Martin Amis Takes Off His Jacket
Our latest one hour conversation with Martin Amis is now live. (Full transcript and other GIFs included.)
Show #446: Nancy Cohen
Show #446, which runs 45 minutes and 27 seconds, was released a few weeks ago and can be listened to at this link. Nancy Cohen wrote a book called Delirium, which concerns itself with how the sexual counter-revolution (namely, right-wing efforts to strip back the progress of women’s rights over the last several decades) has drastically altered America. (And this climate may very well explain why a figure as soporific and unenlightened as Katie Roiphe has been permitted to expend an unreasonable amount of column-inches in recent years.)
I was just barely able to get this conversation into the schedule. But because I felt strongly enough about the book, I did everything in my power to find time to read it and to talk at length with Cohen, who I met at Peacefood Cafe (the cafe that I have devoted many of my politically oriented conversations to) under somewhat trying conditions: only a few days before I had to leave the country at the last minute. This may explain, in part, the somewhat frenetic tone. But the talk does unpack a great deal of history relevant in our age of Komen for the Cure cutbacks and misogynistic articles penned by Esquirewriters-at-large. And Cohen is gutsy enough to challenge Thomas Frank.
Here’s an excerpt from the show:
Correspondent: Your timing is quite impeccable. Because I’m talking with you the day after Representative Issa to basically not allow a woman to testify at the all-male hearing on contraception. I’m talking with you a week after Komen for the Cure initially pulled its funds from Planned Parenthood, saying, “Well, we can’t support any organization that is under congressional review,” and then changing this to be “Well, we can’t support any organization that is referring out its mammograms.” So I gotta say, maybe this might be the opportune time to discuss how we got to this point in American political history. How does this constantly wavering excuse fit into the political strategy of the religious right and the forces of what you identify as the sexual counterrevolution? How did this come into play?
Cohen: Well, I’m an evil genius. And when I came up with this idea a couple years ago, I planned for these hearings to take place.
Cohen: No, seriously, the first line of my first chapter is “Perhaps if the pill hadn’t been invented, American politics would have turned out very differently.” And at the time, it was kind of a literary allusion. A way to get some history down. So what we’re seeing is really the logical end point of what I call the sexual counterrevolution. Delirium tells the story about how a small group of reactionaries who want to control sex have hijacked American politics. And what we’re seeing this week, and last week, is really the essence of the Republican Party. The id of the Republican Party coming out to play because they are so intoxicated with the power that they got in the last elections.
Correspondent: Yes. Well, the id wasn’t always there. As you point out in the book, I mean, it’s become increasingly id-like over the years. What of the sensible conservative idea? What of the rational reactionary?
Cohen: The sensible conservative ideas Back in the ’60s and the ’70′s, the Republican Party was the small government/personal freedom party. They actually meant it. They were better on women’s rights. They were better on sexual freedom really. Even before the sexual revolution, the Republican Party was better. But what happened was, with the sexual revolution and feminism and gay rights, a group of people — surprisingly mostly women — were appalled, freaked out about all these changes and sexual life and women’s roles and gays coming out of the closet. And they organized on a grassroots level against these changes. And so they went up against the Equal Rights Amendment. And they won. And then they went after publicly financed child care. And they won. And then they took civil rights away from gays. And they won. And then they methodically started taking over the Republican Party from local, state, and county committees on to the school board until 2008, when they had one of their own, Sarah Palin, on the presidential ticket.
Correspondent: Let’s get into this. You point out that George McGovern is one of the key figures responsible for Democratic timidity in relation to the sexual counterrevolution. You suggest that McGovern losing his temper, telling a voter to kiss his ass — that was one factor. The really terrible decision he made involving ordering milk with a liver sandwich in a Jewish deli. Not exactly the smartest choice. There was also this idea that McGovern, because he encompassed this cultural radicalism and failed, that this was what encouraged the Democrats to backpedal. So I’m wondering to what degree is this political temperament and to what degree is this, I suppose, a cultural radicalism that Democrats are afraid of? I mean, 2004, you have Howard Dean’s famous scream. And even before that, everybody was like, “Wow, this guy’s finally standing up for progressivism.” I mean, it seems to me that if you have a situation where the Democratic presidential candidates are limited in what they can say and how they can act, that this kind of progressive idea of, say, supporting something like the Equal Rights Amendment, you’re almost not allowed to do that. So how did this state come to be and what solutions do we have for the future?
Cohen: Good question. So the sexual counterrevolution has affected both parties. And in the Democratic Party, it’s really about their overreaction to every time they lose. And the way it goes back to McGovern’s election is that they convinced themselves that the reason McGovern lost by a landslide is because of all the gays and feminists and multiculturalists that he associated himself with. And so there’s this idea that Democratic progressives alienate mainstream America. Mainstream America is conservative. That idea is a fixation of the Democrats. But if you look at the studies of elections and you look at the studies of public opinion, it’s not true at all. Democrats have actually won elections for being the more culturally progressive party on women’s issues and gay issues and race issues. And so Democrats, I believe, would actually do better if they did embrace their voters’ live and let live attitude about people’s personal lives and stood on principle for civil rights for every American. But Democrats are timid and they have convinced themselves that they lose on this issue. So it would be good for them to start to recognize that it’s a winning issue.
Correspondent: But what data are they using? I mean, it can’t just be McGovern that’s the linchpin for this.
Cohen: No. So what they generally look at is exit polls and focus groups. And to get a little wonky here…
Correspondent: Sure. Feel free.
Cohen: What I looked at in the books so that no one else really has to — except maybe Democratic strategists can start looking at this stuff — is a lot of research by political scientists and sociologists that do regressions of public opinion polling and elections, and conclusively show that all the things we think are true — you know, that the white working-class man is an economic populist, but a social conservative? Wrong. It’s the reverse. He’s pro-choice and doesn’t like the Democrats’s economic policies. That Bush won the election on gay marriage? Wrong. No evidence. That Democrats lose elections for being pro choice? Wrong. Clinton won the election in 1992 on a huge upsurge of pro-choice women and pro-choice men.
Correspondent: You challenge Thomas Frank’s ideas in What’s the Matter with Kansas? by saying that he was condescending in believing that Kansans were duped into voting for more right-wing candidates and so forth. How do we go ahead and factor in, oh say, scenarios like Scott Brown in Massachusetts? Which is very much a scenario in which arrogance and technocratic approaches tend to destroy a Democratic seat. I mean, how does this play into the sexual counterrevolution? And how do you reconcile this, what seems to me, legitimate Thomas Frank idea with this?
Cohen: So I do criticize Tom Frank for being condescending. But I also criticize him for having no empirical evidence for his argument. And that’s the main case. His idea is premised that, one, the working class doesn’t vote for Democrats. They actually do. It’s premised on the idea that Kansas has been some bulwark of Democratic politics. It’s actually been a bulwark of right-wing evangelical fundamentalism. So there’s a number of other factual errors. I actually went into the book assuming that I was going to extend Tom Frank’s thesis. And I found that it actually went back to this anti-McGovern idea and discovered that there was no evidence for it. And that’s when I started moving in this other direction on the sexual counter-revolution. So an election like Scott Brown’s, a lot of health care money went in there. A lot of the people that they say are white working-class populist men are actually middle income or better off people. So what you have in a lot of these elections, like 2010 and the Scott Brown election, is you have very low turnout from poor Democratic groups. Young people. Single women. Low income people. And so when the exit polls do show a surge of white men, they often don’t figure out, well, where are these men economically? And I do agree that the smugness of the Democratic candidate in that election.
