As the invasion of Baghdad appeared imminent, most American reporters opted either to flee the country, or to accept "embedded" assignments within the U. S. military. New Yorker foreign correspondent Jon Lee Anderson, along with only fifteen of his American colleagues, opted instead to remain in Saddam's Baghdad and witness the destruction of the city firsthand. Anderson's decision to remain in Baghdad came with numerous perils- Iraqi government thugs, Allied bombings, imported jihadists, and ordinary street bandits among them.
Anderson's new book, "The Fall of Baghdad" (September 2004), is a riveting firsthand account of the months leading up to the invasion, the eventual bombing of the city, the arrival of American troops, and the period of looting and civil chaos that followed. The book consists principally of vignettes about Iraqi life and encounters with a wide variety of Iraqis, artfully arranged into a driving narrative. Though the book is by no means a compilation of Anderson's eloquent dispatches for the New Yorker, readers will recognize the trademarks of Anderson's journalism: an eye for vivid details, a sensitivity to the larger historical context of contemporary events, a talent for incisive and revealing interviews, and a sense of seriousness about the reporter's role as an objective, unbiased observer.
Anderson is no stranger to war zones or Third World dictatorships, but he confesses that "Saddam's regime was without a doubt the most terrifying tyranny I had ever seen up close." A fear of Saddam is palpable in every encounter and conversation. The general paranoia is enhanced by the fact that Saddam's face appears to be everywhere, peering out of photos, paintings, TV screens and billboards. Also everywhere are Saddam's immense palaces and architectural monuments which, Anderson writes, "had the effect of making ordinary mortals seem antlike in their insignificance." Anderson discovers that Iraqis are not allowed to look directly at many of these structures, even to acknowledge their existence, despite their enormity. Even after the palaces are bombed and destroyed, the people of Baghdad appear afraid to look at the wreckage. Instead, they hurry past them with nothing more than "fleeting sidelong glances."
Based on personal observation and the testimony of various Iraqis, Anderson illustrates quite graphically the nightmare of living under Baathist Party rule. Still, what emerges from Anderson's book is a picture of moral complexity that will challenge any simplistic notions about good and evil in Iraq. While Saddam's regime is cruel and brutal, the poorly-planned American invasion is also a catastrophe, and both bring unnecessary bloodshed and suffering to the lives of ordinary Iraqis. As looters and plunderers run amok in Baghdad, passively observed by American troops, Anderson's driver Sabah asks, "Why, Mr. Jon Lee?" and Anderson writes, "I had no answers for him. I was dismayed and angry that my countrymen were simply standing by and watching as Baghdad was sacked and burned. It made no sense at all."
Moral complexity also characterizes Anderson's friendly relationships with three high-ranking members of Saddam's regime. These include one of the dictator's personal physicians who also happens to be Saddam's favorite sculptor, a poet who heads the arts and culture ministry, and a leading official in the foreign ministry. The reader is forced to confront the possibility, never really resolved, that these men may, on balance, be good people. That they, personally, may have done nothing wrong. That their collaboration with Saddam's regime might have been necessary to save their own lives and those of their families.
Throughout the book, in numerous ways, Anderson restores the moral complexity regularly avoided in other "official" and journalistic accounts of the war. For instance, the reader is made to realize that many sympathetic Iraqis, while they hate Saddam, are actually rooting for an Iraqi victory (and many American deaths). Goodness and evil intermingle in unlikely ways. There is, for example, the friendly al-Jazeera reporter who saves Anderson's life during a tense encounter with armed and jittery Shiite militants. Anderson notes that, some months later, the same reporter was arrested in his adopted home country of Spain, charged with being a high-level Al Qaeda operative.
Anderson also presents a vivid picture of the challenges of reporting in a wartime environment. As in most wars, truth is an early casualty. The Iraqi side is particularly egregious in its presentation of disinformation, amounting often to a flat denial of reality. At the beginning of the war, the Ministry of Information pretends to ignore the fact that the bombing has occurred. Later, after the armored invasion, the Iraqi foreign minister Muhammad Said Al Sahaf asserts that American forces have been successfully repelled, making his remarks within 500 meters of American tank positions.
But even in an age of satphones and instant messaging, accurate information is difficult to come by, and Anderson is forced to put his trust in rumors. For example, on the basis of unreliable rumors about likely bombing targets in various neighborhoods, the author is compelled to change his address with great frequency, packing hurriedly and moving from hotel to hotel. In the confusion of battle, with communications disrupted, rumors have a tendency to take on lives of their own, as when reports circulate that an American has been shot down and the pilot has parachuted into the Tigris.
…I joined a huge crowd of Iraqis running excitedly to the riverbank. I got there to see several hundred people, mostly men and boys, staring and yelling and pointing excitedly at the river. Hundreds more soon gathered to watch from the sidewalk on the bridge that spanned the river there. Traffic on the bridge slowed down as cars stopped and their drivers got out to join the curious onlookers. The river flowed placidly along. I could see nothing, and each person I spoke to in the crowd had a different story. None was a witness to what had happened, if anything had. Someone told me there had been two planes that had crashed. He pointed to where they had disappeared beneath the water. Another man told me there was one or perhaps two pilots who were hiding somewhere. Someone had seen them swim away. Men and boys were poking the bulrushes along the nearest bank with sticks. A beverage vendor wheeled his cart along the bank to hawk his wares. Very soon the whole scene acquired a carnival atmosphere, as the crowd grew larger and more and more worked up. Before long military men appeared and began racing up and down the river into the bulrushes that grew along the riverbank. Men and boys took off their shoes and began searching the reeds in their bare feet. Some hacked at the reeds with machetes. Others began setting fire to the reeds. This went on for several hours. I noticed that the sky was blue again, with a light breeze blowing…. To the west of the city, some bombs were dropped by a B-52, but no one at the riverside seemed to notice.
I finally wandered away, feeling fairly certain that the whole episode was a symptom of mass hysteria, that the pilot everyone was looking for was nothing but a phantom. There was something poignant about the people's fervent willingness to believe that they had an enemy pilot almost within their grasp. But their packlike frenzy was frightening too; I had little doubt that if there really was a pilot concealed in the bulrushes, he'd be torn to pieces if they found him. I wondered whether it all had to do with a sense of collective impotence among Iraqis over their fate, which in the last few days seemed to have become the exclusive possession of the foreign pilots who flew high in the skies above, beyond all reach, dropping their bombs at will.
By the time I left, several fires were blazing crisply, blackening the beautiful green reed beds. Egged on by the crowd, the military men were still prowling up and down the river in their boat, searching intently for the enemy hidden in their midst.
In a situation characterized by confusion, rampant rumor, contested versions of reality, propaganda campaigns and outright lies, two uncontestable truths emerge. One is the fact that the people of Iraq have suffered terribly and continue to suffer, regardless of any political spin put on recent events in the country. The other truth is the consensus among Iraqis of all backgrounds that the Americans, no matter how well-intentioned, should make a quick exit from Iraq. "Whatever else they disagreed on," Anderson writes, "they were unanimous in their convictions that Iraqis would not view a foreign occupation kindly."
In 2002, Jon Lee Anderson published The Lion's Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan, an account of recent events in that war-ravaged country. Anderson was among the first few Western journalists to enter Afghanistan after 9/11. The book, which features diary entries, informed analysis and straight reportage dispatched via laptop and satellite phone, provides rich accounts of wartime incidents (the fall of Kandahar, the search for the Tora Bora caves), while elucidating the ethnic and religious conflicts that continue to ravage the country, as well as the impact of U.S. intervention. Uniquely knowledgeable on the subject of Afghanistan, Anderson has reported on that country's politics and society since the Soviet-Afghan War.
In a rave review of The Lion's Grave that appeared in the Washington Post, Frank Smith said, "…, this book captures a time and a place that no one who reads it will forget…. For anyone tired of instant journalism, this book reflects an older art."
Anderson's first two books were coauthored with his brother Scott Anderson: Inside the League: The Shocking Expose of How Terrorists, Nazis, and Latin American Death Squads Have Infiltrated the World Anti-Communist League (1986) and War Zones: Voices from the World's Killing Zones (1988). The latter book consists of interviews with 150 civilians in war-torn countries around the world.
Anderson's 1992 book, Guerillas, features conversations with members of five guerilla movements: Afghanistan's mujahedin, Burma's Karen movement, El Salvador's FMLN, the Polisario of Western Sahara, and the Palestinians of Gaza. Library Journal praised Anderson's ability to "draw insightful generalizations" about the widely disparate movements, and to "evoke the individual uniqueness" of each guerilla.
Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life (1997) is the book that established Anderson's reputation as one of the great foreign correspondents of his time. The monumental 800-page biography draws upon interviews with people who have never before spoken publicly, as well as previously secret documents from Cuban archives. It also punctures myths about the death of Latin America's most glamorous insurgent, and reveals new details about ideological tensions he experienced as a Maoist with his Soviet and Cuban patrons. The Sunday Times of London called the book, "a masterly and absorbing account…. Anderson's book, easily the best so far on Guevara, is a worthy monument to a flawed but heroic Utopian dreamer."
"Precise Execution:" Rita Dove's book American Smooth
With twelve books to her credit and the prestigious titles of U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner, Rita Dove is a well-known figure in the literary world. She is also recognized in a wider arena for her active involvement in various venues that include television, music, theater and the visual arts. Readers over the years have appreciated Dove's willingness to break with formal poetic conventions and subjects while also embracing them and playing with and against received forms. They're familiar with her level of play within a work and between works as she challenges and delights the reader with her unexpected twists in language and style. American Smooth, Dove's most recent book released in September 2004, promises to continue in this vein.
Before the reader is introduced to the poems in American Smooth they are given the dictionary definitions of "American" , "Smooth" and "American Smooth." The reader learns that the latter is a dance with roots in a standard step but in which "the partners are free to release each other from the closed embrace and dance without any physical contact, thus permitting improvisation and individual expression." Dove claims that "Poetry is a dance already" in an interview with Robert McDowell and explains that "there's the expressions of desire that is continually restrained by the limits of the page, the breath, the very architecture of language." Yet, this subject is also deeply rooted in personal circumstances. While Dove acknowledges that she has always enjoyed dancing, her interest took a new turn recently following the tragedy of her house burning down after it was struck by lightning. She relates that her neighbors organized a benefit dinner, and she was encouraged to take up ballroom dancing. It was ballroom dancing and the "American Smooth" version of it that became a source of inspiration for her most recent work and helped Dove to work through the grief of losing her home and most of its contents.
