What started as a casual interest in
Q: Where did the idea for this book come from?
A: I really started getting interested in
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday
Q: You visited North Korea, what was that like?
A: We got the standard weeklong tour of North Korea. We were highly managed and were shown the sites that they wanted us to see. It's illegal for a citizen of the DPRK to speak to a foreigner, so I didn't have a genuine interaction with anyone. There were certainly a lot of weird things. There were a lot of normal, wonderful things as well. And some scary things, too. Since
Q: How much of your book is based on real life events that you read about or witnessed?
A: Well, it is a work of fiction. In journalism, things need to be confirmed and verified in order to be promulgated. I think that because it is difficult to print things that can't be sourced, it is almost impossible for nonfiction and for journalism to truly report on North Korea. What we have and what we know about North Korea is based on satellite photos and the testimonies of defectors, and those stories can't be confirmed. We can give credence to those stories through accumulation of similar stories, but when people get out of gulags there is no way to confirm what they've seen. I kind of feel that North Korea is one of the places that only literary fiction can really get to.
Q: You were watched intensely the whole time you were there. What was that like?
A: Because we were Americans, they were very nervous about us. We had basically four minders for the four of us, including a person who videotaped everything we said. He was supposedly making a tourist DVD for us, but it was very intimidating for him to stick a big camera in our face all the time.
Americans are very used to irony. We are very used to two levels of meaning. We can watch
I remember we were taken to a museum of Korean history, and the first display we were shown was a skull fragment they claimed was about 4 million years old. They claimed it was found on the Taedong River bank and that it was the oldest proof of humanity in the world. The museum docent ended her explanation by declaring that therefore all people are Korean. I was really just stunned. I couldn't believe that someone was just nakedly giving false information to my face with a straight face.
The older gentleman that helped me get to North Korea turned to me and said, "Professor Johnson, do you hear that, you are Korean! Do you feel Korean?" I sort of patted my thighs and said, "I guess I do feel Korean." It was a way to relieve the weird tension that I was feeling. Of course, (the North Koreans) only take things literally, so they all nodded in agreement and thought that it was great that the foreigner finally realized he was Korean.
Courtney Crowder covers the Chicago literary scene for Printers Row Journal.
Adam Johnson will appear at Printers Row Live! on Wednesday. For tickets, click here.