"Marines and soldiers don't issue themselves orders, they don't send themselves overseas," says former Marine Phil Klay. "United States citizens elect the leaders who send us overseas."
In his new collection, Redeployment, Klay, who served in Iraq, tells a dozen vivid stories about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from the perspectives of the people who experienced it — combatants, civilians and children alike. Taken together, the stories give a grim — and occasionally funny — picture of war and what happens next to those who survive it. Once the soldiers return home, Klay says, that dialogue between veterans and civilians is essential.
"The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are as much every U.S. citizen's wars as they are the veterans' wars," Klay tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer. "If we don't assume that civilians have just as much ownership and the moral responsibilities that we have as a nation when we embark on something like that, then we're in a very bad situation."
On telling the story from several perspectives
I decided very early on it was going to be all first-person narratives. A lot of times you're interacting with people for whom you're one of the very few veterans that they've met or had a lot of interactions with, and there's a temptation for you to feel like you can pontificate about what the experience was or what it meant, and that leads to a lot of nonsense. I wanted to have very different viewpoints, very different experiences, just so the reader could kind of think about what they were trying to say and how they clash with each other. There's not a single narrative about this war.
On his own homecoming
I don't want to act as though my deployment was particularly rough, because it wasn't. I had a very mild deployment; I was a staff officer. But just a few days before [I returned to the U.S.] I'd seen people coming into the medical facility ... horribly injured. And then a few days later I'm walking down Madison Avenue in the summer and there's just zero sense that we're at war. It's very strange and difficult to deal with the disconnect. And, of course, if veterans just talk to each other about wars, then that disconnect's only going to continue.
On how veterans must be able to share their experiences with civilians
You know, this is not the World War II generation. We have a much smaller percentage of the population that has gone overseas. But also I think it's important personally — the notion that you can't communicate these very intense experiences. It just means that veterans are going to be isolated, that something incredibly important to them that they went through, something that they can't share, you know, with their friends and family who didn't serve, and I don't think that's true, and I think that that isolation's a terrible thing to feel.
On why he wrote the book
What I really want — and I think what a lot of veterans want — is a sense of serious engagement with the wars, because it's important, because it matters, because lives are at stake, and it's something we did as a nation. That's something that deserves to be thought about very seriously and very honestly, without resorting to the sort of comforting stories that allow us to tie a bow on the experience and move on.
You can listen to plenty of actors performing the works of William Shakespeare. But imagine if you could hear the voice of the young playwright himself — or the older one, for that matter — reading his own writing aloud.
Well, we can't take you back that far. But in the early 1960s, when recorded readings by authors were rare, a young couple in Boston decided to be literary audio pioneers.
The idea was hatched in 1962. Lynne Sharon Schwartz, who is a respected novelist today, was working on a magazine at the time. Her husband, Harry, was at the Boston Redevelopment Authority. They were avid readers, Lynne Sharon Schwartz says: "And we were just hanging out with friends and talking about the major or the young, up-and-coming writers of their day. We were aware of Caedmon, which had brought out the Dylan Thomas record of A Child's Christmas in Wales. And we thought, we could do something like that."
A few of the 'big guys,' like T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, had recordings out on LPs. But there weren't recordings of up-and-comers, like Philip Roth and John Updike, or of other, more established authors: Bernard Malamud, William Styron, James Baldwin. The Schwartzes' idea was to record such authors, put them on vinyl LPs, eight minutes per side, sell the records for $1.95 apiece, and pay each writer $150 — pretty good money in the early '60s.
The Schwartzes heard that Baldwin was going to speak at MIT.
"So we all went to his talk, and afterward we approached him and said, 'Would you like to do a reading?' " Harry Schwartz says. "And he said, 'Eh, sounds like a good idea.' "
Baldwin read from Giovanni's Room, his second novel, published in 1956. It's an early book about homosexuality, then a forbidden subject.
Lynne Sharon Schwartz directed the reading. Then, with razor blades and sticky tape, they edited the various takes down to 16 good minutes. James Baldwin helped the Schwartzes set their recording dream in motion.
"He said, 'Oh, I'll call my friend Bill Styron; maybe he wants to do this,' " Harry Schwartz says. "And then Styron led us to James Jones, and they led us to Philip Roth."
A clear up-and-comer at the time, by 1962 Roth had made a splash with the short story collection Goodbye, Columbus. The Schwartzes recorded him, at age 29, reading from a new novel, Letting Go. They took their van and engineer to Roth's house in Princeton.
"He was this warm, jovial, welcoming young person," Lynn Sharon Schwartz says. "We sat around the fire, had a drink ... and then of course when he started to read the passage and burst out with this comic rendition, we had no idea he had this in him."