The title poem of Dove's newest book of poetry describes "American Smooth" as:
something romantic butThese lines also serve to effectively capture the larger movement of American Smooth. While the subjects of the poems in this book move seemingly "without stopping" between the Fox Trot and the Evening Primrose, Eve in the garden and Salome in Herod's banquet hall, the meditations of the poet narrator and the recorded thoughts of a WWI soldier, the structure of American Smooth as a whole "rises and falls" in a "precise execution." Each of the five sections of the book, hold together as a unit-through subject matter, form, and diction-though they also stand in contrast and in dialogue with the other sections.
For example, the poems in the section titled "Twelve Chairs" are unified by their visual similarity; they are each centered on the page and each line is composed of only a few words that often narrows to one. The titles ("First Juror", "Second Juror" through the "Twelfth Juror" and the "The Alternate") imply that the poems are spoken through the voice of each of the jurors. Even as this section is unified in form though, the juror speaks his/her individual thoughts that often vary widely from each other. Further, as a discrete unit, "Twelve Chairs," informs the other sections of the book in interesting ways. Consider the poem "Tenth Juror":
TragedyThis poem contextualizes and complicates the issues of dance, war, and history presented in other poems in the book. Even its visual form suggests how these concerns are stacked upon each other and depend on each other's support to maintain some sort of organized structure.
American Smooth introduces into Dove's repertoire the topic of dancing at the same time it also extends her interests in earlier works. Of course her interest in music has been ongoing and the topic that she focused on in her book Grace Notes which was also a song cycle for soprano, clarinet, vibraphone, cello, and piano. Dove's poems that delve into the thoughts of black soldiers are reminiscent of her earlier works that explored historical personages in On the Bus with Rosa Parks. Also, as in Mother Love, Dove continues to write about the themes of love, especially as expressed and played out between a mother and daughter. With Dove's new book, American Smooth, "we moved / into the next song without / stopping."
Ms. Dove was born in Akron, Ohio in 1952. She currently teaches at the University of Virginia and is the Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia. She lives with her husband Fred Viebahn in Charlottesville. In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize for her third book Thomas and Beulah in 1986 and serving as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993-1995, she has been awarded numerous other literary and academic awards including the 1996 Heinz Award, the 1996 National Humanities Medal, the 1997 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award, the 2000 Library Lion medal from the New York Public Library and the 2001 Duke Ellington Lifetime Achievement Award.
Dove's poetry collections include The Yellow House on the Corner (1980), Museum (1983), Thomas and Beulah (1986), Grace Notes (1989), Selected Poems (1993), Mother Love (1995), and On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999). She has also written a book of short stories, Fifth Sunday (1985), a novel Through the Ivory Gate (1992), a collection of essays The Poet's World (1995), the play The Darker Face of the Earth (first produced in 1996), and the song cycle Seven for Luck (music by John Williams, first performed in 1998).
Danielle Jones is a doctoral student in the English Department at UAlbany.
Predictable or not Geoff Dyer's new book, "Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It" (2003), has absolutely nothing to do with yoga, and everything to do with people who can't be bothered to do it. Of course, this is merely one of many readings. However abstract or varied the content of this travel memoir, "Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It" will definitely have you laughing out loud. What an amazing storyteller. After this read, it is easy to understand why some critics pronounce Dyer as, "assuredly among the funniest writers alive" or "quite possibly the best living writer in Britain." This, however, seems quite funny since it appears that Dyer lives everywhere but Britain.
Home or the avoidance of "home" is certainly a main theme of "Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It." How many places have served as "home" for Dyer? Does he know? In all probability it may not be something that Dyer would focus on, or would he? Before getting into the eleven stories that compose the memoir, Dyer comments on the idea of home. He quotes Steinbeck right away, "'I have homes everywhere,' many of which 'I have not seen yet. That is perhaps why I am restless. I haven't seen all my homes'" (4). In our postmodern era, home could potentially mean anything. Certainly what characterizes home for Dyer will not be the same for the next person, or even the majority of people. Following the reflection on "home" Dyer explains that this book is something like a map of his life,
"This book is a ripped, by no means reliable map of some of the landscapes that make up a particular phase of my life. It's about places where things happened or didn't happen, places where I stayed and things that have stayed with me, places I'd wanted to see or places I passed through or just ended up. In a way they're all the same place - the same landscape - because the person these things happened to was the same person who in turn is the sum of all the things that happened or didn't happen in these and other places" (4).
Lacking authority, I would agree that "Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It" is definitely some form of guide or map to Dyer's life. And it is easy to see the changes that take place as the memoir progresses. This was really unique because the reader has been informed that the eleven stories happen in the past ten years, yet the events feel chronologically out of order. On top of this, there are some visible attitude and outlook changes in Dyer. The reader knows that all the stories are about the same man, but the man changes and takes on different characteristics. The transformations and roller coaster effects of life are beautifully captured through the layout of the book.
The first five stories are significantly different from the second five stories and the eleventh story stands on its own as a kind of hybrid revelation based on the preceding ten stories. In the first half of the memoir, nothing can bring down Dyer's attitude on life; the tone is very uplifting and comical. Sometimes it appears that he's just floating along, taking things as they come. He doesn't seem to have any particular goal or direction; he's not on a mission to enlighten the world (or is he?) and it doesn't appear that he is "on the job" anywhere. It seems that Dyer is just hanging out. In a lot of ways, the laid back, relaxed content is therapeutic reading, especially for those who will never achieve the kind of lifestyle that Dyer displays. Its good to know that there are people hanging out in the world, taking it all in, contemplating the little and big things, and then expressing the process in a work of art. Personally, it makes me feel a little more comfortable with reality.
From New Orleans and Paris to Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, Dyer reflects on local culture, climate, and living conditions. Apparently, making a living as a writer isn't always as glamorous as it seems. Most people wouldn't be thrilled to travel extensively in areas lacking clean water and sanitary conditions. Nor would the average person want to spend a large portion of time on the road, staying in strange and variable locations without consistency. On the other hand, this may very well be the lifestyle of choice for Geoff Dyer. If so, he makes no effort to omit his struggles with writing and doubts about his lifestyle.
After a beautiful and uplifting tale of a week at Sanctuary in Thailand, Dyer seems to hit a roadblock in his life, which is depicted in a story aptly named "Decline and Fall." Precisely placed in the middle of the memoir, the sixth story finds Dyer in Rome researching antiquity, an idea generated from concepts in Freud's "Civilization and Its Discontents". What better place to write about antiquity than the city of Rome? Maybe it is too good a place. After some time, the impossibility of the topic starts to fragment the traveling writer. As Dyer grapples with his writing pursuit, the reader can't help but wonder what is causing this effect on Dyer? Is it the fact that he's in Rome during one of the hottest times of year, when everyone leaves and the city is practically deserted? Is the atmosphere, people, or lifestyle hampering his creativity? Or maybe his frequent change in geographic location is wearing him down. All of these seem unlikely since Dyer seems drawn to warm climates, continues the same lifestyle and attracts the same company wherever he moves, and appears to be most comfortable with constant change. Of course, it may also be the subject that Dyer is endeavoring to write about, which is more or less what he feels is the cause of his stagnation. Whatever the case may be, Dyer undoubtedly changes somewhere in "Decline and Fall", and the melancholy tone subtly follows him from Rome to Miami, Amsterdam, Detroit, and Libya, the location settings for the next five stories.
It would be unfair to say that relaxation and humor characterize the first half of "Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It" while melancholy and frustration distinguish the second half; his writing simply isn't that simple. Once again, the reader may be curious about the time sequence of the stories; do the anecdotes jump around or are they neatly describing a concrete sequence of events? If anything, the subject of architecture and Dyer's antiquity project seem to be a common thread in the last half of the book. Perhaps the essential point here is that Dyer is a master of giving just enough information and insight to raise curiosity and intrigue, leaving the reader with a desire to track the author down and barrage him with a thousand questions. But suspend all judgment until the end.
In "The Zone", the final chapter of the memoir, Dyer fluidly ties some of his perplexity into a few revelations. Here a connection is made between the subject of antiquity as understood through Freud's "Civilization and Its Discontents," Steinbeck's inquiry into home, and Dyer's struggle with both. The reader is also introduced to the idea of Temporary Autonomous Zone, a moment of liberation, "A site of 'unmediated creativity,' the TAZ offers 'a peak experience on the social as well as the individual scale… new geography, a kind of pilgrimage map in which holy sites are replaced by peak experiences" according to Hakim Bey's understanding of TAZ (242). Dyer, with his expertise in geography and antiquity, replies that holy sites offer peak experiences as well, "And it is precisely their permanence, the sense that one is in a place where time has stood its ground, that gives them their power" (242). This last story recounts some of Dyer's experience at Burning Man in Black Rock City, which could be described as a weeklong festival or TAZ in the middle of the Nevada desert. "The Zone" also reflects his travels to ancient Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia where Dyer contemplates abstract concepts such as time, antiquity, and home. Ending "Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It" with this metaphysical, spiritual realization(s) brings closure to Dyer's travels as well as his personal struggles.
Among his other work is "But Beautiful: A book about Jazz" (1991), which earned praise from literary critics and jazz buffs, winning the 1992 Somerset Maugham Award. Eight of the greatest jazz musicians are lyrically depicted in a book that captures some dark aspects of life in the music business. Based on fact, but largely fictional, "But Beautiful" represents Dyer's remarkable style and language, as Greil Marcus of Interview notes, "Music from the inside out… his prose takes on so much momentum that you utterly forget to wonder if what you're reading about happened… Dyer can get to places few writers on music know exist." If anything, "But Beautiful" is certainly a work that demonstrates contemporary genius.
