DATE February 4, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Carrie Fisher discusses her life, career and her new
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
How funny does this sound? An actress feels lost after her husband leaves her
for a man. Her extreme mood swings become so extreme, she ends up in a mental
hospital and is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Well, it isn't necessarily
the plot that makes Carrie Fisher's new novel, "The Best Awful," funny. It's
her observations. The plot is based on her own life. The main character,
Suzanne Vale, was also at the center of Fisher's best-selling novel "Postcards
from the Edge." Meryl Streep played her in the movie adaptation.
Like the character, Carrie Fisher is the daughter of celebrity parents. Her
mother, Debbie Reynolds, and her father, Eddie Fisher, divorced when Carrie
was young. Carrie Fisher's first brush with being a celebrity in her own
right was when she played Princess Leia in "Star Wars." Here's a short
reading from the beginning of her novel, "The Best Awful." The first chapter
is called The Man Who Got The Man That Got Away.
Ms. CARRIE FISHER (Author, "The Best Awful"): (Reading) Suzanne Vale had a
problem. And it was the one she least liked thinking about. She'd had a
child with someone who forgot to tell her he was gay. He forgot to tell her
and she forgot to notice. He might have forgotten to mention it because he
hoped she would save him, making him into a normal family man with a wife and
a child and a job running a studio. And hadn't she wanted to be saved from
certain things also? From life alone, from being childless, from a life that
might have looked a little sad from the outside? So merging their secret
hopes for rescue, they'd had a baby with their unwritten pact of androgyny, an
androgyny that informed the life they lived out loud.
Suzanne had never seen herself as what she called a squeezy, tilty girl. She
was a breadwinner with a very yang personality; a person who wore a lot of
severely tailored little black suits. And Leland Franklin would never be
called up for the butch patrol, not that he was effeminate in any way; far
Suzanne's pregnancy had betrayed their pact, however, transforming her into a
girl, a vulnerable woman even, leaving Leland to be what he couldn't, a
straight and certain man, certain of his sexuality anyway. Looking back,
perhaps Suzanne should have guessed based on his affection for Biedermeier
furniture or even his fastidiousness with his grooming. She should have known
when, toward the end, he'd begun rigorously attending the gym, perfecting a
body she knew wasn't being perfected for her. Their alliance had broken under
the strain of their attempt at normalcy gone wrong.
When their daughter Honey was three, Leland had left her for a man, though
initially this was not what he'd said. He said he was leaving because Suzanne
was crazy, kept him up all night, refused to take her bipolar medication, and
she would talk, talk, talk, talk all the time. Maybe she talked him out of
staying with her, won the argument for why to leave her without meaning to.
GROSS: That's Carrie Fisher reading from the opening of her new novel, "The
Carrie Fisher, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Ms. FISHER: Thank you.
GROSS: How much of this novel is based on your life?
Ms. FISHER: Oh, a hell of a lot of it.
GROSS: Right. Well, the father of your child left the marriage because he
was gay. Was that a shock for you?
Ms. FISHER: Oh, my God, yes. It's not--I've split up for all the usual
reasons, and you can see those coming. Those--the buffalo hooves on that one,
you can sort of feel those coming from, you know, the distance in that
prairie, but you can't sense the gay thing coming as easily. It comes from a
different sort of--it doesn't come out of the blue. It comes out of a color
you don't know.
GROSS: When it happened, did it make you want to, like, replay the whole
marriage and look for clues that you might not have noticed and rethink
everything that happened?
Ms. FISHER: Well, you always want to do that, but what you do more in this
thing than you do in any other situation is you blame yourself--how dumb you
were--so that, you know, you just--that's the thing that you do. It doesn't
even matter what you replay. How could you not have known? So no matter what
you're going to end up looking at, it's--you're just humiliated, and you just
imagine that everyone's looking at you like, `How dumb could she be?' I mean,
all of us, you know, could be cheated on with women and stuff like that, but
it takes a special kind of idiot. That's what I thought, anyway.
GROSS: But I could even imagine it feeling the other way around, that, you
know, you didn't realize he was gay. He didn't realize he was gay, or at
least he wasn't ready to act on it yet. And it's not like he was leaving you
for another woman. It's not like another woman was outdoing you.
Ms. FISHER: He was rejecting the whole sex.
