August 10, 2017

Harder, Better, Faster, CRISPR

The dawn of a new age flashed across the news this summer – dateline Oregon: scientists from the US, China and South Korea together had tweaked the genes of a living human embryo to correct ...

The dawn of a new age flashed across the news this summer – dateline Oregon: scientists from the US, China and South Korea together had tweaked the genes of a living human embryo to correct an inherited flaw that has caused heart failure and sudden death in a lot of young athletes.  And so, finally, suddenly we enter the CRISPR age in bio-technology, when human science takes charge of the human genetic lifeline, to fix it here, tune it there, perhaps re-tailor it in useful ways.  We could be doing it soon with hundred-dollar DIY kits, at home. The Chinese are doing it, too.

As the pioneer in the CRISPR breakthrough Jennifer Doudna says: we have the ability now to edit the DNA of every living person and future generations, too.  “In essence,” Doudna writes, it means the power “to direct the evolution of our own species.”  “Unprecedented in the history of life on earth,” she adds, “beyond our comprehension,” and raising “impossible but essential” questions for which as individuals and as a species, we are “woefully unprepared.”  Jennifer Doudna’s colleague at UC-Berkeley, Michael Eisen starts off our conversation this week. He’s a genetic biologist — who works mainly on fruit flies — and a member of the Berkeley team that epically battled against the MIT-Harvard-Broad Institute faction, over patent claims on CRISPR and its applications.  Online, Michael Eisen has eloquently argued against the whole idea of patenting a public resource.

 

Ben Mezrich who dreamed up “The Social Network” about the making of Facebook and the IT billionaire class. He has a new block-buster in book form, soon to be a movie called “Woolly,” about the mammoth last seen as the Ice Age melted down. The human hero of the story is George Church —  the giant Harvard biologist who means to revive the woolly mammoth with its DNA and his own CRISPR tools. Imagine Indiana Jones in Jurassic Park. 

Antonio Regalado is a key journalist on the CRISPR beat, a minute-to-minute reporter online for the Tech Review, which is owned and managed by MIT.  Among the levels of his CRISPR coverage: the science, the people who do it, the motivations and the money. He tells us:

People are getting rich. In the case of the CRISPR companies, I can see how many shares the scientific founders from around Cambridge have and the amounts are large: eight, nine million, ten million dollars. And yet when I interact with the scientists themselves—George Church, for instance with his sort of lumpy shoes, you know, does money motivate him? He doesn’t act like it. So I think fundamentally I’ve got to believe that people are motivated by the fact that they’re discovering stuff and the glory and that is worth more than the money. But I might be naive.

There are agitated voices inside biology and outside it who want to be heard in the CRISPR conversation, and we invited two of them to speak up. Robert Pogue Harrison is humanities professor, a Dante specialist, at Stanford who podcasts on a great variety of civilized subjects.  Earlier this summer when the Templeton Foundation brought the superstars of CRISPR world to a weekend retreat in California, Robert Harrison was invited to sit in alongside George Church of Harvard and Jennifer Doudna of Berkeley, and speak for the long philosophical and moral view of a scientific revolution. On the phone this week Professor Harrison told us he came away from that meeting more perturbed than he went in. What struck him most was the widespread sanguinity among the scientists.  Under the azure Californian sky, CRISPR-potentiated nightmare scenarios seemed impossible to imagine:

My sense was that most of the people there felt or at least pretended to feel assured that as long as we all remain reasonable as long as we all put our minds together and make informed decisions about CRISPR’s use that everything’s going to be fine. I would have preferred more discussion of the potentially destructive and even catastrophic risks that such a technology introduces into the biosphere.

 

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University News Office

Ting Wu leads a genetic biology lab at the Harvard Medical School. And she’s married to her most famous colleague George Church, with whom she has had running debates morning and night for most of 30 years.  In her office this week we asked her to draw some lines she argues over with her husband. She told us: “I am not a line drawer.”  Rather, she’s more of a potentialist — a firm believer that the happiness of future descendents will be largely determined by our willingness to allow for a panoply of personal genetic expressions.

See a full transcript of this show on Medium.

