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A Clash Of Manners And Monsters In Edna O'Brien's 'Little Red Chairs'

At the age of 85, Edna O'Brien has just brought out one of her best and most ambitious novels yet. The Little Red Chairs is personal and political; charming and grotesque; a novel of manners and a novel of monsters.


Other segments from the episode on April 12, 2016

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 12, 2016: Interview with Nadia Manzoor & Rhadika Vaz; Review of book The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guests describe their comedy as walking the line between hipsters and Hijabis. In their web sketch-comedy series "Shugs And Fats," Nadia Manzoor and Radhika Vaz play two Muslim immigrants who dress in and hijabs and are roommates in Brooklyn trying to make sense of the culture they're now living in. I knew I wanted to check them out after they won their Gotham Award for breakthrough short form series. Here's what they said when they accepted the award.


RADHIKA VAZ: Thank you to everybody except our families because women like us, we don't thank our families.


VAZ: (Unintelligible).

MANZOOR: We ran away from our families so we could be here today.

GROSS: That's really funny about running away from their families. There's some truth behind it. Their web series draws on their experiences before they discovered feminism. Manzoor was raised in a conservative Muslim home in England, where her parents had emigrated from Pakistan. Vaz was raised in India and now divides her time between India and New York.

They had to leave home to become themselves. In addition to working as a duo, they each perform on solo autobiographical shows. Manzoor's is called "Burq Off!" as in burqa off. Vaz's latest is called "Older, Angrier, Hairier." Their web series "Shugs And Fats" starts its third season this week. It will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday and will go up on the web Friday. Nadia Manzoor, Radhika Vaz welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me start by asking you to describe the characters that you play in the web series.

VAZ: I play Fats...

GROSS: And this is Radhika talking.

VAZ: And - this is Radhika, yes. I plat Fats, who's Fatima Khan (ph). She's in her sort of mid-40s conservative Hijabi woman who - you know, she's got these very sort of conservative views about marriage, and she thinks everybody should be married, all women should be married. And that's what she keeps trying to put on Shugs all the time.


GROSS: And Nadia, describe your character.

MANZOOR: Yeah, so I play Shagufta Shugs, show who is 20-year-old enthusiastic millennial who is interested in exploring all facets of life, all philosophies and is living with her distant relative Fatima, who she loves and is also looking for kind of like a maternal figure.

GROSS: You both in wear hijabs in the series. Tell us why you do that because you don't dress that way in real life.


VAZ: No.

MANZOOR: It was a choice for different reasons. So one is that, you know, coming from a Muslim background, I don't - have never seen this kind of comedy before. And it was definitely two characters that I'm very familiar with growing up in London and my family and wanting to portray those characters - and also using the fact that they wear burqas as sort of a metaphor for traditional conservatism as two women who are also interested in the secular world and interested in things that are down in Brooklyn and kind of looking at that cultural paradox, which is a lot of what I do in my work. So that was one of the reasons.

VAZ: With me, I'm not Muslim. And I've, you know, obviously never worn a hijab in my real life. So back in - I would say 2004, 2005, I was in New York and auditioning for, you know, all kinds of little independent plays and film and things like that. And I would repeatedly get called in - this is post-9/11 obviously - so I just repeatedly after they'd see my headshot get called in for, you know, the mother of the young man who may or may not be recruited to become a terrorist. And so at the time, I was in a sketch-writing class. And I was so upset by these auditions that I was going out on that I wrote a character, and I called her the terrorist's wife.

And my thing was that all women really are at the end of the day so similar, regardless of what they wear. And a lot of the time, we think that because a woman's dressed in hijab, she's going to be a certain way and she's going to react to certain things a particular way. Like, we put all this on people. And my character was the opposite. Like, I wanted to flip that whole thing and say yeah, you look at me in my hijab and maybe you think oh, she'll put up with all of this from her husband or she'll take all of that from her take son and she'll take all of this from the community without, you know, any kind of reaction. But then I had this, like, really brassy, loud ballsy character. And I just love the character because it was so funny because of the unexpectedness of it all.

GROSS: So there's a sketch where Shugs gets her period. And Radhika, do you want to describe what your character does in response?

VAZ: Sure. You know, that really comes from experience that I've had first-hand in India because it's - you know, in the Hindu culture if a woman has her period, she doesn't go into any kind of place of worship; she doesn't go into the kitchen; she doesn't come in contact with - you know, depending on how conservative your family is - to this day and even in cities - the fact is a lot of this stuff is still very much to taken into consideration. So it was something that we both wanted to do. And I think the idea of a woman having her period just - a lot of people know - it's such a normal thing. But oh my God, it's made into such a big thing. We have to keep it so secret and all of that - so Fats, obviously, coming very much from that point of view.

