Adam Johnson

The author of The Orphan Master’s Son picks books that help unlock a closed society.

Adam Johnson’s wildly inventive short story collection, Emporium, and tongue-in-cheek tale of an accidental apocalypse, Parasites Like Us, have earned the writer comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut and T. C. Boyle. But his new novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, embarks on a journey all of its own, plunging into the terrifying world of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, where a professional kidnapper transforms himself by exploiting the dissonance between reality and propaganda. When we asked Johnson to tell us about three favorite books, he responded, “I thought that, with so much current attention focused on the topic of North Korea, I might share what I think are three books which cast a rare light on the elusive realm of North Korea.”

Books by Adam Johnson

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

By Barbara Demick

“I have to start with Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, which is simply a must-read. Her reporting on North Korea for the LA Times was something I valued a great deal while writing my novel, which is set in the DPRK. By following the lives of six North Koreans over the course of fifteen years, Demick has pieced together, through exhaustive interviews and research, the most accurate nonfiction survey of the living conditions in that elusive country. By focusing on real people, rather than politics, she captures the hopes, dreams, and fears that finally led her subjects to risk defection.”

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag

By Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot

The Aquariums of Pyongyang is one of the only published, first-person accounts of life in a kwan li so gulag — the special prisons reserved for ‘irredeemables’ in North Korea. These citizens are given no trial and no sentence — they’re just locked in labor camps forever. This memoir is essential for any reader trying to understand the harsh realities of life in the DPRK. Kang Chol-hwan’s story is truly terrifying, a rare portrait from one of the few people ever to escape from a North Korean gulag. I’ll never forget the depiction of Kang at age nine, insisting that he take his fish tank with him as he’s being transported to the notorious work prison known as Yodok.”

Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty

By Bradley K. Martin

Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader is Bradley Martin’s exhaustive examination of the Kim Dynasty. It’s also a bible of all things North Korean, from Kim Jong-il’s hair care obsession to the Orwellian propaganda machine that creates a constant state of paranoia. Martin has assembled here the most complete portrait of North Korea and the father-son team that shaped every aspect of it. While Martin has a large sense of the political, social, economic, and military components of his topic, he never loses track of the human dimension of the story he tells.”