Podcast • February 21, 2012

David Weinberger in “the smartest room in the house”

 The start of our David Weinberger conversation, with Mary McGrath, in Bob Doyle’s studio, 2003 I take it as self-evident that the truth about being human is that we’re always interpreting; and we’re disagreeing with ...

 

The start of our David Weinberger conversation, with Mary McGrath, in Bob Doyle’s studio, 2003

I take it as self-evident that the truth about being human is that we’re always interpreting; and we’re disagreeing with other people’s interpretations. And that’s both the bane and the greatest joy of life. That’s what knowledge is.

David Weinberger in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Harvard Law School, February 17, 2012.

David Weinberger has made it his job to deal with the Internet as a philosophical event — as a radical turn in human understanding of understanding itself. Our conversations began a decade ago, between The Cluetrain Manifesto (1999) and his own sparkling treatise Small Pieces Loosely Joined (2002), which promised that the new information hardware and software would change everything. His new book Too Big to Know is an occasion here for a Ten Year Report on the Digital Age and how it has dismantled old taxonomies of learning, old hierarchies of expertise.

We’re talking about why (paraphrasing his subtitle) on finding “the smartest person in the room,” our first instinct is to look for a smarter room. We’re talking about how “knowledge” (conceived as libraries of information, even wisdom, like our old dining-room Book of Knowledge) got re-imagined as fluid, accessible galaxies of often contentious conversation. We’re talking about a Top 10 list of sites that make his point: Wikipedia, of course, but also Reddit, a favorite of his, and Chowhound, a favorite of mine. Also: Jazz on the Tube, a search tool for lost-and-found jazz videos; Trip Advisor; and Nate Silver’s hard-core political site 538, now part of the New York Times coverage online.

Arxiv.org turns out to be the site that reveals David Weinberger’s argument most significantly. It’s a scientific research journal I’d never read before — a serious but wide-open site, as David Weinberger explains, where “any scientist of any standing can post any thing.” It’s a site, furthermore, that made major news just recently about the speed of light.

“That’s where these findings are posted. Very responsible scientists. And over the course of a couple of months, over 80 other papers were posted there in response and it spread out immediately across the web, in posts and tweets – the whole ecology jumped in. And as a result, the ecology of knowledge got filled out far more than it ever could be before… First of all, it shows how you scale knowledge. Had this gone through the peer-review process to get published in an important journal – which this paper certainly would have in the old days – had they chosen that route, it would have taken a year, a year and a half… The old idea that we have the peer-review process to protect us so that we only got good science – well, yeah, it does that – but it also restricted science so severely that it couldn’t work as quickly or as broadly as we want it too… The knowledge lives in that network. The pieces are connected and arguing with one another – not agreeing – and that’s where the knowledge is not only developed, but that’s where in any real sense knowledge lives. And it has value because it includes not just the original paper but all of the responses to it, all of which are different from, and in many cases disagree with that original paper. Knowledge lives in networks; these networks have value because of the differences and disagreements among the pieces — which is an inversion of how knowledge used to work.”

David Weinberger on how the new knowledge networks of Arxiv.org invert the old models of scientific discussion.

We’re speaking also of gaps in the transformation — gaps, as it seems to me, in empathy, “wisdom” and the applied power of the new information. In the potentially universal “social web,” we can all feel the tendency to “stay local,” not to leap boundaries. I’m wondering if we’ll ever look to the Web for anything like the pleasures of deep reading. And I’m complaining that the Web is a political tool of uncertain utility. The SOPA restrictions on Internet freedoms died in the Congress as soon as Internet took notice and rose up against it. On the other hand, the glib (and to my mind insane) rationales we read for a US and/or Israeli preemptive attack on Iran have not been confronted in any systematic way by the “wisdom of crowds” online around the world.

Podcast • February 10, 2012

Pico Iyer: Channeling Graham Greene and the World Spirit

  “Although knaves win in every political struggle, although society seems to be delivered over from the hands of one set of criminals into the hands of another set of criminals… and the march of ...

 

“Although knaves win in every political struggle, although society seems to be delivered over from the hands of one set of criminals into the hands of another set of criminals… and the march of civilization is a train of felonies, – yet, general ends are somehow answered… the world-spirit is a good swimmer, and storms and waves cannot drown him. He snaps his finger at laws: and so, throughout history, heaven seems to affect low and poor means. Through the years and the centuries, through evil agents, through toys and atoms, a great and beneficent tendency irresistibly streams.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson Essays: Montaigne, or The Skeptic.

 “God save us always from the innocent and the good…”

The voice of Graham Greene, spoken by the British journalist Fowler in Greene’s prophetic novel of Vietnam, The Quiet American, published in 1955. Quoted anew in Pico Iyer’s The Man Within My Head.

Pico Iyer — my monitor on the global spirit in conversation and books — hears voices: of the Dalai Lama, Henry David Thoreau, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell among others. But the strongest dialog in Iyer’s busy brain seems to run between Emerson and the late English novelist Graham Greene (1904 – 1991), the Catholic agnostic who prayed to a God he wasn’t sure he believed in, and the subject of Pico Iyer’s shivering introspection, The Man Within My Head. Emerson is “the God within,” as Harold Bloom has said, a companion in the daylight hours. Greene is “the fallen man within,” who keeps turning up in dreams and the subconscious. “Graham Greene is more of a warning than an illumination,” Pico Iyer is telling me. “Thoreau and Emerson and the American Way have shown me where I want to go; Greene is pointing to all the ditches and the cracks in the road along the way.”