The moment Shugs comes out complaining about having, you know - oh, I got my period and my stomach hurts, Fats just quarantines her. She wants - so we've taken it to an absurd level of, you know, you have your period, you've got to be quarantined. So we have - do not cross the line - you know, police tape and, you know, the episode has hazmat suits and all kinds of - it's like a - you know, it's like she's disposing of a bomb, basically.

GROSS: (Laughter) Is there any tradition of women in standup comedy in India, where, Radhika, you're from or Pakistan, where, Nadia, your parents are from?

MANZOOR: Well, here's the thing - there hasn't been much of a tradition of standup comedy in India for anybody and - in English - let's put it that way. There hasn't been a tradition of standup comedy in English. It's a very new thing. It's, I would say, the last eight to 10 years. And so the very few women right now who do that in English - and even in Hindi and all the other regional languages, though they've had sort of versions of standup comedy, the number of women involved are few.

VAZ: Yeah. And in Pakistan, there really isn't a tradition of standup comedy. Growing up, I was definitely exposed to sketch shows and, you know, imitation - like, like live sketch shows and that kind of thing. But not standup comedy, yeah.

GROSS: So dreaming of being a comic was not something that you did when you were young I'd imagine because you'd have no reason to think you could do it.

NADIA P. MANZOOR AND RADHIKA VAZ: Absolutely not (laughter).

MANZOOR: Yeah, absolutely not. Not - being on stage was something that I could have never imagined. The only time I thought I was going to be on stage was as a bride. That's how Pakistani women were on stages...

GROSS: (Laughter) Right.

MANZOOR: I remember going to, you know, my relatives weddings, and the women were on these huge stage that were decorated with, like, Bollywood flowers...

VAZ: And the (unintelligible).

MANZOOR: And they sat on thrones and, you know, that was the time when a woman was on a stage.

VAZ: Yeah.

MANZOOR: ...And she was seen. And her eyes were, you know, looking to the floor. And she was this modest bride. And that was - that was how - that was going to be the future of my kind of stagedom.

VAZ: I didn't have quite the same upbringing. My parents were, you know, more encouraging, I would say, of the idea of me being on stage because I was like that as a child. It was me who didn't think I had the potential to do it. And when I went to college I didn't even give theater a chance. I went straight and did, like, a regular bachelor of arts in economics.

And I was going - I got a job, and I worked in the corporate field for many years until I moved to New York and then wanted something fun to do and started doing improv. And it went from there. But you're right, there were no role models in comedy at all. Bill Cosby was probably - my dad was a fan. He had, like, old records or whatever that he had bought on his one trip to America in, like, the late '60s that I listened to from time to time. I was like oh, there's this thing that you can do as a job. Wow, that's so cool. But would I ever do it? No, I never thought so.

GROSS: Nadia, when you were growing up in England, being raised by Pakistani Muslim parents, was there a dividing line in the amount of freedom that you were allowed as a girl versus as a young woman? And if so, what was the dividing line?

MANZOOR: A lot of the conflict that came as a result of me growing up was a lot about how I presented myself physically in comparison to my twin brother. So as I started to hit puberty, I became very aware that I had ankles and wrists. And those were always supposed to be covered.

I wasn't supposed to show the contours of my body, so wearing tight-fitted clothing was a total no-no. I wasn't supposed to be forward with men or look men in the eyes, not shake men's hands. And my sexuality really became the forefront of my awareness and existence, which is very different to when I was a young kid. Growing up with my brother being allowed to, you know, run around in the mud and go on BMX tracks and just be a kid and be free, it really started to hit me when I hit puberty. And it was the dividing line was really around my sexuality.

GROSS: Were you expected to wear a burqa or just, like, baggy clothes that wouldn't show the contours of your body?

MANZOOR: It was baggy clothes. So, you know, I had to always cover, like, my crotch area and just wear really baggy clothes. It was an interesting thing - my dad would say we don't want to stand out. I don't want you to be wearing in a burqa where people are looking at you. You don't have to wear hijab a job, but modesty was essentially the most important thing. That took a long time for me to kind of just accept and embrace and be OK with, like, revealing my contours just because of how deeply that was engrained within me.

GROSS: So what did that do in terms of how you felt about your own body and about your sexuality?

MANZOOR: You know, I definitely - I think it made me much more self-conscious of my body, frankly. I - you know, walking down the street, I was always very aware of the male gaze or people looking at me and always trying to cover that. And as a result, I think it really affected my confidence.

