TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Elif Batuman, is an author and staff writer for The New Yorker who has covered subjects ranging from whether she should wear a headscarf in Turkey to what fears and desires the ghosts in "Ghostbusters" represent. Her new novel, "The Idiot," which takes its title from the Dostoyevsky novel, draws on her own experiences in the mid-1990s when she was a freshman in college trying to navigate academia while figuring out her own identity. It's also the time that email started really catching on. The main character, Selin, develops a romantic relationship through email with someone she has difficulty connecting with in person.
The main character, like Batuman, is the child of Turkish immigrants. Batuman's parents met in med school in Turkey and became professors and researchers in the U.S. "The Idiot" was originally going to be set in 2010 with flashbacks to the mid-'90s. But then Batuman went back and read the unpublished manuscript of her first novel, which was set in the mid-'90s, and decided the flashback part of "The Idiot" should be the main part of the story. So she drew heavily from that unpublished novel.
Elif Batuman, welcome to FRESH AIR. So this book is adapted from a book you wrote - how many years ago?
ELIF BATUMAN: Sixteen, 17 years ago.
GROSS: Whoa, and you were in your...
BATUMAN: It's been a while.
GROSS: And you were in your 20s when you wrote that first book. So you reread it and thought, like, yeah, that's really OK? Or you reread it and thought, well...
BATUMAN: Oh, I reread it and I thought, this is, like, horribly embarrassing and every moment of it is painful and I want to melt into the floor.
GROSS: OK, that's what (laughter) - that's more of what I would have expected. And in spite of that, you said, and I'm going to work with it and redo it?
BATUMAN: Yeah, because - it's kind of because I had gotten into such a knot with the book that I was working on that it was kind of like desperate times call for desperate measures. And then it was also like when I really got into the book that I'd written when I was younger, like, a lot of it was very embarrassing. But it's funny, I remembered when I wrote it - so I wrote it when I was about 22, 23, about the time when I was 18, 19. And at that time, I was really kind of embarrassed and ashamed of how dumb I was when I was 18 and 19. And so the book was full of all this stuff like, when we're younger we're so foolish, and then when we get older we realize - like, written from this perspective of great wisdom of a 23-year-old person. Which, of course, sounded ridiculous when I read it in my late 30s.
So first of all, that manuscript was much easier to improve than what I was working on because there was so much room for improvement and so much just obviously horrible stuff to cut out. And then I found that the stuff that I'd been really embarrassed of at the time when I was in my early 20s, which was the - just the kind of visceral descriptions of awkwardness and not knowing anything and just this feeling of scriptlessness (ph) that one has when one's younger, that was really moving to me. And it was something that I'd forgotten about in the intervening years.
GROSS: So the book is set when the main character, Selin, is a freshman in college. And she's with a new group of people. She's kind of different from the people around her because she's of Turkish descent. Her parents are immigrants from Turkey, as yours are. And among the new things in her life is email, which she's kind of just discovered. And she, you know, develops this whole email relationship with someone who she falls in love with through email. But email seems like this extraordinary new thing to her. And it is relatively new at the time. I'd like you to read a paragraph from the early pages of the book about what email is to her.
BATUMAN: (Reading) In so far as I'd had any idea about it at all, I had imagined that email would resemble faxing and would involve a printer. But there was no printer. There was another world. You could access it from certain computers, which were scattered throughout the ordinary landscape and looked no different from regular computers. Always there, unchanged, in a configuration nobody else could see was a glowing list of messages from all the people you knew and from people you didn't know, all in the same letters, like the universal handwriting of thought or of the world. Some messages were formally epistolary, with dear and sincerely, others telegraphic, all in lower case with missing punctuation, like they were being beamed straight from people's brains.
And each message contained the one that had come before, so your own words came back to you. All the words you threw out, they came back. It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with other lives was constantly being recorded and updated and you could check it at any time.
GROSS: You know, I never really thought of the significance of that in email, that in the thread you're always seeing what you'd written. It's coming back to you (laughter). Does that make you self-conscious as a writer?