Correspondent: Who we don’t want to name. (laughs) And you didn’t name in the book and I won’t name on this show.
Cohen: I think she’s probably reformed. So I do think that was a case of a sense of the Democrats being entitled to a seat and didn’t really see this both right-wing and corporate money coming into that election that year.
Correspondent: If Tom Frank is so wrong with his evidence, then why is that book constantly cited? Why over many decades does the idea of the McGovernik still hold within the Democrats? I think that’s the thing I really don’t get. If all of the scientific evidence says otherwise, then why are serious Democratic leaders going by this?
Cohen: Well, actually, serious Democratic leaders aren’t going by it anymore.
Correspondent: It only took them several decades. (laughs)
Cohen: Yes, well, they read the polls and they read exit polls and they do their own political polling. They don’t necessarily read the academic literature. But the key person who articulated this idea of the McGovernik, about the Reagan Democrat: Stanley Greenberg, who I hear is a wonderful man and has done a lot of good work for progressive causes, was one of the people who kept this idea alive. And he runs a polling company. And he uses his own polls. So just after, since 2008, he’s basically said, “You know what? The Reagan Democrats aren’t the key voting bloc anymore. Democrats need to go for this multiethnic, cosmopolitan, progressive base and they’ll pick up enough of these white working-class men to win elections. So it is Tom Frank — and I haven’t read his new book, so I don’t know how he’s amended his thesis. But there has been a shift among the leadership of the Democratic Party. And I think you see with Obama not defending DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act], right? Saying, “I think it’s unconstitutional.” This is a sign that they’re starting to see that good principles are good politics.
Show #445: Maggie Anderson
Show #445, which runs 52 minutes and 5 seconds, was released a few weeks ago and can be listened to at this link. But this interview with Maggie Anderson almost didn’t happen.
First off, a few words about Maggie Anderson. For one year, she decided to buy from nothing but black-owned businesses. This effort (the Empowerment Experimented) permitted Anderson to discover many unexpected insights about race and economy that aren’t discussed nearly as much as one would hope in the 21st century.
Because of Maggie’s unique experience, I had to talk with her.
But the universe did nearly everything in its power to prevent Maggie from appearing on The Bat Segundo Show. On the day that I was scheduled to meet her in New York, I suffered from an acute and especially debilitating case of gastrointestinal poisoning. I was forced, much to my great dismay, to cancel our meeting at the last minute.
But I felt that the book’s subject matter was important. So I made a rare exception to my “in person only” rule and talked with Maggie over Skype. But then this appointment was delayed — in large part because the universe inflicted similar health interventions against Maggie’s family.
I am pleased to report that we did end up talking and that all parties are hale and hearty. And while the subsequent conversation was a fun and fruitful one, I should also note that Skype sent out an inconsistent signal for much of the conversation. My apologies to Maggie and the listeners for any lapse in quality.
Here is an excerpt from the show:
Correspondent: You are responsible for a rather amazing idea called the Empowerment Experiment, which you document in this book, in which you spent the entire year buying from nothing but black-owned businesses, frequenting them and so forth. Just to get the ball rolling here, I want to discuss why this is necessary. You point out in the book that there were 6,339 African-American owned and/or operated grocery stores in the United States in the early decades of the 20th century. And then, by the time we get to the new millennium, only 19 African American owned grocery stores existed in the U.S. So a number of questions come to mind. First off, what specific figures are you relying on? Is this from the 2002 Economic Census? What ultimately accounts for this dramatic decline?
Anderson: Well, the numbers are so important to us. And we’ve got to let your listeners know that we fashioned this as an experiment. It was, of course, a stand. But we really wanted these important numbers to be injected into the national dialogue. Those numbers. How we used to have so many businesses in the country in our community. We had hotel chains, department stores, hardware stores, drugstores. We don’t have any of that now. Grocery stores. And that when we have those businesses, our community didn’t suffer. We didn’t have the high unemployment. Our kids weren’t choosing gangs over college. We didn’t have all this drug abuse and violence and recidivism. So we really wanted to bear out that correlation. That when we had strong black-owned businesses, our community didn’t suffer. So if we can find a way to do little things to bring some of those businesses back, maybe we can counter the social crises that disproportionately impact our community. We wanted to show the numbers. The big number that we wanted to talk about was our $1 trillion in buying power and that less than 6% of that makes it way back to the black community.
Anderson: If we can just get a little bit more of our own buying power to be recycled in our own communities, maybe we can bring those jobs numbers up. The other number is that black businesses are, by far, the greatest private employer of black people. Black unemployment, we know, is three times the national average of our white counterparts. Highest among any ethnic group. And in some places like Birmingham and Cleveland, we’re at black unemployment like 15, 16%. So maybe if we start supporting more black businesses that employ black people, we can stop black unemployment. So it was really just about making sure the conversation about the black situation in America is thorough and comprehensive. We can’t just keep talking about black unemployment and then not talk about black buying power and the fact that black businesses employ people and that none of our buying power is going to black businesses. So the numbers that we depended on — to get back to your question — you know, it’s just kind of known in our community how we don’t support each other. How if you walk up and down the street in a black neighborhood, none of the businesses there are black-owned except for funeral parlors, barber shops, and the braid salons. It’s just kind of known that most of the products on the shelves, none of the retailers in our community, none of the franchises are black. So we just kind of know that and joke about it. It hurts, but we just accept it. But it’s so hard to find data to bear that out. My roommate jokes about it. But we did find an interesting study — I think it was an economist, John Wray. Who did a study based out of DC that proved this horrible statistic about how long the dollar lives in different ethnic communities.* This statistic is used a lot in this conversation when people talk about “leakage,” economic leakage, recycling wealth in minority communities, that kind of stuff. This is a well-known statistic. That in the Asian community, the dollar lives close to 28 days. In the Jewish community, I think it was 19 to 21 days. Hispanic communities: 7 days. But for black people? The dollar in the black community lasts six hours.
Anderson: And it’s like, no wonder we live at the bottom! So we’re just so frustrated. And no one talks about that six hours. Because if you want to talk about the six hours, then you’re basically saying that all of these horrible things happen in the black community as a reflection of our propensity and our potential. Not a byproduct of how there’s a lack of support from black consumers — it’s our fault! — or black businesses. Sorry about the long-winded answer.
Correspondent: Oh no.
Anderson: I can’t leave that out. It’s such an open-ended…
Correspondent: I know. No, this is all very good. And there’s a load of threads to start from here. Actually, I’m sure you’re familiar — there was a study in 2010. A rather alarming study from the Oakland-based Insight Center for Community Economic Development, which revealed that the median wealth of a single white woman in the prime of her working years — roughly 35 to 49 — was $42,600. And the median wealth for a single black woman was only $5!
Anderson: Yes! Yes!
Correspondent: Yeah. I’m sure you’re familiar.
Anderson: I’m onto that one. I’ve heard about that. That’s just — man! The one that really blows me away. There’s the other one where I think we’re at 3% transferable wealth or whatever the definition of wealth. 3% compared to the white purse. [NOTE: I believe Ms. Anderson is referring to Arthur Kennickell’s “A Rolling Tide.” (PDF) The economist revealed that African-Americans had less mean wealth than white non-Hispanics.] But that thing about the single black woman, that’s ridiculous. I mean, we’ve been here 400 years. We have a black president now. We have folks like me.
Anderson: We have living manifestations of the American dream at work. You know that my family’s an immigrant family.
