DATE July 21, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Author Andre Aciman talk about his life as a Jew in
exile in Egypt
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
In the new book, "False Papers," Andre Aciman writes about his life in
It's a sequel of sorts to his memoir "Out of Egypt," which was his personal
version of the exodus story. On this archive edition we have an interview
recorded in 1995, after the publication of "Out of Egypt."
Aciman grew up Jewish in Egypt. His great-uncle moved the family there from
Turkey in 1905. The family settled in Alexandria, which was a lively
international city with people of many cultures living together. But the
of Egypt face growing anti-Semitism after 1956. That was the year that
Egyptian President Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and Israel, France,
England invaded Egypt to regain access to the canal. Over the next few
Aciman watched other Jewish families get expelled from Egypt. His father, a
prosperous businessman, was forced out in 1964, when Aciman was 14. I asked
him what it was like to be Jewish in Egypt when he was young.
Professor ANDRE ACIMAN (Author): There were many kinds of Jews in Egypt.
First of all, you had those who practiced and then you had those who didn't
practice. I was brought up in a family that did not practice. I was not
mitzvahed. I did not know how to read Hebrew. A lot of my friends did.
Initially it was, I think, a very nice lifestyle for the Jews. They were
totally tolerated, assimilated. Even the religious ones were totally
assimilated. And they went about their business and lived very happily.
Eventually, it became increasingly difficult. There had been some
even before 1948. In 1954, there had a been a spy ring that was broken up
a big scandal ensued, and after 1956, the Suez War, things became
GROSS: When you were growing up, there were no movies allowed with Jewish
Prof. ACIMAN: Right.
GROSS: ...or Jewish themes. So what were some of the movies you missed
because of that?
Prof. ACIMAN: Oh, we missed "Ben-Hur," we missed "Cleopatra." Many movies
with Paul Newman never came because it was said he was Jewish. And as I say
in the book, the irony is that Kirk Douglas movies always were shown because
he was so prototypically American or fitted the image of what every Egyptian
thought an American was like. So they never knew he was Jewish, so we saw
movies. And, of course, the way they reached their decisions was totally
capricious. They thought that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was fine; it never
them. But they would sometimes confuse it with Golda Meir, so--and that
occasioned some problems as well. But, you know, they--there was things
they thought they could determine which were wrong. But you were living in
this crazy, totally crazy climate.
GROSS: In 1956, during the Suez War, Israeli forces, French and British
forces attacked Egypt. How did that change your status as Jews in Egypt?
Prof. ACIMAN: It changed it radically, overnight almost. Ever since 1948,
the Egyptian forces had, you know, been defeated by the Israelis. And there
had been some resentment, an ongoing resentment. But after 1956, the
fundamental confusion was finally put in effect. That is, you confuse a Jew
with an Israeli, the supposition being that if you're Jewish, you're going
be pro-Israeli, and therefore, you're suspect. Or maybe you're the easiest
scapegoat or the easiest person to punish. We were--the Jews were punished
much as the British and the French after 1956. Many Jews and many French
British were kicked out summarily with all their possessions confiscated.
GROSS: Which side did you want to win in 1956?
Prof. ACIMAN: Oh, I was too young. I enjoyed the war--I think I made that
obvious in the book--because it gave--as far as I was concerned, from the
child's perspective, it was like an ongoing party that lasted almost a
You know, there were a lot of people in the house, and we were all sleeping
mattresses. So I was playing with my cousins all the time. It was like a
birthday party. When the lights went out, because you had to--you know,
was a blackout, it was always wonderful to just be sitting together with
30 people and just wait for the lights to come back on. And it was very
GROSS: Which side did your parents want to win?
Prof. ACIMAN: Undecided. I think they probably wanted the British to win
because they wanted things to become as they had always been. And there had
already been a change since the King had been deposed. So they wanted the
Western colonial powers to reassert themselves in Egypt, therefore, life
be much more comfortable for them. And they expected that to happen
overnight. After all, who would have foreseen that the Egyptian forces,
did lose the war--but, you know, eventually there were other forces that
became involved--who would have expected that the British and the French
immediately stop attacking Egypt and retract or sort of recoil or whatever.
GROSS: After the Suez War in 1956, friends of the family, relations also,
started to leave because they were expelled for being French, for being
Jewish. Why didn't your family make a move sooner to leave? Didn't they
sense that the climate was definitely turning against them?
