Stanford’s Asian Staff Forum hosts Adam Johnson

Newly minted Pulitzer Prize winner and English Professor Adam Johnson signs books at an Asian Staff Forum talk.

When the Asian Staff Forum (ASF) invited ADAM JOHNSON, associate professor of English, to speak to their group about his novel The Orphan Master’s Son, they had no idea that just a few days before the event their guest would win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The Orphan Master’s Son, Johnson’s third novel, is a gripping tale about a young man’s life and struggles in North Korea during Kim Jong Il’s reign. The ASF seeks to promote the interests of Stanford employees of Asian/Pacific/Indian subcontinent descent or affinity.

Originally planned as an intimate discussion at the Asian American Activities Center, the event was moved to the Humanities Center to accommodate more people. But Johnson played down the impact the prize was having on his daily life. Asked by an audience member how it felt to win a Pulitzer, Johnson said that since the announcement his dishwasher had broken and he had gotten a parking ticket, so “everything feels the same.”

A curiosity about the “great tragedies of the world” inspired Johnson to learn more about the turbulent history of the Korean peninsula and the harsh reality of life in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). He gleaned what he could from policy texts and frequent visits to propaganda laden DPRK websites. “Scenarios, scenes and dialogue” that filled in the missing human stories “just started coming out,” he said.

As a fiction writer, Johnson was particularly intrigued by how the strict rules of the Kim dynasty have created a “single national story” for North Koreans.

In an effort to learn more about the cryptic society, Johnson visited North Korea in 2007. He knew that in such a closed society where even family members censor each other, he wouldn’t be able to stop people on the streets to learn more about their lives, but said that he learned a lot through observation. His imagination filled in the rest.

“Legend, myth, rumor and dreams are powerful tools” when it comes to “building a psychological portrait,” Johnson told the group.

—CORRIE GOLDMAN, Humanities at Stanford