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Writer Bharati Mukherjee

Writer Bharati Mukherjee's new novel is Desirable Daughters (Theia Press). Mukherjee is an Indian-born writer who emigrated to the U.S. as an adult. Her new novel is about a traditional Brahmin family transformed by contemporary culture. Mukherjee is the author of five novels, two nonfiction books and two collections of short stories, including The Middleman and Other Stories, for which she won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

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Other segments from the episode on April 1, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 1, 2002: Interview with Bharati Mukherjee; Interview with Gerard Jones; Review of The blasters' CD compilations “The Blasters Testament: The Complete Slash…

Transcript

DATE April 1, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Bharati Mukherjee discusses her new book "Desirable
Daughters" and her life
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Bharati Mukherjee, writes about what she describes as America's new
immigrants. She's written five novels, two non-fiction books and two
collections of short stories, one of which won the National Book Critics
Circle Award. Mukherjee was born in Calcutta, India, in 1940 to a wealthy
Brahman family. After studying literature in India, she attended the Iowa
Writer's Workshop in the early '60s, which is where she met her husband. She
became an American citizen in 1988.

This is not the life her parents had intended for her. In fact, they planned
an arranged marriage, which she rejected. Arranged marriage is one of the
traditions at the heart of Mukherjee's new novel, "Desirable Daughters." It's
about three sisters who come from a family similar to Mukherjee's. Each
sister has a different approach to maintaining or rejecting the traditions of
the culture. Like Mukherjee's new novel, the new film "Monsoon Wedding" looks
at arranged marriage vs. romantic love. I asked Mukherjee how common arranged
marriages are in India now.

Professor BHARATI MUKHERJEE (Author): It's still very common. In fact, I
have my only nephew, who's 28 years old, living with me for two years while he
goes to MBA school in San Francisco, who's going through the arranged marriage
only via the Internet rather than actual marriage brokers coming to your house
knocking on the door. So it's still...

GROSS: He's doing it through the Internet? How?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: The proposals come via the Internet, and so his parents
forward them to us in San Francisco, and he's also on e-mail to young
Indo-American women or young Indian women on H1B visas, whom he hasn't seen,
but it's e-mail getting to know each other.

GROSS: Well, that's a kind of interesting mix of tradition and modern
technology.

Prof. MUKHERJEE: Right. Right. That's a 21st-century version of hanging on
to traditions, but in a way I feel that it makes it even harder to know who
you're hooking up with.

GROSS: Does he want an arranged marriage?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: Yes. This young man, very much so.

GROSS: Why?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: I think he needs that certainty, and he intends to go back
to India after he finishes his degree and gets maybe a year or two of work
experience.

GROSS: This...

Prof. MUKHERJEE: He wants to have the option of going back.

GROSS: So he wants the certainty of what? Of knowing that he'll have a
partner? 'Cause he doesn't have the certainty of knowing he'll love the
person.

Prof. MUKHERJEE: He, I think, assumes that love only blossoms after marriage,
and perhaps this is like an MBA student. He wants to avoid the chaos of
emotional ups and downs that I and my characters so wholeheartedly embrace.

GROSS: Yes. Well, you were supposed to have an arranged marriage. You
parents had selected a man for you when you were, I guess, still a teen-ager
and living in India. Had you asked them to do that, or did they just take
that upon themselves?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: Oh, no, they took it upon themselves. There was never any
question of expressing my wishes, ideas, politics. My father decided what we
wore, what opinions we had on trivial and important things, and we simply
mouthed them.

GROSS: Well, how did you say no to your parents?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: Impulse. I think very much like Tara, the narrator in
"Desirable Daughters," I found that the moment that I hit Iowa as a graduate
student, that it was the beginning of the making of consciousness. That I'd
come out of such a protected world. I feel now--there was no bubble wrap in
those days, but I feel now that in a way, I was bubble-wrapped in innocence
and kept away from any kind of possibility of breaking rules or thinking bad
thoughts, so that the moment I came here to the United States, it became an
occasion for me to try out all the subterraneous personalities that I had
learned to conceal from adults.

