The whole list of fellows is here. Another acquaintance was next on the alphabetical list: Bill Johnston, the acclaimed translator of Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz.
The foundation awarded a diverse group of 175 scholars, artists, and scientists, chosen on the basis of prior achievement and exceptional promise, from a field of almost 3,000 applicants this year.
We’re proud that we wrote about Adam even before he became a really big deal, as well as since the applause – here and here and here and here, among other places.
N. Korean soldier (photo: A. Johnson)
I phoned Adam to offer my congratulations, and caught him just as he was about to go into a class where he is a guest speaker in Moscow, Idaho. Did he have any words to offer Book Haven readers? ”What should I say? What should I say?” he asked me. Heavens, how should we know? We’ve never gotten a Guggenheim.
“I’m thrilled, honored. I have received the most precious gift a writer can have – time to complete the next project, and to fulfill the potential of the work,” he finally said.
So what’s this next project? ”What? I can’t say,” he said. But surely it was in the Guggenheim proposal, so it’s not a secret? He hemmed and hawed a bit – let’s just call it ”narratives of North Korea,” he said.
Any comments on the latest standoff with North Korea? He asked me if I’d seen the New York Times article explaining that the renegade nation has most probably learned how to make a nuclear weapon small enough to be delivered by a ballistic missile, and is “missile ready.” What did he think about it? “I’m not a nuclear expert, I write about people,” he said, before ducking into the classroom. We called out “Congratulations, Adam!” after him.
Update! North Korea celebrates Adam’s award with a funky get down Juche Party!
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?”
Adam (Photo: L.A. Cicero)
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.
Later, I wondered where the mailboxes were.
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?”
U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey was at Stanford last night – alas, I had a conflicting appointment. But Adam Johnson, author of the acclaimed The Orphan Master’s Son, attended, and sent me his glorious portrait as a souvenir of the occasion. And that is the excuse for this post.
Adam had this to say about the reading I didn’t attend: “The reading was a truly commanding one. The poetry was powerful and beautiful, and the audience felt its embrace. Rarely do you see a poet so fully or eloquently embody her work as Natasha Trethewey did at the lectern tonight.” (Adam was no slouch at his own reading tonight – more on that in another post.)
Adam Johnson, Tretheway fan (Photo: L.A. Cicero)
In his citation for the poet laureate appointment, Librarian of Congress James Billington wrote that he was “immediately struck by a kind of classic quality with a richness and variety of structures with which she presents her poetry … she intermixes her story with the historical story in a way that takes you deep into the human tragedy of it.” Rita Dove wrote in an introduction to one of Tretheway’s books that she “eschews the Polaroid instant … reclaiming for us that interior life where the true self flourishes and to which we return, in solitary reverie, for strength.”
Tretheway is the author of Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (University of Georgia Press), Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin), for which she won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, Bellocq’s Ophelia (Graywolf, 2002), which was named a Notable Book for 2003 by the American Library Association, and Domestic Work (Graywolf, 2000).
Her collection Thrall is due for publication in 2012 – but it better hurry up, only seven weeks left in the year. My goodness, where did it go?
Postscript on 11/7: Whoops! Christina Ablaza just wrote to tell me that Thrall came out in August.
One of the more haunting moments in author Adam Johnson‘s interview with Charlie Rose is when he describes the impossibility of the plight of North Koreans – these are “people who have never seen a stop light before; they don’t know how many works,” says the author of the acclaimed Orphan Master’s Son. As he has pointed out elsewhere, most of the stories we have are from the areas outside the capital. The citizens of Pyongyang have already “made it.” So what is life like among North Korea’s upper classes?
“The cadres of the past had very traditional mentalities. They are people who lived thinking, “Anything for the party and the General…” The cadres, with the change in generations, started to think about their security. Corruption and self-interest stemmed from that.
In actuality, the North Korean cadres are the first ones to have changed internally. On the outside, they maintain their security by serving the regime, but internally, they will be the first ones to abandon it if the circumstances permit.”
