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Book Critic Maureen Corrigan

Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews The Dive From the Clausens Pier (knopf) the debut novel by Ann Packer.

06:11

Other segments from the episode on May 22, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 22, 2002: Interview with Justine Shapiro and B.Z. Goldberg; Interview with Noelle Howey; Review of Ann Packer's debut novel, "The dive from Clausen's Pier."

Transcript

DATE May 22, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Justine Shapiro and B.Z. Goldberg discuss their
documentary film, "Promises"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In the documentary film "Promises," we meet four Israeli and three Palestinian
children, and we see the Middle East crisis through their eyes. In a New York
Times review, Julie Salomon wrote, `The film illustrates the uneasy
convergence of history and modernity, fanaticism and reasonableness.' The
movie was shown on the PBS series "P.O.V." and is now screening in many
theaters around the country. My guests are two of the film's directors,
Justine Shapiro and B.Z. Goldberg, who was born in America but lived in
Israel from the age of seven until his 20s. He's often on camera talking with
the children.

The children were chosen to represent a cross-section of the Middle East.
Yarko and Daniel are twins who are secular Israelis. Schlomo is an
ultra-Orthodox Jew, and Moishe is a right-wing Jewish settler. Mahmoud lives
in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem and is a supporter of Hamas. Sanabel and
Faraj are Palestinian refugees living in a refugee camp. During the course of
the film, the Israeli twins and the two Palestinian refugees meet at the camp.
The film was shot between 1997 and 2000 during a comparatively peaceful time.
But the filmmakers have remained in touch with most of the children during the
current upheaval. Justine Shapiro says that they focused on children ages
nine to 13 for a reason.

Ms. JUSTINE SHAPIRO (Director, "Promises"): We saw kids doing what adults and
politicians never do. I mean, for example, one of the boys in the film,
Faraj, a Palestinian boy, he is adamantly against meeting the Israelis, but
after being somewhat cajoled and convinced by Sanabel, another Palestinian
refugee, and after seeing Polaroid photographs of the two Israeli twins, Faraj
changes his mind. And this is a really big thing. It's so rare that we see
politicians change their mind and say, `You know what? I'm going to try this.
I said I wasn't, but I am going to try this.' And Faraj, you know, in the
middle of a conversation with him, surprised us and asked us for the phone
number of the twins and called them up and invites them to the camp. So, you
know, the children are sponges of their environments, but they're also still
malleable. They're still at that age where curiosity, in a way, is even a
stronger force than the rhetoric and the dogma that they grow up with.

GROSS: B.Z., I want to ask you about one of the moments in the film, where
you're on camera talking to one of the Palestinian kids, and you're obviously
really close. You can just see the chemistry on screen, and he's kind of
leaning his elbow on your knee, and he's explaining that he really hates all
Israelis, and when he sees an Israeli--or maybe he says when he sees a Jew, he
wants to throw a rock at them. And then you explain to him something that
he apparently doesn't know, which is that you're part Israeli, you lived in
Israel a lot of your life, and you're Jewish. Describe what happens when he
hears that from you.

Mr. B.Z. GOLDBERG (Producer, "Promises"): Well, I was sitting with Mahmoud,
who is an avid supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah, and, well, to most Israeli
kids, Palestinian means rock thrower, terrorist, at best, construction worker
or busboy. To Palestinian kids, Jew means Israeli, means soldier, oppressor,
settler, occupier, full stop. That's it.

So I'm sitting there with Mahmoud. The funny thing was it was actually the
third time we'd had this conversation. He was just in such a deep denial, he
couldn't accept the possibility that I was Jewish because a Jewish person to
him is someone who occupies his land and oppresses him. And he wouldn't
accept it. He said, `You're not an authentic Jew. You're one of those
American Jews. You're not a real Jew.' And I kept insisting, `No, I actually
am an authentic Jew, and I grew up here. My family is here.' And he wouldn't
accept it. You know, he just would not--and he's sitting there telling me how
he wants to kill Jews, how he wants to basically, you know, help create
suicide bombs and blow up as many Jews as possible so that there'll be fewer,
but won't accept the fact that I am actually a real authentic Jew, a (Arabic
spoken), as they say in Arabic.

And the funny thing was even after that conversation, two years later, I stood
in his father's coffee store in the Old City, and he said, `You know, I've
been meaning to ask you a question. Are you a Christian or a Muslim?' And
his little brother stood from the side trying to mouth the words `Jew, Jew,
he's an American Jew,' and it took years for Mahmoud to realize--it was
actually not till Mahmoud sat in a theater in West Jerusalem--he was one of
four Arabs in an audience of about 400 Israelis--and watched the film and then
saw a question-and-answer session, and afterwards, he came up and said, `Now
that I've seen you do a question-and-answer thing in Hebrew, I realize you
must be an authentic Jew.'