GROSS: When you told your parents that you didn't want the arranged marriage,
what was their reaction?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: Actually mine was even more dramatic or melodramatic than
that. I sent a cable to my father saying, `By the time you get this, I'll
already be married.' So there was very little that my wonderfully patriarchal
father could do about the situation. I fell in love over a two-week courtship
with a fellow student in the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa,
writer named Clark Blaise. That was 38 years ago, by the way. And we got
married during a lunch break in the lawyer's office above the coffee shop.
That lawyer's office is still there in Iowa City.

GROSS: And you're still married.

Prof. MUKHERJEE: And I'm still married.

GROSS: So were your parents very angry with you? Did they accept that this
was your choice and that you'd be happy?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: They were devastated that I'd had the guts or the audacity
to take a decision on my own. They'd never, never expected me to break any
kind of parental rule. Or I'd been very careful not to expose my very
emotional nature to them.

GROSS: Your novel, "Desirable Daughters," is about three sisters. One of
them stays in India, two of them come to America. Do you have any siblings
who stayed behind in India?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: I have one. My youngest sister stays in India, and it's her
one and only son who is now living with us in San Francisco and going to
school here.

GROSS: Right. Right. Is her life and your life very different?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: It's very much like the Parvati character. Her life is very
much like that of the Parvati character in the novel, the one who stays in
Bombay and is the wife of a senior corporate man. She has been the bridge, or
made herself a bridge, between modern India, traditions, and at the same time,
rebelled against my father's choice of husband for her.

GROSS: So she didn't have an arranged marriage?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: No, none of us did. My poor father tried so hard, and each
of us three sisters went our own ways.

GROSS: Gee, that makes it seem all the more remarkable that your nephew would
choose an arranged marriage, considering his parents didn't have one.

Prof. MUKHERJEE: I wonder if that's a kind of reaction--his traditionalism is
a kind of reaction against the impulsiveness of his mother and aunts. And I
see that in some ways with first-generation Indo-Americans who, quite often,
profess to be far more Indian in their love of culture or in their attitudes
than the Indian counterparts living in big cities in India or the immigrant
generation who knew that they must let go something.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Bharati Mukherjee, and
her new novel, "Desirable Daughters," has to do with arranged marriage. It's
about three sisters who are from India, two of whom live in the United States.

Although you grew up in a Hindu family, you went to a convent school. Why
would Hindu parents send you to an Irish Catholic convent school?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: Oh, that's still quite common. That was the pattern,
certainly when I was going to school, that if you were from what we called one
of the best families in town, then you went to, if you were a girl, you went
to Loreto House on Middletown Row--fancy formerly British area--to this
convent run by Irish nuns from Galway. And if you were a male child, you were
sent to St. Xavier's College, also in the same area, which was run by Jesuit
priests from Belgium. And so we kept our school lives, where we celebrated
St. Patrick's Day with shamrocks flown out of Galway, and our Hindu home life
very, very separate.

GROSS: So what exactly were the advantages of going to the convent school?
Was it that you were getting a Western education or...

Prof. MUKHERJEE: We were--it was very hard to get into that school, and it
was really about how respected your family was in town, and so going there
meant you were assured excellent bridegroom prospects.

GROSS: I see.

Prof. MUKHERJEE: And good manners and very well-guarded. We were chaperoned
all the time.

GROSS: I see. I think--is it in your book you say that it also assured that
you were gonna be a virgin?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: Yes, yes, absolutely. But it's just that all that was
fraudulent. I realize that now, as does my narrator, Tara, that we kept the
appearance of absolute purity and absolute innocence to the point of naivete,
but there were rebellions going on, only you learned how to hide it.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Now...

Prof. MUKHERJEE: You also had, by the way, the two most important classes in
that school were elocution and table manners.

GROSS: How'd you react to that?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: Loved it.

GROSS: Really?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: Yes.

GROSS: What did you love about learning table manners?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: We were told by the nuns that, `Our girls can go to any big
city in the world--Paris, London, New York--and they'll know how to conduct
themselves,' and we thought that was pretty cool thing to be. And the
elocution was we read plays out loud. We had play reading groups--Oscar
Wilde, Noel Coward, all these. I could do all the parts as if I were an
English male of a certain generation.

GROSS: And when you came to the United States, what year was that?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: 1961, fall of 1961.

