DATE March 25, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Sekou Sundiata discusses his health and career
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.
Our guest, Sekou Sundiata, is a poet, performer and one of the fathers of the
spoken-word movement. Greg Tate wrote in The Village Voice, `Sundiata is to
contemporary African-American poetry what Marvin Gaye was to modern soul.'
Sundiata has a one-man show about the period when he had kidney failure,
dialysis and a kidney transplant. Toward the end of 1999, after his
transplant, he was on the way to his comeback performance, driving through the
snow in New England, when his car slid off the road and he broke his neck. He
spent the following year recovering from surgery. Fortunately, he has no
paralysis or disability.
He says his show is a personal look at the world from a forced withdrawal, an
exile from the self he had come to know. His new show is called "Blessing the
Boats," and he's been performing it off and on for three years. His health is
good now, and he's currently performing "Blessing the Boats" at the Apollo
Theater in New York through April 10th. The title of his show is taken from a
poem by Lucille Clifton, who also had a kidney transplant. Terry talked with
Sekou Sundiata in 2002. He began with an excerpt from "Blessing the Boats."
from your new piece?
Mr. SEKOU SUNDIATA (Voice Performance Artist): Sure. This is from a section
called "The Part That Hurts."(ph)
Here I am, a middle-aged brother with the shakes who can't stay awake, who has
to hold on to the wall because his head is spinning like a gyroscope, a poet
who can't make poems, because there's too much distance between his mind and
his body. And anyway, his mind is so slow and confused that ideas just bounce
around and reverberate like a sound effect. Where's my witty? Where's my
sovereignty? And most of all, where the hell is my cool? I was no longer the
self I thought myself to be.
How do you just wake up one day, and not be who you think you are? I'll tell
you how. The body is a lowdown, dirty sneak. It remembers every physical or
psychological insult it ever suffered, and each insult leaves a scar, and that
scar is a map to the insult that just lays in the cut like a memorial, and
should you delete it from your memory, your body will retrieve the data and
bring it back up just when you're trying to go to sleep, or just when somebody
tells you that you're cute, or just when you tell yourself how cool you are,
here comes the big payback. Your body will break you down. It will make you
beg. It will make you change your priorities.
For example, I was surprised to find out the size of the kidney. The kidneys'
job is to regulate a delicate balance of chemicals and minerals and water in
the body. They clean the blood and regulate blood pressure. Big job, big
organs--simple as that. But most kidneys are the size of a small fist, and
they're located in the back, off to the side. I had taken it for granted that
the most important part of the body was located front and center.
This is what I mean about the body being a sneak. It'll let you believe
things like that until it's ready to tell you the truth. It ain't the heart
or the lungs or the brain. The biggest most important part of the body is the
part that hurts.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Sekou Sundiata, I really like this piece a lot. Why did you want to do a
performance about your period of medical crisis?
Mr. SUNDIATA: Well, you know, first of all, in writing this piece, it is
written in a way that is very different from the way I write. I don't write
in a really personal way or an obviously autobiographical way. The first
thing that drove me to write about this was in my experience of going on
dialysis and needing a transplant, I was on the transplant waiting list,
which, you know, can be anywhere from two years to five years or more for
some people, and during that period of time, five of my friends came forward
and volunteered to be donors, to donate a kidney. And, you know, we went
through the whole process of tissue typing and blood testing and all of that,
and four out of the five people were found to be a match. It's very unusual,
very rare, especially for people who are not related.
And, you know, I was moved by that personally, and you know, to me it was a
story that--it just had so many implications to it in terms of what I call
grace, the idea that for me, you know, I couldn't have done anything to really
earn anybody's kidney. Yet here were these people coming forward volunteering
to put their lives in jeopardy to save mine, essentially. So I was really
driven by that. This, to me, was just some unearned grace that is always a
GROSS: This is a very different kind of story for you in several ways. As
you say, your things aren't often personal in that sense and, also, a lot of
your stories are about somebody who's very mythic, in a way, very cool or very
Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah.
GROSS: ...or very much romantic love or risk-taking, or, you know, you're
writing sometimes about being African-American in America and what that means.
And this is about being vulnerable.
Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah. Yeah, no question. The experience of having what's
called end-stage renal disease and not knowing for quite some time--I'm
talking about three years or more, three or four years--really what was wrong,
you know, thinking that the symptoms sometimes can be some of anything, you
know. There are a cluster of symptoms that can relate to a number of
different things, and they're easy to excuse, especially if you're living a
very busy and active life, which is what I was doing at the time.
So, you know, I felt--by the time I was diagnosed with having renal failure,
it was a new way of thinking about myself and a new way of thinking about my
body, you know. I grew up being very active, being a amateur athlete,
running, playing sports and all those things, and all of a sudden, my body
would not do what I wanted it to do, you know, when I wanted it to do it. So
it was a whole new way of being vulnerable.
GROSS: How did you know something was wrong?
Mr. SUNDIATA: Hmm. That's a good question. Well, you know, the things I
felt was fatigue, tiredness, I was yawning all the time, frequent urination,
those kinds of things. And, frankly, you know, at the time, I was very busy.
I was touring with a show around the country and I thought these things were
due to being just tired and worn out, to traveling so much. You know, at one
point in the piece, I talk about, you know, being in cheap hotels, lousy
venues, breathing recycled airplane air. All of these things, you know, that
we generally talk about, I guess, when we get a general--being generally
rundown, which is how I felt.
But what I noticed is that other people would feel the same way, so, you know,
I would say, you know, `Everybody I know is tired and rundown.' But they
would recover. You know, they would rest for a week, two days, whatever, and
recover. I could never recover. So it was almost as if there was this
long-running flu that was trapped in my system. That was the first clue.
The event that triggered it is I was having breakfast with a couple of friends
in a restaurant one morning, and they told me that my face had broken out. I
had these tiny bumps all over my face. We finished breakfast and I went
straight to the doctor and, you know, the doctor examined me and I gave him a
urine test. And he called me the next day to say that there was something in
the test that indicated my kidney function wasn't right. So I went to see a
kidney specialist, a nephrologist. That's when I found out that at that point
my kidneys were at 50 percent.
GROSS: What was your initial way of dealing with being sick? Did you push
yourself? Did you become more self-protective?
Mr. SUNDIATA: No, not really. My kidney disease, we suspect, was brought
about by hypertension, probably long-term, undiagnosed high blood pressure.
And when I got that diagnosis from the urine test and I saw the nephrologist,
basically, I began blood pressure--hypertension medication. And so I was
really trying to stay with that, and then I started exercising and eating
better and doing those kinds of things.
But after about six months, I really--like many people, I had an aversion to
the idea of having to take a pill every day. So I started slacking off. I'd
take the medicine every now and then, etc., etc. So I still wasn't convinced
that this was really as serious as it was. Even though the doctor said my
kidneys were at 50 percent, there was the belief that any further
deterioration could be halted once the blood pressure was brought under
control and that, you know, I could live a life at 50 percent kidney function.
GROSS: So did people start reacting to you differently once you became
Mr. SUNDIATA: No, I didn't really notice a difference then. I noticed a
difference, actually, after the transplant. People pretty much reacted the
same to me even when I was on dialysis. I think that had to do with the form
of dialysis that I was on, which is called peritoneal dialysis, meaning I
didn't have to go to a hemodialysis center every week. It's something I did
myself. So I maintained a lot of my strength, and I looked--actually, I had
more vitality even in the way I looked than before I went on dialysis. Some
of my health returned.
So there wasn't much of a reaction there. But once I had the transplant, you
know, I guess people are very suspicious about organ transplantation and
disease and all of those things. So ...(unintelligible) people seeing me
after the transplant, it kind of triggered something about their own
Mr. SUNDIATA: I recognized that some people backed away, you know.
Mr. SUNDIATA: Some people kind of lost contact. And it's a sense--it's very
difficult to put my finger on it because nobody ever says this outright. But
for some people--not all by any means, but for some people, there was a sense
that they had given up on me in some way.
BIANCULLI: Sekou Sundiata speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2002 interview with poet and performer
GROSS: There are two ways of getting a new kidney if you have kidney disease.
One is to get a kidney from somebody who has just died who was an organ donor,
and the other is to get the kidney from somebody who you know who is willing
to undergo surgery and donate one of their kidneys to you. You took that
second route. Did you think you were initially going to go the other route of
getting it from an anonymous organ donor?
Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah. I was on the transplant list, and I was on the list for
about a year and a half. And I had no intention of asking anyone for a
kidney. That was another part of it. I had no i--I just couldn't imagine
asking someone to give me a kidney. In fact, the nurses who looked after me
when I was on peritoneal dialysis told me that I was the first patient they
had who never asked them for a kidney. And, you know, I couldn't believe it.
I couldn't believe that somebody would just ask, especially essentially a
stranger, for a kidney. So in my mind, it was settled that I would be on the
list until I got that call saying that, you know, `We have a kidney for you.
Come to the hospital.'
But a couple of my friends said just at first casually that, `Hey, I would
give you a kidney.' And, you know, I kind of just said thank you at first,
but, yeah, it was just--they mentioned it more than one time and wanted to
talk about it seriously and wanted to know what it would take. And then
finally, it sank in and I realized that, you know, these people were serious
and they would really go through with the testing and, if they were a match,
would, you know, donate their kidney. And, you know, again, these are
unrelated--these are friends. These are not blood relatives.
GROSS: So who were the people who made the offer?
Mr. SUNDIATA: Well, one is the woman that I love, who I call Kazi(ph), and
she appears in the piece. And the others are friends, you know, just--two
people were friends of hers who became friends of mine, you know, the longer
we knew each other. One person is a long-term friend that I've known. Her
name is Sydney. I've known her for about 20, 25 years. The other two people
were two men named Bill and Claude. And then my close friend and manager,
Katea Stitt, turned out to be the one who was the match and turned out to be
my--actually, they were all matches, but she turned out to be the donor.
GROSS: Why her? Why not the other people?
Mr. SUNDIATA: Well, since four out of five people matched, we had discussions
about it, basically over dinner. We would go out and have these great...
GROSS: For all of you, the whole group?
Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah, we would call them transplant dinners. We'd have these
great dinners with great food and, you know, wine and laughter and everything,
and we would talk about the transplant. And finally, we all went to get
tested together, and when the results came in, we had another meeting to talk
about what to do since, you know, all these people matched. And basically,
they ranked themselves. They decided that Kazi, who was the only one with a
child, would be four because she had a child and there was some concern about
that. Claude, who had some medical issues of his own going on, was ranked
third. And then Bill, who was in good health and older than the rest came in
second. And Katea, who was in good health, the youngest, volunteered to be
first. And then all four--everyone else volunteered to be backup donors in
case anything went wrong for any of us, you know.
And to me, that was just remarkable. And whenever I would tell people this
story--even before the transplant and after the transplant, whoever I'd tell
that story to was really just moved by it. And so I thought that, you know,
there's something in this story that is just beyond me. It's much, much
greater than me, and it does speak to ideas about love and friendship, but
also just about unearned grace.
GROSS: It must seem like a real impossibility of repaying such a debt. You
know? What can you do that measures up to somebody giving you their kidney?
Mr. SUNDIATA: I don't think you can do anything, you know. I really don't.
And, you know, I would ask--I asked each of them, and especially Katea, since
she ended up being the donor, you know, `What can I do?' You know, `Just what
could I possibly do?' And, you know, being the people they are, everyone
said, `Well, you know, just get healthy, get well,' etc., etc., those kinds of
In my own mind, I thought that, you know, as a writer and a storyteller, I
thought maybe what I could do is tell this story. You know, I've talked about
this before. I come out of a tradition of testifying and witnessing, whether
that was in the church or, you know, in literature or whatever. And the idea
that in these testimonies, that there is great value in these stories. And
sometimes you can't really see what the value is, you know, at the time that
you're doing it or telling it, but you sense that there's some great value in
the story. So if anything--I mean, I don't think of it as repaying a debt
because I don't think that that can be done, you know. But it is what I have
to offer. I've been given this story, and I think that it may be useful.
GROSS: You were preparing for a comeback concert in New England, and you were
driving to this concert...
Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah.
GROSS: ...you know, after you had gotten healthy enough following your kidney
transplant to start performing again, you're driving in a snowstorm through
New England to get to this comeback concert and you were in a car accident and
broke your neck in the car accident. And from my understanding, you nearly
died in that accident.
Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah.
GROSS: You were trapped in the car for a couple of hours. What was going
through your mind when you were in that car with a broken neck after having
just gotten through this horrible period of kidney failure, kidney transplant,
post-kidney transplant surgeries, you finally recover and then you're in this
Mr. SUNDIATA: Well, my first thought--I mean, even as the car was sliding,
you know, in the snow, was how absurd this was. You know, it just seemed
stupid to me. First of all, this happened in January of 2000. I had my last
surgery related to the transplant in December. Just--I don't even know if it
was a full month before the accident. So I was still, in a sense,
recuperating from that. So I thought that that was, you know, getting--I was
putting that behind me when this whole thing happened. And I remember
thinking as the car was sliding off the highway that I just couldn't believe
it could all come down to this. You know, it just seemed like such an absurd
and silly thing, you know, to happen.
And then, also--I have to tell you this. You know, I think that there's no
question that my life was in danger. I didn't know that my neck was broken
while I was there, you know, upside down in the snow, and I didn't think
anybody could see that I'd gone off the road. But I never felt that I was
gonna die. You know, I never felt that that was it. And I don't
know--there's no physical evidence to support that idea, because it was a
blinding snowstorm, I had dropped down a slope, you could not see me from the
highway and I couldn't even hear the car--the traffic on the highway passing
by. So I had no real evidence to support that. It was just a blind faith
that I had that somehow this was not it.
At the same time, I'd never been so alone and isolated in my life. And I
don't think I'd ever--I never knew things could be that quiet, either. And
then this woman shows up, kneeling beside the car in the storm and she has a
cell phone. And she starts talking to me and she calls 911 and, you know, she
gets all of that going. And by the time the fire department arrived, this
woman is gone. I never see her again. I don't know her name or any of that,
but she's just gone. And from that point on, you know, the fire department
has it, and they cut me out and all of that.
GROSS: Did you have any idea before all this happened to you that people
could be so good, so decent?
Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah, I did. I did. You know--and really, it's a case of
knowing something for quite some time, and then something happens and you get
to know it at an even deeper and more profound level. I've been fortunate,
you know, in my life to have just been helped and assisted by so many people,
both people I've seen and then people I haven't seen, but I know that, you
know, people have helped me in various ways. And, you know, I've had many,
many examples of this kind of goodness.
Having said that, it didn't diminish in any way the fact that this was
seemingly out of the blue, you know, and very mysterious. I mean, she showed
up and then she was gone, you know.
Mr. SUNDIATA: But you know, I think that that's fundamental in the human
heart, you know. And I think it's probably more common than we may perceive
on a day-to-day basis.
GROSS: It's really lucky and amazing that after breaking your neck, you
didn't end up paralyzed or partially paralyzed. You got your full movement
Mr. SUNDIATA: Yeah. Yeah. Sure. I started--while I was trapped in the car,
first thing I did was wiggle my toes and, you know, try and wiggle my fingers
to see if I had function. Yeah, I was very, very fortunate.
BIANCULLI: Sekou Sundiata speaking to Terry Gross in 2002. He is performing
"Blessing the Boats," his show about his kidney failure and its aftermath, at
New York's Apollo Theater through April 10th.
Coming up, author Marilynne Robinson. I'm David Bianculli and this is FRESH
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Marilynne Robinson discusses her new novel, "Gilead"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli.
Marilynne Robinson's new novel, "Gilead," is a meditation on religion, family,
war and finding meaning in life. Reviewing it in The Washington Post, Michael
Dirda wrote that the novel is `so serenely beautiful and written in prose so
gravely measured and thoughtful that one feels touched with grace just to read
it.' Robinson just won the National Critics Circle Award for "Gilead," and
she was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. This is her first
novel since the publication of her 1981 book, "Housekeeping."
"Gilead" is set in 1956, in the town of Gilead, Iowa. The story is told in
the form of letters written by a 76-year-old Congregationalist minister, who
believes he is near death, revealing the story of his life to his
seven-year-old son. The story encompasses the lives of his father, a
pacifist, and his grandfather, who fought with John Brown and the
abolitionists and lost an eye in the Civil War.