Prof. ACIMAN: Yes. They knew that--we did know that our days were
In our case, the days numbered almost 10 years. Why did we not move? And I
think you should ask that question to many other groups that stayed put
because they're caught in a sort of totally historically paradoxical
situation. On one hand, my father was doing very well. On the other hand,
didn't want to go and explore similar business ventures in Europe. He was
afraid of Europe. He was comfortable in Egypt. He didn't want to go to
America. He didn't want to find out how much of a businessman he was
vis-a-vis the big-business concerns abroad. Doing well in Egypt, however,
you in a paradoxical situation. If you're doing well and you leave, that
meant that you had already tucked away money abroad. And that was against
law. So you're there. You wait until they take everything away from you,
that you can leave. On the other hand, you don't want them to take
away from you because that makes you poor. So there we were, trapped as it
GROSS: So was your family officially expelled?
Prof. ACIMAN: Yes. We got it by--you--they call you, and they tell you,
`Look, you have to leave.' You think it's a crank call, and eventually, it
becomes gradually confirmed to you that, in fact, it wasn't a crank call.
GROSS: You describe what the crank call--you got a series of calls that you
weren't sure that they were crank calls or actually the police.
Prof. ACIMAN: Right.
GROSS: Well, what did the caller say?
Prof. ACIMAN: Oh, he would--sometimes, if I picked up, he would say
obscenities, and I had no idea what he was talking about, because I was 13
14. And though I knew a few things, you know, certain other things, I had
idea existed. So they were real obscenities that when I told them to my
father, he would be outraged. But there was that, and then they were saying
things like, `What did you do today? Why did you go to this restaurant?'
Silly questions that just made it clear to you that you were being
GROSS: How did your father tell you that it was time to go?
Prof. ACIMAN: Well, he sat me down one day when I came back from school,
he said--and he said it in English, ironically. We never spoke English.
`They want us to go.' So I thought he meant they wanted us to go somewhere
whatever. And he said, `No, they want us to go,' almost sort of in the
intransitive. `They want us to go away.' At which point, it suddenly
on me that we were being kicked out of Egypt. And I--I didn't think it was
bad. I mean, I was excited to leave, on one hand, but on the other hand, I
wasn't at all.
GROSS: Your father asked you to do a lot of work to help the family pack
get ready. Which were the tasks that you were assigned?
Prof. ACIMAN: I didn't have to pack. He was always afraid of being
at the last minute. So one of the things he had me do was take down
numbers in a little agenda that I had. And these were telephone numbers
abroad in France and England and Italy. And if I got there and he was
arrested in Egypt, I would have to call these people and they would sort of
call government people in their respective countries. And they would--might
release him from Egyptian hands. But it was things of that nature. I was
charge of buying the ticket to go to Italy because he thought that that very
same day, he was going to be arrested. Then I was in charge of selling the
ticket when it became--oh, he said, `We might not be asked to leave after
all.' And it's a good thing that nobody wanted to buy the ticket because it
turned out that that same afternoon, we were, in fact, told that we were
to have to leave and that this retraction had been almost fictitious and
perverse. So I was in charge of these little minor details--mailing or
sending telegrams to all my uncles abroad, telling them we were arriving.
That was my job.
GROSS: What it good for you to have such important jobs to do?
Prof. ACIMAN: Oh, I loved it. I--I enjoyed it. It made me feel very much
like a--Who knows?--like one of those characters in the movies who does all
these almost spy things. Making sure that the family can stay afloat if the
man of the family is taken in prison. It made me feel very important. I
not a kid anymore. And one of the things I like to show in the book is how
when my father told me, you know, `Please take care of these matters for me,
I'm going to be put in jail tonight,' I'm doing these errands, running these
errands for him in the city, and suddenly, I hear somebody calling me and
my Dad saying, `Hey, Andre,' and I turned around and it's him. And he says,
`Look, where are you going?' And I said, `Well, I'm running these errands
you.' And I'm almost disappointed, and I say, you know, `Weren't you
to be in jail?' He says, `Oh, no, not at all. That was all nonsense.' At
which point, you know, we go and have coffee together.
GROSS: My guest is Andre Aciman. We'll talk more after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to our 1995 interview with Andre Aciman, recorded
the publication of his memoir, "Out of Egypt," about growing up Jewish in
Egypt and being forced to flee in 1964 because of Anti-Semitism. He has a
collection of essays about his life in exile called, "False Papers."
The night before you left Egypt, the family had a Seder.
Prof. ACIMAN: Right.
GROSS: Was it a night of Passover?
Prof. ACIMAN: It was the first night of Passover. My Aunt Elsa(ph) was the
one who insisted on Passover. She was the one who wanted ceremonies. We
living now in her house. She was officially in charge of that house.