GROSS: Well, he was just--he was--he had changed, either in his orientation
or on his ability to act on that orientation. So in a way, it's less
personal. He's not rejecting you for another woman. It's just that you're
not--you know, women aren't it anymore for him.
Ms. FISHER: Well, or I think they never really had been, but it's sort
of--it doesn't matter. You're just squashed. You know, there's no way you
can philosophically take up some sort of flag and wave it to yourself and look
in the mirror and say, `OK, you know, I'm OK about this now.' It takes a
really long time, and I think I would have been better off with it had I not
had a child. So that's why it took me a long time to write about it. It just
wasn't funny to me. I think I would have been able to make it funny to me
GROSS: Can you talk about what that process is like, of taking something
that is, like, the really most...
Ms. FISHER: Awful.
GROSS: ...horrible thing that can happen to you and then, you know, over time
you turn it into a comic novel?
Ms. FISHER: Look how long it took me.
GROSS: How long?
Ms. FISHER: Well, I was taking two really bad situations, and, you know,
tragedy plus comedy--plus time is comedy. It took a lot of time to make a
mental hospital and being left by a man for a man to be a joke. But they
happened sort of a close--you know, on each other's heels, so it took me a
while to make them funny, but I got there. And I knew it when I started
being--you know, you get called--when I had my drug problem and then after
that I was a person who was called when other people had their drug problems.
so now I get called when people get left--when women get left by a man for a
man, and I get called when people are bipolar, and I get extra ones, too, you
know, just thrown in. But I know what to say now. I can make it a little
It's a drag being a pioneer on the--well, you know, I just--I say that I turn
men gay. I say that it's my superpower. And, well, actually that was one of
the things that--when it was all very upset and everything was upsetting in
the beginning, it was one of the first things that it could have--we were sort
of arguing and everything was upsetting and crazy. And my ex sort of said,
you know, maybe it was my fault because I sort of took codeine again, and it
was my fault that he was gay. And I said, `Oh, yeah, well, I didn't read
that, you know, warning on the bottle. I thought it said, you know, heavy
machinery, not homosexuality. I could have been, you know, riding those
tractors all along.'
GROSS: Wait a minute. Now I thought--that line is in the book. I thought
that was a very funny...
Ms. FISHER: Yes, it is.
GROSS: You actually said that in real life?
Ms. FISHER: You see? That's why I say, if my life wasn't funny, it would
just be true, and that just would be unacceptable. So, yes, it's true.
GROSS: That's good to be able to quip like that in real life. Some people
can only--some people who do it can only do it on the page.
Ms. FISHER: But, I mean, my life is sort of--not even sort of. My life is
insane. It used to be sort of insane. Now I've actually been committed to an
asylum. I don't think they call them asylums anymore. They've taken all of
the romance out of them.
GROSS: Carrie Fisher is my guest, and her new novel is called "The Best
Now, you know, your character in the novel has two big problems. One is that
her husband's left her for another man, and two is that she's becoming more
extreme in her mood swings and is finally diagnosed as bipolar, manic
depressive. And this has happened to you as well. Now your character in the
novel, when she's going through a manic period, will not only, like, just
talk, she doesn't want to sleep. At three in the morning, while the rest of
her family is trying to sleep, she can be hammering away, trying to lift
the--you know, trying to redo the tiling on the patio at three in the morning.
And--but she likes these manic phases, but then when she gets depressed, life
becomes quite unbearable. What do you find so appealing about the manic part
of manic depression?
Ms. FISHER: Well, what every manic does. I mean, it's liquid confidence.
You feel--everything that you do feels charmed and feels sort of like the best
idea that you've ever had in your life and like you can do it better than
anybody else and should do it and have been chosen to do it by some god or
other and should stay up all night doing it and should get everyone in the
world up to do it with you. It's an extraordinary feeling and I--it's unlike
any drug, and I've taken all of those. And you--there is no drug that you can
say, `Oh, it's just like'--I mean, it's just this amazing feeling of just
being the chosen one. And it eventually goes terribly awry, but, you know,
just imagine feeling just like nobody could resist you, just like you could do
anything that you want to do, any talent. Anything that you pursue you could
GROSS: And then when the mania gives way to depression, do you get depressed
about the same things you'd previously been manic about?