Anderson: You know, we have all of this and we still have that. And it’s going to be hard to make that kind of number a fair number. It’s going to be really hard. But at least, if everyday consumers like me were to try and find the businesses that were going to employ that woman or give her a fair wage or give her community a chance and invest in her community instead of just making money from that community and taking it away, maybe we can do something about that number.
Correspondent: And the statistics actually get slightly better when you account for marriage or cohabitation. The white woman has a median wealth of $167,500 and the black woman has $31,500. So better than $5. But still really troubling. I guess the question I have, since we’re talking about the idea of a black dollar not going so far, what do you think ultimately accounts for this failure to have the wealth reinvested in the community? In black neighborhoods? How can they be expected to invest their wealth in any concentrated matter? I mean, what are the underlying issues here? I’m curious.
Anderson: Right. And it’s so funny. Because when people just hear about the essence of our experiment — black families say they’re only going to support black businesses — there’s accusations of racism. And people will assume that the book is this thing of taking it to the Man. And getting back at Charlie. And all that stuff.
Correspondent: Getting back at Charlie. (laughs)
Anderson: The white man Charlie. But anyway, the book is really — if I’m yelling at anyone, it’s at black consumers. Because there’s a lot of history here that contributes to the bad situation we’re in. I’ll be really quick. A lot of it has to do with integration. Of course, we love what integration did in this country. Of course, we fought for it. But it had some really negative impact. Some deleterious impact into the black economy, if you will. Because we’re forced to, because we’re segregated, we built up our own businesses. We had a strong sense of entrepreneurship in our community. And we recycled our wealth. So that was just the fact. That was the way it was. And the University of Wisconsin just did a study** that showed in 2009, when there was over 50% black unemployment in Milwaukee, in the same area, where there used to be black businesses flourishing in the 1950s before integration, there was less than 7% unemployment. So it really bears out that when we have the businesses where black people work, black people are employed. So after integration, we were so anxious to be enfranchised. We were so happy to have that opportunity to shop at Woolworth, to go to Walgreen’s, that we did it in droves. And it was just kind of our way of saying, “Yeah! We’re going to show you that our money is just as good as white people’s money and we’re going to show you how important we are and how equal we are by spending as much money with you as we can!” And in so doing, we kind of abandoned our would-be Woolworth’s, which were already providing quality goods and services in the community. All of our consumers just left those local black businesses that helped our community shine to go out to these big corporations where we were denied the right to shop before. So that was the first punch. And then the second punch came in. Because these corporations started seeing the value of the black consumer dollar. So they started to market to us very positively. Another term that I’ll bring up, which is kind of funny. We used to say “colored on” at one point. Colored on. We were so excited if GM were to show a black family coming out of a house, driving their Cadillac to the family vacation. Or McDonald’s, where you’d have a black family enjoying a black family meal. We were so happy when we saw that and that was the best way for them to market to us. And we returned that honor with our dollar, with our loyalty. So that was the second punch. They started marketing to us more aggressively. And we started spending more money with them, with their businesses. And then the third punch was they started to recruit us. So when I was coming up — I’m 40 — so in the ’70s, when I was coming up, the big deal for black mothers, for black parents, for black grandparents, was for me that kind of shining star, that smart kid that hoped to get out of the ghetto, was for me to find a great job at a big white company. That was the goal. It wasn’t like with our Asian counterparts, even our Hispanic counterparts, to continuing the family business, to start a business, to stay in the community. No. It wasn’t that. It was get out and do so by getting that great job. So the would-be entrepreneurs or the Talented Tenth, if you remember that.
Anderson: We didn’t do our Talented Tenth duty. We left the community and we gave all our talent to big corporations. All of these things contributed to the lack of support for black business and our lack of entrepreneurship in the community. The big deal is to get a good job, not be an entrepreneur. So the entrepreneurs we do have don’t have the capital or the training to compete. So we can only survive in the industries where no one else can do it better. And that’s by braiding hair, cutting black hair, and providing funeral services in our community. So that’s where we can still have a stronghod. Even in black hair, in beauty supplies. Even in all that kind of stuff, we’ve lost those industries. That was kind of the fourth punch when immigrant groups basically started to leverage this wonderful phenomenon of a whole class of people that loves to spend money outside our community. They set up shop in our communities. Not racist. Not trying to steal our wealth. But they set up shop there and did well there. And now we’re upset because we can’t find quality black businesses in our own neighborhoods when basically we invited the intrusion by not supporting the black businesses we did have. So all of this has led to the demise that we have now. So some of it, yes. Some of it, our racist history. A lot of it has to do with our consumers, our people, kind of seeing our own businesses in a negative way. It’s a real difficult thing to talk about outside the black community. It’s just kind of cultural. But the definition is another term. White man’s ice is colder.
Anderson: Why go to a black business when you can go to a white business? The way we show that we’re equal is by buying Polo and Hennessy. By living in the white suburbs. That’s how we demonstrate our equality. Not by buying black products and supporting local black businesses. I know it’s kind of a disgusting thing to say, but that’s the truth.
Correspondent: Well, as an effort to unpack much of what you just said — for example, in this book, among the businesses that you include in the Empowerment Experiment are, for example, a black-owned Quiznos. But my understanding is that a white guy named Rich Schaden is the principal shareholder and that he and his company have this history of ripping off numerous franchise owners. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Quiznos franchise holder, Bhupinder Baber. He killed himself over this. So, yes, I agree that a black-owned Quiznos, it may indeed hire more black employees. But if the parent company is exploiting its franchise owners, I’m wondering if this cycle of exploitation has a negative impact on a black neighborhood or a black community. Shouldn’t one also consider the independent nature of a business as well? How does a black-owned Quiznos help a community more than, say, an independent family restaurant?
Anderson: Right. And this is a huge point that I have to contend with when I push this supply diversity franchise rediversity message into the community. And here’s how it goes when I’m talking to black folk who I’m trying to get to support black businesses. It should not be that tough of a fight, but it is. When I say this to them, they come at me, generally with stuff like “Well, we tried to Karriem [Beyah]‘s grocery store. He didn’t have the thing that we wanted.” Or it wasn’t like going to our Jewel, the big grocery store chain around here. Or you can go to this black franchise. But I didn’t see a bunch of black employees there. Or how do I know Quiznos is a good franchise to be supporting? So I get a bit of a challenge. Then I say, “Well, you know what? How is that? I mean, what are you doing now?” Basically, we’re just out there supporting anybody. Not thinking about what the businesses are doing for us. Polo. I mean, Polo blew the lid off of black consumers. We have black Polo parties that we have for our kids. I mean, it’s just ridiculous how addicted we are to the Polo brand. I have nothing against Polo Ralph Lauren. But I did have a friend who works writing for the CFO of Polo, and I asked her to do some research for me. She’s a conscious consumer like me. HBS grad. Very well connected in the company. And she thinks they talked with the marketing folks, the procuring folks, everybody about buyer diversity. Do you do business? How do you invest in the black community? We have so much money coming in from the black community. And their answer to me was, “Well, our label comes out of Indonesia.” And it’s unbelievable. That’s the best we can do to reciprocate the loyalty that the black community’s giving you? So it’s like, “Yeah. Maybe.” And you’re totally right about the Quiznos thing. But the first answer to them is, “But you’re supporting Polo. And it’s not like you’re stopping in support of Polo.” And I’m not saying don’t support Polo. But if you’re so discriminating with how you spend your money, there’s a lot of things that we shouldn’t be doing that we ought to be doing.
* — This study can also be found in Brooke Stephens’s Taking Dollars and Making Sense: A Wealth Building Guide for African-Americans. There seems to be no online version of this.
