The burst of rave reviews directed at The Orphan Master’s Son is just the beginning. It seems almost certain that by this time next year, author Adam Johnson will be in the running for some major literary awards.
An associate professor in creative writing at Stanford University, Johnson took the tour package to the Hermit Kingdom in 2007 and then continued doing research. After also reading a few bellwether non-fiction books including Barbara Demick‘s Nothing to Envy, he crafted a very clever inside-NK narrative. His new book is split into two sections, one sharing the titular peasant’s point of view and the other as seen from the small, privileged class end of things.
In an LA Times profile piece, the San Francisco-based Johnson explained a fascinating discovery he made during the writing of his second novel:
The author soon realized that the master narratives of Western literature–that each of us is the central character in a unique private drama, overcoming obstacles as we strive toward self-realization—had little bearing on people who can’t be the authors of their own life stories, which are largely dictated by the state… 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.”
In so doing, Johnson has joined James Church, the former intelligence operative turned author of the Inspector O mystery novel series, as one of the very few Westerners to have captured what it’s truly like on the wrong side of the DMZ tracks.