DATE August 9, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Josh Marston and Orlando Tobon discuss their new film
"Maria Full of Grace"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.
Since the 1980s, Customs officials at JFK Airport and elsewhere have been
encountering incoming passengers whose stomachs are bulging with dozens of
latex packets containing heroin or cocaine. The smugglers, who've come to be
called mules, are often recruited in Colombia. They can make thousands of
dollars in a single trip, enough to transform the life of someone living in
poverty. My guest Joshua Marston's new film "Maria Full of Grace" tells the
story of a 17-year-old Colombian girl who decides to become a drug mule,
swallows her pellets and flies to America, where things go very wrong. When
she gets into trouble, Maria finds her way to a travel agent in Queens named
Don Fernando, a large man whom many in the immigrant community rely on for
advice and help in times of trouble. Don Fernando is played in the movie by
the man who inspired his character, Orlando Tobon. In real life, Tobon has
recovered the bodies of hundreds of drug mules who've died in their journeys,
and he's returned them to their families in Colombia. We'll speak with Tobon
about his work later in our conversation.
"Maria Full of Grace" is Marston's first feature film and it won the Dramatic
Audience Award at this year's Sundance Festival. It's now opening in theaters
across the country.
Well, Joshua Marston and Orlando Tobon, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. JOSHUA MARSTON (Director, "Maria Full of Grace"): Thank you very much.
Mr. ORLANDO TOBON (Actor, "Maria Full of Grace"): Well, thank you.
DAVIES: Josh, what got you interested in drug mules?
Mr. MARSTON: What got me interested was actually hearing the story of someone
who had traveled as a drug mule, someone, a young Colombian woman who I met
more or less by chance in Queens in New York, and in the course of having a
conversation with this woman about where she was from and how she got into the
United States, she began to open up to me and tell me this very dramatic story
about having traveled as a drug mule and what it was like to swallow grapes to
get her throat in preparation, and then what it was like to swallow dozens of
thumb-sized pellets filled with drugs, and then get on a plane. And, you
know, it was extraordinarily captivating.
I think like most people, I had heard vague stories about people did this. It
was sort of like urban legend, but I had never actually imagined it from the
inside of what it must be like to actually do it. And this was at a time when
for years I had already been interested in the politics of Colombia and been
interested in the politics of the drug war. And so I got the idea to write a
film script that would be sort of a different take on the story about the drug
trade. Rather than telling a story from the top down, from the point of view
of a DEA agent or a drug kingpin, to tell the story from the bottom up, from
the point of view of the person at the bottom of the totem pole who's living
this sort of very mundane day to day experience of what it's like to be caught
up in the drug trade.
DAVIES: Now you spoke to several people who had traveled as drug mules as you
researched this film. How many of them do it multiple times? I mean, is it
one of these situations where if you do it a dozen times you can expect to get
caught, or do people do it for months or years?
Mr. MARSTON: I don't think people do it for years, but I got the feeling that
most people did it more than once, unless they happened to get caught or have
something tragic happen to them on the first time. I think it's common to end
up getting sucked up into it for a second or a third or a fourth time. I
didn't talk to anyone who'd done it more than, I think, three times in the
people that I met. I think it just becomes very, very difficult at that point
to continue taking the risk.
DAVIES: What are the risks they take?
Mr. MARSTON: Well, we're talking about--just to be clear about what a drug
mule is doing, they're, you know, ingesting these rubber pellets--each one of
them has 10 grams of heroin or cocaine--and they're swallowing anywhere
between 20 and a hundred depending on the size of their body, and, you know,
frequently--so we're talking about a half a kilo to a kilo of drugs. And if
one of those pellets breaks or begins to leak, if your stomach acids begin to
sort of do their work on the latex covering and the drugs seep into your blood
system, it's--you will die is basically what it amounts to, and how quickly or
slowly you die depends on how quickly or slowly the drugs seep into your body.
The other huge risk, of course, is that you would get caught, either in
Colombia or whatever country you're leaving, which is a terror in its own
right, or in the United States. And if you're coming into New York, face very
strict drug penalties for--you know, the Rockefeller Laws in New York are
very, very strict. And so this is a huge risk.
But the payoff is also huge. The going rate at this point for a drug mule
who's carrying about a kilo, which would be a lot, but a kilo is somewhere
between 12 and $15,000. And this is in a country, in Colombia, where the
average income in a year is $2,000. So it's like six or seven or eight years'
salary that you could earn for taking one plane ride. And that kilo of, if
it's heroin, once it arrives in the United States, just to give you the full
picture, is worth about 200 to $300,000 on the street.
DAVIES: You also spoke to Customs officials and watched them interview
people. Is that right?
Mr. MARSTON: Yeah.
DAVIES: What's that experience like?
