On one of the first weekends of the Pakistani spring, more than 45,000 people gathered in the city of Lahore for three days of lectures, performances and old-fashioned people watching. The second annual Lahore Literary Festival brought artists from all over the world to Pakistan's cultural capital to share their work — and to celebrate the power of expression.
In the shadow of the violence and political instability of recent years, cultural gatherings in Lahore have all but disappeared. It was once a royal capital and center for learning, known for its vibrant street parties, ancient buildings and literary forums.
Today, security has become the overriding concern. Terrorist attacks have targeted public spaces, media personalities and independent thinkers in particular. Journalist Ahmed Rashid, who has charted the rise of the Taliban for decades, has faced death threats. "They have directly threatened large numbers of journalists including myself," Rashid says. "They have attacked newspaper offices and TV stations in Karachi in particular. They have tried to stop art exhibitions and music and concerts and then all this talk about wanting a Shariah state. All of this is creating a lot of tension."
In this climate, Rashid says, fear has become the new normal: "It's discussed every day. When I meet my friends, I mean that's literally what we talk about."
For historian Ayesha Jalal, the violence has left deep, invisible wounds. "I think it's underestimated what Pakistan has gone through in terms of the internal threat, the narrowing of public discourse, the closing of the mind."
Making Art Despite The Crises
The Lahore Literary Festival was not a protest against terrorism. Instead, it was an effort to open the Pakistani mind — to make space for ideas. Festival organizer Razi Ahmed says he wanted to bring world-class conversations to his city and "make Pakistanis aware of what prevails beyond the borders."
After months of preparations, wrangling visas and ensuring security, Ahmed and his team invited artists from across Asia, Europe, and the Middle East to Lahore. From Indian novelist Vikram Seth to Oscar-nominated filmmaker Mira Nair, artists spoke in packed lecture halls. The lectures were free and open to the public. Most of the audiences were filled with young people.
For many of them, it was also an opportunity to meet their Pakistani role models — a new generation of artists with roots in Lahore who have achieved success on the international stage. From novelist Mohsin Hamid, the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, to MacArthur Prize-winning visual artist Shazia Sikander and the Sachal Jazz Ensemble — the festival was a showcase for a creative, inclusive and thriving side of Pakistan.
Historian Ayesha Jalal says the collective failure of the Pakistani government and society to provide stability has not prevented artists from excelling. Instead, she says that collective failure is fueling both ambition and imagination.
"If you look at Latin America, you'll see that art has flourished in the most coercive, authoritarian regimes," Jalal says. "And Pakistan is no different. I think collective failure is matched often by personal, individual success, spectacular success. Those are not unusual. ... And in Pakistan I think we've had a collective failure on many scores and there have been individuals who have done work of great brilliance, in the world of art, in the world of literature and music."
Many artists and authors in Pakistan are reacting to this collective failure, says writer Mohsin Hamid. The result is work that feels both original and urgent, brimming with ideas and reminders of a history and an identity beyond extremism. Hamid says both artists and the organizers of the literary festival draw inspiration from the multicultural history of Lahore, which was once home to a large Sikh and Hindu population, a regional capital in the British Empire and an open city.
The classical dancer Nahid Siddiqui presented a piece at the literary festival drawing on both Hindu and Muslim traditions and she says "my political statement ... if you want to call it that — is through dance ... it's easing into people by saying this is your own, this is our own, so please do not reject it."
Finding Validation In Numbers
But beyond those deeper themes, the packed grounds of the literary festival are also a reminder of how starved people feel for spaces to hang out. Beyond the fortified perimeter walls and armed gunmen, families and friends lounged on yellow and red cushions, drank chai and chased authors for autographs and selfies.
Artist and curator Salima Hashmi says there's a kind of validation in those numbers. "People shrugged off fear ..." she says. "They were enjoying themselves and they were listening and talking. There were young people there, that was the most wonderful thing about it. There were students who they had come to listen to people they had read, but apart from that, they wanted to see one another. They wanted to feel: Oh, there are a whole lot of us!"
