TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. How do you become a women's rights activist? How are you even exposed to the idea that women deserve equal rights after you've grown up in a tribal region of Pakistan where girls don't even go to school? My guest Khalida Brohi is going to tell us her story.
She spent part of her childhood in a remote Pakistani village where people lived in huts made of mud. In keeping with tribal tradition, her mother was forced into marriage at the age of nine. Brohi was nearly promised to a man before she was even born. Her cousin was a victim of an honor killing at age 14, murdered by her uncle because she'd married out of love instead of marrying the man she was arranged to marry.
Brohi's father believed in education, and, as a result, she became the first girl in her village to go to school. After being exposed to books and ideas as well as to the suffering of girls and women in her village, she dedicated herself to educating women, helping them understand they deserve to be treated with honor, too, that they have the right to education and that men in the family do not have the right to murder their wives and daughters. She's launched several nonprofits and now divides her time between the U.S. and Pakistan. She has written a new memoir called "I Should Have Honor."
Khalida Brohi, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want to start just with a definition. What is an honor killing?
KHALIDA BROHI: An honor killing is defined in many ways. But to me, it's an ego killing. It's to restore men's honor. It's something where women and men were both killed in the name of honor if they were found having relationships outside of marriage or before marriage. Now these days, it's also used as a business where women are killed and the man is spared and he pays money for his life. So in many cases, if someone wants to pay a big debt, they would target a woman in their family and then call out to a man who has money and say that if you don't pay, we would kill you as well because we know that you were in a relationship with our sister or this family member.
GROSS: So there's people hunting down people in relationships so that they can make a profit on it.
BROHI: These days in many places it is like that, sadly.
GROSS: So your cousin was the victim of an honor killing. What had she done that was considered worthy of the death penalty?
BROHI: My cousin had fallen in love. In those times, it was made to look very, very wrong in our eyes.
GROSS: When you say in those days, it wasn't that long ago. How long ago was it?
BROHI: It was more than 10 years ago. And I was a teenager, and she was a teenager, and we were friends. And we would play dolls, and I would watch her read and have this love for writing. She wrote poems as well. But there was a gossip in the village that because she goes to school, she's learned how to write; she's now writing love poems. There is this tendency to accuse women, to use their freedom and education against their culture immediately as soon as they were free even slightly.
And for Khadija, it was a very, very common gossip in the village that she's writing love poems and she is going to go against her family. So everybody was very much against her before even she had this - these feelings of love for someone. And she was caught and murdered by my uncle.
GROSS: So she and her boyfriend had hid to protect themselves.
BROHI: She and her husband. She had left to marry this...
GROSS: Oh, they were already married, oh.
BROHI: Yes, she had left to marry this person she loved very much, and she was already engaged to someone in the family. But she'd already had feelings for this boy. And so when they left, within a week of their departure, my uncle sent out people to every bus station, every road, and they would be waiting there to look for her and that boy. And when they found her, the boy's family immediately arrived so they could save him. But Khadija was taken back to Karachi, where we used to live at that time. And she was - within just a week, she was murdered.
GROSS: Describe how she was murdered.
BROHI: She - this is the second case of honor killings in my life at that time. I have witnessed about three. But this was the second one, and it was the most devastating because by the time I found out about her, she had already died. They'd already buried her, and she was long gone.
When she was found out, they put her in a house until a decision was made. And no matter how long they take, the usual decision in the end is murder. So one day, her sister came to visit her, her sister Kalsoom, who's also my childhood friend. And they both cried about what had been happening. And she asked Kalsoom, what is the punishment they've chosen for me - my father has chosen for me? And Kalsoom tells me that I just looked at her because I knew that she knew. When she was asking me, she knew she was going to be murdered.
And just like that, within two or three days, three men arrived, and they took her, walked for hours, taken to a place where her grave was already dug. And she was murdered by my uncle right there.
GROSS: It's so unimaginable that a father would take the life of his daughter because she was with the man who she loved and who also loved her. How - I can't - like, I can't comprehend it.
BROHI: I know. When I found out, I couldn't comprehend it either. So the poems that I used to compose, the poems that started me to the path of activism, usually had this girl who would ask questions, especially to her father, how? How can you do this?