Marilynne Robinson lives in Iowa and teaches at the University of Iowa
Writers' Workshop. She belongs to the Congregationalist Church and is a
former deacon. Terry spoke with Marilynne Robinson last month. They started
with a reading from the beginning of the novel, as the father explains to his
son that he is dying.
Ms. MARILYNNE ROBINSON (Author, "Gilead"): (Reading) I don't know how many
times people have asked me what death is like, sometimes when they were only
an hour or two from finding out for themselves. Even when I was a very young
man, people as old as I am now would ask me, `Hold on to my hands,' and look
into my eyes with their old milky eyes as if they knew I knew when they were
going to make me tell them. I used to say it was like going home. `We have
no home in this world,' I used to say. And then I'd walk back up the road to
this old place and make myself a pot of coffee and a fried egg sandwich and
listen to the radio, when I got one, in the dark, as often as not.
Do you remember this house? I think you must, a little. I grew up in
parsonages. I've lived in this one most of my life, and I've visited in a
good many others because my father's friends and most of our relatives also
lived in parsonages. And when I thought about it in those days, which wasn't
too often, I thought this was the worst of them all, the draftiest and the
dreariest. Well, that was my state of mind at the time. It's a perfectly
good old house, but I was all alone in it then, and that made it seem strange
to me. I didn't feel very much at home in the world; that was a fact. Now I
TERRY GROSS: That's Marilynne Robinson reading from her new novel "Gilead."
Your novel "Gilead" is written in the form of a letter. It's this minister,
John Ames, in his 70s, who believes he is dying, writing a letter to his
seven-year-old son that he hopes his son will read much later in life. And,
you know, a lot of people advise beginning writers, write as if you're writing
a letter home or a letter to your best friend, and that will help capture your
most direct and natural voice. Did writing this novel in the form of a letter
from father to son help in any way?
Ms. ROBINSON: Well, writing a novel is an odd thing. The situation occurred
to me as something that simply I wanted to enter into. I have never myself
particularly liked to read epistolary novels, and I guess that's basically
what this one is. But the given of the novel for me from the beginning was
that he would be in this situation where he's speaking very lovingly to an
adult man whom he will never know, his grown son, and trying to, in effect, be
a father to someone who's much too young to actually remember him as a father
at the time that he imagines he will die.
So I could almost say that I surprised myself. This isn't the kind of form
that I would ever have imagined that I would choose to write in. I felt that
I could do it because I knew the voice of the writer. I felt very strongly
that I knew who this character was, so that it wasn't a problem, but it also
wasn't a resource for me, either.
GROSS: The novel is written--I mean, he's writing this letter to his son in
1956, and he's in his 70s. So it's really--in a way, he's using the language
of another era, and he's also a fairly--I shouldn't use the word `formal'
exactly but, I mean, he's not a frivolous man by any means.
Ms. ROBINSON: No, he's not.
GROSS: So, you know, the language you use very much reflects that, like
instead of calling somebody, you know, nervous or fidgety, you'll write, `He
was the most unreposeful human being I ever knew.' Can you talk a little bit
about the language that seemed to suit the voice of this minister in 1956?
Ms. ROBINSON: Well, one of the things that was characteristic in that
tradition is that they very highly educated people, and one of the things that
they did do was establish many of the colleges that are scattered through the
Middle West, places like Oberlin and Grinnell and Knox College, Carleton
College and so on, very fine little institutions that they established in the
first instance as good liberal arts colleges, which were also on the
Underground Railroad and egalitarian racially and so on, before the Civil War.
There was a very strong intellectual tradition.
And he has this sort of--you know, he has that sort of refinement about him in
the first place. In the second place, he is writing to his son, and as he
says, you know, he wants to give a candid version of his better self, or
something to that effect; in other words, not to be too distant but, on the
other hand, also to present himself in the way that his son can respect, you
GROSS: There's a sermon that he writes in--I think it's 1918. The flu
pandemic is sweeping around the world and killing many people, and the United
States has entered World War I, and a lot of soldiers who were preparing to go
to Europe to fight in that war are dying here of the flu. And he's trying to
think about what to tell the parents who are coming to church. Can you talk a
little bit about what he thinks about telling them and why he decides to
never actually give that sermon?
