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Reader’s Guide: THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON by Adam Johnson

Monday, May 20th, 2013

Orphan Master's Son with Pulitzer Burst “All of these elements—stylistic panache, technical daring, moral weight and an uncanny sense of the current moment—combine in Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, the single best work of fiction published in 2012. . . . The book’s cunning, flair and pathos are testaments to the still-formidable power of the written word.” —The Wall Street Journal

Adam Johnson, recent recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, sits down with his editor, David Ebershoff, for a Q&A about The Orphan Master’s Son.

As an added bonus, we also have discussion questions (below) to help get you and your book club’s discussion started!

Want more? Be sure to check out the RHRC extra materials in the back of your copy of The Orphan Master’s Son. Also, we’d love to know your thoughts-share with us on Facebook and Twitter.

A Conversation Between Adam Johnson and David Ebershoff

David Ebershoff: Let’s start with Jun Do, your protagonist. Of the one million and one creative decisions you made when writing this book, he was probably your most important. It’s one thing to think about North
Korea as a subject for a novel, but of course countries and political structures are never really the subjects of good fiction—people are. How did you settle on Jun Do as your guide—and ours—through this frightmare of a world?

Adam Johnson: Much is written about the political, military, and economic aspects of the DPRK, but it was always the personal dimension that interested me. I wondered how families huddled under such repression and how people maintained their identities against the tide of propaganda, and whether lovers, despite the dangers, shared their intimate thoughts. So, from the beginning, my goal in this book was to create a single character that felt fully human to me. I should probably say “capture” as much as “create,” because I used so much research to build the story. The first person I interviewed for the book had been an orphan from the North, and the desperation and sadness of his experience steeped the book’s opening. All the stories of defectors fascinated me, and whether they worked at canning factories or on fi shing boats, they all shared common experiences of mandatory military service, the famine years, loved ones disappearing, and brutality from the state. In a world where expression is measured and spontaneity is dangerous, it was especially important to find moments of intimacy and humor and surprise. Jun Do grew out of this research. As the book opens, he’s an everyman, a character who does what he’s told when he’s told, however grim the task, and he doesn’t ask questions. But by listening to foreign broadcasts and through a chance encounter with American sailors, spontaneity and possibility enter Jun Do’s life. From that point on, he decides to act on his own needs and desires, which will bring him into conflict with every aspect of his society.

DE: I think the first time you break my heart in this book—and you break it many times—is within the first few pages when the reader realizes that Jun Do, who is proud to be the only kid at the orphanage with a parent, is also an orphan. In real life, an orphan’s story can be so overwhelmingly sad that we sometimes see him or her only with pity, rather than with complexity. And yet on the page orphans draw us in, as both readers and writers. Why do you think that is?

AJ: Yes, in real life, our hearts extend. I’d never written about an orphan before, and I was struck by Jun Do’s resilience and inquisitiveness. In fiction, a character like this is a blank slate, one without advocates or champions, a person for whom even the basic notions of love and bonding come as big discoveries. And, of course, in North Korea your primary relationship is with the state. Your loyalties must lie with the regime first and your family second, which makes an orphan of everyone to some degree, and the Kim regime the true orphan master.

DE: Yes, the blank slate of the orphan gives the writer a sort of freedom, I think. When I see someone interesting on the subway—the lady with her new Bible, or the delivery guy holding down a dozen Mylar balloons— my mind goes in two different directions. Where are they coming from? And where are they going? Often the second question is what drives a novel forward. But the first question can also be a source of a novel’s depth. With a character who is an orphan, who will never know his family’s true story, the first question will take you only so far, perhaps. Speaking of which, I’ve seen your pictures of the Pyongyang subway. There are no Mylar balloons and definitely no Bibles. When you went to North Korea you had been working on the book for a few years already. You’d been reading and thinking about it for a long time. What most surprised you when you saw it for yourself?