GROSS: So you came to the United States and got married before the women's
movement of the late '60s?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: The movement, meaning Doris Lessing's "The Golden Notebook"
and Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar" were just beginning to be read, '63 and so
on, so I was very much here in the United States as people were taking
aggressive or self-assertive acts to equalize rights.

GROSS: Now as an inveterate reader and as a novelist, what are the books that
really reached you, that spoke about the women's condition in the '60s, and
that inspired you to map out your life?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: It was a mixture. I loved "The Golden Notebook," but I also
loved Emma Bovary and her misguided attempts to liberate herself from what I
saw as a very provincial kind of repression of her free spirit. So it was
everything combined. But the most important narrative to me was my own life,
the experiences I was having, because while other women--my women friends were
throwing pots or trying out painting...

GROSS: You mean making pottery, when you say throwing pots?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: Yes. Sorry. Making pottery, going to art classes, you
know, working with their hands, nice clay medium. And they were also going to
consciousness-raising groups and examining themselves with mirrors and so on.
I was, you know, too shy to look at my body. I still can't do those tests for
finding, you know, tumors in one's breasts. And that--not at ease with my
body, I guess. And certainly the whole idea of consciousness raising where
you write down what the husband's duties are, about taking out garbage or
doing the gardening and who does the dishes when--all those kinds of things
struck me as so irrelevant to my life, where Clark and I had small children,
we were both going to school. I was getting my PhD, I was teaching full-time
and bringing up--going to the Laundromat to clean diapers before going off to
teach--that, you know, I had no time for that kind of thinking through
feminist agenda.

GROSS: My guest is Bharati Mukherjee. Her new novel is called "Desirable
Daughters." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is writer Bharati Mukherjee. Her new novel, "Desirable
Daughters," is about three Indian sisters and how each deals with maintaining
or rejecting the traditions they were brought up with. Mukherjee was born in
Calcutta and has lived in North America since the early '60s.

When did you know you wanted to write?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: From age three. I was a precocious child. And I lived in
stories, inside stories.

GROSS: Would your family have considered it acceptable for you to be a
writer?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: Because I was a woman and as long as I wasn't writing
anything that might be considered rude, such as sex, violence, it would be OK,
yes. They thought of it as a womanly accomplishment. Gift of the pen was the
phrase they used.

GROSS: And have you written about sex or things that are rude?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: I'm afraid so. And for my characters, including Tara,
sexuality becomes a favored way of expressing revolution, or trying out a life
outside the box.

GROSS: Is it hard for you to write that way since you said you're too
uncomfortable to even do self-exams?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: No. I think, for me, my fiction is a way of getting in
touch with my inner bad girl and so, you know, I want in my fantasies to be a
cross between Rita Hayworth and Diana Ross.

GROSS: And not the Hindu convent girl.

Prof. MUKHERJEE: No. And once I'm in that mode, you know, inside the
character...

GROSS: Anything goes?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: ...oh, I can do bad things.

GROSS: Now I've read that there was a period of a few years when you lived in
Canada, and that this...

Prof. MUKHERJEE: Fourteen years, yeah.

GROSS: And that overlapped with the period when several thousand refugees
left Idi Amin's Uganda and about 5,000 of those refugees, people who were
formerly, I think, from India...

Prof. MUKHERJEE: They were second- and third-generation Ugandans of...

GROSS: Asian descent.

Prof. MUKHERJEE: ...Asian--yes. And they had British passports, which
Britain did not honor. And so the Canadian prime minister of that time, Prime
Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, very kindly offered them residence, green
cards, and that caused a sudden really unanticipated, at least by me, backlash
against brown immigrants. And the government didn't react to control that
backlash in the way that it should have.

GROSS: Why do you think there was a backlash? And how did it directly affect
you?

Prof. MUKHERJEE: Oh, dear. It meant that anyone with a brown face in cities
like Toronto, Vancouver, was fair game for physical harassment as well as
verbal harassment on the street, and so, you know, there were incidents every
day. And I was a victim of many such incidents, of not being served in stores
or being roughed up by teen-agers in blue jeans overalls on subway platforms
or being, you know, thrown out of lobbies of fancy hotels if my white husband
wasn't near me, or being given secondary examination in airports or--racial
profiling. And there was no--the Canada of those early '70s to late '70s--in
fact, through the '70s--there was no constitution in Canada. The constitution
hadn't yet been repatriated, and so there was no bill of rights. There was no
legal agency of redress against race-based hate crime.