GROSS: We should explain here that Passover is the holiday that celebrates
the end of the Jews' bondage in Egypt. And you've called your memoir "Out
Egypt," which is very kind of resident with that. So here you are having a
Seder, celebrating the end of bondage in Egypt, just as you're getting ready
to leave the country. And you decide that you don't want to participate in
the Seder. You don't want to read the prayers, you don't want to have
anything to do with it. Why didn't you?
Prof. ACIMAN: Well, A, because I--well, the most obvious answer is that I
had to submit to her will and celebrate something that was religious, and I
didn't want to. But I think I was old enough to realize that the total
absurdity, I mean, almost farcical nature of this. Here we are Jews who are
in Egypt and celebrating Passover, meaning that they left Egypt. So it's
of those repeat performances that--I think it's Marks Alleging Hagel(ph)
that the first time things happen in history, it's tragic, the second time,
it's farcical. This was very, very farcical in the sense that, you know,
we're celebrating something that had no meaning. We were not even supposed
be in Egypt anymore as Jews. But there we were. And I didn't really want
go ahead with this entire motion which had no meaning, As far as I was
concerned. I wanted to stay in Egypt. I didn't want to leave. And I
going to celebrate the leaving from Egypt. Certainly not on that night,
I was supposed to, and certainly not on that particular night in history,
which was our last night in Egypt. I wanted to stay.
GROSS: How did the family decide where to move?
Prof. ACIMAN: That decision was almost made for us. Who was the closest
relative? The closest relative was in Italy. We had reacquired Italian
passports. We had to stop in Italy. Somebody had managed to arrange some
kind of apartment, makeshift and temporary apartment for us in Italy. So we
went to Italy. It was very difficult. We spent three years in Italy,
out of sorts, because we weren't used to Italy, we weren't used to life in
Europe. We couldn't quite adjust to the fact that we had become not just
poor, but extremely poor.
GROSS: Your great-grandmother used to say, `Jews lose everything twice in a
lifetime.' When your family lost everything in Egypt, did your
great-grandmother's words take on new meaning for you?
Prof. ACIMAN: Actually, it was my Aunt Elsa who says, you know, you lose
them at least twice. She had lost everything in Germany before coming
the war to Egypt to her brother who had made a fortune. Yes. And, I mean,
put those words there, knowing exactly what--what the kind of reverberation
they would have because you don't only lose things once, you lose them twice
or at least twice, which means that you have to play out this kind of exile
many, many times, not just in the history of the people, but in the history
one generation. And one of the things I wanted to make sure that people saw
in my book was the notion that exile is something that is intimate to Jewish
history or at least the awareness of what might be called Jewish history,
you play out exile many, many times. It is part of you, and when it
it's not something that's sudden or unexpected. It's something that has
inscribed there and embedded there. And it's finally manifesting itself
a bad gene that you are expecting would show up. So nobody's surprised;
you're just sorry that it happened at that point in your life.
GROSS: You're a writer, and you teach literature. You work with language.
Your mother was deaf.
Prof. ACIMAN: That's right.
GROSS: And her speech was very hard for most people to decipher. And so
wondering how much language you learned from her.
Prof. ACIMAN: That's a very, very, troubling moment and it's an enduring
problem that I have when people ask me what is the language that I feel most
comfortable with. Sometimes I will say English, sometimes I'll say French,e
Even sometimes Italian. But I know that in the back of my mind, I'm
fundamentally--and I realize that this sounds very ironic--I'm fundamentally
non-verbal person. I've lived most of my childhood with my mother, though
everybody was, of course, dying to take me away from her and give me the
influence, the right speech, the right everything, which is why I'm so aware
of how people speak and the problem that it played in my life--good manners,
speech, etc. My mother is fundamentally a person who speaks in very few
words. She speaks a lot, but she speaks in very few words. And she
communicates the most meaningful emotions by not necessarily saying words.
They may be just the equivalent of sort of clicks and grunts and sort of
sounds and so on. And these are the things that I normally expect from her
when she wants to tell me that she loves me. She won't say, `I love you,'
way we've problematized these three words in our society. She will just say
something that is a sound and that's it. And good enough, and it means
everything. And that's the kind of language I grew up with. I grew up with
an entourage of people who were deaf. And they were deaf and mute or deaf
dumb, whatever you want to call them. They were people who didn't speak.
they didn't even gesticulate very correctly because many of them signed
poorly, so that they really relied on gut feeling and gut interaction. It
doesn't mean that they didn't talk much; they were constantly communicating.
