."

His trip to New Zealand and Australia may have the same effect; he intends to do no writing. Instead, it's a reward for his three kids - who are coming along with him and his wife - for his frequent absences while writing.

But he is ready to talk about North Korea. "I'm not a think-tanker, I don't talk about policy and nuclear issues, just about the human dimension."

Adam Johnson will speak at three events at the Auckland Writers Festival this month. See

Sunday Star Times