Monday, February 29, 2016

Q&A with Jim Downs

Jim Downs is the author of the new book Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation. His other books include Sick from Freedom, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Time and The Huffington Post. He is an Andrew W. Mellon New Directions fellow at Harvard University and an associate professor of history at Connecticut College. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Q: You write, “My focus here is to correct the hypersexual caricature of gay men in the 1970s by exploring and recounting the everyday ways in which gay men sustained an identity and culture.” How did the caricature come into being, and why has it persisted?

A: The caricature of gay men as hypersexual has been around since the invention of homosexuality—since the late 19th century when the state and others in power began to define homosexuality and then regulate against it.

In other words, there is a difference between men having sex with men, which could be seen as timeless, and the naming of those practices that developed in the late 19th century.

When those practices are named, they were then summarily outlawed. Gay people consequently enter the historical record because of their so-called deviant sexual practices; they are only recognized as sexual beings.

This is only part of the story. In prewar Berlin, gay men created a vibrant culture that extended beyond sex but was then eradicated by the Nazis.

Gay men have often been engaged in the creation of a community and cultural identity that included sex but also involved the writing of their history, the development of literature, the making of a community. That part of gay history has often been downplayed or ignored in favor of the portrayal of them as hypersexual.

In the recent past, the outbreak of HIV, which confounded doctors, public health officials, journalists, and gay people themselves, perpetrated the notion of gay men as hypersexual.

When the epidemic broke out, the aforementioned groups pointed to the sexual culture of the 1970s to rationalize the spread of the virus and in so doing erased the rich, diverse culture of the 1970s. 

In my research, I uncovered, for example, the creation of a global gay religious movement that began in L.A. in the late 1960s but then spread across the country and other parts of the world.

Gay men established their own specific church, The Metropolitan Community Church, and others created offshoot organizations, such as Integrity for Gay Episcopalians, Dignity for Gay Catholics, Beth Chayim Chadash for Gay Jews, and the list goes on for many other religious traditions.

Yet, the narrative of gay men being hypersexual and by extension immoral purposely erased the history of gay people praying in churches and in synagogues.

Q: Your first chapter is called “The Largest Massacre of Gay People in American History.” Why did you choose to begin with this event, which took place in New Orleans in 1973?

A: This event embodies the major argument of the book. As I mentioned above, many more LGBT people were involved in the making of the gay religious movement than we have previously known or even imagined.

In New Orleans, members of the Metropolitan Community Church met on June 24, 1973 to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising that marked the official start of gay liberation. When the anniversary celebration ended, the liturgy services began around 7pm.

Someone or possibly more than one person tried to get into the bar that had been converted into a church but since the bar was in an unsafe part of the French Quarter, the doors to the bar/church were locked. 

A few moments later, the person or persons came back with a firebomb and detonated it on the steps leading to the second floor of the bar where members of the MCC met.

As I explain in the book in fuller detail, over 32 gay people were then killed in the fire, marking the largest massacre of gay people in U.S. history.

As I also explain, this was not the only church fire, there were other arson attacks on gay churches throughout the country. Much of this eerily evokes the tragic arson attacks of black churches during the 20th century.

We have rightly documented burnings against black churches but my book is the first to document arson attacks against gay churches.

Q: One of your chapters, “Body Language,” looks at the rise of the “macho gay man” in the 1970s. What impact did that image have on gay politics and issues during the decade?

A: I think the increased focused on appearance and bodily aesthetics had the directed effect of privileging masculinity and whiteness as the signature hallmarks of gay identity.

As I explain further in that chapter, the LGBT movement went from being a relatively racially diverse and inclusive movement in the early 1970s that was engaged in the black freedom struggle, the feminist movement and other social movements of the period to an apolitical movement in the late 1970s that forgot its more radical roots and commitment to the politics of all oppressed peoples.

Q: How did you choose the book’s title, and what does it signify for you?

A: The original title was "More than Just Sex," because I was trying to, as I explained above, [see] the 1970s as it was, not as HIV/AIDS has defined it.  

I then chose "Stand By Me" because I realized that in negating that formulation, I was actually reifying it. So, instead, "Stand by Me" captured the mood of the period: how people often stood together as a community.

In the church in New Orleans in 1973, for example, seconds before the fire explosion, members of the MCC sang, “For united we stand, divided we fall, and if our backs should ever be against the wall, we’ll be together, you and I.” These lyrics proved to be sadly prescient but also [describe] the literal and even metaphorical way that gay people stood together.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on a few projects. One is the sequel to this book about the 1970s; the other is a sequel to my first book, Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction, that charts the development of epidemiology as a field of study.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Gay History is a relatively new topic. Most people have not taken a gay history class in college or high school and often have not even had gay issues addressed in courses that aim to tell the history of the United States. So, I think, this book is crucial in trying to correct that absence and teach us about the past. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with C.J.C. Whitehouse

C.J.C. Whitehouse is the author of the new book Lone Buffalo: Conquering Adversity in Laos, the Land the West Forgot. It is a fictionalized version of the life of Manophet Mouidouangdy, whom Whitehouse first met in Laos in 2001.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and why did you opt to fictionalize your protagonist’s life?

A: Little is known in the West about what it was like to grow up on the Plain of Jars in the aftermath of the devastating bombing to which the area was subjected during the Secret War.

