Podcast • November 20, 2008

Amitav Ghosh and his Sea of Poppies

The Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh brings the British Empire to life again — the other side of the story, so to speak, from the other side of the world. If we’d had his wondrous new ...

The Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh brings the British Empire to life again — the other side of the story, so to speak, from the other side of the world. If we’d had his wondrous new novel, Sea of Poppies, six years ago, we might have saved ourselves the folly of Iraq. Instead, you could argue, we reenacted the cruel absurdities of superpower addiction and the illusions that weave themelves around it.

Sea of Poppies, the start of a projected trilogy on Britain’s Opium Wars against China, elaborates the premise that, as Ghosh says in conversation, “basically, it was opium revenues that made the British Raj in India possible. Indeed, it was silently acknowledged by the British who resisted all attempts to end the opium trade until the 1920s. In fact the British Empire didn’t long outlive the opium trade.”

Our own foreign-oil habit — yours and mine — suggests itself as the counterpart addiction that drives the American empire. Evangelical bullying and the theology of “freedom” are vital links. President Bush’s line, justifying the invasion of Iraq, has been: “I believe that God has planted in every heart the desire to live in freedom.” In Sea of Poppies, Ghosh’s kingpin Ben Burnham — closely modeled on historical figures from the Raj — has no trouble invoking his God in the service of opium.

“One of my countrymen has put the matter very simply,” as Burnham says in the novel. “‘Jesus Christ is Free Trade and Free Trade is Jesus Christ.’ Truer words, I believe, were never spoken. If it is God’s will that opium be used as an instrument to open China to his teachings, then so be it. For myself, I confess I can see no reason why any Englishman should abet the Manchu tyrant in depriving the people of China of this miraculous substance.”

Popular will, democracy, representative government have as little to do with the action of Ghosh’s novel as Congress did with the war in Iraq. “Parliament?” Ben Burnham scoffs to a disbelieving Indian raja. “Parliament,” Burnham laughs, “will not know of the war until it is over. Be assured, sir, that if such matters were left to Parliament there would be no Empire.”

Our free-ranging conversation touches on, among other things, Niall Ferguson‘s apology for empire; the narrowing discourse in American media; Afghanistan and Pakistan today; the polyglot world of sailing ships; the anthropological eye; and the history of Asian words in English.

It is not his project as a novelist and an Indian, Amitav Ghosh remarks, to break the “imperial gaze” of British writers from Kipling to Conrad. Rather he would love to recapture the cosmopolitan vision of the American, Herman Melville — the real precursor, he says, of Barack Obama.

Conrad’s work really doesn’t interest me that much… Conrad is writing about the age of steam, as opposed to the age of sail, which is what really interests me. The writers who have profoundly influenced me and my project are Americans, Melville most of all. To me, Melville is the greatest writer that America has ever produced. And I find his writing, his projects, so rewarding in every sense… his take his anthropological projects like Typee, or his ethnographies of the ship, like White Jacket. “Benito Cereno” precisely addresses the question of repression and rebellion, a really amazing story. Benito Cereno was based upon an episode in the memoirs of Andrew Delano, who was actually an opium trader, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ancestor…

One of the most wonderful things about Melville is that he was just about the only one of the nineteenth century nautical writers who paid enough attention to the world of the sea to actually write about Indian sailors. Even Conrad, when he does write about Indian sailors writes them as faceless and demonizes them. Melville is much more open-minded, much more curious. He’s Obama’s true precursor if you ask me.

Melville has a level of curiosity, a level of engagement with the world that is completely absent from 19th century English writing. Even though England has a long connection with Asia, it is so rare actually to find a believable representation of an Asian in English books. In Melville, on the other hand, you remember in Moby Dick, the 40th chapter, all of the sailors sing in different languages, and then suddenly you discover that this ship, which is a Nantucket whaling ship, actually has forty different nationalities on board, including Indians. In those ways, Ishmael — there you have him, a figure who is articulating a very challenging view of our relationship with nature, in terms of attention to nature; and the whole idea of the destructiveness — both the interest of whales and the horror of killing whales, and at the same time the joys of men working together in killing whales. All of these things are so richly and ambiguously rendered in Melville. In many ways, his work is inexhaustible in its inspiration.

Amitav Ghosh in conversation with Chris Lydon, November 19, 2008.

 

So the first homework assignment, kids, is: read Moby Dick.

