Book Club in the Time of Trump: The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
I think, perhaps, the best way to start talking about The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson is to say that this book fucked me right up. Just right on up, did this book fuck me. Johnson makes us feel things for protagonists that don’t even have names. It is no surprise this book won the Pulitzer in 2013.
I thought long and hard about picking this book for several reasons. I knew it was going to be difficult to read, for one. I even conned my mother into reading this one with me, and she shot through it quicker than I did, saying that it was keeping her up at night to leave it in unfinished. For another, it’s a novel by an American dude about North Korea, not a novel about North Korea by a North Korean. I’m going to go on the record and say that I firmly believe anyone can write anything when it comes to fiction, and that the burden of narratives on oppression should not fall solely on the shoulders of the oppressed (because that’s not fair). What it comes down to is the research—anyone can write anything at all with enough research. And hot damn, did Adam Johnson ever undertake the research process of a lifetime. Rarely can a Westerner visit, but Johnson did so. He also spent six years working on the book and gathering oral history from survivors and other interviewers. Lastly, there are narratives from survivors of North Korea, but fiction does something that eyewitness accounts cannot: Using the power of speculation, it paints a more complete portrait of what North Korea could look like. Remember, so few North Koreans have successfully defected, and most are from one region. The way it operates is such a mystery that fiction may be the only way to tackle it. By virtue of its American author, The Orphan Master’s Son explores the question of North Korea precisely from the point of view of American speculation, and it does so unapologetically and with little need for translation. As we are dealing with our own tyrannical leader, this perspective is valuable.
So onto the questions. Remember that these questions are jumping off points for discussion with your book club, and I answer them to get your brain going. Because this book is SO emotional, you may want to hand over the writing of other questions over to your group, or even begin with an emotional check in (as I did when I texted my mother at two in the morning, having just finished reading). A quick “how are you after this?” can help set the stage for approaching this book analytically.
And Now For Questions:
1. Did you find similarities between Johnson’s portrayal of the Dear Leader and the actual actions of President Trump as reported by respected media outlets both nationally and internationally? If so, what were they?
You may be able to tell from this question that I worry daily about whether or not our institutions are strong enough to withstand a narcissistic, tyrannical leader. I’m not sure if they are—but at the very least we still have media worth trusting in this country, and that’s one major difference between fictional Kim Jong Il and real-life President Trump. One still has the media to contend with, the other owns the media, too. While I made dozens of little notes on similarities throughout the book, one of my notes stands out. On page 424, I have TRUMP written in big letters, next to the following passage:
”What if he hands me a knife, what if it’s some kind of loyalty test?” Then her eyes went wide. “What if I’m given a knife and it’s not a test?”
”The Dear Leader’s not going to ask you to kill an American, in front of a senator.”
”You still don’t know him,” she said. “I’ve seen him do things, before my eyes, at parties, to friends, to enemies. It doesn’t matter. He can do anything, anything he wants.”
There are two things in this passage that strike me as very similar to President Trump—first, the obsession with loyalty. Would Trump ask someone to kill for him? I don’t know, I don’t know the guy. But he’s certainly had people grab the metaphorical knife before, or tried to make them. He’s famous for his loyalty hunger. I mean, just check out this article on Time’s website from this past May:
Senior officials walk through the building with funereal looks on their faces. Others complain that the White House is being "paralyzed" by the commotion. "He likes everyone always being on thin ice," explains one adviser of the President's management style.
For Trump, the learning curve at the White House has been steep. In 2014, Trump said the thing he looks for most in an employee is loyalty. And for decades that is what he demanded, dismissing advisers and executives whose commitment or capacity he came to doubt. But loyalty in business flows directly to the boss. In the federal government, allegiance is sworn to the Constitution, and evidence is growing that Trump does not understand the difference.