For years, Westerners were prohibited from entering Laos, and when the country finally reopened its doors few northern Laotians could speak any language other than their own.

But Manophet (the protagonist) had taken a far-sighted decision to teach himself English, and this gave him a rare ability to communicate the missing history to outsiders.

I felt his unusual story deserved to be more widely heard, but the Lao have no tradition of story- or biography-writing, so there was a risk that it would simply be forgotten if a westerner didn’t step up to the plate.

It soon became clear that much of the information that I was gleaning in interviews was only moderately reliable.

Until recently, most northern Lao depended exclusively on the spoken word, writing nothing down, and accounts of events could vary, depending on who I was talking to – particularly when it came to events that had taken place 30 or 40 years earlier.

To confuse matters further, “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” is not really a recognized concept in Laos. Truth tends to be offered piecemeal, and some Lao have a habit of borrowing truth from the lives of others when it suits them.

Against this background, fictionalizing the story seemed to make more sense than trying to write a biography, and this approach felt increasingly appropriate as I proceeded, even though many of the “characters” in the book were still alive.

Q: What sort of research did you need to do, and was there anything that particularly surprised you in the course of your research?

A: With so little written material to draw on, my primary objective was to interview as many of Manophet’s family, friends and acquaintances as I could persuade to talk to me.

Arranging an audience with his mother (who is almost 90) and other siblings presented an interesting challenge. Following Manophet’s untimely demise, the only English-speaking member of the family was a brother based in the U.S., so I began by flying across the Atlantic to meet him.

Once he had satisfied himself that my desire to write a book was genuine, a rapport developed, and in due course I asked if he would be prepared to arrange a meeting with the rest of [his] family and act as interpreter.

It took several months to overcome the logistical difficulties, but eventually he flew 8,000 miles west around the globe, while I flew 6,000 miles east, and we all met up at his mother’s house on the Plain of Jars.

It came as a delightful surprise to learn that Fred Branfman had retained Manophet’s e-mails to him and was happy for me to read and reproduce them. They convey a wonderful sense of both men reaching out to one another.

Fred was already something of a legend in Manophet’s eyes when they met, but Manophet then became a significant piece in Fred’s jigsaw, because Fred was painfully aware that his seminal book, Voices from the Plain of Jars, had been written in absentia. Manophet was able to supply him with the insight and context for which he had always thirsted.

Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Laos in the United States and Britain?

A: A not-uncommon misperception in Britain is that Laos is in Africa! From what I can gather, education levels in the U.S. (as regards Laos, at least) are higher than in Europe, possibly because the Vietnam War does not feature prominently in school curricula over here.

Many Europeans are not even aware that Laos was bombed, let alone that it is the most heavily bombed country on earth. There is a widespread perception that an incompetent regime was entirely to blame for Laos’s failure to prosper between 1975 and 2005, a time when most other countries in the region were flourishing – when in fact the country’s war legacy was also a significant factor.

Most visitors are profoundly shocked when they discover how many Lao are still being killed by unexploded cluster bombs each month, even though mortality levels have fallen steadily over recent years.

Q: What do you think Manophet’s story says about relations between Laos and the United States?

A: The Lao living on the Plain of Jars give the impression that they are ready to forgive the enemy who turned a blind eye to their country’s neutrality and razed their state capital and its environs to the ground. U.S. politicians, for their part, appear more than happy to capitalize on their generosity and let the misapprehension that America never bombed Laos take root anew.

And yet, as the book highlights, there is a chasm between the reaction of successive U.S. administrations, which have one by one abrogated as much responsibility as they can for clearing up the mess left behind by the bombers, and the reactions of ordinary U.S. nationals when they are apprised of what was done in their name by the U.S. government of the time.

Several individuals have recently tried to make reparation in their own way, and their generous actions have gone some way to restoring America’s reputation.

Q: How did you choose the book’s title, and what does it signify for you?

A: Lone Buffalo was Manophet’s self-styled sobriquet (the school that he founded is now called the Lone Buffalo School). On the face of it, the name derives from a situation that arose when he was at his lowest ebb, which is described in the book.

But when I asked him about this in 2001 he gave me a different, rather elliptical, explanation that hinted at something deeper. Alas I was never able to get to the bottom of this riddle.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve always felt a writer should abstain from writing unless he’s convinced he has something worth saying. Right now, I have no compelling idea up my sleeve.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Digging into the Secret War and its legacy can be a grim exercise, but Manophet’s determination not to be beaten by his circumstances makes this an uplifting book, as opposed to a depressing one. He set a remarkable example during his short life, one that I hope readers will find inspiring.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on

Feb. 29

Feb. 29, 1920: Howard Nemerov born.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Q&A with Simon R. Doubleday

Simon R. Doubleday is the author of the new book The Wise King: A Christian Prince, Muslim Spain, and the Birth of the Renaissance. His other books include The Lara Family: Crown and Nobility in Medieval Spain. He is professor and chair of history at Hofstra University, and he lives in New York City and Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book about the 13th century Spanish ruler Alfonso X, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?

A: I’ve always been drawn to medieval Spain: it’s a period of extraordinary cultural vitality, as well as instability and change.

To see the architecture of this period—the Gothic cathedrals of León or Burgos (which Alfonso helped to construct), or the Alhambra (built by the Muslim kings of Granada, who were sometimes his uneasy allies)—is to recognize at once that vitality; to hear the music (especially the Cantigas de Santa María) is to be drawn into a lost world.

