October 12, 2015

"Writing was a forbidden profession – half crime, half magic – and it made me want to be a writer."

Paul Theroux in Zimbabwe, USA

There was something there once. It was a plantation, and then factories set up. The agriculture is now mechanized. The factories are closed. So what have you got? You have something like the post-colonial world. It’s like Zimbabwe, in that the farmers have been kicked out so the fields are dead. There’s no activity. There’s people sitting in the shade, drinking, like Africa — black men drinking beer in the shade. Many of them are war veterans – guys who’ve made major contributions are sitting there with no job, living on welfare. And the shopkeepers are all from India. They’re from Gujurat – the inevitable Mr. Patel. So the Indian shopkeeper, the unemployed man drinking, children running around, careworn women, trying to keep the family together, defunded schools — very hot, very dry, very dusty. You look on the horizon and it’s just dust in the air. And you think: where have I seen this before? Yeah, Zimbabwe, Mozambique. The Western part of Kenya. The Eastern part of Uganda…

Paul Theroux, in conversation on Deep South, a first travel venture into his native United States.

Paul Theroux is my age, my model of what we’ll call “the young old man.” He remembers the sense, growing up near Boston, that “books were banned, writers were outlaws, and writing was a forbidden profession – half crime, half magic – and it made me want to be a writer, and also to leave home.”

Fifty-plus years and fifty-plus books later – novels, stories, a whole genre of grumpy, curious travel books – Paul Theroux is a world-class original: a tart American stylist with an acquired half-English accent and wardrobe, but “no province, no clique, no church,” as Whitman said of Emerson. On the page and more so in person, he’s great fun not least because he’s ever testing your reflexes and surprising you with his breaking ball.

For example: On the writers to be remembered forever, Paul Theroux thinks less of Albert Camus than of Georges Simenon, best known for his detective sideline, who has 400 titles in his name and wrote four books while Camus worked on L’Etranger in the 1940s, and was annoyed not to win the Nobel Prize. Theroux still isn’t sold on The Stranger: “It’s set in Algeria, with all French characters, no Arabs and no women in it. That’s a book? So Camus doesn’t do it for me. Orwell does. In my time? Maybe Noam Chomsky – not a stylist, and not Orwell’s sense of humor; but he has a backbone of iron, and he knows his mind. If people listened to him it would be a better world.”

We’re putting personal frames around the half-century we saw – from JFK’s Peace Corps, in which Paul served, to ISIS and the popular clamor around Donald Trump’s wall on the Mexican border. It’s the same 50-year span that Barney Frank put in a subtitle of his memoirs: “From the Great Society to Gay Marriage.” In Paul Theroux’s melancholy summing up, it’s the arc from colonialism in Africa (where he led several schools) up through freedom-fights, independence, five-year plans and post-colonialism then down to something like despair and a mass longing to emigrate. “Now,” he’s saying, “if you go to any country in the world – and that includes China, India, Brazil, successful countries – go to any classroom… and they’ll say: I want to go to America. I want to leave this country. They won’t say ‘hell-hole,’ but hell-hole is in the back of their mind.”

Of his own writing life, he cites the Chuck Close line (as Philip Roth used to): “ ‘I don’t believe in inspiration; I go to work every day.’ Writing every day – it’s a joy. I never believe people when they say writing is hard. I say: you’re lucky. You’re not a soldier. You’re not a fisherman. You’re not picking pineapples. It’s a wonderful profession.”

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  • Cal McCrevan

    Radio Open Source once again has created a podcast which gives an amazing albeit incomplete picture of parts of The South. I live in Birmingham Alabama and I am from Birmingham so I know that of which I speak. Mr. Theroux has made an amazing correlation between the similarities of the post-colonial status of some African nations and the post-Jim Crow South. His descriptions of burned out towns with ‘corner men’ hanging around drinking and smoking, schools which are ineffective and a general lack of investment is an accurate but incomplete snap shot of the South. The South is not Zimbabwe, to say so is to ignore the full picture. Here in Birmingham and central Alabama the tapestry is much more complex than his description expresses. A short example of this can observed with a few details. Birmingham Alabama infamous for its Jim Crow past is much more than its Jim Crow Past.

    Birmingham is divided into neighborhoods which flow into and out its center city. At the center is the University of Alabama in Birmingham. The University has a world class medical center. The lives of all people in Birmingham and its surrounding wealthy enclaves flow from UAB and provide the economic vibrancy of this area for the rich , the middle and the poor. Two of these neighborhoods which I know well can provide a contrast which will deepen our understanding of this situation. These neighborhoods are the Southside and Ensley. I grew up in Birmingham in the 1970s’ and 1980s’ and my family lived in the Southside neighborhood. At the same time a 15 minute drive away my grandparents and almost all of my cousins lived in the Ensley area. The Southside area would remind you of the South End of Boston or Harvard Square. It has many shops, stores and restaurants. One of these restaurants is named Highlands Bar and Grill. Highlands Bar and Grill was chosen a James Beard Foundation Award nominee as one of the five best Restaurants in america. This by itself is a nice fact but there is much more. Highlands Bar and Grill has been given this accolade for the seventh year in a Row! This is not Zimbabwe. I grew up in this neighborhood literally across the street from this restaurant. On the other side of town in the Ensley neighborhood my cousins and I played and grew up. Indeed U.S. Steel is no more and the working class factory jobs are no longer there but to say this is Zimbabwe is an exceedingly poor characterization of the status of opportunity in these areas. My family has doctors, lawyers, business executives, personal medical care givers, doctors, teachers and yes even technology entrepreneurs like myself all from a supposed ‘Zimbabwe’. If you drive through Sommerville Ma. You can find Zimbabwe. If you drive through Roxbury Ma. you can see Zimbabwe. All of these areas allow individuals to make progress but it is slower than people like Mr. Theroux would like. Why is there this delay? Because you can not expect help from those opposed to your progress no matter how close they live to you no matter if you live in post-colonial Africa or the post Jim Crow South or Boston/Cambridge.

    Thanks Chris, thanks Paul Theroux and All of the Radio Open Source team for a great podcast. Below I will share a link about Highlands Bar and Grill.


  • Chris Daly

    Wonderful discussion. Thank you both.