Podcast • May 28, 2008

Derek Walcott: Calabash ’08

“It’s going to be nasty,” Derek Walcott said, prefacing his war on V. S. Naipaul with a warning. “The Mongoose” was the last of Walcott’s new poems at the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica last ...

“It’s going to be nasty,” Derek Walcott said, prefacing his war on V. S. Naipaul with a warning. “The Mongoose” was the last of Walcott’s new poems at the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica last weekend. He’d wondered whether he ought to read it, Walcott said, “and then I figured if I don’t do it, I’ll say: what the hell, you should have done it… I think you’ll recognize Mr. Naipaul.”

Nasty it was. And beastly (“a rodent in old age”). It was smelly (“And off the page its biles exude the stench / Of envy, la pourriture in French”).  It was indiscreetly personal (“This is a common fact in his late fiction. / He told me once he thought sex was just friction”). And in its anti-racialism, it was racial (“To show its kindness it clutches a kitten / That looks as if it’s scared of being bitten / Right at the neck; it’s the Mongoose’s nature, It cannot help that it was born in Asia”). And it was crowd-pleasingly funny (“Cursed its first breath for being Trinidadian, / Then wrote the same piece for the English Guardian. / Once he liked humans, how long ago this was. / The Mongoose wrote: A House for Mister Biswas.“).

Naipaul, 75, started it, as kids say of sandbox fights, with a book-excerpt in the Guardian last summer that was taken as a dismissal of 78-year-old Walcott (“a man whose talent had been all but strangled by his colonial setting”) and yet another in a long series of insults to the black Caribbean (Walcott, said Naipaul, “sang the praises of the emptiness; he gave it a kind of intellectual substance. He gave their unhappiness a racial twist that made it more manageable.”) Walcott has jabbed before at “V. S. Nightfall.” But on Saturday came the full blitz from the Caribbean’s first Nobel prize winner for literature (in 1992) against the second (2001).

The Mongoose

I have been bitten. I must avoid infection,

Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction.

Read his last novels. You’ll see just what I mean:

A lethargy approaching the obscene.

The model is Maugham, more ho-hum than Dickens.

The essays have more bite. They scatter chickens,

Like critics. But each studied phrase is poison,

Since he has made that sneering style a prison.

Their plots are forced, the prose sedate and silly.

The anti-hero is a prick named Willy,

Who lacks the conflict of a Waugh or Lawrence

And whines with his creator’s self-abhorrence…

This wasn’t what I came to Calabash for, and it wasn’t the best poetry to be heard over the long weekend. But it was the “lede,” as we newspaper guys say, on Calabash 08. And it betokened both the high hilarity and the underlying seriousness of the scene. There is venom yet in the old antagonisms of colony and empire, class and caste, Africa and India even in the context of Trinidad, where Naipaul’s ancestors came to work the cane fields after black slavery was abolished in 1833. The Walcott version here was: “Imported from India and trained to ferret snakes and elude Africans, / The Mongoose takes its orders from the Raj.” Walcott, though a world figure himself, summons the resentment of race and region against the universalist Naipaul, who “climbed to club- and gate-house with good manners, / The squirearchy from the canefields of Chiguanas.”

naipaul.kitten

Walcott mocking a press photo of V. S. Naipaul: “To show its kindness it clutches a kitten / That looks as if it’s scared of being bitten… “

 

The mostly Jamaican audience hung on every word: 2000 or so celebrants from the avidly bookish “Calabash demographic,” as poet and organizer Kwame Dawes puts it. (The poet Valzhyna Mort from Belarus struck a chord when she remarked later that day: “You are by far the sexiest audience I’ve ever stood before!”) As Walcott hammered away at Naipaul, there were listeners who kept laughing at couplets of cleverness, and others who looked half-aghast at the fury on display. I had a sudden flash of Emile Griffiths, the welterweight champion, beating Benny Paret literally to death in Madison Square Garden in 1962, a moment of gladiatorial excess that Norman Mailer gave literary immortality. Naipaul wasn’t in the ring with Walcott, but some referees would have jumped in to save Walcott from himself. I also wondered: has Derek Walcott, whose masterwork may be Omeros, a modern Caribbean telling of Homer’s Iliad—, dwelt overlong on the rivalries of Achilles and Hector?

“The Mongoose” was not, in any event, Walcott’s only contribution. In conversation with the remarkable Ghanaian, Jamaican and now American poet and all-round all-star Kwame Dawes (of whom more later), Walcott spilled a lifetime’s learning about the lively, literary and visual arts with the relaxed air of a master practitioner and teacher.