Alfonso X was a king who was famed across Europe for his scientific learning, and who remains a household name in Spain, but who is largely unknown to English-speaking audiences outside the academic world, so I was attracted by the challenge of introducing him to a new public.

He actually played a slightly villainous role in my first book, the story of an aristocratic family who fell out with him midway through his reign, but the deeper I researched him, the more dazzled I was by his cultural achievements, and the more compelling I found the task of tracing his inner, emotional life.

There are many emotional surprises in the book: perhaps especially his warm relationship with his first-born daughter Beatriz, an “illegitimate” child who was born before his marriage but became queen of Portugal.

I am still trying to decipher the accusations of anger and madness that his enemies flung against him, towards the end of his reign.    

Q: You write of Alfonso that "single-handedly, he exorcises the myth that medieval Europe was mired in a dark age." How do you think he was able to accomplish this?

A: One of my favorite reviews of The Wise King so far points out that anyone who still believes that medieval Europe was a dark age is still living, in effect, in the dark ages.

The whole notion that medieval Europe was a backward, ignorant place is an invention, a concoction of early modern intellectuals who thought their own culture was qualitatively superior to any other that had existed in the past.

The reality is much more dynamic and colorful: the 13th century is full of talented, sophisticated rulers such as St. Louis IX of France, and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, the so-called stupor mundi (the wonder of the world).

Alfonso probably outdid them all, through the brilliance of his scientific achievements, his musical patronage and compositions, his architectural program, and—not least--his role as a lawgiver, which is recognized in a relief image in the U.S. House of Representatives.

At the same time, I don’t want to revert to an old-fashioned “great man’ theory of history. Just as his rule was strengthened by a number of extraordinarily gifted women, including his grandmother Berenguela and his wife Queen Yolant, the Castilian Renaissance which he oversaw was driven by the creative energies of many people, including Muslims and Jews. 

Q: How would you describe the dynamics between Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Spain during his reign?

A: One way of thinking about the relationship between Christians and Muslims is to envisage “Spain” and Portugal as the arena for competing forms of colonialism.

From the north, the Christian kingdoms were attempting to expand southwards, settling Andalusia, the Balearic Islands and elsewhere and desperately trying to consolidate the military victories they had enjoyed earlier in the century (a Castilian-led force had won a crushing victory at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, and Alfonso’s father had captured the great Muslim cities of Córdoba and Seville).

From the south, a series of Moroccan empires had attempted to expand northwards into Iberia, and during Alfonso’s reign the latest of them, the Marinids, were a constant threat for the Christians.

So Iberia becomes the arena for competing forms of empire. But empire also breeds hybridity, and Alfonso’s world was extraordinarily hybrid.

He set up court in the Muslim alcazar in Seville, and in many ways behaved as if he were “the last of the Almohad caliphs,” as Maribel Fierro has put it: not least, he initiated and fully shared their commitment to learning and wisdom.

He also drew constantly on the learning of Jewish translators and intellectuals, although tragically the last decade of his reign marked a downward spiral in the relative tolerance that Jews had often experienced in 13th century Castile.   

Q: What would you say is Alfonso's legacy today?

A: In the past, historians used to think that studying the past might serve as a “mirror” into which we could look, and find inspiration, comparing ourselves to what we could be.

This was something I tried to evoke, in the opening scene of the book, where Alfonso himself (at the age of 16) opens up one of the
“mirrors for princes” and begins to read; and in the last sentence of the book, where I suggest that his reign might serve as “a medieval mirror for modern readers.”

It’s not for me to suggest exactly what the reader should see, when he or she looks in the mirror, but I hope that by presenting an intimate portrait of the king, and by exploring some of the deepest elements in his emotional life (sex, fatherhood, friendship, anger, and so forth) every reader will find something that strikes a personal chord.

On another level, I think that his conviction that a wise ruler should lead his people in learning, as well as in battle, and could regenerate his country through culture, might offer food for thought for many politicians of our own day. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Terror and fear. There’s one remarkable, autobiographical song in which Alfonso recounts a nightmare he had while he was lying in bed with his wife, presaging the downfall of the city of Jerez (birthplace of sherry).

In the nightmare, he says, he dreamed of a mother and child, about to be consumed by the flames as the Muslims attack the city. The mother cries out for someone to take her child, so that he can live, even if she must die. He believes that the mother and child are Mary and Jesus.

I am interested in finding out whether we can see this nightmare as the result of battle trauma, and/or a pervasive climate of fear at the Castilian court, rather than simply as a spiritual tale.

I have a suspicion that, while chivalry served to bury the fears of warrior-rulers like Alfonso, these fears remained very deeply infused in the mindset of Spanish people, both sides of the frontier. Fear, in fact, may have been one of the great catalysts that drove the early Renaissance during his reign: instability is the mother of invention.

I’m also writing an article about illegitimate children.

But after the summer, I will probably turn to Something Completely Different, in the words of Monty Python.   

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m always happy to answer your readers’ own questions: they can email me at 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 28

Feb. 28, 1926: Svetlana Alliluyeva born.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Q&A with Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark

Chuck McCutcheon
Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark are the co-authors of the new book Doubletalk: The Language, Code, and Jargon of a Presidential Election. Their other work includes co-writing the book Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes. McCutcheon is assistant managing editor for the CQ Researcher and SAGE Business Researcher, and Mark is an editor for CNN's digital politics site.