I am wondering: where’s our American Graham Greene when we need one? Greene’s peers in school after World War I, Pico Iyer writes, “were learning strength and how to go out and administer Empire, already in its first stages of dissolution. Greene, meanwhile, was learning the opposite: how to take power apart, how to do justice to its victims, on both sides of the fence, how to make a home in his life for pain and even fear. As classmates set about making the official history of their people, he began picking at its secret life, its tremblings, its wounds.” Greene, in Pico Iyer’s line, was “an Englishman in flight from English-ness.” So I am asking: who are our exemplary strong antidotes to American exceptionalism and heedless folly in the world?

The names that immediately come to my head are Don DeLillo, Robert Stone, Thomas Pynchon, perhaps. Robert Stone is almost a direct heir to the Greenian legacy: a troubled Catholic who goes to the warzones of the world to see the soul in peril in all senses but also to see what America is up to in these shadowy corners… But the other thing is that American literature is currently being written and re-written by the latest newcomers from Russia, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Korea — … think of Chimamanda Adichie, Gary Shteyngart, Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Lee Yun Hee and many others. And what they’re doing, among other things, is they’re remaking America… importing the wisdom of their ancestral homes and making new combinations. So that’s all promising. The American soul is taking on new colors now, and our President is another example of that. If nothing else, no matter how you feel about Obama, I would say we’ve never had a President who understands life in Indonesia as he does. We’ve never had a President who knows the complications of interacting with Kenya and therefore with many other impoverished nations, at least on the human level, as he does. He hasn’t always managed to translate that into policy but it’s certainly a step forwards because in terms of global understanding which is the currency of the moment, he has it.

Podcast • May 17, 2011

Teju Cole: A “Seething Intelligence” on a Long Journey

Teju Cole and Open City, his marvel of a first novel, pull you into a peculiarly contemporary stream of consciousness — of a global mind in motion, coming home to see himself and us, as if for the first time. Born in Michigan of Nigerian parents, Cole was raised in Lagos to the age of 17, then got his college and graduate education (briefly in medicine, then in art history) in the States.

 

Teju Cole and Open City, his marvel of a first novel, pull you into a peculiarly contemporary stream of consciousness — of a global mind in motion, coming home to see himself and us, as if for the first time. Born in Michigan of Nigerian parents, Cole was raised in Lagos to the age of 17, then got his college and graduate education (briefly in medicine, then in art history) in the States. It’s not just the quick resumé that reminds you of Rana Dasgupta — who was born and educated in England, then returned to his father’s country, India, to write stories and the novel Solo, set in the everywhere/nowhere of Bulgaria. Both writers — friends and mutual admirers, both in their mid-thirties — seem to have undertaken a project without borders. Cole tells me he likes to see himself evaluating a scene, he says, like an detective in a cop show: “What have we got here?” First, he looks; then he starts digging. History is the new geography, even at Ground Zero in Manhattan:

This was not the first erasure on the site… The site was a palimpsest, as was all the city, written, erased and rewritten. There had been communities here before Columbus ever set sail, before Verrazano anchored his ships in the narrows, or the black Portugese slave trader Esteban Gomez sailed up the Hudson; human beings had lived here, built homes, and quarreled with their neighbors long before the Dutch ever saw a business opportunity in the rich furst and timber of the island and its calm bay. Generations rushed through the eye of the needle, and I, one of the still legible crowd, entered the subway. I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories…

The narrator “Julius” at the World Trade Center site, in Open City by Teju Cole. Random House, 2011. p. 59

Teju Cole in conversation is sprightly, almost ecstatically musical, well-read and warm. He spins, riffs, notices and links — much as he does on the page. On an effulgent May afternoon in New York we are sitting on the grass, as it happens, before the brick row houses around Henry James’s Washington Square Park. Talk about palimpsests! And Teju Cole, feeling “more alive than on other days,” is peering through the layers and disguises of the scene, picking out evidences of his “open city” transformed.

What we see is an apparently uncomplicated scene of urban leisure on a Thursday afternoon, but all of this is happening in a historical context, and in the shadow of economic uncertainty… Some of the people are here because they’re out of work. You could say to yourself: New York City is an astonishingly diverse place, but we see around us all kinds of evidence of segregation: white students from NYU, and black women of a certain age working as nannies for white babies. We are looking at the American reality under an overlay of innocence…

This city, like many others, is a space that has been pre-inhabited, that contains the stories of people who are gone, who are vanished. We look at their inscriptions and we engage with their monuments, and we walk along their paths: every time you walk down Broadway, you’re walking along an ancient cattle path that was put down by Native Americans who then had an appalling encounter with European invaders and were more or less wiped out. But we still walk down their roads. And those roads themselves, and many of those buildings, were built by slave labor in this city, by people not only whose lives have been erased from the record, but whose deaths, in a way, have been erased from the record. Only recently was the burial grounds of the slaves rediscovered. And even then, most of that burial ground is covered with office buildings now. There’s this essential mystery of life in the city: it contains others who are not us in the present time — I’m not you and you’re not me, maybe we don’t live in the same neighborhood — but it also contains others who are not us, in the sense that so much of it was made by those others.