I think it put me in situations where I made bad choices, you know, kind of not trusting men in a way that made me more susceptible and vulnerable to situations that didn't turn out so well. I had an eating disorder when I was about 24, extremely skinny and, you know, always kind of saw - always kind of saw the forefront of my existence being through the eval - how other people evaluated my body.

And, you know, I think that's typical of just, you know, women in general of how beauty is supposed to be the number-one standard of how we're measured and because I think that was just reinforced in my home context and in the, you know, cultural context of just beauty.

GROSS: Wait, can I stop you there? Because...


GROSS: ...Covering up your body in baggy clothes was how you're brought up, so people couldn't even see if you were skinny or not. (Laughter) So...

MANZOOR: Yeah, yeah...

GROSS: ...How did being skinny become a thing for you? Were you still wearing baggy clothes then, or had you...

MANZOOR: It was something that was...

GROSS: ...Rebelled against that already?

MANZOOR: No, it was definitely something that was put in front of me from a really young age. So, you know, when I was 6 or 7, my dad would take, like, my French fries and be like beta (ph), you are getting too fat. And he would give them to my brother, you know. And there was always this emphasis of, like, having to sacrifice and giving it to the man. I mean, that was just so clear cut in my family.

So, you know, my mom would never sit down to eat while my dad was eating until he had finished because then it was her turn to eat. And the whole emphasis of being ladylike and elegant was about being slim and not too big. And I definitely rebelled against that by eating as much as I could and being a bit of a chubster. But it always something that definitely framed the way I thought about being a woman. And kind of that it wouldn't - I wouldn't end up being picked, you know, which was essentially the thing that I had to reach to was that I was going to be picked by a man. Unless I fulfilled a certain criteria, I wouldn't be picked. There was no other purpose for my existence. So that was definitely a real battle internally.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Nadia Manzoor and Radhika They have a web sketch-comedy series called "Shugs And Fats." That starts its third season on Friday. And Nadia Manzoor also does an autobiographical show called "Burq Off!" Radhika Vaz wrote a memoir about growing up in India called "Unladylike." We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, I have two guests who are partners in sketch comedy - Nadia Manzoor and Radhika Vaz. Their sketch-comedy series is on the web. The third season starts later this week on April 15. It's called "Shugs And Fats." And they both play Muslim women who dress in hijabs and live in Brooklyn...


GROSS: ...And are trying to kind of figure out, well, like, how to fit into American culture coming from very conservative cultures. Nadia Manzoor grew up in London in a family - her parents were Pakistani immigrants. And Radhika Vaz grew up in India. Radhika, your father was a Christian, your mother Hindu. Neither of them were religious, but were you, nevertheless, brought up to be groomed for marriage?

VAZ: Not - no. And that's the thing that's most shameful in my memoir for me, personally, because both - you know, my parents never put that on me. I was an only child. I was given a lot of independence.

They put me - you know, I was in boarding school from a fairly young age. I went away to college to Bombay. And they really trusted me. I didn't have anything to rebel against. Like, all my drinking and smoking and stupid nonsense all started in my 20s when I was like, OK, let's do this now at least. But I never had - they would let me go out. I could have boyfriends. It was a very, very different - it was a very different set up. I - you know, in the last, like - I would say the last part of my book, I describe where I picked that up from, which was from my peers because a lot of my peers were from families were very conservative and where they would have arranged marriages as soon as they graduated from college. Or they had boyfriends in college that they were going to be marrying.

And I felt that pressure coming from them. It was the same with having children. I got married in my sort of early 30s. So I had only a few years, according to everyone, to have a healthy baby. And so that pressure started. And again, I knew I didn't want to have children. I just didn't have the courage to say so. And that wasn't coming from my parents either. That was coming from my peers because all of my friends had children. And even though they never told me, oh, you got to have kids - although some of them did - I felt it. So that's definitely - like, I cannot blame my parents for any of that stuff. That was all me.

GROSS: And you don't have children.

VAZ: I don't.

GROSS: Why didn't you want to - and why don't you want to have children?

VAZ: You know, it's not a particularly complicated reason, I have to say. I just - I didn't think that being a parent was something I wanted to put much time towards in my lifetime. Maybe next lifetime but this one - not so much.

GROSS: Nadia, you have a twin brother...


GROSS: ...Who became an Islamist. He became a radical. How did that happen? Who did he meet? How did he change?

MANZOOR: So when we were about 19 - 18, 19 and when we went off to university, we discovered very different groups of friends. And it was in university. It was, you know, a bunch of Muslim boys that he met and became friendly with.

And I started to slowly see the changes. He kind of gradually turned towards embodying more kind of fundamentalist ideologies. I started to drink, and I started dating an Irish guy. And we went on these completely different paths, which really, I think, you know, accentuated the difference of what was happening.

