Sundays In: The Orphan Master’s Son

Ashamedly I’ll admit there was an uphill battle here at the start. The simple answer is that a sort of xenophobia stemming from ignorance and politics stood in my way to pick up Adam Johnson‘s new novel The Orphan Master’s Son. North Korea is not what I consider prime real estate for setting fiction.

The Democratic People’s Republic has a reputation for altering its own facts, biographies, and history, making anything less than the most determined research that of dubious quality. You thought the Jonah Lehrer scandal was bad; from what I can tell, North Korean government perpetuates a history in which South Korea lost the war, Kim Jong-Il was the savior of humanity, and Korea acted as the original cradle of civilization. So for an American writer like Adam Johnson (Parasites Like Us) to get any straight answers about life in North Korea from the source (to which he did in fact traveled for extensive research) seemed, well…unlikely.

Which brings me to probably the greatest roadblock for me: Adam Johnson is, in fact, American.

I studied English in college. One thing we discussed at length was narrative power dynamics: race, gender, orientation, creed, nationality, etc. The question always became, who speaks for whom and why? When studying Western literature, we can see how power often bends documentation in favor of straight, white, rich men, and thus we may critique the perpetuation of stereotypes when white writers wrote non-white characters, straight males wrote female and queer characters. So as I read (actually, devoured) The Orphan Master’s Son, there was a question of Johnson’s authority niggling in the back of my mind. How does power play a role behind this lucid and gripping novel?

Of late we are hearing more and more defectors’ stories, true accounts of escapees from North Korean dictatorship, and Barbara Demick’s collection of them, Nothing to Envy, provides a journalistic, harrowing, and elucidating picture of what society is like. Books like Escape from Camp 14 and Long Road Home also spare few details.

What we seem to be missing, however, is the North Koreans’ creative voice. Surely South Korea’s lauded author Kyung-sook Shin‘s first novel translated into English, Please Look After Mom, lends itself well to the conversation, but of her siblings to the North… Silenced of anything but that which flatters the ruling regime, there is little art being created there today—fiction, poetry, music, cinema—that doesn’t resemble government propaganda. In effect, North Korea has long been a place disallowed to speak for itself, tell its own stories without being censored or destroyed.

A cursory analysis of the power dynamics at play yields little motive for an American author to attempt anything but a holistic picture of North Korean citizenship; we’re already aware of the sanitized utopia official North Korean media purports. It becomes clear to anyone who glances this direction that it is not Adam Johnson’s voice perpetuating a distorted picture of North Korea, but North Korea’s itself.

And here is where I believe Adam Johnson’s intensely riveting book achieves success: It is itself a faux biography, which follows one character from poverty to the highest levels of government espionage, supposedly written by another government agent. The biography scripting process comes under scrutiny at a variety of intersections, and it is resolved that in Korean society the story about a citizen bears greater consequence than the citizen himself. Identity is fluid in order to match the provided narrative, contrasted with more Western ideals in which a person determines their own story.

In a country where the dictatorial voice that simultaneously silences, speaks for, and determines its citizens’ identities, perhaps the first rumblings of an avalanche of artistic expression must come from outside their self-contained system. Navigating the ongoing rabbit hole that is North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son served me by widening the conduit for storytelling and extending a personal touch, compassion, to its North Korean characters their government does not appear to afford them. Where truth is not told, often literature fills the void, and Adam Johnson offers a hint at what might be coming as more North Koreans begin to tell the world their own stories, sing their own poetry, and combat their government’s lies with the people’s fiction.

“Sundays In” is a new bi-weekly column written as the experiences of one reader to another. While much of the week might be filled with work and errands, there might just be one afternoon to enjoy the pleasure of reading. For this bookseller, “Sunday” is Thursday.

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