Thursday, August 30, 2012

Adam Johnson, "The Orphan Master's Son", Trib Nation August 29, 2012


Adam Johnson
Griffin and I went to an author talk last night put on by Trib Nation -- another great event!  It was my first time entering the Trib Towers and I loved them!  Very cool architecture and adorning the inside were reminders of why newspapers (and the media) are so important.

The crowd was sparse so I got to meet some of the organizers of the event which was probably the highlight for me.  Hopefully some volunteer opportunities are in my future. :)

The author, Adam Johnson, was really likeable and wonderful.  He's a creative writing professor at Stanford, very soft spoken, and very considerate.  I loved the approach that he had - a genuine interest in North Korea and it's citizens and a sympathetic view of their condition.

Here are a few shots from the talk and then the notes (after the break).  (I wish I could find some of my old pictures from the DMZ to post up here!)

Walking over to the talk we strolled through Grant Park.  It was a beautiful night.

Preparing to take notes



"For Natalie, Know that you'll be welcome in my Juche Brigade any day.  Also know that you have the highest Songbun.  Yours, Adam Johnson"  -- the highest Songbun should serve me well if I ever find myself in Pyongyang :)


1.     Introduction by Elizabeth Taylor
a.     Testament to the imagination and where it can take us.  Johnson brings us to N.Korea where people aren’t allowed to tell their stories thereby making fiction necessary. 
2.     Adam Johnson – soft spoken
3.     Michael Lev – had spent time in Japan as a foreign correspondent and finally made it in to NK when Madeline Albright made a trip there.
a.     Adventure, romance, dystopian
b.     Surprised and delighted that someone had taken up NKorea as a topic.  Also makes perfect sense to blend research and imagination. 
4.     AJ
a.     Few portraits of NK because very few things can be confirmed/denied about the place
b.     People told him he’s crazy.  Friend said “you’ve got to get tenure!”
c.      Had been reading the stories of NKoreans.  (people who escaped). 
d.     When you read the stories of defectors, everyone talks about getting to a place like Sophie’s Choice.  We look at the defectors as heroes and freedom fighters.  When someone makes it out, everyone they left behind pays. 
5.     Insight into germination process.  Were you looking for a book?  Did you know you wanted to explore these themes and realized NK would be the avenue?
a.     If literature plays a place in your life, it’s worth thinking about NK.  A nation that hasn’t had its voice in a century. 
                                               i.     Japan made Japanese the official language of Korea
                                              ii.     Couldn’t play Korean instruments
                                            iii.     Couldn’t be poetic.
b.     We don’t have evidence of a single book that explores the human condition, that holds up a mirror to society making it out of NK in 60 years.  There may be an underground lit scene – we just don’t have proof of it. 
c.      Started by generally reading a couple of books about NK.
d.     What if I was born in NK?  Would I write propaganda or would I chart my own path?  “I’m a father.  Of course I would write those propaganda books”
6.     Further intent to make sense of the place?  Any political motivation?
a.     If I had a family there, would I inform on other people?  The truth is, everyone has to inform. They understand that other people are trapped in the same situation.  If I was a parent and had kids in NK, would I share my suspicions w/them that everything was a lie?  It would bond them.  But also send them down a path of criticism, scrutiny, and suspicion. 
b.     Hope the book invites readers to grapple w/these issues as well.
7.     Michael Lev – North Korea is the most tragic place in the world – it invites suspicion because it is so otherworldly.  Stories were speculative.  Had a political phone number to Pyongyang.  Tried conning his way into the place.  Every time he sent a fax and it connected, just 0’s on the screen “how appropriate”.  Got his chance when Madeline Albright was there.  Posters glorifying the “dear leader”.  Totally staged.  Buildings looked like they had people in them.  How did you do your reporting?
a.     I love research.  Thrilled by investigating the sources.  Wrote the book pretty much all from his home in California.  It’s amazing what you can find on youtube and flickr.  The testimonials of the defectors had just come online in 2004 (The Hidden Gulag – free kindle book) – first person to geotag places in NK based on defector’s stories
b.     Camp 15 – has 50,000 people in it.  One of the two big family prisons.  There is no crime in NK so it’s a political prison.  Everyone goes and works until they die.  Right now, it’s dawn in NK.  And they’re all getting up and going to work. 
