Monday, February 13, 2012


declares James Church of The Orphan Master's Son, a work of fiction set in North Korea that has attracted some significant media attention of late (note the "opens a frightening window on the mysterious kingdom of North Korea" line at the end of the NYT review).

One might blithely accuse Church of jealousy, as he has dominated the fiction set in the DPRK scene for any number of years. But I think Church is spot on in his observations:
We might begin with a simple fact. The author of the book admits he knows next to nothing about North Korea. That would be the end of the problem, except he doesn’t follow through and simply clam up on the subject in his public remarks. How could he set a book in North Korea and say nothing about the country in all the interviews and book tour appearances? That’s a dilemma, but solving it by letting North Korea be the sizzle for the book isn’t the answer.
As Church cogently concludes, simply because we don't know much about the DPRK (and I would add that "we" actually know more, or at least can know more, than we think) doesn't mean that we can inscribe on the blank slate of our ignorance whatever we think, hope, wish, or fear about the North Korean "other."

There is, I think, a larger problem at work here: The book is presently #15 on the NYT bestseller list. This means that many (thousands? millions?) will read the book and at least think they know something about the DPRK when in reality what they really know something about is the mind of the author, Adam Johnson.

The sad reality is that fiction (and movies, and video games etc.) often does far more to shape our understandings of other places and peoples than the more careful, sober scholarship and analyses that are usually still trying to lace up their boots while millions of copies of the fiction flit around the world at the speed of light. Sigh.

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