These are the observations of Kim Jong Il‘s favorite state poet, Jang Jin Sung, who defected in 2004. He will be attending an international poetry festival during the upcoming London Olympics, from July 27 to Aug. 12 (Kay Ryan will also attend). The man who once wrote official poetry for the Workers’ Party newspaper now writes about executions, hunger, and desperate lives, according to an Associated Press article. In a Daily NK interview four years ago, he said:
North Korea is a country which allowed 3 million people to die during a peacetime period. The fact that the administration still exists is a shameful thing. North Korea is a country which calls the period which produced 3,000,000 starvation victims the “March of Tribulation.” If Hitler was a despot who massacred foreign citizens, Kim Jong Il is a despot who has slaughtered his own people. If this truth is not made known, we cannot find justice.
Jang said he led a privileged life in Pyongyang and once dined with Kim. He was instructed to avoid looking into the leader’s eyes and instead to stare at his second shirt button. After more contact with Kim, Jang said he soon stopped believing that he was “this godlike leader of this wonderful country.”
He said that poets had a special role to play in the regime: ”Because of the paper shortage in North Korea, poems were the most efficient, economical way to spread propaganda,” he said.
While working in the propaganda ministry, he was able to read South Korean books. He crossed the river to China. Although he was hunted by the North Korea, South Korea found him first (needless to say, he now works under an assumed name). He worked for the South Korean intelligence for seven years before setting up his own online newspaper about North Korea earlier this year. Now he says “Truth is the strongest weapon.”
A few of the poet’s poems are shown in the video below – but only in Korean. The soundtrack has a lovely rendition of Handel‘s immortal cry for liberty, “Lascia Ch’io Pianga,” sung by South Korean singer Jung Se Hoon. Lovely, that is, till the end – I don’t know why they felt the need to junk up the orchestration at the end. (Go here for Cecilia Bartoli‘s interpretation.)
More praise for Adam Johnson‘s The Orphan Master’s Son, which we wrote about here and here and here and here. This time the kudos are from Kelly Falconer, the literary editor of the Asia Literary Review. She is also a former Korean linguist who served in the U.S. military as a Korean cryptologic analyst. The review is in the June 15 Times Literary Supplement, which landed in my Stanford mailbox today.
Most of the review recounts the storyline of the shapeshifting hero, Jun Do. Falconer concludes:
Author, author! (Photo: L.A. Cicero)
In Korean, jun do is a homonym and Jun Do himself embodies all of its various meanings, including topsy-turviness, as befits Alice in Wonderland absurdity of life in North Korea; a transmitter, of images and the truth, revealed with the “simplest answer”; a leader, unwittingly or not; inversion, as he takes on the identity of Commander Ga and also changes Ga into someone who is good; an advance on payment and someone who will have great difficulties, for Jun Do is fated to pay in advance for something he will gain later – freedom.
Adam Johnson … visited North Korea in 2007 as part of his research for the book, which is infused with subtly elided allusions both biblical and literary. But he is never high-handed; instead, his assured sense of playfulness tricks readers into letting down their guard and unexpectedly taking in the most shocking details that increase the intensity of the tale. Johnson’s deft hand gives us an accomplished, strangely entertaining and thoughtful insight into the oppressive, brutal and otherwise opaque regime in North Korea, where to see is not always to believe.
It’s always a pleasure to repeat any praise of Adam. He is a warm and quirky and wonderful man.
Adam Johnson: "It's still just a message." (Photo: L.A. Cicero)
Once again, North Korea is threatening to reduce South Korea “to ashes” – what’s more, “by unprecedented peculiar means and methods of our own style.” A tense and nervous world is wondering what to do.
I mentioned this when I spoke tonight with Adam Johnson, author The Orphan Master’s Son, an acclaimed novel about North Korea.
He exploded into easy laughter. “They do that all the time!” The usual claim is that they can level Seoul in 30 minutes, he said.
“The scary thing is, they can actually do that,” he said. “Everybody talks about the nuclear dimension, but there’s no way they can get a bomb anywhere. All modern missiles depend on power” – and power is one thing North Korea hasn’t got. It can’t even supply its citizens with electricity at night.
What they do have, however, is 1950s and 1960s artillery – outdated, pokey, but lots of it. Big barrels jutting up from the ground and pointing into the air, all along the border. “It can’t be stopped, and it’s presently aimed toward Seoul,” he said. Seoul is within easy firing range.