The other thing in that passage on page 424 that reminds me of our current political fiasco here in the United States is the very end, that seeming immunity for his cruel and unusual behavior. Nothing matters, he can do anything. We already know that Trump thinks that’s true (see: grab by the pussy comments, etc), but I’m long past starting to believe that it’s actually true. The man is a literal global disaster and Republicans are doing nothing about their party’s disgraceful President. That’s…unsettling.
Am I saying that President Trump is exactly like Kim Jong Il? No, for a couple reasons—I don’t want to cheapen the oppression of North Korean folks for one, and for secondsies, this is a work of fiction. But that fact that I made so many notes in my book comparing the President ofthe United States to one ofthe fictional villains on my Top 5 Most Stressful Fictional Villains list is…also unsettling.
2. What motifs did you pick out as you read through? What sorts of things did they suggest about the characters? About the political climate of North Korea? The political climate as speculated by the West?
There were so many—the dark, for instance. Dogs. Photographs of people’s faces. Parents and the act of becoming orphaned. One of Johnson’s strengths is the ability to weave these notes together and hit them in a reprise at just the right time. But I want to focus on one that I have not been able to forget: Johnson invokes the power of names and naming a lot in this book. Not one Protagonist retains the actual name he or she was given at birth. Pak Jun Do, our protagonist, is assigned the name of a martyr and later assigned the name of a Commander. Sun Moon retains a name given to her by The Dear Leader. We never know the name of the investigator who tells us much of the second half of the story. The sailors are denoted by their roles on the ship only. Even Comrade Buc, who shares a name with his twin, goes by a silly nickname. The only two folks in the whole book with control over their own names are Sun Moon’s children, who are allowed to decide if and when to reveal their names to Brand New Commander Ga.
It seems like what is being suggested about North Korea with this is that the concept of self is outward, rather than inward. Self can be put on like a costume—Jun Do takes over Commander Ga’s identity so completely that an entire city just pretends he is the old Commander Ga. Commander Ga’s best friend goes right along with it, doesn’t even blink an eye. But it goes farther than pretending—the loudspeaker narrator, for instance, tells the audience that Commander Ga in the story isn’t the real Commander Ga, but then goes on to say:
Out the window, light rain had begun to fall, and Commander Ga couldmake out an old woman in a shift, now nearly see-through, making her way through the upper branches of an oak tree, hunting down acorns, which all citizens know is forbidden until acorn-harvesting season is officially declared. Perhaps years of prison inspection had given the Commander a soft spot for our older citizens.
Even though the loudspeaker narrator has already admitted that this is not the real Commander Ga, even though the audience knows it, we still treat Commander Jun Do Ga as though he has, indeed, been inspecting prisons for years. Even though we are all certain that this isn’t the case. The loudspeaker is written and programmed by an entire propaganda team, which implies a certain level of care and copywriting; this is more than a simple confusion. This is an indicator of a difference of a concept of self in the culture as presented by Adam Johnson, and I think it also reveals an American anxiety: that people are interchangeable. We are a country of individualists to a fault—most don’t have an idea of what it means to be a citizen, what it means to truly love thy neighbor instead of just pretending that they do. This particular way of forming the self is especially spooky for American readers, I think.
3. What words or concepts did you have to look up to give yourself more context?
Most words and concepts I could get from contextual clues, but there’s one that I realized I still had no idea about, even as I was three quarters of the way through the book: Juche. So I Googled it. Here’s what I found:
Juche (Korean: 주체, lit. 'subject'; Korean pronunciation: tɕutɕʰe), usuallyleft untranslated, or translated as "self-reliance", is the official state ideology of North Korea, described by the government as Kim Il-sung's "original, brilliant and revolutionary contribution to national andinternationalthought". It says that an individual is "the master of his destiny", that the North Korean masses are to act as the "masters of the revolution and construction", and that by becoming a self-reliant and strong nation one can achieve true socialism.