April 17, 2014

What Do We Make of The Big Bang?

In the beginning was the Bang. We’ve got visible proof of it now, thanks to blockbuster discoveries made at Harvard and predicted at MIT. But are our heads too cluttered with creation myths to come to grips with the beginning of everything? So we're clearing the deck to listen to wisdom of the physicists: where did we come from, what are we made of, what happens next, and why? And what do we do with what we're learning?

 

Guest List

Prof. Alan Guth, the theoretical physicist at MIT who predicted cosmic inflation more than thirty years ago;
Prof. Max Tegmark, at MIT, the specialist on the cosmic microwave background;
Prof. Robert Kirshner, the observer-physicist at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Clowes Professor of Science.

 

In the beginning was the Bang. We’ve got visible proof of it now, thanks to blockbuster discoveries made at Harvard and predicted at MIT. But are our heads too cluttered with creation myths, and the matters of the day, to come to grips with the beginning of everything? We’re clearing our heads to listen to the wisdom of the physicists, in their words and images, to get to the bottom of some pretty basic questions.

Our “Top Ten” Questions:

1. Where did it all come from?
2. Where is it going?
3. What is it made of?
4. What is driving it all?
5. How big is it?
6. How will it all end?
7. What is real?
8. How do we know?
9. Where do we come into it?
10. Is there any meaning to it?

guth

A page from Alan Guth’s 1979 notebook, in which he theorizes cosmic inflation

 

February 27, 2014

Nasser Rabbat: Life and Death in Syria

Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor of Islamic architecture at MIT, a Damascene from way back.  The question we ask him is, “What will we say happened to Syria in front of our eyes, ...

Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor of Islamic architecture at MIT, a Damascene from way back.  The question we ask him is, “What will we say happened to Syria in front of our eyes, and was non-intervention in Syria as damaging in the end as previous American interventions have been?”

Nasser Rabbat wrote a marvelous account of his father’s death last year, a man who lived through most of the 20th century, and a great deal of Syria’s national history. It is the story of both a man and his nation, and it’s available in English at The Atlantic.

He wanted to go back to Damascus and die in Damascus. So how do I sum up his life? A Lebanese cardiologist was summoned to come and see him. My dad was half-drugged and had an IV in his hand and oxygen in his nose. The doctor was saying, “So what is paining you the most, where do you feel pain?” And my dad, in a very soft voice, answered the question, “Syria, the problem in Syria.”

 

January 23, 2014

Activism in Memory of Aaron Swartz

  Aaron Swartz, before he became the first saint of the Internet age, seemed the perfect boy-child of the Internet, the algorithm made flesh, a human embodiment of the Internet’s voraciousness and connectivity, its head-spinning ...

 

Aaron Swartz, before he became the first saint of the Internet age, seemed the perfect boy-child of the Internet, the algorithm made flesh, a human embodiment of the Internet’s voraciousness and connectivity, its head-spinning drive toward an open banquet of knowledge. The inventor of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, pictured Aaron Swartz “blazing across the dark sky of ordinary people, broken systems, a shining force for good.” And then in Aaron Swartz’s death by suicide, at age 26, one year ago, it seemed a promise had been crushed — the machinery of surveillance, censorship, and control had won the day. A year later the invitation is to see deeper into a vision of technology but also of culture and humanity, and to recover something of Aaron Swartz’s ambition, as he put it shyly, “to save the world.”

Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard law professor and for a decade Aaron Swartz’s closest grown-up friend, leads us this hour from the cold, snowy trek he calls the the New Hampshire Rebellion. It’s a mission to save a corrupted Republic, to ransom the Congress of the United States, to smash the money shackles on our politics. It is part of the project to renew Swartz’s spirit. Lessig may be the preeminent legal advocate before the Supreme Court and elsewhere of the free Internet – free as in freedom, not as in ‘free lunch’, as the saying goes. He is the author of Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress and a Plan to Stop It.