Just to iterate, though, my brother does not anymore consider himself to be - he's, you know, he's not radical anymore. He actually went through a completely big transformation a few years back. But during the time that we were at university, it was definitely a troubling time because everything that I would do or if he ever saw a picture - I remember the first time he saw a picture of me in a bikini, which was, like, hidden under my bed, it was disgusting. It was revolting to him. And he didn't know how to identify with me.

And he gave me an ultimatum at that time, which was really hard getting it from your twin brother 'cause he - you know, he was like, you know, I don't know who this person is. You're not my sister. And if you continue down this path, like, I'm going to have to separate from you. And that was a really big - that was very hard.

GROSS: Was part of what he was being told by his peers that he had to take responsibility to prevent you from being wayward and doing things that were forbidden?

MANZOOR: Absolutely. I think there was a lot of pressure on him and what it meant to be a good Muslim brother. You know, he's my twin, but he was five minutes older. He used to tease me. He'd be like, oh, you should call me bhai, which means brother in Urdu as a sign of respect, you know? And he - I think he definitely did feel that from his friends in his peer group. You know, and just the influences that he was kind of having of these Islamist boys definitely affected him, yeah.

VAZ: Yeah, and, you know, again, my Indian perspective, Terry, like, I have cousins and - I don't have - I'm an only child, but I have cousins. And I have loads of friends who have older brothers and things. It's very much part of our culture that the brother tells the sister how to be. You'd never hear the other way around. And this protectiveness of, like, oh, my God, if we don't protect her virtue and make sure that, you know, she never wears a bikini and doesn't have boyfriends and then she'll get a good match. It's all coming from that messy place. And it's not just - in my experience, at least, it's not just been people who follow Islam but everything in India.


VAZ: Even my Christian friends who are - it's just a cultural thing of, like, the brother and the father are the bosses of the family, and everyone else falls in line.

MANZOOR: Totally, I've thought...

GROSS: Nadia...


GROSS: ...When you were going up and your twin brother had all these freedoms that you didn't and he wanted to control your behavior, did you feel like this is unjust and this is a part of a larger pattern of the inequality of women, or did you just feel like, you know, I'm angry at my brother, it's not fair?

MANZOOR: I definitely used to be very annoyed by it. I used to write a lot in my journal about it. Like, I wonder what it would be like to be a boy. And - but in terms of really reflecting on the kind of misogyny around it, it was only when I was much older and I started writing and reflecting on how, you know, my brother's kind of academic pursuits were really encouraged and he knew all the capitals of the world and he was in every single sports team and, you know, again, like, the kind of lessons that I was getting was on not getting fat.

And, you know, my academic pursuits - they just weren't really encouraged. It was like, oh, if you're good at something, it's fine. But it wasn't something that was considered that she's going to be a leader, you know? It was like my brother was going to be the leader and take over the world, and I just had to remain beautiful. And, yeah, it did piss me off.

And I think I internalized a lot of that 'cause I didn't have the articulation and the confidence, frankly, to kind of rebel with my parents against that. But I think in my own way I did because I continued to follow the things that inspired and attracted me. And I didn't fall down the path of just blindly getting married when I was 20, when I was getting all of these suitors and that was really expected of me in that age.

GROSS: My guests are Nadia Manzoor and Radhika Vaz, the creators and stars of the web sketch-comedy series "Shugs And Fats." After we take a short break, we'll talk about how they had to leave home to become themselves. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Nadia Manzoor and Radhika Vaz, the creators and stars of the web sketch comedy series "Shugs And Fats," which starts its third season this week. The characters of "Shugs and Fats" are two Muslim immigrants living in Brooklyn. They wear hijabs and are trying to find their place in their new home. Radhika Vaz, who plays Fats - short for Fatima - grew up in India and now divides her time between India and New York. Nadia Manzoor, who plays Shugs, grew up in a conservative Muslim family in England, where her parents emigrated from Pakistan. Nadia, was it expected that you would have an arranged marriage?

MANZOOR: Absolutely. I mean, when I was born, I was - jokingly, but not so jokingly - married to my cousin. And it was definitely, like, a set agreement. It wasn't that there was going to be this, like, forced marriage, like, you know, with handcuffs and stuff. But there was this agreement between my aunt and her sister that I would marry my cousin, who was six years older to me. And then when I was 18, I started to get the full on proposal. And all of these photos were sent to me of Shawnee (ph), right? And there were, like, pictures of him posing - I told you this...

GROSS: Yeah.