Also by Geoff Dyer, "Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence" (1997), a National Book Critic Circle Finalist, renewed readers again with a brilliant work about how writing a book can easily become an epic comedy. D.H. Lawrence may have been the subject of "Out of Sheer Rage," but the book's essence is in talking around D.H. Lawrence. Jenifer Berman of Bomb Magazine says, "His brand of imaginative criticism illuminates a direction where literary criticism might go. If only we could have more fresh, insightful, energetic books such as Dyer's."
Geoff Dyer is author of "Ways of Telling: The Work of John Berger" (1986), "The Colour of Memory" (1989), "The Search" (1993), "The Missing of the Somme" (1994), "Paris Trance" (1999), and "Anglo-English Attitudes: Essays, Reviews, Misadventures, 1984-99" (1999). He is the editor of several books including "Selected Essays" by John Berger (2002) and "What Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney" (1999) and has contributed articles to "New Statesman", "Listener", "City Limits" and "New Society".
Alison Kenner is a graduate student in the Women's Studies Department at UAlbany.
"Talk-Story:" Regenerating the Language of Peace
Maxine Hong Kingston's "The Fifth Book of Peace"
Maxine Hong Kingston has been recognized for playing many roles: peace activist, wise woman, storyteller, writer, teacher, mother, healer, and social commentator. Her books are political. She asks important questions and urges her readers to think deeply about social issues. Highlighting contemporary American culture, Kingston shines light on the diversity that shapes and often splits America as a nation. Since it incorporates features and styles from many different genres her literature cannot easily be labeled or categorized. Her latest book, "The Fifth Book of Peace" (2003) is a memoir that dabbles in legend, epic, and various forms of fiction and nonfiction. One might look at the book as a holistic project: highly political, deeply spiritual, extremely personal.
"The Fifth Book of Peace" is about the journey towards peace. The book itself is part of that process. In a lofty sense, this book is peace, not simply about peace, but peace itself. To say that it's a memoir about peace would ignore that the book is more explicitly about war. Perhaps it's better to say that "The Fifth Book of Peace" is about creating, finding, and expressing peace through the experiences of war, community, reflection, and regeneration. The Vietnam War is at the center of the book, the years during the war and its long-term effects. "War" is discussed from different perspectives: personally, locally, nationally, and globally. "The Fifth Book of Peace" is broken into four interwoven sections. The first section documents the days around the 1991 fire that destroyed her home, including the book she was working on, titled "The Fourth Book of Peace." The second section gives the history of the "Lost Books of Peace" and Kingston's investigation of their legend. "The Fourth Book of Peace" is reconstructed in section three, which is the fictional story that Kingston cannot finish as originally planned. The final section of the book documents her work with the veterans writing community, which Kingston began in a 1993 workshop, "Reflective Writing, Mindfulness, and the War: A Day for Veterans and their Families." Entitled Fire, Paper, Water, and Earth respectively, the four sections complement each other in this invigorating literary work.
The book begins in October 1991, Kingston is driving from her father's funeral ceremony, frantic but determined to get to the urban forest fire that is ripping through the Oakland-Berkeley neighborhoods where she lives. She is working on a book, a book of Peace. Years of work and 156 pages are destroyed in the fire. This first section of "The Fifth Book of Peace" recounts Kingston's flight to her endangered home, strategically moving through traffic, dodging police and wandering through devastated neighborhoods. Her plan is to run into the possibly burning house to save her book and family heirlooms. But she is too late; the book is gone. Reflecting on the aftermath of the fire, Kingston compares the devastation to war. So do other witnesses, like the Oakland Fire Captain Ray Gatchalian,
"…That day, one house burned every five seconds. Seeing it the next morning, it brought me back to the shock and horror of Vietnam. When I looked down on the devastation that day, I thought what an opportunity this would be to bring busloads of people and busloads of children and tell them when we, as a country, decide to go to war against somebody, this is what we are going to get. When we decide to send our military and our bombs into a country, this is what we're deciding to do. (14)'"Through the traumatic experience of the fire, and the destruction it wreaks upon her life and the lives of her neighbors, Kingston, neither a veteran nor a victim of war herself, finds a way to more strongly empathize with those who have experienced war. This empathy energizes her mission as a peace activist. Moreover, the loss of her book about the fictional peace activist, Wittman Ah Sing, strengthens her resolve to write more broadly about the subject of peace. This first section of "The Fifth Book of Peace," ends at a conference Kingston is attending just days after she has lost everything in the fire. As the last speaker of the conference, Kingston relays her story of devastation to the audience, asking them to help her find and write the Book of Peace, "Please send me anything you find about lost Books of Peace, cities of refuge, tactics for stopping war." (41-2) People begin to send Kingston their stories, reaching out to share their experiences with her.
For many years Kingston searched for the Three Lost Books of Peace, heard to be destroyed in deliberate fires a long time ago. In her travels she asked about the Chinese Peace Books and asked others to inquire about the lost Peace Books as well. The second section of "The Fifth Book of Peace" explains this investigative endeavor and ends by sharing what "The Fourth Book of Peace" looked like, "It had to be fiction, because Peace has to be supposed, imagined, divined, dreamed. Peace's language, its sounds and rhythms, when read aloud, when read silently, should pacify breath and tongue, make ears and brains be tranquil." (61) Kingston admits that she couldn't "re-enter fiction" to finish the Book of Peace, explaining that a community was needed in order to reconstruct the work. Concluding the second section with this autobiographical note, Kingston makes it clear that, although she has reconstructed the contents of "The Fourth Book of Peace," which is the "fictional" story of Wittman Ah Sing, his wife Tana, and their son Mario, "The Fifth Book of Peace" cannot end on a fictional note.
It is difficult to draw a line to mark where fiction starts and memoir ends. The Ah Sing family leaves Berkeley during the Vietnam War to go live in Hawaii, "leaving it all behind," just as Kingston, her husband Earll and their son Joseph did in 1967. The driving force is to get away from a violent atmosphere and militaristic society. Wittman and Tana are embodiments of the classic peace activist/hippie/artist character from the 60's. As artists, they debate about who will work for six months first and who will get to be the artist. Finally the bohemians decide that they will both play artist until their money runs out and one of them is forced to get a job.
The book, layered with many themes and features, allows for a deep, diverse reading. Awed and enchanted by Kingston's environmental descriptions of Hawaii, it is difficult to refrain from jumping up and planning a winter getaway to the tropical island. The mystical atmosphere of the island setting is populated by an amalgam of characters that the Ah Sing family interacts with. From communists and war veterans to local children, social activists, and unemployed perverts, the island community couldn't be more diverse. This aspect of community, which is a prevalent theme in most of Kingston's work, allows her to explore diversity and difference in a centralized, somewhat stable location. Traditional issues such as gender, race, class, sexuality, and religion are interwoven with contemporary issues of political, social, and global significance.
Special attention is given to language, which sometimes acts as a barrier and at other times as a vehicle for sharing and bonding. Mario even adopts a Hawaiian name in the family's first few days on the island. Wittman returns to their new home to find his four-year-old son throwing coconuts down from the tree he has climbed,
"I can see the ocean from up heah. I can see the top of you' head, Dad. You like some mo' coconut? I t'row anadda the kind down for you."Mario has picked up the local vernacular in a day. Reading the third section of "The Fifth Book of Peace" the reader is acquainted with a challenging new vocabulary. Kingston has integrated the Hawaiian language into the text so that the reader learns the terminology out of necessity. There is no simple English translation for these Hawaiian expressions since many of the words are concepts and ideas specific to the culture and history of the island. "Aloha" for example, is much more than a word. It is a state of being or mind that accords with behavior and thought just as much with language. Learning this vocabulary in the context of the story, the reader discovers that language is very much a part of a people's culture.
Following Wittman through the tale, we see how the multiracial family negotiates a place within the local community by interacting with as many people as possible. Attempting to demonstrate that the family has adapted to their new location, the Ah Sings throw a community party. Of course nothing goes as planned, and while achieving some success, the efforts of the Ah Sing family are overshadowed by a catastrophic night that further divides the community. Difference cannot be reconciled in a single day of celebration.
Wittman begins to commute to the urban areas of the Island where, as a writer, he'll have a cultural center to work from. One day Wittman walks into a huge peace parade, gathering a large group of demonstrators. The Hawai'i Resistance, a nonviolent group protesting militarization, sponsored The Walk for Peace parade and rally at the Church of the Crossroads. Four days earlier the Church began Sanctuary for all AWOL GIs making a stand against the war. The mission and goals of Sanctuary are declared at The Walk for Peace rally,
"In its broadest contemporary meaning, Sanctuary refers to community solidarity with one of its members' confrontation with the illegitimate authority of the state… Sanctuary gives meaning to their acts, offers the hope that by their stand, they might effect some change, and provides them the opportunity to raise the issue of conscience in their own words. For the individual concerned, Sanctuary provides the physical sustenance, but more importantly, moral support of a community of like-minded people…the solidarity established between soldiers and draft resisters and the civilian public (i.e. church members) convincingly breaks down the popular image that the peace movement opposes individual GIs as well as the military system…" (197-8)
AWOL GIs have been given Sanctuary at the Church, which is a hub for peace activists protesting the Vietnam War. One condition of Sanctuary was that the GIs had to write Statements of Conscience to be read to their commanding officers. This confirmed their AWOL status and commitment to peace in Vietnam. Sanctuary was not a hiding place, it was a place to make a stand. The Ah Sing family moves into Sanctuary to be with the AWOL GIs. They are totally committed to community, and what a community it is! There is a theater production, a school, consciousness raising groups, and professionals, artists, and officials of all kinds. It is difficult to describe the community, which looks more like a commune. The GIs at Sanctuary are trying to establish themselves and their beliefs amidst the backdrop of political turmoil and war. Psychologists are called in to help with the stress and trauma the GIs have suffered and continue to suffer. The stand gets a lot of publicity and some of the GIs are disowned by their families. But most importantly, all of them are working within the community, trying to come to terms with the experience. The Ah Sing family is in their element, of course. Immersed in the atmosphere, they document and express the situation through art and communication. One focus of the story is Wittman and Tana's desire to raise their son Mario to value peace and nonviolence. What better way to teach a child about democracy, peace, community, and freedom than in Sanctuary. The Ah Sing family, throughout the story, is able to live out their beliefs, values, and politics through their experiences in the local community of Hawaii. This island refuge is where their ideas become their actions.