Teju Cole with Chris Lydon in Washington Square Park, New York City, May 12, 2011.

Teju Cole is opening up, too, about the music that’s written into Open City — for example, the pattern of “doublings” (as in instrumental voices) of characters and cities, themes and phrases (like the air of a man “who had undertaken long journeys”) that recur in different rhythms and harmonies, so to speak. In particular, Gustav Mahler is another of those “vanished” who inhabit Teju Cole’s present and obsess his character Julius, a psychiatry resident about to start his clinical practice. Mahler (death centennial next year) was himself drawn to the “open city” of New York in a tormented late act of a great composing-conducting career. He was, Cole writes, “the genius of prolonged farewells,” in a long series of “final statements,” up to his unfinished Tenth Symphony.

Mahler’s music flows somewhere under Cole’s elegiac novel — “a story,” he calls it, “of mourning, for the feeling this city carried with itself after 9.11.” But what is it, I wonder, we are still bidding farewell? “It’s as if,” Cole says, “after 9.11 we entered a new phase in the life of this civilization. But I think it was also clear that it was the end of something… There’s a strong goodbye element in this novel, too.” The last chapter of the book, we’re noting, has three endings: one at Carnegie Hall, in a Simon Rattle performance of Mahler’s Ninth; another in a view of the stars over Manhattan; the last in a harbor-cruise view of the Statue of Liberty.

There are two “open cities,” it turns out, in Teju Cole’s novel. Julius travels in search of his German mother to Belgium. Brussels is the city which gave Hitler’s troops free passage in World War II and preserved its medieval design but which, by 2006, is half-paralyzed by dread of Muslim immigrants. Brussels is where Julius meets his own double, a Moroccan Islamist of “seething intelligence,” a phone-store clerk who wants to be Edward Said when he grows up. And then there is Brussels’ “double,” New York, open to the deadbeat and the driven, thriving on perpetual renewal, and “saturated with the ominous energies” of its inherited past.

But then a student delighted Teju Cole on a school visit with the thought that his invention Julius — a solitary walker and cool, catalytic conversationalist with a stunning variety of New Yorkers — is himself the Open City.

Teju Cole’s last word with us — very much in that Open City spirit — was about the work ahead: first, a non-fiction account of Lagos (another “doubling,” it seems, of Rana Dasgupta’s work in progress on New Delhi) and then another novel:

“It’s simmering very softly below the surface. I don’t know what it’ll be. I don’t know where it’ll go. But I am going to have to confront Ulysses. We can’t keep pretending it didn’t happen. We can’t keep writing 19th Century novels, you know. We can’t pretend that that amazing unexploded ordnance of a book did not happen.” On the other side of Washington Square Park we hear sounds of kids cheering. “And in the far distance,” Teju Cole closed, as if on cue, “people applaud that idea. So I take it as a sign from the gods.”

Podcast • March 22, 2011

Freedom to Write:
China’s Gift to Pittsburgh

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Henry Reese. (14 minutes, 7 mb mp3) [Lake Fong/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]Henry Reese of Sampsonia Way in Pittsburgh stole the show this Spring at the novelist Robert Coover‘s annual ritual ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Henry Reese. (14 minutes, 7 mb mp3)

[Lake Fong/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]

Henry Reese of Sampsonia Way in Pittsburgh stole the show this Spring at the novelist Robert Coover‘s annual ritual at Brown around the altar of free expression. Writers in exile are the stars of this international freedom-to-write literary festival — this year from Cambodia, last spring from Burma, earlier from Zimbabwe and Iran. Shahriar Mandanipour, who wrote his exile novel Censoring an Iranian Love Story as Coover’s guest at Brown, was back this year to witness for freedom. But it was the mild-mannered American telemarketer from Pittsburgh, Mr. Reese, whose story about his own marginal neighborhood nailed some essential points: about the power of individual examples, for example; about the universal stakes and contagious connections.

So this is Henry Reese’s story — about the Huang Xiang, a poet who’d spent 12 years in Chinese prisons before he was banished to silence in the United States. Reese and his wife, the artist Diane Samuels, invited the poet to Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum.

eyescorpion/flickr]

Huang Xiang — at first sight of the stone bluffs high over Pittsburgh’s famous rivers — asked if he might paint his expressive caligraphy on Mount Washington. His hosts countered: why not begin by painting his poems on the house he would live in for two years — just down the alley from the Reeses’ house on the North Side of Pittsburgh. It was an important sign from the community that people came out, in numbers, in the rain, to watch a Chinese poet paint his life on the walls of what had once been a crack house. It was something else when the neighbors began stuffing their own poems into Huang Xiang’s mailbox.

“That’s when I knew,” Henry Reese says, “that freedom of expression was going to resonate with people who have had no connection with what we call literary life, and that this could be a powerful force for change in our community, which is what it’s become.”