I have this poem that I wrote in which I read it in the news that a girl was sleeping in the farms, in the agriculture fields outside. And her father came and dragged her from there and killed her in his axe that he was using to chop the agriculture fields. And she shouted and yelled. And it happened because she had fallen asleep outside of her home. She had fallen asleep out in public, which is somehow dishonoring to him.
And so I had also thought about that girl and imagined her and the questions she would be asking and composed a poem in which she's asking her father, how can the same hands be cradling me when I'm an infant - how can they now raise with such anger and hate towards me? I'm still wondering that to this day.
GROSS: Can you read an excerpt of that poem for us?
BROHI: Yes, definitely.
GROSS: And when did you write that?
BROHI: I think I wrote this in 2006.
GROSS: So that would be shortly after your cousin's murder.
BROHI: This was three years later, yeah.
BROHI: Three to four years. (Reading) I woke at once when I felt being dragged. I saw you, and for mercy I begged. Seized I was in your hands. I was a sinner. I slept on open lands. The hands that cradled me once before - to me, they belong to you no more. My heart stopped just at that time, and I was killed for an unknown crime.
GROSS: Thanks for reading that. I should say here for people just joining us that you've become an activist trying to educate and organize women in Pakistan to stand up for their rights and to comprehend that they are equal to men. And I think - I just - you know, I have such respect for you for taking such tragedy in your own life and for...
BROHI: Thank you.
GROSS: ...Looking at the rights unavailable to you and to other women and, instead of shrinking, to grow larger and to do everything that you can to change things, putting your own life at risk. How did - when your cousin was the victim of an honor killing at the hands of your uncle, her father, what about her mother? How did her mother respond to it?
BROHI: The saddest part about this story that - is that it wasn't her father. It was also her uncle. This was our...
GROSS: Oh, OK.
BROHI: ...Eldest uncle. And her father had just consented about this decision. The delay in her murder was because he was reluctant. He had allowed her to go to school. And Khadija was very much loved. She was a very good person. She would smile all the time. And she was always social and talked to people. She had such a liveness to her. Whenever we would look at her, we would just think about life flourishing. And to think of her as gone was - that's why it was such a big shock.
But her father had hesitated for many days. And finally he had given in. But within three years of the murder, he had a heart attack in the middle of the night. And he passed away. And just like that, the mother also passed away because of cancer. She kept telling everyone that - this is very hard for me to speak about. But when she was murdered, they - the boy's family had pleaded them to take money instead of murdering him. And the money would bring food to the table of this family. And the mother would refuse to eat. And because there was nothing else to eat, they would force her to have a few bites. And one day she ate from that food. And the next day, she said, I feel a cancer growing in me because I ate my daughter.
GROSS: Gee. Do you want to take a moment?
We did take a pause there before resuming. So let's take a short break in our show, then we'll hear more of my interview with Khalida Brohi. Her new memoir about growing up in Pakistan and becoming a women's rights activist working against honor killings and exchange marriages is called "I Should Have Honor." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GAIA WILMER OCTET'S "MIGRATIONS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Khalida Brohi. And she's written a new memoir called "I Should Have Honor." The word honor in that refers in part to honor killings, which were pretty common and still are in the tribal areas, the remote areas of Pakistan where she grew up.
Her father insisted that she get an education. She did. And it educated her about women's rights, and she demanded women's rights for herself and for other women. And she's done all kinds of workshops and sessions and consciousness raising groups for women in Pakistan. Now she lives part-time in the United States and part-time in Pakistan. And she's married to an American man.
You know, another issue that's really important to you in your work for women's rights in Pakistan is arranged marriages and exchange marriages. And you were almost married off before you were even born. Can you explain the circumstances that nearly led to that?
GROSS: And maybe you might also want to explain what an exchange marriage is. I think Americans know about arranged marriages but not exchange marriages.
BROHI: Definitely. Exchange marriages are usually very common between two different tribes so are two different costs - people who don't know each other and cannot trust each other. A lot of times, even in small villages, trade also happens between their own tribes, and so does relationships. But when there's a persistent offer of relationships - of starting a relationship, then one tribe gives a daughter to the other tribe and demands a daughter in return. This is usually so that the daughter they've given is kept happy and given good facilities of life. And if she's ever beaten in the other tribe, they would beat this daughter.
