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Novelist Holds A Mirror to North Korea

Johnson speaks in Walnut Creek library series.

Adam Johnson gave a Walnut Creek audience a glimpse into the world's most mysterious dictatorship Monday night — a little bit of the big glimpse he gives readers in his novel The Orphan Master's Son.

The author, a Stanford professor who lives in San Francisco, spoke as part of the 'Live! from the Library' series at the downtown library on North Broadway. A hundred people attended the reading and discussion.

Johnson read a passage in which a North Korean who works as an interrogator hurries home to fix meals for his elderly parents. The parents are paranoid that the son might report them to the government.

Johnson said he studied nonfiction about North Korea, and You Tube videos, to research the book. He read memoirs about prisons where people work until they die. Very few nonfiction accounts "retain the human dimension," Johnson said, and that was his goal in the novel.

Portraits are making it out from defectors. Last year, 6,344 people from North Korea made it out to South Korea, which has a systematic program to debrief them, treat them medically and give a introductory course of many weeks in the customs of the modern world, Johnson said.

After spending the first half of the 20th century as a pawn between Japan, China and Mongolia, North Korea has remained an isolated Communist hermit society in which individual choice is a foreign concept, Johnson said: "Freedom is an abstraction they can't get a handle on."

Literary freedom is a distant memory. "No one has written a literary novel in 60 years," Johnson said. The idea of plumbing the depths of personality, of holding a mirror to society, doesn't arise in North Korea. "No one has read a book that's not propaganda for 60 years," he said.

Felix Abt March 08, 2012 at 04:09 AM
"No one has read a book that's not propaganda for 60 years," novelist Adam Johnson claims about North Korea. This is clearly not true as members of my staff and many other North Koreans I met during my 7 years in North Korea had read foreign books (some were even able to recite passages) and watched foreign movies from "Gone with the wind" to "Titanic", even at their universities. Also, I did not get the impression that everybody in North Korea is as paranoid as Professor Johnson makes readers believe. The author with his poor North Korea knowledge seems to make his fiction non-fictional.
Felix Abt March 08, 2012 at 05:50 AM
James Church, another North Korea book author, but definitely better informed than Adam Johnson, writes about Johnson's book 'The Orphan Master's Son': "For some reason someone decided somewhere along the line to sell the book as a window into North Korea. That, decidedly, it is not. There are a number of howlers in The Orphan Master’s Son and in the author’s discussion of North Korea in his interviews and public appearances. Taken together, they suggest that the prism of a particular, and perhaps not very well informed perspective has bent the “reality” the book seeks to portray." His complete book critique can be read here: http://tinyurl.com/7l5jhtq

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