Monday, February 6, 2012
We Are All Korean: A (borrowed) Guest Blog Post by Adam Johnson
If you've been in the bookstore over the weekend, you probably noticed large carts full of one particular book, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson, which is the Odyssey's First Editions Club selection. We weren't quite able to get Adam to the store for a reading, much to our disappointment, but our heroic sales rep, Michael Kindness, was able to figure out a way for us to take books to the author instead. Yay--we have signed first printings for sale now!
I met Adam at Winter Institute in New Orleans a few weeks ago and have been following media on his book since its publication in mid-January (it's *amazing* and one of those books that really stays with you). I was delighted to see the following guest blog post at Lemuria Bookstore's blog that Adam wrote for his author appearance at that fine store, so I asked the good folks at Lemuria if we might be able to use his guest post, too. With Lemuria's and Adam's blessing, here it is:
"We are all Korean”
Upon arriving in Pyongyang, one of our first stops was the National Museum of Korean History. It was a large museum with no one in it. To save electricity, which was quite scarce, the museum used motion sensors that turned out the lights when you left a room and flashed them on when you entered the next, so the cavernous journey was taken one flashing glimpse at a time. The first exhibit they showed me was what they claimed was an old skull fragment. It was displayed in a Plexiglas box atop a white pedestal. They informed me that the skull was 4.5 million years old and that it had been found on the shores of the Taedong River in Pyongyang. I was new to such tours, so my brain was filled with dissonance. I asked the museum docent, a middle-aged woman wearing a beautiful choson-ot, if humanity didn’t originate in Africa. “Pyongyang,” she said. I’d taken a course on human origins when I was an undergraduate, and a hazy memory came to me. I said, “So is this a skull fragment from an australopithecine?” She said, “No, Korean.” And I understood that she was a person trained to give a tour and recite prescribed information, not a scholar or curator. In North Korea, whenever evidence is lacking for something, they use a big painting or an elaborate diorama as proof. They had both on hand to explain via arrows and diagrams, how humanity had originated in Pyongyang, with the following Diaspora moving north into Asia and west into the Middle East and Europe. Finally, according to the diorama, humans populated Africa and North America. We had several minders with us, all watching my response to this new information. Finally, our tour guide concluded her lecture by informing me that the World was Korean (by which she meant North Korean) and by informing me that I was actually Korean. A friend of mine, a fellow professor on the tour with me, turned to me and said, “Did you hear, Professor Johnson? You are Korean. Do you feel suddenly Korean?”
I pat my arms and sides. “Yes,” I said, “I feel a little more Korean.”
He said, “You look a little more Korean.”
I rubbed my cheek and chin. “Yes,” I said, “I believe I’m a little more Korean.”
Our tour guide and minders all nodded, with some gravity, at my dawning realization.
So the lesson I learned in the National Museum of Korean History was that there was no irony in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
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Adam Johnson is Associate Professor of English with emphasis in creative writing at Stanford University. A Whiting Writers’ Award winner, his fiction has appeared in Esquire, Harper’s, Playboy, Paris Review, Tin House and Best American Short Stories. He is the author of Emporium, a short-story collection, and the novel Parasites Like Us, which won a California Book Award.