The author's reading was rich and hilarious, with accents, shouting and enthusiastic acting. Listening to the recording today, all of the Roth elements are there — humor, Jewish-American life, zest. In seven years he would publish Portnoy's Complaint, which made him a star and led to a lifetime of books, awards (including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award) and fame.
John Updike was another author the Schwartzes recorded before he hit it big. Lynne Sharon Schwartz says Updike was slightly known when they recorded him, age 30, reading an excerpt of "Lifeguard," from his short story collection Pigeon Feathers.
At 30, Updike's voice is hesitant, careful, a bit precious. At 76, in an interview with NPR, his voice is more confident — after so many books and stories and reviews and Pulitzer Prizes.
It was clearly a labor of love when Lynne and Harry Schwartz released their recordings in 1963. Now, they're being reissued on CDs and audio files as Calliope Author Readings. The Schwartzes believe these archival tapes of young writers who would become 20th-century literary lions are even more valuable now.
"Some of these works are available read by actors," says Lynne Sharon Schwartz. "But it's not quite the same thing when you hear an author read his own. Then you really understand more about what it means to him, what he intended. These are historical documents — you know, they're voices. They're part of the cultural heritage."
The voices put us in the presence of beginnings, while we know full well what the glorious future will be for these writers.
In Kevin Young's new collection, Book Of Hours, poems about the death of his father appear alongside poems about the birth of his son.
He tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that, in a way, those events were the anchors of his life.
"It was a way of just writing about what had happened and also the way that the cycle of life informed my life, from death to birth to ... a kind of rebirth that I felt afterward."
Young is a professor of creative writing and English at Emory University, where he's also the curator of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library, a collection of rare and first editions of modern and contemporary poetry. He's the author of seven previous poetry collections, including Ardency: A Chronicle Of The Amistad Rebels and Jelly Roll: A Blues, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.
On his poem "Charity," about getting his father's dry cleaning after his death and giving his clothes to charity
I wanted him to be whole again. Obviously I couldn't have him here again, but I wanted all those parts of him, almost like [Egyptian god of the dead] Osiris, or something, gathering all of those pieces of the dead and putting them back together. It seemed somehow important, if only for the act. Of course, I gave them ... away, and that was kind of also another point, to have them live on, a bit like we all wish our loved ones who are no longer with us might.
On his poem "Bereavement"
I really wanted to capture ... the blues; the way the form of the blues fights the feeling of the blues in the way that the kind of rhyme in the poem fights this chaotic feeling. And even words like "colossal" and "forgetful," they don't exactly rhyme but they really have this kind of ... connection with the consonants in the poem. And I also wanted that kind of repetition, that feeling of sameness, of dailiness, of anticipation, even — which is what I think rhyme can create.
On writing while mourning a miscarriage
I think the hardest thing, really, is trying not to write. There's a real desire as a poet to make a poem and you're almost just writing for survival right after. You don't know anything else.
It'd be like a swimmer: You'd go for a long swim — it's what you know. At the same time, you know you're not going to achieve something. At least I felt that way.
It really wasn't until later [when] I wrote some poems, as I said, that kind of broke the dam of that. ... They were a way of looking to the side. But to write directly about it, it really took some time.
On growing up in Louisiana, then becoming a writer in Kansas
For me Louisiana was mostly family when I was there. We hardly left; there was no need to. ... We hardly left the front porch. You would just sit and folks would come by and it was really old school in that way. People would go visiting. That's what you would do — they would visit us. It was both another world and also my world, if that makes sense.
My father, everyone just called [him] "Brother," and so that was his nickname, that was his identity. And I was "Brother's son." And that quality was really reassuring and it was about rootedness. It still is for me. Everything you see, someone you know [owns]. And where my father's from, they had been there about 200 years, so it seemed really American ...
Then as a writer I never saw that in the literature. I didn't see it in the way that I felt it, let's say. Which isn't to say there weren't other people writing about it; I just think especially as a young writer being in Kansas and trying to start to write I hadn't seen that. ... The poems in this new book really are about place in many ways.
On how music influences his poetry
I think music is poetry in the sense that I think the condition of poetry I'm going for has some qualities of music that it aspires to. I also think what I love about poetry is the way that music is in the poem, is in the words themselves. It's not behind it, it's not in front of it — it is it. Music and the blues, they have taught me a lot. I think in this book, Book Of Hours, there is this blues sensibility. There are moments of humor even in the sorrow and I'm really interested in the way that the blues have that tragic-comic view of life — what Langston Hughes called "laughing to keep from crying."
In March 1964, there was a heinous murder in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens, N.Y. Back then, there was no 911 emergency number, there were no good Samaritan laws and, despite her cries, there was no one coming to help Catherine Genovese.