Q: Why did you decide to write a follow-up to Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes?

David Mark
A: Because of the heavy interest in the 2016 presidential race. We felt that a book of White House-specific election terms would interest people and, hopefully, help inform them at least a little before they vote.

Q: What terms have emerged from this 2016 presidential campaign that especially struck you?

A: Presidential politics, like society, has become much, much more insult-driven. Donald Trump is the obvious example, but many other candidates and their supporters are putting down their opponents, as well as people within their own party.

"Liar" used to be a bit taboo, but now you hear it seemingly every day. You also often hear disparaging terms such as "feckless," "cuckservative," "WHINOs," and "New York values," which has become the 2016 version of "San Francisco values." 

On the Democratic side we're witnessing ongoing tension about how left-of-center candidates define themselves. Hillary Clinton repeatedly calls herself a "progressive," a "progressive who gets results" or some variation. But she rarely, if ever, refers to herself as a "liberal."

Though used as a taunt by Republicans much less than in the past, it's still a politically toxic word for many Democrats. 

Q: What has surprised you most about the verbiage used in this campaign?

A: The continued reliance on (and overuse of) cliches -- "courage" among politicians to describe virtually any position that they adopt; "sleeping giants" to continually describe Hispanic voters; "scheduling conflict" to describe turning down an invite to something that a campaign obviously does not want to do; "firewall" to describe a protective state or a group of voters.

Also the eagerness among pundits to draw from pop culture -- "throwing shade" and "terrible, horrible, no good, very bad" spring to mind.

One of the most-used in recent years is "evolved" -- which critics call "flip-flopped." Donald Trump has talked a lot about having "evolved" in a conservative direction on gay marriage and abortion rights. About four years ago it was President Barack Obama who was "evolving" -- in favor of same-sex marriage.

Q: As veteran political journalists, do you have any predictions about the outcome of this presidential election?

Chuck: No. I have a consistent track record of being wrong.

David: I, too, have a far-from-perfect prediction record. I'll note where I've been right and wrong this election cycle to date.

I admittedly did not think Bernie Sanders would be more than a gadfly candidate. The Vermont senator is still highly unlikely to win the Democratic nomination, but he's pulled Hillary Clinton to the left and exposed her limitations as a candidate. 

I did foresee Jeb Bush not faring well in the Republican primaries. Having covered him in the past, he didn't seem to have his heart in the slash-and-burn political approach needed to be competitive. The former Florida governor was of course hampered by the Bush name, as well. And for a range of additional reasons this didn't seem like his year. 

And I predicted that Ted Cruz would be a significant factor in the Republican nomination fight. Friends and relatives of the liberal persuasion often scoffed at this, suggesting he was just too conservative. But the Texas senator is shrewd and calculating -- he had a game plan that he's largely stuck with, to at least some success like winning the Iowa caucuses.

Q: What are you working on now?

Chuck: I'm an assistant managing editor for the CQ Researcher and SAGE Business Researcher, two publications that try to explain current issues in the news to an academic audience. I both write and edit for those two publications. I'm also writing three chapters in two college textbooks about government and politics.

David: I'm an editor at CNN, on its fast-growing digital politics site. I also continue to engage in public speaking and media interviews when there's time -- most recently at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: We welcome reader contributions of political jargon that provokes their interest. They can make suggestions at

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark, please click here.

Q&A with Joanne Cronrath Bamberger

Joanne Cronrath Bamberger is the editor of the new book Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox. She is the publisher and editor in chief of the digital magazine The Broad Side, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post and USA Today. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: Why did you decide to compile this book, and how did you pick the authors to include?

A: Ever since the 2008 campaign, there have been many news stories, opinion pieces and talking head segments on whether or not Hillary Clinton is "likable" and what impact on her candidacy that had eight years ago.

But few of those reports delved into the question of "why" - why was that a problem for Hillary but not other candidates? Was it something voters demanded of her in particular or of women candidates in general? 

As I started researching that question, I discovered some polling and studies that found that in order for women voters to find women candidates qualified, they also had to find them likable (which was not the case for men).

Those, in addition to a variety of academic studies that have been done regarding Hillary Clinton, I wanted to put some meat on the bones of that research and ask women why they had such complicated and convicted feelings about HRC.

I knew I wanted to explore this with women writers, so I started making a list of women I knew and knew of who had different views on Clinton (both established and emerging writers) and who came to the project with widely diverse views and backgrounds, and who would write with insight and humor. 

One of the best things that came out of this project was that I thought I knew what the topics and opinions would be. But because of the diversity of writers, they came to the table with some even more interesting topics and ideas than I had thought of!

Q: In the book, you ask, “Why do we play the Hillary love-hate card with such vigor?” How would you answer that, and how did you come up with the book’s title?

A: I brainstormed the title with some of the contributors. I knew the title needed to be something that would easily and quickly reflect all of our different views about Clinton, as well as the fact that she, like all of us, she is a person of complexity and of some contradiction - but that also reflected the fact that we have our own contradictions in how we view her.

Contributor Jennifer Hall Lee was the brainchild behind the title and it was the one I ultimately believed best represented the book's ideas.