GROSS: Well, how did it affect your feelings about him? I mean, you're
trying to get really close to these kids, and it sounds like you really
succeeded. But here's this kid who, I mean, clearly, he's making an exception
by having a relationship with you. I mean, he really thinks he hates all
Jews. Is it easy to be friendly to, to like a kid who has that attitude?

Ms. SHAPIRO: I think that the conflict really isn't Jewish-Palestinian. It's
really a conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah, definitely. Just to add to this complexity that gets
created, Palestinians refer to Israelis as Jews. They don't actually mean
the people in the United States. It's just something that's kind of become
part of the vernacular. When we did this interview with Mahmoud, I mean, the
truth was I wanted to choke him. I actually had to sit on my hands, because
they kept moving towards his throat, because he talks about, `No, we need to
kill as many Jews as possible,' and I would say, `Mahmoud, listen, you know,
when those buses blow up, sometimes there are Palestinians on the buses, too.'
And every time I said anything, he had something from the Koran to back up his
position. He said, `Oh, no, the Palestinians go directly to heaven, but the
Jews go directly to hell,' which, you know, made me again want to choke him.

Yet Justine and I and Carlos had decided really, really early on in the
process of making the film that the governing principle behind this film could
not possibly be justice; that some idea of ours, some artificial idea of what
justice is, was not going to work in making this film, because then we would
just come out with some kind of biased-to-one-side-or-another propaganda film.
We decided that awareness and curiosity were much more important to us. So
therefore, when Mahmoud talked about killing as many Jews as possible, we
would ask him questions like, `Well, how? You know, what kinds of explosives
will you use? And do you pack nails in with them or how would you do that,'
to try and get deep under the surface and understand. So this was the case
where I had to exercise the most restraint.

And it wasn't so much because of his views, because we had heard these kinds
of views from a lot of kids. It was really because so much of Mahmoud's point
of view was coming from a place of dogma. You know, the kids in the refugee
camp, they really have a lot of day-to-day experience, and also, there was
openness when we spoke to them. They were willing to consider talking to
Israeli kids. They were willing to consider that killing Israelis might not
be a good idea. With Mahmoud, every line that came out of him was Koranic
verse, and it was all kind of--it was so dogmatic that there was nowhere to go
with conversation. So in that case, I really had to restrain myself and sort
of, you know, go hit the wall when we left the house.

Ms. SHAPIRO: And I should say some distortion of Koranic verse.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah, definitely.

GROSS: So you started working on the film in '95. Most of the taping in the
movie was done in '97 and '98.

Ms. SHAPIRO: Right.

GROSS: And then two years later, you contacted the children again. That was
in the year 2000. And you've been in touch with some of them since 2000.
What are some of the most dramatic ways in which some of the children have
changed since you first met them?

Ms. SHAPIRO: Well, the really amazing experience was recently, being with
Sanabel, the Palestinian refugee from Dheisheh refugee camp, and Yarko and
Daniel, the Israeli twins, when they came out to Los Angeles in March. And...

GROSS: This was for the Academy Awards.

Ms. SHAPIRO: For the Academy Awards, and it was really interesting to see
Sanabel change over the years. When we met her in 1997, her father had been
held in prison for two years, in administrative detention without trial.
Sanabel hadn't seen her father for those two years, and for pretty much half
of her life, he'd been in and out of prison. He's a journalist with the PFLP.
But even at that time, she was so curious and so open to the idea of meeting
these Israelis and being with us and really sharing her thoughts and her
feelings, and she really defied my own stereotype of the, you know,
Palestinian Muslim girl. I mean, she's growing up in a family where, you
know, discussion and communication is really important.

But then when the recent intifada started in September of 2000, Sanabel
started to feel really isolated because in her mind, all Israelis were against
the Palestinian people. And she didn't have contact with any Israelis, and
she became very angry, and like many, many kids living in the refugee camps,
she felt that, you know, suicide bombings were, you know, a viable solution
and justified it, you know, as a measure of hopelessness. Well, when we told
her that we were nominated for an Academy Award, we wanted to know if she'd be
willing to come out and if she'd be willing to be with Yarko and Daniel. And
our idea was that if we were to win, we wanted Sanabel and one of the Israeli
twins to go on stage and accept the award and say something, you know, from
their heart and hopefully for peace. And Sanabel said, `Well, I'll come to
the Academy Awards, but I'm not going to stand on stage with an Israeli.'