GROSS: What must have been particularly odd for you during that experience in
Canada, when you felt that there was a lot of backlash, you had come from a
very elite family in Calcutta.

Prof. MUKHERJEE: Yes.

GROSS: Your family was wealthy. You were among...

Prof. MUKHERJEE: We were brought up to think well of ourselves and that our
ideas mattered.

GROSS: Right. So what--it must have been a very kind of educational
experience to suddenly be perceived, not as the elite, but as the inferior,
and to have people, you know, even attacking you because of that. I'm sure
you could use a...

Prof. MUKHERJEE: Yes.

GROSS: ...lot of words other than educational to describe that experience,
but I'm sure someone like you really walked away from that...

Prof. MUKHERJEE: It was devastating.

GROSS: ...learning a lot. Yeah.

Prof. MUKHERJEE: Yes. It was totally, totally devastating to me, to be seen
as, you know, an unwanted Canadian, as a smelly immigrant, potential burglar
and con artist and so on. And it made me reassess my status, my own attitudes
towards minorities in India while I'd been growing up. How unconsciously
racist or ethnicist I may have been myself in relation to Indian minorities.
And having been an elite in Calcutta, brought up to believe that my ideas
matter, meant that I had the gutsiness to take on government officials in
Canada and say, `You can't do this. This is not right. And I know what's
right and I'm jolly well gonna tell you how to set it right.' It didn't work
but, you know, I was caught in two simultaneous roles, one as someone who's
very confident of herself and knows right from wrong and feels very strongly
about civil rights, human rights, and the other who feels impotent, that
there'll be no change in the way that the country thinks. I'm so glad,
though, over the years I've been proved wrong and that Canada's a very
habitable place.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Prof. MUKHERJEE: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Bharati Mukherjee is the author of the new novel "Desirable
Daughters." She's a professor of English at the University of California at
Berkeley. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, Gerard Jones on writing superhero comics and watching how
his readers reacted to the violence. His new book is called "Killing
Monsters." And Ed Ward reviews the new Blasters double CD compilation.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Gerald Jones discusses writing comic books and the
role and impact of violence in comic books
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Gerard Jones is a comic book fan turned comic book writer. He's
written for the series Batman, Spider-Man and Pokemon. He's also the author
of a book about comics called "Comic Book Heroes." Questions about the impact
of violent pop culture on children have followed him throughout his life. As
a child, his mother was reluctant to let him read superhero comics because of
the violence. Later as the author of superhero comics, he had to figure out
how violent to make his stories. Now he's written a new book called "Killing
Monsters" that argues that children need some make-believe violence. When he
was a child, his mother thought a lot of pop culture was crude. I asked how
he started reading comics.

Mr. GERARD JONES (Author, "Killing Monsters"): I was going through a pretty
classic middle school depression. I was not finding anything to interest me.
I was cutting school. I was going out late at night on these long walks. I
was looking for something, but nothing was working for me. And my mom was an
English teacher in high school and one of her students was a kind sort of like
me, kind of a brainy, geeky kid but much more settled in his society. You
know, he has some good friends and he was always into some interesting
projects.

And his big passion at the time was Marvel Comics, and he did an independent
study report on them for my mom. And my mom had had a huge bias against
comics since the '50s, really. That was the one thing that she had disliked
from very early on because of the furor about it--the Senate investigation of
violence in comics. And she decided that because this kid liked these so much
and was proselytizing them so strongly that she would actually borrow some and
bring them home. So I found myself suddenly gifted by my mother with these
crass, crude, violent entertainments and I glommed on to them instantly.

GROSS: Which comics did she bring home for you and how did she choose those?

Mr. JONES: She just asked this kid Jack to loan her something. And he
decided to just give her all of the preceding month's Marvels. He was still
looking at that month, so I got just an assortment of these things:
Daredevil, Fantastic Four, Captain America, but the one that really got me was
The Hulk, The Incredible Hulk. Because I was looking back--I couldn't have
articulated this at the time, but looking back, I saw myself as ineffective,
as scrawny and as unable to change my world. And I also was going through a
lot of anger that, trying very hard to be a good boy, I was not expressing.