I think we play the love-hate card with such vigor because Hillary Clinton is a person who has dared to step out of traditional expectations and has embraced a fully three-dimensional version of herself.

It's hard to believe that in 2016, some people still think, "How dare she think she can go from being a First Lady to a senator or president!?"

We live in a world where those in politics often become caricatures of themselves, and when they do, observers can usually predict what their positions are.

Yet, Clinton has allowed herself to evolve over the course of her political life and voters are quick to judge her for that, even if she is evolving in a way they approve of.

But that's not just an issue for Hillary. I think many women in our society face the same scrutiny - they are received positively if they think and act in the way that's expected of them, but if they step out of an already constructed role for them, there is great pushback. 

For any woman to finally be elected as the first female president of the Untied States, we, as voters, need to be comfortable with a person who dares to step away from the praise women often receive for staying in "traditional" roles.

But when that happens, voters' discomfort leads to a push/pull of loving some things and hating others. 

Q: In your own essay, you write, “We clearly still live in a time when women are criticized and judged more harshly than men based on this expectation of perfection.” Do you see this playing out in the 2016 election, and if so, how?

A: Absolutely they are and not in a helpful way to Clinton. Some of the best examples of that are the questions posed to Bernie Sanders at televised town hall meetings vs, the ones Hillary gets. 

Sanders gets asked more questions about substantive issues that are relatively easy to answer. But for Hillary, there are so many personal questions that are posed to her - about her humility, about her ability to connect, whether people trust her - questions that seem to stem from Republican talking points.  

Clinton is constantly asked about her changes in positions - which is legitimate - yet Sanders is rarely questioned on that and is taken at face value.

For example, Hillary has come under fire for her support in the 1990s of her husband's position on a crime bill that resulted in increased incarcerations, especially among men color.

However, Sanders, who actually voted for that bill as a member of Congress, has been given a pass and is seen by many as new hero in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, even though he was shouted down less than a year ago at a political conference for not being connected to the issues of that movement.

It comes down to applying different standards to different candidates, rather than using the same standard to judge each one. And if Hillary doesn't meet certain expectations, she is viewed as imperfect, with the implication that she is unqualified. Perfection is a standard that has never been used to judge any male candidates.

Q: What do you see looking ahead in the Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders nomination battle,  and why do you think it’s developed the way it has?

A: Things have developed as they are at this point because young voters are inspired by Sanders because his message about income inequality hits a nerve with them - the generation post-Great Recession that hasn't yet lived the experiences of gender discrimination or the fight against that that Hillary represents.

I suspect in 10 years, millennial women who support Sanders and today are skeptical about their "moms' " experiences will look back and realize that the fight HRC represents is still there and that we still have not achieved equality on so many different levels.

I also believe the media have a significant role to play in terms of how Clinton and Sanders are viewed - Sanders gets portrayed as someone who has never wavered and has a set of ideas he has advocated consistently over time vs. Hillary as someone who is always changing.

If the narrative were different - if the media talked more about Sanders inconsistencies or changes over time (which are there) and/or if changes in views were talked about in terms of how position develop and change over time, rather than as flip-flopping, I suspect voters' perceptions would be more nuanced.

As we move forward, I hope (though I'm not holding my breath) that journalists will dig a little deeper than talking points and small snapshots in time, and cover the candidates in a way that reflects who they really are - three-dimensional humans who evolve on many things over time rather than 2D caricature-like portrayals of politicians.

That would really give us the kind of election year conversation we deserve. But in an era of talking heads, a 24/7 news cycle and "news" programs driven by ratings, I suspect that won't happen.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Trying to promote the book! I'm currently on a small book tour, meeting with book groups and some high school classes. I'm hoping for some more opportunities to talk about the ideas the book raises to get voters thinking more critically of all they think they know, not just of Hillary, but of all the candidates.  

I have an idea for another book - as my 10th grade daughter has reminded me, after working on an anthology, that next has to be "my own."

I don't want to spill too many beans, but I am very drawn to the topic of women and power and leadership and how those dynamics and ideas will develop in the coming decades, especially as we seem to be a country that is drawn to dynasties.

Don't worry - it won't be as dry as that sounds, and it will highlight some very interesting people.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I thought that there wasn't much new to say about Hillary Clinton, but I was wrong. The women writers in LHLHN really dug deep to explore their ideas and have created 28 very nuanced essays on someone as iconic as Hillary Clinton.

From pantsuits (though that essay is about a lot more than fashion) to perfection standards to unacknowledged privilege to whether we can "forgive" Hillary for not leaving Bill, and so much more.

Even if these essays don't make the reader a Hillary fan, I hope they will help people think about her in a way where we stop thinking about her "likability" and focus more on her "ability."

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Feb. 27

Feb. 27, 1807: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow born.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Q&A with Idra Novey

Idra Novey is the author of the new novel Ways to Disappear. She also has written the works of poetry The Next Country and Exit, Civilian, and has translated several books from Spanish and Portuguese. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Slate and Guernica, and she teaches in Princeton University's creative writing program. She lives in Brooklyn.

Q: You work as a translator, as does your character Emma. How would you describe the process of translation, and how is it similar to or different from creating your original work?

A: To translate you have to be willing to give yourself over to the imagination of another writer. It is the deepest, most intimate kind of reading. But it is also a kind of writing, as you have to recreate that writer's vision in your own language. 