Ms. FISHER: Well, I used to say that the facts about my life stay the same;
just the fiction I make up about them differ. So, I mean, everything--it
just, the light goes out of it. So it would be what Winston Churchill called
the black dog then. You would just bleed the light out of the world. And
it's weather. So on one day you have just this incredibly great weather and
nothing you touch could go wrong, and then the next day it's just--it's
horrible. It's horrible and you don't--you know something just pure evil is
coming to get you, and you don't know from what source, but it's--you're
doomed. And you're powerless to keep that doom away from you.
GROSS: Were you good at working during the manic periods--working on writing?
Ms. FISHER: Of course. There's a certain point when of course not, because
you can't sit still. But for a long period, if it goes for a long period,
yes, absolutely. And then it just gets to a point where you cannot sit still
and you're off to India.
GROSS: How did you figure out that you were bipolar...
Ms. FISHER: I didn't.
GROSS: ...that you had bipolar disorder?
Ms. FISHER: Somebody had to tell me, and I had to be told by a lot of
different people over the years. I was told when I was 24, which I thought
was very annoying. Then you really--you shouldn't--I mean, they told me at
24, and I was still taking drugs, and you really--when someone's drug addicted
or alcoholic and you're still taking a lot of substances or drinking a lot,
that looks like manic depression. You can't really accurately diagnose
someone, I think, or I've been told that. But when I got sober for the first
time when I was 28, I was told again, quite emphatically, and I believed it,
or I said I would, you know, try it their way. And so I took lithium for a
year, but I said I would take it, reserving the right to go off it if I didn't
like it. So at the first opportunity, I went off lithium.
GROSS: What didn't you like about it?
Ms. FISHER: It put too much air in my world.
GROSS: What does that mean?
Ms. FISHER: I just--I used to think I wanted to feel like others seemed, but
I didn't have as much fun, and there was no--there were less surprises. So I
was in Australia and I went off the lithium and then I wanted to go to China,
because it was near. I ended up getting in a lot of trouble.
GROSS: My guest is Carrie Fisher. Her new novel, "The Best Awful," is a
sequel to her best-seller "Postcards from the Edge." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is actress and writer Carrie Fisher. Her new novel is called
"The Best Awful." It's about an actress whose husband leaves her for a man,
and then her extreme mood swings are diagnosed as bipolar disorder.
You know, in an earlier part of your life, you had drug problems and alcohol
problems. Did you see that, in retrospect, as connecting to manic depression?
Ms. FISHER: Well...
GROSS: Do you think you were trying to self-medicate?
Ms. FISHER: Well, they say that. You know what? I think I would have had
probably drug problems anyway because it's in my family, but they always say
60 percent of all manic depressives are drug addicts or alcoholics, and I
always wanted to meet the other 40 percent to find out what the hell they were
doing, just, like, grooving on the moods? They're tough moods, you know.
Well, I met the other 40 percent in the mental hospital, and they are grooving
on the moods. They just really talk about every inch and nook and cranny of
the mood, and here's how I feel and here's the medication I want and must
have, and I think I'd rather be the 60 percent. But I don't--you know, I
think that you would still be a drug addict. It's not a get out of jail free
card to be a manic depressive, and so I self-medicate, and that's why I'm a
drug addict. I think they probably exist together and, you know, separately
too. Yes, I self-medicate, and I think I would, given my family history and,
I don't know, my predisposition, I'd probably have taken the drugs, too.
GROSS: So what do you do now?
Ms. FISHER: Just I do radio shows. I snort radio shows. You mean, what do I
do now in what way?
GROSS: I mean, are you...
Ms. FISHER: For fun?
GROSS: No, for medication.
Ms. FISHER: I take a lot of this dreck they give me for being a manic
depressive. It's a horror. I take the little round watchful pills they give
me to keep my moods under control, and that's it. I'm consigned to this sort
of--this way. I have to be under--I do this. I have an 11-year-old daughter.
I am not going to put my daughter under any sort of stresses. I've
read--actually it was the daughter of the queen of Sheba. It was a book. The
woman, I think, worked at NPR, right?
GROSS: That's correct.
Ms. FISHER: That book really disturbed me and was very upsetting for me,
because it was written by the daughter of a manic depressive point of view.
And I just would never want to make my daughter's life like that.
Ms. FISHER: So--and I don't think my daughter has seen me certainly manic
and dep--you know, she called--my daughter called the moods the fast and slow.
But I don't want to do that to my daughter, so even if I would be tempted to
want to be manic again, which is amazing, considering my age, me sort of
running around Tijuana at 47.