And then here was this character in the comics who was a geeky, mild scientist
who, because of being hit by gamma rays, would become The Hulk when he was
angry. He would feel the rage coming up, and he would suddenly realize, `No,
I can't give in to the rage. I can't let this happen,' but then the
transformation would begin and he would become a huge, overmuscled, green
brute and tear out of his clothes and lose most of his mental functions but
have all his passions completely unapologetically and he would go stomping
around and destroying buildings and fighting with the army and defeating bad
guys along the way.

And he always ended up being on the side of the angels but without having to
subscribe to social codes, just by virtue of sensing who was hurting who and
who to fight. And this was something that really spoke to me intensely. I,
again, didn't realize it then, but I could be The Hulk. I could tap into this
rage that I was bottling up and I could explode and maybe I could change the
world.

GROSS: When you started writing for the comics, what was you attitude about
violent stories or the portrayal of violence? How much had you internalized
your parents' and teachers' feelings that, you know, violent fantasies were
bad for children?

Mr. JONES: It was interesting to discover, and it took me a while even to
notice them. I would do superhero stories. I would write fight scenes as I
had to, but I found myself pulling back. I found myself doing many more
talking scenes than the average comic book writer. I found myself going into
the subtleties of character. My editors would even get a little frustrated
that it took me too long sometimes to get to the suspense, to get to the
action. And that was something for me to look at. I realized that even
though I didn't mind the fight scenes when I read them, and I understood that
this was part of the charm of the genre, I was not going all the way into
them. I was backing off.

And now I can see this was about this very early sense that my own anger and
violent fantasies and love of big, conflicted action was something I was
really ambivalent about. And I was half-consciously taking it upon myself to
lift these superheroes out of that material, which made for some pretty good,
smart stories, but it also really limited them because these characters were
born of physical conflict and they're meant to be metaphors of power vs.
power. And so I was pulling away from the essence of them. And although I
was a pretty popular writer, that prevented me, I think, from really
connecting strongly with my readers.

And it was at a comic book convention in '94 that I had a conversation with a
13-year-old girl who was a big fan of one of my comics called Freaks, and what
she focused on, what she said she liked best, which surprised me, was the
fight scenes. It wasn't the subtle character interplay and it wasn't the
talk--she liked that, too, but she said it was in the fight scenes that you
could really see the characters' passion. And clearly that's when they became
alive for her.

And there were probably many conversations I could have had that would have
started me thinking, but that was the one. I thought, `Here's this very meek,
mild, self-restrained 13-year-old girl, not quite, you know, the usual, the
stereotype of the comic book fan, saying that she really got something out of
the fights,' and I was thinking of myself at the same age, The Hulk, what this
violence meant to me, this make-believe violence. And that's when I really
started looking in my writing and in my emotions and my thoughts: What does
this mean to me? Why is it so powerful? And yet why do I shy away from it,
too?

GROSS: You've written comics and you've written about comics. Do you think
the violent fantasies in comics have changed over the decades?

Mr. JONES: Yeah, one of the big changes that I found distressing as a
middle-aged writer of them was the rise of anger in the characters. And that
was one of the things that really got me thinking, `OK, where are kids now and
what's going on in them?' because the comics I grew up on--The Hulk was an
angry character but he was pretty unusual. He was almost goofy because of his
extreme anger. Most of the heroes were calm. You know, Superman was always
smiling and Batman was usually grim but not rageful.

And then around 1980 there was this huge up-swelling of the almost dementedly
angry hero, and even Superman now is all grimacing and his hair is wild and
he's sweating. And it was at that point that I started asking, `You know,
what are kids so mad about?' and I think one of the things that they're so mad
about is just the fact that nobody's listening to their anger, so they need to
see it reflected back more and more in their pop culture.

GROSS: My guest is Gerard Jones. He's written superhero comics. His new
book, "Killing Monsters," is about children and make-believe violence. We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My gust is Gerard Jones. He's written comic books with the superhero
series Batman, Superman and Pokemon. His new book is about superheroes,
violent fantasies and their impact on children. It's called "Killing
Monsters."

Were there women characters when you writing comic books?