It's a really fascinating in-between place to inhabit as a reader and writer. It requires a deep kind of empathy, too, for someone else's experience of the world, which I think can enrich one's own writing immensely.
Q: The book is told from multiple points of view. Why did you decide to write it that way, and did you plan out the structure of the book before you started writing?  

A: I knew from the start that I wanted the perspectives to shift and shine light on each other like the bright pieces inside a kaleidoscope. 

I was especially interested in the way an American and a Brazilian would view the same situation and drew on my own experiences living as an American in Brazil. I had no idea how American I was until I lived abroad.    
Q: How important is setting in your work, and could this novel have taken place somewhere other than Brazil?

A: This book is very much a response to the particular joys and chaos of Brazil. I translated three different Brazilian authors before writing it and getting to know them and their work and Brazil itself was what led me to write it. It is my love letter to Brazil and the lush images in its literature.

Q: How did you choose the book’s title, and what does it signify for you?

A: I started the book before having children and chose the title with travel and translation in mind, how they both create opportunities to disappear, but over the many drafts of the book I had two children and began to write about the way disappearing plays a role in parenting, too.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I like to have a number of things simmering on the stove at the same time. I'm a restless person and I find I am more inventive and daring if I'm sticking my spoon in several projects and stirring them around one after the other.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Ah, I don't know--maybe that this book is about a translator but also about mothers and daughters and the impossibility of ever knowing one's parents in more than partial, shifting ways? That was a central tension driving this book, too.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Q&A with Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith

Randy Roberts
Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith are the co-authors of the new book Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. Roberts has written many other books, including biographies of Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey. He is a distinguished professor of history at Purdue University. Smith is also the author of The Sons of Westwood. He is an assistant professor of history at Georgia Tech.

Johnny Smith
Q: Why did you decide to write this book together about Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali?

RR: Johnny was one of my graduate students at Purdue University. We started working together on various projects, and after Johnny got his Ph.D. we were thinking of doing a biography of Muhammad Ali. The more we got into it, we realized how the heart of the story was how Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, and the role Malcolm X played.

We shifted our attention—instead of trying to cover the canvas of his entire life, we dug in, in the period of the early 1960s, when America seemed to be coming apart and the racial consensus was dividing.

JS: I would just add, I think the book works well because there’s one narrative voice. This was a true collaboration. Randy and I talked on the phone multiple times a day…

Q: You write of the two men, “Theirs was an improbable relationship.” Would you describe it as an actual friendship, or more a relationship where each was somehow using or getting something from the other?

RR: I would describe it as something that certainly developed into a friendship, but both were a little wary of each other.

They did want to get something from each other. Malcolm wanted more from Cassius, but Cassius used Malcolm to find his voice. Malcolm would read one of his speeches, and [soon] Cassius was saying something that was just about the same thing.

Muhammad Ali was a little bit of a mimic—he did it spectacularly well. Many of his ideas were not his ideas; he was adopting many from Malcolm X, and Malcolm from Elijah Muhammad.

JS: I would echo what Randy said. It’s remarkable how we’d be reading a news story with Clay, and obviously he had come from a meeting with Malcolm in New York.

You knew [based on] what Clay was saying about the civil rights movement—he had said he was in favor of the NAACP, and a couple of days later he was saying that the NAACP was ignorant.

By 1963, Clay had embraced the message of the Nation of Islam, and the rhetoric of Malcolm X. You can see the evolution of Cassius Clay into Cassius X.

RR: If we hadn’t studied these two people side by side, we would never have been able to see the impact they had on each other.

Q: What do you see as some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Malcolm X? About Muhammad Ali?

JS: The misperceptions about Malcolm—I ask my students about him, and they think he was in the Black Panthers, that he hated white people. There’s a lot of confusion about his legacy.

We try to say in the book that he was not in the Black Panthers; he was a symbol of black empowerment. He wanted black people to understand they [should] be proud they’re black…and reject integrationist ideas.

Malcolm was a black nationalist—to him that meant that black people had to build their own institutions, without whites, or else they would have to compromise. He was totally uncompromising…

RR: On Muhammad Ali, it’s the importance of timing. Most of my students, most Americans, we think of two Alis—Ali today, [with] Parkinson’s syndrome, a beloved figure, and the other Muhammad Ali, the Louisville Lip, “I am the greatest.” He’s kind of beloved in that sense too.

But most people don’t remember when he was one of the most hated people in America. An athlete and a politician that would finish dead last in a popularity poll—that was [Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X].

The world changed. Muhammad Ali’s position on Vietnam became popular. Timing’s everything—but at the time they were on the wrong side of the equation. America changed more than Muhammad Ali changed.

Q: How did you research the book, and was there anything that particularly surprised you in the course of your research?

JS: One of the things that made the project so fun is that Randy and I went on every trip together. When you write a book yourself, no one is as excited as you.

With this book, we were at the National Archives, in Louisville, at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. We’d both get excited when we found a new source.

We knew we had to write a chronology of the day-to-day activities to know when Clay and Malcolm were together…having the timeline helped us read [FBI files] in a way no one else had…It helped us reveal the relationship in a new light.

RR: The construction of this book was like a giant mystery story. It was a puzzle…

Q: So how would you describe the impact each man had on the other?