Mr. MARSTON: That was fascinating just because, you know, it would have
been--for me the goal was to get some more clear understanding of the other
side of things, and what you realize, you know, no matter what your politics
on the drug war are, what you realize when you spend time in the airport with
Customs inspectors is that these are men and women who are showing up to work
day in, day out, fighting the good fight, trying to interdict drugs at the
border, and it's not an easy job. And Customs, if they were allowing me to
come in and they were transparent with me, part of it was out of an interest
in allowing me to see how the job is really done, because over the past
several years Customs has faced a significant number of class-action lawsuits
for racial profiling. And so the Customs Department has had an interest, at
least with me they had an interest, in saying, `We don't profile. We can't
profile, because we did profile, we would miss 95 percent of the people who
are coming into the country, because drug traffickers are constantly changing
their methods and the people that they're choosing.' And their argument is
that they need to use--develop sort of a sixth sense to try and intuit when
someone is guilty.
DAVIES: Tell us a little bit about what the Customs officials do. I mean,
how do they find people they're gonna interdict, and when they encounter them,
what do they do? What do they say?
Mr. MARSTON: Well, Customs has, in addition to its regular inspectors, they
have a roving team that are more specialized that will go to specific flights,
you know, flights from Colombia being some of them, and they will stand around
the baggage carousel and just sort of watch people as they come in and they
wait for the bags, and they'll look to see maybe who looks nervous, who's
waiting. They'll look to see if someone lets their bag that they ultimately
choose, if they've let it go around a couple times. You know, there are all
these theories among drug mules about whether it's better to go first or last
or mixing in the middle. And so you have this balance of about a dozen or 15
Customs inspectors, they're all waiting, and so from the point of view of the
drug mule, when they finally get their bag and they turn to go, they're sort
of running the gauntlet.
And the Customs inspector will first, you know, pull someone aside and say,
`Are these all your bags?' and `Where are you coming from?' And then pull
them aside and go through the bags, and then if you seem suspicious, they will
take you into a small room, it's about 8-by-8, sit you down, frisk you down
first of all, possibly strip search you depending, and go through all of your
belongings once again, quiz you once again. And now we're talking--this is a
process that may take an hour or two hours, and then they may ask to X-ray
you. And they have to ask and get your permission. They have to sign a
permission form. And if you refuse, then they can make the decision to simply
detain you, but oftentimes that moment where they ask you, `Will you agree to
be X-rayed?' is part of the whole tactic of intimidation, because always at
every step, the goal for the Customs inspector is simply to get the person to
admit that they've been traveling with drugs, because that's the far easier
route to go for everyone involved.
If they then agree to an X-ray, they then take you to the medical facility,
which at JFK Airport in New York is associated, directly related to the
airport, and it looks like a little medical facility. It's not a little
hospital. And they will X-ray you and then if they find a trove of pellets in
your stomach, they then--you're then still under suspicion because they
haven't actually recovered the drugs. You know, they don't know that those
are drugs necessarily, so you're taken to a trailer, you're shackled to a
gurney, you're under arrest, under suspicion, and then when the call of nature
comes, you're taken to a little cubicle with a toilet, and under the watchful
eye of a Customs inspector you do your business, and the fecal matter comes
out and goes directly into a chute where high-powered water jets spray it
down, and if there are pellets, they're trundled off directly into a waiting
evidence bag. And the Customs inspector has to witness it all so that they
can testify that the drugs came off of your person.
DAVIES: One of the most compelling scenes in the film is when the main
character, Maria, has made the decision to transport drugs in her stomach, and
we go to a room where we see the process of loading her up. There's a--well,
you actually interviewed, as I understand it, when you were researching,
someone who had prepared drugs for swallowers. Take us through the process.
What is it?
Mr. MARSTON: The process basically is that--you know, we've all heard of
condoms filled with drugs. What I found in all the conversation I had is, in
fact, fingers of surgical gloves, and what they do is they cut off the fingers
and they use the fingers to encase the drugs. The first take the drugs and
they weigh them out. They get exactly nine or 10 grams on a little digital
scale, and then put it into this contraption that looks a little bit archaic,
that would normally be used to make home vitamins. It takes the powder and it
presses it into a very, very compact, very dense form. And then that pellet
of pure drugs is put into the latex finger, and that latex finger is tied off
with dental floss. And that is repeated until the drugs are buried about five
or six layers deep in order to, you know, protect them from your stomach's
acids. And what you end up with is something, as I say, about the size of
your thumb, which may then further be sealed in wax.
And you're presented with anywhere from 50 to a hundred of these, and then
swallowing them becomes its own ordeal, and the person has usually practiced
by swallowing grapes or pellets with flour in them. And it takes hours
because it's painful. Your throat begins to scratch, your mouth begins to
taste of latex. People use, you know--they sort of dull your throat down with
an anesthetic spray, maybe. They'll give you Lomotil or something similar
to stop your digestive process. And then once you get on the plane, you
might--once you get on the plane you might be given a tranquilizer just to
sort of calm your nerves.