And historian Ayesha Jalal says she sees hope for Pakistan in privately led initiatives like the Lahore Literary Festival. "There's a real thirst for this in this society and that is the great hope for Pakistan," Jalal says. "Despite all that has happened, despite the supposed Talibanization of the mind, the resistance strands have also been there and unlike in the past, there's a more concerted attempt now — not least because of the negative profiling of Pakistan globally — that Pakistanis want to be noticed on the scene. They want to make an impact. That's the spirit with which the Lahore Literary Festival was framed and put out for the world to see."
Twenty-five years ago, on April 15, 1989, Chinese students were mourning the death of a reformist leader. But what began as mourning evolved into mass protests demanding democracy. Demonstrators remained in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, day after day, until their protests were brutally suppressed by the Chinese army — on June 4. Hundreds died; to this day, no one knows how many.
The media captured some of the story of the massacre in Beijing. But Louisa Lim, NPR's longtime China correspondent, says the country's government has done all it can in the intervening 25 years to erase the memory of the uprising. Lim's forthcoming book, The People's Republic of Amnesia, relates how 1989 changed China and how China rewrote what happened in 1989 in its official version of events. Her story includes an investigation into a forgotten crackdown in the southwestern city of Chengdu — which, to this day, has never been reported.
It was in Chengdu, which is now a bustling mega-city with a population of 14 million, that Lim met Tang Deying.
Tang Deying holds her determination in the stubborn set of her jaw. This diminutive, disheveled, elderly woman shuffling into the room in her pink plastic flip-flops is one of the few living links to the crackdown in Chengdu during the summer of 1989.
When martial law troops opened fire on civilians in Beijing on June 4, 1989, the violence was beamed immediately into living rooms around the world. Yet it has taken a quarter-century for details to emerge of the deadly events in Chengdu that cost Tang's 17-year-old son his life.
For 25 years, a single aim has driven Tang's existence: seeking restitution and accountability for the death of her son, Zhou Guocong, who was fatally beaten in police custody after disappearing in the 1989 Chengdu crackdown.
"Right is right. Wrong is wrong," she told me firmly.
That simple mantra became the starting point for me to pursue a trail of evidence sprawling over three continents, including eyewitness accounts, old photographs, hastily scribbled, anguished journal entries, U.S. diplomatic cables and the Chinese government records laying out the official version of events. These disparate threads entwine to illustrate Chengdu's forgotten tragedy, which has been almost entirely wiped from the collective memory.
Protests in Chengdu mirrored those in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, with students mourning the sudden death from a heart attack of reformist party leader Hu Yaobang on April 15, 1989. This soon morphed into mass protests, followed by a hunger strike beginning in mid-May.
Students occupied Chengdu's Tianfu Square, camping at the base of its 100-foot-tall Chairman Mao statue and proudly proclaiming it to be a "Little Tiananmen." The initial move by police to clear protesters from Tianfu Square on the morning of June 4 went ahead relatively peacefully.
But on hearing the news that troops had opened fire on unarmed civilians in Beijing, the citizens of Chengdu took to the streets once more. This time they knew the risk; they carried banners denouncing the "June 4th massacre" and mourning wreaths with the message: "We Are Not Afraid To Die."
Soon the police moved in with tear gas. Pitched battles broke out in Tianfu Square. Protesters threw paving stones at the police; the police retaliated by beating protesters with batons.
At a nearby medical clinic, the bloodied victims of police brutality lay in rows on the floor. Kim Nygaard, an American resident of Chengdu, recalled that they begged her: "Tell the world! Tell the world!"
A row of patients sat on a bench, their cracked skulls swathed in bandages, their shirts stained scarlet near the collar, visceral evidence of the police strategy of targeting protesters' heads.
But the violence went both ways: Dennis Rea, an American then teaching at a local university, watched, horrified, as the crowd viciously attacked a man they believed to be a policeman. The crowd pulled at his arms and legs, then dropped him on the ground and began stomping on his body and face, crushing it.