** — After reviewing the study (PDF), I believe Maggie’s slightly off — that is, if she’s referring to the Marc Levine findings from January. But black unemployment is absolutely a problem a Milwaukee. There was a huge hit in the last several decades. 1970: 84.8% employment rate for metro Milwaukee black men in their prime working years. By 2010, that figure had fallen to 52.7%. Here’s the important paragraph from Levine’s report:
The city of Milwaukee, where almost 90% of the region’s black males live, has lost over three-quarters of its industrial jobs since the 1960s. As Table 5 suggests, this manufacturing decline has disproportionately affected the employment prospects of African American males. In 1970 54.3 percent of Milwaukee black males were employed in 1970 as factory operatives, more than double the white percentage. By 2009, only 14.7 percent of black males were working in Milwaukee factories, about the same percentage as white males. By 2009, in fact, even though working-age black males outnumbered Hispanic males by 55 percent in Milwaukee, there were more Hispanic male production workers (7,200) than black male production workers (4,842) in the region, a sign of the degree to which manufacturing is no longer the bulwark it has been historically for the Milwaukee black male working class.
Show #444: Alain de Botton
Show #444, which runs 30 minutes and 18 seconds, was released a few weeks ago and can be listened to at this link. We didn’t have a lot of time to talk with Alain de Botton (he had only one day in New York), but he was kind enough to give us thirty minutes to discuss his latest book,Religion for Atheists. I like Alain and his writing a great deal, but one of the tricks with this conversation was persuading Alain to unpack some of his issues, which he was a bit hesitant to do (despite the fact that the man exudes classy cordiality). To express marvel is an essential quality to life. But if you’re going to really wrestle with ideas that have the potential to change the world, shouldn’t you work out the pragmatics?
It was perhaps this essential question that gave this program some unexpected sparks.
Here’s an excerpt from the program:
Correspondent: Your books very often have this moment where you describe a very funny yet sometimes socially awkward encounter where you attempt to impart some concept or some amazing idea in your head that you are excited about and that the person who is receiving this intelligence often expresses some dismay. I think of, for example, your long speech at the Mojave Airport Graveyard in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work or your attempt to pitch yourself as a writer-in-flight to the British Airways head honcho Willie Walsh. Obviously, I think, based off of this, you are aware that some of your excitement is being misperceived. So in light of trying to consider a scenario along the lines of what you’re preaching in Religion for Atheists — where you’re trying to have certain concepts stick in other people’s heads and religion is more fraught, more sensitive than the norm — how do you get through to these people? I mean, if you’re aware of these things, you’re probably going to have moments even more extreme than the two I’ve cited. So what of this predicament? How do you go ahead and convert these people over to your side?
De Botton: Well, I suppose, when it comes to religion, you’ve got extremists on both sides of the debate. You’ve got religious believers who are very fervent in their belief and think that anything else, anything besides full conversion to their creed is not acceptable. And at the same time, you have very fierce atheists who think that any involvement with religion is evil and to be resisted. And I’ve tried to write a book that’s somewhere in the middle of those two. It’s a book that tries to say that, as an atheist, you can nevertheless engage with aspects of religion. And indeed those aspects may be very enriching for your understanding of secular society. So it’s a weird book. Because it really is fairly in the middle of something that most people would consider to be incompatible, which is atheism and religion. It’s arguing that atheism should engage in, and can engage, with aspects of religion. And it can be shot at from both sides. But I also think there is a silent majority that is actually in sympathy with the approach I’m taking. But that is a silent majority that don’t have the pulpits.
Correspondent: But if the movers and shakers, such as the man at the graveyard, require twenty dollar bills to advance things, I’m wondering how you can instill these ideas into a new belief system if everything is centered around commerce, centered around capitalism, centered around the need to get ahead, centered around some unusual man asking to see the airplanes and so forth. I mean, this, I think, is one of the interesting takeaways I get from your book. So how do you solve this?
De Botton: Well, I think that the proposals that I make are aiming to get secular capitalist people in secular capitalist societies to rethink their positions on things. I’m arguing that there are certain things missing from modern society. Though we’ve been fantastically good at delivering material improvements and supplying material needs in the developed world, there are some other needs, which you might call spiritual — and I use that word without any supernatural implications. But spiritual, psychological needs have been left slightly unattended. I’m thinking here of things like our need for community, our need for moral structure, our need for certain guidance through the challenges of life. These things have not been so well done by the secular world and I’m arguing that one of the ways which we can plug some of the gaps in the secular world is to look back at the lessons of religion. And my book is full of examples, of concepts, of practices, of rituals that one might rescue or at least learn from as atheists in a secular world.
Correspondent: Well, there’s one idea — the Agape Restaurant — where you have different types of people sitting at the same table, sharing their stories and so forth. But I’m wondering what safeguards you have in place for people who are shy or who are introverted. There’s a new book by Susan Cain called Quiet that gets into the amount of social energy one has to exert if one is introverted or even ambiverted. And so this also leads me to ask — well, if I go into a situation and I’m asked to share my most intimate secrets with a stranger, I’m not certain if I would want to do that. Because maybe someone there might want to steal my identity or so forth. We would enter such a social arrangement with understandable suspicion. And if you’re an introvert, you may be very scared or it may actually be a little intimidating to be asked to engage in this extroverted activity. So what of these kinds of problems here? What are your solutions? What are your workarounds?
De Botton: I guess my starting point is that the modern world is not so good at community building. There’s a lot of loneliness. Because much of who we are doesn’t get an expression in social life. And this is surprising. Because with Facebook and other social media, we were supposed to have cracked this. But I think people will still complain that in many areas, we don’t have good communities. And religion’s unparalleled at building communities. Now how do religions build communities? One of the things they do is they gather people around a table every now and then and get them to break bread together and get them to talk. That’s how early Christianity started. It started as a series of meals between the followers of Jesus who remembered his lessons and got together to eat. And, as I say, you find this in all faiths. That somehow the stranger is invited to the table and is welcome to the table and a stranger is turned into a friend. It’s a beautiful idea. A simple idea. And I couldn’t help but contrast this with the modern world, where we’re obsessed with eating. And newspapers and media are full of places to eat. The restaurant world is high on the agenda. But what’s never really spoken of is the meal as a source of a social engagement. As a source of discovery of another person. And that is really what interested me. And so with the example of religion in mind, one of the things I do in my book is to suggest how we might learn from the tradition of communal dining of religions, and precisely set up meals between strangers. Now, of course, some of them may feel uncomfortable. And some people like to eat on their own. So it wouldn’t be for everybody. But I think in many of us, there is a desire to shed the armor which we normally have to wear in daily life and to eat with others and to discuss our shared and common humanity.
Correspondent: But what I’m saying is that the introvert who is very fond of, say, one-on-one exchanges, as opposed to mass group exchanges — I mean, how does such a communal dining experience account for that? They may feel very uncomfortable. There may be a lot of social energy. You’re saying that they should go ahead and answer very deep questions about what they fear. And so how do you account for them?
De Botton: Well, look, it’s not for everyone. As I say, if someone wants a one-on-one meal, if someone’s not interested in community, then it might not be for them.
Correspondent: Well, how do you get them involved in the community? If the ideal here is to get everybody on the same page, how…
De Botton: Well, it doesn’t have to be everybody. But it has to be those among us who hunger for community, as many of us do.
Correspondent: But introverts do hunger for community. They just go about it in a different way.
De Botton: Yeah. Well, I couldn’t speak for them.