On music: “The cliché is that the Caribbean has a rhythm. It’s not a cliché, but it’s so true and so obvious that it’s a cliché. Whether it’s Latin America or the Caribbean or Central America, the basis and beat of all those art forms are basically rhythmic, very rhythmic. And the rhythm of course is African. I don’t want to do one of those, you know, waving flags, or race, and so on… And I think it relates very strongly to the fact that the music that we speak is a language. We have a language in the music we write. And we think simultaneously in both words and music. We don’t divide ourselves into, say, composer and lyricist. This instinct of crystallizing two forms into one is a very Caribbean thing.”

On his own painting and contemporary art: “My father was a very good watercolorist, and my mother understood what we wanted to do because her husband was a writer and painter. I was completely encouraged by Harold Simmons, a painter; we used to use his studio. There’s nothing better for a young writer or painter than to have someone who takes his or her work seriously. I had great teachers. My mother was a teacher. Part of the work I do is teaching, and I enjoy working with young poets a great deal. I’m a square in terms of painting. I hate Abstract Expressionism. I cannot stand it. Which is nonsense, because there are some great Abstract Expressionists, I think. I just think it’s very hard in art to do what is—to get what is there. I think there are a lot of artists who ignore the fact that we yearn for meaning, and who think (especially in America) that meaning is passé, you know; or syntax is passé; certainly rhyme is passé. You find a lot of that in America, because America’s dictum is: everything has to be new, and everything is based on psychology rather than aesthetics. So the natural direction of any actor is toward a nervous breakdown.”

On his own life and work: “I’m 78, right? I never thought I’d get here. I thought I was going to die at 30. I saw everything. I saw the gravestone, I saw the people coming to visit it. I saw the brackets and my name, “died at 25.” Oh, my God, fifty years later I’m still here… I’m going to be reading some stuff that — I say to myself: this is very simple, this is very ordinary. And I think I am delighting in that, not from any sense of resignation about anything. I just don’t like it now when any art makes a fuss. I don’t like any over-agitated poetry, because I know the technique, I know what people are doing. I know they’re going to be very bright. I don’t want to be bright. I don’t want to be intimidated when I read a poem, or challenged, or grabbed by the collar. I just want them to let me alone, please. Let me read the poem in peace, you know. And so I am coming to a point where even if it appears to be resignation and repetition, I don’t care as long as it’s clear, as long as what I am saying is at least honest emotionally.”

Derek Walcott had top billing before he got to Calabash, and “The Mongoose” was the talk of the festival to the end. My mission, however, was to catch the rhythm and melody of the Caribbean as a commentary on the Obama moment in the States, what feels like a challenge to the imagination of the whole wide world. So the conversations from Calabash 08 have just begun.

Podcast • May 5, 2008

Israel at 60: the Etgar Keret Version

The writer Etgar Keret was our Open Source witness in Israel two years ago to a general (local, global, existential) disbelief and alienation from the war on Lebanon. And now we have the pleasure of ...

The writer Etgar Keret was our Open Source witness in Israel two years ago to a general (local, global, existential) disbelief and alienation from the war on Lebanon. And now we have the pleasure of meeting him in the flesh on a campus visit to Brown.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Etgar Keret here (24 minutes, 11 MB MP3)

etgar keret

Etgar Keret: “a Jew in a diaspora of Israel”

Edgar Keret’s bizarre, violent, popular short stories (in a collection The Girl on the Fridge) are cited as a register of Israel’s consciousness, post-Intifada and post-peace process. Crowbar beatings, sledge-hammer murders and other grotesque happenings abound in these fictions. In one, a kids’ party magician reaches into the hat and pulls out, first, a rabbit’s bleeding severed head and, later, a dead baby. He concludes: “It’s as if someone was trying to tell me this is no time to be a rabbit, or a baby. Or a magician.”

Keret’s Israeli characters are caught in states of mind and spirit between love and suicide, between boredom and brutal anger. As in this story, “Asthma Attack,” reproduced here in full, the writer keeps fighting through the frenzy, for words:

When you have an asthma attack, you can’t breathe. When you can’t breathe, you can hardly talk. To make a sentence all you get is the air in your lungs. Which isn’t much. Three to six words, if that. You learn the value of words. You rummage through the jumble in your head. Choose the crucial ones — those cost you too. Let healthy people toss out whatever comes to mind, the way you throw out the garbage. When an asmatic says “I love you,” and when an asthmatic says “I love you madly,” there’s a difference. The difference of a word. A word’s a lot. It could be stop, or inhaler. It could even be ambulance.

