Over the past few months, North Korea has hosted a surreal basketball “diplomacy” trip with Dennis Rodman, threatened war and held celebrations with flowers, missiles and music. But very few have an inkling of what the Hermit Kingdom is really like from the inside.
Stanford University professor of English Adam Johnson has made a very ambitious attempt to answer that question in his novel The Orphan Master’s Son, awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction earlier this week. After an absence last year, literature buffs breathed a collective sigh of relief to see the award return this year. Previous winners include Nobel laureates Ernest Hemmingway (The Old Man and the Sea), John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath) and Toni Morrison (Beloved).
Johnson’s book has won near universal acclaim among critics, being called “exceedingly readable” in a review byThe New YorkTimes, which took home several Pulitzers of its own. The Guardian also published a rave reviewof the book, comparing it to 1984 and Brave New World, in which the writer said that Johnson “managed to capture the atmosphere of this hermit kingdom better than any writer I've read.”
On December 19, 2011, one of the main characters in Adam Johnson’s new novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, died. His name was Kim Jong Il. Had Kim lived, he might have approved of the impish, devious, and dangerously mercurial simulacrum that Johnson summons in his epic about modern North Korea, published by Random House this month. He may have been less pleased that an ordinary citizen named Jun Do usurps him as the hero of the book—springing from a labor camp in a doomed quest for freedom.
Johnson, who teaches fiction at Stanford’s Stegner Program and grew up in South Dakota and Arizona, has written about characters caught in dystopian settings before (he is the author of a short-story collection, Emporium, and a novel, Parasites Like Us) but never on such a grand scale or in such unfamiliar territory. Earlier this month I caught up with him by phone to ask how he came to write about North Korea, and about the perils of researching a place about which so little is known.
You spent seven years researching and writing this book and even visited North Korea once. Did you have an emotional reaction when you learned that Kim Jong Il had died?
The book was done. Kim Jong Il felt very alive to me when I was writing it, but of course that’s one of our illusions. I was really just filled with concern for twenty-four million people.