Returning to the early 1990's and the aftermath of the fire, section four starts to articulate what happens when Kingston gets the word out that she needs help reconstructing the Book of Peace destroyed in the fire. Veterans of war begin sending their stories to her. She asks the Community of Mindful Living (Buddhists) to help her organize a workshop, "Reflective Writing, Mindfulness, and the War: A Day for Veterans and Their Families." The final section of "The Fifth Book of Peace" documents the years of work that the community of veteran writers participate in. What marks this final section is its openness and honesty. It is not a legend or a myth; it is the historical account of a community of men and women who come together to create Peace. It would be a mistake to omit the mention of influence Buddhism and the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh has had on Kingston, the veterans writing workshop, and the book itself. The emphasis of Buddhism increases through the final section of the book, climaxing with a retreat to Plum Village, the home of Thich Nhat Hanh. In "The Fifth Book of Peace", the reader becomes part of the group that participates in the workshops. We listen to the veteran's stories and experiences, past and present. The reader sees the veterans learn how to meditate, write their stories, and bond with other people. Reading about the peace process they are involved with, the reader connects with the writing community. This was most likely Kingston's vision for the book. By telling us her story, in its various forms and manifestations, Kingston engages the reader in the peace process she is committed to. It's difficult not to feel connected to the global peace movement as the reader becomes an agent who shares in the process.
Kingston's first book "The Woman Warrior: Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts" (1976) made a huge debut as a literary work. Addressing social issues through innovative styles and transformative language, Kingston's memoir revisits her childhood, growing up in the Chinese-American culture of post World War II California. Weaving dreams, legends, and daily experiences, Kingston constructs her identity (and analyzes that construction) amid the forces of ancestry, culture, and contemporary politics. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, the "Mademoiselle" Magazine Award, and one of "Time" magazine's top ten nonfiction books of the decade, "The Woman Warrior" has established itself in the American canon of literature.
Other books by Kingston include "China Men" (1980) "Hawaii One Summer" (1987), "Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book" (1989), "Conversations with Maxine Hong Kingston" (1998), and "To Be the Poet" (2002). She is a contributor to "New York Times Magazine", "Ms.", "New Yorker", "New West, New Dawn", "American Heritage", and "Washington Post". Currently Maxine Hong Kingston is Chancellor's Distinguished Professor and Senior Lecturer for Creative Writing at the University of California, Berkeley.
Alison Kenner is a graduate student in the Women's Studies Department at UAlbany.
There are some words that you will not hear used to describe Jessica Hagedorn's work: boring, lackluster, commonplace, routine and monotonous. A brief survey of the genres in which she works-poetry, fiction, theatre, and performance art-elucidates this fact. Further, Hagedorn draws from her experience as a Filipino who moved to America in her teens, and her other ancestral ties which include Spanish, German, Irish, French and Chinese. All of these factors culminate to inform a body of work that is as unique as it is innovative. Hagedorn is best know for her novel "Dogeaters" (1990), a work set in the Philippines during the Marcos reign, which was nominated for the National Book Award and received the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. The title of the book comes from a depreciatory term for a Filipino person. Hagedorn explains that the novel is a "many-layered story of urban Philippines as seen through the eyes of its disparate and often desperate characters." These characters include Rio, a schoolgirl from the upper classes, Joey, a junkie with suspicious beginnings, Andres, a drag queen, Daisy Avila, an unhappy beauty queen, and General Nicasio Ledesma. This montage of characters is set loose in this novel to explore their relationships to each other and to their homeland in the politically volatile state of the Philippians as it existed under the reign of Fernand and Imelda Marcos.
Following the "Dogeaters", one of the strongest expressions of Hagedorn's style is found in her second novel The Gangster of Love (1996) an account of Rocky Rivera and her family in their move to and coming to terms with America. In this book, multiple voices are often given free rein and the writing itself transforms between genres. For example, the narrator is most often Rocky, a young émigré who follows her fortunes in a music band from San Francisco to New York City. The story often shifts, though, to be told through the voice of Rocky's boyfriend Elvis, a Chinese guitar player, or to a third person point of view to detail her uncle Marlon's or brother Voltaire' personal struggles.
The narrative itself progresses from a fairly-standard novel form to chapters that defy genre lines. Several of these are one paragraph snippets titled "Lost in Translation: Rocky Tells Elvis a Filipino Joke" and "Lost in Translation: Another Filipino Joke." These chapters provide insight into the characters' relationships as well as cultural background. The third piece of this series "Joke Not so Lost in Translation" reads as the following in its entirety: "Why did the Filipino cross the road? Because he thought America was on the other side." This "joke" becomes one of the driving forces in the book-a search for the fundamental essence of America and for what America means for characters like Rocky and Elvis who find themselves displaced within it. While all of the characters in the Gangster of Love must settle for themselves how they choose to fit into their new homeland, the portrayal of Rocky's mother, Milagros, is one of tenacity and high adaptability. She quickly learns how she can keep those things that are precious to her cultural heritage-like her favorite dish of Lumpia-but how she can also capitalize on them:
Lumpia X-Press was a hit. Milagros had no problem finding people to cook for. Filipinos showed up from Berkeley and Oakland, from Richmond, Daly City, and San Francisco. They ordered by the dozen: lumpia Shanghai, fresh sariwang lumpia, even innovations my mother concocted like Mexi-lumpia (stuffed with avocado and jalapeño chili, salsa on the side) and New Wave Lumpia (bite-size, vegetarian). (19) In this brief passage Milagros shows that she can please the traditional lumpia lovers and adapt to her new environment and a different clientele.
In effect, Hagedorn's writing approach, in all of her works, is similar to Milagros cooking style: she has kept the flavor or her Filipino heritage while presenting it in such a manner and with ingredients indigenous to American literature. Hagedorn does this by mixing in words, phrases, cultural references and markers from the Filipino culture with the quintessential American dream of becoming a rock star and "making it big" in New York City. Granted, this latter desire is tainted by the innocence only available to the foreigner who has freshly moved to the United States, but Rocky still latches onto the dreams and ideals of her new home.
In addition to "Dogeaters" and "The Gangster of Love," Hagedorn has published the following volumes: "Dangerous Music" (1975) her first collection of fiction and poems written under the direction of Kenneth Rexroth; "Danger and Beauty" (1993) a collection of fiction and poetry, "Charlie Chan is Dead," (1993) an anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction; "Burning Heart" (1999) a portrait of the Philippians; "Dream Jungle" (2003) which follows the story of a Hollywood film crew that hopes to film a stone-age tribe recently discovered for the first time in a remote setting in the Philippians; and "Charlie Chan is Dead 2" (1994) a second volume of Asian American Fiction. In addition, Hagedorn has completed a number of film, theatre, and multimedia pieces including the film "Fresh Kill" and the theatre piece "Mango Tango."
Danielle Jones is a doctoral student in the English Department at UAlbany.
Storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to bridge borders of individual, cultural, and generation difference. For over two decades, Ursula Hegi has been bridging cultural and generation gaps with a broad range of books comprising diverse plots, characters, and conflicts. While her work is wide ranging in its concerns, many of her books, which include novels, story collections, and nonfiction, have reflected the immigration experience. Born in West Germany and immigrating to the United States at 18, Ursula Hegi has explored her roots, emphasizing German history, culture, and heritage in several of her books. In her most recent novel, "Sacred Time" (2003), Hegi turns to a different cultural experience, taking up an Italian-American family whose relatively safe, comfortable world has been turned upside down by tragedy.
"Sacred Time" opens during the Christmas season of 1953. Anthony Amedeo's parents, Victor and Leonora, are arguing about Victor's family, again. Victor's sister, Floria, and her husband, Malcolm, are in the midst of financial troubles, and the Amedeo family has taken Floria and her twin daughters in for the time being. The dialogue and interaction, infused with emotion, compel the reader to empathize with everyone involved. A two-bedroom apartment can be a pretty cramped place for six people, especially in-laws during the holidays. As sisters-in-law, Floria and Leonora have a fiery relationship, often teetering between intimate friendship and resentful hostility. When Victor and Leonara separate shortly after the new year, Floria reaches out to Leonora, in an attempt to reconcile the failing marriage. Sharing experiences over a bottle of Sambuca, Floria describes her brother's new girlfriend in this snappy dialogue (79-80),
"About that Elaine…" Floria lights a fresh cigarette from the butt of her last one. "She salivates when she speaks."The dynamics between the women of "Sacred Time", specifically Leonora, Floria, and Ripetide, Anthony's grandmother, illuminate the distinct trials encountered when marrying into a family. Leonora, although the most outspoken, can't seem to free herself from the solitude that has defined her since childhood. This emotional isolation prevents her from communicating directly to other family members. While Leonora came into the family with this trait, most of the characters deal with (or don't deal with) isolation and silence as the novel unfolds. Right before Christmas a terrible accident shatters the innocence and delicate joy that carries the family through everyday life. It is in the aftermath of tragedy that this predominantly tight knit family erects walls, shutting each other out to avoid a painful dialogue about the accident. This collective silence is the very thing that prevents each family member from overcoming the past and healing their own grief. This detail is addressed and pulled to the forefront of each subsequent scene, showing the reader that past secrets and feelings can never be suppressed.
During the writing process, Hegi's particular focus is her character development, and it is perhaps the feature she is most well known for. In an interview with Andrew Engelson of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Hegi revealed that her style of writing involves between 50 and 100 revisions, "I do it to really go very deeply into the characters…to understand the characters, to explore the characters. And a lot has to do with language. I write fiction as if I were writing poetry." (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/books/44152_book26.shtml) Interestingly, "Sacred Time" is narrated by several characters, not just Anthony, who appears to take the main stage in the novel's beginning. Leonora and Belinda (Anthony's cousin) each narrate a chapter while two chapters are given to both Anthony and Floria, who recount their perspectives in different decades. What makes this form of character presentation powerful is that the family members are described from four perspectives at various points over fifty years. While many situations are recounted, the narrative context changes either by year or character, giving the reader new information and a new point of view. This also allows the reader to see Anthony and Belinda grow from children who witnessed tragedy into adults who continue to cope with that experience. As a story told over the course of five decades "Sacred Time" succeeds in showing that individuals and family are defined by their social context and practice.