Eight people were killed that day, including two students, according to the local government's official account. It said the fighting left 1,800 people injured — of them, it said, 1,100 were policemen — though it described most of the injuries as light.
But U.S. diplomats at the time told The New York Times they believed as many as 100 seriously wounded people had been carried from the square that day.
Protests continued into the next evening, and as June 5 turned into June 6, a crowd broke into one of the city's smartest hotels, the Jinjiang. It was there, under the gaze of foreign guests, that one of the most brutal — and largely forgotten — episodes of the Chengdu crackdown played out after a crowd attacked the hotel.
More than a dozen Western guests initially took shelter in the quarters of the U.S. consul general. But in the early hours of the morning while returning to her room, Nygaard saw what looked like sandbags piled in the courtyard. As she wondered what they would be used for, she spotted a flicker of movement and realized with a chill of horror that the sandbags were actually people lying face-down on the ground, their hands secured behind their backs.
"I remember so well, because I was thinking, 'Oh my God, they're breaking their arms when they're doing that,' " she told me.
Eventually, two trucks pulled up. Nygaard remembers that moment vividly: "They piled bodies into the truck, and we were, like, 'There's no way you could survive that.' Certainly the people on the bottom would have suffocated. They picked them up like sandbags, and they threw them into the back of the truck. They threw them like garbage."
Five separate witnesses described the same scene, which was also mentioned in a U.S. diplomatic cable. The witnesses estimated they had seen 30 to 100 bodies thrown into the trucks.
The local government made no secret of the detentions. The Whole Story of the Chengdu Riots, a Chinese-language book recounting the official version of events, notes that "70 ruffians" had been caught at the Jinjiang hotel.
As to what happened to those detainees and how many — if any — of them died, it is impossible to know.
The Chengdu protests were immediately labeled "political turmoil" on a par with Beijing, with the protesters seen as "rioters," stigmatizing all who took part. This instant rewriting of history was the first step toward lowering a blanket of state-sponsored amnesia over the events of 1989.
Why does it even matter 25 years later? It matters because of Tang Deying, who has been punished for her refusal to forget. Her son, who was detained riding his bike home on June 6, never emerged from police custody. She was told by another detainee that he'd been beaten to death. On her quest for an explanation of his death, she has visited Beijing five times to lodge official complaints. Each time she was intercepted and sent back. She has been detained by police, beaten, placed under surveillance and twice locked in an iron cage.
But her stubbornness paid out hard-won dividends. In 2000, she was presented with a photograph of her son's corpse, which confirmed the painful knowledge of how he died. Blood was congealed around his nostrils and on one side of his mouth. There was a large bruise across his nose, and his face appeared swollen and uneven. One of his eyes was slightly open. On seeing it, she fainted. In death, her son was still watching her.
In 2006, she accepted a "hardship allowance" of almost $9,000, becoming the first and only person to be given a government payout in connection with a 1989 death. The authorities expected her to stop her activities — but she hasn't. She says those responsible still need to admit their culpability.
What happened in Chengdu 25 years ago matters enough that the local government continues to devote financial and human resources to muzzling Tang. Her treatment shows how scared the Chinese authorities are of their own recent history.
A quarter-century ago, the government used guns and batons to suppress its own people. Now it is deploying more sophisticated tools of control — censorship of the media and the falsification of its own history — to build patriotism and create a national identity.
Though China's citizens have become undeniably richer and freer in the post-Tiananmen era, Tang Deying's experience shows the limits to that freedom. Simply by keeping alive a memory that others have suppressed or simply forgotten, Tang has become seen as a threat to social stability.
What happened in Chengdu matters because it shows the success of the Chinese government in not just controlling its people, but also in controlling their memories. In the China of today, that most personal space of all — memory — has become a political tool.
Much has been said and written about the Dust Bowl, but if you want to get a visceral feel for how it all began and the way it affected the people who experienced it, you need go no further than the opening pages of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath:
Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men — to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men's faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained.