Mr. JONES: Yeah, there were, but that's a huge shift in pop culture really
recently. There would either be, like, the invisible girl in the Fantastic
Four. And, I mean, you know, the name `invisible girl' sums up...

GROSS: Says it all, huh? Yeah.

Mr. JONES: Says it all. Yes, she was shy and retiring and dependent on her
husband and the whole thing, and then there was good old Wonder Woman, who was
kind of the only superheroine who really had a following, mostly a little girl
following. The girls would kind of dump her as they got up toward the preteen
years. And scattered here and there, there were attempts to do these sort of
lame, feminist heroines who would come in screaming about male chauvinist
pigs, and those, of course, died instantly.

But when I got back looking at comics in the '80s, and as the last decade and
half have gone by, I've see it more and more. It's just this huge variety of
female characters and they don't look that varied 'cause they're all
tiny-waisted, big-breasted and not very thoroughly covered, let's put it that
way. But within that, there's the huge gamut of the cold, competent one and
the angry one and the tender, protective one and then combinations thereof.
And I think this humanization of the made-up violent female is one of the best
things that's happened in pop culture recently and it's shifting. The
audience is responding. More and more little girls now are into action
entertainment than ever before and I think they're forcing the material to
change, too.

GROSS: As you pointed out, the women in action comics are usually very
scantily clad and very big-breasted. What was it like for you to draw
characters like that?

Mr. JONES: I never liked those characters. I didn't draw; I wrote. So I
would...

GROSS: That's true. That's right. That's right.

Mr. JONES: Yeah. Yeah, so I'd script them and then, you know, the artist
would turn them in looking like that. And I still have some problems with
that. I would like to see more body types out there for girls, but as I
caught on to the fact that there were a lot of girls who loved these
characters. And then in looking at other media like Mortal Kombat, there's a
scantily clad, gorgeous martial arts fighter who turned out to be a favorite
of both boy and girl players and, of course, Tomb Raider, you know, Lara
Croft, it struck me to some extend what these girls are is what Batman or
Superman or The Hulk was to me.

As a little kid, I was scrawny. Other kids are obese, but no kid is really
that comfortable with his physicality yet. If nothing else, he's too small.
To be able to pretend to be these big supermuscled characters for a while, it
doesn't make them feel bad about themselves or think they have to abuse
themselves to become that nearly as often as it enables them to be that for a
while. In fantasy land, they can be that perfect masculine stereotype and
then it's actually easier to be yourself.

And I found this a lot in--with girls. They could be Lara Croft even though
they don't look anything like Lara Croft and know they won't. And they go
back to themselves, but that Lara Croft fantasy is still there. It's sort of
like somebody our age who loves pretending to be Audrey Hepburn in a sense.
You know, you look at an Audrey Hepburn movie and you're her for two hours,
but you come back and you don't hate yourself for not being Audrey Hepburn.
You're still kind of Audrey Hepburn in your real life.

GROSS: You were one of the people who translated Pokemon, which started as a
Japanese comic. You translated it into an American market. So it already
existed but it existed in a different culture. So is Pokemon still really
popular? It was such a big craze a couple of years ago. Where is it now?

Mr. JONES: It still has its diehards. There's still little kids who are
really into just the funny characters and watching the cartoon. It's still
profitable for them; I'm pretty sure of that. And it still has a lot of older
kids who play the games. But when a fad is that hot, it almost always breaks
quickly. And I think what happens--kids don't like to feel that they're being
jerked around by the adult world. And obviously they get jerked around a lot
by the adult world, but when they really catch on that they're expected to be
into something like Pokemon and it's being marketed at them everywhere they
turn, a lot of them turn against it. My son, Nicky(ph), he hated Pokemon.
Mostly he'd pretend to hate Pokemon. He'd cover his ears if anybody said the
word. For a while he liked Digimon, which I don't think he really liked
except it was the competition, so this proved he didn't like Pokemon because
he was into Digimon, then he lost interest in that.

So it's there. I think it's a very vital fantasy for kids. I think it's one
of the best pop culture creations for kids in recent years. And because of
that, I don't think it's going to go away, but I think the marketing kind of
killed it, frankly, 'cause it started as a school-yard craze. It was not
turned into a craze by marketing, and I think the marketing popped the bubble.