c.      Met an orphan from NK.  He told AJ what it was like to be an orphan in NK. 
d.     Reading about people who make it out of the gulag, out of NK, and then out of China (repatriation agreement between China and NK). 
e.     So many people are involuntary “slaves” in China because of this.
f.      In the end, couldn’t put the gulag material in the book because it was too dark.
8.     Quick distillation
a.     When you pull things away from NK, they seem bizarre.  When you’re in NK, it all makes sense and is very clear. Speaking on a secondary level of meaning is dangerous there.  Nobody does it.  Everyone is literal.  Could compliment something in an ironic way that his co-travelers would understand but the NK’s would not understand.
b.     The farther you get from the capital, the more wild it is, less commodities, more likely to starve, more likely to die.  More mountainous.
c.      In Pyongyang, you’re an elite.  You’ll get a real education instead of indoctrination.  Will have a real meaningful job in the bureaucracy.    People don’t defect from Pyongyang.  They’re not going to die.  People defect from the countryside where they’re in serious peril.   2900 people defected in 2010 and made it to South Korea. 
d.     How many calories they eat / who do they live with? / how do they live?
e.     Famine started by series of floods that cut Chongjin off from the rest of the country
f.      Orphans have no advocates – in the most dangerous place in NK.
g.     Barbara Demick was reporting for the LATimes – got a lot of information from her.
h.     As book progresses, you move closer and closer to Pyongyang.
i.       Everyone must do 10 years of mandatory military service
j.       NKoreans do a lot of kidnapping – from Japan, Philippines, South Korea, Burma.  They’re just so isolated.  The only way they can find out about the outside world is to steal people and take them to Pyongyang. 
k.     Fishing boats used for illicit means – to transport weapons, make meth, opium, heroin, best counterfeiters in the world (we changed our $100 bill because NKs had “absolutely mastered it”)
l.       Found 6 tunnels at DMZ to move 10,000 men an hour (to invade SK)
m.   Made the character do all of these things because AJ was interested in it.
n.     Some of Kim Jong Il’s employees defected
9.     You just can’t believe what a crazy place this is.  He was quizzing a NKorean about their view of the world.  Asked what they knew about Americans – they knew about JP Morgan (the person), Rockefeller, etc.  Clear they were reading an old encyclopedia. 
10. There’s a markup of the US space shuttle in Pyongyang and is painted like N.Korea.  They seem to believe they have a functioning space agency and that they have satellites circling. 
11. What was the trip like?
a.     Had written almost half of the book by then.  Knew what he wanted to see very specifically
b.     Met a professor who had good relations with the North – NK ambassador to the UN.  Prof really intrigued that AJ was doing this project.  Prof had sponsored an orphanage in the south and had planted an apple orchard in the north to stave off hunger. 
c.      AJ went as his business partner.  Eyes were off him.  Everyone loved this professor. 
d.     Stayed in a hotel on an island.  To get on island, you need a pass.  To get off, you need a minder.  French built hotel in 1985 and they never paid them.  When you’re on the island, you can wander around. 
e.     Open the country up a couple of times each year for foreigners. – turn on all the lights
f.      Took a picture of a diorama – a man ran out of nowhere, flipped a switch and fountain came on.  Took the pic. Guy flipped it off, and ran away again.
g.     North convinced themselves that they were going to share the 1988 Olympics with S Korea.  Built all of these Olympic venues that were obviously never used.
h.     Even in the height of tourist season.  There were enough people in the hotel to employ the 31st floor and the 6th floor only.  One night went to the top of the hotel (illegal to interact with a citizen as a foreigner.  They’d be in serious trouble).  All of the employees were on contract from China.  Top floor, tried to sell him a shot of Jack Daniels for 45 euros.  Had pretty good beer.  Astroturf.  One sad, dirty fish tank.  Nothing in the elevator shaft.  Walked down to the 46th floor (from the top – 47 floor).  On the 46th floor – could see they’d been cannibalizing the floor to keep up the appearances of the 47th floor.  Rooms w/doors off, wallpaper scraped.  Went through three floors of that before he was too creeped out.    
12. All reporters wanted to outmaneuver their minder.  Lev dragged his minder to a department store.  More like a museum devoted to be an old department store.  Manual typewriters, umbrellas, very colorful baby carriages (they don’t even use baby carriages – they carry their babies) – it was all a set.
13. Volunteering for the harvest. (a reading)
a.     No other vehicles on the roads