Kitty, as she was known, was a bar manager on her way home from work in the early morning hours. According to news reports at the time, she was attacked not once but three times over the course of a half-hour. What's more: There were apparently 38 witnesses.
Ten years ago, Genovese's girlfriend at the time, Mary Ann Zielonko, reflected on the crime in an interview with Sound Portraits Productions:
"I still have a lot of anger toward people because they could have saved her life, I mean, all the steps along the way when he attacked her three times. And then he sexually assaulted her, too, when she was dying. I mean, you look out the window and you see this happening and you don't help. That's — how do you live with yourself knowing you didn't do anything?"
The Genovese story never fails to invoke indignation, but 50 years later, Kevin Cook is raising big questions in a book called Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America. He tells NPR's Audie Cornish about why the witness count is misleading and why some witnesses might have been reluctant to call the police.
On the misconception that 38 people witnessed the murder
She was coming home from work at 3 in the morning at the moment that a monster sprang out with a knife. [Winston Moseley] had been looking for someone to kill; he had tracked her to the place where she parked her car ... and he stabbed her twice in the middle of the sidewalk.
At that point she screamed loudly, loudly enough to wake people on both sides of the street. ... After one man raises his window — he shouted, "Leave that girl alone!" — Moseley ran into the darkness. And at that point, Kitty, she staggered around the corner, out of sight to most of the witnesses.
This is one reason that the story has come down that 38 people watched through their windows over this long period of time. In fact, most of them could no longer see her after just a minute or two. When there was nothing left to see, they went to bed and there was then a second attack.
On the witness to the second attack, who chose to slam the door
[When] the second attack was going on, there was a fellow at the top of the stairs who did open his door and saw it going on. He chose to slam the door. ...
As Mary Ann Zielonko, who was Kitty's roommate and partner — she told me that probably the last person you would ever want to be at the top of the stairs if you needed help was this fellow Karl Ross, who was a timid character who took a look out and shut the door again.
The police come around later — they ask him why he didn't do anything. He said, "I didn't want to get involved." This entered the lexicon of '60s America and really stuck ... the whole idea that people aren't going to come to your aid no matter how dire your situation may be. That's what I believe helped to keep this story in the public eye. It went viral in 1960s fashion, and there were people all over the world quoting the man at the top of the stairs who said, "I didn't want to get involved." ...
[Ross] did know both Kitty and Mary Ann Zielonko, and this was definitely an instance in which there was a neighbor who could have helped. At the same time, I think it's easy for us to think, well, if we saw someone stabbing a friend of ours we would immediately throw ourselves into the fray. I think we all must wonder what we would do in a horrible situation like this one.
On where the 38 number came from
In a fascinating chain of events, the story went practically unreported for two weeks. And 10 days after the crime, the new city editor for The New York Times, Abraham Rosenthal, has lunch with the chief of police, who said, "You know that story out in Queens? That's one for the books — 38 witnesses." And Rosenthal thought that was a striking thing that might well resonate with readers.
Thirty-eight witnesses — that was the story that came from the police. And it really is what made the story stick. Over the course of many months of research, I wound up finding a document that was a collection of the first interviews. Oddly enough, there were 49 witnesses. I was puzzled by that until I added up the entries themselves. Some of them were interviews with two or three people [who] lived in the same apartment. I believe that some harried civil servant gave that number to the police commissioner who gave it to Rosenthal, and it entered the modern history of America after that.
On why witnesses might have been reluctant to call the police
It was a time when the police weren't necessarily your friend. You can't call a central dispatcher; you call the number on your yellow pages, usually, and then a desk sergeant, whoever picks up the phone, [a] communications officer, will take your report. Although, there were many accounts in which people called in and were invited to mind their own business or move to another neighborhood if you don't like it there.
In fact, there is one case of a young fellow who lived across the street — a teenager named Michael Hoffman, he lived in a building across the street — who swears that his father did call the police, did say, 'There's a woman being attacked. She's staggering around outside,' and there was no answer. The call was not logged and he was given a dirty look by detectives the next day when he said, "Maybe you should have come when I made the phone call."
On the bystander effect
The bystander effect, the diffusion of responsibility, is a real thing that has been studied again and again, corroborated in test after test: If we need help we are much luckier to have one or two witnesses than to be surrounded by 20 or 30. People tend to feel someone more courageous will act ...
One of the sad quotes that wasn't remembered from this case was that of a wife who told her husband, "Thirty people must have called the police by now." One great thing that has come of this is that, more or less directly, the 911 telephone system arose from the Kitty Genovese case, and now if you lift a finger and call the police you can anonymously call in a tip and get a police car going to where it needs to be.