Hegi's "Hotel of the Saints", which came out in 2001, is a collection of short stories that takes up a range of different situations and human emotions. The reader is carried through loss and redemption, awakenings and closure, and while the book lacks a common theme connecting the stories, each establishes the importance of seemingly unimportant events. We are reminded that even events as small as buying a pair of doves, or standing up for an old friend can be quite enlightening, life changing events. Hegi does not omit the theme of silence that often underlies her stories, as in "Moonwalkers" where John visits his father who is recovering in the hospital. In this setting John confronts the pain of anger, silence, and guilt that has subsisted for years, hampering their relationship. And in "A Woman's Perfume" a dreadfully lonely silence exists between the married couple Frau and Herr Helger. We are left to ask ourselves how this lack of communication floods all our relationships and interactions, how does this silence determine our life choices? Hotel of the Saints has a little something for everyone and quite a lot that we can all relate to.
A national bestseller, Oprah Book Club selection, and nominee for the PEN/Faulkner Award, Hegi's novel "Stones from the River" (1994), follows the life of a German dwarf named Trudi through both World Wars. After her mother's death, Trudi and her father support one another as they each deal with physical challenges. Life in the small German town of Burgdorf is full of drama and as Trudi grows up to become the town librarian, she acts as the central hub of town gossip. But the town is not isolated from the political turmoil escalating just beyond its borders. Her physical size often allows her to exist unnoticed, allowing her to aid Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. Once again, the story is told over four decades and the reader follows Trudi as she grows into a courageous and defiant woman.
One of Hegi's more recent novels, "The Vision of Emma Blau" (2000) revisits the town of Burgdorf taking some of the characters from "Stones from the River" into a journey that illustrates the German immigration experience. Finally settling into America, Stefan Blau and Helene Montag, Trudi's neighbor and aunt respectively, find that handling life's vicissitudes is even more difficult away from hometown and family.
"Tearing the Silence: On Being German in America" (1997), Hegi's only work of nonfiction, features interviews from more than two hundred German immigrants. The book addresses the silence that permeated the lives of these German Americans, most of whom were born around the time of World War II.
Other publications by Hegi include "Intrusions" (1981), "Unearned Pleasures and Other Stories" (1988), "Floating in My Mother's Palm" (1990), and "Salt Dancers" (1995). She has also written reviews for the "New York Times", the "Los Angeles Times", and the "Washington Post."
Alison Kenner is a Master's student in the Women's Studies Department.
[NOTE: The following BookShow interview with Tracy Kidder was taped thirteen years ago. Since then Kidder has published three additional nonfiction books, "Old Friends" (1993), "Home Town" (1999), and "Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World" (2003).]Tom Smith: My guest today is Tracy Kidder, one of the master nonfiction writers of our time. In the past decade, Tracy Kidder has had three stunning literary triumphs. "The Soul of a New Machine", which won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1982, told the story of the creation of a super new computer by a remarkable group of young engineers and programmers. His next book, "House," published in 1985, was on the bestseller list for six months and was another great adventure story of invention and construction, this time of a single-family house. And in 1989 came ""Among Schoolchildren"", the fascinating, delightful and inspiring story of one year in the life of the fifth grade of the Kelly School of Holyoke, Massachusetts. Tracy Kidder, welcome to the Public Radio BookShow. It's a delight to talk with you about your wonderful books.
Tracy Kidder: Thank you.
Smith: Tracy, those books that I just mentioned involve perhaps three unlikely subjects for gripping narrative, and yet they read like compelling novels with that wonderful sense of suspense and drama and character development that one expects in good fiction. Are you ever annoyed or flattered when some readers and reviewers, too, wonder if you made it all up?
Kidder: Well, I'm not so much annoyed as worried. I think that nonfiction, if you call something nonfiction, then it ought to be nonfiction. And then I think of one of my heroes, John McPhee. I think that he pointed out that you can rank stories in nonfiction that would be banal in fiction because they happen to be true. If you abridge the accuracy of what you're writing then, I don't know, I would be lost in any case. I don't invent or I try not to invent anything, except the form and the sentences. It would be dishonest of course to say that my renditions of real events aren't partial, at best idiosyncratic.
Smith: Well, they are stories and yet your stories do exude a dedication to the truth and that certain rage for authenticity that comes across in many ways. Now, in the process of writing your books, are you aware of that at every stage? The need to be faithful to the subject and at the same time, you've got to have a plot and you've got to have a dramatic focus. I know in the researching of a book you must feel that way, but in the writing of it, maybe you get carried away with the story? I know I would.
Kidder: Well I have. There have been times. What I generally do is go back to my notes, I mean I always go back to my notes, and I often find that I've reinvented what I saw. Usually the stuff in my notes is more interesting than what I invented, particularly dialogue. After all though, if one is comparing this narrative nonfiction to the novel, if you think about most novels, they don't, since Dickens anyway or an awful lot of novels don't have very much plot. I mean they don't have convoluted plots; they are really rather simple stories. It seems like most of them are about adultery, and that's an awfully simple story. They don't need a complicated story. I do think that the most important thing about any kind of narrative whether it's fictional or not is the reflection of character on the page. What I think is the essential question about character is "why is someone doing something?" It's the question of motivation.
Smith: What always amazes me about your work is, as I said before, some of the subjects are unlikely. If one were going to write a novel about elementary education, or really a bunch of young engineers developing a super new minicomputer or building a house with the architect and the client and the carpenters, you really wouldn't think of it as a very compelling story. And yet, your sense of those characters, the real life characters, is so remarkable. One of the controversial things that Tom Wolfe has said over the years is that the new nonfiction, and your books would have been exhibit "A" of that, is so great as far as narrative that it's going to really be the narrative literature of the future and it's going to wipe the novel and fiction off the marketplace. That didn't happen but it is true that there is a way that ordinary people or really unlikely subjects get written about more powerfully than they would in fiction. This is always my sense when I'm reading your books, Tracy.
Kidder: As a slight digression, I think Mr. Wolfe is a marvelously entertaining and interesting writer. I must say that his indictments on contemporary literature always strike me as being not catholic, and I think there's enough thought to be ruined in one philosophy for Kafka and Melville, as well as for Tom Wolfe. But anyway, I live mainly as a writer and not someone who is particularly thinking about what I'm doing. It never occurred to me, to tell you the truth, that these are unlikely subjects, because they happen to interest me. Maybe a better way to explain this is that I remember being among some friends, several times actually, and particularly among acquaintances when I was writing "The Soul of a New Machine", and I remember being asked what I was writing about. I said, "about a team of computer engineers," and could see the lids come down over peoples eyes. They quickly changed the subject. But I remember feeling that if I had the time and energy right now, that I could get you interested. I think I must have tried that a few times but as a general rule I decided not to do that because it would have taken too long. But now when I have that feeling that the person I am speaking to is uninterested, I feel kind of good about it actually because I think well, I've probably got something here-
Smith: --Rare and challenging. You know, I want to go back to a point you were just making. At the beginning of a new project, how or when do you know "this is it, this is what I'm going to involve my life and career in for the next year or two or whatever it takes?" I mean, what is your principle of fascination or selection? Do you go on intuition or involvement or what?
Kidder: Well I canvass kind of widely for advice, I canvass my friends. I have an editor who I've worked with now for almost twenty years named Richard Todd and we usually talk a lot about what I might do next. The only book where I really did it all on my own and went against most advice was House. It was something I just wanted to do myself, and I knew I wanted to do it right from the start. I've had some false starts, done some research and just decided, "I don't want to do this." Usually something or another happens somewhere early on in the research that quickens my-
Smith: It's either a green-light or a red-light.
Kidder: Yeah, I remember feeling that way about the "The Soul of a New Machine" when I was taken aside by one of the lieutenants of this team of computer engineers, he took me to a far corner of this basement cafeteria so no one could overhear us and started telling me all these stories full of martial language about wars and shoot-outs, people shot through the hip, and I thought this is very interesting. All this emotion over something that seems so dull.
Smith: Toward the end of "The Soul of a New Machine", I think it's in the epilogue, after the evil project is out in the world and you, I believe, are walking along with Tom West, who is the boss of the project, and you say consolingly to him, "It's only a computer." Something like that because it now has these epic proportions and finally it's not theirs anymore. Let me ask you about this whole principle of involvement or fascination with a new project. What first drew you to the saga of Mrs. Chris Zajac and her fifth grade class in the flats of Holyoke, Mass.?
Kidder: It seems like I've been surrounded by teachers all my life. My mother was a wonderful high school English teacher and my wife was a teacher for a time. I have a lot of school teacher friends. In fact my editor's wife is a public school teacher, she actually suggested that I do this, that I go and follow an elementary school teacher around for a while. And I thought about it for a time and I decided just to try it. I don't know if you want the whole story about how I came to end up in that particular place.
Smith: Well that's fascinating actually because when I travel to the Pioneer Valley or around that part of Massachusetts, I don't usually go through the city of Holyoke, and yet I felt by the time…I mean it was a very powerful book, let me tell you that, Tracy. And I felt by the end that I wanted to stay in the fifth grade there.
Kidder: Well you know it's funny, I wanted to write homage to the north of Holyoke, up in the foothills and a rural place. I wanted to write about a city school, a classroom in a city school only because I guess I thought that most people would think it's our biggest social educational problem as existing in cities. I'm not sure it's true actually. But anyway, I had a choice, I didn't want to move for a year or so to another city if I could help it, so Holyoke was convenient. I also considered the larger city of Springfield, Massachusetts, but it was a little too large. I began to think that I liked the size of Holyoke, a sort of medium size, really sort of small city with an interesting and really kind of awful, sad history. And I got tremendous cooperation there, I went to the assistant superintendent and the superintendent of schools and explained to them what I wanted to do and explained that they couldn't control what I wrote and they'd have no right of review or anything of the sort, and they had no problem with that. So I asked them for a list of their favored elementary school teachers. The one criterion that it be a woman and Mrs. Zajac was on their list. That's pretty much how it happened.