Recently I was in Balochistan. And I was sitting down with a group of women. I love having conversations with my friends from my childhood, and we'd talk about - and they had brought this new girl. And I was talking to her. And then she looked like this happiest person I've ever met. And I talked and talked. And I was like, oh, my God, she's actually hiding something behind that constant smile.
And I'm like, hey, is everything OK? And I looked at her, and she says, I was given in exchange. I was married to a person I was - I loved so much. And when the exchange happened, I was the happiest woman ever. I loved this man. He loved me. We were living the happiest life. But the girl who was given an exchange in my wedding wasn't having a good life. She was treated badly. She was beaten every day. And one day I woke up in the morning, and my husband and I are laughing. We receive a phone call, and my husband picks it up. And he's told to divorce me right there because the other girl was divorced. And he did. And it really broke my heart because these things happen in the name of honor.
GROSS: So if one family divorces, the deal is that the other couple that was part of the exchange has to divorce, too..
BROHI: Yes, whatever happens.
GROSS: ...So that the bargain is equal on both sides.
BROHI: Exactly - to show that that if you did this to our daughter, we can do that to your daughter. So they get rid of this girl as well, make her suffer exactly as the other girl has suffered. This is usually a security for a lot of girls because they are given off into faraway lands into mountains where their parents have never gone to. And they know that because this family has given their daughter back into their family, they would be treated well. And a lot of times it makes them feel secure and safer. But at the same time, it is a way of also taking revenge on each other.
GROSS: So how did you nearly become a wife in an exchange marriage before you were even born?
BROHI: I was asked to be married off as an infant. The nikah already happens, which means the marriage contract is already signed when the baby is born. But the decision of the marriages happened before the baby is born. And so before I was born, my Uncle Liaqat (ph), who at this time had murdered his own wife, decided that he's going to marry again. And he needed another wife, but the family he was asking that woman from demanded an exchange. And there was no one else to be given. So he asked my father, who was his youngest brother, that he is going to give his first daughter as an exchange. And the promise has to be done now. The contract has to be signed and made a deal with that tribe so that when I'm - I hit puberty, I would go as a bride to their family.
And this was the first ever time - after many hardships - my father had suffered through the cultural norms many, many times, but this was the first time when he said no. He refused his father; he refused his brother because he said that, even though I have gone through all of this, I'm a boy who's already seen all of this, I don't even know how it is like to be a father to a daughter in this society. And so he said, before even I hold her in my hands, in my arms, I cannot make such a decision. And because of that, he disgraced his family and eventually left the family to give us a new life even though we were very, very poor outside of that family. But he gave us freedom and education because of that.
GROSS: And you think that saved your life.
BROHI: It saved my life, definitely. I would have had many children by now. I would have not been different from anyone in the villages. And I would have not done anything that I'm doing right now in my life. I would not have been educated.
GROSS: So in a way, we're talking about exchange marriages and how you nearly ended up in one, betrothed before you were even born. Your mother - and you tell this story in your book - your mother at the age of 9 was married off. What were the circumstances behind that?
BROHI: This story is actually one of the most interesting to us. At the same time, it's the most sad because the way it happened was a very, very big shock. And my mother didn't really open up about it until very recently. She was 9 years old when she was living in Balochistan with her siblings. She had a beautiful life as a child even though in those villages, the young girls end up being very adult at the age of 9. They are taking care of the house. They're cooking for the family. They're washing and cleaning and helping with the mother. So she was pretty much an adult. But at the same time, she loved climbing trees. She loved running around with her friends. She was this happy, positive person who enjoyed the life of an indigenous tribal society.
One day, she remembers that her father comes in. In the morning, she comes through - he comes through the door. And he's like, we are all going to Sindh province. And she'd always wanted to go to Sindh. She'd always dreamed of this land. Everybody talks about how green it is, how beautiful the lush trees and fruits. And they had a lot of relatives in Sindh. So she got ready with great joy. She got her siblings ready, helped her mother, and they left. And that was the start of her new life.
She had no idea that while her father had announced that they were just going to visit the relatives in Sindh, he had already said yes to her marriage in an exchange into those villages and she was not to come back to her home. She says that if she was ever told that, she would have said goodbye to many people. She would have said goodbye to the streets that she played in and the trees she climbed on. And this is the most saddest part for her.