BATUMAN: I guess now it does. But at that time - so I really did get email for the first time my first year of college. And before that, I was a big letter writer, like, even to passing acquaintances (laughter) who I didn't know that well and hadn't liked that much in person. I would get really excited about writing letters. And it was always this kind of, like, melancholy undertaking because I would put all of this time and effort into the letters and then I would never see them again. And it was this feeling of having written all this stuff and it was gone away and lost forever. So I actually kind of enjoyed and appreciated having this archive of my whole conversation with the person there where I could look at it later.
GROSS: So in all the time you spent writing this novel, thinking about your first year in college and everything that was new to you then and all of the emotions you were trying to process, what are some of the things that struck you, looking back, about your own naivete and vulnerability then?
BATUMAN: Well, one of the things that really struck me was how the person in the book is someone who hasn't really understood the nature of conversational formulas yet. It's like she hasn't heard them. So, like, she goes to a job interview and they're like, what do we miss out if we don't hire you, which is, like, a very standard job interview question. But she's never heard it before. And she's like, what a perverse thing to ask. Like, how could I possibly answer that?
And she's trying to, like, answer everything in the spirit that it's uttered in, which is actually not the spirit it's uttered in because people are saying things because they have to say things. Not everything that everyone says is a 100 percent pure manifestation of something in their soul. In fact, very few of the things that people say are a 100 percent pure manifestation of what's in their soul, which is how Selin really wants it to be and how she aspires to be. So she's tongue-tied a lot of the time.
GROSS: When you're meeting new people in college, one of the first things you have to do each time you meet somebody is tell them your name, which in your case must have been a real conversation starter (laughter) because you have a Turkish name. It's Elif Batuman. And...
GROSS: ...I don't know that most Americans have ever heard anybody named Elif before, spelled E-L-I-F. So what was usually step number two after saying, yeah, my name's Elif?
BATUMAN: Well, for a while I thought it was - people would ask me to spell it and then I would say, it's file backwards, which was something I discovered in middle school and was...
GROSS: OK, I have to stop you right there (laughter).
BATUMAN: Yeah (laughter).
GROSS: Last night, in the middle of the night...
GROSS: ...I woke up and I said, wow, Elif's name backwards is life. If you spell Elif's name backwards, it spells life. Wow, I have to ask her about that in the morning. I woke up in the morning and I said, no, it spells file. What were you thinking?
BATUMAN: Oh, there's something very - it's so - like, the life of a writer, you think that you have, like, all of life and what you have is this file that's, like...
GROSS: But - OK, so anyway, so you'd spell it for them. You'd say it's file backwards. And then they'd probably say, what does that mean? Where is it from? Why are you named that?
BATUMAN: Yeah. And I don't know, in later life I got kind of more down with that and more down to talk about the meaning of the name. It's from the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. So it's like aleph alpha. It's written as a straight line. So Elifs are supposed to be tall or thin or straightforward or, you know, any number of things like that. There was a time in my life when I would get very - not put upon, exactly, but the minute that someone would ask me that, I would feel this kind of, like, bad feeling. Like, oh, now I'm going to have to do some extra work and it's not fair.
And then that somehow went away in more recent years, I guess, when I got a wider perspective of the world and learned more about the different issues that different people have, and how it's pretty much something for everyone. And this one's not that bad.
GROSS: So when you told people in college...
GROSS: ...That your parents were from Turkey, did anybody know anything about Turkey then and how does that compare to knowledge or preconceptions about being Turkish now?
BATUMAN: Oh, that's interesting. Well, with adults then, they had usually gone to Turkey on some kind of a visit, and they would know how to say some - more or less offensive - often how much does it cost? They would be like I know how to speak Turkish how much does it cost? I'd be like that's great. Great job. The thing that really surprised me when I was in college and told people I was Turkish was I didn't have a very robust knowledge of Ottoman history, but a lot of my closest friends were from - as in the book kind of the two main friend characters. One is Hungarian, and the other is Serbian. She's from former Yugoslavia.
And I did have friends from those countries, and they immediately were full of all kinds of just horrible stories about the Turks about how their ancestors had been impaled by Turks, and the Turks had occupied their countries for hundreds of years. And I'd never heard those things before. And I like - almost a part of me was like if this was true, I would have heard about it before. Like I - like it wasn't like I didn't believe them, but it just - it didn't - and then, you know, of course, I read all those things. And those occupations were true.
