'Orphan': A Novel Imagines Life In North Korea
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Last week, a book called "The Orphan Master's Son" was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Adam Johnson's novel imagines what life is like for citizens of North Korea. I spoke with Adam Johnson last year about his book. And to mark his Pulitzer, we'd like to revisit that interview. In it, Johnson explained that as part of his research, he actually managed to finagle a visit to North Korea. He said his government minders maintained tight control over his itinerary but they couldn't hide everything.
ADAM JOHNSON: I had probably done a couple of years of research on my novel and was deeply into it at that point, so I knew the exact things that I wanted to see that I was hoping to depict in the book. But still there were surprises that I never could have imagined, like seeing a family scrambling in a public park to steal chestnuts and to run away with them in a plastic bucket - at great peril, I would assume.
MARTIN: I want to hear more about how your trip informed your writing. But first, can you just give us a sense of the story that you've written here. Tell us a little bit about it.
JOHNSON: Well, in this novel we begin with a model citizen of North Korea, Pak Jun Do. He does as he's told, when he's told, often dark and sinister things. He's an orphan. He's at the lowest rung of society out on the farthest fringe in the city of Chongjin. Unfortunately, orphans there are really young laborers, and when they are turned into the military at a young age, they're often given the most dangerous tasks. And it is through coincidence that our orphan, Pak Jun Do, comes to encounter the American Navy out on the Sea of Japan. And here he gets the first look at an alternative way of being a human being. And the doors opened to a new possibility for the second half of the book.
MARTIN: Can you talk a little more about what happened on that trip? You say you were looking for specific things to help you fill in the blanks in this story.
JOHNSON: Well, the book features the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery. There were a couple of government offices that I wanted to see. And they were very reassured that I wanted to see some of the things that they showed me. But I also asked questions that were deeply troubling to them. I said where are all the handicapped people? I wanted to know where the fire station was. I said where were the mailboxes? It was deeply surreal to walk among thousands of people in the streets of Pyongyang and see that the men all have the same exact haircut. They wear the same blue shoes. And the women, perhaps one of the more surreal things I've ever seen is seeing thousands of women wear the exact same shade of lipstick.
MARTIN: You tell the story of this orphan, Jung Do, but there's another perspective in the book, that of a government interrogator. His family calls him a torturer. You keep this man anonymous. We never learn his name. But we do learn about him and the peculiar nature of family life in North Korea as you've characterized it. And I wonder if you wouldn't mind reading a passage for us from the book. It's page 275.
JOHNSON: Certainly. (Reading) There is a talk that every father has with his son in which he brings the child to understand that there are ways we must act, things we must say. But inside, we are still us. We are still family. I was eight when my father had this talk with me. We were under a tree on Moranbong Hill. He told me that there was a path set out for us. On it, we had to do everything the signs commanded and heed all the announcements along the way. Even if we walked this path side by side, he said, we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside we would still be holding hands.
MARTIN: It's a lovely paragraph and it's really one of the moments in the book that illustrates life in North Korea. But there's also this disconnect. Can you talk a little bit about what he's trying to communicate with his son.
JOHNSON: Well, he's preparing his son for the realities of the world that they live in. He's letting him know that the innocence is going to end and preparing him for the fact that dark things may happen, that saying something at the wrong time could result in the worst peril, the gulags.
MARTIN: People who speak out or refuse to out their neighbors as somehow betraying the regime often end up in prison camps, in these work camps. And you spend a good portion of the story painting that picture, describing these camps and some of these passages are hard to read.
JOHNSON: The State Department has an incredible list of Google maps of all the gulags on its website. Seeing the satellite images of the huge barracks and the prison mines and the graveyards and the execution yards is just terrifying. Reading about the amputations and forced abortions, it filled my mind with darkness for a year. And honestly, I tried to prevent too much of that dark reality from seeping into the book because I didn't want to outweigh the humanness of my characters.
MARTIN: I mean, Adam, a lot of us - the reason we pick up a book, a novel in particular, is to escape ourselves in some way. And I have to admit that when I was first handed this book, I thought, I don't know if I want to live in this world. I don't know if I want to devote my imagination to North Korea for the time it would take to read this book.
JOHNSON: Well, in terms of the fact that the book is maybe not a beach read, escapist enterprise, I would say that North Korea is the most fascinating, mysterious place in the world and it utterly captivated my imagination.
MARTIN: Author Adam Johnson. I spoke with him last year. His novel "The Orphan Master's Son" just won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.