Adam Johnson on ‘The Orphan Master’s Son´

20 september 2014

_The Orphan Master’s Son_ is a 2012 novel by American author Adam Johnson. It deals with intertwined themes of propaganda, identity and state power in North Korea. The novel was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The two parts of the book are titled “The Biography of Jun Do,” and “The Confessions of Commander Ga.” Part 1 details Jun Do’s upbringing in a state orphanage and his service to the state, including as a kidnapper of Japanese citizens, and as a signal operator stationed on a fishing boat. He travels to America as part of a diplomatic delegation. Part 1 ends with Jun Do being taken to a prison mine because the trip to America was an unsuccessful mission.

Part 2 of the book begins with a chapter introducing the third narrator, an interrogator for the North Korean state, which has taken the national hero “Commander Ga” into custody. The interrogator compiles biographies of prisoners as a by-product of interrogation. He imagines someday his unit will be called “Division of Citizen Biographies.” Jun Do had assumed Commander Ga’s identity, and became the “replacement husband” of Sun Moon, a famous actress.

At first, Sun Moon forces him to live in a hole in the yard, but soon accepts him into the house to live with her and her children. Because of his experience in America, Jun Do is given a new assignment by the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il. Tensions rise between North Korea and America due to the U.S. seizing materials bound for North Korea related to nuclear development, and the retaliatory seizure of an American woman who tried to row a boat around the world. When an American delegation comes to Pyongyang to free her, Jun Do puts a desperate plan into motion.

Johnson was born in South Dakota and raised in Arizona. He earned a BA in Journalism from Arizona State University in 1992; an MFA from the writing program at McNeese State University, where he was a classmate of the writer Neil Connelly, in 1996; and a PhD in English from Florida State University in 2000.

Johnson is currently a San Francisco writer and associate professor in creative writing at Stanford University. He founded the Stanford Graphic Novel Project and was named “one of the nation’s most influential and imaginative college professors” by _Playboy Magazine_.

Johnson is the author of the novel _The Orphan Master’s Son_ (2012), which Michiko Kakutani, writing in _The New York Times_, has called, “a daring and remarkable novel, a novel that not only opens a frightening window on the mysterious kingdom of North Korea, but one that also excavates the very meaning of love and sacrifice.” Johnson’s interest in the topic arose from his sensitivity to the language of propaganda, wherever it occurs. Johnson also wrote the short-story collection _Emporium_ and the novel _Parasites Like Us_, which won a California Book Award in 2003.

Johnson’s work has been translated into French, Dutch, Japanese, Spanish, German, Italian, Hebrew, Polish, Portuguese, Catalan and Serbian and focuses on characters at the edge of society for whom isolation and disconnection are nearly permanent conditions. Michiko Kakutani described the central theme “running through his tales is also a melancholy melody of longing and loss: a Salingeresque sense of adolescent alienation and confusion, combined with an acute awareness of the randomness of life and the difficulty of making and sustaining connections.”

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