I wondered if what he said was really true – so I did a little online poking around, and found this article from Popular Mechanics in 2010 – I know, I know, it’s two years old. But what do two years matter when you are dealing with weaponry from the 1950s and 1960s?
Turn out the lights when you go to bed! Satellite photo at night. The dark part is North Korea. (Photo: NASA)
First, there’s the unfortunate geography—the opponents’ capitals are just 120 miles apart, with Seoul within 35 miles of the border. The numbers only get worse, with estimates of as many as 13,000 artillery pieces positioned along that border, many of them within range and presumably aimed directly at Seoul, one of the world’s most densely-populated cities. Factor in the rate of fire of all those suspected artillery batteries, and throw in the potential launch of hundreds of missiles, and it’s easy to conclude that if North Korea is pushed hard enough, the result could be, as the New York Times put it yesterday, “the destruction of Seoul.”
The more common term for the potential fate of the South Korean capital, casually dropped on recent radio and television news reports, as well as in twoseparate AOL news op-eds from earlier this year, is that it would be “flattened.” Analysis from Time magazine in 2003 went so far as to gauge how long this would take: “Its conventional artillery capability would allow North Korea to flatten Seoul in the first half-hour of any confrontation.”
However, actually flattening a city is not as easy as it sounds:
“Artillery is not that lethal,” says Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and is a national security analyst for ABC News. “It takes a long time for it to produce the densities of fire to go beyond terrorism and harassment.” Even in a worst-case scenario, where both U.S. and South Korean forces are somehow paralyzed or otherwise engaged, and North Korea fires its 170mm artillery batteries and 240mm rocket launchers with total impunity, the grim reality wouldn’t live up to the hype. Buildings would be perforated, fires would inevitably rage and an unknown number of people would die. Seoul would be under siege—but it wouldn’t be flattened, destroyed or leveled.
Here’s the kicker:
If this sounds like squabbling over semantics, it is. But semantics and language matter [italics mine]. The casual, and largely unsupported references to Seoul’s potential flattening punctuates the notion that [the now-deceased] Kim Jong Il is holding a city hostage. It recasts a complex strategic vulnerability as a cartoon: an entire city facing a perpetual firing squad. It also ignores physical laws, and the realities of modern warfare.
Last month, Adam told me, “In North Korea, everything is a message. Often, it’s a message about survival. Even if it appears malicious, it’s just a message.” So what’s the message here?
“Who knows what it means?” he said, but added, “It’s a message to bolster the regime of Kim Jong Un. It’s sending a message to millions in North Korea.”
I chatted with Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master’s Son, on March 25 at his home in the tiny, charming San Francisco neighborhood of Cole Valley – at that time, North Korea’s plans to put a satellite in orbit this month were already much in the news. (It wasn’t my first get-together with the author: I wrote about him earlier here.) A few days later, on a very soggy weekday in San Francisco, he spoke more about North Korea at a Litquake event in the North Beach bar, Tosca – a surprising number of people came for the event, despite the downpour. (Publishers Weekly wrote about that gathering here.)
Here’s the article that came out of our most recent rendezvous:
In a nation of lies, sometimes only fiction tells the truth.
So Adam Johnson‘s new novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, already a New York Times bestseller, may offer new insights about North Korea, the country he says is too often dismissed as a mélange of “buffoonery, madness or evil.”
With the launch of a long-range rocket scheduled around April 15, the world is turning its eyes again on North Korea. An outraged world clamors to know what can be done to contain a dangerous pariah state.
Johnson’s prediction? “They’re going to send up a big-ass rocket and whatever happens, the North Koreans will call it a startling success.”
“It’s not about science,” the Stanford associate professor of English explained. “It’s about the consolidation of power so Kim Jong Un doesn’t get murdered in the night.” Johnson suggests we look to the country’s new leader, the third generation in a totalitarian dynasty, to explain the newest flare-up of celestial ambitions.
“In North Korea, everything is a message. Often, it’s a message about survival. Even if it appears malicious, it’s just a message.”
A young soldier eyes the tourists near the DMZ (Photo: Adam Johnson)
Johnson’s novel, published by Random House, traces the career of Pak Jun Do, a homonym for “John Doe,” the son of a kidnapped singer and a man who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. He becomes a soldier patrolling the dark tunnels beneath the DMZ, the “demilitarized” zone between North and South Korea. He’s a professional kidnapper, a surveillance officer and eventually a player in the circles closest to the nation’s leader. The book is part romance, part adventure story, part spy novel and mostly the dark, absurdist drama for which Johnson is celebrated – though the parts that sound like comic-book excess often hew closest to the truth.