Smith: Tracy, your narrative method is really magical, I mean not just in "Among Schoolchildren" but in many ways it is more imagined than fiction in that you seem to know that teacher and the kids and what motivates and bonds them in some ways more intimately and accurately than the traditional omniscient author. Were you truly invisible when you perched on that classroom window sill?
Kidder: Of course not. I had a little desk and sat in the front of the class and I went to class every single day except for two days.
Smith: Unlike Clarence and Robert and some of the problem kids in the fifth grade, you were there--
Kidder: I had a good attendance record. I did something in that book after some very bad drafts of it, I adopted a strategy that worried me at the time and I still think it's rather risky, and that is, from time to time, I adopted a third person restricted point of view. I wanted to render the world through this teacher's eyes largely. I saw it plainly as a book about the emotional life of a teacher. To do that I had to tell you what she was thinking from time to time, which I think is a risky strategy for nonfiction. I felt though I knew her awfully well and I trusted her. She was, without any question, the most candid person I've ever tried to write about and I guess my feeling about saying what a character is thinking is that it's alright, or if you have a license to do it if that is, in fact, what the character said she was thinking and if you happen to have good reason to think that it's true.
Smith: I never doubted that when I was reading "Among Schoolchildren" that your sense of the narrative voice that conveys Chris Zajac's thoughts and her inner feelings or doubts and things like that were quite authentic and were really hers. I mean after all, you accompanied her to Puerto Rico when she went there because half the students in the fifth grade the Kelly School in Holyoke are actually Puerto Rican-
Kidder: -of Puerto Rican descent.
Smith: Of Puerto Rican descent I should say. One of the things you accomplish in "Among Schoolchildren" is a wonderful anatomy of that particular community, the social history of Holyoke. And really, you can extrapolate all kinds of American communities like it, old industrial towns that have seen better days and are sort of polyglot communities and yet have a very painful as well as very interesting history and sociology about them. I want to ask you, "Among Schoolchildren" is also amazingly moving, I mean, let's face it, there are not many exciting books about elementary education unless you happen to be totally involved with elementary education yourself, but you convey the genuine heroism of Chris Zajac and teachers like her. You say, never mind all the decades of theorizing and the big words; the task of universal public elementary education is still usually being conducted by a woman alone in a little room with a bunch of kids. I mean, what a commitment that is. And also what implications for the future? Suppose there are no more Chris Zajacs who want to…? You can't pay anyone that much money to do what she did.
Kidder: That's a bad situation. I mean, a woman alone in a little room, it's not the way it ought to be. There are some advantages to that in that at least the good, the diligent teacher is free, at least for the time being, from all the bureaucratic pettiness and so on alone in a room. But it's not a good situation. It's a very hard job, it doesn't pay particularly well, and it just doesn't confer much status on the practitioner. But it's quite a wonderful job, and frankly in reading a sort of random tiny amount of the vast literature on education, I hesitate to call it a literature actually, a more boring bunch of writing I never… I was impressed by how self-righteous many educational pundits are and how unwilling, it seems to me, they are to… I mean put it this way. I think that the teacher I picked out is a good teacher. I think she could have been a lot better teacher with some help; she could have used a lot of help. I think, though, and I think it's perfectly clear from my book, that she tried very hard and she failed in many cases. But, I'm on the side of the teachers. There are some very bad teachers in the country, of course, there are people who don't belong in the classroom, but people who undertake that job with the spirit that that woman did are people we ought to be very grateful to. I wish that our communities, in any case, would act on it, and make the job… Well it's not just a reward, the main thing is trying to make it possible for teachers to succeed, I think that's what they need most of all.
Smith: You make a very penetrating point in your book. You say, "To a degree shared by only a few other occupations, such as police work, public education rests precariously on the skill and virtue of the people at the bottom of the institutional pyramid." And that's another thing that's very moving and also very scary as far as the future. I think that one of Chris Zajac's prize pupils, a young woman named Suzanne, is not going to follow in her… this is at the end of the book… a former student who, unlike Chris Zajac herself, who had this older teacher who she revered and thought of and followed in her footsteps, now the youngest generation of her students who were now in college or out, well they're going to go to law school, and they're not going to follow in the footsteps of all those women for all the good and bad reasons who went into elementary education and performed this heroic-
Kidder: We don't know yet for sure. I don't know what the statistics show right now. There was a time when it didn't look like- it looked like what you said was true. I'm not so sure that some of that hasn't begun to change. But I'm not up on that kind of statistics. It's awfully dangerous, I've discovered, in education to generalize.
Smith: Exactly what makes "Among Schoolchildren" very good is that you are very explicit and true to life.
Kidder: Somebody asked me, some one of the wonderful TV morning pundits, if this could be an important book because of course it was only about one classroom and one teacher and one group of children, and I just sort of sputtered, I didn't know what to say. Afterwards I was told that what I should have said was that I didn't want to write an important book, I wanted to write a good one. I'm not a presidential commission. I didn't undertake to write that book because I wanted to come up with the solutions to the daunting problems of public education in this country; I just wanted to write a good story.
Smith: I think if it's a good book, it will be important, but if you set out to write an important book, especially on education, it's going to be as ponderous and abstract as the ones that you read while researching the background of your book.
Tracy, let me ask you about another aspect of your work, and this is not simply "Among Schoolchildren". I feel, I mean I'm talking about this particular reader, I always feel a certain melancholy when I finish your books. I mean the new machine, the eagle computer is out in the world and no longer processed by its creator, Tom West, and his colleagues. Tom West says, "well, for better or worse, the project was like a summer romance." In House, the house is finished and the crew has gone onto other jobs. The school year is over in "Among Schoolchildren", the characters scatter, for better or for worse. Do you feel a comparable emptiness or loss at the end of these books that I do? I mean, it's a tribute to how compelled I feel by your characters, but I have that melancholy sense that since you get so involved with these people for a year or two or whatever it is, what's your feeling at the end of a book?
Kidder: Well, it's really a subject for clinical psychology. I've behaved in various different ways. I don't know, I usually feel pretty terrible, but on a sort of variety of accounts. And I usually have a hard time getting back to work again, starting on something new.
Smith: How about becoming so much part of your subjects' lives? This is part of the same question really, you become so much a part of your subjects' lives and then, you know, you have to move on because you are a professional writer. Have their lives changed by your presence? I think of Chris Zajac… I want to know her, you know?
Kidder: Well I do stay in touch with some people, but of course as I get involved in other projects I start to lose touch a little bit. I do miss some of those people. It is an odd basis, though, for a friendship or a relationship, you know? I happen to have written mostly about pretty honorable, virtuous people who are the kind of people in the world who interest me most. But I'm not there simply to praise them; my first duty, I feel, is to my readers. I don't know exactly what I'm saying except that I'm not trying to please the people I'm writing about, and for that reason it is a very odd basis for a friendship.
Smith: Yes, I recall the late Truman Capote, one of the early and great practitioners of the so-called nonfiction novel, we don't hear that term quite as much as we did fifteen/twenty years ago, but after he wrote In Cold Blood, after he finished it, he kept up this relationship with Al Dewey, as I recall was the name of the prosecutor, they became part of his greater family. And I know how long that lasted, but it seemed as if he really had a hard time getting out of the aura of that book. I don't know if that had an impact on his later career, a negative one or not.
Kidder: I don't know, I don't know anything about that story, I mean I know the book, but I don't know anything about what surrounds it. I still think of many of the people. I still see fairly frequently some of the people I've written about, particularly some of the carpenters I wrote about, and I don't know, that's usually quite a pleasant experience. I don't suppose they're my closest friends, but I have some good friends whom I've written about. We became good friends through my writing about them.
Smith: Two questions, we have about thirty seconds left, Tracy. One thing, a footnote about "Among Schoolchildren", is Chris Zajac still teaching at the Kelly School?
Kidder: She's still teaching, not at the Kelly School, and she's not a classroom teacher at the moment, although she may be once again. She is running a reading and writing program for another elementary school in Holyoke.
Smith: And a quick question about your own work in progress: What are you writing and when will we see it?
Kidder: I'm writing about old age, or that's the large subject. I guess it's kind of similar to what I've done before in that it's a small theatre. I've been really, virtually living in a nursing home, I've been hanging out in a nursing home not to far from where I live. I intend to write about a number of elderly people, not just inside that nursing home. I'm not really sure exactly what shape it will take, but the research is interesting.
Smith: That sounds really fascinating. I'm looking forward to it. Tracy Kidder, thank you so much.
Kidder: Thank you.
Smith: And take us on more of your incomparable and true adventures. This is Tom Smith saying so long until next time on the Public Radio BookShow.
Robyn Long is a student intern at the NYS Writers Institute.
Tom Smith: Welcome to the BookShow, I'm your host Tom Smith of the New York State Writers Institute which is located at the University of Albany and is part of the State University of New York system. My guest today is biographer and historian Joseph E. Persico. Joseph Persico is the author of widely acclaimed biographies of Nelson Rockefeller, Edward R. Murrow, and William Casey and he is currently collaborating with General Colin L. Powell on the general's autobiography. Persico's new book just published by Viking, Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial is a riveting and thoughtful narrative, one of the great legal and moral dramas of the century, the Nuremberg war crimes trial of 1945 and '46. Joe Persico, welcome, or I should say welcome back, to the BookShow. You were here some years ago after the Edward R. Murrow biography, so it's good to have you back with us.
Joseph Persico: It's good to be back.
Tom Smith: And congratulations, Nuremberg: Infamy on Trial is an absolutely compelling and gripping story. It is not an insult to you to say that its history that reads like a novel because it is full of research and facts and real historical personality. It's a page turner. I defy anybody who is interested in any of these issues at all to put it down once you've taken it up. It's a fantastic book and that's it.
Joe let me ask you, after half a century, this is still not only a stirring but also a very disturbing story in many ways. Why does it seem like a contemporary story? It's still unresolved in many respects. I suppose somewhere in that question is another question. What lured you to write this story once again?