Ms. ROBINSON: Well, he thinks of telling them that it is God's way of saying
`Don't enter war' and, you know, that if you have the option of doing it,
don't do it. He lets the parents believe that he means that they're being
spared the trenches and the mustard gas of the First World War, but what he
means more profoundly is that God is sparing them the act of killing, which,
from his point of view, of course, is a greater rescue.
GROSS: But he actually never gives that sermon. He burns it.
Ms. ROBINSON: Yes.
GROSS: Why does he burn it?
Ms. ROBINSON: Well, it's a continuous problem, I think, that ministers have
that they're often speaking to people who actually agree with them. He
doesn't have--among the people that come to his church through this pandemic
when many, many things simply close down, there are people who he knows are as
heartbroken about all this death and all this warfare and so on as he is, so
he sees no point in assuming the posture of preaching against something that
he knows that everyone in the room is in grief about already.
GROSS: Your minister, your main character, says, `For me, writing has always
felt like praying, even when I wasn't writing prayers, as I was often enough.'
Is writing like praying for you?
Ms. ROBINSON: I suppose it is. I sometimes think it's more like praying than
praying is, I mean, in the sense that it--you can--you have concrete evidence
of what you have done and what you have shied away from and so on. Very
GROSS: I don't think I quite get it. Tell me more about how, for you, the
process of writing compares to prayer.
Ms. ROBINSON: Well, I think it's a very hard thing to say, perhaps because
people have different ideas and experiences related to prayer. For me, it's a
kind of meditation, and I think that writing certainly is meditative in the
sense that you have to feel that it answers to some standard of truth, however
oblique the relationship of fiction to truth might be in the usual
understanding of it.
BIANCULLI: Marilynne Robinson speaking to Terry Gross last month. We'll hear
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with author Marilynne
Robinson. Her new novel "Gilead" is written in the form of a letter from a
76-year-old Congregationalist minister to his seven-year-old son. The
minister believes he's dying and wants to pass on the story of his life.
GROSS: You know, you're writing from the point of view of a minister, and I
think you get to a lot of interesting things that a minister must experience,
like you write--you're describing a scene in which he's passing a group of
people who are joking around with each other, but as soon as they see him--as
soon as they see the minister, they stop joking. And the minister writes,
`That's the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry.
People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those
very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable
Ms. ROBINSON: Yes, I get a fair amount of mail and e-mail and so on from
ministers and priests, so on. And they confirm this, that on the one hand
they are rather isolated and on the other hand they are on terms of remarkable
intimacy often with people who have not treated them, you know, as people with
whom they were familiar or at ease until confession or until counseling or
whatever, you know.
GROSS: I guess they're treated really differently when someone's alone in the
room with them than in a group.
Ms. ROBINSON: Yes, I think that's very true. And also, when they're
fulfilling the role that they have of helping people to make sense of grief or
crisis or anger, whatever, then of course they have to be privy to remarkable
GROSS: So why do a lot of ministers write to you?
Ms. ROBINSON: I think one of the main reasons is because ministers and
priests are very used to being described in most unflattering terms in
literature, and they're, I think, quite pleased in general to find that I've
made a character who was likable, positive, intelligent, not a hypocrite.
GROSS: Something else about your character, John Ames, the minister--he lost
his young wife and their baby in childbirth, and then he was alone for decades
until, in his 60s, he meets and marries a younger woman with whom he is deeply
in love and she is deeply in love with him. And it's a beautiful marriage;
they have a son, and this is the son who he's writing to and the whole novel
is the letter to his son. But anyways, during those decades when he was
lonely, when he had no wife and had no child, he felt very much on the outside
of life. Do you comprehend that feeling of being on the outside of life,
being set apart?
Ms. ROBINSON: Oh, I suppose I do. Frankly, I don't know what it feels like
to be anyone else, so I don't know how I compare with other people in terms of
my familiarity with that experience. I think that a lot of people spend a lot
of their time feeling as if life is something that sort of goes on around them
because other people's lives always appear perhaps more comprehensible than
their own. I mean, what you see people do seems understandable because you
don't understand their doubt or their anxiety or their duplicity or whatever
else might be a factor in their behavior.