Well, they met in the Amsterdam Airport, and it was a very long flight. And
during the course of the flight, they played sort of musical chairs, and they
ended up sitting next to each other, and they ended up connecting with each
other. And when the flight was delayed in Dallas, Delta didn't give anybody
hotel rooms. They were all made to sleep on the lounge in the Dallas Airport,
and they created what they called the first Palestinian-Israeli refugee camp.
And all the--because Sanabel came with a Palestinian girlfriend, the two
Palestinian girls, Yarko and Daniel, the two Israeli boys and their mother
were all asleep there and hanging out in this, you know, Palestinian-Israeli
refugee camp, as they called it.

And then they spent this week together in Los Angeles, and Sanabel really
changed. She felt so supported by Yarko and Daniel, and she started to talk
about peace and very future thinking and positive and hopeful, and it was a
real transformation. And what I saw in that was that as long as she felt
isolated, she became more angry and hopeless. But when she felt connected,
she, you know, felt more hopeful, and now they're in regular e-mail contact
with Yarko and Daniel.

Mr. GOLDBERG: There was--you know, Sanabel had no idea, she told us--she
said, `I didn't know that there were any Israelis who would stand by my side.
I thought that the entire Israeli population was behind Sharon. I didn't
think that anybody would support me.' And the twins, on the other hand, had
absolutely no idea what Sanabel's life was like on a day-to-day basis. And so
they really had to tackle some very serious issues while we were together in
Los Angeles. There were moments where they said, `OK, all the grown-ups out
of the room. We need to talk for a while.' And they would talk about things
like the Palestinian right of return, like the settlements, like the nature of
a Palestinian state, like Israeli security. They really wanted to get down
and dirty and try and understand what the other side felt and to think about
how the--what possible solutions were.

And their lives have been changed by this in a very dramatic way in that they
both have gone back, you know, to their communities--actually, the girls just
went back yesterday. They had been stranded here because they couldn't get
in. Israel wasn't letting Palestinians in over the Jordanian bridge, but they
just went back. And they're going to have to stand up in their communities
and say, `You know, there actually are Israelis who can support us and with
whom it's worth having a meaningful conversation.' I know that the boys, the
twins, are having a hard time with their friends because a lot of people are
so anti-Palestinian, and Yarko and Daniel are standing up and saying, `You
know, they're not all horrible. They actually want co-existence. What they
want is very, very simple.'

And I think that Sanabel and Keyon(ph), her friend who traveled here with her,
are going to have even a harder time because they've actually been shunned a
little bit by--you know, they've gotten some e-mails saying that they're
betraying the Palestinian cause because they're meeting with Israelis outside
of the country, and nobody should meet with Israelis because that puts out
some kind of message of normalization, as if everything is cool. There's this
idea in the Palestinian community that Israelis and Palestinians should not
meet because that portrays the situation as solved.

And, you know, I asked Sanabel a couple days ago if she could get across the
checkpoint, if she would be interested in going to a peace rally, because
there have been these big peace demonstrations in Tel Aviv, with the twins.
And she said, `I would die to go. I would love to go to a peace rally, and I
couldn't possibly do it because the community. What will people say when I
come back if someone finds out that I went to Israel, that I was at a
demonstration with two Israeli boys? It would just be horrible for me.'

GROSS: Do you know if any of the Israeli kids had friends who were killed in
the recent suicide bombings, or if any of the Palestinian kids had friends
from the neighborhood who were among the suicide bombers?

Mr. GOLDBERG: As far as I know, none of the Israeli kids have immediate
friends who were killed recently. Moishe does have a friend who was killed,
you know, back in '97, the end of '97. Although, his settlement has been
fired on repeatedly by the local, you know, Palestinian villages. But the
Palestinian kids in the refugee camp do have some friends who were killed.
There was a young boy who was killed there in November who was of Sanabel's
age...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GOLDBERG: ...and more recently, a girl who was a few years older than
Sanabel and lived, you know, a few minutes away from her house was the girl
who killed herself in Jerusalem, the first teen-ager who was a suicide bomber.

GROSS: My guests are Justine Shapiro and B.Z. Goldberg, directors of the
documentary "Promises." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are B.Z. Goldberg and Justine
Shapiro. They're co-directors of the new movie "Promises," and it's a
documentary about the conflict in the Middle East as seen through the eyes of
Palestinian and Israeli children from the ages of about nine to 14.

B.Z, I know during the first intifada, you were an Israeli journalist covering
the intifada. So a lot of your experiences then with Palestinian children
were probably watching them throw rocks. Was it easy to get to know any
individuals when you were covering the intifada? Did you have a sense of who
the people were who were throwing rocks and what their motivation was? I
mean, do you see the children differently now as a filmmaker than you did as a
journalist during the intifada?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, during the intifada I worked mostly as a sound man for...