GROSS: This may sound like an odd question to ask an adult, but if you could
be any superhero, which one would you choose to be now?

Mr. JONES: Yeah. That's a good one. You know, when I was in the business, I
was always drawn to Batman because he was so rational in his control. He was
so smart all the time. And who I would be now? It's sort of like the one I'd
want to be kind of isn't there. In a way, I'm actually kind of drawn to Lara
Croft. There's something about being this girl with some girlie sensibilities
who's also so incredibly powerful and able to do what has to be done.

GROSS: Now you mentioned Batman. Didn't you do a comic with Batman and Robin
which had this whole, like, musical generation gap thing going where Robin
really liked rock 'n' roll and Batman was opposed to it?

Mr. JONES: Yeah, that was actually the last superhero comic I wrote. I wrote
some Pokemon stuff after that, but that was it for the costumed characters.
And it was kind of a statement on, in a way, these same themes, that we get
scared by something that we don't understand and we confuse our own anxieties
about it with the actual effect it's having on the person who's into it. So
it was kind of celebrating Robin's discovery of this forbidden rebel world and
Batman having to realize that he can have that world but he's still Robin,
he's still going to be there for him.

GROSS: So Batman was, like, the responsible parent or teacher, saying, `This
is bad for you,' and Robin was the kid discovering exciting, new stuff.

Mr. JONES: Yeah, Batman was the one who was blurring fantasy and reality
because he would see all the dark and rebellious and destructive imagery in
the rock and think, well, therefore, this is teaching people to be that. And
Robin was the one who was getting at, `No, I'm still the Boy Wonder I always
was, but I like to go here for play.' It's a difference between media as
teacher vs. media as playground, and I think entertainment's usually a
playground, and that's what Robin had to hip Batman to in, of course, that
story.

GROSS: Well, I thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. JONES: Well, thank you.

GROSS: Gerard Jones has written superhero comics. His new book is called
"Killing Monsters."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli receives a lifetime
achievement award
TERRY GROSS, host:

This evening, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli will receive a lifetime achievement
award from the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs at their 16th
annual awards ceremony. Let's listen to Bucky Pizzarelli playing a guitar
duet with his son, John Pizzarelli, from their album "Contrasts." This is
"Coquette," featuring Bucky Pizzarelli playing lead.

(Soundbite of Bucky Pizzarelli and John Pizzarelli performing "Coquette")

GROSS: Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward reviews The Blasters' new double CD
compilation. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: New compilation of the '80s band The Blasters
TERRY GROSS, host:

Brother bands are an integral part of American popular music, bands like The
Delmore Brothers, the Louvin Brothers and The Everly Brothers. Rock historian
Ed Ward adds the Alvin brothers, Dave and Phil, to that list. A new
compilation of their '80s band The Blasters is the occasion for Ed's
examination of the Alvin brothers' brief career together.

(Soundbite of music)

THE BLASTERS: (Singing) The night was long, the winter ...(unintelligible)
I'm all alone sitting in the back of a long white Cadillac. The headlights
shine, the highway fades to black. I'll take my time...

ED WARD reporting:

There have been lots of roots rock revival bands over the years, groups that
fasten on to a given genre like rockabilly or Western Swing and play forgotten
classics and attempt original songs to play alongside them. But The Blasters
were something else entirely. For one thing, unlike most of the roots bands
which preceded them, they were working-class kids from Downey, an industrial
suburb of Los Angeles. For another, while they peppered their live shows with
cover songs to keep the audience happy, they really concentrated on original
material, which, given that Dave Alvin was such a prolific and talented
songwriter, was a very good thing, indeed.

(Soundbite of "Marie Marie")

THE BLASTERS: (Singing) Marie, Marie, playing guitar on the dashboard that's
in my car while she sings so sad, Marie, Marie. Marie, Marie, it's so lonely
in these farmlands, please come with me to the bright lights downtown, Marie,
Marie.