DAVIES: When a person swallows all these drugs and then gets on an airplane
and makes it into the United States, once they've cleared Customs, they meet
up with obviously someone arranged in the United States end of the
transaction. How are the drugs retrieved?
Mr. MARSTON: Well, the person is usually brought to a hotel and they then
spend a day or a couple of days excreting the pellets. It's usually done in a
bathtub because if you sit on a toilet, you risk the involuntary habit of
reaching to flush, which would be tragic. And the pellets are cleaned off
and, you know, smeared with toothpaste to make them smell a little bit more
tolerable, and then they're delivered. They're handed over to the person who
then will eventually, you know, cut them open and take the drugs out, and then
they'll be--that kilo of heroin will then be taken to a mill where it'll be
cut with some other substance to sort of mix it down and make it go further,
and sell it on the streets.
DAVIES: It's interesting to me that Maria, who is the central character here,
who makes this difficult decision to transport drugs in her stomach, is not
someone who is in desperate poverty. I mean, she has a job. She has a
family. She's not at the very edge of existence. And I'm kind of wondering
how you chose to craft her character and what kind of motivations drove her.
Mr. MARSTON: It was a very difficult line to walk, because there's no
question, the people that I spoke to who had done this were in economically
dire situations. But at the same time, I realized that it wasn't enough just
to say, you know, because someone's economically desperate, they end up
becoming a drug mule. Because, you know, there are--40 percent of Colombians,
more or less, or whatever, are living on $2 a day or less. There are a lot of
poor people in Colombia, and they are not all drug mules. It's not enough to
simply say that because someone's poor, they end up becoming a drug mule, and
so you have to look beyond the economic and to realize that the motivations
are as varied as the number of people that are out there. And so it really
became sort of a question at a personality level, what it is--who is Maria's
character and what is it that causes her to want to take this risk.
I knew that also if I painted her as simply as being so economically desperate
that she did end up doing this, I would end up with a movie of the week about
a young woman who was so desperate she had to swallow drugs, and the violins
would come out, and that just wasn't the movie I wanted to make. And I began
to develop this character of this young woman who is sort of not only
economically, just spiritually desperate, that she wants to get out. She's a
17-year-old girl who is, you know, working in a very difficult job that she
hates, in a family situation that is stifling her, with a boyfriend that, you
know, she's not in love with, and she just wants out. She wants something
else. She wants some other opportunity. And that combined with her economic
situation and the fact that she's a little bit naive, a little bit hard-headed
and a little bit rebellious all contrived to put her in the situation where
she ends up agreeing to swallow drugs.
DAVIES: Joshua Marston. He directed the new film "Maria Full of Grace."
We'll hear from Orlando Tobon, who appears in the film, after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Let's get back to our interview about the film "Maria Full of Grace,"
which tells the story of a young Colombian woman who becomes a drug mule,
smuggling narcotics in her stomach. I spoke with Orlando Tobon, who appears
in the film as himself.
Orlando Tobon, you are depicted in this film working in a travel agency, a
little place where you are at a desk and you have helped a lot of families who
lost people who died currying drugs and you've sent a lot of bodies back to
Colombia, more than 400. How did you get involved in this activity?
Mr. TOBON: That's a long time ago. We have a lady live next to my apartment,
and the sister die in a car accident and she come in to ask me to help. And
then we went to the morgue in Jamaica, in Queens, and then we find another
three bodies living in the morgue, and the lady told me as soon as we finished
to make out the papers for the lady die in the car accident, and she told us
this lady is very lucky because they has family to claim for the body in this.
Another three guys over there die with drugs in the stomach and nobody claim
the bodies. In, you know, 15, 20 years, I sent a lot of people back to
Colombia, bodies or ashes of the people, because sometimes we find the people
in the morgue for one, two months, dead, and then we cannot send the body, we
send the ashes. We cremate the people and then we send the bodies to their
families in Colombia.
DAVIES: There are so many stories that, of course, you've encountered in
doing this work. Give us--take one of them--tell us what happens. How do
they find you? How do you find the family in Colombia? What do you go
through in dealing with this kind of tragedy?
Mr. TOBON: Sometimes the police call me, or sometimes the police find the
families in Colombia and tell the families to call me to help them. Because
most of these people don't have no money at all, and I have to find the money
to pay the funeral, and I have to collect the money in the street in Roosevelt
Avenue and ...(unintelligible). I went down to the bars or discotheques in
Queens, and it's very hard, but we do it. We work to the families and
sometimes to the police, because they call me. They know these people, these
victims of this situation.