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. GOLDBERG: ...actually for foreign networks. I was--I worked a lot for
CNN and for NBC and for Reuters. I didn't do that much work for the Israeli
media. And we didn't get to know people. In fact, you know, the longest
amount of time I got to spend with any one person was 15, 20 minutes or a half
an hour interview. And the closest I got to kids who were throwing rocks were
the kids who were throwing rocks at me. So, no, this was the first time that
we were able to really meet kids on both sides, actually, because I also had
never made personal relationships with settlers, for example. I came from a
community in Israel--you know, people thought I was nuts when I was going to
the refugee camps. People would say, `You're going to the refugee camp? What
did you lose there?' But they really thought I was crazy for going to the
settlement. You know, the settlers are considered by, kind of, my social set
in Israel to be lunatics, to be crazy. So I didn't know any settlers.

And for, you know, Justine and Carlos and I, it was such an incredibly
enriching experience that we could meet people on all sides of this very, very
complicated conflict and really get to know them and get to kind of, you know,
feel what their life feels like and see what their houses are like and see in
what ways they're really similar to each other and the music that they
listened to and the ways in which they're so, so utterly different.

GROSS: The Israeli twins who we've talked about--there's a part in the movie
where they explain that they really don't want to go in the military. They
don't want to have to kill people. You even have them talking to a wounded
Israeli soldier who says, `Well, sometimes you have to fight.' Well, those
twins are closer to military age now. How do they feel about having to go
into the military soon?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Both Yarko and Daniel are avid volleyball players, and their
dream is to be national volleyball stars, in which they'll have to do some
kind of quick form of basic training and not spend that much time in the army.
And they have said that they don't want to serve--they'd rather not serve in
combat units because they don't want to have end up serving in the occupied
territories. Daniel is not 100 percent sure, and Yarko felt that for sure.
He, in fact, said, `If I was, you know, forced to serve in the territories or
fire at a refugee camp, I would prefer to run away and risk being in jail.'

GROSS: How soon do they actually face this decision?

Mr. GOLDBERG: They--in just under a year and a half. Right now what they
told me is that the thing that's standing between them and them being
volleyball stars is they have to grow three inches. So they're trying to eat
all the foods that they've been told to make them grow faster.

GROSS: B.Z., what about you? Your family has lived both in the United States
and in Israel. Do you debate what Israel's political position should be in
the conflict a lot in your family?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Most of the debate I have actually is with my immediate family
in Israel. And, you know, like any good Israelis, we debate just about
anything and everything having to do with politics. And--yes. And my family
is living in Israel, and the truth is that their concern, their day-to-day
concern, is much more focused on issues of security and their own feelings of
safety. So, yes, I have had definitely conversations and, you know, people
who are friends and family who have asked, `Well, why are you doing this
really? Do the people outside of Israel really need to know all this? It's
not going to be good for Israel.'

And, also, sometimes people, you know, come up with these ideas, for example,
that the reason Palestinians hate Israelis is because they're being educated
that way in school. And having been there and having been to the schools, I
know that that's the case in some of the schools, but in some of the schools,
that's really not the case. And, you know, sadly in the last 20 months or so,
it's the Israelis who are educating the Palestinians towards hatred, in my
estimation. So, yeah, I do end up having, you know, arguments and fights, and
a lot of time it's actually easier not to speak politics because, you know,
positions are so firm. You know, like an Israeli novelist once said, `It's
actually easier in Israel to change your gender than to change your political
point of view.'

GROSS: B.Z. Goldberg and Justine Shapiro directed the documentary "Promises."
It's currently playing in theaters in several cities, and will open in more
cities in the weeks to come. We'll talk more in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Credits)

GROSS: Coming up, finding out that your father cross-dresses and wants to be
a woman. We talk with Noelle Howey about her new memoir "Dress Codes." Also,
Maureen Corrigan reviews "The Dive from Clausen's Pier," the debut novel by
Ann Packer, and we continue our interview with filmmakers B.Z. Goldberg and
Justine Shapiro.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with B.Z. Goldberg and
Justine Shapiro, two of the directors of the documentary "Promises," a film
that looks at the Middle East crisis through the eyes of Palestinian and
Israeli children.

Your film is so much about how children's politics in the Middle East are
shaped and how their views of Israelis and Palestinians are shaped. B.Z., you
grew up in Israel from the age of seven through your 20s. Did you have any
friends as a child who were Palestinian?

Mr. GOLDBERG: No, I didn't, and you know, most Israeli children don't. You
know, I grew up in this pretty liberal, progressive family, and at the same
time there was this background message from the community of--went sort of
like this: There are good Arabs and there are bad Arabs. The good Arabs are
dead Arabs. So, no, I didn't have any Palestinian friends when I was growing
up.

GROSS: And did you have any friends who were killed by Palestinians when you
were growing up?