But it was non-verbally, and I grew up with that. So even here I am in an
interview, I have this sense that I have to watch myself because I might
suddenly lapse into this non-verbal dimension.
GROSS: Does that actually happen to you much?
Prof. ACIMAN: No, it never happens. But when I write--and writers, you
know, always make a point of saying that writing is the thing that is the
meaningful to them. When I write, I'm always aware that I'm almost putting
an act. I'm not supposed to be verbal in the first place, so what I am
writing these sentences? Which is probably--Nietzche said something very
nice--that certain writers are always sort of dulling their tracks on the
to avoid giving the reader any clue of what they were really thinking of
they wrote the sentence initially. And I always have that feeling when I'm
writing that I'm constantly sort of buffing or scumbling my original tracks
because these were the gut language that they were written in.
GROSS: There's a moment in your memoir where you're with your mother in the
grocery and there's a blackout. And you know that, you know, bombs
know, planes will be coming soon. And you're on the phone, I think, with
family, and your mother's saying, `Tell them there's a blan-core.'
Prof. ACIMAN: Yes.
GROSS: And you say, `There's a blan-core.' And the person you're speaking
says, `There's a what?' And you finally all figure out that your mother
to say, `There's a blackout,' but she can't really say blackout. And you're
young and you don't know the difference, so you're saying `blan-core.' Did
that happen to you a lot that you learned language from your mother, and the
language you were learning happened to be words that didn't really exist?
Prof. ACIMAN: It was corrupt language, yes. And it was happening
constantly. And, of course, they would finally understand what I was trying
to say, and they would always say something like, `Oh, the poor child, you
know, growing up with this mother who can't even say this,' which didn't at
all bother me because I realized that my mother's speech was faulty. But I
never knew when she was saying something that it was faulty, if I didn't
the word in the first place. So I would repeat it and I was corrected.
you know, that always reminds me of that's what I was talking about when I
mentioned this non-verbal dimension in me--that, you know, I'll say things,
and I'm always expecting somebody's going to call and say, `What on Earth
you writing about? This is absolutely sort of trivial or it's drivel, and
could you say this?' And I'm sorry, you know, I guess I must have lapsed
my mother's language. So it's still going on. And my attitude when--that's
why I'm a very easy writer to work with because when a editor sort of
chastises me or tells me, `This is wrong,' I will immediately say, `Yes, of
course, you're right.' Because this is not my language.
GROSS: Well, how did you develop such a love of language, if you were so
uncomfortable with it?
Prof. ACIMAN: You know, what'd they say about Demosthenes, you know, he was
a stutterer and he was a bad spokesman or a bad--had this speech defect or
impediment. And therefore, he had to overcome that. And one of the things
that probably--probably, because I don't know, is probably what I've tried
do is overcome this as best as I could by writing in a manner that would
conceal as best as possible the fact that I have difficulties with language.
GROSS: Yet, you know, you speak several languages. You speak French. You
speak English. What else do you speak?
Prof. ACIMAN: I speak Italian. I used to speak Arabic. I had Greek at
point. But, you know, I speak every language with an accent, and it's the
wrong accent. So, you know, if you ask me which is my real language, I
wouldn't know what to say.
GROSS: What would you guess?
Prof. ACIMAN: I would have to say, it depends for what. If it's for
scholarly situations, probably English. If it's to speak very dearly to
someone, it might be French. If I want to gossip, probably Italian. If I
want to really, really say things that are from the heart and the soul and
that, well, my mother's language.
GROSS: Andre Aciman, recorded in 1995 after the publication of his memoir,
"Out of Egypt." He has a new collection of essays about his life in exile
called "False Papers." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Comedienne Margaret Cho discusses her sitcom career and
her Asian-American background
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Lots of comics hope to get their own sitcom and, like Jerry Seinfeld, emerge
rich and famous. When comic Margaret Cho got her own sitcom, it was a
nightmare. Her ABC series "All American Girl," which aired in the 1994-95
season, was the first network sitcom about an Asian-American family. Her
sitcom experience and its aftermath became fodder for her one-woman show,
the One That I Want." A film version of that show has just been released.
It's already opened in San Francisco and Seattle, and will open in other
cities over the next few weeks.
In the show, Cho describes that she was advised by people at the network to
lose weight before shooting the series, and how she followed through with an
extreme diet that landed her in the hospital. Here's Cho on stage talking
about publicizing her sitcom at a press conference where she and her
were questioned by reporters.