DAVIES: Since you're so often involved in these, I wonder if the police
suspect that you know the drug dealers, and do they want to tap your phone or
question you about that?
Mr. TOBON: Yes, yes, yes. The police make an investigation. I think the FBI
make an investigation. But the thing is, at the end of the investigation, the
sergeant come into my place one day, he say, `Orlando, I come in to thank you
because you do the very nice work, and we finish the investigation yesterday,
and thank you, because you do a very good job.' And I remember that they
start to make a collection to ...(unintelligible) mule, and he gave me $60 to
start the collection.
DAVIES: How do most of the drug mules whose bodies that you care for, how do
most of them die?
Mr. TOBON: They die in, I think, the hotels, when I arrive to the hotel.
DAVIES: Do they die from the...
Mr. TOBON: Overdoses because they are--one of the condoms exploded and then
the people die like overdoses.
DAVIES: You know, people who haven't seen the film and don't know you will
not be aware, but it's a fairly compelling scene when a couple of these people
who are drug curriers come into your office. It's a small office. I don't
know that this is actually your office in the Queens, but you're a large man
kind of seated at the desk on the phone a lot, and you have this knowing,
reassuring way with these people. Have you developed a way of dealing with
people? Why do you think so many people come to you for help?
Mr. TOBON: We have a lot of problems. My communities are very large. We
live like almost one million Colombians live in the area, and we no have
political representation. And somebody had to do the job. Somebody had to
help these people. And thank God I can have a little power to do it, and the
people is coming not only to help people with drugs, but they coming to try to
Mr. TOBON: Sometimes to find an apartment to rent. And I try to help them in
DAVIES: Orlando, have you heard reaction from Colombians about this film?
Mr. TOBON: Yes, yes. This film change a lot of people. In the few weeks
after the film running in Colombia, I remembered a little guy called me and
say, `Orlando, I call from Bogata, from Colombia, and I wanted to thank you.'
I say, `Thank you for what?' He said, `Because I intend to go to New York
with drugs in my stomach, and when I see this movie, I change my mind. And I
see--I talked to my family. I told everybody, and I'm very happy to see this
movie because I changed everything in my life.' And then this movie saved one
life. For me it's enough.
DAVIES: Well, Joshua Marston, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. MARSTON: Thank you. It's a pleasure.
DAVIES: Orlando Tobon, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. TOBON: OK. Thank you very much for inviting us.
DAVIES: Orlando Tobon appears in the new film "Maria Full of Grace." Joshua
Marston directed the film.
I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: Coming up, best-selling crime novelist Lisa Scottoline on her new
book "Killer Smile" about the internment of Italian Americans during the
Second World War. Maureen Corrigan reviews the new World War II espionage
thriller "Dark Voyage" by Alan Furst. And Milo Miles shares some soul
recordings by the band The Bo-Keys and by singer Van Hunt.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New CDs "The Royal Sessions" by The Bo-Keys and "Van Hunt"
by Van Hunt
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies of the Philadelphia Daily News, sitting in
for Terry Gross.
Soul music persists today both as a sound and as a song style. But like the
blues, it has to contend with the perception that it belongs more to history
than the present. Critic Milo Miles says two new debut albums from the band
The Bo-Keys and the young singer Van Hunt know how to be modern.
MILO MILES reporting:
These days soul outfits can get by being classicists, and uninspired ones at
that. As with rockabilly and garage rock, if a soul player fulfills the form,
he or she doesn't have to add new twists. At first, this kind of
too-comfortable mode seems to apply to The Bo-Keys. This mostly instrumental
quartet of veteran performers came together at the Stax Music Academy, no
less. The lineup of Scott Bomar on bass, Willie Hall on drums, Skip Pitts on
guitar and Ronnie Williams on organ, plus some added horns and percussion, is
straight out of the Booker T. & the MGs' playbook. After one listen to their
debut, "The Royal Sessions," you may only have the urge to pull out vintage
sides by Booker T. or The Meters. But give it a second chance.
(Soundbite of "Deuce and a Quarter")
THE BO-KEYS: (Singing) Buckle up, y'all. Let's ride this joint. Yeah.
Yeah. Deuce and a quarter, y'all. Get on down. Here we go. Deuce and a
quarter, y'all. My mind on my money, my money on my mind, yeah. Uh-oh, get
on down, y'all. Mmm, mmm, mmm, deuce and a quarter, y'all.
MILES: It's a subtle business, but it's clear after a while that The Bo-Keys
have their own sound, that adding up their batch of veterans' respectings has
generated something fresh. "The Royal Sessions" suggests one of those
fortunate hard-bought jazz workouts where canny old pros rediscover what
attracted into the music in the first place.