Mr. GOLDBERG: I did. When I was 14, the kid I sat next to in school, a kid
named Imri(ph), was killed in an incident on Israel's coastal road. There was
an attack there. And I remember the day after he was killed being at school
with a group of my friends and trying to figure out. We got together at
recess--and the teachers actually insisted that we continue studying as
normal, but at recess we got together and tried to figure out what we could
do, as if there's something that we could do. And I remembered we decided
that the only thing we could do is to take revenge. And the janitor in the
school had a son who was mentally handicapped and we decided that he would be,
you know, fair game, that we could kill this kid, and that that would feel
good, that the feeling of revenge would make us feel a little bit more peace.
And then--I mean, we were 14 years old and the bell rang and we had to go in
from recess, and we didn't get around to it. But I remember that feeling.
That actually is one of the things that has helped me understand some of the
kind of, you know, seemingly illogical rage that comes when people have lost
friends and family on both sides of the conflict.

GROSS: Did you think at that time that you would be capable of being one of
the killers seeking revenge?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Oh, totally. I mean, we were sitting there together and all of
us were sort of planning how we were gonna kill this kid. There were other
moments, you know. When I was working in the West Bank, there was one time
where a rock went through my front window and hit me in the eye, and I
remember feeling such murderous rage for a moment that I know that if the kid
was in front of me who did this and I had a gun, I feel like I would have
killed him. I was feeling so angry and feeling like that kind of revenge
would make me feel good. But it's this, you know, momentary thing, and it
goes away after a minute or two, and, you know, what's useful about it for me
is understanding how someone could feel so rageful and so vengeful; you know,
not condoning it, but really understanding how a human being could feel that
way.

GROSS: Have you screened the movie for Israelis and for Palestinians?

Mr. GOLDBERG: The film actually showed in Israel. It was in theaters for a
few months in the three big cities in Israel and it was at the film festival
in Jerusalem and was on television a couple months ago. The response from
Israelis has been overwhelmingly warm. We originally made the film thinking
about an American audience, a European audience, and tried to make it, you
know, very accessible and basic in its approach to history and politics. But
so many Israelis have said to us, you know, `I really didn't know about this
particular part of Palestinian lives,' and people have said, `You really
opened my mind, and I'm thinking about the conflict in a different way.'

The Palestinian Authority won't allow a film like this. Actually none of the
Arab states at this point would allow a film like this to be screened on TV or
in theaters because of this issue of normalization. You know, in the film,
Israelis and Palestinians meet and this is considered not to be a ripe time
for these kinds of meetings. So the film can't be screened officially;
however, when the film screened on Israeli television, the Palestinians were
able to see it, you know, on TV and, you know, when the Academy Awards came
around, the Palestinian community, nobody even knew what the Academy Awards
were in the refugee camp, but we heard that, you know, thousands of families
in the refugee camp stayed up in the middle of the night to see and watch and
wait for the film to win, hoping to see Sanabel take the stage. The film is
being circulated in the way that a lot of banned films get around in the Arab
world, which is, you know, videotapes. People make copies of videotapes, and
we're actually working right now on getting a good Arabic translation of the
film so that we can make a high-quality master to make the best possible
bootleg tapes to, you know, circulate in the Arab world.

Mahmoud, the blond-haired kid from Jerusalem, actually came to the screening I
mentioned in the film...

GROSS: This is the kid who wants to join Hamas.

Mr. GOLDBERG: This is the kid who, you know, is supportive of Hamas. He
actually said, `I am not part of Hamas, but I support them.' You know...

GROSS: Yeah. Right.

Mr. GOLDBERG: ...he does, you know, make that distinction. He came to the
screening, and I was worried about him. You know, I was worried that, you
know, here he is saying that the wants to kill Jews and he's sitting in an
audience of 400 Jews, and I was thinking, what's gonna happen? You know, is
someone gonna get angry at him? And somehow I felt that it was OK, and at the
end of the screening I said, `I'd like to tell you that there's someone here
from the film. Mahmoud has been--his political point of views and mine often
don't agree, and oftentimes we get into fights, but I really admire his
courage at speaking his mind, you know, during times when not a lot of people
were speaking their minds, and today I admire his courage because he's come
here to West Jerusalem to sit in this theater with, you know, 400 Israelis,
and I think that takes a lot of courage.' And at that point, Mahmoud stood up
and he got this rousing ovation, and Mahmoud came to me after the screening
and said, `You know, I didn't know that there were Israelis like this. I
thought all the Israelis were soldiers and settlers. I really didn't know
that there were people who would appreciate me in this way.' So, you know, it
affected him.