GROSS: Your character confesses that through the long years that he lived
alone, he, quote, "suffered at the spectacle of all marriages, all the
households overflowing with children." And he thinks he's guilty of violating
the Tenth Commandment, the commandment that says, `Thou shalt not covet thy
neighbor's house; neither shalt thou desire his servant nor his handmaiden nor
his ox nor his ass, nor anything that is his.' And he thinks that this Tenth
Commandment is the commandment that there can be no law against--no one can
punish you for coveting, I mean, for being jealous, and you can't hold
yourself accountable to that, too. It's behavior that's impossible for you to
Ms. ROBINSON: Yeah.
GROSS: It's hard to change. It's hard to change those kinds of desires. I
found that section really interesting. And he goes on to say that he, as a
minister, has often found it difficult to rejoice with those who rejoice, as
the Bible says, and he's often been much better at weeping with those who
Ms. ROBINSON: Yes.
GROSS: I think that's true of so many people, that it's so--it's sometimes--I
mean, that's--this is like the whole Schadenfreude thing, that it's sometimes
hard to feel other people's joy and it's sometimes easier to weep with those
who weep. But I thought you captured it in a really beautiful way, and I was
wondering if you could talk about that a little bit.
Ms. ROBINSON: Well, I think that the fact of his feeling jealousy in ways
that he really can't control, or can't rationalize himself out of, so that
really the only recourse that he has is more or less to isolate himself when
he can from these spectacles of happiness that he feels excluded from. I
think that that's important to him in a positive way because he is a
Calvinist; that is his tradition. And one of the things that that tradition
teaches is that everyone is wrong, everyone is flawed, and that the idea that
anyone is in a position to judge someone else is a grave error. And his
character, of course, is of a kind to make him scrupulous about things like
this. But at the same time, I think that his compassion can arise in a great
part from the suffering that he feels as someone who cannot help but envy,
cannot help but desire.
GROSS: You've written about John Calvin and Calvinism, and in your novel the
minister says, `Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage
and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me because it
makes us artists of our own behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be
thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental.' What do you mean by
Ms. ROBINSON: Yeah. Well, if you think `Why did God create the world, how
does he love the world, what in the world'--if you imagine him, you know,
through the lens of Christ, `What in the world breaks his heart?,' it seems to
me as if it's the sort of irreducible beauty and pathos of human beings and
their capacity for love and their capacity for loyalty and all the rest, that
that is simply beautiful even though, in many forms, it is in error, it is
possibly destructive and so on. I think that again Calvin would say if we
were actually, you know--or as Hamlet said, you know, `Who would 'scape
whipping?' you know. If we were judged on moral terms, we wouldn't perhaps be
worth attracting the notice of God in the way that theology assumes that we
do; that it's the beauty of us, and not the goodness of us, finally.
GROSS: So is this almost like a discipline for you to try to focus on that
beauty instead of judging people and to find beauty even in tragedy or
Ms. ROBINSON: Yes. Yes, I think that's probably fair to say.
GROSS: Are you good at that? Do you succeed very often?
Ms. ROBINSON: Not the easiest thing in the world, you know, but that makes it
GROSS: I imagine you've read the Bible, you know, pretty carefully, as
somebody who's interested in religion and the history of religion and as
someone who's a writer and just as interested in language. Now
fundamentalists believe that the Bible is a literal truth and that it's, you
know, inerring in its accuracy. As a writer who works so much with metaphor
and with implied meaning, I just wonder what your reaction is to a
fundamentalist reading of the Bible.
Ms. ROBINSON: Well, I often wonder--I listen to, you know, the self-declared
religious people in the culture, and it seems to me as if they're obsessed
with certain passages, two, three, four, to the exclusion of the rest of the
literature, you know. I'm struck by how seldom the Sermon on the Mount seems
to be alluded to, for example. I think that if you are a scholar of the
tradition, you become very aware that the great interpreters are also aware of
the great complexity of interpretation, people like Calvin and Luther, both of
whom made translations of the Bible, Calvin into Latin, but Luther into
German, of course. If you read the commentaries, they know that a word can
mean several things and that in many instances there's no way in the text to
make a definitive translation and that it has to be understood as something
that finally the reader determines and so on.