Podcast • March 15, 2011

Alan Lomax and the Salvation of American Song

We’re listening in awe and gratitude to the all-American sounds that Alan Lomax recorded and saved for all time. There’s outlaw minstrel Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly, singing a cocaine ode “Take a Whiff ...

We’re listening in awe and gratitude to the all-American sounds that Alan Lomax recorded and saved for all time. There’s outlaw minstrel Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly, singing a cocaine ode “Take a Whiff on Me” in 1934. Then Woody Guthrie accompanying himself, Pete Seeger and others on “Bound to Lose,” playing a guitar with a label on it: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” And then there are the strangely uplifting choruses of prison work songs from the Angola Convict Sugar Plantation in Louisiana and the Parchman Farm Penitentiary in Mississippi — songs like “Rosie,” which Lomax recorded in 1947 with prisoners, “C. B. and the Axe Gang.” As John Szwed writes in his vivid biography of the protean Lomax, “This was as close as twentieth-century people were going to come to the sound of slavery.”

Alan Lomax (1915 – 2002), The Man Who Recorded the World in Szwed’s subtitle, was the son of a proper folklorist at the University of Texas. The old folklore compiled texts; the new would revel in the truth of sound that had body language in it, too. Together in the early Thirties, father John and his teenage apprentice had set out across the South with early Edison recording equipment on what John Lomax used to call a “hobo-ing” trip. What Alan ended up compiling was a sort of unofficial, non-commercial people’s soundtrack of the Great Depression. Homegrown songs of spirit seem in retrospect to be pouring out of the suffering soil wherever Alan Lomax turned. Makes you wonder: what is the music of the meltdown today, and where’s to find it?

John Szwed [Martha Rose photo]

Alan Lomax brought a roaring confidence to new fields opening up in the 30s. There was something of the great Edison in Lomax’s recording chops as the tech kept improving. He had something of John Hammond’s talent-spotting gift in the period when Hammond was signing Billie Holiday and the Count Basie band for Columbia Records. “He’s got an infallible ear for the un-commercial,” Hammond said dismissively. There was also something of Orson Welles in Lomax’s showmanship — maybe something of Elvis Presley in Lomax’s fantasies. Lomax was open to rock’n’roll, despite its commercialism, and he was soft on Elvis — not least, John Szwed remarks in our conversation, because Elvis did what Alan wanted to do: liberate the white man’s hips! Even as he coopted so much black musical style, Elvis was the herald of a great healing shift in racial cultures.

Alan Lomax grew up to be a walking trove of all the world’s musics — especially its songs. By the end he’d built “folksonomies” of song elements and delivery styles, a whole anthropology in which the ways people sing marked the main links and differences between the cultures of continents. John Szwed is talking about an ecstatic genius whom many friends found “oppressive” if only because of his certainty that nobody anywhere knew what he knew about songs. “But Lomax was arguably one of the most influential Americans of the twentieth century,” Szwed writes, “a man who changed not only how everyone listened to music but even how they viewed America.”

Podcast • February 8, 2011

Rana Dasgupta: This Era of Catastrophe and Euphoria

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Rana Dasgupta. (40 minutes, 18 mb mp3)Rana Dasgupta is a lyrical novelist with a philosophical bent and an air of prophecy about him. Twin themes seem to absorb ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Rana Dasgupta. (40 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

Rana Dasgupta is a lyrical novelist with a philosophical bent and an air of prophecy about him. Twin themes seem to absorb him, about life and art. One is the sadness, loss, defeat and disorder that every new order creates — notably including globalization in our era, seen from anything other than the perspective of “mobile money.” Just as compelling somehow is his contrary theme: the flood of human energy and the reckless, irresistibly fascinating “ballistic” speed of innovation and change.

Dasgupta’s real-surreal novel Solo (reviewed here, here and here) won the Commonwealth Prize in London last year. It was singled out by Salman Rushdie, no less, for its “exceptional, astonishing strangeness.” What strikes me in conversation, however, with the astonishing news bursting in from Egypt as we speak, is how familiarly the book and author resonate with events. The sudden contagion of rebellious courage and confidence in dusty, despotic old Cairo fits neatly into the Dasgupta frame of life.

Solo is a novel in two “movements.” The first is a deft, elliptical recounting of the 20th Century from the far backstage of events. It is the mostly sorry tale of Ulrich, an obscure Bulgarian chemical engineer, blind, lonely and blue in in Sofia, in the 100th year of his life. It’s the tale, too, of Bulgaria’s 20th Century devolution from the Ottoman Empire through monarchy, then fascism, then Soviet Communism, then crony capitalism and cheapo turismo. Out of the ruins, so to speak, burst Ulrich’s gaudy “daydreams” of New York, Los Angeles and the global century in the second half of the novel. Boris — a violinist fantasized by Ulrich into world stardom — is an orphan inspired by Gypsy culture and a musical genius on the order of the mythic Orpheus. But the power to imagine Boris and his music is an expression of Ulrich’s hidden genius, too, part of the life he never got to live.