Correspondent: Okay. Early in the book, you bring up the Day of Atonement — the moment on the Hebrew calendar where Jews must identify all those who they have hurt or behaved unjustly towards. Now those who are part of the Day of Atonement are inclined to forgive any offenders for annoying them or causing them grief. But it is an undeniable truth that very often when you apologize to someone in the secular world, well, they’re not exactly going to have the same degree of understanding sometimes. In fact, your apology may aggravate the other person further. So I’m wondering. To get something along the lines of a Day of Atonement for a secular or non-religious group, I’m wondering: Does it take a specific secular rite? For example, in Australia, if you go and vote, 95% of the people turn out. Because if you don’t vote, then you’ll actually get fined. So I’m wondering if a Day of Atonement along the lines of what you’re talking about would require something like a government mandate for everybody to apologize to everybody. What of this dilemma?
De Botton: Well, I don’t know. I mean, what strikes me as a secular person is how intelligent religious communities are at realizing that community is a very nice thing in many ways. But it’s also very challenging. And you find, throughout the history of religion, mechanisms to ease social tensions. And it struck me that the Jewish Day of Atonement was particularly clever and insightful in recognizing that what holds communities back is grudges. Things that are undigested in the past. And what it encourages people to do is to both accept that another person may have a grudge to bring up, but also that it behooves you not to drag out that grudge. So there’s a kind of mutual responsibility on both sides not to drag out an argument and to move towards forgiveness. And the underlying assumption is that God is the only perfect being. And anyone else is going to be flawed. And so we have to forgive on the basis of our fragility and flawed natures. And I think that’s a very beautiful idea. Look, the specifics of how an atheist might do this can yet be worked out. But it’s food for thought. I think, for me, what’s interesting here is that the psychological mechanism of forgiveness based on a recognition of imperfection. And this is something that the modern world struggles with.
Correspondent: How do you reach, though, someone who is not inclined to forgive? Or who may not in fact be on the same page? I mean, I’m all for you. I would love to see everybody forgive everybody for their sins or their errors or their sleights or what not. But the fact is that a lot of people are just not going to. So what does it take to really bring people around? Does it take constant promotion of idealism along the lines of what you’re saying or what?
De Botton: Well, in the Jewish Day of Atonement, what gets people motivated is a sense that it is normal both to forgive and to have a grudge that you need to bring up. And I think that too often when people annoy the mood for discussing issues, of discussing grudges, it’s because they feel that they’re not going to get a proper hearing, that it might be embarrassing to do this, and that dialogue with another is impossible. So it’s a kind of pessimistic position. And sometimes we may need a bit of help. We may need a third person.
De Botton: Mediators.
Correspondent: Voluntary mediators.
De Botton: And that, in a sense, was the role that God was playing in the Jewish community at that point. He is a mediator.
Correspondent: Yeah. So in addition to having a temple for atheism, we also need to get a mediator army of volunteers. Would this also help to spread further good will and bonhomie?
De Botton: I think you’re focusing a little bit unfairly on the practical aspects of this. I’m really writing as a psychologist. I’m interested in psychology of religion and the psychology of the dynamics that are being explored. So how exactly this might apply, how a secular person might absorb this into their life is capable of many different interpretations?
Correspondent: But aren’t pragmatics important when considering the psychological possibilities of what human beings are capable of?
De Botton: Sure. Absolutely. Absolutely But we don’t have to decide today.
Correspondent: I’m just picking your brain here.
De Botton: Sure. Of course.
Show #442: Catherine Chung
Show #442, which runs 43 minutes and 14 seconds, was released late last week and can be listened to at this link. It contains a vibrant conversation with the soft-spoken, thoughtful, and quietly excitable Catherine Chung, who is author of Forgotten Country. I must confess that Cathy and I were competing with a rather clamorous din of noise. I met Cathy at Cafe Henri, a classy West Village joint with good table service and nice people that had been one of my main staples. But on the day that Cathy and I were there, it had been discovered, overrun, causing one regular to remark what I had been thinking (“I’ve never seen it this busy”). Factor in the two of us forced to shout at the top of our lungs over the remarkable noise (which I disguised by carefully boosting down the levels as we talked) and some confusion over where a third wheel who tagged along with us was sitting, and you might have a recipe for chaos. Yet our talk ended up getting into race, bullying, whether a city can be a personal refuge, and a rather funny ending in which the two of us discussed a hotshot deity named “God Cathy” towering over the work.
More important than any of this is Cathy’s wonderful book, which I hope this conversation encourages you to listen to either before or after you read it. Here’s the excerpt from our show:
Correspondent: I know that Forgotten Country emerged from a number of different stories that you were working on at the same time. You have, of course, this idea of the boy falling out the window, which is at the very beginning. The mysterious hermit girl who crops up later in this book. And then you also have this story that was inspired by your father’s sister, who disappeared when you were a child. It’s really interesting to me that, first of all, these stories fused their way together into a novel and that, secondly, this came before this massive family unity of complicated relationships. So I’m curious, first and foremost, if you could describe how these stories came together in novel form and how you were able to fuse them together, and whether you needed some of these orbiting asteroids to circle around and become the planetary family unit.
Chung: Yeah. Well, you make it sounds as if I did it so intentionally.
Correspondent: (laughs) No, it never is intentional, of course. But I’m wondering how the connections came about.
Chung: Yeah. I think that they came about after a lot of time. There’s one character telling all these separate stories. And that’s what linked them. I didn’t really know what they were doing with each other or how they were related. There are other stories that were also in this book that eventually dropped out.
Correspondent: Oh really? Like what?
Chung: So there was a flying ghost monk.
Chung: Yeah. He was eradicated fairly early on. But he was totally in there and for a long time, he was carrying a great deal of weight in terms of just the number of pages.
Correspondent: That’s quite a feat, given that he was a ghost.
Chung: Yeah. He was a ghost. He was on a trek to find his lost daughter. And that was one of those stories I realized in my mind was related to the other three stories, right? Because all those stories are about loss and about trying to find what’s been lost once you’ve moved on. It’s almost impossible to do that. But in terms of the narrative arc, he didn’t work. And part of the reason he didn’t work was because the main narrator really was Janie, who was the protagonist and the narrator of the novel. Because he was carrying on his own story and I thought, “Well.”
Correspondent: You can’t very well have him being narrated by Janie.
Chung: Yeah. And in my mind, he was related. But in terms of the book, he didn’t fit.
Correspondent: So how then did the family come about if Janie was the narrator for these three stories?
Chung: Ah! Because she’s totally preoccupied by her family.
Correspondent: Oh, I see. In the act of telling these other stories, you got to know her family.
Chung: Yeah! That’s exactly right. These are the stories that I was really interested in. But the other stories that she was also interested in, I had to create a character who could tell these stories. But I think that she was interested in these stories because of the light they shed on her own experience. And as she told these stories, she’s sort of a secretive, hard-to-get-to-know person. So these were the stories that she wanted to tell. But then there were these underlying stories of her own life that came to play as she was telling them.
Correspondent: And allowed you to work out the connections with the sister, with the aunt, and so forth. Well, this leads me to wonder, did you have the competitive relationship between the sisters in place before the father-daughter relationship? Which of those came first?
Chung: Which of those came first? I think that the father-daughter relationship came first. Hannah’s disappearance came first.
Correspondent: Of course.
Chung: It was the absolute first thing to happen. But their competitive nature came as I was discovering why Hannah would leave and why it would be difficult to find her. I discovered what their issues were.