And what we're hearing in the Palestinian community is a lot of support for
the film. You know, in the refugee camp some people have spoken out against
Sanabel and Faraj, the two refugee kids in the film, and said, you know,
they're traitors because they met with Israeli kids, but most of what we've
gotten is very, very positive. The Palestinians feel like the film--as they
say, `Well, it's a good film, but it's a little pro-Israeli,' and the Israelis
have said, `Well, this is a good film, but it's a little pro-Palestinian.' So
we feel like we, you know, must have done something right.

GROSS: What about the children themselves? What do they think of your movie?

Ms. SHAPIRO: They all can't understand why they're not in it more. I mean,
we shot close to 200 hours of footage, so you can imagine how much we ended up
editing.

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

Ms. SHAPIRO: Thank you, Terry.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Justine Shapiro and B.Z. Goldberg directed the documentary "Promises,"
along with Carlos Bolado. It's continuing to open in theaters around the
country. "Promises" is also available for educational distribution.

Coming up, what it's like when Dad wants to be a woman. This is FRESH AIR.

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

Interview: Noelle Howey discusses her book "Dress Codes" and
growing up with a father who later had a sex-change operation
TERRY GROSS, host:

When Noelle Howey was a teen-ager trying to figure out what it means to be a
woman, her father was going through a similar transition. He wanted to be a
woman. Noelle Howey was 17 when she learned her father was a cross-dresser.
A few years later he had a sex change operation and is subsequently identified
as a lesbian. In the new memoir "Dress Codes," Howey writes about the
mind-bending gender questions her father's predicament raised for her. Let's
start with a reading from the book.

Ms. NOELLE HOWEY (Author, "Dress Codes"): `I have a dad who is a woman much
like me, but with better legs. And when he was still male, I had a dad
possibly like yours--sullen, sporadically hostile, frequently vacant. I had a
dad who became a woman in order to be nice. I have a family that survived a
life in the closet by employing humor, tinted car windows and thousands of
dollars' worth of therapy. A family that gave its patriarch Chanel No. 5 for
Father's Day. A traditional family--loving father, supportive mother, doting
child--that would probably be the right wing's worst nightmare. I am a
different person because my father was a man, then a girl, then a woman. I
watched her go through puberty right after I did, putting on too much makeup
before going for the natural look, wearing three-inch heels before deciding
that flats had better arch support.'

GROSS: Noelle, you write in your memoir that your father became a woman in
order to be nice. How did his personality compare when he was a man to when
he became a she?

Ms. HOWEY: When my father was a man, we liked to call him an aspiring
alcoholic. He wasn't all that successful because he was able to quit drinking
rather quickly and easily, but he was very cold, very abrupt, very neglectful
of both me and my mother. I mean, I don't like to make it sound too `woe is
me' or, you know, too tragic, because it wasn't really terrible. I mean, my
father sort of behaved in the way that many fathers of his generation behaved,
which is somewhat cold and somewhat abrupt. But he was so removed from my
childhood when I was growing up and what was very different when he came out
and started the transformation of becoming a woman is he really started being
a part of my life. She started asking questions about my life. She started
trying to make up for all these years where she had sort of held me at arm's
length. And I don't really feel that I had a father until my father became a
female.

GROSS: How did your father first come out to your mother, you know, years
before he actually got the transsexual surgery?

Ms. HOWEY: My father came out a number of times to my mother. The first time
was when they were 16-year-old high school sweethearts and they were on the
telephone, and my father suddenly blurted out that he liked to wear fuzzy
sweaters and--meaning girls' sweaters--and my mother didn't really know how to
react to that, but she thought, fuzzy sweaters, what's wrong with that. She
thought, as many wives of people who later come out as gay and lesbian can
attest, that this was a phase. She thought at times that it was a sexual
fetish. She thought at other times that it was just something that she would
have to live with but didn't take away from the other things that he had to
offer. So she made a lot of excuses for it.

GROSS: You first found out that your father thought of himself as a woman and
cross-dressed when you were in your teen-age years. It was your mother who
told you. How did she break the news?

Ms. HOWEY: My mother broke the news after we went shopping for jeans in a
mall near our Cleveland home, and what she did was she told me that my father
liked to wear women's clothes. I was shocked, but I wasn't shocked so much by
the fact that my father had this particular--I don't know what to call
it--interest, as I was just that my father didn't really hate me. I sort of
had this very typical child perspective that the reason my father didn't reach
out to me was because it had something to do with me, not because it was
something emanating from him. And so when my mother told me this, I steeled
myself against it and said, `OK, I'm not going to be interested in this. I'm
not going to reach out to my father. I'm not going to react,' and I burst
into tears anyway. And the first thing that my mother recalls me saying was
that, `Oh my God. So you mean he doesn't hate me?'

GROSS: Six months after your mother told you about your father, your father
left the family. Do you know why he left?