But it did kind of hold back my friendships with people. One person who I write about in my other book "The Possessed" - this is in graduate school - but he was Croatian. And it was this guy who I was actually really in love with, and at some point he was like, you know, I don't think things are going to work because, like, when I was a kid, I had to read a book that had, like, a crescent dripping blood on the cover that said like "The Bloody Crescent Menace," and it was about Turkey. Like, this has been a real obstacle for me to get past.
And I guess I hadn't really thought about those, like, nationalistic narratives being something that get in people - because I sort of grew up with that because my parents were really - they were kind of done with that. They were from like a generation and a group that was just sort of done with national identity. I think part of the reason I would be a little - feel a little almost put upon when people ask me about my name was because I saw my mother react that way. I remember people saying, you know, oh, what kind of name is that? And she would be like I really don't see how that matters.
So I did kind of feel like I didn't really see how it mattered. And then it was strange to me to see people my age still carrying around these centuries-old, and as I learned, bitterly all too real national narratives with them.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Elif Batuman. She's a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the new novel "The Idiot." We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is writer Elif Batuman. She's a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the new novel "The Idiot" which is semi-autobiographical and set in the mid-'90s when the main character is a freshman in college and is kind of naive about a lot of things and very uncomfortable in the world and has this kind of love correspondence through email with somebody who she is - has quite a crush on.
So you wrote a New Yorker piece about having to decide whether to wear a headscarf when you were in Turkey. And the head scarf in Turkey has a very interesting history because when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk became the head of the New Republic after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the mid-'20s, he secularized Turkey. And actually, I think he made it illegal to wear - for a woman to wear a headscarf in public because he wanted to make it more Western and more secular.
And now Turkey is much more of an Islamic state. It has an authoritarian ruler and things were becoming more authoritarian when you were living there from 2010 to 2013. But it was not required for a woman to wear a headscarf, nor was it illegal for her to wear a headscarf. My impression is most women were probably wearing headscarves. So how did you initially decide not to wear a headscarf?
BATUMAN: Well, I was based at that time in Istanbul where it's not the case that most women were wearing headscarves at the university where I was teaching, almost nobody neither the faculty nor the students. It was very divided depending on what neighborhood you went to. You would see either everyone wearing a headscarf or nobody wearing a headscarf. And in the very cosmopolitan center of the city, you would see both groups mixed almost equally or on the subway, you would see both groups mixed almost equally.
Of course, in that kind of a setting, it wouldn't occur to me to wear a headscarf because I'm not religious. My family is not only not religious, but my parents are both - they're secularists. My father is actually an atheist and feels very strongly about it. My family is very feminist, and they consider that Islam is not a super feminist religion, which I know people can argue about. But that's - anyway that's how I was brought up, so it would be odd for me to suddenly just up and start wearing a headscarf. It would just be very peculiar.
The time when I thought about wearing a headscarf was when I was reporting a story in Urfa in the - kind of in the southeast of Turkey. It was a - it was an archaeology story about a Neolithic temple that was discovered. So the temple was a little bit outside the city of Urfa, but Urfa is a pilgrimage site for Turkish Muslims. It's a stop on the Hajj, and I think maybe less so now, but at that time, it was quite a conservative city. And a lot of the women were wearing headscarves.
And the major site in the - in Urfa was this complex - this actually very beautiful complex of gardens and mosques associated with Abraham. And in holy sites in Turkey, women do cover their heads, even secular women. If you don't have a headscarf, they give you one there. So I had one that I would carry in my bag, and so I would put it on when I went to, you know, when I went to those parks to walk around, I would put it on sort of out of respect and because I wasn't 100 percent sure where what parts of the ground you had to wear it and what parts of the grounds you didn't have to wear it.
And then one day I left it on. I just kind of forgot to take it off, and I left the park. And I, you know - like I took a bus and I walked down the street and just my experience was just completely different. It felt like - I once remember from my childhood there was, like, an Eddie Murphy skit where he's like - he's white, and he gets to like be on the bus and see how the white people act when the last black person leaves. Like, it was just like I saw a whole different part of human nature when I was wearing this. People were so much nicer to me. They, like, held doors for me and like called me sister.
And I didn't get any dirty looks, and people didn't, like, I don't know - and then it made me think, like, what am I trying to prove by not wearing a headscarf because to me it stands for a certain series of ideas that I don't approve of.
GROSS: Well, let's hold it right there. What are the series of ideas that the headscarf represent to you?