If The Bo-Keys make the most of their worldly experience, singer and
multi-instrumentalist Van Hunt makes the most of his inner worlds.
(Soundbite of "Van Hunt")
VAN HUNT: (Singing) It's just another day, another episode of hiding under
the world. It's just another ray of merciful hope. I don't expect any more.
I'm already insane. I'm already in pain. And if this time you don't...
MILES: Like The Bo-Keys, Van Hunt unfolds slowly. On his debut album, called
"Van Hunt," his guitar-focused early '70s sound is lean and punchy, if a bit
slight with melodies. But soon it's evident he's drawing on a little-known
tradition exemplified by performers like Roy C., Swamp Dogg and late-period
Marvin Gaye. Van Hunt is a neurotic soul man. Love and sex are not his
salvation. Most often they torment him. And that's what he likes about it.
(Soundbite of "Van Hunt")
VAN HUNT: (Singing) I always love it when--I love it when we make mistakes
because once again it gives me a reason to complain. I love them battle
lines, the battle lines we draw and cross in the mud. Ooh, I love it when we
fight. Standing on the verge of breaking up or making love. What would I do
if we were perfect? Where would I go for disappointment? Love without pain
would leave me wonderin' why I stayed. I'd think of saving myself...
MILES: On tracks like "Anything (To Get Your Attention)," Van Hunt plays a
more standard role of worshipful soul supplicant, and he's even sleek with
contentment in tunes like "Precious," but he's most compelling when he's
`crash-landing on the runway,' as he puts it, and `crawling from the wreckage
with a smile.' Van Hunt says he's determined to find out why the battles of
the day lead people to become demons at night, and that's certainly a more
fascinating goal for a modern soul singer than concocting yet another dose of
DAVIES: Milo Miles is a contributing writer to Rolling Stone. He reviewed
new albums from The Bo-Keys and singer Van Hunt.
Coming up writer Lisa Scottoline's new legal thriller unearths a dark chapter
in American history.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Lisa Scottoline discusses her family history woven into
her new thriller "Killer Smile"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Lisa Scottoline is a Philadelphia lawyer who's become a best-selling writer of
legal thrillers. Each of her books centers on a case involving one of the
partners of an all-woman law firm. Though Scottoline has an Ivy League law
degree, her books feature gritty, textured descriptions of the
Italian-American neighborhoods in Philadelphia, where her parents and
grandparents lived. The case in Scottoline's latest book, "Killer Smile,"
deals with a largely unknown episode in American history, the registration and
internment of thousands of Italian-Americans as enemy aliens as World War II.
She was inspired to write the story after discovering the program had touched
her own family. In "Killer Smile," attorney Mary DiNunzio is seeking
reparations for the estate of an Italian-American from Philadelphia who died
in an internment camp in Montana. I spoke to Scottoline about the story and
Lisa Scottoline, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Ms. LISA SCOTTOLINE (Author, "Killer Smile"): Well, thank you for having me,
DAVIES: Your latest book, "Killer Smile," deals with something that's new to
your writing. This is the forced registration and internment of a lot of
Italian-Americans as enemy aliens during World War II...
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: Yeah.
DAVIES: ...which it turns out touched your family. Tell us...
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: Yeah.
DAVIES: ...how you found out that this episode in American history had
touched your own family.
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: Well, you know, it's a--I write thrillers, and I do one a
year, and--but I still think that they have to stand as novels, so I have as
much pretense as anyone else. And so to really flesh 'em out and to make 'em
real, you draw on something within, and I have every book. This book was
different and harder and more personal because it arose in a circumstance
that's sort of sad about--briefly, just two years ago my dad realized that he
was not going to survive cancer. And although he didn't say any of this, we
don't really do a, you know, third-act Camille(ph) in our house--at least not
on my father's side. On my mother's side, it's a complete melodrama, but on
my father's side we try to show some semblance of restraint. And he sat me
down and he said, `There's some papers I need you to look at,' and the first
paper was actually the detour family cemetery plot(ph). And he said, `You may
be needing this,' and I knew exactly what he meant and so did he. And then he
said, `And there's these two others things. They are from your grandparents,
and they're actually all that's left of your grandparents.'
Now when someone says that to you, you are paying lots of attention. And what
he gave me were these two little pink booklets, which were--looked like
passports, and very soft-covered; actually documents from the 1940s that have
that great old-fashioned look about them, when paper was real and staples
really were staples. And I said, `What is it?' And he said, `It's actually
your grandparents' enemy alien registration card.' And I said, `Well, what
could my grandparents possibly be enemies of?' And he said, `Well, the
country.' And that's when I found out--he said, `This is our last family
secret,' and as soon as he says that, I said, `This is the next book,' because
that's the stuff that always touches. And basically, my grandparents, who had
lived at the time World War II broke out for 30 years without event in
Philadelphia, were compelled to register as enemy aliens, as were
Japanese-Americans and German-Americans under the same act. And actually
their home was searched by the FBI in the middle of the night, as was true of
lots of Italian-Americans on both coasts, and also parts of the Midwest.