We’re trying also to locate Aaron Swartz as a landmark in the culture and the age. Matt Stoller, an incisive, sometimes scathing blogger on politics and money, was Swartz’s close friend and contemporary inside politics. The author Maria Bustillos corresponded with Aaron Swartz and has written wonderfully on his literary appetite and his own writing. He’d commented after his arrest two years ago that he read Kafka differently: The Trial, he realized, was not fiction but meticulous documentary coverage. And finally: nothing engages me more about Aaron Swartz than the news (to me, anyway) that he was an astute reader and commentator on David Foster Wallace and his mad epic Infinite Jest. On his blog Swartz had “solved” the mysterious ending of Wallace’s novel. It is as if he were trying to deduce the algorithm in Wallace’s head that produced the book. I am feeling tremors of a convergence here of iconic figures — two geniuses, two suicides and perhaps two parallel visions of an American apocalypse.

A reading list, for those interested.

A year ago Professor Lessig gave a TED talk about campaign finance reform, and how he sees the issue:

 

Podcast • September 14, 2009

Isaac Newton drops in at MIT

Alexander Pope’s couplet about Isaac Newton gives me goosebumps: Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night; God said: Let Newton be! and all was light. Epitaph… Intended for Sir Isaac Newton, in Westminster Abbey ...

Alexander Pope’s couplet about Isaac Newton gives me goosebumps:

Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;

God said: Let Newton be! and all was light.

Epitaph… Intended for Sir Isaac Newton, in Westminster Abbey

 

If the “foundational scientist” Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727) turned up one day at MIT, a sort of figment of Newton’s imagination, where might the conversation go these days?

Tom Levenson: In Newton's Playground

Tom Levenson: In Newton’s Playground

We are bandying questions with the master journalist Tom Levenson, the only man I know who has studied every word of Principia Mathematica.

Who at MIT would engage Isaac Newton on the subject of God?

Lots of people, Levenson argues.

Would Newton not take the “big bang” theory as an analog of the Bible’s story of Creaton?

Probably.

What would intrigue him most in science today?

The biological sciences of mind and self.

Who could persuade Newton that evolutionary psychology is true science?

Maybe nobody.

Who’d you introduce him to on his first day at MIT?

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. Wolfgang Ketterle, experimental atomic physicist. Marvin Minsky, scientist of mind and artificial intelligence. Rodney Brooks, roboticist. Nancy Hopkins, gene biologist…

In the miracle years of his early twenties, through the London plague of the mid-1660s, Isaac Newton codified most of what you and I know about apples, planets and moons in motion… about inertia, gravity and calculus, the mathematics of motion and change.

In Newton and the Counterfeiter, Tom Levenson, who runs the science-writing course at MIT, has extended the story to encompass Newton’s late career as Warden of the Royal Mint and remorseless detective and prosecutor of the notorious William Chaloner. Chaloner’s fatal sin was trying to debase not only England’s currency but also Newton’s beloved quasi-religious art and science of alchemy.

In conversation, I asked Tom Levenson to extend the yarn by another long imaginative leap. A guided tour, please, Tom, for the father of mathematical and rational science, around its sprawling citadel, from MIT’s brain labs to the departments of architecture and nanotechnology. Remembering specially that Newton — part medieval, part modern — was not exactly a Newtonian. The father of the Enlightenment was equally an alchemist, bent turning dross to gold, and a fervent, argumentative Unitarian Christian.

TL: I think where he would have been most intrigued, perhaps horrified, possibly even deeply saddened, is in the revolution in the biological sciences, the sciences of mind and self. I don’t think there was anything in 17th and early 18th century science, philosophy or theology that really prepared you, prepared anyone, for the impact of Darwin, the impact of Mendel, and for the impact of the truly rigorous application of the materialistic world view to who we are, how our bodies work, how our minds work; that’s were I think he would have had the greatest difficulty, not necessarily comprehending the underlying ideas, but dealing with the success of the results of this extraordinarily important line of inquiry.

CL: What is it that would trouble him? Is it the banishing of not only God, but of a deep mystery?