Ms. HOWEY: He left to figure out who he was. He left to start dressing, and
this was not something that he could do while he was still in our house. It
wasn't something I was prepared to see or to deal with yet, and it wasn't
something that my mother certainly wanted to have going on at home, because
she was having a lot of mixed emotions about my father's, you know, transition
to a woman as well. So my dad got her own apartment and she proceeded to sort
of experiment with different sort of, you know, clothes and lifestyle options,
basically.

GROSS: During the period when your father knew that he identified as a woman
even though he was in a male body, did his sense of being a woman--how did his
sense of being a woman compare to your sense of being a woman as you are
coming into womanhood?

Ms. HOWEY: Well, that was actually a huge source of conflict between us for a
while. When my father started living full-time as a woman, at first she
became this sort of frightening Martha Stewart type of happy homemaker hybrid.
It was really terrifying. She was compulsively arranging flowers and
organizing guest soaps in the bathroom and buying everything in a shade of
mauve. Everything was mauve for a while there. And this was at the very same
time that I was getting into feminism and going on marches and cutting all my
hair off and not wearing makeup and trying out veganism, and so we obviously
were at odds. My father would sort of tell me about how thrilling it was to
be able to vacuum and that vacuuming was such a really wonderful thing that
women got to do that men didn't get to do, which obviously is not quite the
case. And so we had a lot of arguments and, you know, what ended up actually
happening was that my father, you know, did end up sort of mellowing into a
much less sort of stereotypical woman, but then again, so did I.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Noelle Howey. Her new
memoir, "Dress Codes," is about three girlhoods, her mother's, her father's
and her own. Her father is a transsexual who had his surgery when Noelle was
about 23. She found out about his gender confusion when she was in her teens.

You decided to go with your father when he decided to have his sex change
operation, which was in Brussels?

Ms. HOWEY: Yes.

GROSS: Did you say goodbye to your father, the man, right before he had the
surgery to become a woman?

Ms. HOWEY: I don't know if it was before the surgery, but it was while my
father was in the hospital I realized that the man who I had grown up with,
who I had loved and who I had hated, both, wasn't coming back. Even to this
day, I still miss him, you know. I love her, I see her all the time. We live
near each other now, but I do miss him. I will always miss him. There's
something about somebody--you don't realize how much you love them based on
your senses of them--what they smell like, what they look like, how their skin
feels. You don't have any sense of that until it's gone, because most people
don't have those things change entirely. My father's hormones changed, you
know. Her pheromones changed. Everything about the way that I experienced
her as a physical presence changed. And that's not an experience most people
go through with somebody who's still alive.

GROSS: Is your mother still close with your father?

Ms. HOWEY: Yes, they're very good friends. They see each other from time to
time and we all share non-traditional Christmases together.

GROSS: So not to get too theoretical here or anything, but what are some of
the conclusions you've reached about the nature of gender and how fixed gender
is or isn't?

Ms. HOWEY: It seems to me that there is some sort of spectrum for gender.
There's also the Kinsey scale for sexuality, which goes from one to seven, on
one end being totally homosexual, on the other end being totally heterosexual.
And it's been positive that there have been times that we all sort of fall
somewhere in the middle of that. And I think that gender is very much the
same, that there is a spectrum from extremely feminine to extremely masculine,
and most of us aren't on either pole. We're someplace in the middle. I think
that in a lot of ways, being transgender is just--it's always been sort of
discussed as this bizarre affliction that happens to about 1 percent of the
population, and gender is not something that happens to 1 percent of the
population, it happens to 100 percent of the population. This is something
that we all deal with, and I think people are a little scared of people who
are transgendered because it's familiar, not because it's so foreign.

And this is something that I wanted to write about because it's not something
that I had seen depicted, even in, you know, movies and TV shows and whether,
you know, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" or "Boys Don't Cry," or there's a lot of
media out there about transgendered people, and a lot of it's really well
done. But the people were always alien. They weren't people that I guess
normal average Joes could relate to. And my father is not particularly exotic
or strange at all.

GROSS: Even though your father is now a she, do you still call her `Dad'?

Ms. HOWEY: I do. And I do still call my father `Dad,' and this is a somewhat
controversial topic in the transgender community. Most people tend to switch.
When somebody switches gender, they also switch whether they're a mother or a
father. But my father and I have stuck with `Father' because, well, the basic
biological facts still remain that she is my father. You know, that's what
she brought to the party originally. And I personally feel that being a man
and being a father are not the same thing. My father is my father because she
loves me, because she's a wonderful parent, because she's protective, because
she's everything that a father should be, except that she doesn't have, you
know, the appropriate genitalia, which I think we can all say is not a major
part of a father/daughter relationship. So I can't say that that has
particularly changed how I feel about her as a parent and, therefore, it
hasn't changed the words I use to describe her.

