Between the Lines Book Club: Adam Johnson Round-Up

between the lines book club logoThanks for following along with Between the Lines Book Club, as we’ve studied The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson.  If you are in the Sacramento area, please join us at Arden Dimick Library, at 891 Watt Avenue in Sacramento, CA.  We’ll be meeting at 2PM on October 26th!

One of the fun things about reading this book is that Adam Johnson did so many interviews when the book was published.  I love hearing authors talk about their writing and in Johnson’s case there were dozens of interviews to choose from.

You can find basic background interviews with Adam Johnson here:


The Paris Review

The link below it to an in-depth interview in which he talks about the genesis of the book, the difficulties faced by North Koreans who escape, the differences between the city and the countryside, and other details of life in north Korea – it’s fascinating!

Entertainment Weekly

Here’s a video in which Adam Johnson does an interview about life inside North Korea:

Between the Lines Book Club: The Orphan Master’s Club and Science Fiction

between the lines book club logoThe Orphan Master’s Son has been classified as a literary fiction, thriller, political commentary, love story, and dystopia.  It has characteristics of magical realism and although it is set in the recent past, tonally it matches science fiction dystopias like 1984 and the film Brazil.  This makes sense given the setting of North Korea, a mysterious country about which everything we know seems stranger than fiction.  Adam Johnson fills unknown spaces with details that feel at times otherworldly, as when Jun Do listens to transmissions that seem to come from beneath the sea before he realizes that they actually come from the International Space Station.  Other details feel futuristic, such as the autopilot machine invented by the interrogators of Division 42.

photo of Adam johnson

The speculative fiction tone of this contemporary piece also makes sense given that Adam Johnson’s previous work was science fiction.  His book, Emporium is an acclaimed collection of short stories in which a diverse cast of characters struggles to find meaning and connection as they deal with violence and imminent disaster.  His novel Parasites Like Us involves an anthropologist who inadvertently brings about the end of the world.

cover of Emporium

Finally, it turns out that the science fiction genre has allowed writers a little bit more freedom in North Korea than other forms of writing.  Science fiction has always been able to tackle taboo topics because authors can use metaphor to make their point.  According to Benoit Berthelier:

After a speech delivered by Kim Jong-Il in October 1988 called for the development of science fiction on a larger scale,[2] the number of sci-fi works grew significantly. From space travel to immortality or underwater exploration, sci-fi stories cover a wide range of subjects within settings that usually exceed the national boundaries of North Korea. If the country remains the central point of most plots, foreign characters–both positive and negative–are much more common than in traditional fiction.

According to Berthelier, everything written in North Korea has to send a message that the leadership desires.  In North Korean science fiction, there’s no individual genius science – science only happens when everyone works together as part of a hierarchy.  There are a lot of robots and no aliens, because of “the lack of scientific proof of a developed extraterrestrial life”.   But there are more foreigners than in most other North Korean fiction, and a wider range of settings and plot types.  While North Korean science fiction carefully toes the line of what’s acceptable, it gets to wiggle its toes a bit more than other genres do.

illustration from Explosion in the 3rd Dimension

Illustration for Explosion in the Third Dimension, by Han Seong-ho

Even though The Orphan Master’s Son is not science fiction, it uses the SF trick of metaphor to convey the unspeakable.  In an interview in the 2012 paperback edition, Johnson says that he didn’t want to write about all the horrible stories he heard of the atrocities in labor camps so he replaced them with forced blood donations.  This served as a straightforward depiction of atrocity but also as a metaphor of the state sucking the life out of its people.  Similarly, the persistent rumor in the book that there is no retirement village at Wonson and that retirees simply disappear is not based on fact (there’s a beach resort at Wonson but no retirement homes and no claim of retirement homes) but it serves as a fantastic metaphor for a dead-end – the idea that there is no possible happy ending and no escape.

Between the Lines Book Club: The Orphan Master’s Son and the Real North Korea

between the lines book club logoThe Orphan Master’s Son describes the life of a North Korean,  It was written by an American, who did extensive research on North Korea and who visited North Korea in preparation for the novel.  Still, the author took a great deal of artistic license in the story – filling in some of the many gaps in what we know about North Korea and inventing some details to increase the atmosphere of dread.  He also omitted some stories because he felt they were simply too awful.  In various interviews, Adam Johnson has emphasized that his goal was less to portray a factually accurate North Korea and more to create an emotional true story of living under oppression.