RR: The impact Malcolm had on Clay was easiest. Malcolm was the senior partner. He didn’t really care about boxing—he thought it was exploitive of African Americans and controlled by Jewish men, and if you’re in the Nation of Islam, there are no worse people.

But he saw something in Clay. He became his mentor…we can see Clay’s speech changing.

JS: You start to see it by 1963. In March 1963, Cassius Clay fights Doug Jones in New York. Malcolm X was at the fight. We were able to learn about his presence at the fight.

Cassius Clay [to Malcolm X] was more than a boxer—he could bring other young black men into the Nation’s fold. He could be a recruiting tool.

He sees potential in Clay—there was something Malcolm saw that others didn’t. He knew Clay was intelligent; he knew Clay needed a certain education about the world.

After Clay wins the heavyweight title, Malcolm X and Clay visit the United Nations…Cassius Clay meets ambassadors, diplomats from all over the world, and they know his name…

Ultimately, Clay and Malcolm go to the Middle East and Africa on separate trips. Muhammad Ali discovers he’s more popular abroad than at home, that he’s a symbol of black pride throughout the world.

It goes back to a conversation Malcolm X had with him—that he can be more than just an athlete.

RR: Suddenly, Muhammad Ali is a more powerful figure. His popularity and notoriety swamps Malcolm’s. Malcolm is a black American traveling to these countries, [seen as] just another politician, where now they can meet a real live celebrity [in Ali]. The power dynamic between the two changes dynamically…

Q: And what about the impact of Muhammad Ali on Malcolm X?

RR: The impact he had was when he doesn’t go with him [but instead sides with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad]. It destroys [Malcolm X’s] career. Had Cassius Clay gone with Malcolm X—if they had gone to Africa together, the impact of Malcolm X would have been [much greater].

JS: If you follow the pictures and the stories, Muhammad Ali has thousands of people following him. Malcolm X can go into a crowd and not be recognized. Muhammad Ali had an impact on Malcolm X—Malcolm X was forced to reimagine his future as an activist, what’s my life going to be now that I’m forced out of the Nation of Islam?...

There had not been black nationalist athletes before Muhammad Ali. In the end, Ali does not go with Malcolm, and Malcolm has to envision a new world without Ali by his side. If he had Muhammad Ali by his side, how much more successful [could he have been]?

Q: What are the legacies of both men today?

JS: Malcolm X’s legacy is something we see today in the Black Lives Matter movement, in Beyonce performing at the Super Bowl and [her dancers] forming an X. People look to Malcolm and remember his words and actions, that he stood up for black pride, freedom, human rights.

He wanted to move the civil rights movement to human rights…The myth is that for Malcolm’s whole life, he was simply a separatist. He was moving toward a unified movement at the end of his life.

RR: For Muhammad Ali, he changed the calculus of athletes in America, particularly black athletes. Before Muhammad Ali, athletes were used by the U.S. government and the civil rights movement, to present a more benign face to racism in America…

Suddenly, in February 1964, in the fight with [Sonny] Liston, he says he is a Muslim and a member of the Nation of Islam. The reporters registered shock, and he says, I don’t have to be what you want.

It’s what Beyonce was saying at the Super Bowl…she was saying, I can use this event how I want. I can take a more political view of the world. In many ways, she was echoing Muhammad Ali.

Q: Will you work on another book together?

RR: We actually are working on another book together!

Q: Can you say what it’s about?

RR: Celebrity, New York, baseball.

Q: Anything else we should know about Blood Brothers?

JS: The one thing I might add is that people will be surprised at how there are really important consequences for both Ali and Malcolm when they broke apart.

Malcolm was being hunted by men inside the Nation of Islam who want to kill him…Readers will be surprised what Ali says about Malcolm X at the break.

RR: [Often people] want to put a patina on the 1960s, and think of the I Have a Dream speech…this book really looks at the anger of the 1960s. It’s a book about anger and violence, inside and outside the ring. It’s not about compromise. It’s ultimately a very sad story.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Q&A with Sarah Wildman

Sarah Wildman, photo by Kate Warren
Sarah Wildman is the author of Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Slate. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: Why did you decide to write this family memoir?

A: Paper Love isn't actually a family memoir - in fact, I tend to call it an "unfamily" memoir as it's about the life my grandfather didn't choose, the family he didn't have. 

It's a search story, a love story, an investigation into family myth and memory. I found a folded note - of the kind we all used to pass in the pre-texting era - in each quadrant was a “selfie” of the 1930s, a photograph of a girl, and under each was a caption - she wanted my grandfather to write to her. It was dated 1939.

I showed it to my grandmother and she said, "That was your grandfather's true love." It was such a remarkable statement, and offered without commentary. I wanted to see if I could find this woman. Had she survived? What did she mean to the story of my grandfather? What did she mean to me? 

In many ways I have always seen myself - as so many of us do - as an accidental American, here on these shores because of the apocalypse of the 20th century and the (often daring!) choices my grandfather made as the Nazis took over Vienna, Austria, where my family lived then. That history has been a part of my consciousness forever, since I learned my name.  

I owe my life to my grandfather's escape. There was, for me, something profound in knowing that, both as a child and today.

Filling out the details of his story, writing through the holes he left in his narrative, was really about understanding who I am, and how to explain who we are to my children. 