(Soundbite of Margaret Cho on stage)
Ms. MARGARET CHO (Comedian): I stood in front 101 television critics, for a
big critics convention. And Gail(ph) was on one side, Gary was on the other
side. And the producer ask--the critic asked me, he said, `Ms. Cho, is it
true that the network asked you to lose weight to play the part of yourself
your own TV show?' And Gail grabbed the mic from me and said, `There is no
truth in that whatsoever.'
I was losing it. I was starving myself to death. And yet, I would read in
tabloids `Margaret Cho has thunder thighs,' or the Chow like Cho diet.'
printed this fake diet that I never went on, with fake quotes from me like,
"When I was young, I raised on rice and fish. So when I get heavy, I go
to that natural Asian way of eating." You could almost hear the mandolin in
the background. (Makes mandolin noises) `When I was a little girl, I grow
on the rice paddy. And we don't have any food. But even though we have no
food, I have a tendency to put on weight.'
GROSS: Margaret Cho, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Ms. CHO: Thank you.
GROSS: So I want to hear more about how you were forced to go on this diet
when you had your TV show. How and why did they approach on this?
Ms. CHO: Well, it was very sort of sensitively handled. The producer of
show called me up and--and tried to break it to me as delicately as
I think she was chosen to do the job because she was my friend. And I
probably would have accepted things from her that I may not have accepted
a man. But I don't know. And I wasn't exactly forced into it, it was just
put to me, suggested as delicately as possible, which I think is just the
as forcing somebody to do it, especially because women are so held up to
ridiculous ideal that we should be thin, and kind of perfect-looking. And I
fell very much into that trap. And I was very young and very
and I think it's so taboo in our society to ask somebody to lose weight.
when somebody actually asks you, then I think that you really do feel
even though it wasn't really, you know, against my will. I did it, but it
certainly was very terrifying. And I lost an incredible amount of weight
because it was so terrifying. I'm sure that fear was definitely a factor in
there. And I talk about it a little in the show that it was diet and
in sheer terror. That's the way it came off.
GROSS: So when they asked you to lose weight, the show hadn't started yet,
Ms. CHO: The show hadn't started yet. We actually hadn't even shot the
pilot. It was in order to shoot the pilot where I was asked. And it was
interesting because it had never been discussed at all before, in the
development process, in any of the negotiations, in any of the script
meetings, in anything. It'd never been brought up. And even before that,
weight had never been an issue in my work. I had never had a problem with
And I didn't know how to deal with it. If I had had the presence of mind to
say `No,' if I had had some self-confidence, if I had had a little bit more
love and care for myself, I would have refused. I did not have that at that
GROSS: But it's awkward, you know; these are the professionals, these are
the people in the business, who know television.
Ms. CHO: Yes.
GROSS: And they're supposed to be giving you advice and they're telling
`Hey, you're too chubby.' So, you know, you're in the position where you're
supposed to be deferring to their wisdom.
Ms. CHO: Exactly. And I thought that this was Hollywood, this is how it
GROSS: It is how it goes.
Ms. CHO: It is how it goes. And, you know, I'm not an unusual case. It
happens all the time.
Ms. CHO: It happens every day. And--but I was not hired for that.
GROSS: Didn't you feel like, `Hey, you guys didn't notice this before?'
Ms. CHO: Well, it had never been brought up. It had never, ever been
brought up. I think that suddenly they saw that I could be more than just a
comedian; instead, I could be an ingenue. It would be better for me to be
ingenue. And that's, I guess, what they had decided somewhere through it
when I had been hired for my comedic talent, not for my looks. Although I
always insecure about my looks anyway, so, I just--I believed it, and I
GROSS: So you lost 30 pounds in one week, I believe, and then ended up in
Ms. CHO: In two weeks, and I was hospitalized and, you know, it's really
sad. It's really sick that I did that to myself. And yet, I don't blame
anybody. It just happened. And it certainly makes for good comedy later,
my entries to the hospital.
GROSS: Yes, it does. I'll vouch for that.
Ms. CHO: I think it's OK now.
GROSS: So what did you do to lose weight that quickly?
Ms. CHO: I went into this ridiculous diet and exercise regime that was far
too intense for me, which is why I was eventually hospitalized. And, you
know, after that I kind of couldn't really work out too much, so I started
taking diet pills, which made my health and my sanity just--it was worse.
it was really difficult to cope with all the pressures on the set, and
the pills set a dangerous precedent later, you know, for this drug use that
would not cease for many years after.
GROSS: Oh. So you think the diet pills led you into...
Ms. CHO: I think the diet pills--I mean, I always had been predisposed to
that kind of lifestyle, but that really was a dangerous introduction into
something else, something higher.
GROSS: So let's talk a little bit about the show. You had the network
"All American Girl." Did you like the show? It was built around you.