MANZOOR: ...Of, like, opening a washing machine and, like, standing next to a kettle as, like, he's a really good husband. And I was like, no, I'm not interested. Like, I'm seeing somebody else, you know? Which was a secret at the time. But it was 100 percent expected that I was going to have an arranged or, as my dad liked to call it, an assisted marriage because from my dad's perspective, marriage wasn't about two individuals finding union. It's about two communities, right? I mean, this is a tribal culture that we're talking about here. It is about two tribes, two communities, coming together. And so it's not something that would happen independent of your family's approval.

VAZ: I used to be so jealous of girls whose parents would arrange marriages for them.


MANZOOR: (Laughter) Really?

VAZ: Yeah, it sounds like you didn't have to do anything. Like, you guys would just get a guy. And here I was, like, foraging about for whatever (laughter) attention I could get.

GROSS: Did either of you feel that at some point, you had to choose between being yourself or staying with your families, that unless you lied, you couldn't do both?

MANZOOR: Oh my God, because of how I grew up, I was a total pathological liar. I lied to my family all the time about my friends and the fact that I was in a relationship. And I - and then there are lots of things I hid to my Western friends about - you know, things I was embarrassed about, about my culture. And I really did become a liar. And it got pretty bad, to the point where I - I think about this a lot, about how there were these really extreme ideologies that I was trying to reconcile with.

And there didn't seem to be a balance that I was able to adopt because A, there weren't role models that seemed - had adopted these kind of, like, East-West ideologies into one. And I was constantly being told that the Western world was a sinful world and not supposed to who I would become. But obviously, I was a Westerner. So I had so much conflict within myself and something that I wasn't able to balance. And it definitely led me to being very conflicted.

And it was only when my mother passed away and I left - I left my family and I came to America that I was able to unpack all of these conflicts and all of this confusion about who I was and begin to find my own path and my own sense of where my morality came from. But that took a really long time, and it was a pretty dark stage.

GROSS: How did you each end up in America? Nadia, do you want to start?

MANZOOR: Sure. So my mother had passed away, and there was definitely kind of this - God, I sound like such a sob story but, like, there was a lot a consensus at the time in my family that I should take responsibility for her dying because I was dating an Irish boy and my family found out about it. And that was literally the worst thing that you could have done. I mean, my family didn't kill me but, you know, that's - the idea of honor killing is - comes from that, is when you shame your family. From, you know, dating or doing - like, a woman inherently doing something like that. So there was a lot of shame in my family around it.

I - after my mom died, I felt like I didn't really have family left. And Brendan was the only person who seemed to love me and accept me, so we decided to move to America. I was doing a postgrad thing at the time in Boston. And my dad kind of wanted to send me away at that time to kind of get my head away from all of the corruptions of (laughter) of the U.K. only to send me to the U.S., which was so much worse. And yeah, that's how I came to America. And I was supposed to be here for a year, and it's like 11 years later.

GROSS: Did you feel guilty for your mother's death? Did you feel like the fact that your boyfriend was Irish, it was shaming your family and it gave her cancer?

MANZOOR: I felt a lot of guilt for those things. Yes, I did. My - yeah, I did. My brother so much as came out and said that to me before. My aunt said that she was very distressed by the fact that I was dating this Irish man, and she didn't know how my dad would ever accept it.

I think my mother had a very co-dependent relationship with me, a very dependent relationship with me being that she - you know, being somebody who was pretty amazing. Like, she was an athlete in her own right when she was young. She was a very creative person. But she really did embody the idea of traditional sacrifice. And I think she lived through her children, so when her children started to become independent and move away, I think she did weaken. I think that did, you know, weaken her. And I - yeah, I faced a lot of guilt around that.

GROSS: And Radhika, how did you end up coming to America?

VAZ: Again, shame, shame, shame. I had a boyfriend and he moved to New York.

MANZOOR: Naughty girl.

VAZ: I know. And I said, oh please, I have to come, too. And that's basically what gave me the impetus to come to America. I came - my first year was spent in Syracuse. I went to Syracuse University to do a master's in advertising communication because that's - my job was that in India. And that was - ended up being the easiest way for me to get a scholarship to a good, you know, university in America because obviously, I couldn't afford to pay for it. So I did. I got - I did all of that.

But I was such a lazy sort of person, and it was amazing how motivated I became by a man to, you know, do all these exams and go to America and go to college and all of that stuff. And I remember my boyfriend - who I'm married to now - when I was planning all of these things, he was in New York. And he had the nerve to say to me - he said, you know, don't come to New York for me. You should do this for yourself. And at the time, I remember thinking, oh my God, there's no - you know, how horrible to have to hear that from the guy. But in a way, I'm glad I did because (laughter) that, first of all, made me feel like clearly, you can't depend on him, which is a good thing we can't and, you know, I really had to make a life for myself as well, which is how I also got into improv because, you know, I was very clear - I mean, I was told very clearly that this wasn't going to be a completely traditional relationship.