BATUMAN: Well, the headscarf is - I mean, it's based on this idea of a woman's modesty. And because men don't have to wear it, I feel like headscarves are something that are sort of used to make men's sexuality women's problem. I've been told by religious Muslims - I know this isn't necessarily a, you know, majority Muslim view, but I've been told more than once, you know, people complain about rape, but actually the people who get raped are women who don't wear headscarves. If you were to wear a headscarf, it wouldn't send the wrong message. Like, I've gotten kind of coded rape threats from like, I don't know, a taxi driver or just, you know, someone who...
GROSS: In Turkey? This was in Turkey?
BATUMAN: In Turkey, yeah, in Turkey. And...
GROSS: Like if I do something inappropriate, it's your fault because you're not wearing a headscarf.
BATUMAN: Yeah. And that just seems so unfair and - yeah. And just a lot of the culture of separating the genders just seems to be to make men more comfortable. There is like, you know, women will sit somewhere else. Women pray somewhere else. I just - I don't know. And it's so complicated 'cause I know people have such strong feelings about it. And I have such strong feelings about it.
And I've noticed that whenever I try to read anything about the subject, I'm just kind of like reading from sentence to sentence and dread waiting for them to kind of like disclose their position. And if it's not the one I have, I just feel like someone hit me. Like I feel like this physical pain, like someone's telling me wear this thing and go sit in this box and think about what you've done. And I know that the people on the other side must feel the same way about what the secularists say. You know, they must hear take off your thing and, you know, like those horrible pictures of the women on the beach having their burkinis removed by - I mean, it's obscene.
So yeah. It's very difficult to talk about and think about. But anyway, so the thought that I had in Urfa was what am I trying to show by going without a headscarf given that the people who see me without the headscarf have a completely different interpretation? Like, they don't know my ideas. They just know, oh, this is a person who is here and doesn't respect the way that we do things enough to, like, put this thing on her head.
Like it - and then it was funny because actually after I wrote that piece in The New Yorker, my mother read it. And I think of my mother as such a, like, a proud secularist person. And she's a scientist. And her mother studied literature. And I'm just so proud of her and of her mother. And she was like, I can't believe I didn't tell you to just wear a headscarf in Urfa.
BATUMAN: And I was like, really? And she was like, of course. It's just - it's a common politeness. It's - they're people from the countryside. When you go there, of course you wear a hat. It's just a nice thing to do. And for her it was this thing about, like, niceness. And it wasn't this, like, anguished political thing that I'd been making it into.
GROSS: My guest is Elif Batuman. Her new novel is called "The Idiot." We'll talk more after a break. Also, writer Daniel Torday will reflect on what it means when a cemetery is vandalized like the Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia, where he lives. And Milo Miles will review a new album he likes a lot from Sxip Shirey. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Elif Batuman, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the new novel "The Idiot." It draws on her experiences when she was a college freshman in the mid-'90s. The main character, like Batuman, is the child of Turkish immigrants. Batuman's parents are secular. Her father is an atheist.
So were you brought up with religion at all?
BATUMAN: No. I was told that many people are religious, and that it's important to be respectful and polite. And if someone invites you to go to the place where they practice their religion, it's fine to go and be respectful. But that actually, the most important thing is to be a good person. And that a lot of people think that you need God to help you be a good person. Or God is basically something that people invented to help them be good for various reasons because maybe they're going to go to heaven or God is going to like them better or that's just the way that God is. And they were like, that's actually a wonderful thing. It helps people be good. But you don't need it. You can actually just be good without God for its own sake. And that's actually more direct. And in some way - in some way, I don't know if they said that, but I - in some way more courageous to just do it for its own sake. And that was the view of religion that I had growing up.
GROSS: So did you have friends who invited you to their place of worship? And did you end up going to different places and exposing yourself to that?
BATUMAN: Oh, I did. Yeah. I remember I had a friend who was from El Salvador, and she had a communion and I went to her first communion. And it was such a exotic experience with all those girls in their white dresses and the whole idea of the communion. And afterwards, they gave us as party favors these little beautiful El Salvadorian crosses with flowers and doves on them. And I took it home and I hung it on - in the kitchen because I thought it looked nice there. And I remember my mother was like, oh, that's pretty. And then my father was like, why do we have an instrument of torture hanging in our kitchen? And then I put it in my room. But nobody told me not to have it in my room or anything.