Joseph Persico: I was fascinated by the trial that took place at Nuremberg. I was a kid when this was going on; I was sixteen years old. I followed the story, and writings of others since that time. I always felt, Tom, that there was an untold story of Nuremberg. There have been several very solid, very well researched and well written, legal histories of Nuremberg, enough to satisfy the academic historian, and the legal scholar. What I had not found and only had my appetite whetted for in these other books was to know the human drama that took place there and that's what I wanted to write. I wanted to write a book that was factually based but that unfolded like a narrative. You know history has the word "story" in it. I wanted to tell the story of Nuremberg.
Tom Smith: The trials were controversial, in a certain way. I remember the trials very well, too. They were popular in a sense, not simply because we had just won the war, but the war time propaganda, rightly or wrongly, what could you do when the war was over, and these Nazi leaders were in captivity? But a lot of people had queasy thoughts about this, and it remains controversial. Was the concept of a war criminal new or different in 1945 or 1946 when all of this happened? Victors have frequently executed the losers and all kinds of things like that, but was this a new concept?
Joseph Persico: It was new in the sense that this was the first time that a court representing several nations, an international trial, approached the prosecution of war criminals. As you say, quite rightly, those who committed atrocities have been vanquished and executed by their victors in other wars. An attempt was made after WWI, total fiasco. After that war the allies came up with the names of some 5,000 Germans whom they regarded as potential war criminals. The list was trimmed down to 900. The prosecution was turned over to German courts. Four years after WWI, twelve of these people came to trial, three didn't bother to show up, three were exonerated, and six got laughably light sentences. So the first attempt to prosecute war criminals in this way fell on its face and then after WWII the allies were faced with this legal dilemma. What do you do in the face of death so calculated and so massive? Can you just walk away from it? And the conclusion was no you cannot.
Tom Smith: There has been war time propaganda certainly through history and certainly in the First World War for the Kaiser who was exiled to Holland after the armistice. I remember reading for years there was a concerted campaign to bring him back to extradite him and put him on trial somewhere. But I think during the Second World War and right after, and certainly after the evidence of the concentration camps was revealed and the liberation of the concentration camps, the invasion of Germany in '45; this war was different in kind and these war crimes had somehow never quite happened before. I wonder if we still feel that way because with the terrible atrocities that have happened in Bosnia over the last couple years, and other places too, the Nuremberg trials are constantly invoked as something that should be done in terms of these war crimes.
Joseph Persico: The Nuremberg experience suddenly came into dramatic focus first with Sadam and his seizure of Kuwait. There were cries that this man was a war criminal, that atrocities had been committed in the occupied country of Kuwait. He should be brought to trial as were the Nazis at Nuremberg. Then we have the horrible depredations coming out of the former Yugoslavia. Suddenly we see these people behind barbed wire emaciated, gaunt, on the verge of starvation, and we have in color an evocation of the pictures in black and white of the death camps of Naziism, and again there's a cry for war crimes trials. The UN has indeed created a court to try war criminals in the former Yugoslavia. It remains to be seen what happens. There are going to be some problems with that.
Tom Smith: Of course the question was raised at that time, no matter how popular, from the Allies point of view, trying and indeed even executing these leaders was at the time, still there was this notion, that had they won, would Eisenhower, and Churchill, and Omar Bradley, and on and on, would they have been in the dock, and would they have been taken out and hanged or shot or something like that.
Joseph Persico: It is quite true, that the Nuremberg approach was controversial before during and since. There were people who argued, people at high levels, that these Nazis should be shot out of hand. Churchill leaned to that before, during, and after the trial. Joe Stalin though that the five thousand top Nazis that you could get your hands on ought to be liquidated out of hand, and for a time even President Roosevelt leaned to that approach of summary justice. But in the end the major allies agreed that they would have a trial and the reasoning of those who favored a legal approach was as follows. If it was wrong for the Nazis during wartime to shoot people without benefit of trial how could it be more right for the Allies to shoot them without a trial in peace time, and further if you're going to take a man's life or you're going to put him in prison without benefit of law, even flawed law, how can it be more just to do it without any law? So the forces of reason prevailed and the trial was held and I think that it was terribly important from this standpoint that it totally discredited Nazism. Had you taken a Goering, had you taken a von Ribbentrop, had you taken a Kaltenbrunner, some of the Nazis who were tried at Nuremberg, and shot them out of hand, who knows what kind of martyr mythology would have grown out of that. But no, by having their trial, and laying out their depredations for the world to see, Nazism was thoroughly discredited.
Tom Smith: Even though, and we'll get to this in just a minute, Goering really almost turned the tables on his prosecutors. He was the star of the show, and his performance at least the first day or two was astounding because he was totally unrepentant without any contrition, and he loved to perform. Now this was not only a legal and moral event, it was also, as you certainly reveal in your book, a political event. The four victorious powers, France, Britain, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had their own political agendas. In fact I think somewhere in here you mention that there was not one but three different trials going on. Three trials were under way in Nuremberg. The first was the American trial, its purpose was to warn aggressors and give the world a body of law for trying war criminals. Second was the European's trial, particularly the Russian and the French, in an enterprise of passionate and tribunal invention. Finally there was the defendants' Nuremberg marked by the Nazi's growing awareness. So the thing is it was an unbelievable awesome undertaking. The logistics that you describe, let's talk about the dramatic scene itself. Nuremberg, appropriately ironic for the trial, is it not?
Joseph Persico: It seemed that Nuremberg was a symbolic choice, because it was in Nuremberg that the Nazis held their party rallies. These pictures which now have become icons in history of these precise ranks of hundreds of thousands of Nazis shouting "sieg heil" "ein Reich" "ein volk" "ein Fuehrer", it's just embedded in all of our memories that this took place in Nuremberg. The great fireworks displays, the torch bearing, were choreographed by Albert Speer who was one of the defendants at Nuremberg.
Tom Smith: Of course there's Leni Riefenstahl's great film, The Triumph of the Will.
Joseph Persico: It was shot at Nuremberg, and one other point that we should mention in a sense of symmetry of the trial, it was in Nuremberg that the hateful anti-Semitic laws which reduced Germany's Jews effectively to non persons were promulgated.
Tom Smith: That's right, that was in '36 or something.
Joe Persico: I should just add one further point Tom. That was not why Nuremberg was chosen. Nuremberg was chosen for very practical reasons. Among Germany's shattered cities, it had a huge courthouse, which had somehow escaped the destruction that leveled the rest of the town. It had a jail to accommodate these people, it had a first class hotel that somehow hadn't been hit, and on the suburban fringe it had housing for the officials who would be trying the Nazis.
Tom Smith: Well in addition to the scene itself of this drama, there is a fascinating and huge cast of characters, and to your credit, you manage to portray so many of them very vividly. I'm not talking about just the defendants; I want to get to some of those too, but the people who organized the trial, was this a kind of precedent for a Supreme Court Justice? Robert Jackson was the chief American prosecutor for the trial, and this was sort of a strange turn of events was it not?
Joe Persico: Yes, Jackson was a sitting Supreme Court Justice when Harry Truman asked him to in effect step off the bench and become a prosecutor. Jackson was also very largely the organizer of the trial. Look at the tremendous task he faced. He's to try people in a court that does not exist, he's to try them against charges which have yet to be drafted, and he's going to do it in a foreign country. So they were starting from scratch. This was one of the problems that the proponents of the trial faced, that it was ex-post facto law. The instruments of prosecution and punishment were developed after the acts were defined as criminal.
Tom Smith: And then not only were the prosecutors from all of the four victorious powers, but the judges themselves. The American judge was Francis Biddle, the aristocratic, or at least we all thought of him as the aristocratic former attorney general, who was a bit of an envious man, of first of all Jackson. I think Biddle wanted to be on the Supreme Court, and then he thought he should be Chief Judge of the whole Tribunal, and the British judge was that, as I recall.
Joe Persico: There are a lot of human sub dramas in the trial that I didn't want to miss, and you've just touched on one. Biddle had been bounced by Harry Truman as attorney general. He was out of a job, so Truman made it up to him by naming him an American judge, so he felt that he could now make his mark on history. He thought he was going to be president of the court, but, Jackson persuaded the rest of the court members to select an Englishman, an English judge, Sir Geoffrey Lawrence, to be president of the court. So you had tension between Biddle who thought he was smarter than Lawrence throughout the trial, and you had resentment between the American prosecutor, and the American judge, Jackson versus Biddle. So there are these themes running beneath the contest between defendants and prosecutors.
Tom Smith: And not to mention there was the Russians very much with their own agenda, but their own very sometimes grumpy point of view towards their fellow prosecutors, and fellow judges. Of course the French were in there, and a lot of people didn't think the French should be one of the four, that maybe there should be three, and all of these dynamics having nothing to do with the defendants even before the trial began. One of the people who fascinated me in your book was a colonel, who was maybe later a General, Colonel Andrus, who was, I believe, the commandant of the prison, or the cellblock. His great job, I mean of all the logistical jobs, was to keep the defendants from committing suicide. He lost three of them as I recall. Hermann Goering at the last moment, but Robert Ley was it who never came to trial, he was the labor chief, so Andrus really had quite a job.
Joseph Persico: Burton Andrus was a career army officer who was dragged into the position as the jailer of Nuremberg, and it was a tough job. Not only did he have these major Nazis, of whom there were twenty-one who went on trial, but there was something like eight or nine hundred other minor Nazis. He was charged with keeping them alive before they could go on trial. On paper he had seemingly very rigid rules. For the twenty one major defendants, there was some poor G.I. twenty-four hours a day whose job was to peer into each cell. He would be on for two hours, be replaced by someone else for two hours, always somebody looking in there. A light was beamed on the defendants when they slept at night, so that they couldn't be up to any shenanigans. They were to sleep with their hands outside the blankets no matter how cold it got in the cell. They were to sleep facing the center of the cell, not with their back to it, and the guards had a pole and they would poke these guys if they started making themselves more comfortable. There were rectal examinations, there were cell examinations. It was supposed to be a suicide proof prison.
Tom Smith: Turned out not to be.