The `sola scriptura' standard that is so often invoked as if it meant some
sort of, you know, free-form free association, actually comes from the fact
that it's a complex ancient literature that people with the best knowledge in
the world struggle to translate. And therefore, the individual reader is
highly responsible for the interpretation of many things that are crucial to
GROSS: Well, Marilynne Robinson, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. ROBINSON: Pleasure.
BIANCULLI: Marilynne Robinson speaking to Terry Gross last month. Robinson
just won the National Critics Circle Award for her novel "Gilead," and she's a
finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction.
Coming up, a review of "Oldboy," a new film from South Korea. This is FRESH
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Review: Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Cannes Film
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival was a
revenge thriller from South Korea called "Oldboy." It's been described as the
Quentin Tarantino movie that Tarantino would be afraid to make. "Oldboy"
opens in New York and LA this week and wider next month. Film critic David
Edelstein has a review.
Vengeance dominates our modern action cinema in which injured men and women
not only have license to kill but to smile while doing so. My response to
movie revenge sagas is double-edged. I like them good and brutal, but feel a
little soiled by the blood lust they engender. To be a work of art, a
vengeance movie needs to give you something more than your jollies. It needs
to show the cost of revenge to society, which can't survive if injustice goes
unpunished, but also can't survive if individuals take justice into their own
I have my great vengeance director now in Park Chan-wook, a 41-year-old South
Korean filmmaker whose movie, "Oldboy," won the Grand Jury Prize at last
year's Cannes Film Festival. Park understands the Western obsession with an
eye for an eye, or an eye and a nose and some teeth for an eye. But he also
imbues his Punch-and-Judy bloodbaths with a morbid Eastern detachment. Park's
last film, "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," is one of the most twisted and
disturbing I've seen. It builds to a scenario in which parallel revengers
wreak havoc on each other's lives. Neither is in the wrong, exactly, but
there's no jolt of triumph, just a bloody mess and a tragic sense of waste.
And now there's "Oldboy," with a simpler narrative architecture, but even
twistier morals. Park opens with a rousing prologue in which a mop-headed man
with dark eyes dangles another man off a roof by his tie. Before we have the
faintest idea what's going on, we meet Oh Dae-su, an ordinary Seoul
businessman in the throes of an epic bender on his young daughter's birthday.
The jump cuts, as he raves in the police station, capture his fractured
perception and portend the horrors to come.
Released, Oh Dae-su staggers into the rainy night, phones his daughter and
then disappears, ending up in another prison, a private one, where his food is
shoved through a hole in a door and sleeping gas pours in through vents. In
his locked room, Oh Dae-su learns from a TV set that his wife has been
murdered and that his blood and hair were found at the scene. He's been
framed, but by who? He slices into his arm to mark each passing year, and
there are 15 slices before he wakes to find himself on that roof, holding that
man by the tie.
Choi Min-sik is a riveting actor with deep black plaintive eyes. His Oh
Dae-su is part revenger, part robot. As he sets out to find out who locked
him up and, more important, why, it's clear that his tormentor is beside him
every step of the way, controlling him, addicted to watching him suffer. Is
Oh Dae-su the revenger, or is the revenger his one-time captor? To reveal
more would rob you of the disorientation that "Oldboy" instills,
disorientation and vertigo and nausea like a switchback ride into a swamp of
The central relationship between Oh Dae-su and a lovely young woman named
Mi-do is tender and nuanced, but the violence everywhere else is sadistic and
extreme. Even the meals approach the theater of cruelty. After Oh Dae-su
demands something living at a sushi bar, he proceeds to consume a live octopus
before our eyes, then wretches and passes out.
Obviously, this sort of taboo-flouting imagery isn't for everyone, but Park's
vision is all of a piece. He came of age in a period of South Korean
upheaval. And in his work, there's a pervasive distrust of authority combined
with a pervasive lack of faith in individuals, most of whom are warped by
their out-of-whack society.
"Oldboy" is a movie where you think you're in hell from the first frame, but
have no inkling of the infernal circles to come. You're left thinking, `The
only thing worse than not avenging injustice is avenging injustice.'
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.
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BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.