By Eric Lafforgue

Photo by Eric Lafforgue

In an interview that is included with the 2012 paperback edition of The Orphan Master’s Son, Johnson talks about how he chose what to fabricate and why:

Since I wasn’t allowed to speak to, except through a minder, the people I met in Pyongyang – museum docent, chefs, bus drivers – I really wanted to bring a citizen of Pyongyang to life.  Hence I created the character of the interrogator, a person who could show us the apartment buildings and subways and night markets of the capital.  I faced many challenges in building this portrait, though.  People in Pyongyang tend not to defect and therefore don’t bring their stories to the outside world, so how they live is a greater mystery.  And very little is known about the North Korean secret police…I drew on as many sources as I could, and while this character’s sections may not be as grounded in fact, I felt that emotionally it was the truest portion of the book in terms of how self-censorship and paranoia could corrode the bonds of family, even between a parent and child, until all was distrust and fear, until the very poles of love had been reversed.

Later in the interview, Johnson says:

I felt I actually had to tone down much of the real darkness of North Korea, as in the kwan li so gulags…that I invented the blood harvesting as a less savage stand-in, one that was simple and visceral, for the ways that the Kim regime stole every drop of life from citizens it had sentenced to an eternity of slave labor.

Photographer Eric Lafforgue visited North Korea six times.  In this collection of photos printed in Business Insider, he says that he likes capturing the real emotions of people: “They’re not robots”.  Johnson shares similar sentiments in the 2012 interview, saying, “The people there are just as human as we are, driven by the same needs and motivations.  They have many rules to follow, but as long as they are careful and cautious, a fairly normal life can be lived”.  Here is a video of Lafforgue talking about one of his trips to North Korea, and how he is able to get pictures of privilege and privation.  I wasn’t able to embed it but the link will take you to the video.

Photo by Eric Lafforgue

Photo by Eric Lafforgue

Much of what we know about North Korea comes from refugees who speak about their lives there.  The organization Liberty in North Korea works to draw attention to the people who live in North Korea, making it a more immediate human issue rather than a political one.  They do a lot of work with helping refugees leave North Korea and China (most refugees end up in China, where they live illegally and can be returned to North Korea if they are discovered) and resettle.  This is a long video (about half an hour) but well-worth watching – it’s about a young man who escaped from North Korea as a teenager.  Warning – there is some graphic, violent footage.

Ultimately, as Adam Johnson says in the 2012 interview, “The reality is we’ll know the try way to write a novel set in North Korea when North Korean novelists become free to tell their own stories.  I hope that day comes soon”.

Some writings about North Korea are:

Escape From Camp 14:  One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Hardin

cover of Escape from Camp 14

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, by Chol-hwan Kang

cover of Aquariums of Pyongyang

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Citizens in North Korea, by Barbara Demick

cover of Nothing to Envy

Between the Lines Book Club: The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

between the lines book club logoWelcome to Between the Lines Book Club!  This month we’re reading The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson.  Please comment about this book online, and join us at our in-person meeting on Sunday, October 26th at 2PM, at Arden Dimick Library (891 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, CA 95864).

The Orphan Master’s Son tells the story of Jun Do, who is raised in an orphanage in North Korea.  Jun Do believes that he must be the son of the Orphan Master, saying, “The surest evidence that the woman in the photo was Jun Do’s mother was the unrelenting way the Orphan Master singled him out for punishment.”

As Jun Do grows up, he finds himself in a range of morally convoluted situations.  He lives in a world in which personal survival trumps all else, and in which there’s no truth expect what the Dear Leader proclaims to be the truth:

“Where we are from… [s]tories 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.”

The Orphan Master’s Son was critically praised for its fictional creation of a bizarre dystopian state, the atmosphere of suspense, and the use of dark humor (a visit to a Texas ranch is both horrifying and hilarious).  It was criticized by some for its cartoonish portrayal of Kim Jong Il and the tonal shifts – for some critics, these shifts were brilliant, while others found them discordant.  The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be blogging more about Adam Johnson and the story behind the book.  Stay tuned!

cover to Orphan Master's Son