The book itself is an attempt to think about what global culture would be like, which is not to say a culture without any roots, without any human feeling to it. It’s not some sort of digital abstract culture; it is a highly felt culture which in a way tries to restore the human perspective, the human duration into this thing that we call globalization…

I have ambiguous feelings about globalization: I would want my work, and my life, to to be absolutely in this moment that we are living, absolutely conscious of it and aware of it, but, at the same time, to be highly cynical of it and to be deeply in touch with the eternal human story, never to lose sight of the myths, the enormous human resources that have got us this far. I guess I would be highly ambivalent, try to remain fully conscious of the enormous catastrophe we are living through. But never to play down either the enormous excitement and euphoria that modern life offers – of moving through time at this level of change…

One does also have to think about the people who can speak for this global system… the aristocracy of this system, the people who have this kind of effortless movement around it, who celebrate its values, and often who live in places that give them the sense of a rather serene system… They’re kind of in the idylls of global capitalism. Of course that’s not the only experience of it. At the rock-face of it, this system feels like the most destructive system ever to exist. And that turbulence is the weak point of this system… My novel is to some extent about that. It’s about entropy, it’s about the feeling that the creation of order always creates a greater amount of disorder around it. For the people who live in the midst of that disorder, the people who feel themselves to be part of that disorder, it’s a very very different kind of world.

The place to feel and contemplate our 21st Century condition, Rana Dasgupta is saying, might not be
Davos, say, but better the ravaged Congo.

Podcast • June 4, 2009

Calabash 2009: A View of Us in the Age of Obama

Jamaican wisdom: “When a black man becomes President of the USA, pigs will fly. And then what happened? Swine flu.” In Philip Womack’s dispatch from Calabash in the London Telegraph, June 2, 2009. This last ...

Jamaican wisdom:

“When a black man becomes President of the USA, pigs will fly. And then what happened? Swine flu.”

In Philip Womack’s dispatch from Calabash in the London Telegraph, June 2, 2009.

This last roundup of memorable voices at the Calabash literary festival in Jamaica is about us — the second of the big reasons I come. The first is to hear Caribbean writers at home – even the ones who’ve become famous in America like Junot Diaz and Edwidge Danticat, sounding off in the islands of Bob Marley and Derek Walcott.

The second mission, for me, is to see the States from a penetrating gaze just offshore — something like the old Irish wisdom on the world of the British empire. So as the Calabash gab winds down, I’m gathering up conversations with Jamaicans and visitors from all over about the US and the world early in the age of Obama. The impressions here are from the breakthrough filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, the Hong Kong novelist Xu Xi, the repeat poet laureate of the United States Robert Pinsky, and the world citizen and poet Kwame Dawes.

Melvin Van Peebles came to Calabash to show his new movie Confessions of an Ex-Doofus Itchy-Footed Mutha, nearly 40 years after he inaugurated the “blaxploitation” movie tradition with Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasss Song. With me Melvin Van Peebles is just short of exultant about the direction of things at home:

I think the States is on the right track, oddly enough. Things are coming to fruition. On election night, I went to a swank party on Central Park West. The cab driver who took me home wouldn’t take any money. He says: “we won, man, we won. He was from Sri Lanka. When a New York cab driver won’t take money from you, maybe things are changing. It was a seminal moment in my life… It can never go back. The guy is not messing up. He sure doesn’t give fodder to the stereotype of how a person of African descent can’t find his way out of the cotton patch. That’s changed. Over. Out. Can’t be discussed anymore. That’s an immense change. You can’t go back there.

Melvin Van Peebles in conversation with Chris Lydon, at the Calabash International Literary Festival, Treasure Beach, Jamaica, May 24, 2009.

Xu Xi is a literary light of a changing Hong Kong view. She’s both novelist and essayist – minding the gap between Hong Kong, the British colony for a century, and now China’s booming gateway for all kinds of commerce and cultural traffic East and West. This is a woman who grew up, as she writes, between Confucius and Catcher in the Rye.

The thing that is interesting since Obama’s taken office is the shift I’ve seen, especially in Hong Kong among friends who were always dissing America — you know, British friends, Australian friends, Chinese friends, who are suddenly so much more sympathetic towards America. It’s like: Oh, the U. S. of A. is not all that bad… I’m thinking of a British friend of mine in Hong Kong, a very smart man who’s never been to the States and never had much desire to go until Obama got elected. He’s the sort of person who should be coming to take a look, you know?

Xu Xi in conversation with Chris Lydon, at the Calabash International Literary Festival, Treasure Beach, Jamaica, May 24, 2009.

Robert Pinsky writes poems of place, starting in New Jersey, melodic poems with palpable images that travel easily. He read his signature piece, Shirt, beginning “The back, the yoke, the yardage…” and the Calabash crowd would have listened all afternoon. Pinsky was the poet laureate who got many thousands of Americans reading their favorite poems aloud; at Calabash he heard scores of Jamaicans reading their own strong verses in Open Mike sessions.

I am seeing in the island rather a promising vision of the next steps for American culture, and what we think of as the American project of becoming a people…

One of the most moving passages in Dreams from My Father deals with the part in that boy’s life when he has assimilated himself to Indonesian society–he is flying kites, he knows the language. His mother is seeing her husband diminished, frustrated and ossified. He is a good man but something is very wrong for him because he is living in a totalitarian country. So she gets the boy up at four thirty in the morning because she has realized that she needs him to get an American education. He must be an American in effect. And the kid complains because he is sleepy, and she tells him that this is no picnic for her either…

There is a great model here for American art and for American life. She wants him to be like Odysseus, the most interesting of the heroes. In the first lines of the Odyssey, it says that Odysseus, though he failed to get his men home, he traveled to many places and learned the manners of many people. She made sure that the compass, or the core, or the guiding vision, had to do with this project of being an American people.