Steinbeck's novel follows the Joad family as they flee Dust Bowl Oklahoma for a new life in California. When the book was first published — 75 years ago Monday — it was a best-seller. But Susan Shillinglaw, an English professor at San Jose State University and author of the book On Reading The Grapes of Wrath, says it also came under fierce attack.
"Part of the shock, initially, was resistance to believing that there was that kind of poverty in America," she says. "Other people thought that Steinbeck was a communist, and they didn't like the book because they thought that that collective action that the book is moving towards — because it really is moving from 'I' to 'we' — was threatening to, sort of, American individualism."
As powerful as the book is in its portrayal of the Dust Bowl era, Shillinglaw says The Grapes of Wrath cannot be contained by its setting. She believes Steinbeck created a timeless myth.
"He saw dispossession as a theme and as a story much larger than, you know, the California story," she says. "So I think he always knew what he was about in terms of the sort of mythic parallels. Tom Joad's exit from the book, for example — you know, he exits saying, 'I'll be there wherever people are hungry' — so he kind of says: Throughout time, there's going to be a need for me. And that takes the book out of the 1930s."
Tom Joad's final words to his mother have echoed down the years, driven not in small part by Henry Fonda's portrayal of Joad in the 1940 film version of the book.
"I'll be all aroun' in the dark," Tom says. "I'll be ever'where — wherever you look. Wherever they's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever they's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. ... I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad an' — I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready. An' when our folks eat the stuff they raise an' live in the houses they build — why, I'll be there."
Last fall, the California-based National Steinbeck Center sent three artists on the road to retrace the journey that the Joads took from Oklahoma. One of them was filmmaker P.J. Palmer.
"Every type of weather you can think of we experienced in those 10 days," Palmer says. "It's not a comfy ride, and so I don't understand how they pulled it off in the 1930s. It must have been really, really crazy."
Palmer is finishing a documentary on the trip.
"We really wanted to come out and sort of take the temperature of the country again," he says. "Steinbeck did it back in the '30s, and we decided to take that trip to sort of see what things are like now."
Much has changed over the decades. The land has been restored; they didn't see any destitute families on the side of the road. But they still came across many people struggling to survive: Poverty and homelessness persist.
"We met a lot of people out of work," Palmer says. "We met people who were kind of going through their own personal Dust Bowls. If it wasn't that they were unemployed or in an environmental disaster, they still had their own personal traumas and tragedies that they were working through."
Palmer interviewed some of the people they met along the way: a single dad caring for his son with cancer; a woman who lost both parents as a child and was trying to start life again after leaving prison; migrant workers who now live in the same camps the Joads found in California.
So it's no surprise that many can still identify with The Grapes of Wrath.
"People read their own stories into it because it's really about poverty," Susan Shillinglaw says. "It's about haves and have-nots, and that story is getting increasingly urgent. ... This is a story about people losing ground with every step of the way along Route 66 — that's a story that seems, like, really very contemporary."
Filmmaker P.J. Palmer says the book is also a story of survival and resilience — a powerful plea for people to work together with a sense of shared responsibility for those who have fallen on hard times.
"The scary part is that much of what happened we're forgetting," he says. "There's a reason why the New Deal happened. You know, I do understand that the country had gone through an enormous environmental disaster. It had gone through a major Depression. Hopefully we won't have to go through that again, but we still have these huge problems with people unable to work or find a job, and people who don't have a home, and we're sort of still stripping things back politically. ... And I kind of feel like: Did you guys read the book? Did you see the movie? Do you remember what happened?"
Seventy-five years later, The Grapes of Wrath still isn't universally loved — it remains one of the most frequently banned books in this country. But it's also a powerful reminder of a past that no one really wants to see repeated.
Last #NPRGrapes Book Club MeetingThe I-Will-If-You-Will Book Club just finished reading The Grapes of Wrath. They discussed the book's legacy with Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw over on Monkey See.
The next time you're in a bookstore, take a look at the nonfiction shelf. See all those celebrity autobiographies — the memoirs of actors, athletes and politicians? Chances are, they're the work of a ghostwriter.
