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The chosen two

Meet Dayton’s Literary Peace Prize winners and learn more about their books

I had the pleasure of traveling to Kentucky recently to interview author Wendell Berry who will be honored for lifetime achievement at the upcoming Dayton Literary Peace Prize event. The sold-out dinner will take place at the Schuster Center on Sunday evening, Nov. 3.

In our “Sunday Chat with Wendell Berry” you’ll learn more about the renowned author and the principles — and farm land — he holds dear. The story is scheduled to appear in the Dayton Daily News on the day Berry receives the 2013 Richard C. Holbrooke Achievement Award.

Today, we’re introducing two other authors who will be celebrated at the upcoming ceremony. They are Adam Johnson whose novel, “The Orphan Master’s Son,” is the award-winner for fiction, and Andrew Solomon, whose book “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity,” is the nonfiction winner.

Fiction runner-up is Ben Fountain’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” and nonfiction runner-up is Gilbert King’s “Devil in the Grove.”

Here’s one more opportunity to meet the authors: “A Conversation with the 2013 Dayton Literary Peace Prize Winners and Presenters” will take place at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 3, at Sinclair Community College’s Ponitz Center.


“The Orphan Master’s Son,” winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, is set in North Korea and revolves around a boy — Pak Jun Do — whose father runs a work camp for orphans. Jun Do becomes a professional kidnapper and ultimately —in hopes of saving the woman he loves — a rival to Kim Jong il.

Excerpt from the book

“There is a talk that every father has with his son in which he brings the child to understand that there are ways we must act, things we must say. But inside, we are still us. We are still family. I was eight when my father had this talk with me. We were under a tree on Moranbong Hill. He told me that there was a path set out for us. On it, we had to do everything the signs commanded and heed all the announcements along the way. Even if we walked this path side by side, he said, we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside we would still be holding hands.”

What others say

Carla Steiger, who has served as a first reader for several years on the Literary Peace Prize committee, labeled “The Orphan Master’s Son” a “profound and affecting book.”

“I was immediately immersed in the story and cared about the main character and his thoughts and musings throughout the book,” she wrote. “The literary quality was extraordinary. It was a towering novel and I was completely blown away.”

Steiger said the complex plot shifted seamlessly backward and forward through time with each shift revealing more about the complex development of the main characters.

“The bleak descriptions of the prisons, boats, and life in North Korea were powerful.” Steiger observed. “It is hard to imagine a world of constant breathable paranoia.”

One of the main themes of the book, she observed, was the way in North Korea “stories create a shifting web of perceptions which is never about the truth. Reality has very few vestiges of anything factual.”

Meet the author

Adam Johnson is a novelist and short story writer who teaches creative writing at Stanford University. His fiction has appeared in Esquire, The Paris Review, Harper’s, Tin House, Granta, and Playboy, as well as The Best American Short Stories. He lives in San Francisco.

He is also the author of Emporium, a short story collection, and the novel, “Parasites Like Us.” He has received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Stegner Fellowship and a Kingsbury Fellowship. In 2002, named Johnson Debut Writer of the Year.

Thoughts from Adam Johnson

On his book:

“I came to be fascinated and deeply moved by the stories of ordinary North Koreans who escaped the DPRK. One thing I discovered was that free speech doesn’t exist in North Korea and that it’s a nation utterly without a voice and I became compelled to try to lend my voice.”

“I hope people who read the book would contemplate North Korea and North Koreans in a serious way. It’s my experience that in the press media North Korea is portrayed as a place of evil, madness, or clownishness. But really it’s a place where millions of people just like ourselves happen to have been born in a very cruel psychological experiment which is the Kim regime.”

On writing:

“Crafting a novel is a long, lonely undertaking. So it’s a particular joy to meet readers and to hear from them and to know all those years of labor created something that really spoke to people.”

“Labor is the key. I’d take labor over talent any day. I have three children so I don’t write in my house. I walk a mile to a medical library filled with doctors, medical students, surgeons, and lots of books filled with creepy pictures of wounds and eyeballs”

“People interested in writing should join a writing group in their community. If my students are undergraduates I tell them to read a whole lot. If they are graduate students, I tailor advice to the individual.

“I see my creative writing students going on to have great jobs in cutting edge industries.”

On winning the Dayton Literary Peace Prize:

“The first step toward peace is listening. In researching the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, I heard the stories of many defectors, each of whom told similar tales: that in North Korea, to reveal event the simplest personal thought was to invite dangerous scrutiny from the state.

I came to understand that few people on earth have been rendered as voiceless as those born under the Kim regime. After a legacy of occupation, subjugation, partition and war, the resilient citizens of North Korea were greeted with six decades of a cruel and controlling totalitarian dictatorship. For more than a century, Korean literature has been outlawed in the North, and as a result, citizens of the DPRK are five generations removed from their literary tradition. They have never read a book that wasn’t censored, state-approved and designed solely to glorify either their Japanese occupiers or the Kim leadership.

