In this excerpt from the podcast, Johnson reads from the novel and then discusses the extent of control the state exercises on its citizens, and the central role a national narrative plays in that oppression. [3:57]
Adam Johnson: "When Comrade Buc was gone, Dr. Song turned to Jun Do. 'Where we are from,' he said, 'stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him Maestro, and secretly, he'd be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story's more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.' Here, Dr. Song took a sip of juice, and the finger he lifted trembled slightly. 'But in America, people's stories
change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters. Perhaps they will believe your story, and perhaps not, but you, Jun Do, they will believe you.'"
In North Korea, there really is one narrative, and there's no alternative. There are no other newspapers or magazines or books or broadcasts. The radios come out of the factory without a dial because they're preset to the official news station. And if you try to tamper with it to capture VOA, or something like that, that's an offense that could get you sent to Yodok. So people don't know what the alternative is. There's one story, and whether they believe it or not, they don't know what something else could be. We live in a land of choices, of possibilities, of alternatives, where there's always another side or another position to a
story. But there, the false thing and the real thing are one.
In America, we have a sense of a national story that's an individual one, and it's one we tell each other in fiction; it's one we try to live. In the story, every person in America is the main character in their own lives, or in their own stories, and no matter how much you love everyone else around you, they're secondary characters. We're individuals, and we feel that we must define ourselves by what we decide we need and desire out of life. It's then our duty to move forward to becoming that person who has attained those things. Along the way, we encounter obstacles and conflicts, and to overcome them, we reach inside to discover our true selves. Sometimes we look back in history to mistakes that we need to correct, or wrongs that have to be righted. We overcome these things, and we end our stories, in life and in fiction, in a different place than where we started. We are changed, we have grown, we've perhaps even attained some insight and wisdom. Maybe there's even an epiphany.
But in North Korea, there really is one story. It's personally written by Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, or now Kim Jong Un -- literally, personally written. In a dictatorship with that much control, the leader finally has ultimate responsibility for everything. So there, as a child growing up in North Korea, you would be given aptitude tests early on. Whatever abilities would channel you down paths to becoming a farmer or a soldier or a ballerina, perhaps, and these roles would be assigned to you based on evaluations by the government, and you would be sent to different places to live accordingly. So we have a central character. A single character, like Kim Jong Il, had 23 million secondary characters. They're given their roles. And in North Korea, your own wants and desires really are hindrances to performing your state-assigned role well. They'll actually get you in trouble if you express other kinds of desires than fulfilling your factory quotas. So, instead of looking inward, revealing yourself, discovering yourself, and communicating this, as we are trained to do, these all become liabilities. They become detrimental toward being a person who, in North Korea, learns to survive, but has to lose what they have to live for, in my estimation. This different kind of story intrigued me a great deal.