TL: I don’t think Isaac Newton wept much for the banishing of mysteries. I think he was committed to that as a proposition. But I do think he had a profound sense of himself as an agent of God. One of the scholars whom I most respect in this area, and whose work I drew upon, Simon Schaffer, at Cambridge, is writing now a book about angels in 17th century English thinking. And he argues, persuasively to me, that Newton saw himself as a kind of angel of the Lord. It’s very, very hard to hold onto that conception when you see how powerful the hypothesis that mind is a phenomenon of material brain, when you see how well that works, how much you can explain, how wonderfully we can intervene in the miseries of people using that as our basic presumption. The sense that there is a self that is not just my body, but a self that is my ideas, my thoughts, my emotions, my feelings, is one that we all hold very deeply, and that is being at least modified, if not entirely threatened by modern neurobiology. I think Newton would have found that difficult, very difficult. Many, many people do. He’s not unique. He has plenty of company today.

Thomas Levenson in conversation with Chris Lydon at MIT, September 3, 2009.

Podcast • July 17, 2009

Ronald Prinn and MIT’s Wheel of Fortune

Ronald Prinn is talking about what was arguably the biggest little news story on earth so far this year. It came from MIT’s global climate project: which reported in effect that the warming of the ...

Ronald Prinn is talking about what was arguably the biggest little news story on earth so far this year.

It came from MIT’s global climate project: which reported in effect that the warming of the planet is not a 2-alarm fire, after all, but a four-alarm fire… that in the lifetime of my grandchildren, the average temperature in this membrane of life around the earth will be warmer not by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius, but 4 to 6 degrees Celsius, or as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit. A planet-changer, as they said. Play the “wheel of fortune” game here.

Zoom in here on a irresistible Google map project of all the coasts in the world to see if your house will be underwater in 50 years. You can set the rising sea level as high or low as you dare. The default is 7 meters.

The MIT report in May had everything to do with the House vote in Washington in June: the first ever to fix an American limit on the emission of greenhouse gases that are changing the climate. The vote was a squeaker – a seven vote spread for the Waxman-Markey bill that embodied the Obama climate policy. With Senate vote coming up and very much in doubt, I asked the chief of the MIT study, Ronald Prinn, to walk us through his research and the Wheel of Fortune gimmick that simulates a risk assessment for the only home that we – that any organic life we know about – ever had.

We’re talking about something not way in the future. We’re talking about young people born today. They’re going to see the results of the heritage we left them, the inheritance if you like of the planet…

I would show [skeptics in the Senate] the wheel, and say: “Here are the odds, the best that we can do with the knowledge we have, here are the odds.” And then just explain that if we landed on that 6-to-7 degree Centigrade warming by 2100, what it means simply for sea levels…

It’s going to cause strife that is not just economic strife but it is the possibility of widespread strife associated with just simply the changing coast lines. Bangladesh is largely — a significant fraction of the country — only one meter above sea level. What are they going to do? They’re going to move into India, I presume. And what if the Indus River dries up in the middle of one of the most politically delicate and dangerous places in the world. There it is. It is not just economic loss, it’s the possibility of wide-spread strife.

Those are the sorts of things I’d talk about. I’d talk about risk, and say what do they want to leave their children and grandchildren now, what is it they really want to be known for when people look back and say “they did something about this issue and thank goodness they did.”

Ronald Prinn of MIT with Chris Lydon, Cambridge, July 17, 2009.

Podcast • June 25, 2009

Juan Enriquez: The Next Boom, by Zipcode

There is no rescuing this economy from our debt, denial and epic implosions like General Motors and the city of Detroit. The only hope is that our unfinished season of disaster will be inundated (and ...

There is no rescuing this economy from our debt, denial and epic implosions like General Motors and the city of Detroit. The only hope is that our unfinished season of disaster will be inundated (and the new economy floated) by a flood of invention.

Enriquez 800

Juan Enriquez‘s vision makes you want pray for a rain-out, bet on the flood. Especially if you live in one of the research and teaching centers of the world — best of all in MIT’s zipcode: 02139. Recovery, jobs and money are all fuctions, in the Enriquez brief, of zipcode concentrations of brain cells and emerging new “life science” industries.