Joseph Persico: Poor Andrus, not only lost a minor defendant, but one of the major defendants named Robert Ley, the minister of the phony labor front in Germany, even before the trial began, and Goering, an hour and fifteen minutes before he was to be marched to the gallows.
Tom Smith: That was the great dramatic touch of Goering's most dramatic performance. Let's get to those defendants themselves, I mean there were twenty-one. Now the four big ones, Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels and Bormann, had cheated the victors by committing suicide, or they weren't to be found. How about the star of the trial, Hermann Goering who had been the number two Nazi? He was a star in another way. I mean there was a way that this defiant, unrepentant, masterful performance, he almost won the day did he not?
Joseph Persico: Well Goering had a perverse appeal. At first people were inclined to underestimate him as some kind of obese buffoon. Hermann Goering had a very sharp mind. Hermann Goering was a magna cum laude graduate of the German equivalent of West Point. The high point of the trial was when Goering was on the stand in his own defense and he's being questioned by the chief American prosecutor Justice Robert Jackson who has come off the Supreme Court, and that is a very revealing encounter. Goering proves himself very shrewd, very able. For one thing, as you point out, totally unrepentant. "I did create the concentration camps, and here's why. I did create the Gestapo and here's why. We did try to annex our enemies, and here's why," and there was something about the brutal honesty of the man that awed people. Further he was a very shrewd debater. When it was suggested during his examination that there was an odd concentration of power in Germany that the Chief of State was also the Chief of Government, he said yes, like the President of the United States.
Tom Smith: And the Soviet Union, of course.
Joseph Persico: And the point was made that Germany was such a tight rigid dictatorship from the Fuhrer at the top down to the lowest block leader, he said yes like the Catholic Church, with the Pope at the top and the priest at the bottom.
Tom Smith: After that, I think it's the first day of his testimony where he simply topped Jackson. This is a little line, a little reflection by Janet Flanner of The New Yorker, on arriving at the Stein Castle she began writing her column for The New Yorker about Goering's debut at Nuremberg. She had witnessed, she wrote, and I quote her, "One of the best brains of the period of history when good brains are rare." Goering, she concluded was a brain without a conscience, I mean really quite an awesome performance. I want to ask you about a few of these other performances or defendants. Now in contrast to Goering there was the belly-crawling contrition of Albert Speer who had been Hitler's architect and became the production Czar of the Third Reich during the war. Do you think that Speer, over the decades has had, I mean maybe up until recently, an undeservedly good press. He was always the Nazi that was different. He wrote the books of course Inside the Third Reich, he was so contrite and remorseful and repentant. Your book is really quite skeptical about Speer's claim to be morally redeemed.
Joseph Persico: First of all let's look at what kind of a man Speer was. Yes, he was highly intelligent, cultivated, charming. He was also the guy who demanded hundreds of thousands of slave laborers be dragooned into Germany. He took 400,000 of his workers to achieve these production miracles from concentration camps. He visits a factory that's making V2 wonder weapons underneath the Harz mountains where men work cramped all day long to a point where they can't stand up straight, where 180 of them die every day from the conditions in that factory. Speer was aware of this and he writes a letter saying how terrible this is for the guards. It's so psychologically depressing for them to be in this atmosphere. Speer is also present when Himmler, the chief architect of the extermination of the Jews, explains at a conference what he's doing. So Speer is not an innocent figure and he gets twenty years, and the poor semi-educated low class German Fritz Sauckel who brings these slave laborers into Germany is hanged. It's hard for me to find any moral distinction between the slave trader and the slave driver.
Tom Smith: There are so many questions about so many of these defendants. Thirteen of them were hanged. Is it thirteen?
Joseph Persico: No ten were hanged and Goering was supposed to be hanged, until he pulled off his suicide.
Tom Smith: And there were a couple of acquittals, Franz von Papen I think, Hjalmar Schacht who was the banker in all that. Now the military men who were hanged, Keitel, and Jodl, and Raeder and Doenitz who were sentenced to prison, there's a question of whether they should have been tried at all. Even Eisenhower was sobered by the prospect of how easily the verdict, as he put it, was rendered for these military men.
Joseph Persico: Well in law now we frequently hear what is called the Nuremberg Defense. 'I was merely carrying out orders'. In German 'Befehl ist Befehl', orders are orders. Now, why did these military men go on trial and get convicted for presumably doing what Allied leaders were doing? First of all, it states in German law and in a German soldier's pay book that he does not have to carry out illegal orders. It states that you are not to shoot soldiers who surrender, even guerrillas, even spies if they surrender. The military figures, like Keitel and Jodl, passed along Hitler's barbarous orders to shoot commandos who are on perfectly legitimate raids, to kill fifty men, women or children in retribution against any German soldier who was killed. And they carried these orders out, so that in some cases heroic commandos were executed for doing what people do in wartime. Tens of thousands of hostages lost their lives, totally innocent people. As an Old Prussian axiom has it, 'choose disobedience, if obedience brings dishonor', and these figures did not do that.
Tom Smith: That's well said. Joe there's a million other questions, and this is such a fascinating book, and I can just tell all of our listeners, read Nuremberg: Infamy On Trial by Joseph E. Persico, just published by Viking, about the abiding questions of the Nuremberg trials and whether one of the results was, that a democratic Germany in some way did come out of this very ambiguous and very dramatic setting. Joe thank you for this compelling and timely story, this is Tom Smith saying so long until next time on The BookShow.
Transcribed by Travis DeLingua, intern at the NYS Writers Institute.
Scene: a stuffy classroom at the University at Albany in which 10 people sit as far away from each other as possible, quietly staring ahead at the blank chalkboard. Writer Peter Sheridan enters scene left, followed by an entourage of professionals from the New York State Writers Institute. Sheridan can be no taller than 5'7'', yet he easily commands the room's attention. He is wearing a green suit jacket, fitting for a man who is so proud of his Irish heritage. Sheridan is seated in a chair at the front of the room with a video camera directly ahead, catching his every move. The room is in no way conducive to social interaction, yet Sheridan acts as though he were sitting at the dinner table with old friends, catching up. Sheridan has a flair for storytelling, and meeting him makes it easy to understand how he's become so successful.
Peter Sheridan's career is not one that can easily be summed up. He is one of Ireland's premier playwrights, as well as a screenwriter, actor, film director, and author. Working with his brother, Oscar-winning filmmaker Jim Sheridan, Peter founded the Project Arts Centre, Dublin's top avant-garde theater. For his work as a playwright Peter has received many prestigious awards, including the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, according to the New York State Writers Institute. Some of his best-known plays include "Emigrants" (1978), about poor Irish laborers in 19th century England; "Diary of a Hunger Strike" (1982), about the famous H-Block hunger strike at Belfast Prison; and "Finders Keepers" (2004), a teenage coming-of-age story set in Dublin's working-class Docklands in the 1960s.
Obviously, Sheridan has a strong connection with his hometown in Ireland. He went to a disadvantaged high school in north Dublin, and was the first one in the neighborhood school to be accepted into a university. In Sheridan's first book he writes, "If Dublin was a woman, I'd marry her." Sheridan's father taught him to be proud of everything that his ancestors in Ireland accomplished and all of the struggles they endured. His writing expressed the dimensions of life in Ireland, both past and present.
Sheridan's two memoirs also give readers a keen insight into Irish life. His first memoir, "44: Dublin Made Me" (1999), set during his childhood, tells about the impact of '60s culture (Beatles, sex and drugs) on his working-class family. Sheridan says, "Ireland welcomed the outside world into their homes, especially through the television. The church was very scared of this." In an interview with Penguin Books, Sheridan says the decade of the '60s was "the decade of change and revolution, of possibility and moon travel, of free love and sexual liberation." Ireland was "a society dominated by the church, where fear of the collar (and eternal damnation) still held paternal sway. But the winds of change were blowing and I was part of the generation willingly caught in its slipstream."
Sheridan's latest work, "Every Inch of Her," was published in the U.S. in September 2004. The London Times praised the novel, saying it "has the texture of experience, of a life lived and examined. It may be a first novel; it is also the point that Sheridan's career has been leaning towards. He has found a niche for his quirks and contradictions, a medium that embraces his passions and enthusiasms."
"Every Inch of Her," set again in Dublin, is the tale of Philo, an obese, tattooed, foul-mouthed mother of five who inspires everyone she meets. During Sheridan's discussion at the University at Albany he tells us that the character of Philo is based on a woman he knows very well. He met her during an open casting call he had for one of his plays. At the audition, Philo forgot lines, mispronounced words, and had a harsh voice and appearance, yet Sheridan said, "She was absolutely captivating." About writing the novel, he said, "I wanted to leave Philo behind me. I wanted other people to have her because I love her. I wanted to share her. The book was my medium." Sheridan told Philo 15 years ago that he was going to write about her. His initial attempt was a play. When it was finished he "felt like she hadn't been liberated." Sheridan scrapped the play and the six months of work he put into it, realizing that in order to capture such a big character, he would have to express her through a novel. In his interview with Penguin Books, he says, "Writing a book is like composing a symphony. A play is like a chamber piece. They all present their own degree of difficulty."
The reason that Sheridan's works are successful and speak to many people is largely that he can explore the inner depths of others. He says, "Everything I write is based on reality," and, "I invite chaos into my life all the time." This is what gives Sheridan his stories. He said it can be traced back to his father, who used to always bring home strangers from the bar. Sheridan said he can recall many times throughout his childhood that there would be a different sailor in the house every night, telling his story. Sheridan also invites people into his life. In his interview with Penguin he says, "In an atmosphere of trust, people will reveal their deepest, darkest secrets. I am curious by nature, so I cut through the veneer to the heart of things. I ask all the awkward questions and, more importantly, I listen. If you don't listen, you don't feel, and without feeling there is no depth, no character."
After an hour of Peter Sheridan's discussion at the University at Albany, he is told that his time is just about up. A collective groan rises from the small group, who can't believe an hour has passed already, who want to hear more of the stories that Sheridan has to tell. He reluctantly says his goodbyes, much like a child who is told that playtime is over and it's time to go to bed. Exit Sheridan, scene left.
By Chrissie Carino, undergraduate student in the Department of English, UAlbany. Peter