Correspondent: It’s interesting that competitiveness would come from disappearance. (laughs)
Chung: Yeah! And I think that the competitiveness also arose not early on in the novel — but I think Janie gets jealous with all the attention that’s focused on Hannah while she’s missing.
Correspondent: You were mentioning ghosts earlier. We’re talking about disappearance.
Correspondent: I’m wondering if subtraction might in fact be the way for you to pinpoint what a story or what, in this case a novel is all about.
Chung: That’s a really interesting point. I think that a lot of what I’m interested in and a lot of what I focus on is what’s missing or what’s longed for. Or what’s gone.
Correspondent: Were there any instances when you were writing this where you simply had too much and you had to remove an element? I mean, we were talking earlier…
Chung: Like a flying ghost monk.
Correspondent: Like a flying ghost. Or a character perhaps. Or some angle that just didn’t allow you to get that emotional precision that I think is there throughout the book.
Chung: Yeah. I was thinking the other day just about how many pages I removed. And I would say the book is about 300 pages, but I think I must have deleted at least six or seven hundred. Probably more like a thousand as I was going through the drafts. So entire storylines fell out. Like the flying ghost monk. There was a character. Janie’s love interest also ended up getting cut out.
Correspondent: Oh, I see.
Chung: And so as I went…
Correspondent: Is this the guy in college? Or just another love interest?
Chung: No, it was another love interest.
Correspondent: Oh! Another love interest!
Chung: There was another.
Correspondent: What was he like?
Chung: What was he like? Well, you know, I think he wasn’t all that interesting. Which is why I took him out. He wasn’t really holding his weight. I realized it wasn’t about him.
Correspondent: Well, I also wanted to ask about Hannah. The thing that’s fascinating to me about her is that she almost seems like a reflection of Janie. I mean, I think specifically about the scene in the hotel elevator, where Hannah follows her in and is essentially tailing her and mimicking her. And then you also have Hannah, which is a palindrome.
Correspondent: But also you observe of her at another point in the book, “how strangers, even adult men, would pause in the street to look at her, and how easily she held their attention.” So she’s also, on the other hand, resistant to Korean food. Which leads me to also wonder if her reflective nature came to mimic the idea of America or an American identity mimicking the original Korean identity that Janie has. And I’m wondering if you could talk about if Hannah came from almost a reflective pool from dwelling on Janie like this.
Chung: That’s such an interesting question, and one I haven’t heard yet. But I think that’s exactly it. Or at least that’s the source or the core of Janie’s resentment to Hannah. I think that because Hannah not only reflects Janie, but also gets to do some of the things that Janie doesn’t get to, but would like to, Janie feels that that’s been taken from her. That she only gets to be a certain kind of person because Hannah has already taken this other part of her. This reflection, exactly as you’re saying, is reflecting some part of her that is also slightly different. And so Janie is very competitive and jealous about that. But I also think that that link that you made to how her Americanness is a reflection of how her Koreanness could be a reflection is also very interesting. Because of the ways in which people change or mimic each other or come to copy an idea of what they should be. So, yeah, those were things that were with me the whole time that I was writing this book. And I just think that it’s really cool that you picked up on that.
Correspondent: But when you considered Hannah, did she first come to you as this aesthetic person? And did you need to flesh her out by this reflective thing we’re talking about? By imbuing in her some sense of her being looked at by other people? By people who were not, in fact, Janie?
Chung: Maybe. And I think that the thing that I kept getting caught on with this question is that I have often thought of both Janie and Hannah as reflections of parts of myself as well.
Correspondent: Yes. Of course. They’re your secret sisters. (laughs)
Chung: Yeah! Who live inside my head. But I was interested in Hannah as the object of attention, right? As a kind of reflection. And I think part of Hannah’s problem is that it’s hard for her to — and Janie’s problem as well — it’s for them to think of themselves, or they get tripped up on the way that they’re being looked at by other people. And it’s hard when you see yourself as a reflection. Because then what are you?
Show #440: Hari Kunzru, Part One
Show #440, which runs 40 minutes and 23 seconds, has just been released and can be listened to at this link. And it’s the first of a two part conversation with Hari Kunzru, author of the rightly well-regardedGods Without Men. I won’t even atempt to summarize what we talked about. Because frankly we talked about damn near everything. But needless to say, we gabbed for so long (both unknowingly) that I had to split the show into two. The first part has a lot to do with the book. The second part gets into Hari’s early days as a journalist, and even gets into geeky territory (computers and Michael Moorcock are both brought up). Here’s the excerpt from the first part:
Correspondent: I wanted to first of all start off on a question of faith — predictably enough. A writer has a lot of faith when he is putting together a novel. A reader places her hard-earned shekels over the counter and has faith in the writer to tell a story. The characters in this novel, Gods Without Men — they are both faithful and faithless to ideologies, to their families, to their relationships. So faith is a very loaded concept. And I’m curious why any novelist would tackle something that is so tricky, so duplicitous, so hypocritical, so difficult to pin down. I mean, how do you deal with this? Because even though this novel does not always answer all questions, you are dealing with something that you have to fit into narrative. So maybe we can start here.
Kunzru: Yeah. I suppose my own relationship to faith is a complex one. I’ve got an Indian father from a Hindu background. Many people on both sides of my family are actively practicing religious. My mother’s background is Protestant English. My parents decided quite sensibly to bring me up without any religious — not to bring me up with either of those two traditions. So I was left to find my own way. And I’ve always had for many reasons a kind of inclination to see things one way and then see things another way. But over the years, I’ve developed a sense that I don’t believe in god. I’m an atheist. However, I don’t think that position — the idea that you don’t believe in some kind of personalized creator to whom you owe an ethical duty not to sleep with the wrong people. That doesn’t take any of the big questions off the table about human agency, about ethics, about meaning and value. And I’ve always been very fascinated by people of faith. Because in some ways, I find them very scary. People with a very strong faith have stopped asking questions at a certain point. There’s a certain point where they have made this leap. This extraordinary leap into the world of faith. And it’s something I felt that I understood poorly as well. The only book that’s ever really made me really kind of feel what it must be like to have a powerful religious faith is Fear and Trembling, the Kierkegaard book where he talks about the extraordinary moment where Abraham has sacrificed Isaac and he’s prepared to do this because his faith in God’s word is true. And that kind of encapsulates it. It’s a terrifying act. It’s a horrific act. And it, in a way, echoes with all these incredibly violent things that have happened in the name of religion. But at the same time, there’s a kind of horror to it. There’s a sublimity to it. There’s an absolute abandonment of the human.
And this novel is a way, is my attempt to talk about our relationship with the unknowable and with the unknown. And it’s about all sorts of people who have many different ways of conceptualizing this and many different sorts of solutions that they’ve come up with. But the essential question is the question of absence and unknowability. At a certain point, human comprehension ends. And whether you believe that everything is essentially knowable — like Jaz, the husband in this. The husband and the wife who are at the center of the book. Jaz is a rational man. He is trained as a scientist. His sense of the world is if you think hard enough and you have the right concept and you test and you hypothesize, then the world will open up its secrets. And his wife goes absolutely in the other way. She withdraws into a kind of mysticism. And other characters in the novel range from various people who have profound faith — like a Franciscan friar and a lapsed Mormon coalminer to people who have a much more complicated relationship with it and a skeptical relationship with it.
Correspondent: But I would argue that this concern for faith — both sides of the fence — almost mimicks Fitzgerald’s idea of the first-class intellectual being able to hold two opposing ideas in his mind. I mean, with Jaz and Lisa, it’s very interesting, those sections in particular. Because the prose itself is both general but specific enough for us to get an idea. It’s almost as if the prose needs to mimic their especial judgment towards the world, towards each other, and the like. And I’m curious how you developed this at the prose level. Because that was one of the things that really impressed me about your book. What struggles were there to get that balance? I’m just curious.
