Stanislav Rivkin Briefly Interviews Adam Johnson
Front Porch: What’s the most outlandish thing you witnessed in North Korea?
Adam Johnson: It was often the small things. The trip is so controlled. They believe that you can’t see anything that would cast the regime in a negative light. But they’re also so insular that they don’t know that the rest of the world behaves differently than them. I remember that when I was just coming from the airport, there was, going the other way, north out of Pyongyang, a dump truck filled with people. And there was no back to the dump truck. And all these people were huddled toward the front, hoping to not be bounced out on these horrible roads. And I said to my minder, who I didn’t know yet—she turned out to be a very bright, very funny, wonderful woman—I said, where are all those people going? She said, they’re all volunteering to help with the harvest. But this lady [on the truck] was in a lab coat, and a guy was holding a briefcase, and I was like, they’re really volunteering? And she said, everyone must volunteer, in a very serious way, to correct my thinking.
I think because I was a writer, but they didn’t know that, I asked questions they had never been asked before, and it really rattled them. I remember asking, where are all the fire stations? Because we’d driven around Pyongyang for almost a week, and I hadn’t seen a fire station. What do you think she said?
FP: The great leader puts the fires out with his tears?
AJ: She said, we have not had a fire in 12 years. And I noticed there were no mailboxes anywhere, and I said, where are the mailboxes? And she said, we have the best and most efficient postal system in the world. And I said, yeah, but if I have a letter and I want to send it to someone in Hamhung, how do I do it? She said, our system works perfectly. I said, yeah, but where would you put the letter? She says, oh, it’s completely efficient. So she’d obviously never been asked that before and I remember we went to see the Great Statues of Kim Il-Sun and now, of course, Kim Jung-Il, and this is the most revered place, these huge bronze statues, in all of North Korea. I saw, in the square, there was a sewer drain for run-off water, and it had a manhole cover made of iron that had this mythical Korean horse, Chollima, flying over Pyongyang forged into it with Korean writing around it. And I never did learn Korean, so I said, what does this sewer lid say? And she gave me the most horrified look on Earth. It was like I had a meeting with the Pope and I’d asked what kind of underwear he was wearing. They just couldn’t figure me out in any way.
So it was mostly small things. I did see a family stealing chestnuts from a public park. And they were a ways away, but harvesting that kind of food, I know, requires special authorization. And they were being very sneaky about it. It was clear to me that I was seeing, in the capital, people hungry enough to take great risks.
FP: Who’s the best Western representative for diplomacy with Pyongyang? Anyone who might do a better job than [Dennis] Rodman?
AJ: I would like to think that Bill Clinton was the perfect person to go over there and save two journalists. The guy is known to party a bit himself, but is a bright diplomatic guy. But he did go over there, and he was cautioned by everyone not to crack a smile. So even he couldn’t have a good time in Pyongyang. It makes me think, is there a Westerner? I’d share the question.
FP: Nirvana, the excellent story you just read [at the Witliff Collections at Texas State University] dealt with, among many things, the comfort one can find in music and the time-space the music brings you to, as well as the nostalgia accompanying it. What is on your playlist? What do you go to when you write or have a difficult time?
AJ: When I write, I do like to listen to music. But oddly enough, the lyrics really do distract the language part of my brain, so I will listen to music in another language. I do like the human voice and the human language but I’m not distracted by the meaning. So it was great when I wrote The Orphan Master’s Son; I downloaded a lot of North Korean music, which they have free to download on the DPRK main website, so I listened to North Korean operas constantly while doing it. But when I write, I’ll also listen to pop from Africa or Europe or things like that.
In my Nirvana list, Patti Smith’s cover of Smells like Teen Spirit is unassailable, and Sinead O’Connor’s All Apologies is pretty ethereal as well. But Kurt, he can’t be beat. You know, it’s just a sign that I’m getting old, Stan. If all music stopped after 1994, I’d be cool.