GROSS: Did you ever envy people who had religion and ceremony?
BATUMAN: I didn't when I was a kid. I did a little bit later. I - when I was a kid, it was - the Cold War was winding down and it was the - then it was the end of history. And I don't know, I thought all of these divisions between nations were going to be erased. And I don't know, all of the - all of the messages from the books that they made us read, like "The Sneetches" and "Animal Farm," like, all of that - those - that kind of simple-minded message would finally reach all of the adults and everyone would get along and these divisions wouldn't exist anymore. And then - and I had kind of, like, a rosy view of America and the freedoms that I thought we had.
And then I grew up and saw not only identity politics, but also all the ways that - I don't know, I grew up thinking that feminism was kind of, like, over. I thought women had gotten equality and it was done. And I thought people who are still talking about feminism were, like - they should just get over it and just go - just be better than men and then you'll succeed. That was what I thought for a really long time. And then when I kind of realized how atomizing and in a lot of ways unhappy life in advanced capitalist neo-liberal America is for people, then I did kind of envy religious - people who had religion and people who had that kind of community.
Also, actually, when I wrote my first book, "The Possessed," which was about - it was about Russian literature. A friend of mine read that book. And he grew up very Jewish, in an Orthodox Jewish family. And he was like, when I read this book, I knew it was written by someone who was a very religious person. And I was like, that's bonkers. Like, I'm not religious at all. That's the opposite of who I am. But then when I thought about it, really, what I was looking for in those Russian novels really was the kind of thing that people look for in religious books, which is a way to make meaning out of the world, a way to find community, a way to have continuity with history. So I guess in recent years, I've realized that I guess like everyone or like most people, I do have religious instincts. And yeah, I guess they come out in different ways.
GROSS: So in your novel, the main character, the young woman who's just starting college, gets into this email correspondence with somebody who she develops this major crush on who is a slightly older math graduate student.
BATUMAN: He's an undergrad, but he's a senior and she's a freshman.
GROSS: OK, thanks for the correction. And so they know each other. They've been in a class together. But they correspond mostly through email. Did you have a correspondence like that, somebody with whom you really grew close not in a shared space but through email?
BATUMAN: Yeah. Not exactly like in the book, but yeah, I did have relationships like that, for sure.
GROSS: And was that intentionally through email? Or was it just that you were living at a distance and therefore it was the only way you could communicate?
BATUMAN: Oh, no, with people who were at the same college. So I could have literally gone over and knocked on their door. But we were all - I mean, I don't know, like, Harvard freshmen in general, it's not the most socially well-adapted group of people. And then suddenly you're given this way to - and then people who want to be writers or even worse - like, nobody becomes a writer because they love going up to people and talking in a super articulate, spontaneous way. So the idea that you could just reach someone in this private, password-protected way by writing to them but it still had the immediacy of kind of going up to them was just incredibly attractive, I think, not only for me, but for a lot of people. So I imagine that this kind of thing happened to other people, too.
GROSS: In your novel, there's a professor who explains to the main character that there's a difference between academic writing and creative writing. Did you have a professor who explained that to you? And what was the difference that was described?
BATUMAN: I can really remember in graduate school - I first started writing for The New Yorker when I was still in graduate school. And then I was writing my dissertation. And I remember one of my professors not liking one of my chapters. He thought it wasn't rigorously argued enough. And he was, like, oh, now I suppose that we're all writing for The New Yorker now or something.
And then I graduated and I had a job actually teaching something called academic writing at Stanford. It was for students who were doing these interdisciplinary theses. Anyway, so I was doing that, and the title of the class was academic writing. And I told my editor at The New Yorker, and he was like, oh, how interesting. So I suppose you must take their clear, lucid, accessible writing, throw in a bit of jargon and make it completely incomprehensible. So I was, like, really getting it from the - from both sides at that point. Whereas to me...
GROSS: Go ahead.
BATUMAN: Well, I mean, there was a lot of exasperation about academic writing and how needlessly obscure it was from nonacademic people. And then there was this idea of nonacademic writing as, you know, dumbed down and facile and sort of, like, clickbaity (ph) from academic people. Which I found extremely unpleasant because I - you know, I wanted to write things that people would actually read, which is not the case with a lot of - it's the case with some academic writing, but not a lot of it. But I also wanted to write about - you know, I wanted to write about Russian novels, which was something that people who weren't academic were not doing so much at that time. So I did sort of feel trapped in between those two things.