GROSS: Nadia, are you still with the boy who you were with when your mother died?

MANZOOR: Oh, no.


MANZOOR: Long ago. And I'm now married, actually, to a Canadian man who is originally from Haiti. We got married in October.

GROSS: Oh, congratulations.

MANZOOR: Thank you.

GROSS: Have your parents seen your shows?

MANZOOR: Yeah. No, my dad has been to a lot of my shows - "Burq Off!" - and he actually was like, come to London. And he led the whole marketing team for the show and was like, I will sell out your shows, I will sell out your shows. And he sold out the entire run in London and, you know, would bring flowers at the end of every show. And it was a really sweet reconciliation that we would have every night.

GROSS: How did that work? Because so much of the show is about having to lie to your family, having to leave your family because they were so restrictive. They wanted you to be a traditional Muslim woman, and you wanted to be a free person, to be an equal person with men.

MANZOOR: I actually think doing the show and writing a lot about these experiences and my family knowing about the process, especially my dad, it became this opportunity for us to discuss all of these issues. And I would challenge him and I would read stories to him and I would be like, do you feel comfortable with me talking to this - you know, talking to people about this? And I think at the time, I think he was just like, oh, Nadia's kind of just doing this for catharsis. And maybe she's having fun with it, so I'll support the process.

But when it actually became a show and he came to the dress rehearsal, you know, two years ago, he came up to me afterwards and he hugged me and he had tears in his eyes. And was like, you know, I'm just so proud of what you're doing. And whenever people ask him, you know, what is it like to see your daughter portray you in this way? He always says, you know, that's exactly what I was like. And it's actually allowed me to see myself in a different way. And I think it's shone a light on that situation to the point where he now says, you know, I am a full on feminist. And...


MANZOOR: ...I think it's been really healing for our relationship. It's been pretty amazing.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, I have two guests who are partners in comedy, Nadia Manzoor and Radhika Vaz. They have a web sketch comedy series called "Shugs And Fats" that starts its third season on April 15, this week. And we'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guests are Nadia Manzoor and Radhika Vaz. They have a web sketch-comedy series called "Shugs And Fats" that starts its third season April 15. And the characters they play are Muslim women who have moved to the United States, but, you know, they're still wearing hijabs and covering their heads and bodies and trying to navigate the differences between the culture that they're from and the culture in Brooklyn that they find themselves in.

Manzoor also does an autobiographical show called "Burq Off!" and Radhika Vaz wrote a memoir about growing up in India called "Unladylike" and does a one-person show called "Older. Angrier. Harrier."

Did either of you trust marriage as an institution? And, Nadia, especially you having grown up in a situation where marriages were arranged. You didn't want an arranged marriage. Marriages were not based on equality between the husband and the wife. The wife was more submissive, the husband made the rules. So did you have faith it could be different?

MANZOOR: No, not growing up. I - definitely in my head when people would talk, you know, do you imagine your wedding day and do you see yourself as a bride? I was always like, no, I don't. I'm not interested in getting married because of what I had seen. And to me, getting married meant falling into this traditional wife structure, which I just did not want to fall into.

So even when my husband now proposed, I remember I went through a lot of conflict of being like, you know, I'm not willing to give up what I have fought so hard for achieving in terms of my independence - being proud of my creative endeavors, having a partnership with Radhika. Like, there was all of these things that were definitely conflicting. But I - so I spent a lot of time thinking about it and being very active and conscious in the choice of marrying, which was about a partnership, and being very clear with my husband about who I am as a person.

GROSS: While we're talking about marriage, I'm wondering what you think of the traditional white wedding gown with the veil, which a lot of women are wearing now for their weddings. When you see a veil on a wedding gown, what do you think about what the symbolism of that veil is?

MANZOOR: To have a woman...

GROSS: Or even of the virginal white dress because being a virgin in your culture, that was an essential part...

MANZOOR: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: ...Of who you were supposed to be as an unmarried woman.


VAZ: Yeah, I always say that a love marriage - I say this in my act. A love marriage is when you marry the first man you had sex with, and an arranged marriage is when you marry the first person your parents want you to have sex with.


VAZ: But first-time sex is a major part of the deal.


VAZ: I never liked that because there is something oppressive...

MANZOOR: There is...

VAZ: ...About - yeah...

MANZOOR: It's this expectation that a woman is supposed to be pure, untouched, so that she's worthy of a man, right? Like, that being why a woman is worthy, to me, is just - diminishes - just diminishes us as human beings. So whether it's being covered in a veil or whether it's wearing a white dress because you're saying that my virginity is the most important thing about me, I mean, that's oppressive just inherently.