But is it over the top? Vindication came from award-winning author and Korea expert Barbara Demick, who read a published excerpt from the book last year and wrote in The Guardian: “I assumed it had to be part of a memoir by a North Korean, so accurate were the details . . . Johnson has made just one trip in his life to North Korea, but he’s managed to capture the atmosphere of this hermit kingdom better than any writer I’ve read.”
The Orphan Master’s Son was published a month after the December death of the longtime dictator, Kim Jong Il, an event that heightened interest in the book.
“With the passing of Kim Jong Il, we’ve had the first serious discussion of the place in a long time,” said Johnson.
“North Korea is the most extensive national psychological experiment ever created. What is this place? Is it really this crazy? What’s its future?”
The April 15 event provides a clue: Johnson said the date will be “the biggest party ever” in the lives of most North Koreans. Not because of the satellite that will purportedly be put into orbit, but rather because it’s the centennial of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the current dynasty.
“He’s the eternal president of the nation,” Johnson said, but insisted that the title is not just a flowery Asiatic honorific. “Seriously, seriously. It sounds absurd to us. If you were in North Korea and said he was not the eternal president, you would be sent away.”
“You always know that a country has gone off the rails when they invent their own calendar,” said Johnson. The Juche calendar, introduced in 1997, resets the calendar to 1912 – just like Pol Pot’s “Year Zero” recalibration in Cambodia, or the French Revolutionary Calendar two centuries ago.
Daughters of the Pyongyang elite (Photo: Adam Johnson)
Satellite maps and propaganda
The Orphan Master’s Son is the fruit of nearly six years of research – a research carried out with a stunning absence of reliable data.
“There are great books about the economy of North Korea, its military dimensions, its geopolitics, and its nuclear issues. But the human dimension? About that there’s little,” said Johnson. “We have satellite images, propaganda, and the stories of people who have escaped.”
For example, we don’t know when or how Kim Jong Il died. We’ve heard rumors of four or five coup attempts, Johnson said – but who knows what the truth is?
The truths that wash up on foreign shores are scary: North Korea’s economy apparently depends on state-sponsored organized crime, a mafia class that runs counterfeiting operations for international currency (the United States purportedly had to change its $100 notes for that reason) and which has run a global international insurance scam, involving hundreds of millions of dollars. It reportedly also deals in heroin, opium, methamphetamines and munitions.
The nation has had a long tradition of international kidnappings – including one South Korean film director who was imprisoned until he agreed to make a series of bad movies for Kim Jong Il, who acted as executive producer.
Such accounts invite parody. In his research, however, Johnson focused on devastating accounts of those who have escaped: “Every story is gripping, heart-rending, and utterly unverifiable,” said Johnson. Every citizen makes some variation of Sophie’s Choice just to survive in North Korea. Those are the stories he’s reinvented for his book.
War, war and occupation
The bizarre enigma of North Korea is less incomprehensible in view of its history. “What they remember is war, and war and occupation,” said Johnson.
Bronze busts at the national martyrs' cemetery (Photo: Adam Johnson)
These historical traumas are so deeply engrained that Pyongyang streets are 100 meters wide to allow quick evacuation in the event of another, always-feared American attack.
But for a while the postwar dream worked. In the 1960s, North Korea was even more prosperous than the South.
The dream worked, that is, if you ignored the nation’s massive gulag system that was born with it. It incarcerates perhaps 200,000 people, including entire families. Starvation, forced abortions, execution and infanticide are routine, said Johnson.
The fall of the Soviet Union meant that North Korea lost both a market and a source of foreign aid. The 1990s brought a famine that killed about 10 percent of the population, as well as floods of biblical proportion. In a grimly comic note, the loss of Soviet fertilizer meant “the whole nation now has to save feces for fertilizer,” said Johnson.
Johnson’s previous books include a collection of short stories, Emporium, which featured a bomb-defusing robot and a teenage sniper – in that, he explored “autobiographical” material, he said. His first novel about an apocalyptic plague, Parasites Like Us, took on “my family issues for three generations.”