Juan Enriquez is an investor, teacher, writer and sometime politician who’s famous now on YouTube and the conference circuit for riffs like this one. We’re picking up on, first, a TED talk he gave this Spring in California, and then a grand Boston boast that the Red Sox playing field is the epicenter of the next economy. At TED, he pictured a race underway between the crashing of car companies and newspapers and other branded industries and the simultaneous blooming of super-tech invention: the Big Dog carry-all robots, implantable organs and shoe leather man-made without cows. I asked Juan Enriquez in his Boston office tower for a sort of scorecard as of late spring in year one of the Age of Obama. The bad news is that we’re in real danger of sinking ourselves (not our kids — us!) with debt we cannot pay. We’ve been through some tentative confession of our sins, but atonement is still to come. Here’s the good news:

I’ve never seen a better time to invest: things are cheap, there’s a lot of smart people around, there’s a lot of technology we’ve been investing in for 15, 20 years in life sciences that is incredibly exciting right now. And Boston is the center of the universe for that stuff. Per capita, there isn’t a smarter place than Boston right now…

Half facetiously, I claim that the center of the universe is the pitcher’s mound at Fenway. And the reason for that is because you’ve got Boston University sitting on one axis, Harvard on another, MIT on another, then Boston College and Harvard Medical School… Within a three to five mile radius of that pitcher’s mound you have an awful lot of what the new economy looks like.

Of the known universe, at this point, the corner of Vassar St. and Main St. may be the single most interesting corner anywhere and the reason why is because you’re sitting in the middle of a zipcode, 02139, that has generated one the largest economies on the planet in terms of the companies that the faculty and students that graduated MIT have done. The second reason is that you have a huge concentration of life-science powerbases that around the Whitehead and the Broad Institutes and the Human Genome Project. You have a new neuro-cognitive center, the Picower Institute where they’re bringing together in one building everybody who’s thinking about the brain. So if you’re a psychologist or a psychiatrist, if you’re a neurosurgeon or a brain imager, if you’re a computer scientist, anybody who’s thinking about brain circuitry or how this thing works, you’re all talking to one another in a building, which is highly unusual for academia.

And then right across the street from that you’ve got a Frank Gehry building that has possibly the next generation of computing, the next generation of artificial intelligence, and the next generation of robotics. And you bring those three things together — and you think of single professors’ labs — a lab the size of your house — generating market caps of five or 10 billion or 20 billion dollars in the students that are graduating and the companies they found…

When I want to show somebody why the US is still a really important power despite the debt, despite a certain sabbatical from governance, I drive them through the area… As you go past the Stop & Shop, you’ll see the old NECCO candy factory, which has now become the global research headquarters for Novartis. In three other huge buildings next to it they’ve taken the three big Swiss Pharma companies – Ciba, Geigy, Sandoz – merged them and offshored almost all of the R and D to Cambridge, MA, which is a big deal! That’s offshoring probably five percent of the future of the Swiss GDP. That’s what the bet is… And then you hit the Charles River, which is lovely, right?

Juan Enriquez in conversation with Chris Lydon, Boston, June, 2009.

Podcast • December 19, 2008

Grand Strategy: Posen on Obama

Barry Posen is a very smart, connected foreign-policy “realist” who runs the MIT Security Studies Program.  He was one of those prized 33 policy types who signed the New York Times ad in September, 2002, ...

barposBarry Posen is a very smart, connected foreign-policy “realist” who runs the MIT Security Studies Program.  He was one of those prized 33 policy types who signed the New York Times ad in September, 2002, arguing that “War with Iraq is not in America’s National Interest.”

He isn’t always right.  A little more than a year ago, he was pretty sure that Dick Cheney would get his last big wish in office, a thundering strike on Iran:  “There will probably be a series of air raids,” Barry Posen begins, that will leave the mullahs’ regime standing but lethally enraged, and will thicken the air of a universal American confrontation with Islam. And then…?  But he wasn’t so far off. “It’s going to take an accumulation of costly mistakes to turn the elite in this country toward a policy of realism and a policy of restraint,” he said to me.  Perhaps a decisive presidential election would set another direction.