DAVIES: Let me get this right.
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: Yeah.
DAVIES: I mean, they lived on Thompson Street in west Philadelphia.
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: Forty-ninth and Thompson, west Philadelphia.
DAVIES: And an FBI crew arrives in the middle of the night and searches the
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: Oh, happened all over the neighborhoods, and, you know,
knocks on the door and they come down and all my grandparents knew, when my
dad related the story to me, was that they were (Italian spoken), they were
Americans. My grandparents did not speak English, and so they sat on their
little green couch kind of terrified. And as these men searched their house
and took out with them their flashlight and their radio--by the way, not a
shortwave radio, just their radio. And...
DAVIS: And why was that?
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: ...the belief was that the government rounded these things up
wholesale because they would be--could be used to signal enemy warships off
the coast. And of course, my grandparents never left the kitchen, but it is
part of a wholesale action during the war, as you know. And that was news to
me, though, that it happened with respect to Italian-Americans and in my own
family. Here I'm looking at these cards and I say, `Dad, why didn't you tell
us? I mean, this is silly. Why would this be a secret? They didn't do
anything wrong and we know that.' He said, `They were terrified. They were,
from that day forward, very ashamed of themselves. You know, there was a
great sense of shame in them because they loved this country so much,' and so
since they barely understood what was happening, they understood that they
were accused and convicted all at once.
DAVIES: A lot of people that I've spoken to who were certainly well aware of
the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II were completely
unaware that this had happened to Italian-Americans.
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: Yeah, they took...
DAVIES: And you didn't know that until your father showed this to you.
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: I went to the University of Pennsylvania Law School and
studied constitutional law and even practiced a little con law and didn't even
DAVIES: So when you found this out, I mean, you didn't leave it at that. I
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: No.
DAVIES: I mean, you went to the National Archives.
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: Yeah.
DAVIES: What did you learn?
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: Well, that's the great thing about my job. I get to educate
myself, and so I subpoenaed under the Freedom of Information Act all files of
individuals who were interned in the internment camps--there ended up being 43
around the country during World War II--and who were Italian-Americans or
Italian-born or Italian nationals. And that response eight months later
yielded about 330 files, which is interesting given that the historians
dispute about how many actual Italian-Americans were interned. The numbers go
from 3,000 to 10,000, so it's very interesting that so few files were left.
And I read them all. And I Xeroxed plenty.
DAVIES: You actually went to Missoula, Montana, to visit the site of a former
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: Yes.
DAVIES: What prompted you to go there?
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: Well, once I got the files from the archives, it was pretty
clear that I would have to do that because there's something about--and I
don't know that it's a lawyer's respect for the actual documents that things
speak for themselves or just a normal person, which I still am--so you sort of
see these actual files and photographs of people and lists of what was
confiscated from them--mostly dictionaries, by the way. They were trying to
teach themselves English when they were arrested for nothing. And so I kind
of--I said, well, if you're going to set a thriller in something that really
happened, which is the first time I've ever done it--I have to go see where it
Now Missoula is gorgeous, right? We can posit that it is stone
beautiful--trees, fresh air, not enough graffiti, you know, way too much
parking. I'm completely out of place, which is also a good kind of thing for
this book because my character has that in common with me and so we...
DAVIES: Yeah, we can tell readers that in the book your character, Mary
DiNunzio, an Italian-American Philadelphia lawyer, travels to Missoula...
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: Right.
DAVIES: ...researching the case of this gentleman whose fate she was
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: Right. And so it's sort of an aspect of her growth that she
does that and it is of mine, too. I mean, if it weren't for a book tour I
probably would never leave my house. So she walks around the camp and she
has the feeling I had, which is there is a hallowed-ground feeling. I mean,
you can't be a time writer in particular and not be moved emotionally by stuff
like that. You see.
DAVIES: The camp is still there.
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: The camp is still there. There's a little baby museum they
have, which is completely charming; it has lot of photographs of what it was
like to be interned there. There is--and they have preserved part of one of
the barracks. You find old foundations; you find overgrown things. And also
they were kind enough to let me go into the back room at the archives, so you
see stuff that actually Italian-American internees left behind. There's
little opera schedules because they sang to each other.
DAVIES: Opera schedules.
