After 2012's odd omission of a Fiction winner, this year's Pulitzer Prizes delivered on all fronts: Nonfiction to Gilbert King for Devil in the Grove, History to Fredrik Logevall for Embers of War, Biography to Tom Reiss for The Black Count, Poetry to Sharon Olds for Stag's Leap, Drama to Ayad Akhtar for Disgraced--and Fiction honors to Adam Johnson for The Orphan Master's Son, described by the judges as "an exquisitely crafted novel that carries the reader on an adventuresome journey into the depths of totalitarian North Korea and into the most intimate spaces of the human heart."
In a piece here on why we'd picked Johnson's novel as our spotlight for the Best Book of the Month (over, I might add, John Green's phenomenal Fault in Our Stars) when it was released in January of last year, I shared how our team's obsession with this book in December 2011 took a strange turn when we heard that Kim Jon-il had died. The outpouring of news about and propaganda from North Korea felt like an alarming intrusion into reality of the fictional world we'd been compulsively descending into each night, a searing reminder "that the surreal, brutal universe Johnson evokes continues to unfold just across the Pacific."
As North Korea's new leader incites increasingly nervous debates about his true threat level, Johnson's novel feels all the more relevant and haunting. I keep finding myself drawn to Internet accounts from escapees and satellite images of the camps where a (roughly) estimated 3.5 million have so far been killed. No other modern nation is a more brutally constructed Orwellian fiction than the DPRK, and it's easy to see how Johnson became obsessed with questions about how it must be to live within this gulag of the mind. He wrote about this experience for Amazon Books:
I wondered what happened to personal desires when they came into conflict with a national story. Was it possible to retain a personal identity in such conditions, and under what circumstances would a person reveal his or her true nature? These mysteries--of subsumed selves, of hidden lives, of rewritten longings--are the fuel of novels, and I felt a powerful desire to help reveal what a dynastic dictatorship had forced these people to conceal.
Of course, I could only speculate on those lives, filling the voids with research and imagination. Back home, I continued to read books and seek out personal accounts. Testimonies of gulag survivors like Kang Chol Hwan proved invaluable. But I found that most scholarship on the DPRK was dedicated to military, political and economic theory. Fewer were the books that focused directly on the people who daily endured such circumstances. Rarer were the narratives that tallied the personal cost of hidden emotions, abandoned relationships, forgotten identities. These stories I felt a personal duty to tell. Traveling to North Korea filled me with a sense that every person there, from the lowliest laborer to military leaders, had to surrender a rich private life in order to enact one pre-written by the Party. To capture this on the page, I created characters across all levels of society, from the orphan soldier to the Party leaders. And since Kim Jong Il had written the script for all of North Korea, my novel didn't make sense without writing his role as well.
If you want to understand North Koreans--and how they have been conditioned to think about Americans--start with The Orphan Master's Son.