Robert Pinsky in conversation with Chris Lydon, at the Calabash International Literary Festival, Treasure Beach, Jamaica, May 24, 2009.

Finally, Kwame Dawes, a prime mover at Calabash, had a big question on his mind. If the Age of Obama really is what it feels like, a new time, a watershed for black, brown and white people in the world, what is the opportunity, the invitation, for artists and writers, like himself. Kwame Dawes was born in Ghana, schooled in Jamaica and Canada. He now teaches at the University of South Carolina, and writes an astonishing variety of poems, essays and oral histories.

I became an American citizen last year, after Obama won the election… so as a Ghanaian-American, I am starting a journey along with this Obama guy, who for all of his African-Americanness is a kind of immigrant in America… and I think he understands the immigrant experience and that narrative.

For Americans choosing to be led by an African American, it means that America, particularly White America, has to be engaged imaginatively with the idea of who this man is…

I become a beneficiary of that because they have to engage with me and who I am. We have to find a point of connection and possibility. It is a moment. And it is a moment that we do not completely understand but it is significant because the equations have began to change.

Kwame Dawes in conversation with Chris Lydon, at the Calabash International Literary Festival, Treasure Beach, Jamaica, May 24, 2009.

Podcast • May 27, 2009

Pico Iyer in Jamaica: center of word and world

Calabash, the Caribbean literary festival, is an outdoor church of the written word, rocking and resonating on the south coast of Jamaica with the voices of poets and writers from Hong Kong, New York, Barbados, ...

Calabash, the Caribbean literary festival, is an outdoor church of the written word, rocking and resonating on the south coast of Jamaica with the voices of poets and writers from Hong Kong, New York, Barbados, Nigeria, London, San Diego and Boston, among other home addresses.

In this first of our conversations from Treasure Beach, Pico Iyer is preaching. All his life, the Dalai Lama has been friend and inspiration. Zadie Smith is queen of his literary realm. And now Barack Obama is his “global soul in the White House.” Pico is our model of “global attitude,” in short. Born in England of Indian parents, he went to school and university in the United States and has lived 21 years now in rural Japan, on a tourist visa.

We’re at the center of the word, and the center of the world, now.

When I was born, everyone would have said the center was London or New York. The world has grown so much more interestingly complex, so quickly, that a literary event in Jamaica finds a much larger audience than a literary event in London or New York would.

A 21st-century novel is much more likely to be set in Bombay, than London or New York. I think of London as the capital of the 19th-century novel, New York as the capital of the 20th-century novel, and Bombay — by which I also mean Kingston, and Port of Spain, Lahore and Lagos and other places — those are the capitals of the 21st-century novel in the English language.

Before coming to Jamaica, I might have thought of it as a marginal place. Now that I’ve been here, I can’t say that. It’s not at the margins. You’re right that it’s on the edge of the great America as Ireland was on the edge of Britain, but it’s as central as New York. It has the same number of influences coming here – you an Irish-American person, and here’s me, an Indian-Japanese person. We’re converging by the sea in Jamaica, surrounded by other mongrels, like ourselves. And the conversation is at least as rich here, as in New York, but perhaps richer. We can’t talk anymore about a center of empire and a victim of empire. The empire is global and Jamaica is having its say, to London and New York, and London and New York have to attend to it.

It’s interesting that the writer that you and I have most celebrated during this conversation, Zadie Smith, is half Jamaican, half English – she lives in New York. But in her life, because she’s such an accomplished novelist and essayist at her young age, she is a way of saying, “I’m going to bring my Jamaican heritage as well as my English and American heritage into the center of Western thinking, and the center of Western writing,” in exactly the same way that Barack Obama willy nilly is bringing Kenya into the White House, and into the center of traditional power. So that Kenya now can say, “We have our guy in the White House. The most powerful man in the world is from our little tribe.” They can legitimately say it as much as somebody from Kansas can say it. And I think Jamaica now is empowered in that same way. They can say that one of most exciting novelists in the English language, Zadie Smith, is coming from Jamaica, and is channeling Jamaica into, and bringing it together with her English part, and now her American life.

And I think that that’s the excitement: that Jamaica is now a center of the world, and there isn’t the center of the world, there isn’t one center of the world. The center of the world is everywhere.

Pico Iyer in conversation with Chris Lydon, at the Calabash International Literary Festival, Treasure Beach, Jamaica, May 24, 2009.

Podcast • April 24, 2009

Amitav Ghosh & Robert Coover: Speaking of Burma

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations with Amitav Ghosh and Robert Coover (17 minutes, 8 mb mp3) Amitav Ghosh & Robert Coover Our conversation draws on the novelist Robert Coover’s exercise of conscience about freedom ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations with Amitav Ghosh and Robert Coover (17 minutes, 8 mb mp3)

Amitav Ghosh & Robert Coover

Our conversation draws on the novelist Robert Coover’s exercise of conscience about freedom of expression in the world. Today. Burma was the focus this week of what’s become an annual International Writers’ Project teach-in at Brown.