Ms. CHO: It was built around me.
Ms. CHO: But I did not like the show. I had no real creative control over
it. I really let it get away from me. And it was very difficult. It was a
difficult process for me because I was so incredibly insecure. And already
attention had been diverted into this idea of `Oh, I have to lose weight'
put all of my energies into that. And so I had very little left over to be
funny. I just really had a hard time fitting into the family hour of
television. My act was always way too blue, way too raw and edgy for that
audience. And yet here I was presented for that audience. And, you know,
there was kids on the show, and I didn't understand that. And it really
was--my image was taken and distorted and, you know, completely got so far
away from who I was, and I talk about it the show, where I was so
unrecognizable to myself. And all I know is that I had failed, but I had
failed as somebody else, which was an incredibly painful experience.
GROSS: The premise of the show was, you know, you played a Korean-American
young woman named Margaret Kim. And the show focused on generational
conflicts between you and your parents.
Ms. CHO: But, you know, the real truth of it was perceived as a cultural
conflict, you know? Like, oh, you know, I think that people saw my comedy,
these network executives saw my comedy and said, `Oh, well it's about the
struggle between East and West.' And actually, the real struggle is--what
saying in my stand-up is my parents are a pain in my ass, and they're
not--really, it's not cultural, they're just a pain in the ass. And that's
what I--I think that was misunderstood somehow.
GROSS: Maybe you could choose an episode from the show that was actually
based on something that happened in your life, and compare how it happened
your life with how it was written for the show.
Ms. CHO: Well, there is something that I do in my stand-up act where my
parents owned a bookstore and it was in San Francisco and it was in the '70s
and it was in a gay area. And my mother had the very interesting job of
stocking the gay porn section. And so I talk about it in my act. It's a
routine that I do. And it's just--it was taken from my stand-up and then
into this television show, like my parents had a video store and I was
threatening my mother that I was going to wear an outfit that one of the
actresses was wearing. So that's sort of how it was interpreted for this
show, is that it wasn't--what I was talking about was the juxtaposition of
this older Korean woman kind of dealing with the idea of gay pornography,
it was that there was humor there for my audience, and then it was taken and
kind of distorted into this idea that my mother was disapproving of me
I was rebelling and threatening to be like a porn actress. So I guess
not the best, but that's the closest example that I can think of, of how it
was all misinterpreted.
GROSS: My guest is comic and actress Margaret Cho. More after a break.
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to our 1999 interview with comic and actress Margaret
You do very funny impersonations of your mother in your performances. When
did your parents come to the United States from Korea?
Ms. CHO: 1964.
GROSS: Now you said your parents owned a bookstore.
Ms. CHO: Yes. In San Francisco, called Paperback Traffic(ph), in the '70s
and the '80s.
GROSS: What kind of books did they sell, in addition to the gay
Ms. CHO: Well, it was really a very eclectic bookstore. They sold a lot of
books on art. It catered to this--they catered to the gay community, more
less, you know, and they had a lot of books on art and photography and film
and an extensive section on metaphysical studies and social studies. And it
was one those--you know, it was a really great family bookstore, and there
were a lot of employees that were gay and lesbian. And my father really
of thrust me into the care of them, and saying, you know, that they would be
able to educate me in a way that he couldn't and that I should be exposed to
their culture because they will teach me about art and they will teach me
about the things in the world that I need to know about. And even though he
was incredibly conservative in many ways, that was the greatest way to grow
up, with a wonderful group of gay nannies. And it's odd; they were a very
interesting bunch of guys and girls, and it was a great way to, like, be a
GROSS: Now in addition to running the bookstore, I understand your father
also wrote joke books?
Ms. CHO: He wrote one joke book. And, which was kind of a reference book
for speakers, you know, like Toastmasters' quotations or jokes for
speech-making or--I don't really know. I can't read it. It's in Korean.
I don't read Korean.
GROSS: So is he a bit of a jokester himself?
Ms. CHO: Well, I guess so. I think he's more of a scholar. But he's not
really that--you know, he's not really a cut-up. I suppose it's more of a
GROSS: Did he take an interest in jokes when you were young? Did...