David Fisher is one of those invisible authors. He's ghostwritten over 70 books, adopting the voices of quarterback Terry Bradshaw, attorney Johnnie Cochran and actor and comedian Leslie Nielsen, among others.
How does he do it? What's it like writing someone else's memoirs? The answer, Fisher says, is down in his basement, which is filled with boxes of cassette tapes. Fisher says he has "literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds" of tapes. And they're filled with the lives of famous people: secrets about the FBI's crime lab, the pharmaceutical industry's inner workings and Hollywood's real dramas.
Fisher pulls out one of comedian George Burns' tapes: "Let's just see what he has to say." An old conversation between Burns and Fisher starts to play:
"There is only one reason why I went into show business. I fell in love with it. It's as simple as that. In fact, the more I flopped the better I loved it."
"Have you ever been terrified on the stage?"
"No! It sounds like a joke but I imagine to get nervous you gotta — you gotta have talent."
"People say, 'Boy that must have been great just sitting opposite him with a tape recorder writing down everything he says.' That's ... It's not true," Fisher says. "But it's a great compliment."
In reality, ghostwriting is a lot harder than that. Fisher studies speech patterns, sentence structures, what jokes his subjects tell. And then he has to organize all the bits of information into a coherent story.
From Dark Secret To Significant Subgenre
Not so long ago, Fisher's profession was mostly a deep, dark secret, says Madeleine Morel, a literary agent for ghostwriters.
"Say 10 years ago, ghostwriting definitely had a sort of dirty name, the same way as online dating had a dirty name," she says. "So if you were a ghostwriter you'd maybe tell your best friend on pain of death never to tell anyone else 'cause there was a slightly ignominious feature to it."
But according to Morel, those days are long gone. "In fact, it has become a very significant subgenre in publishing," she says. "I mean, publishing is absolutely dependent on ghostwriters."
She estimates that if you look at the nonfiction bestsellers list right now, at least 60 percent of the books are ghostwritten. That's because celebrities sell books, but they can't necessarily write them.
"I've had some authors that basically never even read their books," Morel says.
But if readers finish those books and didn't realize they were ghostwritten — well, that's the point. And the ghosts don't seem to mind.
Joni Rodgers, a ghostwriter from Houston, says that "being invisible is 1,000 times more exciting than being famous." Subsuming your own personality is part of the job description, she explains: "It's a total set-aside of your own ego."
These ghosts give up control and credit. What do they get in exchange? For one thing, a check: Top-tier ghostwriters can make hundreds of thousands of dollars per book, and professional ghostwriters often write several books a year.
But is all this misleading the readers?
"I suppose that's like saying, well, getting breast implants is terribly dishonest or wearing make-up is terribly dishonest," says Rodgers.
Ghostwriters have developed a delicate dynamic with readers. They try to cater to them, but they don't feel beholden. Their allegiances are with the named author.
Sometimes, 'More Merchandise Than Literature'
Dan Paisner has ghosted almost 50 books, working with people like Gilbert Gottfried and Denzel Washington.
"I've been an autistic high school student. I've been a founder of the most successful urban fashion line. I was the 17-time grand slam champion," he says — and yep, he means Serena Williams. "I was a Holocaust survivor. What else? Oh I was the co-chair of the Republican National Committee. I was the three-term Democratic mayor from New York City. I was the three-term Republican governor from New York State. I've been a lot of things."
But he readily admits he's not writing the next Moby Dick. His works often don't have a very long shelf life. He says, "Some of the books are more merchandise than literature."
And he's often racing against the clock — the celebrity's "15 minutes of fame" clock. So while he can labor over a book for two years, he can also crank one out in two weeks, writing up to 35 pages a day.
But regardless of how long it takes, Paisner has one main goal. "The endgame is to capture the tone, the voice, the essence of the subject that you are working with," he says.
He recently did a book for surfer Izzy Paskowitz. "He comes from a legendary American surfing family. So the goal there was for his book to sound like a surfer dude, you know, just sharing some stories over beers, over a camp fire," Paisner says. "And there's no room in that experience for some ghostwriter from New York breathing down the reader's neck."