Burma of the thin-skinned but immovable military regime in Rangoon. Burma of the Nobel Prize prisoner and non-violent point of resistance Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma of Kipling’s old “Road to Mandalay” (how we loved the Sinatra version) and the mahogany, jewels and oil that the British Empire stripped from the land between the 1820s and World War 2.

After our week with Burmese poets, artists and writers who’ve done hard time, some in solitary, in modern Burma, our conversation here is with Robert Coover about the artists’ predicament, and with the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh, whose first big novel, The Glass Palace, retold the colonial story behind the “news” of Burma. Resonating around the conversation somewhere is the spreading scandal of official US torture of terror suspects after the 9.11 attack on New York, through the war in Iraq.

Amitav Ghosh makes a point of starting off with Burma’s colonial history. He’s driving much the same point that Mahmoom Mamdani posed against the American (typically “liberal”) reflex to moralize and racialize our stories of faraway people.

Burma experienced colonialism, perhaps, in the most extreme way, where it was almost completely ransacked. After 1885 it was, actually, strangely similar to Iraq. The British went in under the guise of freedom and so on. Shock and awe, tyranny, all those tropes were there. But then after that they were faced with this very long resistance, so the during the pacification campaign, thousands and thousands of Burmese were killed. And ever after the countryside was fairly unsettled, so there was a lot of brigandage and so on. So then after that, I think, what profoundly affected Burma was the Second World War. People don’t adequately recognize that in the Second World War, when the British were withdrawing from Burma against the Japanese attack, they adopted the “scorched earth” policy. They literally laid waste to all of the infrastructure that they themselves had built in Burma. All the bridges, all the railways, all the warehouses, all the oil pumps. Everything was just blown up. But then the Japanese did come in, and when the British were reinvading, the Japanese adopted the same policy. So Burma was flattened twice. You think of the sort of aid Europe got, the Marshall Plan and so on. After the Second World War, Burma got nothing. There it was, this really poor country, completely devastated, it had no way of really rebuilding itself. You know, what has happened in Burma is one of the great tragedies for which the whole world, in a sense, bears responsibility.

Amitav Ghosh in conversation with Robert Coover and Chris Lydon at the Brown’s International Writers Project, April 23, 2009.

Historical amnesia is Ghosh’s thread to Iraq and the furor today about the CIA’s “harsh interrogation techniques” in the Bush years.

You know, I must say, I sort of knew that the Iraq war would be a catastrophe. But since then, so much of what happened there, actually, is incomprehensible. Leaving aside the torture, do you remember, a couple of weeks after the fall of Baghdad, there was an Iraqi general who actually went to the American authorities and surrendered? He surrendered. His sons came with him. The next he was heard of he had been wrapped in a carpet and beaten so badly that he died. Now, can you imagine an American doing that to, say, a German general in the Second World War? It is inconceivable. Can you imagine the British doing that to a French general during the Napoleonic Wars? It is literally inconceivable. How is it possible that these deep, deep taboos, not just in global culture, but specifically in Western culture, come to be flouted so easily? This other thing, this torture business, you know, the Prussian state, of all, abolished torture as a method in the 18th century because Frederick the Great said that it doesn’t work. All the things that people are saying today, he said. And ever since it has been one of the rules of warfare and, you know, the rules of warfare basically decided what civilized conduct was… So it is strange to see these arguments being rehashed over two hundred years later.

Amitav Ghosh in conversation with Robert Coover and Chris Lydon at the Brown’s International Writers Project, April 23, 2009.

Amitav Ghosh in his public talk here relayed a subtle and fascinating piece of advice from Burma’s most famous resister, Aung San Suu Kyi. Resist politics, too, she has told her followers. That is: resist the post-modern tendency to locate morality in politics alone. This was the example of several Burmese artists at Brown this week, none more touching than the physician and writer Ma Thida, who said that she survived in prison by meditating 20 hours every day. The lesson for all of us seemed to be: remember also (quite apart from politics) the inner life, “laughter, love and joy,” as the last repositories of moral consciousness.

Robert Coover took the advice, first, with a grain of salt; and then as an embrace of art.

I have worked a lot on political issues and have always been disappointed at how few were alert to those issues and how many were sunning themselves on the green, enjoying their inner lives. But, I think that one of the roots here — it’s what we all pretend, anyway, is the root – is the thought that art itself has this function. The novel, the painting, and, now, digital art as well: all of our modes come into deep focus without having an external object at which that is aimed. So that you can be moved by music at the same time you are moved against American foreign policy. And I think that’s our hope as performers.

Robert Coover in conversation with Amitav Ghosh and Chris Lydon at the Brown’s International Writers Project, April 23, 2009.

Podcast • April 23, 2009

Carlos Fuentes: FDR to BHO: the New Deal Revisited

“What a pleasure,” Carlos Fuentes was saying, “to speak praises of the United States again.” Click to listen to Chris’s conversations with Carlos Fuentes (22 minutes, 10 mb mp3)Mexico’s statuesque novelist, the handsomest, best-tailored writer ...

“What a pleasure,” Carlos Fuentes was saying, “to speak praises of the United States again.”