GROSS: In writing this novel, "The Best Awful," about a woman who, like you,
has bipolar disorder, did you have to stand back and see what that looks
Ms. FISHER: Definitely.
GROSS: ...from the point of view of, like, your friends, your family, your
Ms. FISHER: Yeah. I don't--and the awful thing is to put that look in
people's eyes, at any age, but, you know, at middle age, it's really insane.
Yes, I had to stand back and look at it, and it's inappropriate at any age,
and certainly, you know, you want people to have compassion and then you just
think, `I'm really pushing this,' you know. But, yes, I have to stand back
and look at it like it's a character.
GROSS: So is it helpful at all in getting control of it to have stood back
and written about a character with bipolar disorder, or is it...
Ms. FISHER: Yes.
GROSS: ...once you're in the grip of it, does it not really matter that
you've been able to stand back?
Ms. FISHER: But in the grip of it, I have this thing that is standing back
and watching it.
GROSS: Oh, yeah?
Ms. FISHER: Which has probably saved my life half the time.
GROSS: That's like the writerly part of you.
Ms. FISHER: I'm--there's somebody watching.
Ms. FISHER: The only reason I remember something in the six days that I
stayed awake, which felt like I was gonna die--I mean, that's how they torture
people, you know, soldiers or whatever you--I don't know what they do to the
soldiers for keeping them awake, what do they get out of them, but I know now
how they feel really pretty awful, but I--there was something in me tethered
that stood back and watched. And it's that thing that can write the books,
and I guess it's that thing that's not cathartic, but it's that thing that's
sort of sensible in me, that's--you know, that does make me write, that has
always stayed there and watched, just watched while I was, you know, children
of celebrities, that's watched while I was married to a celebrity while I was
Princess Leia, that has just watched all this stuff that's crazy, that doesn't
make any sense on a sensible person.
GROSS: Now you were hospitalized when you had your psychotic incident.
Ms. FISHER: Yeah.
GROSS: And part of the therapy, I think, was group therapy, right?
Ms. FISHER: Oh, my God, it was so awful. Yeah.
GROSS: Well, you know, it's--it strikes me, you've been in 12-step programs.
Ms. FISHER: Forever. I've done everything now.
GROSS: So what are some of the differences between, like, a 12-step program
and group therapy and, you know, a mental institution...
Ms. FISHER: Now wait...
GROSS: ...where you get with other people who are psychotic?
Ms. FISHER: I don't know the difference. I've never been in, like, standard
group therapy outside of, like, where I'm in a place. So I've been in rehab
group therapy, I guess. And it's so awful, because in the mental institute
group therapy, you just feel like you're in prison there, and there's no real
goal, I don't think. I was in a mental hospital for six months. We talked
about--remember the 40 percent of the manic depressives that weren't...
Ms. FISHER: We talked to them, and I listened to those people who wanted to
talk about every area of their moods that they felt yesterday and this morning
and at noon, and everybody talked and it was all very critical. And we were
there for six hours without break, listening to everybody's everything and the
boxes they moved, and their husbands wouldn't help them move them and wouldn't
talk to them at lunch, and it was unbelievable. And I'm sure that I was
boring, too, and we all were trapped. And I--there wasn't really any goal. I
mean, it wasn't like it was therapy. It was just talking. We were just
GROSS: Carrie Fisher. Her new novel is called "The Best Awful." She'll be
back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with actress and writer
Carrie Fisher. She's best known for playing Princess Leia in "Star Wars" and
for writing the best-selling novel "Postcards from the Edge," which was
adapted into a film starring Meryl Streep. Fisher's new novel, "The Best
Awful," is a sequel to "Postcards from the Edge." Both novels are
In the novel your character is kind of forced to come out publicly as having,
you know, bipolar disorder. Why don't you explain why she's forced to do
Ms. FISHER: Well, she's in the hospital and they put it in the--What do they
call it?--the tabloids as, you know, `Suzanne Vale's tragic life,' which did
happen to me. But it was my--I did get to get out of the hospital then.
GROSS: Because of the tabloid?
Ms. FISHER: Yeah.
GROSS: What was the connection?
Ms. FISHER: Well, because someone had sold my story, basically said something
that I had said in the hospital.
GROSS: Oh, someone--you mean someone on the staff reported it?
Ms. FISHER: No, one of the patients, I guess--somebody.
GROSS: Oh. Oh.