Paisner started interviewing and gathering material, and then he started writing in Paskowitz's voice:
Didn't much matter to us kids if we woke up on a beach in Florida or Texas or Rhode Island or all the way down at the tip of the Baja Peninsula, or even in some motel parking lot, tucked way in the back where the street lights didn't quite reach, as long as we could surf and hang and make our little pieces of trouble.
Paskowitz says when he started working on the book, he had his doubts
"When I sat down and thought about, you know, my life story — I couldn't come up with anything," he says. "And then I came up with, I don't know, about 20 good stories. And then my stupid Blackberry broke and I lost those. So I couldn't remember anything."
A year later, Paskowitz had taught Paisner to surf. They'd bonded over beers. And finally, Paskowitz sat down to read his own book for the first time.
"It is my voice. It is my words," he says. "It is everything that I would say. And I was blown away, you know — how incredibly interesting, you know, my life was."
And his ghostwriter, Dan Paisner, says that's the point.
Last #NPRGrapes Book Club MeetingThe I-Will-If-You-Will Book Club just finished reading The Grapes of Wrath. They discussed the book's legacy with Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw over on Monkey See.
Robert Dawson has been photographing public libraries across the country for almost 20 years. And now, just in time for National Library Week, he has published his photos in a new book called The Public Library. It includes reflections on libraries from Dr. Seuss, Amy Tan, E.B. White and others, but the stars of the book are the photographs, from the New York Public Library — which is as splendid as any great European cathedral — to libraries that are housed in shacks and shopping malls.
Dawson tells NPR's Scott Simon about getting punched while photographing one library, and why he doesn't feel he's documenting a vanishing species.
On the Handley Regional Library in Winchester, Va.
I have been born and raised and lived all my life in California, and so the American Civil War is something quite distant from my experience. But I'm always amazed when I travel in the East, the closeness of that period. So this was a library in Winchester that was built by a Confederate sympathizer. And then the library itself is this beautiful structure, both inside and out. But the walls inside were covered with portraits of Confederate generals, which really was sort of astonishing to me ... to see, again, the closeness of that history. Oftentimes libraries reflect what it is about the community that's unique, that's local, that is a place to maybe house civic memory, and so this was just one expression of that.
On whether he ever felt he was documenting a vanishing species
I often get that. People saying, "Oh, I'm glad you're doing that project, because [the] libraries are going away." But in fact, according to the American Library Association, libraries are more used now than ever. And libraries are one of the few noncommercial, nonreligious institutions where people can gather. Libraries are evolving, and one of the things, in some ways, that happens is they're less about books, they're more about communities.
On getting punched while photographing a library in Braddock, Pa.
I was photographing the original Carnegie Library, the very first one, and it was quite an amazing experience for me. The interior Carnegie had produced was quite magnificent; it had a swimming pool and a basketball court as well as all the books. And then I went outside to photograph the exterior. And the entire project I did with a large-format 4-by-5 camera, so I have to be under a dark cloth to focus the camera.
At one point, while I was focusing, a hand reached in and tried to grab the camera, and I pushed it away and came out from under the dark cloth and was punched very strongly in the jaw. This man had thought I had photographed him. He was obviously out of his mind — who knows what his problem was? The homeless population is something that librarians have to deal with in the libraries. It's not something they're necessarily trained to do; it's just an added thing.
On libraries to travel to this summer
If you happen to be in the Pacific Northwest, Seattle has one of the great works of art, I think. It's a Rem Koolhaas-designed library, the Central Library in Seattle. And it is stunning, inside and out.
If you're in Salt Lake City, Salt Lake City has one of the great libraries. ... Chip Ward, [who] was a librarian at the time they began to design and construct this library ... really was part of the effort to bring the people's input into what the library should be. But those would be some that I would highly recommend.
There's just an infinite amount of very interesting small libraries, midsize libraries, as well, throughout the country. And they all kind of are just so interesting in terms of representing the communities and what's unique about our country.