b.     AJ’s trip was his chance to get all of the details he could get.  Were there cracks on the sidewalks?  Trash cans?  What did it smell like? 
c.      Factory built in 1956 – make a truck from 1958.  They can keep the factories going but not modernize them.  So in 2012, they’re building brand new trucks from 1956.
d.     Famous refrigerator factory that makes soviet fridges from 1963.
e.     His minders were new.  4 tourists, 5 minders.  Main one was very sophisticated, bright.  Liked her.  The others, he wasn’t so hot on.
f.      Waiting to see his first vehicle.  Was a dump truck.  Heading north from the capital and as it went, could see that it was filled with people.  Approx 36 people.  Saw a man in a sport coat made out of a mineral similar to fiberglass (proud of how long they last).  Woman wearing a lab coat – hair whipping in the wind – staring off into the horizon.  They were volunteering to help with the harvest.  “Everyone must volunteer”.  (and absolutely no hint of irony).
g.     Where are all the mailboxes? “Oh we have the best mail system in the world”.  “How does it work?” “It’s the best in the world”
h.     Where are the fire stations? – “We haven’t had a fire in Pyongyang in 10 years”
i.       They’d get very upset by these small questions
j.       Every woman wore the same color lipstick – creepy.  Asked her what the name of the shade was and the minder looked so ticked.
k.     When asked where the handicap people were, the fun was over. 
14. Audience questions.  Hard not to giggle but it’s real.  Poignant part of the book – guy goes to Texas, falls in love with leather boots.  Girlfriend loved the boots, they were so excited to buy them but couldn’t do it because of some façade.
a.     NK always do things in pairs so they can watch one another.
b.     Talking to SK ambassador a month ago and he said when NK would come to NY to meet with the UN, they had a certain amount of counterfeit $100 bills they had to get rid of, and a certain amount of real currency they had to come home with.  Super dangerous but they had a certain amount they had to get rid of and come back with.
c.      Americans have a sense of our own narrative.  We have a sense that we’re the primary character in our lives (DFW!) – our jobs are to look inward, find our motivations, move forward to the best possible completion.  Confront obstacles, engage in conflict, overcome setbacks, look to the past to muster what we can to complete ourselves and to discover meaning, understanding, wisdom, and who we truly are.  In NK it’s the opposite – there’s one character – it was Kim Jon Il (now his son) and 24M secondary characters.  When you’re a child in NK, they come in, give you a test to ascertain your strengths and the results of that test determine your future.  Looking inward would only confuse you.  Looking to the past is usually not happy.  Looking to the future and possibilities is almost non-existent.  Try to explain what the word “freedom” is.  We take it for granted.  But they have to learn the meanings of those things.  Hard for us to wrap our heads around their reality.  They live in a reality where true and false are fused.  To us it’s unthinkable. 
d.     When Kim Jon Il died – spontaneous bark carving to show that nature feels in accordance with the feeling of the nation.  (They believed the trees had carved their own bark to show their grief over the loss of the dear leader). 
e.     Laughing is as close as we can come to making sense of it.  The absurdity is so intense
15. Level of science in NK.  How do they proceed with education?
a.     Did all of his research from CA
b.     Talked to some people
c.      Read everything he could find online
d.     AJ is pretty suspicious of people who purport to be experts on NK.  Most of his research ended with more questions. 
e.     Going there and not being able to talk to a human being was strange. 
f.      They show the famous show hospital.  They have a mammography machine from the 80s that they boast of.  They don’t have the instrumentation to employ.  When Kim Jong Il had his stroke, they flew a team in from France.  You can’t confirm anyone’s story because there’s no corroborating evidence. 
g.     Keep brown bottles from beer and they keep them sterile.  The bottles mouths happen to fit the IV tubes.  Take them with them to the hospital if they need a procedure.  No anesthesia. 
16. Appreciate the responsibility because there are few words to describe.  Anxiety issues with writing a story set in NK.  The danger of exoticising, over-simplifying, etc.
a.     No way for him to know if he could get it right.
b.     Won’t know about it until they’re able to tell they’re own stories.  “that’s when I’ll know if I got it right”.  Assumes his is wrong in some ways.
c.      Had read the Aquariums of PyongYang – memoir of someone who lived in a gulag.
d.     Had been working on an “important book” but couldn’t shake the North Korea fascination