Ms. FISHER: And so they'd broken my anonymity or whatever. And I got to
leave early. So it was, you know, like a--anyway, so then it was out that I
was bipolar. Anyway, it was out. So then once it was out, I sort of felt,
`Well, if it's out their way, I kind of would rather have it come out my way.'
So I wanted to organize myself around how it was going to be said that I was
bipolar, how it was going to be said that I was in the crazy house.
GROSS: Is that part of the reason why you wrote this novel?
Ms. FISHER: Part of it, yeah.
GROSS: And so...
Ms. FISHER: Part of the reason why I write any of the things I write.
GROSS: Right. Right. But I'm sure you wanted to kind of have that
explanation made public long before this novel was published, because the
episode you're talking about was several years ago, so...
Ms. FISHER: Six.
GROSS: OK. Six years ago. So what did you do closer to that time?
Ms. FISHER: Well, they came to me, you know, and would ask me to...
GROSS: Who, reporters?
Ms. FISHER: ...you know--and you feel so dumb--yeah. No, I think I went on
Diane Sawyer. And you do feel dumb with--you know, I don't want to--the last
thing I want to do is go on a show and weep and confess to my newest thing of
the horror that happened. But I did go on a show, you know, and tell a thing
that happened and talk about that thing. And there's no way to do, like, a
laughing version, I suppose. But I never felt that bad about this, somehow,
and I still don't. And maybe--I don't feel like it's so horribly stigmatized
or awful, and maybe there's something additional wrong with me that I don't,
but I don't.
GROSS: Is the public knowledge that you had this--you know, that you have
manic depression, that you had this break--is that affecting your ability to
get work, either as an actress or as a screenwriter?
Ms. FISHER: No, I've worked--I've played two nuns since then. What does
that say? No, I don't think it--not that I know of. I'm not privy to what
happens in rooms where they decide whether I should have gotten something that
I didn't get, but no, I work. I'm working pretty much. Probably my age works
against me more than my manic depression. That's a bigger disease: ageism.
I think mental illness works for me and my age works against me. What about
GROSS: Huh. Now the character in your novel, like you, is the daughter of a
celebrity mother who was a movie star and then sang in clubs. Your mother, of
course, is Debbie Reynolds. What was the status of your mother's career when
you were old enough to be conscious of that?
Ms. FISHER: Hmm. She was doing mostly clubs, I think. We were in Las Vegas
a lot. And then I started doing nightclub work with her, like most
teen-agers, and then...
GROSS: (Laughs) Very funny.
Ms. FISHER: And then I did--I was a chorus girl with her in New York--again,
like most teen-agers. But mostly, I think, we were in Las Vegas.
GROSS: So when you were a chorus girl in your mother's act, what exactly were
Ms. FISHER: I was dancing and singing.
GROSS: What kind of songs?
Ms. FISHER: Oh, let me see. The play was "Irene," so it was (singing)
`Irene, a little bit of salt and sweetness.' It was all this sort of '20s
stuff. I was 15. And...
GROSS: Oh, so you were in a musical. This wasn't a club act. This was a
Ms. FISHER: Oh, no, I was in a club act, though.
GROSS: You were in a club act, too.
Ms. FISHER: That was when I was 13. And I did sing one of Paul Simon's
songs, "Bridge Over Troubled Water," when I was 14.
GROSS: Oh, foreshadowing what was to happen on this issue.
Ms. FISHER: Yes. No, this constant foreshadowing of weirdness. And so
that's--see, I--if I didn't write about it, if it was just--otherwise it would
just be true, you see? It just is the weirdest life. So that's why I write
GROSS: Now what did being in "Irene" and being in your mother's club act look
like to you as a young teen-ager? And this would have been in the late '60s,
Ms. FISHER: No, I would say--I was born in '56, so when I was 15--What does
that do for us?--'71.
GROSS: OK. So, you know, this is a period when there's a lot of, like,
radical politics and, you know, the kind of tail end of the hippie era. And I
don't know what you were aspiring to, but there you were in Vegas. Did it
feel like where you wanted to be?
Ms. FISHER: Well, no, 15 hours in New York...
GROSS: Oh, OK.