GROSS: My guest is Khalida Brohi. Her new memoir is called "I Should Have Honor." We'll talk more after a break. And Maureen Corrigan will review Gary Shteyngart's new novel. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARIA SCHNEIDER ORCHESTRA'S "WALKING BY FLASHLIGHT")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Khalida Brohi. Her new memoir is about growing up in the tribal area of Pakistan. She was the first girl in her village to go to school. Her cousin was the victim of an honor killing at age 14 because she married out of love, defying the plan for her arranged marriage. Brohi became a women's rights activist, trying to help women stand up for their rights and stand up against murdering wives and daughters who defy the men of the family. She now divides her time between the U.S. and Pakistan. Her new memoir is called "I Should Have Honor." Her parents were forced to marry when her mother was 9 and her father was just a few years older.
Your father was 13 at the time.
GROSS: And he didn't want to be in an exchange marriage either. Why didn't he want to be in one?
BROHI: My father has a very interesting story. When he was born, he says that from the time he started speaking or he was able to think, he loved thinking. He loved to think about what was outside of that village. It was a tiny, little mud village - mud houses and small fields. And they didn't even own the fields. The landlords did. So they would work for some other people, and he became a shepherd.
And one day when he was 4 years old, he was taking the sheep. He was thinking to himself about the world, about, how is it possible that there are so many other things outside of this village? And his thoughts just went through the whole day. And at night when evening fall, both of them looked at the sheep. And the sheep were lying on the fields, not moving. He went to check what happened. And turns out the sheep had overgrazed on alfalfa, and they were very much bloated. So they called out for anyone to help. Their father came, my grandfather, and somehow nobody was able to save the sheep.
And this was very expensive mistake for the family. The neighborhood people survived on the milk of that sheep and the income from that, so he disgraced the whole family. And as a punishment, his father sent him to school because school is the place where boys go because they can't earn any income. And somehow he became the first man, first boy in that tribe to be educated who discovered what an incredible treasure it is. And that's how he became the person who he is today.
GROSS: A part of the story I really love about your parents' marriage when your mother was 9 and your father was 13 - your father, because he loved education so much and - he wanted an educated wife. He wanted somebody who he could talk to about the things that he learned who could also read. And so he decided to educate your mother. And your mother found that she loved reading.
GROSS: And it's really - considering the circumstances, it's such a beautiful story. What do you think of that?
BROHI: Thank you. It is a beautiful story. It shaped the family to become who we are and to give us the paths that we chose because when he made it to university, he started realizing the injustices even more. He had started thinking about women's rights and about the position he would one day give to his daughters.
At the time of university, he discovered that his village not only had given him opportunity to go to school but at the same time had also made him suffer by putting him through this tragic exchange marriage to a girl he had not met and everything. And at that time, my mother was 9, and he was 13. By this time, he was about 16 or 17, and he said, I'm going to marry someone else. So when he went to college, he saw a girl. And he was like, I can't believe this girl not only goes to school. She likes talking about politics. She reads books. This was astonishing to him. And so he decided that he's going to finally find someone who's worth him and marry that girl.
But when he was about to reach out to the family of that girl to ask for her hand in marriage, he remembered the time when my mother came to him as a bride, the night when he walked into that room. It was a dark room, the first night of their marriage. My mother was sitting on a cot decorated like a doll with clothes from someone else, jewelry hanging off of her. Her makeup all smeared because she'd been crying. And he remembered how much she was shaking. She was so scared, that 9-year-old girl who only wanted to go back to her mother.
And he was like, that was not her fault. If education is what I love about a woman, I'm going to go and educate her, and I'm sure I would love her. And so he did. And they fell in love, and they were the biggest love story of the village.
GROSS: It's a really...
GROSS: It's a beautiful story that has a really bad beginning.
BROHI: (Laughter) Sadly, yes.
GROSS: Yeah, so, you know, your father believed in education for himself. He believed in education for your mother. He believed in education for you. Were you the first girl in your village to go to school?
BROHI: Yes. My father - I'm always grateful to him for educating me. But more than that, I'm grateful to him for teaching me about honor. When I was very little, he asked me to come and sit next to him. And he was like, do you know how you will dishonor me? And instantly, I was so scared because I'd been hearing all these stories about girls who had dishonored their fathers and the punishments they had received.