Etgar Keret, “Asthma Attack,” in The Girl on the Fridge, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2008.

In our conversation, Etgar Keret and I were both trying (and failing!) to remember the source of the notion that art, including fiction, is the layer of the human record (unlike the monuments of warfare and politics) that does not lie.

CL: Imagine a hundred years from now people are reading this red-hot popular Israeli writer from 2008, Etgar Keret, for the truth about Israel. What would they learn?

Etgar Keret: Well, I think that they would learn that people in Israel know a little bit less than what they pretend to know; that they’re a little bit bit less confident than they want their neighbor to think; that there’s a very strong ambiguity and confusion among the Israeli people — the same ambiguity and confusion that all human beings tend to share.

CL: Can you explain how you became the rage among young Israelis in the last few years? Not the familiar image of the Israeli writer, you’re anti-epic and anti-macho, a cuddly, eccentric vegetarian who writes about people who are beset with perplexity and pain and fearful violence and, as you say, confusion.

EK: Well, I think that growing up In Israel, I think the one thing that’s not allowed is to be confused. Being surrounded by so many enemies who want to attack us, the last thing you want to do is to raise more questions, or to be more confused and uncertain. But at some stage you realize it’s actually the fact that you live in such an unsafe situation that makes all those questions that you are supposed to postpone more urgent. Because if you know you are going to die for something you want to know what you are going to die for. You don’t want to postpone it for later.

CL: Are these stories written from the perspective of a writer who’s worrying what he’s going to die for?

EK: Well, yeah… It’s not to die for, or live for. There is something about life, especially when you come from Israel, in a region where everything is so extreme, there’s something very overwhelming about life, you know. And it leaves you with your mouth open, with your jaw falling down, you know. And this is the situation I wanted to write about. Because there is something about Israelis that whenever you speak to people they give you this feeling that they are certain about all those answers. And they have all those answers, but those answers don’t seem to be working all around us.

So if there’s anything I want to say about this reality, it is maybe: take some sort of Socratic position and just say that we may know less about what’s right, and what we are feeling at a certain moment and what should be done. I’m saying I feel it’s important to admit our limitations and our confusion just so we can start finding the real answers, and it’s much better than kind of doing that than settling for some fake answers that seem to be going around in circulation for the last 60 years.

Etgar Keret, in conversation with Chris Lydon, May 1, 2008.

Podcast • April 11, 2008

Pico Iyer: the "Transcendentalist" Dalai Lama

In Tibet the Dalai Lama was an embodiment of an old culture that, cut off from the world, spoke for an ancient, even lost traditionalism; now, in exile, he is an avatar of the new, ...

In Tibet the Dalai Lama was an embodiment of an old culture that, cut off from the world, spoke for an ancient, even lost traditionalism; now, in exile, he is an avatar of the new, as if having traveled eight centuries in just five decades, he is increasingly, with characteristic directness, leaning in, toward tomorrow.

Pico Iyer, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, page 203.

pico iyerPico Iyer:’open road’ Transcendentalism

The Dalai Lama becomes the best sort of New England Transcendentalist in Pico Iyer’s crystalline meditation on the family friend he’s been watching and interviewing for 40 years — that is, almost all his life. The book opens with an epigraph from Henry David Thoreau (“So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real…), closes with Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit…”) and is brim-full of William James’s wisdom on science, psychology and religion. The title comes from D. H. Lawrence’s paraphrase of Emerson’s child, Walt Whitman: “The great home of the Soul is the open road. Not heaven, not paradise. Not ‘above.'”

Pico Iyer is himself a man of that open road — born of Hindu parents, both from Bombay; schooled at Oxford; long an American citizen; now based at TIME magazine and in Nara, the ancient capital of Japan. In journalism’s upper reaches these days Pico Iyer’s pieces from Havana, Phnom Penh, Damascus and Delhi set the standard of global curiosity and confidence — of the child-like eye and Old Masterly prose. But there is a home inside this traveler. The joy of our conversation was finding that he has vital roots not far from my own, in those beloved New Englanders. “I would like to call myself a Transcendentalist,” he says. “The higher form of globalism, I’ve always thought, is Emerson. That’s why I chose to write a book about the Dalai Lama: because he’s talking globalism but not at the level of Microsoft, McDonalds or Britney Spears, but at the level of conscience, imagination and the heart.”

