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How Fiction Tells the Truth About Human Rights: Orphan Master’s Son and Persepolis

By Aida Yoguely Cortés-Peña and Luis Valles
March 21, 2013

Hi we are Aida Yoguely Cortes-Pena and Luis Valles and we are engineering students at Georgia Tech and up to now our exposure to Human Rights issues around the world have been very limited to broad news media  filled with shocking statistics and grotesque photos. Though these elicit strong emotional responses, their effects are short lived because it is impossible to relate to them. We’re here to talk about how fiction writing allows readers to make deep, lasting connections with victims that go beyond the numbers. And how literature is taking over the task where the law has failed. Specifically, by analyzing how Adam Johnson’s The orphan Masters Son and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis tell the truth about human rights.

The Orphan Master’s Son follows the story of a fictional character Jun Do, a citizen of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. While Persepolis is an autobiographical graphic novel about a girl that grows up during the Islamic cultural revolution in Iran. Though these two authors use different mediums, they are still able to give insight into the situational reality, the family dynamics and even the individual identity of the people living today in these oppressive regimes .

What is Truth?

Throughout the Orphan Master’s Son, the reader experiences three different voices: the main Character Jun Do, a prison interrogator, and the North Korean news broadcast. This stylistic choice allows us to see the perspectives of all sides as the government fabricates stories which are then taken as the truth.

The citizen’s interactions with propaganda was also an important theme in Persepolis. Marjane Sartapi grows in the revolution seeing as her history books are rewritten, street names are changed into names of Martyrs, and all western influences are replaced with religious murals in line with the fundamentalist ideology. In Tehran today, satellite television broadcasts are forbidden and reformist newspaper personnel can be punished with prison or worse for their views.

Not only does Marjane use text to explain these complicated concepts but she also uses illustrations to hint at the emotional experience as well.

To put things into perspective, data from the CIA’s World Factbook show the limited Internet Access that places like Iran and North Korea have. In today’s modern society, the internet is the primary source that people have to educate themselves. By restricting citizen access to internet, these regimes can effectively write their own truths.


In places like North Korea, Wives are assigned or bought. And it is often difficult to form strong relationships. Intimacy is a foreign concept.  Family structures are twisted and No trust exists amongst themselves for fear of being accused. Marriage exists as an idea. It Serves as a way to tie citizens down, keep them from dissenting, and giving them a little hope/something to look forward to.

Similarly, many interactions between Men and Women in Iran are void of intimacy and sexuality. Both genders exhibit a lot of societal pressure to be “pure.” Women are not allowed to be seen in public with Men. Marriage is treated as a transaction and Women right’s are at the mercy of their husbands.


The Orphan Master’s Son juxtaposes the concept of identity in North Korea to that of the United States. In the novel, a North Korean Citizen states,  “Where we are from, “stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state...he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change. But in America, people’s stories change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters.” North Koreans do not control their identity like in the States, it is assigned to them by the government, free to modify as they wish.

In the first part of the book Persepolis, Satrapi shows little girls, all wearing the same veil. This visual repetition highlights the uniformity that the veil imposes on the girls’ bodies and speaks both to the fundamentalists’ desire to erase the female body and to Western tendencies to reduce Middle Eastern women to the veil they wear. However with sparse visual details, Satrapi gives each girl vastly different personalities demonstrating to her readers that a universalizing take on the veil is not accurate.

The number of scholarly books on North Korea published in the last ten years can be counted with the fingers of your hands. Though most youth’s in Tehran have liberal views, they face strict punishment for behavior that violates Islamic laws. Fiction has now taken the responsibility to bring a voice to those unable to share due to trauma, guilt, or fear. Satrapi combines illustrations and a child’s point of view to make her story accessible to all. We are able to follow characters such as Jun Do who experiences life as a tunnel expert, a kidnapper, a diplomat; We follow his transformation from a model, brainwashed citizen to someone willing to take control of his own life. In this way, these fiction stories can empower victims. Though Satrapi lived through an oppressive regime and Adam Johnson simply interviewed the oppressed, both tales uncover truths about the victim’s world. As college students we don’t often have the means to understand the plights of those under Tyranny first hand. But through works of fiction about Human Rights, we can start to understand the dystopian societies that still plague many parts of the globe today. And this truth might be all we need to make a change in the world. Thank you all for your time.



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