For all of us I think there is a need to understand these major shifts of history at the moment where memory is becoming history. We are losing the generation that knew the war - our grandparents, and, for some, parents. 

The questions of xenophobia and racism though, that were at the heart of the Nazi effort to not just exterminate but to erase an entire people, are still with us. 

I think we must look at these stories so as to understand that these were stories of individuals, and not just nations; of families, and not just an ethnic or religious group.

When we connect the stories of the personal, the individual, we can relate to history not as distant, but as near to us, and learn from it, as well as remember it.

Q: How did you research the book, and what surprised you most in the course of your research?

A: The research was really multi-layered - it began when I discovered a box of letters in my parents' basement in a file box mislabeled "Patient Correspondence, A-G." 

The letters were not from patients but from my grandfather's entire exploded Viennese world. Dozens upon dozens were from a woman named Valerie - Valy - Scheftel. She was his girlfriend at the University of Vienna Medical School, and she had remained behind when he fled in 1938. 

What had happened to her? Where did she go? And why didn't she go with him? These questions came up for me immediately.

Her letters offer a lot of information - the places she wrote from, the many places she lived, and where she worked - but they were also censored so to fully understand what was happening, I needed to match up her letters with the restrictions Jews were under in the Reich, and to find the material the state had kept on her.  

The search for her took me to Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, Israel, the UK, and this country. I went to archives, and I walked the streets she walked, sought out the buildings she worked and lived in - I wanted to 'see' her world as much as possible. 

I spent years and years going through archival material, matching up official Gestapo documents with the letters that I found, in Austria and in Germany and in the Czech Republic, and in this country. I did hundreds of hours of interviews with survivors, Holocaust historians, and third generation on both sides of the Atlantic. 

I read and read and read - books on letter writers, books on specific geographies, books on the way Jews lived under the Reich in Berlin, Vienna, the Czech Republic, elsewhere. 

The biggest surprise was that in the archives of the International Tracing Service - the last unopened major Holocaust archive in Germany - someone else had come looking for Valy before me. 

Finding that person took me years, but when I did, it opened up a whole new world of material, and allowed me to discover the full story of the woman my grandfather left behind. 

Q: How did your impression of your grandfather change as you learned more about his life?

A: For one it expanded my picture of his pre-war world, enormously. This became so much more than my grandfather, and really about the way we all live - who are the people around us?

I had never really considered what his world had looked like, before he fled. This book opened that up for me, completely. 

Who were the people he went to school with? What happened to them? It was an incredibly modern world. It was an extraordinary situation, but it felt very relatable. What happens when everyone you've ever known has scattered, or dies?  

My grandfather was always the hero of my family - larger than life, the man who could do no wrong, the man who had no wrong answers.  Everything was "herrlich" - wonderful. 

What I discovered in the archives, and through these letters, was that he had nothing under control when he arrived on these shores. That he was terribly poor. That he nearly failed. 

Knowing all this meant I suddenly had a chance to know him as a man - as a flawed person, like the rest of us. If anything it only made me love him more.

Q: How was "Paper Love" selected as the book's title?

A: Paper love is a bit of a play on words - it is about the love affair I discovered on paper, the mysteries afforded by paper, the paper trail of the letters sent by a woman desperately in love with my grandfather, and desperate to escape the Nazis, and the love of paper itself, the way in which this path has led me through thousands of pieces of paper. 

Q: What has the reaction been to the book? 

A: I've been really humbled by the response to the book: I've received dozens of letters from readers who see themselves, and their family's stories, in the search - which is something I very much hoped might happen.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I work on stories on the intersection of culture and politics, history and memory - stories that speak to identity, and who we are now, and how we got here. 

I like to see how history plays a role in current debates - immigration, religion, culture wars and I'm always looking for quiet, unexpected stories that stay with you.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think the story of this book was as much about my own family as about an effort to understand the Nazi effort to erase one woman as well as exterminate a people. 

My hope was by telling, as fully as I could, the story of one small group of people, I could do something to un-erase them from history.

It's not a word! I know! but it was really that - to take this one, normal, incredibly intelligent woman, to let her really be heard, to allow her to have a bit of a voice in history, to show you how incredibly important she became to me.

I also think we should not rest on the idea that this happened long ago, or to another people (if you are not Jewish, of course). Valy was marginalized, demonized, and reviled for her religious identity. 

Imagining how bewildering and horrifying she would have found the experience is not hard. I believe it is important to consider: how does society continue marginalize, to reject, to select out?

Today - knowing as I do now the debates in the U.S. State Department in the 1940s over whether and when and if to take in refugees - it is hard not to relate to the moment we are in right now. 

For many years we have discussed "what did people know? and when did they know it?" Did Roosevelt know of the destruction of the Jews? of the clamoring of refugees? 

Today with horrifying images of young children dying at sea and piled up in Keleti station in Budapest and desperate to arrive in Europe - we know what is happening. Our twitter feeds, our Facebook pages, our newspapers are filled with images of desperate families. 

For me this resonates strongly with the refugee crisis that took place 70 years ago. The difference is, in part, that no one will ever say we did not know of the horror that is the Syrian conflict; no one will ever say we did not know about the refugees.  Now we are all tasked with finding a solution to this humanitarian crisis. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous version of this Q&A, please click here. Sarah Wildman will be participating in the Temple Sinai Authors' Roundtable in Washington, D.C., on February 27, 2016.