While writing “The Orphan Master’s Son,” I found myself asking a simple question: Who was I to speak for a group whose experience was so far from my own? But after hearing the stories of defectors who, even after gaining freedom, were afraid to criticize Kim Jong-il, I started wondering: Why don’t more people attempt to lend voice to those from whom it has been stolen? One of the purposes of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, in my estimation, is to serve as an invitation for writers to do just that, and it is my great honor to have written a book worthy of being counted among others who have attempted such an important task.”


Andrew Solomon writes about families who have found profound meaning in coping with their children who have deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, and multiple severe disabilities as well as with children who are prodigies, conceived in rape, are criminals and transgender.

His belief is that diversity is what unites all of them and all of us.

An excerpt from the book:

“Children ensnared me the moment I connected fatherhood with loss, but I am not sure I would have noticed that if I hadn’t been immersed in this research. Encountering so much strange love, I fell into its bewitching patterns, and saw how splendor can illuminate even the most abject vulnerabilities. I had witnessed and learned the terrifying joy of unbearable responsibility, recognized how it conquers everything else. Sometimes, I had thought the heroic parents in this book were fools, enslaving themselves to a life’s journey with their alien children, trying to breed identity out of misery. I was startled to learn that my research had built me a plank, and that I was ready to join them on their ship.”

What others say:

David A. Herrelko, a retired Brigadier General, U.S. Air Force, is one of the first readers who annually reviews and evaluates a group of nominated books.

Herrelko believes this well-crafted book is “certain to be a landmark reference for generations” and says it is “one of the few books I’ve read in the past five years that has truly made me stop, mid-sentence, to reflect deeply and at length, on important issues of how we relate with one another.”

” The writing is clear and unaffected, without the hand-wringing that might be expected in such tragic circumstances,” he comments. The book, he says, “focuses on conflicts within the self-images of parents and children who are not “normal”, on the conflicts within families facing challenges of non-traditional children, and on larger-scale conflicts involving socio-ethical issues and identity politics within affinity groups of non-traditional people, and with society in general.”

About the author

Andrew Solomon is also the author of “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression”, which won the 2001 National Book Award and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. “The Noonday Demon” also made The Times list of the 100 best books of the decade.

Solomon also wrote “A Stone Boat,” about a concert pianist’s struggle to come to terms with his dying mother, his own sexuality and the most important relationships in his life. He is a lecturer in psychiatry at Cornell University and Special Advisor on LGBT affairs to the Yale School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry. His journalism appears frequently in The New Yorker, The New York Times, New York Magazine, Travel + Leisure, and Newsweek/The Daily Beast.

Thoughts from Andrew Solomon:

On his reasons for writing this book:

Twenty years ago, my editors at the NY Times Magazine asked me to write an article about Deaf culture. I found that most deaf children are born to hearing parents, and that those parents often try to get them to function in the hearing world. The children discover deaf culture often in adolescence or thereafter and experience great liberation in it. I compared their experience to mine as a gay child of straight parents. And then a friend of a friend had a daughter who was a dwarf, and began grappling with these identity issues.

And I saw the parallel again. And I thought, if there are these three instances of people struggling with an identity that is foreign to their parents, there must be others, and that was the origin of this book. I wanted to call into question the idea that there is always a clear boundary between illness and identity, to complicate those categories, and to connect my own battle for gay rights with the larger battle for an open, tolerant society that celebrates human diversity.

If I’d understood what I was taking on, I’d never have started. The number of people I had to interview was overwhelming; I ended up with more than 40,000 pages of interview transcripts. But I felt I had to understand each of the worlds I was chronicling well enough to write about it with authority, so that I could then draw the broader conclusions with authority.

On his hopes for readers:

I hope they will take a renewed sense that human hearts can love richly and fully under the most perilous of circumstances. I hope they will leave understanding that what we now consider an illness we may someday consider an identity. I hope they will take away from it that a society that marginalizes people who are different starves not only those people, but also the general population that is cut off from such encounters with diversity. And I hope they will feel as though they’ve met a hundred new friends whom they are glad to know.

I’ve had several readers who have written to say that the book helped them to love their children better. And what greater compliment than that could one ever hope for?

Advice for parents whose children are different in some way?

I’d advise such parents to build community for their child with other children who are like him, and to find other families dealing with the same condition they are now confronting, creating a community of families. My primary advice would be to stay open to the possibility that the difference that you as a parent find distressing may not cause your child comparable anguish.

On his childhood and love of writing:

Friends of my parents’ are given to remarking that when I was two years old, I said I was going to write books one day, and now here I am doing so. Yes, I was a bit fuzzy about my character, my nationality, my sexuality — but I was always clear that I wanted to write books. So that means I was a rather peculiar child. And I think those peculiarities, which caused me some distress at the time, gave me the capacity to write about difference as I have in this book. Like all my subjects, I was both hurt and exalted by negotiating my exceptionalisms.

On winning the Dayton Literary Peace Prize?

I’m immensely honored by the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Peace is a value woven into everything I write. My book is about how people learn to respect one another and to deal with one another kindly. That is the cornerstone of peace — of peace within families and of peace in the world.

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