GROSS: So in your novel, the main character's having this kind of affair through email with somebody who she has a crush on. And at some point she says to him - she's very angry with him. And she says, I called Ivan the worst thing I could think of. I called him a movie director.
GROSS: Why would that be the worst thing that she could think of?
BATUMAN: Well, I guess that was kind of a joke. But it also was true because she was, I mean, it kind of goes along with this whole idea of the aesthetic life. Like, some part of her is like, wait, was everything that you're doing some kind of like a trick, like you're just setting everything up and, I don't know, making everyone stand in a certain place? Like, the reason that she's really mad at him when she writes that is because, oh, well, I don't really want to spoil the plot. Well...
GROSS: No, but I will say it's probably a question of, like, her thinking that she sees - that he sees her as just a character in his story, as opposed to somebody who...
BATUMAN: Yeah, exactly. That's exactly what it is.
GROSS: ...Has her own story and her own life and, you know, that they're equals, that they both have their own story. And sometimes their stories overlap. She's not...
BATUMAN: Yeah. That's so true.
GROSS: ...Just his character, his creation.
BATUMAN: Yeah. She feels like he's manipulating her and the other people in his life to make some story that's all about him. And she's actually really sensitive to that. And that's something that I wanted to get at in the book more broadly was the feeling that she's someone who it's so important for her to see herself as a character in a story and to see her life as some kind of narrative. And this relationship with this guy over email really lets her have that. And it turns into this story. And she wants to find out what happens next. And then at a certain point, when that story doesn't work anymore or it doesn't go the way that she thinks it's going to go, she's left without a story.
Which is like an actual feeling that I had and still have at times. It's just the worst thing in the world for the kind of person who needs to see their life as a story. Just not having that is this feeling of falling out of narrative. That's something that I really wanted to get across. And that it can happen in a - in love relationships especially you can feel like the narrative is something that was there and you had it together. And then the person took it and went away with it. And now they have it. And you're just falling through space.
GROSS: So do you still feel like you're a character in a larger story? Do you still feel like you need a larger narrative to feel alive or to feel like a sense of identity?
BATUMAN: Alas, I think that's one of the conditions that gets worse rather than better with age. I think I'm more and more dependent on stories. Although as one gets older, one has a little bit more control.
GROSS: So who are you in the narrative of your life?
BATUMAN: I guess just the idea of having a narrative in life always makes me think of "Don Quixote," who's someone - so that's like really the first - arguably the first novel ever. And it's about this guy who loves these books about knights so much. And he sees himself as a knight so much. And he's just so determined to see himself that way and to live his life that way that he goes out in the world and tries to do it. And things just don't match up. Like he goes and he's like, I'm going to kill a giant because that's what happens to every single knight in every single story. There's no way I'm not going to meet a giant. It's definitely going to happen. And then he doesn't 'cause there's no giants. And sees a windmill. And then he breaks the windmill, you know. And then maybe the guy who owns the windmill is angry at him.
Like - it's like an endless machine for material that comes out of the intersection of the story that you have about yourself and the world. So I guess in my own story about myself, not to get too meta, but I do see myself as a sort of Don Quixote-like character who's always bringing these, like, preconceived more or less romantic stories and then observing the comic disjunctures between what actually happens and my idea of it.
GROSS: Elif Batuman, thank you so much for talking with us.
BATUMAN: Thank you. It's been such a pleasure.
GROSS: Elif Batuman is a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the new novel "The Idiot." After we take a short break, writer Daniel Torday will reflect on the recent vandalizing of a Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia, where he lives. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. When writer Daniel Torday heard that a Jewish cemetery in his city, Philadelphia, had been vandalized, it brought back memories of his trips visiting Jewish cemeteries in Europe, especially the family graveyard in Hungary. Torday was a guest on FRESH AIR when his novel "The Last Flight Of Poxl West" was published. He teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr College. Here's his reflections about the vandalizing of cemeteries.