Kunzru: You mean, in terms of the voice for the different characters?
Correspondent: Yes. Exactly. Especially for Jaz and Lisa.
Kunzru: You know, it’s one of these things that emerges through the doing. I don’t think it was a very programmatic thing. I mean, those characters emerged as quite defined opposites to each other in their reaction to what happens to their missing child. I mean, I’m interested in the business of faith in the financial markets, faith in credit and the extraordinary kind of high wire act that is the global financial system, which depends on everybody believing that this money exists. And yet placing a kind of Mr. Science in this world of high finance was an interesting one. Out of those decisions, his way of talking and his way of understanding the world emerged quite naturally. Once you know that somebody has a higher degree in physics, you know that they’re unlikely to be basic in their worldview on The Celestine Prophecy. And Lisa’s character comes out of something I’ve observed from a lot of liberals with humanities backgrounds. Here, in London, everywhere. That actually, people aren’t very scientifically educated very often and actually have a kind of gut hostility to the procedures of science. Because they feel that it’s kind of closing down the space of wonder in the world. And that leads quite a lot of people — I’m always quite surprised by people who are very skeptical and argumentative will often have this blind spot where it comes to — especially things to do with health, in particular. Like people get into homeopathy and various other things that I would personally consider quackery. Because partly they wish to believe certain things about the world that have to do with wonder and ineffability and unknowability and often beauty and a kind of non-utiliatarian way of seeing the world. It’s all kind of very valid reasons to want to protect a sacred space from an intrusion by the methodology of science. But it can lead people into some very strange, anti-rational positions. And often those two ways of being can be very buried in people. Because we don’t tend to have these conversations. It’s off the list of what’s polite in a party chat.
Correspondent: Well, be as impolite as you like here. (laughs)
Kunzru: (laughs) Well, we can talk about it. But having a couple who basically have a great deal in common, who love each other — they genuinely love each other, these two. The kind of gradual exposure of the real contours of their ways of dealing with the unknown is what causes this terrible tension in their relationship. And that seemed to me to speak to quite an interesting fault line that runs across a lot of contemporary culture.
Correspondent: I’m wondering if Lisa, at least in relation to the question of faith, was almost sort of a spillover character for what you could not do with Dawn, who I’m also really curious about. I mean, it’s interesting that the women tend to gravitate towards issues of blind faith, often destructive faith. I mean, with Lisa, it’s interesting too because you have all these media incursions into her life. So it’s almost like some part of the world wishes to punish her for her beliefs.
Kunzru: I’m very interested in the way that media presents women. Especially mothers. The censoriousness that attaches itself to women’s choices around motherhood and around the work. I mean, in this novel, their child disappears. They become the object of this media witch hunt. And everybody zeroes in on “Is this a bad mother?” — especially “Is this a cold mother?” She fails to emote in a way that the media folk think is appropriate. And hence she’s immediately suspect. Because it’s a novel and you can get inside somebody’s inner life, we know very well that she’s absolutely destroyed by this and she’s an emotional person. She’s not some kind of psychopath who fails to have correct emotion or a response. However, the appearance sort of drifts further and further from reality. Of course, they’re also New Yorkers lost out West. Everyone hates New Yorkers in the rest of the country, as far as I can see. I now get outed as a New Yorker by other Americans in other parts. The English accent gets bracketed into some sort of New Yorker thing. So I get the prejudice as well. (laughs)
Correspondent: Those wild and crazy liberals with their British accents.
Kunzru: Yeah. Exactly.
Correspondent: You’re drinking a cappuccino right now! So there you go.
Kunzru: Drinking a cappuccino with a British accents. That’s exactly what everyone thinks happens in Chelsea.
Correspondent: You are America’s nightmare! (laughs)
Kunzru: I am. Rick Santorum, right now, is burning an effigy of me in a basement somewhere in Idaho.
Show #438: Adam Johnson
Show #438, which runs 59 minutes and 48 seconds, has just been released and can be listened to at this link. I met Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master’s Son, many weeks ago. Because he and I shared a similar larger-than-life enthusiasm in the way that we described things, I asked him if he was, like me, a native Californian. It turns out that Johnson was born in Arizona. It was certainly rather absurd that the two of us never ran into each other when I lived in San Francisco.
I didn’t realize that Adam had not eaten lunch until near the end of the conversation. To his great credit, he fired through an hour that touched upon Stephen Crane, Robert Coover, Nixon vs. Kim Jong-Il, North Korean propaganda, Soviet refrigerator factories, and Adam’s disastrous (yet very funny) experience in journalism school, where he ended up fabricating quotes. I did my best to curtail the conversation once Adam dropped this regrettable gustatory fact. But we got a good hour anyway. And I remain quite optimistic that Adam, shortly after more off-air exuberance, found a good sandwich somewhere. In any event, here’s the excerpt:
Correspondent: Stylistically, the first part of this book requires a great leap of faith for the reader. I mean, we’re asked to believe that Jun Do, despite the fact that his story does not check out, gets released by the interrogator. That he would also go to Texas with Dr. Sung. I don’t think I’m giving anything away.
Correspondent: But then you have this twist at the end of the first part. Then we are given this surprise and we say, “Oh ho! Maybe the narrative itself doesn’t exactly match up.” Then you have the second part. And the last part almost mimics Casablanca, which of course is a DVD of the world’s best movie that is circulated as well through the text. You have all these references to storytelling. You have Sarge saying, “You think the guys at top don’t know the real story?” You have Commander Ga wondering “if he couldn’t tell a story that seemed natural enough to them now, but upon later consideration might contain the message he was looking for.” So we’re led to believe that storytelling, or perhaps this dim awareness of narrative, is very much the North Korean identity. And I’m curious how you arrived at this involuted solution to North Korea. In terms of why this, of all things, would be their identity.
Johnson: Well, storytelling is my obsession. I love stories. I love to write them and to read them. And I’m really fascinated with how they come out. Especially troubling stories. You know, happy, funny stories are very easy to tell. Stories of success and achievement. And they’re a little boring. But, you know, I’ve studied for some time now how people tell traumatic or painful stories. And the different shapes that they take. And when I started studying North Korea, it made me reconsider how I tell my own stories, the stories I tell myself to feel good. In America, I think, in our literature and in our real lives, everyone is the center of her own story. And our job as humans and as characters is to follow our motivations toward what we want and need to overcome obstacles by looking inward and growing and changing and making discovery towards becoming our best possible selves. But, you know, as I studied the stories about North Korea, because the story there is state-sponsored, I realized that it was a national narrative written by a regime, enforced by a regime, controlled by censors, without another version. And in that, the very few people at top were the central characters. Really, the main character was Kim Il-Sung, Kim-Jong Il, and Kim Jong-un now.
And everyone else in that country was like a secondary character. And this is really borne out by my research and by the testimonials of defectors that, when you’re a child in the DPRK, early on you’re assessed for your aptitudes or certain qualities for the needs of the state. And you’re sent down paths that lead toward becoming a fisherman or a sailor or an accordionist. And in that world, having your own desires and yearnings could run counter to the role that you might fulfill to survive. So I think I started with a character who’s more trapped in a world of North Koreaness, where he must do what he’s told, go where he’s told. He does grim things. And it doesn’t really matter who he is or what he does. It’s just that the role will be fulfilled. Whereas in America, you know, we change our stories all the time. They grow and evolve. And when you go off to a new school or a new job, you just take on a new persona. You change. And I think over the course of the book, because the character meets Americans — he listens to foreign transmissions because he has some encounters; even though he doesn’t defect; even though he keeps maintaining his role — a growing sense of possibility rises in him that he could finally write his own story rather than being conscripted into the state. And in the second part of the book, he does this daring act to try and become his own person. Though there he has to impersonate somebody else even.