Ms. CHO: No. But when I was young, I used to watch this show called
Tonight" with my father. And it was stand-up comedians and, you know, there
were a lot of people on that show like Whoopi Goldberg and Bobcat Goldthwait
and all these different comedians. And it was a local show. I was, like,
Francisco, and it was just all these different people. And my father and I
would watch it Thursday night at 9:00 and we would laugh. And he would
And my father loves stand-up comedy. And we would also watch Richard Pryor
movies together. Even though I was so young and I didn't really understand
what was happening, you know, and all the sexual material and everything was
lost on me, yet it was so delightful to see my father laughing; you know, my
father, this incredible serious, incredibly dour, stoic man, laughing. And
thought, `Oh, well, this would be ultimately a way to please him, if I go
stand-up comedy,' which really wasn't the case. He was very angry at me for
years for embarking on that career, but I think early on, I kind of thought,
`Oh, stand-up comedy is something that my father likes and, you know, maybe
can do that.'
GROSS: Why was he angry with you for becoming a comic?
Ms. CHO: Well, he just did not believe that it was possible for me to have
career. My parents, both of them, did not want me to do stand-up comedy.
They didn't want me to go into acting. They didn't want me to go into
anything that they did not--they were not able to kind of see the outcome.
They just did not think it was possible, you know. They experienced such
intense racism and hatred and difficulty just surviving as Americans in the
'60s and '70s. And so they just could not believe that this country would
accept their child in that way.
GROSS: Can you give us a sense of what your act was like when you were a
teen-ager and just getting started?
Ms. CHO: Well, it was pretty much the same thing, you know. I was just
talking about my family and talking about my relationships and how hideous
they all are. And that's all I've ever done, you know, just talking about
GROSS: What would you say about your mother then?
Ms. CHO: When I talk about her, I don't really talk--I don't really judge
or say anything about her, I just say what she says.
Ms. CHO: You know, I'm just repeating what she says. And to me the voice
my mother in my act really is the voice of my Asian-ness; the fact that I am
very modern person. I'm very independent, and yet there's a part of me that
is ancient and as old as the culture and I cannot let go of. I cannot let
of the color of my skin and I cannot let go of these things that will always
be there. And so I cannot let go of this voice that is always going to be
GROSS: Could you do your mother's voice for us?
Ms. CHO: Oh, yes. Well, she--whenever I talk to her lately, she's very
`Mommy's so famous, because you always do the mommy, and the mommy is so
famous. I play golf, and everybody know who mommy is.' And it's true, they
GROSS: How does your mother feel about you doing her on stage?
Ms. CHO: Well, she loves it. Yet my parents have never come to see me
perform. I think that what I do terrifies them. I think that they cannot
bear it, in a way, that they are proud and so excited for me, and always
me on television, and always they're showing their friends videotapes and
playing my records and being there for me, but they cannot come see me
I think they just are so afraid. And I don't invite them because I'm
terrified as well. I don't know if I'd be able to do it if they were there.
I don't know.
GROSS: What are they afraid of?
Ms. CHO: I'm not sure. I think that what I do also is so culturally--it's
just this very outlaw thing, you know, to discuss your feelings and
and failures and pain so openly and so loudly, and to do all these things
get laughter and, on top of it all, be a woman, is so outrageous that I
that it's hard for them to really, really enjoy what I do, but they have to.
GROSS: We talked a little bit about the show, the sitcom that you used to
have, "All American Girl," and the conflicts between your character and that
show and her parents. Have you had a lot of kind of cultural conflicts with
your parents over the years?
Ms. CHO: No. Well, you know, what was lucky for me was that I was expelled
from high school when I was 15 years old. And so I disappointed my parents
young that they learned no to expect anything from me, and that gave me the
freedom to really have the best life. Because I know so many people that
my age and my generation who are Koreans and are just paralyzed by parental
control. They cannot break free from the expectations and the needs and
desires and wants of their parents to go into certain careers that, you
they wouldn't necessarily pursue, but only do so to keep their parents
And because I was so assured not to get parental approval so young, that I
just--I had this incredibly like free ride, like I could just go and pick
choose whatever I wanted to do. Because I didn't have to worry about what
they were thinking and what they were going to be concerned with.
GROSS: One last question about your parents. As you explained, they ran a
bookstore and there was a gay porn section in the bookstore. You use a lot
sexual language and sexual description in your show, and I'm wondering if
think your parents would be shocked or offended by the language that you
Ms. CHO: Well, you know, what they do is, whenever they see it--they do see
it eventually, you know, after a while, like on video or on a record or
something. And then that's when they use their selective understanding of
English. `Oh, I don't know what this means, but everybody thinks that's so
funny.' So that's what--that's what my mother would say. `Why is
this funny? That's nothing funny.' She doesn't know what it means, but she
does, which is ultimately, like, the greatest joke of all.
GROSS: Well, Margaret Cho, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. CHO: Thank you.