Or perhaps not. Posen argued “The Case for Restraint” in The American Interest Online:

“The United States needs to be more reticent about the use of military force; more modest about the scope for political transformation within and among countries; and more distant politically and militarily from traditional allies. We thus face a choice between habit and sentiment on the one side, realism and rationality on the other… ”  

In James Der Derian’s global security class at Brown University this month, Barry Posen read the Obama tea leaves and appointments — and judged that the President-elect may yet be in the grip of habit and sentiment in the realm of strategy:

Judging from the cast of characters and even judging from things that President-elect Obama has said himself, he’s not very far from the grand strategy consensus I described and in fact, in some ways, you could say, based on things he’s said, he’s even more energetic about certain things. And certainly some of the people he’s advised are more energetic. You know, I can find you somewhere in my briefcase…chapter and verse from say Susan Rice about the need not just to do something about Darfur, but to do very, very forward things about Darfur. Senator soon-to-be Secretary of State Clinton same. The president-elect has talked about humanitarian miliary intervention as if its something you should do. Samantha Power is a friend and advisor of his. So you could easily come to the conclusion that the change is going to be at the tactical level. The kind I talked about, you know, more emphasis on international institutions, more emphasis on diplomacy and, you know, probably more emphasis on doing something about nuclear weapons.

But if you believe that president-elect Obama does have a kind of a sense of proportion, a sense of priorities, a sense of scarcity, an ability to weigh, then I think you can look at this whole panoply of things that are there in the consensus and sort of say what’s likely to be priority and what’s likely to be second priority, right? And something’s got to give.

So my own guess is, when I take off this grand strategy prescriptive hat that I had on and try to assess what’s more likely, I think there’s a set of inter-connected issues that start in North Africa and end somewhere on the Pakistan-India border that are in some sense all have to be addressed at once and this was sort of the message of the Baker-Hamilton Commission… So if you look at all the things that need to be done there: some attention to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, attention to the Indian-Pakistani dispute, trying to get out of Iraq, trying to do something about Iran’s nuclear program, trying to decide what to do about Afghanistan because there’s a lot of loose talk about escalation but also some other talk that says maybe we better stop and think, right? And these things all have somthing to do with the other, right? So addressing all those things would be a project for an administration. Eight years, address those things. Fix one or two. Prevent the rest from going completely to hell; you’re a hero, right? So that project alone, which they’re out front on and they’re stuck with, I think is going to drive their activity.

Podcast • September 14, 2007

At Home in Global America: Junot Diaz, Part I

For people who feed on fiction for tastes of truth in our time, Junot Diaz is a treasure. A double-visioned outsider in two languages, two cultures and two countries, he begins to look like the anointed prince of a generation of young immigrants writing "global" fiction inside the US. Could Juno Diaz be our Joseph Conrad?

They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fuku americanus, or more colloquially, fuku — generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and Doom of the New World…

No matter what it’s name or provenance, it is believed that the arrival of the Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fuku on the world, and we’ve all been in the shit ever since. Santo Domingo might be fuku’s Kilometer Zero, its port of entry, but we are all of us its children, whether we know it or not.

Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

For people who feed on fiction for tastes of truth in our time, Junot Diaz is a treasure.

Junot DiazA double-visioned outsider in two languages, two cultures and two countries, he begins to look like the anointed prince of a generation of young immigrants writing “global” fiction inside the US. Could Juno Diaz be our Joseph Conrad?

The roaring liftoff of his first novel,The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao may even be an omen. Are we prepared to hear upstart fictionists tell us, as Junot Diaz does, at the outset: “Santo Domingo was Iraq before Iraq was Iraq.” Diaz’s young Dominican narrator decries the erasure of public memory: “You didn’t know we were occupied twice in the twentieth century? Don’t worry, when you have kids they won’t know the U.S. occupied Iraq either.”

Underlying what reviewers are calling a comic novel, these are the tough themes: the interplay of political and sexual brutality, the suppression of national and family histories, and an inter-generational repetition compulsion around ancient cruelties that are suffered and re-suffered if not exactly remembered.

Junot Diaz makes you wonder, among other things: where were the eminent post-imperial writers (in the class of Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondatje, Zadie Smith) as the U.S. staggered backward into our own neo-imperial misadventure? Might somebody have warned us?