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: Yeah, you know, they made the best of it. The first thing
they did, actually, was make a boccie court out back, so the lawn is still
there where they played. And soccer. And it's really remarkable as it
happens, because at the time we weren't really that afraid of--I mean, all--if
you read the literature and I read an lot of it and talked to the people in
Missoula--nobody was all that afraid of the Italians. In fact, they were
young, good-looking Italian sailors behind bars. It begins to sound vaguely
porny. You know, you're like, huh, what's wrong with this? And in fact,
they--a few of them stayed in Missoula and married. They were allowed to work
outside the camp, and that's--was all good for the novel.
DAVIES: Did you find people still alive who remembered the internment camp or
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: I did find someone who knew a lot about it, although he
hadn't worked there, and he actually took me around and was just an enormously
helpful guy. I mean, he--I wanted to set this fictional murder--Right?--so
I--and I know that Italians worked in logging camps and sugar beet fields, and
I said, `Take me to the sugar beet fields,' and he said, `Sure, no problem.'
When we get there, what is it? It's paved, it's a Target, it's a Costco, it's
a strip mall, but that's where it used to be. And he says to me...
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: ...`You got an imagination? Use it.' And I did.
DAVIES: So how many Italian-Americans were interned at this camp in Montana?
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: Probably a thousand.
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: But even that's not certain.
DAVIES: ...were they--what kind of conditions of confinement did they
encounter? Was it pretty loose? Were they allowed to go to town? Did they
have any time off?
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: You know what's interesting? And it's true of Missoula, and
it was true of the other camps as well, which is--and briefly, there are
three groups interned--Right?--Japanese, Germans and Italians. They're all
treated differently because of our completely arbitrary reaction to them and
partly because of our stereotypes about them. Happily for Italians, everybody
says to me in Missoula, `The Italians--they were happy-go-lucky,' and so you
get this kind of (sings melody of children's song), you know, and they were
permitted lots of liberties, simply because no one was worried about them.
The Germans, interestingly, were--did a lot of organization and worked in the
kitchen, so they did almost all the cooking at a lot of these camps, and so
when you go to the National Archives--to just take you back a minute--you will
see orders--shopping lists of coffee, milk, things that were actually rationed
during the war, and see in German script how these things were ordered and
regulated for the camps. They were also permitted--the Germans--to work
outside the camp, although by the way, neither Germans nor Italians were
permitted to keep their wages, so this was--happy-go-lucky slave labor, as I'm
thinking about it. However, the Japanese were treated differently because we
were afraid of the Japanese, so they were not permitted to work outside the
DAVIES: Your paternal grandparents, Giuseppe and Mary Scottoline, were
required to register as illegal aliens. Their registration cards are included
in the book here.
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: Yeah, isn't that nice?
DAVIES: They weren't sent away to Missoula, Montana...
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: No.
DAVIES: ...as the character in your book and as other Italian-Americans were.
The irony, of course, is that when your grandparents were required to register
as enemy aliens, their son, your dad, was actually in the US military.
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: That's right, and that's actually very--that's a paradigm.
That is completely typical of the situation, as you can imagine it just would
be, and so when you go to the National Archives, you see lots of letters from
people serving in the war, saying to the War Department, `Please let my--my
father's in a camp. Why is this happening? Get him out. Help me do that,'
and not understanding.
DAVIES: The lawyer who is the center of your book, Mary DiNunzio, is taking
on the case of seeking reparations on the behalf of the estate of a man,
Amadeo Brandolini, who died at an internment camp. Has there been any move
for reparations or recognition for Italian-Americans who were registered as
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: Actually, interestingly, no reparations were ever requested
and none were ever paid. Briefly, though, we should give some credit to the
National Italian American Foundation, which I sort of found in my research,
and what they did through a fair amount of education and politicking and
pressure put--said to Congress, `Gee, can you just acknowledge this
happened?--because we know this happened and it's documented, so let's stop
pretending that we don't sometimes make mistakes as a country.' And so it
wasn't until Clinton's administration, actually, that Congress passed an act
that he signed that acknowledged that this in fact happened. But no money
ever changed hands to compensate anybody.
DAVIES: And it was more a matter of recognition and...
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: Yeah.
DAVIES: ...memorialization than money, right?
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: Which is enormously valuable, I think.
DAVIES: You just finished a book tour talking about "Killer Smile." Did
people come up to you with their own stories of Italian-American ancestors
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: Oh, yeah.
DAVIES: What did you hear?
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: It was amazing, and German-Americans also. People brought
their enemy alien registration cards to signings, and it's because they're in
the book, and some people said, `We didn't know what these were until we saw
it in your book,' and now lots of--I get tons of e-mail and they're all
saying, `Gee, I'm going to research what this means because I remember some
story about this, or this happened to my grandparents, too.' All over the
country--it's not confined to the East Coast at all; in fact, much more on the
West. So it was really sort of amazing because it shows you that you can in a
very grassroots way say, `Hey, this'--to me it's all about books and the
commonality. You know, I write a novel that I hope works for people, because
it works for me. Well, if this happened to my grandparents, it might have
happened to their grandparents, and so it's all kind of very--from the ground
up connection, which is really very cool.
