When interviewing author Adam Johnson, one always leaves with one’s notebook full of great stories and great quotes that didn’t make it to the final cut – this was true even before he wrote the celebrated Orphan Master’s Son, “a place where living meaningfully and survival are at odds constantly – and as a literary fiction writer, I was completely drawn to that territory.” (I’ve written about him here and here and here and here.)
While talking to him about his newest novel in his home in the Cole Valley neighborhood of San Francisco, he recalled his sole, and heavily chaperoned, trip to Pyongyang. He was so floored by the disconnect with reality, that he asked his young female chaperone, “You know, I think my next trip is going to be to either Mogadishu or Paris. What do you think?”
She looked at him blankly. “It depends on what your travel plans are,” she replied.
“She didn’t ask, ‘Do you like cheese?’ ‘Can you handle an AK-47?'” It was apparent that Mogadishu and Paris were no more than dots on a map, absolutely free of associations.
You’ll get your own chance to hear of his North Korean adventures in the New York Times today here, as he reflects on the new Google maps of the mysterious totalitarian state. As he explains, during his visit, the only guide he could find at the time wore red lipstick:
My minder was smart and appraising, with something regal about her. And driving around Pyongyang, I couldn’t stop pestering her with questions:
“I don’t see any trash cans,” I said. “Where are the trash cans?”
We’re a society without waste, she said.
We have the world’s most efficient mail system was her answer.
I hadn’t seen a fire station. “Where do you keep your fire trucks?” I asked her.
We haven’t had a fire in the capital in 12 years.
Later, when I finally popped the big question — “Oh, can we stop someplace that sells maps?” — she swept her hand to include the driver, the state-supplied videographer and her assistant, and said: We are your map. We’re all you need to find your way.
North Korea, he said, is a place where “everyone there makes an impossible choice to survive.”
Then he wondered, “Does your soul, if you don’t exercise it, just crumple up like a tin can inside of you, unable to find its form again?”
Tags: Adam Johnson