Take this conversation with Pico Iyer as a first crack at the Tibet questions that will not go away in this year of the Chinese Olympics. This book, The Open Road, is a brief for the Dalai Lama’s brand of urgent patience (“Speak out, not lash out,” as Pico Iyer puts it) which many Tibetans and others find hard to hear. The hope in the Dalai Lama’s circle seems to be that under constant world pressure the Chinese leadership would deign finally to meet with the exiled holy man. “He doesn’t expect the Chinese leadership to come to its senses overnight,” says Pico Iyer, but neither does he see fruits in militancy. “He knows that to prick their pride is to bring down even greater hardships on Tibet.”

Tell us, Open Sourcerers: who has a better take on responsibility, compassion and possibility with respect to Tibet?

Podcast • December 6, 2007

A Free Life: Ha Jin’s Immigration Story

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Ha Jin here (25 minutes, 11 MB MP3) What if the meticulous realism of Ha Jin‘s first “American” novel, A Free Life, could be slipped into the fearful ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Ha Jin here (25 minutes, 11 MB MP3)

What if the meticulous realism of Ha Jin‘s first “American” novel, A Free Life, could be slipped into the fearful immigration debate we’re not quite having in the US?

Ha Jin: the long arc to America

I can imagine two reactions.

First, the generous sigh of sympathy — “give them a break!” — on being reminded just how humbling it is to hit the American beach running, to grasp our idioms (“in the doghouse,” “shooting the breeze,” “getting laid,” and “getting laid off”) — how just plain hard it is to confront the routine suspicions and exclusion, to cover the rent, to keep a family clothed, to see a way forward.

Second, there’s the more complicated, maybe off-putting realization under Ha Jin’s endless documentation that getting started here is not exactly an American experience. For a Chinese immigrant it’s a Chinese experience. Ha Jin reminds me of my daughter Sarah’s discovery: “When you’re pregnant, everybody’s pregnant.” Everybody in Ha Jin’s American saga is Chinese, and the divisions (between Taiwan and the mainland), the strongest feelings (“I spit at China…”), the intimate language, the brave hearts and weaklings, are all Chinese.

In the Americanization process that Ha Jin writes about there is no baseball, no Abraham Lincoln or FDR, no Paul Bunyan or American camp-fire songs, no Grand Canyon, no interest in our local or national politics… and no outward sentiment about a golden path toward the citizenship moment and pledge of allegiance. John Updike’s New Yorker review of Ha Jin notes that his characters “strive less to let America in than to squeeze China out — ‘squeeze every bit of it out of themselves.'” Is this part of what upsets us about immigration — that these strangers are so wrapped up in old languages, and their own damned dramas?

To me the slow-release beauty of A Free Life is its very long arc of acculturation and assimilation, over about 15 years. Between 1985 and 2000, the protagonist Nan Wu, with his wife and son, follow Ha Jin‘s own path from Boston to Georgia and back. Nan is first a graduate student in political science at Brandeis, then a translator and cook in Manhattan, then a successful-enough strip-mall restaurateur in suburban Atlanta, reading Robert Frost, Walt Whitman and W. H. Auden in his private hours. But by the time he is forty his poetic muse is in control; he is determined to be an artist and to run the risks of an expressive life. He is sounding like no one so much as the arch-American, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in “Self-Reliance.”

“He didn’t want to die a successful businessman,” Nan realizes, summoning up his real credo: “Do something moneyed people cannot do… Why hadn’t he devoted himself to writing poetry?”

In Nan’s Chinese circle, he has taken a lonely and provocative position.

“You never cease to amaze me.” Mei Hong stood up. “A madman is what you are. Let me tell you, you’re also a banana [yellow on the outside, white on the inside]!” She jabbed her finger at Nan. “You always despise China and our language. That’s why you’ve been writing in English and dreaming of becoming another Conrad or Nabokov. Let me tell you, you’re just making a buffoon of yourself! Get real — stop fancying yourself a great poet.”

Flustered, Nan felt his chest constricting. But he scrambled to answer, “To write in English is my personal choice. Unlike you, I prefer to be a real individual.”

“Yeah, to be a lone wolf,” scoffed Mei Hong.

“Exactly!” …

He preferred to stand alone.

Ha Jin, A Free Life, Pantheon, 2007. Pages 496-7.

Tom Tancredo, or Lou Dobbs for that matter: say hello to Ha Jin. Can Ha Jin point us to the core of this campaign frenzy about immigration, and immigrants?