e.     Trauma narratives
f.      Dawned on him after about a year of research that this was his book
                                               i.     Who was he to do this? 
g.     It was difficult to write about things he has no experience with
h.     Turned to Cambodia
i.       Anytime you write outside of your own experience, trespass is inherent.
17. How did you feel about Kim Jong Il as a character
a.     KJI was obsessed with the Iron Chef – would watch it on VHS tapes. 
b.     Love of water parks
c.      Water skiis
d.     All night Cognac parties
e.     Was it fun
                                               i.     In the American media, KJI was seen as a buffoon, madman, evil monster.  There is no more deeper portrait of him.
                                              ii.     Goal – to humanize one person in NKorea.  That absurdity detracted greatly.
                                            iii.     Nation worked by a great script – a singular script. 
                                            iv.     In a place that you have absolute total power, you are responsible for every single life under you. 
                                              v.     Had to humanize him – find his wit, strengths, and weaknesses and bring him to life. 
18. Academics / Diplomats from Pyongyang – do they know?  How do they feel going to other countries?
a.     We know least about Pyongyang.
b.     Saw cell phone towers in 2007 – minder said “they’re not cell phone towers.”
c.      Japanese company who owns the towers said they had their 1 millionth subscriber recently.  That’s 1/3 of people (in Pyongyang?).  Do they have the internet?  Can they text?  Can they make international calls? 
d.     In NK, your entire life is determined by your loyalty rating.  If you have bad “sungbun”, you’re going to live out in the country.  If you get caught doing something bad (listening to SK radio), the worst can happen.  If you live in Pyongyang and you have high loyalty rating and you listen to radio, it’s a slap on the wrist or a month in the labor camp.  Depends on who you are and where you live that determines your reality.
e.     One DHL truck.  What were the packages?!  Where were they from?!
19. Connection between this book and 1984 or Brave New World?
a.     Dystopian books are imaginary.  But North Korea is “right there”.  It’s a place where the humorous and the absurd and the dark and the tragic are one in a way that I don’t see anywhere else.
b.     Story of Charles Robert Jenkins (an American) stationed on the DMZ, drank 10 beers, became one of the few humans to cross the DMZ and make it back alive.  Between 3 and 15 million landmines there (our nation won’t tell us the answer) – we won’t sign the global landmine treaty because of them.
                                               i.     When they discovered his tattoos, they removed them
                                              ii.     Captured him for 5 years
                                            iii.     Sent him to Pyongyang for language school
                                            iv.     2 years taught English to children
                                              v.     He was from N. Carolina – so was teaching them all English with a deep southern accent.
                                            vi.     He encountered Kim Jong Il
                                           vii.     Became despondent
                                         viii.     Arranged a marriage to a woman who had been a kidnap victim from Japan.  (Couldn’t marry a NK because it would ruin their bloodline).  They had 2 children
                                            ix.     In 2003, the wife was allowed to visit her family – of course they never came back. 
c.      “I didn’t make up that much stuff.” – AJ.
20. What we think might happen in their future w/the new leader
a.     Durable regime. 
b.     Can it be allowed to continue?
c.      Will young new leader change his mind?
d.     Don’t ever underestimate the NKs ability to endure pain.  They’re very very good at it.
e.     It would be so complex and expensive to deal with reunification. 
f.      Some people think China likes the attention NK takes (“they’re the human rights bad guys”)
g.     The south couldn’t handle reunification very well
h.     Some people thought Arab spring might kickstart something in NK.  Most people who could do that defect instead.  
i.       Clear that there’s one narrative in that nation.  And there always has been.  And the people know nothing else besides the Kim regime. 
j.       There’s no platform by which anyone can say “oh that didn’t work out – here’s another idea”
k.     Indoctrination.
l.       When they get out, they realize their education is useless and nobody cares.
m.   Entire life they’ve been taught to never revel their true feelings.  So if you ask them “how’s it going?” – it’s insulting and rude.

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