GROSS: So what did you wear at your weddings?

MANZOOR: I wore a red - this is traditional, Indian traditional.


VAZ: That's my point. I did too, though.

MANZOOR: Actually, I wore a pants suit. No, I didn't. I wore a red kind of, like, short top with - like, a very Bollywood outfit. It was red and gold and I showed my belly.

VAZ: Did you have a (unintelligible) for your head?

MANZOOR: I didn't cover my head, no. It was, like, draped around me. But then when it was, like midnight, I shifted into a halter neck. It was definitely, like, a - like va-va-voom outfit. But I wouldn't say I was, like, putting my virginity, you know, on - 'cause I'm not a virgin (laughter).

VAZ: My virginity was on display for all to see at my wedding because - no, because the thing is is that I told my mother-in-law, who's very conservative - so my husband's family's super conservative.

GROSS: Is he from India, too?

VAZ: He is, yeah. He's Indian. He's North Indian. And he's from a particularly feudal, patriarchal type of society. They're very, very traditional. So I'm an aberration for them. They don't understand what the hell I'm up to half the time. But because we lived in America so long and away from them, you know, I just got away from it. And now it's too late. So - but I remember when we were getting married, I wanted to wear a sari a particular way, which was a particular way they wear it down South where the women don't cover their heads for the ceremony. And I voiced this to my mother-in-law because I was like, you know what? I'm a feminist, and I want everyone to know that. So I told her. I said that we don't cover our head in the South. And she nodded her head sweetly and said, OK.

And then literally, we were sitting at the ceremony, and she sort of ambled up behind me and just threw a (foreign language spoken) like a scarf over my head - like a big, heavy, beautiful - very pretty. I look great in the photographs. But she put it there. And at that point, I was sort of in the moment, so I let it go. But now when I look at it, I feel embarrassed.

MANZOOR: (Laughter).

GROSS: She felt she needed to do that.

VAZ: Absolutely. I mean, her whole family was sitting there watching. And it was a Hindu ceremony, which we had - which I was totally fine with doing. We got married here in City Hall in New York. That's was - that's my idea of where we got married. My very close friend Alex (ph) was my witness. She came hungover with a camera that didn't work. And we were squabbling with each other. My husband and I were fighting about changing my name, which I refused to do. And that was, for me, where we got married.

But for my family - or when I say my husband's family - they wanted a Hindu ceremony. And so that's when we went back to India, and that's when I had the (foreign language spoken) thrown over my head (laughter).

GROSS: Radhika, do you live part-time in India now?

VAZ: I do.

GROSS: How much time do you spend in India versus the U.S.?

VAZ: I sort of flipped it around. So by about 2012, I was spending about three or four months in India and the rest of the time here. And from 2014, it sort of reversed. So I mainly come back to the United States to work on "Shugs And Fats." And I'll be doing book promos and stuff like that moving further down this particular year. But, yeah, most of my time now is dedicated to staying in India.

GROSS: And why is that?

VAZ: I felt - I don't know. I felt a real pull in 2011, which was the first time I ever performed in India. I'd been doing "Unladylike" for a year in New York. And I did my first show in India in September of 2011. And I went to three different cities. And I had such a great response. There's so many women who came up to me afterwards and said, oh, my God, I can't believe you said that.

And like I said, it's such a new industry, standup, and there's so few women out there. And even the women who are right now, not all of them are talking about the issues that I insist on bringing to my standup comedy. And that really made me feel like I wanted to be there because New York has so many great performers and women who are talking about all of this stuff already. Whereas nobody was doing that in India. And I just felt I had an opportunity.

MANZOOR: As far as that, I mean...

GROSS: Do you feel that you have the cultural freedom in India to be yourself and to be secular?

VAZ: I think I'm trying to make that possible. So I feel like I was told very clearly by so many people, oh, you're going to have to change your script, you're going to have to change this joke and that joke, and I don't know what people are going to think. And I went there and did my show exactly like I did in New York, and nothing happened. I got covered for it. And people - you know, I got this great response.

And I just - I've just decided that I'm not going to care about what the cultural boundaries are. Let that come from them. You know, let somebody tell me this is your boundary line. Now you're going to get into trouble. Now we're going to sue you. I'm waiting for - it has to come from that side. I'm not putting any boundaries on myself because I want to create something new. I want to create a different way of communicating.

GROSS: Nadia, you were going to say something. I interrupted you?