It seems at odds in this world in which self is constructed so differently than we’d expect. And the concept of Juche is real, it’s not an Adam Johnson construction. Honestly, Juche is the word that made me feel like there is little difference between American Capitalist cruelty and North Korean Communist cruelty. The concept of total self-reliance is behind the cruel health care push we’re seeing right now. It’s behind discarding those struggling through the opiate epidemic. It’s a complete disregard for the individual while, at the same time, paying lip service to the cult of absolute individuality. The truth is, no one does this alone.
4. How will reading this book drive our real world actions and activism?
My first thought, of course, was the question: who is doing the work of helping people defect from North Korea? The ones I was reading about seemed to strongly encourage conversion to Christianity, which is not my jam. I don’t donate to any organization whose mission is partially conversion to a religion, any religion. A little research, though, and I found Liberty in North Korea, which uses a “free-passage model.” That means no cost or conditions. I’ll definitely be donating to this organization this Christmas in my mother’s name.
There’s a more abstract cause that I feel compelled to address as a result of this book and being who I am reading this book, and that’s the abolishment of the patriarchy and toxic masculinity. Dictatorships are the logical conclusion of a patriarchy, with the leader filling the role of father to all (and there’s defo some of that language going on in the book). And any time the men interact with each other, from the opera scene in which Commander Ga’s best friend punches him in the stomach and The Dear Leader sets up a very weird fighting exhibition to Commander Ga’s raping “man attack” tests, toxic masculinity is abound. I can’t help but think that one feeds the other—toxic masculinity isn’t just a hallmark of tyranny, it’s a cause.
5. When were you most scared while reading?
One passage haunts me, and it’s not a particularly gruesome one. It’s from the loudspeaker narrator, and it’s on page 289 in my edition:
…but it must be reminded that it was by Great Leader Kim Il Sung’s decree in 1973 that an air-raid warning system be installed across this nation, and a properly functioning early-warning network is of supreme importance. The Inuit people are a tribe of isolated savages that live near the North Pole. Their boots are called mukluk. Ask your neighbor later today, what is a mukluk? If he does not know, perhaps there is a malfunction with his loudspeaker, or perhaps it has for some reason become accidentally disconnected. By reporting this, you could be saving his life the next time the Americans sneak-attack our great nation.
This is all my worst fears rolled into one passage—the turning of neighbors against each other at the behest of an authoritarian government such that one’s own house isn’t even safe. And in a place where, as in the universe of the novel, the inner self is so subsumed by the outer self, that’s extra terrifying. Your circumstances determine your inner life, and so you are never free. Brb, let me go get a good cry on.
I can also tell you when I was most relieved, which seems like a good note to end on. It was page 335:
I found the phone, its green light flashing. On the tiny screen was a new picture: a Korean boy and a Korean girl stood half-stunned, half-smiling againsta sunny blue sky. They wore black caps with ears that made them look like mice.
I was alone in my bed room. It was past midnight. And I let out a sigh to the surrounding dark and said in a whisper, “Oh thank God.”
September’s Book: Flying Couch by Amy Kurzweil
We don’t have an August book as I’ll be in Iceland and Scotland with my wife! But I wanted to let you all get ahead on September’s book, Flying Couch. Kurzweil writes and draws a multi generational memoir that reckons with what it means to be a family and what it means to survive. From Amy’s website:
The book weaves my own coming-of-age through my grandmother’s story. At thirteen years old, Bubbe (as I call her) escaped the Warsaw Ghetto alone, by disguising herself as a gentile. My mother taught me: our memories and our families shape who we become. What does it means to be part of a family, and how does each generation bear the imprint of the past, its traumas and its gifts?
See you in September!
A.E. Osworth is Geekery Editor at Autostraddle, Managing Editor at Barnard Center for Research On Women’s Scholar and Feminist Online, and Part-Time Faculty at The New School, where she teaches digital storytelling. She’s writing a novel about GamerGate, which is really depressing. Follow her on Twitter or on Instagram.