Podcast • September 26, 2007

At Home and "Global" in the US: Edwidge Danticat

Like her friend from the Dominican east side of Hispaniola Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat is writing "global" literature in our midst, for our mainstream, documenting the "permanent floating" migration games and the fascinating creolization of identities in our time.

Edwidge Danticat — loyal child of Port au Prince and Brooklyn — says in conversation: “I always feel like I bring some of there to here, and some of here to there.”

edwidgeLike her friend from the Dominican east side of Hispaniola Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat is writing “global” literature in our midst, for our mainstream, documenting the “permanent floating” migration games and the fascinating creolization of identities in our time.

The definitions of identity are so fluid. Sometimes people in Haiti will say, “well, you’re Haitian if you live here.” That’s one definition. There’s global youth culture. It would be hard to tell a kid from Johannesburg from a kid from Sao Paulo or Rio or Port au Prince if you put three of them together and they didn’t speak.

There are kids in Port au Prince who don’t even speak English but can recite to you an entire 50 Cent song, who can “do” Kanye West with the same accent and tonality…

If you concentrate on young black men of a certain age in all these places I’ve mentioned in the African diaspora, if you think of them as a particular element of the diaspora, and the disuniting of them throughout time and our history — you know, the slave trade and so forth — then I think these things, whether you like them or not, like hip-hop might be the only common culture there is. If might be the one thing in which all these young men from all these different places can see themselves as one.

All this is part of a cosmopolitan culture, which is usually an urban experience of living in crowded places in a kind of outsider status. These are people who are trying to redefine their outsider status and make something that others find appealing, as they young men and women did in the Bronx with Rap, when that began. You see it in the Paris suburbs — young people who know they’re not part of the main culture: they’re lucky if someone thinks they’re French, or unlucky! They know they have this outsider status. A lot of them, taking their cue from Rap, are trying to create a culture of their own. That interests me a great deal! Young immigrant people who are struggling to become part of a culture, or if that doesn’t happen trying to create a culture of their own that they can belong to and that others end up emulating. That’s their inclusion. That’s where they belong. They create their own belonging.

Edwidge Danticat, in conversation with Chris Lydon, Watson Institute, Brown University, September 18, 2007

Edwidge Danticat has just been through her own “year of magical thinking,” encompassing the deaths of the father and uncle who brought her up, and the birth of her own daughter in Miami, all in the space of a few months. Her new non-fiction book, Brother, I’m Dying is a cool, meticulous chronicle of family history, of sudden shock and turmoil, and of her heart, breaking and surging.

The first part of our conversation tells one of those “refugee stories” that could seem someday to typify this era of mass displacement. Danticat’s 81-year-old uncle Joseph was a Baptist minister in Port au Prince. In the autumn of 2004, in fear for his life in a neighborhood beset by gangs, he fled to Miami, en route to his brother’s place in New York. Though he had visited the States many times and had a current tourist visa, he was detained, then shackled by Homeland Security officers who saw him as “another black man trying to get in.” In his “credible fear” asylum interview, Joseph Dantica vomited violently in an apparent seizure, but humanitarian parole was not to be considered, nor the process interrupted. “I think he’s faking,” said the medic on duty. Then suddenly Joseph failed. “His eyes are open and he’s not unconscious,” the medic commented. “I still think he’s faking, but we’ll take him to the clinic.” Then suddenly, at Jackson Memorial Hospital, Joseph Dantica was dead. When Edwidge saw his body, she was struck by the look of anger on her gentle uncle’s face — a look described in Haitian Creole by a word meaning “you were choked by your own blood.”

Podcast • September 26, 2007

Edwidge Danticat (Part 2)

In the second part of our conversation, Edwidge Danticat takes a "transnational" view of the "cosmic mobility" in a globalizing economy and culture. She says: "Even before people get here, they're working for you, making your baseballs and denims." About Iraq, she says, Haitian memory begins with the US invasion by President Woodrow Wilson in 1915 and the occupation of Haiti until 1934 .

DanticatIn the second part of our conversation, Edwidge Danticat takes a “transnational” view of the “cosmic mobility” in a globalizing economy and culture. She says: “Even before people get here, they’re working for you, making your baseballs and denims.” About Iraq, she says, Haitian memory begins with the US invasion by President Woodrow Wilson in 1915 and the occupation of Haiti until 1934 — “one of the most scarring things that ever happened to us… The Haitian in me sees the circularity in these things… It takes a long time to recover from these interventions and occupations.” I ask her, as I did Junot Diaz, to write us an immigration bill that corresponds with real demography and her own heart’s experience.

 

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.