In the next few weeks, we’re reading and interviewing also Ha Jin, the Chinese exile who has just published his first “American” novel, and the novelist and memoirist Edwidge Danticat, who speaks for Haiti and Brooklyn much as Junot Diaz voices Dominican lives from the New Jersey corridor to Santo Domingo, and often back, and back again.

The premise, of course, is that fiction writers may tell us a lot more than we learned from Congressional struggles with immigration reform about the new diasporas and hybrid identities; what seems a permanent floating migration culture; such things as Junot Diaz calls “a peculiarly Jersey malaise — the inextinguishable longing for elsewheres.”

Michiko Kakutani’s celebration in the New York Times noted the “madcap, magpie voice” of Diaz’s “funny, street-smart” narrator, in the “comic portrait of a second-generation Dominican geek,” the eponymous Oscar Wao. But as she, too, noted, the story and the history behind it are harrowing.

My conversation with Juno Diaz began with the American reader’s shock of non-recognition in his Dominican Republic, Siamese-twinned with Haiti on the eastern portion of Hispaniola, Europe’s original prize sugar colony. We Red Sox and Mets fans know next to nothing of the homeland of Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, and it feels a little scandalous. We call the D. R. the “Republic of Baseball” and know it as Rush Limbaugh’s Viagra-charged Fantasy Island. But the social history and the present poverty? The Hitlerian dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo from 1930 to 1961? The official massacre of many thousands of Haitians in 1937?

Junot Diaz says that the kids wearing MLB caps in Santo Domingo today might have as hard a time profiling Trujillo as I did. “We seem to be built to forget,” Diaz says. We seem to insist on “illusions of purity… coherence… goodness… of the pure present without the shadow of history.” But when we cannot summon our history, neither can we imagine consequences of the present. “This book’s central preoccupation is: consequences.”

Click to listen to Part I of the conversation with Junot Diaz( MB MP3)

Continue the conversation with Junot Diaz in Part II and Part III. Thank you, Junot. We are up for Edwidge Danticat at Brown University next Tuesday. Help me out, Open Sorcerers, with angles and questions, please.

Podcast • September 14, 2007

At Home in Global America: Junot Diaz (Part II)

In our conversation, Junot Diaz speaks of Belicia as a version of his parents' generation -- "our greatest generation [who] suffered so cruelly and created a community for us in America... and founded a dynasty."

junotcropped1The most wondrously imagined characters in Junot Diaz’s new novel are its women: Oscar’s goth, “tougher than adamantine” sister Lola, and their mother Belicia. Mami is a shipwreck of female beauty, cancer-ridden and foul-spirited. But once she was astonishingly attractive and lusty, “allergic to tranquilidad,” and her parents were rich and connected. This, too, is history that Belicia barely grasps, that her children are never told about their dying battle-ax mom who berates them in Perth Amboy, N.J. As a 16 year old in the Dominican Republic, we learn in a long flashback narrative, Belicia followed her girlish heart into love and battle with a goon and gangster who just happened to be married to Trujillo’s sister. The affair ends with a savage beating, one of three horrific canefield assaults in the book. Irreparably damaged, Belicia makes her escape to New York:

She is sixteen and her skin is the darkness before the black, the plum of the day’s last light, her breasts like sunsets trapped beneath her skin, but for all her youth and beauty she has a sour distrusting expression that only dissolves under the weight of intense pleasure. Her dreams are spare, lack the propulsion of a mission, her ambition is without traction. Her fiercest hope? That she will find a man. What she doesn’t yet know: the cold, the backbreaking drudgery of the factorias, the loneliness of Diaspora, that she will never again live in Santo Domingo, her own heart. What else she doesn’t know: that the man next to her would end up being her husband and the father of her two children, that after two years together, he would leave her, her third and final heartbreak, and she would never love again.

Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

In our conversation, Junot Diaz speaks of Belicia as a version of his parents’ generation — “our greatest generation [who] suffered so cruelly and created a community for us in America… and founded a dynasty”:

And continue, please, with Part III.