Ms. FISHER: ...and before that, I was on the road doing her act, yeah. At
15 I was in New York, and we lived next to a funeral parlor. My mother was
having her nervous breakdown. I was a chorus girl. I was in love with all
the chorus boys. How about that for foreshadowing? All--just a huge amount
of foreshadowing. And I think I got my first kiss from a gay guy--oh, but
that was on the road with the nightclub act, a guy named Lynn(ph). He was Rip
Taylor's boyfriend. That was great. And then I was in the chorus, and my
mother was not in great shape. And I was a teen-ager, so I was living
upstairs, she was downstairs, and then I went away to school in England, to
drama college. My mother and I feuded a lot then.
GROSS: And was it good to get away?
Ms. FISHER: It was fantastic. By then I didn't want to go to school in
England, but it was good to get away when I finally did. She made me go,
because I was going to bring respectability to the family.
GROSS: In your novel "The Best Awful," your main character, who's the
daughter of a celebrity, says that she thought a law ought to be passed
forbidding two celebrities from actually breeding. It led to alcohol
addiction and self-obsession without actually having a real sense of self.
From your point of view, what are some of the problems of being the child of
Ms. FISHER: Well, celebrities are very busy. It's a narcissistic--unless
you really concentrate, it can be a very, you know, self-centered,
self-oriented profession. But your product is yourself, so, you know, when
you have a child, the child has to be the focus, right? Children are
normally--you have a child and then the child's the focus. But celebrities,
their whole instrument is their self, and so the focus is off, unless you have
a very enlightened celebrity who's not going to do that. And I think it's
getting better now, and I was being glib when I wrote that. But the first
crop of celebrities that had children--Tracey Ullman gave me a book
that--horrifying-titled book, like, you know, "Suicide in Show Business."(ph)
And it does suicide--it's not just, like, celebrities and--it's just
everybody. It's like, you know, gaffers and cameramen and--but it's...
GROSS: Excuse me for laughing. Yeah.
Ms. FISHER: There's a huge rash of, you know, second-generation kids...
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
Ms. FISHER: ...that just did not, you know--and it's alarming. And I don't
know what caused that, but it's frightening.
GROSS: One more question: Do you ever go to the "Star Wars" conventions?
Ms. FISHER: Not--I don't know--I think I have. I think I've been to--yeah.
GROSS: I assume there are "Star Wars" conventions.
Ms. FISHER: I've been to an autograph thing of theirs, and it was beyond
belief. I wanted to make a documentary of the people that get in the outfits.
One woman cried and said that I had inspired her. I said, `To what end? What
are you?' She said, `A lawyer.' And I didn't know how Princess Leia had
inspired her to be a lawyer. But, you know, I get to talk--I talked to a man
who made cardboard. I meet all sorts--it was very interesting.
GROSS: What's your favorite line or the line you think of as being the most
ridiculous from the original "Star Wars" film that you had to say?
Ms. FISHER: `I have placed information vital to the survival of the rebellion
into this R2 unit.' There's a couple of those like that. I know them still
because I had to memorize them. `I have placed information vital to the
survival (mumbles)'--it's the whole speech of the--I still know it. That's
what's so tragic. What if I get senile and that is all the stuff that I say
while drooling? `Years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars.' I'm some
old, damaged--and they just are making fun of me and what the people do to me
at night and just have me say "Star Wars" dialogue and they bring in their
friends, you know, the orderlies in the old folks' home that I'm in?
GROSS: Oh, it sounds like an episode of "The Twilight Zone."
Ms. FISHER: That'll be my next book. Me as an old woman having them dress
me as Princess Leia in the old folks' home.
GROSS: Well, Carrie Fisher, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. FISHER: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Carrie Fisher's new novel is called "The Best Awful."
Coming up, publishing an Egyptian newsmagazine, even though it's banned from
being published in Egypt. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Hisham Kassem discusses his work as a human rights
activist and a journalist in Egypt
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest, Hisham Kassem, has figured out how to do things that he's not
allowed to do in Egypt. He publishes Cairo Times, Egypt's only independent
English-language newsmagazine, and he manages to get it out each week, even
though it's banned from being published in Egypt. Since September of 2000,
Kassem has headed the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, a group that's
only been legal in Egypt since last June. He's now visiting Washington, DC,
where he's on a panel of judges deciding on this year's recipient of the Roger
Baldwin Human Rights Award(ph) given by the group Human Rights First. I asked
Kassem to describe his newsmagazine, Cairo Times.