DANIEL TORDAY: One morning in early March, I got into my car and drove to see the Mount Carmel Jewish Cemetery in northeast Philadelphia. The graveyard is 20 minutes from my house. It's filled with the remains of Jewish Philadelphians, the majority of them from the 19th century. Though authorities couldn't be sure exactly when, more than a hundred of its gravestones had been overturned by vandals sometime late the previous months.
Last month, a similar desecration of a Jewish graveyard took place in St. Louis. For the first 38 years of my life, if I wanted to see a dramatically desecrated Jewish cemetery, I had to fly to Eastern Europe. And like many Jews of my generation, I did - to Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary. As I was driving home from Mount Carmel that morning, it occurred to me that a surprising number of trips I took in my young life included visits to Jewish cemeteries.
In 1990, when I was 12, my parents took me to Budapest. My father was born there. We drove 60 kilometers north to Gyongyos, the small city where my grandfather grew up. On the outskirts of town, we found a walled graveyard. My father boosted me over the walls and into grasses that rose above my head. We picked our way over beer bottles and cigarette butts. On headstones throughout the place, we saw graffiti, the painful evidence of kids who'd come to hang out there, defacing graves and drinking. Under the weeds, we found the names of my great grandparents, who had been deported to death camps. My father explained that my great grandparents' bodies weren't actually buried there. They'd never been recovered. The family had put these markers up to commemorate their lives, to consecrate them. Their bodies were not what was sacred. The stones we put up to remember them were.
Now they were covered in weeds. Those headstones had been desecrated by a mix of animosity, lack of attention and time and by the fact that there were no Jews left there. The opposite of desecration is consecration, the act of making something sacred. It is a thing we do ourselves. We choose to give holiness and sanctity to our dead. And making the resting place as sacred, we lend them meaning. I've been wondering what it means when people vandalize a cemetery whether it is in Philadelphia or in Eastern Europe.
Two years ago, the cemetery in Gyongyos was vandalized so badly it drew international attention. Vandals smashed headstones and scattered the remains of disinterred bodies. Of course, those remains couldn't have belonged to my great grandparents. Maybe some of them were the remains of my fathers' aunts and uncles. I've not been back to witness the damage myself. Hungary has been suffering a wave of right-wing nationalism of a variety they haven't seen since World War II. We've seen our own brand of right-wing nationalism lately ourselves.
The morning I went to see Mount Carmel Cemetery, I was overcome by a familiar feeling, one I'd had in Hungary at that graveyard. Now I was feeling it in the city where I live in 2017. That morning, I joined a group of volunteers who were helping clean up. It was early March, but it had hardly snowed all winter. People raked leaves that should have decomposed by now. There wasn't a reliable record of the graves in Mount Carmel, and people had been calling wondering if their relatives' headstones had been vandalized. Someone explained we would not be working to write the headstones. One look at them made clear they would be too heavy to lift.
Substantial funds had been collected to have them repaired by professionals. Headstones they toppled, some so weathered you could barely make out writing. Others were etched in dark Hebrew. Some were over 100 years old, but others were new, polished. It must have taken some force and time to knock them over. They looked like ruins, like walking through Stonehenge. Ruin is a forceful word, equally implying its noun and verb forms like the being half of human being. I got back into my car and made a U-turn.
As I passed Mount Carmel, I noticed something. In every direction at the crossroads where the Jewish cemetery sat were other cemeteries. To my right was a sign for North Cedar Hill. On the other side of the intersection were East Cedar Hill and Cedar Hill. I discovered they, too, are filled mostly with 19th-Century Philadelphians. All of them are Christian. That cemetery hadn't been vandalized. I put my eyes to the road and headed home with Mount Carmel on my left and the North Cedar Hill Cemetery on my right. I was at the crossroads dividing them. I turned right.
The headstones in the Cedar Hill Cemetery had not been disturbed, but I still had to wonder if in some way, they hadn't been left violated by what happened across the street.
GROSS: Daniel Torday is a novelist living in Philadelphia. His novel "The Last Flight Of Poxl West" was the winner of the 2015 National Jewish Book Award for fiction. He teaches at Bryn Mawr College. After we take a short break, Milo Miles has an album to recommend by Sxip Shirey. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Music critic Milo Miles has a review of a new album by Sxip Shirey, a performer he calls both eclectic and original. Milo says Shirey's new album mixes experimental and playful music styles in songs that tell stories about an inventive cast of characters.