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

Ms. HOWEY: Thank you.

GROSS: Noelle Howey is the author of the memoir "Dress Codes."

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the debut novel by Ann Packer. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

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

Review: Ann Packer's debut novel, "The Dive from Clausen's Pier"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Ann Packer has received numerous awards for her short stories, some of which
have been gathered into a collection called "Mendocino and Other Stories."
She's just written her first novel, called "The Dive from Clausen's Pier."
And book critic Maureen Corrigan says Packer's novel, which edges toward 400
pages, is still too short. She wants more.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:

I was at a barbecue on Saturday night where the subject turned to books. The
hostess, a friend, said that she felt more on top of her reading these days.
`There's not that much out there,' she said. `Once you have more of a sense
of your own tastes, you can winnow out those books you know aren't going to
appeal to you.' `Isn't it pretty to think so?' I told her, demonstrating once
again that the greatest social value of a PhD in English is the access it
gives you to literary quotations for every occasion.

Rather than feeling more on top of my reading, I'm feeling more daunted by the
cosmic expanse of so many books, so little time. There are the classics, as
well as all those highly acclaimed contemporary books I haven't gotten around
to reading yet. There are all the beloved authors I want to reread, like
every Dickens novel, in sequence this time 'round. And mysteries--I've
discovered Ian Rankin, and I have to restrict myself to one of his novels per
month. Otherwise, nothing else would get done.

To make matters worse, all these new writers keep on appearing. I just
reviewed Jonathan Safran Foer's amazing first novel, "Everything Is
Illuminated." This week, another superb and stylistically very different
debut novel has me raving. It's called "The Dive from Clausen's Pier" by Ann
Packer. There is no such thing as getting on top of reading. You read and
read. You flail around and struggle to gain a foothold, and then before you
know it, another great book knocks you over.

Because I don't have Ann Packer's gift for deceptively unadorned language that
captures the complexities of a situation, the plot of "The Dive from Clausen's
Pier" may sound contrived. With that caveat, here goes. A 23-year-old woman
named Carrie Belle is feeling restless. She's lived all her life in Madison,
Wisconsin, gone to college there, now works in the university library. Her
circle of friends hasn't changed since high school. She's been with her
boyfriend Mike since she was 14. Now they're engaged. On Memorial Day
weekend, Mike, Carrie and their friends drive out, as usual, to Clausen's
Reservoir for a picnic.

Because Mike senses Carrie's growing distance, he does something stupid to win
her attention and affection. He dives off Clausen's Pier into the ice-cold
reservoir. Except that it's been a very dry spring in the Midwest and the
reservoir is much lower than normal, and so Mike breaks his neck. He wakes
from a coma many weeks later to find that he's now a quadriplegic and Carrie,
who was subconsciously planning to break up with him, finds that she's been
fixed into the role of grieving, but stalwart fiancee--temporarily fixed, that
is. Because one night, she gets into her car and impetuously drives to New
York. As Carrie, our first-person narrator, races away from her martyrdom in
Madison, she throws out this explanation in the form of a question to the
reader: `How much do we owe the people we love? How much do we owe them?
What I had discovered was that I couldn't give up my life for Mike. That's
how I saw it at the time. That's the choice I thought I had to make. And
because I couldn't give up everything, I also thought I couldn't give up
anything.'

It's standard with a novel like this to say the language rises above the
flamboyant aspects of the plot, but Packer has an organic vision of her story
here. Mike's accident is the melodrama of reality. When she arrives in New
York, Carrie seeks out a gay friend from high school and moves into the
second-floor landing of the ramshackle brownstone he rents with about five
other people. She pursues a relationship with a strangely aloof but seductive
guy named Kilroy. Meanwhile, minor characters in Madison and New York claim
their own erratic adventures: marriage, the loss of a parent, a catapult into
literary fame.

Even more than the ingeniousness of this sprawling plot, Packer's novel is
distinguished by the psychological subtlety of her language; the way she hints
at, rather than overstates, Carrie's semidecisions. Carrie's passion is
sewing, and pages here are devoted to engrossing descriptions of how she
chooses fabric, cuts it into pieces, snips thread, pins a hem, superheats her
iron, assembles an article of clothing from nothing. Packer might as well be
describing her own slow, precise and utterly compelling method as a writer.
The shape of the story line she puts together by the end of "The Dive from
Clausen's Pier" is like nothing you've seen or could have anticipated.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "The Dive from Clausen's Pier" by Ann Packer.

(Soundbite of music; credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Funding credits)

GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, as President Bush heads for his first summit
meeting in Russia, we talk with Strobe Talbott. His new memoir is about his
work as the architect of the Clinton administration's Russia policy. I'm
Terry Gross. Join us for the next FRESH AIR.
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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