MANZOOR: I was just going to say that I always thought that it was such a smart choice for Rads (ph) to make. And I think it's been so successful because what she's doing in India is really - it's revolutionary. It has not happened before, like she was saying, in the U.S. Like, being an Indian woman on a stage talking about her vagina in a comedic way and bringing attention to, you know, real, important issues is completely revolutionary. And so it just has the power to spark change in such a powerful way.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both very much, and I wish you good luck with your comedy and your performances. Nadia Manzoor, Radhika Vaz, thank you.

MANZOOR: Thank you so much.

VAZ: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Nadia Manzoor and Radhika Vaz are the creators and stars of the web sketch-comedy series "Shugs And Fats." The new season goes on the web Friday. Thursday, several of the episodes will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. This is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, describes the writer, poet and playwright Enda O'Brien as something of a living Irish national monument. She's been hailed by former Irish President Mary Robinson and Philip Roth, among many others. O'Brien has just published her first novel in 10 years. It's called "The Little Red Chairs." Here's Maureen's review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: In the prologue to her 2012 autobiography "Country Girl," Edna O'Brien tells readers about being tested for deafness a few years ago at a national health clinic in London, where she lives. O'Brien was told by the technician there that in terms of her hearing, she's a broken piano. That dismissive phrase haunted O'Brien and somewhat in defiance, she wrote what turned out to be a spectacular memoir. Perhaps that phrase is still proving a useful spur to writing for at age 85, O'Brien has just brought out one of her best and most ambitious novels yet. "The Little Red Chairs" is personal and political, charming and grotesque, a novel of manners and a novel of monsters. If this is what a broken piano produces, we should all live long enough to become so boldly un-tuned.

"The Little Red Chairs" opens in well-trod Auld Sod territory, a cozy pub in a remote Irish village on a winter's night. In walks a stranger. We're told that the barkeep, a chatty young man named Dara, (reading) felt that he should genuflect when he looked more carefully at the figure, like a holy man with a white beard and white hair, in a long black coat. They begin talking, and Dara later recalls that he was instantly (reading) gobsmacked by the sagacity of this man, the knowledge, a walking university to himself.

The charismatic stranger, who introduces himself as Dr. Vladimir or Vlad Dragan, claims to be from Montenegro and sets himself up in town as a holistic healer, harvesting the area's stones and seaweed to use in cures. One of the locals attracted by Vlad's therapeutic powers is a married women of 40 named Fidelma, the raven-haired town beauty, who's suffered two miscarriages. She seeks help in conceiving and becomes an embodiment of the old cliche be careful what you wish for. Because of O'Brien's sly elbow nudges, we readers know from the get-go that Vlad is not who he pretends to be. It's not giving much away to reveal, as O'Brien does fairly early on, that Vlad turns out to be the most wanted man in Europe for crimes that include genocide, ethnic cleansing, massacres and tortures.

After his arrest, the locals hear the sensitive healer Vlad referred to on news broadcasts as the Beast of Bosnia. Of course, he's modeled after Radovan Karadzic, the Butcher of Bosnia, who's just been sentenced to 40 years imprisonment for crimes against humanity. "The Little Red Chairs" of O'Brien's title refer to an event staged by a theater company in Sarajevo in 2012 to commemorate the siege of that city. The town center was filled with 11,541 chairs representing victims. More than 600 of those chairs were little ones in memory of children.

The brilliance of O'Brien's rendering of this material lies in the fact that without moralizing, she dramatizes how swiftly the safe and secluded can become the endangered, how easily them becomes us. Indeed, even before Vlad's arrival, the soft insularity of that Irish village had already been breached by resident workers from Poland, Burma, Czechoslovakia - kitchen staff at the local castle. They're in Ireland for all kinds of reasons, economic and political. But one is fleeing the very atrocities Vlad has instigated.

By the middle of this novel, Fidelma herself - the alabaster-skinned town beauty - has become a traumatized refugee. She turns up in London working as a cleaner in an office tower. Here's Fidelma surveying the army of cleaners who enter the building in the evening.

(Reading) They were night people, one step away from ghosts, and strangers to each other. Many had fled horror, countries they could never go back to, while others still yearned for home. In the mornings after they had clocked out, they ran recklessly. They ran as if they were fleeing catastrophes. The fear that governed their whole lives was now compressed into this urgency to catch a bus or a train, to allow a husband or a mother or a cousin to go to work.

"The Little Red Chairs" is both a call to pleasure and duty. O'Brien's undiminished gifts as a storyteller draw us in and then awaken us to the limits of our own blinkered vision, the fragility of our own safe havens. All this, and the toughness and eroticism that have been O'Brien's signature since she started writing her "Country Girls" trilogy in 1960. Not bad for an old dame.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Little Red Chairs" by Edna O'Brien

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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