GROSS: Margaret Cho, recorded last year. There's a new film version of her
one-woman show, "I'm the One That I Want." Tomorrow, she'll be the grand
marshal of the Gay Pride Parade in San Diego.
Coming up, a review of the new film, "What Lies Beneath."
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer thriller "What
Lies Beneath" is disappointing
TERRY GROSS, host:
The new supernatural thriller "What Lies Beneath" stars Harrison Ford and
Michelle Pfeiffer as Norman and Claire Spencer. It's directed by Robert
Zemeckis, whose films include "Contact," "Death Becomes Her," "Forrest
"Who Framed Roger Rabbit," and "Back to the Future." Henry Sheehan has a
Mr. HENRY SHEEHAN (Film Critic): Poor Claire Spencer. Everyone thinks
going crazy. The wife of Norman Spencer, an academic scientist, Claire is a
former musician who now spends most of her time sprucing up the fabulous
lakeside home she and her husband inherited from his father. But renovation
is not an innocent pastime. Disturbing sounds come from the noisy neighbors
next door. Worse, there's trouble in the bathroom, and not just to do with
old pipes. Claire keeps seeing things, including ghostly messages written
the steam-drenched mirror in which she usually examines her blemish-free
Soon Claire believes that the ghost of a dead girl is haunting the place,
might even want Claire's body, and her husband's, for herself.
This is the setup for "What Lies Beneath," a disappointing suspense thriller
that is nearly as lumpish and vague as its title. I'm not going to give any
more of the plot away. The advertising makes it clear enough that this is
"Fatal Attraction" with ghosts. Let's leave it at that. The movie's real
shock is that it's the work of Robert Zemeckis, one of Hollywood's most
To be sure, Zemeckis' visual ingenuity doesn't fail him here. Elegantly
"What Lies Beneath" draws on the established lexicon of suspense filmmaking.
Zemeckis uses ominous tracking shots to force us, however reluctantly, to
accompany our heroine on dangerous reconnaissance missions to the neighbors'
house. He milks windows, door frames, mirrors, and reflective surfaces for
all the voyeuristic zing they can produce. Plus, he adds to that lexicon
some ingenious variations of his own. Revealing shock elements within the
frame by moving decor within it or moving the camera around that decor. But
it isn't scary, and it's easy to tell why from this scene. Claire,
by the mysterious ghost, is doing the old Eve thing, force-feeding Norman an
(Soundbite of "What Lies Beneath")
Ms. MICHELLE PFEIFFER: (As Claire Spencer) Hello, Dr. Spencer.
Mr. HARRISON FORD: (As Norman Spencer) Mrs. Spencer.
Ms. PFEIFFER: Forbidden fruit. You got a problem with that?
Mr. SHEEHAN: You can learn a lot from that one dumb-sounding clip. Alan
Silvestri's music, for example, flagrantly imitates the scores Bernard
Herrmann did for Alfred Hitchcock. That is actually appropriate for a film
that makes reference to "Psycho," "Rear Window," "Suspicion," "Shadow of a
Doubt," and "Spellbound." Just as flagrant, and far more damaging, are the
terrifyingly terrible performances from Michelle Pfeiffer as Claire and
Harrison Ford as Norman. As you can tell from the clip, when Pfeiffer is
playing Claire possessed, it sounds as if she's channeling Ann-Margret from
back in her sex-kitten days.
Of course, subtlety is not exactly coin of the realm in a scene where, in
order to show her newly enflamed libido, Claire puts on a red dress and
sprawls on the polished hardwood floors with a lit candle between her legs.
What do you suppose she's after, aside from a sore back and singed thighs?
Harrison Ford, who plays Norman, seems to have taken the role on a bet. Can
he play an entire movie without ever modulating the tone of his voice or
changing the expression on his face? The answer is yes and no. Ford
certainly gets into that freeze-frame facial state we immediately recognize
from all his quote, "serious," unquote, roles. And his voice does take on
burbling quality of a sludge-infested industrial waterway.
But he can't be said to be really playing the character; it's more like a
personal appearance. If Ford had spoken at a normal clip, he could have
easily sliced 30 minutes off the movie's two-hour-plus running time. These
are not minor shortcomings. "What Lies Beneath" is a movie about ghostly
possession and deep secrets, so it's suspense is tightly bound to the
characters' sense of self. Who cares if Claire's body is taken over by an
avenging spirit, if she didn't have a personality in the first place? And
cares if Norman might have had a naughty fling in the past if he's just a
Zemeckis has built a beautiful structure for "What Lies Beneath." He should
have been more careful who he let move into it.
GROSS: Henry Sheehan is film critic for the Orange County Register.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
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