By that time, I did not know about honor killings. But I knew that it's the biggest disgrace you could do for your family. And I knew that somehow my responsibility was attached to my father. So I was the only person or the first person who could dishonor him. I didn't say anything. And he said, you would dishonor me by bringing bad grades from school.
He shifted everything for me. He told me that honor can be chosen for a person individually, whatever it means to them. All my life, I had known that honor was something associated with men about women. If women went out to the markets, they dishonored their fathers. If they studied, they dishonored their fathers. If they didn't wear their scarf or if they laughed loudly, they dishonored their fathers. But this was new. If I didn't study hard or if I didn't bring good grades, I would dishonor him. And that really, really relieved me. It empowered me so much that I worked really hard in the school. And when time came for me to speak up against honor killings when my cousin was murdered, I was ready.
GROSS: I have to say it puts a lot of pressure on you to bring home good grades.
BROHI: Can I tell you? That's the most precious pressure one can ever put on someone because to know that you would not be murdered (laughter) - sadly, I was very relieved. And I decided that many men can actually think like this. Yeah, it taught me so much.
GROSS: Gosh, I can't wrap my head around this - that your father tells you to bring home good grades and, if you didn't, that's what would dishonor him. And you're relieved 'cause that means that your father's not going to have to kill you because...
GROSS: ...You had a crush on someone, you know?
GROSS: But really, to live with that kind of fear that the people who are supposed to love you the most like your father might kill you if you do something that's considered dishonorable for a woman or a girl in the family - and this is how all the girls you grew up with - this is how they were brought up. And some of them...
BROHI: Majority of them, yes.
GROSS: Yeah. Some of them really were killed.
BROHI: Yeah. I cannot ever imagine the fear of knowing that if you did something wrong, you would be punished very harshly for that or even murdered. For me it was different because when I was an infant, my father started showing his affection and support towards me. He started doing things that led me to believe that he was on my side. And even if I am not spared, I would be given a chance to talk about what I believe in or to blame myself. And that kind of liberty is so incredible.
GROSS: At some point, your father said to you, you have to make a choice. It's either me or your work. Was there a turning point there that got him to say that?
BROHI: Yes. In my work, many times my father and I broke into two different groups, but we kept coming back. I think the harshest time for me was 2012 when I was doing everything right, but at the same time, I was taking very big steps very quickly. And the reason was that in 2011, just a year before that, I had had a stroke - a very minor stroke. And the doctor that I was going to who diagnosed me with seizures - she somehow called my father, and she said to him to make me stop what I'm doing because it's leading me to destroy my health, and if another seizure happens, I would turn into a vegetable. Literally my father said this to me. And I pressured him to just let me keep going. I would be mellow. I would take care of my health.
GROSS: You know, you said you had a minor stroke. It wasn't that minor. The left side of your body was paralyzed for a while.
GROSS: So did you fear that you would remain that way?
BROHI: Yes. When I first had the attack and I came back to consciousness, I would move my arm or my leg or my head. Nothing moved. And I was fully paralyzed. And I thought I'd had a coma, I was in a coma, and I was hearing people. But my mouth wouldn't move to talk to anybody. And I was really afraid in that moment that I had lost all the opportunities God had given me. I was like, what a failure. All those crayons dad brought me when I was 3 years old, all that education that he provided us, this freedom, everything, is going away now, and I didn't do anything for women.
And I thought to myself and my heart, God, you're looking at me right now; give me one more chance. I'm going to prove that I - you actually did invest right in me. You did give me the freedom that I'm going to use to bring women out of the customs that kill them, that deprive them of their freedom. And he did give me another chance. Within three months, I was feeling better. We used a lot of indigenous wisdom, indigenous traditions to heal me, and I'm better now.
GROSS: So you've actually taken a lot of risks by doing the women's rights work that you do in Pakistan. What's the most dangerous thing that happened or almost happened to you?
BROHI: Honestly, none of these were very - nothing that ever happened to me was dangerous to me. It was dangerous to the people I loved. I always worried about, what would my mother think if something were to happen to me? Every morning when I left to the office, she would stand at the door and look at me just in a way as if she was never going to see me again. She knew how full of anger at first and then full of passion I was, and then she worried about my safety. And I always wondered what would happen when she's waiting at night at 1 a.m. and I'm not home. And that really made me worried. That was the first ever time I felt fear in my heart.