This week's headlines have been dominated by the violent protests in Kiev, the ousting of President Victor Yanukovych, and the amassing of Russian troops at the Ukrainian border. Writer Anthony Marra says that if Soviet war journalist Vasily Grossman were alive today, he'd likely be breaking news from Independence Square.
And while workers on the lavish Kiev estate of Viktor Yanukovych were walking off the job, Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman was arrested in the middle class resort of Mazatlan. The stories of Yanukovych and "El Chapo" and their intermingling of violence and power immediately reminded novelist Zachary Lazar of the great Mexican novel Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo.
This Week's Must-Read
Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman
A half century after his death, Vasily Grossman's fiction still provides harrowing insight into the legacy of Stalinism, and the historical trauma that continues to fuel ethnic tensions within Ukraine. Few people witnessed more of the atrocities that darkened the mid-20th century than Grossman. As a correspondent for Red Star, the Soviet army newspaper, he reported from many of the major battles on the Eastern Front, from Stalingrad to Berlin. In 1944, he became one of the first journalists to write about the Nazi extermination camps, and his work was introduced as evidence in the Nuremberg Trials. His experience in Stalingrad led to Life and Fate, a novel as thick and solemn as a tombstone.
Grossman also traveled through war-ravaged Ukraine. He returned to the region, in fiction, with his final novel, Everything Flows. It tells the story of a man released after 30 years in the Gulag. He falls in love with Anna, a woman who collaborated in the Soviet-engineered Terror Famine of the early 1930s, which killed millions of Ukrainians.
This act of genocide — which still resounds in Ukraine today — is rendered on the page in unvarnished clarity. So is Anna. In an extended soliloquy, she recounts her time as an official on a collective farm. She had been a young woman at the time, with her full faith and trust placed in the Party. But she couldn't square the Party's version of reality with the senseless suffering surrounding her.
"I knew one woman with four children," Anna confesses. "She could hardly move her tongue, but she kept telling them fairy tales to try to make them forget their hunger. She hardly had the strength to even lift her own arms, yet she held her children in them. Love lived on in her. Where there was hate, it seemed people died more quickly. But love, for that matter, did not save anyone."
At one point, Anna muses that "the executioner executes the human being inside his own self; he is his own executioner." Grossman refuses to minimize the human being inside Anna, and in doing so he creates a complex and conflicted portrait of a conscience lost by complicity and recovered by remorse.
"Happiness, it turns out, will be to share with you the burden I can't share with anyone else," a character imagines late in the novel. The line feels spoken directly to the reader. The afterlife is perhaps not the place we depart for but the story we leave behind. In telling the story of one perpetrator, Grossman honors the untold stories of millions of victims.
Grossman died in 1964 before completing Everything Flows. On the streets of Kiev today, its epilogue is being written.
Anthony Marra is the author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo
This week, while workers on the lavish estate of Viktor Yanukovych were walking off the job, Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman was arrested in the resort town of Mazatlán. The deposed president and the deposed gangster — the stories of Yanukovych and "El Chapo," and their intermingling of violence and power, immediately reminded me of the great Mexican novel Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo. A ghost story, an indictment of Mexico's violent past, one of the first magical realist novels in the grand Latin American tradition, Pedro Paramo in less than 125 pages takes us as deeply in to the dark side of power — the place where the president and the gangster are all but indistinguishable — as any book I know.
The book tells of the surreal journey of a son in search of his father, who like all the other characters he meets along the way, is already dead. But in the world of Rulfo's novel, the dead can speak, and what they speak of is desire, greed, lust, and violence. The father, Pedro Paramo, turns out to have built an empire based on theft, intimidation, and murder. Born poor, he schemes his way into a loveless marriage to the narrator Juan's wealthy mother Dolorita, who soon flees for her life. Using the newfound foothold afforded him by Dolorita's money, Paramo builds up a vast personal fiefdom through land fraud, shakedowns, and assassinations, all the while committing serial rapes (along with his bastard son Miguel), co-opting revolutionaries, and corrupting the local clergy. Pedro Paramo is the quintessential tyrant and his legacy to his country is to have turned it into a ghost town (His name, "Paramo" is Spanish for "wasteland").
Pedro Paramo, which came out in 1955, is Rulfo's only novel, and yet it has made him one of Mexico's preeminent novelists. As Susan Sontag writes in her introduction, Gabriel Garcia Marquez "could recite from memory long passages and eventually knew the whole book by heart, so much did he admire it and want to be saturated by it."
The book is magical while in no way whimsical, a ghost story that is truly terrifying, as riveting as it is surreal.
Zachary Lazar is an author who lives in New Orleans. His latest book, I Pity the Poor Immigrant, comes out in April.