This time, he decided, “I’m going to write fiction, instead of writing about my own life.” The research he did filled him with a sense of obligation.
“My first duty is to the novel,” he said. “We have a duty to tell the stories of others. Even if we have to invent them.”
Antrim was a fan of Adam’s earlier collection, The Emporium, which he calls “one of the best books of the early aughts, gives it to us with a fiction writer’s eye for detail.” He offers the same praise for Adam’s new novel on life in North Korea, however, he notes, “what makes it so absorbing isn’t its documentary realism but the dark flight of the author’s imagination.”
The Orphan Master’s Son is potent with visions of oppression and generalized fear. Johnson is unflinching (even a bit enthusiastic) rendering torture, but hisensitivity to Jun Do’s resilient spirit makes his work as big-hearted as it is horrifying. A few images have haunted me for days—Jun Do, at sea, dazzled by a trans-Pacific cargo ship carpeted with new cars: “the moonlight flashed in rapid succession off a thousand new windshields.” And starving scavengers glimpsed in a government graveyard: “in the long shadows cast by the bronze headstones moved occasional men and women. In the growing dark, these ghostly figures, keeping low and moving quickly, were gathering all the flowers from the graves.”
Nothing here will challenge the prevailing American view of the DPRK—a human nightmare, deserving of its pariah status—but Johnson’s novel is rich with a sense of discovery nevertheless. The year is young, but The Orphan Master’s Son has an early lead on novel of 2012.
I wrote about Adam Johnson in 2009, when he said that, for the last four-and-a-half years (he was careful not to say five), he had been working on a novel about North Korea, in which he will “explore ways people manage to be individual under that regime.”
Noting American value for “free-thinking, spontaneity, ingenuity, individuality,” he added, “Over there, spontaneity can ruin your life.” Nonetheless, the novel invites an examination of the propaganda Americans accept on this side of the Pacific.
Frankly, it didn’t sound as exciting as some of his other work, which had led the Chicago Tribune to claim: “Like a squall moving in on a dead-muggy day, Adam Johnson’s audacious work blows the covers off the short story and leaves the genre newly invigorated.”
Like many Westerners, Johnson initially saw Kim Jong Il as a kind of comic-opera figure and Korea’s Cold War-vintage society as a potential wellspring of satiric material. “I must admit that at the beginning the absurdities and the ironies attracted me,” Johnson said …
Not just a pretty face
Several years ago, he started writing a short story inspired partly by Kim Jong Il’s extravagant eccentricity, “his jet skis and his sushi habit, and he has a whole division of girls to pleasure him.” But that Comedy Central scenario changed as the author began to grasp the Orwellian dimensions of the regime’s power and the hopelessness and fear that pervade its citizens’ lives.
“It’s not just the Kim Jong Il bouffant hairdo,” said Johnson … “When I sit down and talk to people about what I discovered about that place … people are horrified about the gulags and the starvation and things like that.” …
“The more dark realities started inhabiting me, and the more I started dreaming about these places, the more really frivolous a lot of my original interests seemed,” Johnson said. “I know it really sounds cheesy, but I did feel a duty to try to tell the stories of people who couldn’t speak for themselves.”
Possibly Johnson’s greatest challenge was trying to infiltrate the inner lives of characters in a country where self-censorship and blending in with the anonymous throng are essential for survival. …
Reading online translations of North Korea’s government-run paper Rodong Sinmun, Johnson said he came to see that in North Korea there is only one central character, Kim Jong Il, and before that his father, Kim Il Sung, “and then there are 23 million secondary characters.”
Given the dark and quirky nature of his stories, Johnson is not what one would expect. The inevitable first impression is massiveness – he’s an imposing 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds. But the former construction worker is also urbane, affable, mild-mannered.
Relaxing over his laptop and an iced coffee at the Stanford Bookstore café, Johnson reflects on what distinguishes him from many of his contemporaries: “I’m a maximalist,” he said contentedly. …
Clearly, Johnson is not afraid to whack his readers upside the head: “Why not have a spaceship come into the story? Why not?” To retell an age-old father-son story, Johnson suggested, “put them on an orbiting space station.” Or, better yet, tell the story through two raccoons, he said.