But nothing that I faced was ever dangerous. I've had people come to us and challenge us with axes in their hands like they would kill us if we didn't leave the village. There was a village where I went to meet the woman, and I had already known that the men did not like us working there. And I just had to go and talk to the women just to say hi to them. And as I was walking, our driver called me, and he says - and I looked back, and all these men were in front of him. And he's like, sister, you have to come back. These men are actually going to shoot you. I'm telling you. They have guns. They're going to shoot you if you keep walking to the village. But I kept walking.
These are the things that have happened, but none of these are as challenging as the fact that my father was affected by my work so much and how sad I made him. That was the only part that I did not like.
GROSS: Sad because of the impact on the family and his fear for you.
GROSS: My guest is women's rights activist Khalida Brohi. She grew up in tribal Pakistan. Her new memoir is called "I Should Have Honor." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "GBEDE TEMIN")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Khalida Brohi. Her new memoir is about growing up in the tribal area of Pakistan in a small village. After becoming the first girl in her village to go to school and receive an education, she became a women's rights activist, working against honor killings and against forcing children to get married against their will.
Has your mother become a women's rights activist?
BROHI: She has (laughter). My mother's way of becoming a women's rights activist is to keep telling us to never give up. My mother was the one who encouraged me to write my book. You know, all of us have these fears. I'm also just a normal person who was afraid that, was I going to be too much if I tell the real story? And when I was deciding to write my book, it actually happened at this very strange incident.
In 2014 when my uncle who killed my cousin was diagnosed with cancer - and by this time, I had forgiven him. I had seen him be a different person. After Khadija was murdered, their father passed away, died in a heart attack. Their mother died. Then they didn't have any parents. So the uncle who murdered Khadija came to the family and became their father, and he was now the guardian of that family. And I remember going to visit him, and I saw from the door this big man that we were afraid of all of our life - he was lying on the floor, paralyzed completely. He had stage 4 cancer that was extremely painful for him and for the family. And his head was lying on Kalsoom's lap, and she was feeding him soup. And I stood there on the door, taking my shoes off. And suddenly he looked to the door, and he saw me. And he almost screamed. He's like, look; Khadjo (ph) is here. And that was the name of Khadija. We used to call her Khadjo. As everybody looked at him...
GROSS: Well, let me just stop here and remind our listeners that's - that was his niece who he...
GROSS: ...Killed in the honor killing.
BROHI: Yes. That was my uncle who had killed Khadija and who had now become the father - the parent of the remaining children of that family. And he was now suffering in many ways not through his illness more than anything but because that family in the beginning did not accept him. They were very afraid of him. But by this time, the children had started to love him. They would show him the drawings they made in the school. They would talk about the progress they were making. And somehow a sense of family had started around him, and he had finally found love. But before he could even start a new life with love, God was taking that life away from him.
And so as I remember, I was standing at the door. He looked towards me. He saw Khadija. But everyone looked at him, and they saw that when he was looking at me, he was actually looking through me. And that was the first time honestly - for the first time after all these years of Khadija's murdered, even I hadn't spoken her name that he had. He was the first one who spoke her name because in honor killings, we are not allowed to say someone's name who was murdered in the name of honor. They are made to disappear from the face of the Earth. And he was the one who brought her to life.
And I became extremely guilty because I was a woman's rights activist. I consider myself this woman who's empowering so many women around the world and in Pakistan, but I was also contributing to the tradition of making my cousin disappear from this Earth.
GROSS: By not saying her name.
BROHI: And so I decided to write this book.
GROSS: When which you say her name and tell her story and put her back as somebody who lived.
BROHI: I give testimony to her murder.
GROSS: Khalida Brohi's new memoir is called "I Should Have Honor." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review Gary Shteyngart's new novel. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The first big book of the fall publishing season is Gary Shteyngart's novel "Lake Success," and our book critic Maureen Corrigan says it's a winner. Here's her review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: There's life in the old road trip saga yet. That's just one of the many things that Gary Shteyngart's spectacular, sprawling new novel, "Lake Success," affirms. Throughout his career, Shteyngart has proven himself a cheeky comic daredevil but never more so than in this novel. More than just an artistic tour de force, "Lake Success" aims and succeeds in saying something big about America today. Shteyngart, after all, emigrated with his parents to America as a child. Beneath his trademark satire lies the earnestness of someone who became a citizen.