Correspondent: Well, secondary characters. I mean, this book is filled with them. And I’m wondering if, from the limited resources you had at your disposal — I mean, you did in fact go to North Korea; we can talk about that in a little bit; I suppose it’s an ineluctable subject — but I’m curious if you could truly, from your vantage point, get a suitable Tolstoyian cross-section when the information you had at your disposal is so thin. I mean, do you feel that there were certain secondary characters you didn’t quite include in the book? That may have actually been included in the previous draft and you would have liked to flesh out further? How do you go about creating a fictive population when the information at your disposal is so thin?
Johnson: Well, I did kind of revel in the secondary characters in my book. I’m glad you point that out. Because I had a lot of fun with them. You know, just in terms of North Korea, what we know and what we don’t know. We know very little about what happens in the secret power in Pyongyang. That the people who are ruling and who are inflicting the power upon others — we don’t know that much. For the lives of normal citizens and the rest of the country — in Wonsan, Nampho, Chongjin, etcetera, we know a great deal actually. Over 6,000 people defected last year. When they make it to South Korea, and that’s a whole journey in itself, they go to a facility called Hanawon, where they’re debriefed. And a real narrative is written about each one of them. And then they go through a kind of school that helps them reintegrate into a vastly different society. But from the information that’s gathered about normal citizens, we know how much they eat. How many hours they work. How their families live. About their housing blocks. About their group criticism sessions. We know how much volunteer labor they have to give to the squads. Etcetera. The mysterious people are in Pyongyang. They don’t tend to defect. They’re all underground. When you go to there, there’s no White House or Blue House. There’s no residence with Kim Jong-Il. He lives in an unseen place in the city. A lot of the big structures are underground. Probably because we bombed them so mercilessly during the Korean War. And there’s an underground society that exists. And we don’t know much about them at all. I saw cell phone towers when I was there, but not a single person on a phone. We have to assume they have the Internet, that they understand about the world, that they watch movies. They probably make international calls, even travel internationally. But because they don’t leave, because they don’t leave any trail, we just don’t know who they are. And what I tried to do in my book was maybe fulfill the human dimension of the normal people outside the city. And, by that I mean, in a place with such self-censorship, in a place where even being perceived to do something against your role in the state could cost you dearly, I wondered how normal people chose to share their inner thoughts. This was the imaginative part. A lot of the factual basis of the book is really accurate. But would a parent tell a child that he thought it was all a lie? Would he transmit that essential knowledge that he accumulated over a life?
Show #436: Sara Benincasa
Show #436, which runs 50 minutes and 51 seconds, has just been released and can be listened to at this link. Our guest is Sara Benincasa, a charming and funny young woman who I met a few weeks ago at the very same cafe in which I witnessed an early copy of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot (in manuscript form) being handed to a hungry young man for a very quick review. In fact, to ensure literary continuity (and find the quietest spot in a very noisy cafe), Sara and I even sat at the same table where this happened.
Sara has written a memoir called Agorafabulous, in which she describes her struggles with agoraphobia, peeing in jars, and struggling for some relatively normal existence with these many problems. In reading the book, I wasn’t really squeamish about all this. But I did feel a sense of sadness and sympathy, wondering why the outlandish confessional mode needed to be broached when Sara has a naturally funny voice on the page. Our very lengthy conversation gets into this, with related repartee taking us into such topics as the Lindbergh kidnapping trial, an itemization of the dishes that Sara has learned to cook, and getting rid of a toy giraffe at the age of 31.
Incidentally, Sara will be appearing at Word Brooklyn tonight.
Here’s a partial transcript of the program’s opening minutes:
Benincasa: I’m doing well. I mean, I got out of bed and out of my house.
Correspondent: You got out of bed?
Benincasa: I’m very excited.
Correspondent: How do you get out of bed?
Correspondent: I mean, I think I got out of bed this morning. Obviously I met you here.
Correspondent: But I obviously don’t know how I do it sometimes.
Benincasa: Well, you know what? I was awoken by a fire alarm going off in my building. Which as it turned out was just a test. But it was very exciting. And it motivated me to get up. Because like most people who deal with depression and anxiety and certainly agoraphobia, getting out of bed is sometimes a challenge. Getting out of the house is a challenge. But in this case, I was so rudely awakened that it was just great, actually. And I got to work on time. It was amazing!
Correspondent: So you need a contextual noise these days in order to get out of bed?
Benincasa: I need you to yell at me.
Correspondent: I mean, how difficult is it now for you? Just out of curiosity.
Benincasa: It depends. Most of the time, it’s all right. A lot of times, I wake up and my first thought is, “Oh no!”
Correspondent: Oh no?
Benincasa: Oh no! A day!
Correspondent: I don’t think you have to be agoraphobic to have that thought. (laughs)
Benincasa: That’s true. Absolutely. I think that’s more of a function of probably an existential crisis.
Correspondent: It’s the default setting for 21st century life.
Benincasa: Pretty much. But I think generally it’s a lot better these days. I feel more motivated. Especially with the book coming out. I found that it helps to keep extremely busy. Like to overstuff my schedule. Because that is a very strong motivating factor. The fear of disappointing someone.
Correspondent: Overstuff your schedule? Like how overstuffed would you say? Down to every hour booked?
Benincasa: Oh gosh. Not every hour.
Correspondent: Two hour blocks?
Benincasa: You know, I do a lot of writing. I write for vice.com and for newnownext.com, which is LogoTV’s gay site, and I write for xojane.com. And I write for a startup called bookish.com, a publishing startup. And then I make videos. And I travel. And I talk to colleges. And I do comedy. And so I really take on too much on purpose. Because it keeps the brain demons away.
Corespondent: Oh yeah. The brain demons. You allude to the voice saying “I want to die!” many times in the book. When was the last time you heard that voice?
Benincasa: Well, it’s interesting. Because in the book, I chose to personify these urges I was having. It wasn’t like having a voice outside my head. It wasn’t like having a schizophrenic break, where I was experiencing auditory hallucinations. But it was like — when you listen to yourself and you think, “I need to listen to my inner voice. What is my gut telling me to do?” But your gut is all screwed up. Because all the signals are messed up. Because your brain is crazy. So it was more like that. It was more like, “Okay. I want to die. Yeah. Definitely want to die.” It wasn’t that long ago. It was really like four or five months ago. It was when I was finishing the final edits on the book. And I was in a relationship that ended in a sense. Because the guy moved a couple of continents away.
Correspondent: This is a recurring experience in your life, based on the book. (laughs)
Benincasa: Like I said, I think I need a lot of activity to distract me from the demon voices or my inner struggles. So that relationship was certainly a distraction. And the book was certainly a distraction. And with both of those things coming to an end in one sense, I didn’t have these distractions. So I had to face what was actually going on. And I didn’t really like that. So hence that. So actually my editor at William Morrow was really great and very empathetic. And so I went home for a couple months to Jersey to just kind of get better and get my shit together. And my boss at Bookish was great too and let me work remotely. So that’s the benefit of being a freelance writer. You generally aren’t making enough money. But you can do it from anywhere.