DAVIES: Well, Lisa Scottoline, thanks so very much for talking with us.
Ms. SCOTTOLINE: Oh, thank you so much, Dave.
DAVIES: Writer Lisa Scottoline. Her latest book is "Killer Smile."
Coming up, Alan Furst's new espionage novel set in World War II on the high
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Alan Furst's new novel "Dark Voyage"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Alan Furst's new espionage novel takes place not as usual, in the
cinematically rain-soaked streets of occupied Paris, but on the high seas.
Called "Dark Voyage," it deals with German U-boat attacks on Allied merchant
ships. Book critic Maureen Corrigan says it's a briny delight.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
I used to pass on review books that had anything to do with World War II to my
father, usually suspense stories with embossed swastikas on their cover. So
back in 1996 when the first volume of Clay Blair's "Hitler's U-boat War"
landed with an 800-page thud at my front door, I automatically gave it to my
dad. Blair's book is a definitive history of the German effort to sink Allied
merchant ships in order first to starve Britain into surrender, and later,
after the US entered the war, to stop the flow of supplies to the war in
Europe. Blair writes that in the nearly six years the battle of the Atlantic
was waged, 2,800 merchant ships were sank while the Allies sank nearly 800
U-boats. On both sides, tens of thousands of sailors died.
My father, who'd served in the Merchant Marine before entering the Navy, was
riveted by Blair's book. He'd sit at the kitchen table, reading glasses and
magnifying glass in hand, poring over the book's eye-straining type, looking
for the names of ships he'd served on, many of them later torpedoed and sunk.
His life after those years, my father always said, was bonus time.
Lots of people don't know about or have only the haziest notion of the U-boat
war, but that historical amnesia may lift soon because Alan Furst has just
written a nail-biter of a new novel called "Dark Voyage," whose plot turns on
the hunting of merchant ships by U-boats. Furst is our pre-eminent master of
World War II era espionage stories, a writer at once so technically ingenious,
lyrical and historically informed, his publisher wouldn't dare to slap an
embossed swastika on his book jackets.
The "Dark Voyage," a Furst title, refers to a clandestine naval operation.
The unlikely agent of saltwater heroics here is a rusty Dutch freighter named
the Noordendam. In April of 1941, the ship's captain, Eric DeHaan, signs on
to serve the Intelligence Division of the exiled Royal Dutch Navy, which in
turn works under the Royal British Navy. His first mission is to pick up a
contingent of British commandos, drop them at a point off Tunisia where
they'll destroy a German coastal observation station, and then wait for them
to row back to the ship, all within three hours. Meanwhile, the Noordendam
will lie dead at anchor while German aircraft patrol the skies and U-boats
DeHaan wisely waits until his ship is out to sea to announce the mission to
his crew, composed of fugitives of all nations, including some Spanish
Republicans, a Greek deserter and a Hitler-hating Polish boiler room engineer.
This, and other subsequent missions, hang on what one of the ship's officers
dismisses as `paint and a flag,' for the Noordendam is to be camouflaged as
the Santa Rosa, a freighter steaming under a Spanish neutral flag. The real
Santa Rosa is in dry dock in Mexico, and as long as only a chosen few know of
the switch, the mission should be a cakewalk.
Of course, all hell breaks loose, as only Furst can orchestrate it, and as in
his other taut stories, Furst imbues even passing characters with a presence
that lends authenticity to the improbable. Take this description of a
Moroccan middleman named Yakub(ph). `DeHaan knew who Yakub was the moment he
saw him. He belonged to a certain tribe native to port cities. It was a
tribe of young men, young men of humble origin who, with only their wits to
help them, meant to rise in the world and to that end had obtained a suit.
Next, with help from an old book or an old man, they taught themselves a
foreign language, maybe two or three. Then at last, to go with the suit and
language, they learned to smile. How glad they were to see you. What did you
need? Where did you want to go?'
As deftly fleshed out as characters like Yakub and Captain DeHaan are, the
main character in "Dark Voyage" is the Noordendam. While political
allegiances in the spring of 1941 switched with absurd rapidity, the
Noordendam remains a free-floating League of Nations--that is, as long as she
manages to stay on top of the anarchic high seas. A more high-toned literary
novelist might have belabored the implicit metaphors here: the Noordendam as
Flying Dutchman, a ghost ship. But Furst, thankfully, is otherwise occupied,
throwing exploding boilers and sea storms at us. Swearing and sweating, DeHaan
and his crew set out for the voyage of their lives. Should they survive,
everything after the war will be bonus time.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Dark Voyage" by Alan Furst.
(Soundbite of music; credits)
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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