Adam Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2012 novel 'The Orphan Master’s Son.' In this interview, he talks about his novel, his process of research, and the relationship between fiction and reality
How do you feel about attending this year's DLF? Is this your first visit to Bangladesh?
Yes it is. Dhaka is a very beautiful city, and I love this literary festival. I think it’s a great resource to bring communities together to put an emphasis on speech, truth, and voices. I am honoured to be a part of it.
Let’s talk about your book, The Orphan Master’s Son. It’s set in North Korea, and explores the deeply disturbing aspects of the hermit kingdom. What inspired you to write this novel?
Well, I will say that I began as a reader. I was curious about North Korea, the most voiceless and repressive place in the world. Maybe there are other places that are more dangerous physically, emotionally, and psychologically, but I think North Korea is the most dangerous place in the world to be a human being—to have a full identity. But as a reader, I discovered that it was very hard to find portraits, because North Koreans are not allowed to write books. The people who escaped North Korea are not in a position to tell a story immediately. So I started wondering if I could lend my voices somewhat.
You stayed in North Korea for five days at one point. How did you get the opportunity to visit such a closed state?
It’s a state that functions on how they need money. And they make money by tourism. They intend to not let writers in. If they had googled me, they would’ve found that I am a writer. I believe the visit is so sanitised that nothing negative can be seen about the regime. But of course, that’s not true at all.
You have done a lot of research on North Korean culture – your book has references from the Korean folk song Arirang to the local variation of alcohol. How long did it take to write this book and what was the process of research like?
I began writing as a journalist. I have a degree in journalism and I do love to interview, to research, and to get a portrait right. I’m not from Korea, so there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with writing about a culture that’s not your own. These are people who have suffered famine, repression and gulags, but there were only a few long form portraits that I could do on my own. But I loved doing the research. Meeting people who had these experiences changed me personally, and they also changed the shape of my book. The first Korean I met during my research had been an orphan in North Korea. He told me what his experiences were like and I knew I had to use my voice to portray them.
You also read a lot of online portraits of defectors, I believe?
That’s right. I read stories that were being put out by Christian missionaries, NGO workers and aid workers—raw portraits on the Internet. But it took me a while before I could convince North Koreans to trust me to tell their stories. It was after the book came out that I met most North Koreans.
There is a sentence in your novel: “The darkness inside your head is something your imagination fills with stories that have nothing to do with the real darkness around you.” How much difference do you see between the world of stories or imagination and the world we see around us?
One of the aspects of writing a novel is it has to be real. There can be incredible nonfiction, but a novel must be believable. There’s a lot of darkness about North Korea that I had to leave out of the book—the true darkness of the gulags and some of the insanity of the regime, because it would make the book less believable. But to answer your question, I think human beings are made of narratives. In our mind, we have the power of writing fiction all the time. We imagine scenarios like what will happen at work tomorrow or what will happen on these specific dates. And personally, it’s very easy for me to imagine darker things, and to imagine things that have already happened.
Have you read any book by a Bangladeshi author?
No, but I’m discovering some Bangladeshi writers here, and it’s great to be in conversation with them.