AJ: Actually, the use of balloons is a common tactic of getting information and miniature Bibles to the citizens in the North. The balloons are large, usually the size of a beach ball, and they’re released south of the DMZ to float north with precious items like wool socks attached, things so rare that North Koreans take great risks to track the balloons down, and this is where they discover pro religious material or antiregime material attached. I had been working on The Orphan Master’s Son for a couple years before I finally found a path to Pyongyang. Few people get a chance to travel there, and my minders—bright, funny, interesting people—did not know what to make of me. Because I was deep into the novel, I knew the sites I wanted to visit, and my minders were thrilled when I asked to view monuments of great national pride like the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery (which figures prominently in the book) or the hothouses where the national flowers kimjongilia and kimilsungia are bred. But when I showed interest in visiting an outdated amusement park, I was met with great suspicion. It didn’t help that I asked why there were no disabled people in the capital, where the fire stations were located, and how did the mail get delivered without mailboxes. When I observed that all the women in Pyongyang wore the same shade of lipstick, it was kind of the last straw. The truly shocking, scary things I noted in Pyongyang I put right into the book: a dump truck filled with “volunteers” headed to the country side, a family scrambling to steal chestnuts from a public park, shock-work whistles, chrome Kalashnikovs, and a night watchman sitting up all night to guard the carp in the fishponds.

DE: Did you get to talk to anyone outside the orchestrated tour?

AJ: That’s a good question. Actually, it’s illegal for a citizen of the DPRK to interact with a foreigner. All the people I met had been through special training to handle American visitors. So there wasn’t room for a genuine interaction. Walking the streets of the capital through crowds of Pyongyangites heading to their destinations, I felt a powerful urge to talk to them, to hear their stories, but that wasn’t possible, so I had to bring their stories to life through fiction.

DE: I wonder if you glimpsed, if even through a car window, anyone experiencing something that might be described as joy. Not joy about the political realities, of course, but just a simple joy like walking with a friend or pausing to feel a breeze.

1. How much did you know about North Korea before reading The Orphan Master’s Son? How has it changed your perspective on life there?

2. The Orphan Master’s Son has been characterized as a thriller, a love story, and a political dystopia. How would you classify the novel in terms of genre? How do you think each of these genres manifests itself
in the book?

3. Speaking of genre, Adam Johnson once categorized the novel as a “trauma narrative.” How do you interpret that term? Do you think it suitably describes the novel, and if so, in what ways?

4. How did you feel about the inclusion of Kim Jong Il as a central character in the book? How would you say Johnson depicts him? Were you surprised by his portrayal?

5. Discuss the differences between the fi rst part of the novel, “The Biography of Jun Do,” and the second, “The Confessions of Commander Ga.”

6. How do the propaganda chapters, written as if spoken from a loudspeaker, play into your reading of the novel?

7. What do you feel the first-person narrative contributed to the story? Did you feel more or less removed from a world so closely guarded?

8. Reviewers have drawn comparisons between The Orphan Master’s Son and classic dystopian novels such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. Are these apt comparisons? Does Johnson’s fiction, which is based on fact, have a different impact from that of novels which center on invented worlds?

9. At one point, Dr. Song says to Jun Do, “Where we are from, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in confl ict, it is the man who must change.” What does this mean in the context of the novel?

10. In one of the most poignant and powerful moments in the book, one of the interrogators remembers the way in which his father explained life in North Korea: “Even if we walked this path side by side, he said, we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside, we would be holding hands.” What does the quote imply about the reality of living in
such a repressive society? How does it speak to humanness in the face of inhumanity?

11. Discuss the significance of “Jun Do” as a homonym for “John Doe,” the Western name for the unnamed and the everyman.

12. Discuss Jun Do’s physical and emotional journey, and his transformation from the beginning of the novel to the end.

13. One critic described The Orphan Master’s Son as “darkly comedic,” and another as, at times, “ridiculously funny.” How do you feel about the use of comedy in conjunction with the brutality of the novel?

14. How should the rest of the world respond to the violence and tyranny of present-day North Korea? Do we have a moral obligation to intervene? What can we do to help the people of North Korea without supporting its government?

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