WARD: The four original Blasters, Dave and Phil Alvin, bassist John Bazz and
drummer Bill Bateman, were all music fanatics who hung out together during the
'70s, playing in bands and haunting record stores. They also got to know some
of the local celebrities, guys who'd been part of the LA scene of the late
'40s, like Lloyd Glenn, Big Joe Turner, Lee Allen and T-Bone Walker. They
eventually came together to make their own music and found Rocking Ronny
Weiser, a record dealer and rockabilly fanatic who had a label of sorts and
cut an album on them. On it was a gem in the form of "Marie Marie," which
helped them get gigs in the clubs where punk was raging. The Blasters weren't
punks, but they played songs which resonated with the scene.

(Soundbite of music)

THE BLASTERS: (Singing) Well, the US soldier fought on West Berlin
(unintelligible) rocks with a thousand violins. They want to hear some
American music, American music. They want to hear that sound right from the
USA. Well, it can be sweet and lovely, it can be hard and mean. One thing's
for sure, it's always on the beam. They want to hear some American music,
American music. They want to hear that sound right from the USA. Well, it's
a h...

WARD: Their arrival on the scene coincided with LA's top punk band, X,
reassessing their own direction. The two bands soon became friends. A sort
of neo-roots scene began to develop with the arrival of a third band, Los
Lobos. And they all began exchanging ideas and playing each other's gigs.
Soon, The Blasters had a deal with Slash, a Warner-subsidized label that
documented a lot of the best LA bands, including Los Lobos, who The Blasters
brought to the label's attention. The Blasters' first real album--the Ronny
Weiser one sounded awful--blew critics away and established them as a new
voice.

(Soundbite of music)

THE BLASTERS: (Singing) Well, I know I've been fooling myself too long. I'm
never right, but always wrong. Goodbye, baby, so long. You know you've never
let me think at all, you never let me be that strong. Goodbye, baby, so long.
There was a cold wind blowing on the night we met; the leaves fell from the
trees. You made a lot of promises I ain't seen yet. I ain't going to ask
you, please. You know...

WARD: The essential Dave Alvin Blasters song was one which zeroed in on the
down-and-outer, the loner, the alienated person on the fringes of a big
industrial society he didn't quite understand or fit into. These portraits
were unlike anything rock 'n' roll had seen up to that point, and they were
totally believable.

(Soundbite of music)

THE BLASTERS: (Singing) I found a home in Room 16. For three long weeks,
this is where I've been. I could try to call you on the phone. I've got the
coins but I can't put them in, just to hear you hang up once again. And it's
just another sunny day in a small-town motel. Yeah, it's just another sunny
day...

WARD: The problem was the stories were too real and so were the band. They
added a piano player, an old Downey pal, Gene Taylor, and often performed with
saxophonist Lee Allen, who'd played on Little Richard's records and countless
other classics. But despite the Allen brothers' hairstyles, they weren't the
Stray Cats. The songs were strong, but maybe too strong for a very timid
radio market. With their third album, "Hard Line," they hired a
radio-friendly producer and also had a single produced and written by John
Cougar Mellencamp.

(Soundbite of music)

THE BLASTERS: (Singing) Look at me, I'm too embarrassed to talk to you,
'cause every eye that I see, every guy in this room, is looking to talk only
to you. How do you talk to an angel? I wish I knew. And when the room goes
dark, they're going to turn on the colored lights. And I'll be sending out a
signal, my little girl, can't we dance tonight? When the room goes dark...

WARD: It didn't help. The pressure to write hits resulted in Dave Alvin
writing stuff that came close to self-parody. And although none of it is bad,
none of it is classic Blasters either. The brothers were already at each
other's throats. The label was probably going to drop them, and so sometime
in 1985, Dave Alvin left the band, and Phil, a talented mathematician, went
back to UCLA to get a degree. Dave joined one of the later versions of X and
then became a superb solo artist and producer. And Phil later emerged with
bands called The Blasters, which continued to tour. But the magic of the
original band was gone, even if echoes of what they invented can be heard all
over America today.

GROSS: Writer Ed Ward lives in Berlin. The new Blasters compilation is on
Rhino Records.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)

THE BLASTERS: (Singing) One more midnight romance to come, the night flew too
slow. She tries to remember the ...(unintelligible) while listening to the
border radio. She calls toll-free and requests a song, something he used to
know. She prays to herself that wherever he is, he's listening to the border
radio. This song comes from 1962 dedicated to a man of soul...
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.

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