MILO MILES, BYLINE: Everything about Sxip Shirey's "A Bottle Of Whiskey And A Handful Of Bees" indicates it's a 21st century music creation. It was funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign. Individual parts of tracks were recorded in Australia, London and Nashville, among other places, and then assembled. And it's not out of place for a credit to read ice cube organ built from sample of ice cubes in wineglasses.
(SOUNDBITE OF SXIP SHIREY'S "LATENCY - JETLAG")
MILES: Cleverly dry vocalist Shirey is also quite the multi-instrumentalist, including keyboards, melodic and clarinet, guitar and harmonica. All this range plus his penchant for quirky sound electronics can result in instrumentals that are no more than brainy novelties, a problem I heard on his earlier releases. This time, Shirey gets brighter sound with the help of multi-instrumentalist and co-producer Don Godwin. And by adding fresh guest vocals and bolder, brasher beats to "A Bottle Of Whiskey And A Handful Of Bees," Shirey can get effects he only hinted at before, such as the mix of ancient Appalachia and today's urban trysts in "I Gotta Man," featuring Minneapolis rapper Xavier.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOTTA MAN")
XAVIER: (Singing) I got a man. I got a man, got a man. Mm-hm, mm-hm. Run away, run away, run away with me, oh, oh, oh. Run away, run away, run away with me, oh, oh, oh. I will love you in the way that we both know so well, and you can tell me all those secret things you never tell. Never, never, never, never, never, never tell, never, never, never, ever, never, ever tell. Don't tell. Don't tell. Don't tell. Won't tell. Won't tell. Won't tell that I got a man (ph).
MILES: A key to "A Bottle Of Whiskey And A Handful Of Bees" is that it was composed over a two-year period when Shirey worked as a performer, composer and music director of an operation called Limbo, which sounds like part performance art and part arty circus. Several numbers on the album move from suggesting a saucy cabaret show to a shambling parade, none better than this number featuring vocals from Rhiannon Giddens, best known as a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACH, STEVIE WONDER AND JANELLE MONAE")
RHIANNON GIDDENS: (Singing) When I'm on my own, which is most of the time because I'm traveling, traveling, I need a way to make me feel fine when I'm stuck counting days and watching the miles go slow. And so I find that DJ, or in my head I pretend these records play. If you see me smiling, it's Bach, Stevie Wonder and Janelle Monae. When it's late at night and I can't sleep, just counting the cracks on the ceiling, I need a song that sounds so sweet so that the whole damn day will melt away and make room for a better tomorrow. I can trace a melody through all the songs I ever loved and ever sang. When lullabies multiply, I'll be dreaming of Bach and Stevie Wonder and Janelle Monae (ph).
MILES: The most affecting song on the album is also the simplest. "So Stay" is just Shirey's voice, guitar and some pulses. Yet it captures the elusive feel of relationships both tentative and essential, typical of the atmosphere of urban artist circles and, yes, traveling musicians in circuses.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO STAY")
SXIP SHIREY: (Singing) Watch the coastline from the air, the cities shine but you don't care. They will not take you home. They will not take you home. Another nameless room to stay, another turn off this highway. They will not take you home. They will not take you home. They will not take you home, so stay. If want my love (ph)...
MILES: It seems we're in an era where merely lining up a smart series of references is considered a strong signal of quality. This atmosphere also contributes to an endless sense of heard it all before. Not so with Sxip Shirey. This is an original-sounding album. There's some suggestions of Tom Waits, but even that is minor. Here, Shirey has got his masks and costumes and ensembles and a flawless off-kilter cavalcade where he can act as ringmaster of ceremonies. And that is the complex buzz of "A Bottle Of Whiskey And A Handful Of Bees."
GROSS: Milo Miles reviewed Sxip Shirey's new album, "A Bottle Of Whiskey And A Handful Of Bees." If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like yesterday's interview with Jordan Peele, half of the comedy duo Key and Peele and director of the new horror film "Get Out," or our interview with Rukmini Callimachi, who covers ISIS for The New York Times and got back last week from being embedded with Iraqi troops on the front lines fighting ISIS, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John, Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, critic Milo Miles incorrectly identifies Xavier as a Minneapolis rapper. In fact, Xavier is a soul singer.]
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