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations with Carlos Fuentes (22 minutes, 10 mb mp3)

Mexico’s statuesque novelist, the handsomest, best-tailored writer in the world, sounds euphoric in spite of The Crisis — maybe because, as Brazil’s President Lula has said, “we didn’t start it this time. It was the blond guys with blue eyes.”

On Fuentes annual sojourn at Brown, he is riffing with us on changes we believe in, and a few we don’t.

Carlos Fuentes: stroke of genius [PM photo]

CL: Carlos Fuentes, the world has changed, rather in your direction since I have seen you. Take stock.

CF: Well, I spent eight years of my wasted life with George Bush.

CL: You weren’t alone.

CF: I am glad that is over because I have a deep feeling for the United States since I went to school here as a child during the era of Franklin Roosevelt. So my ideal is the Rooseveltian ideal: the New Deal. When I see it as left behind, corrupted, violated as it was in the Bush years, I feel extremely sad about the United States. People say I am anti-American. No, I am pro-Roosevelt…

CL: Mexico’s politics have changed [since the PRI got thrown out ten years ago]. When does the economics catch up?

CF: I am afraid it is not catching up at all, because in Mexico we need to put the people to work. We have a great reserve of labor, which we are not using. We are thinking that if private enterprise takes up the slack of this crisis, we will go through it, but I don’t think that is true. I think that basically in Mexico we have to renew our infrastructures and modernize the country with the abundant workforce that we have. It is not a question of trickle-down capitalism, we have to build from the bottom up, as Roosevelt did in the United States in the ‘30s…

CL: The news, of course, is about the fear of Mexico becoming a narco-state: that both the guns and the drugs are making their way through these tunnels into the United States and Mexico. Put that into perspective.

CF: Let’s say that the narco-wars in Mexico cause around 100 deaths. 90 of those deaths are between the capos of the gun cartels—like Al Capone in Chicago—they are gangs fighting, and murdering, each other. About 8 are police and army personnel and about 2 percent are civilians, so that is the way that cookie crumbles. Besides, it is localized in the north of Mexico, in Ciudad Juarez, Baja California and Tampico. But it is not a universal problem in Mexico, it is not nationwide. But that they are infiltrating governments, that they are infiltrating politics—that is also true. The reverse of the coin is that the origin of the problem is in the United States. And as long as the United States does not know who creates demand for drugs, who are the banks that clean the money that comes from the border, who are the people who are manipulating, using the drug business in the United States, we will never know the truth.

There is the great thing from the Obama administration, which is to accept that this is a bilateral problem that requires a bilateral solution. It is not only a problem of Mexico, it is a problem of the United States demanding the drug, supplying the arms and making the money. Let’s see if this is cleared up by the present administration in Washington.

CL: Your friend and mine, ex-president Ricardo Lagos from Chile, was worried that all of the discovery of these fifty-plus tunnels has been on the Mexican side. The United States, for all of its alarm, can’t seem to find the other end of the tunnel.

CF: It has to be because the United States and the Bush administration refused to accept that this was a bilateral problem shared by Mexico and the United States. [Under Bush,] it was only a problem created by Mexico against the United States. When you accept that it is a bilateral problem, you see the other end of the tunnels.

CL:: What do you think is unfolding in the [United States] relationship with Cuba?

CF: I think that more is happening than what meets the eye. I think that there is an agreement, basically, between the United States and Cuba to go step-by-step. I mean, after fifty years of cold war, it is natural that the steps be taken cautiously. But I think there is an agreement basically for both Havana and Washington to take the steps, hesitatingly, Hillary Clinton makes one declaration, Raul Castro makes another, Fidel intervenes, Obama intervenes. We are going towards a normalization of relationships. Now, will this affect the internal politics of Cuba? At the meeting in Trinidad, everyone demanded that Cuba be readmitted into the Organization of American states, but there is a proviso there, and that is that the governments must be democratically elected, which is not the case of the Cuban regime. How do you get through that hurdle? Come on.

The present situation is an anachronism. It was built on the fact that Cuba was a satellite of the Soviet Union. There is no Soviet Union anymore. What danger does Cuba represent? None whatsoever. It has a regime that is distasteful, it is not democratic, but you can have relations with an authoritarian capitalism, which is the way that I guess that Cuba will go, following China and Vietnam…you have good relations with them under the system of authoritarian capitalism. You can live with it.

CL: You’ve been watching the United States your whole life. Send us a postcard, about us.

CF: I am extremely optimistic. You know I’ve always said that the American presidential election should be universal. We should all have a right to vote for the President of the United States because it affects us all, and I think that 80% of the world would have voted for Barack Obama. I think he represents hope. It’s a novelty, it’s a good novelty, he’s a good man, an interesting, an intelligent and generous man — for me its great news to have such a man in the White House, it’s very good news.

CL: Zadie Smith says that he has, on some level, the mind of a novelist. He is a great man for writing dialogue, for hearing other voices, for multiplicity of perspectives.

CF: He ends his sentences, which Bush never could… Politically, he is very good news. He is in the right direction for the present crisis. It was genius on the part of the American people to elect such a man at this time.

Carlos Fuentes in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, April 23, 2009.