By the end of "Lake Success," Shteyngart should convince most of his readers of the enduring viability of the cliched on-the-road plot. He should also convince us, if indeed we need convincing, of the enduring viability of our greatest national cliche - that is, the promise of America.
The anti-hero of this tale is Barry Cohen. You've met his like before, most notably in Tom Wolfe's iconic 1980s novel "The Bonfire Of The Vanities." Barry, like Wolfe's Sherman McCoy, is a master of the universe who's discontented with the life he worked so hard to attain. Barry grew up in Queens a social misfit who practiced friend moves in front of the mirror until he'd remade himself into a popular kid and went on to conquer Princeton and beyond. But now the feds are investigating Barry's financial deals at the same time that his marriage to a gorgeous Indian immigrant named Seema is fracturing. Adding to the stress is the fact that their young son, Shiva, has been diagnosed with severe autism. What's a Wall Street titan to do when the walls close in? Make a run for it of course. Here's the opening of "Lake Success."
(Reading) Barry Cohen, a man with $2.4 billion of assets under management, staggered into the Port Authority bus terminal. He was visibly drunk and bleeding. There was a clean slice above his left brow where the nanny's fingernail had gouged him and, from his wife, a teardrop scratch below his eye. It was 3:20 a.m.
Barry has just had a nasty tussle with his wife and nanny after he tried to force Shiva to speak. Now he's exiting his former life via Port Authority, not private jet, because he's impetuously made the decision that he wants to travel like he did in college, when he last rode Greyhound to visit his old girlfriend in Virginia. He wants to find her again.
As much as this novel references Kerouac's "On The Road," it also nods to "The Great Gatsby," and we know how well that effort to repeat the past turned out. On his long bus odyssey, traveling from New York to Richmond to Atlanta to El Paso and finally to the promised land of California, Barry in Lear-like fashion sheds his cell phone, his money and his suitcase filled with his beloved vintage watch collection. In return, he gains a giant rock of crack cocaine and bragging rights to some deeper self-knowledge.
Shteyngart's writing rises to the challenge of seeing America by Greyhound, starting with the inside of the coach as it rumbles through the night from New York towards Trenton. Passengers, we're told, were snoring like they had entire planets up their noses. The PA system didn't work, but it emitted a staccato, ghostly sound. Perhaps it came from the souls of former passengers who were still trapped aboard.
This isn't just any misbegotten magical mystery tour that Barry is taking. This is a cross-country bus ride set during the summer of 2016. Trump and his vision of America are implicitly interrogated at every pit stop along the way. Meanwhile, back in New York, Seema embarks on an affair with a neo-Guatemalan novelist named Luis, who describes his books as basically all the same - American colonialism, crimes against the indigenous, yada yada yada.
Shteyngart's take on America on the verge of a Trump presidency is anything but yada yada yada. His comic view of the country is by turns compassionate and mournful, wickedly satirical and ultimately aspirational. He captures what one of his own favorite writers, Philip Roth, once called the indigenous American berserk. But he's not in turn captured and disfigured by it. He imagines that there might yet be another fork in the road, another highway rest stop, another snoring American right beside you dreaming their own great American dream.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Lake Success" by Gary Shteyngart.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be former Senator and Secretary of State John Kerry. He's written a new memoir about his service in Vietnam, how he became an activist against that war and how his service was used against him with a smear campaign when he ran for president. And of course the book covers his years as senator and secretary of state. He was instrumental in the nuclear treaty with Iran and the Paris climate accord, treaties which President Trump pulled out of. I hope you'll join us.
We'll close with music by Randy Weston. He died Saturday at the age of 92. Weston was an American jazz pianist whose music was heavily influenced by traditional African music as well as by Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington. This is his best known composition, "Hi-Fly."
(SOUNDBITE OF RANDY WESTON'S "HI-FLY")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF RANDY WESTON'S "HI-FLY")[POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this review, we state Seema is an immigrant. In fact, she is the daughter of immigrants.]
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