Mr. HISHAM KASSEM (The Cairo Times): Cairo Times is an independent weekly
newsmagazine I started in 1997 with a focus on informing readers--i.e., it's
not something that's catering to a political party or a government. I try and
run it as independently as possible. Been in trouble with the government once
in a while.
GROSS: What kind of trouble have you gotten into?
Mr. KASSEM: Censorship, being banned from printing in Egypt. To this day
I'm still registered abroad. I can't get a registration in Egypt, so I had to
register it abroad, first in Cyprus. And then when things got tight, because
there were roughly 300 Egyptian publications registered in Cyprus--so the
Cypriot government put their foot down and made it very difficult to continue
operating this way. I eventually moved my registration to Delaware.
GROSS: Delaware in the United States?
Mr. KASSEM: The United States.
GROSS: That's really funny.
Mr. KASSEM: Yeah. Well, it was the easiest place...
GROSS: It seems funny to me.
Mr. KASSEM: ...for me to register.
GROSS: (Laughs) Yeah. Why is it easier to register in Delaware, of all
Mr. KASSEM: There are 52 places worldwide where you can register offshore
companies; the easiest place was Delaware. But as far as I was concerned, it
could have been the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Hong Kong,
Liechtenstein, you know, anywhere where you can register a company and operate
GROSS: Since you're registered in Delaware, does that mean that you're not
subjected to any press restrictions that are on the Egyptian press?
Mr. KASSEM: No, no, no. It's quite the contrary, because I'm considered a
foreign publication. Now that was the idea of making licensing difficult in
Egypt. You're considered a foreign publication, so the government uses the
pretext that you can be a threat to national security or to the morals of the
nation. So you have to go through censorship. So each week the magazine has
to be cleared by a censor before it hits the market. I've been censored for
all sorts of things: tackling corruption, criticism of the regime. I mean,
tolerance on the whole is quite low.
GROSS: What is the worst punishment that has been inflicted by the government
either on the magazine and its ability to publish or on you or your writers,
you or your reporters?
Mr. KASSEM: Probably the worst thing that they ever did against me was they
banned me from printing in Egypt. So I'd basically prepare the magazine, take
the films with me necessary for printing, fly to Cyprus, print in Cyprus and
bring in the copies with me as cargo on the plane, where they'd be seized in
the airport. And I can go on with stories forever. Again, the idea that I
remained registered abroad as opposed to Egypt is sometimes a very painful
GROSS: Well, now that you're licensed in Delaware, you don't have to fly to
Delaware to publish, do you?
Mr. KASSEM: No, you can fly almost anywhere in the world, anywhere there
aren't such restrictions on printing. And if you go to Cyprus, they don't ask
you, `Where are your licenses?'
Mr. KASSEM: They say, you know, `Show us your money.'
Mr. KASSEM: `We'll print for you.'
GROSS: Were you brought up with the knowledge that if you remained an
independent thinker, that you would face a lot of struggles?
Mr. KASSEM: Well, I guess my father was quite an influence on me in that
sense. And I remember when I first started getting in trouble and being
summoned by state security, my father warned me that very soon they'd try and
get me to work for the regime and, you know, turn me into a snitch, basically,
and said that if I did not have the caliber or the stamina to stand up for
what I believe in, then he advised me to step out of trouble and do something
as shameful as, you know, working for security operators or for government.
GROSS: Did his prophesy come true? Were you approached by the government...
Mr. KASSEM: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: ...and asked to be a snitch?
Mr. KASSEM: Loads of times.
GROSS: How do they do it?
Mr. KASSEM: Well, you know, they tell you, you know, `You're a smart guy.
There's a lot of potential for you,' etc., and try and tempt you. But I guess
by now they've given up.
GROSS: So you know people who are snitches, who said yes?
Mr. KASSEM: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Loads.
GROSS: And do they know you know?
Mr. KASSEM: Yeah. It's sometimes even embarrassing sitting with them, but I
try not to get personal.
GROSS: How effective are the snitches if you, and I imagine other people,
too, know who they are?
Mr. KASSEM: Well, you know, a few years ago this respectable elder who
complained to the prime minister, I think, saying that, you know, `Your
snitches are the worst-caliber journalists and humanly as well.' And the
prime minister's reply was, `Do you think anybody who's respectable or of any
caliber would agree to be a snitch?' So I guess, yeah, that answers.
GROSS: How many hears has Egypt been under martial law?
Mr. KASSEM: Well, I mean, throughout the Mubarak regime, it's been under
martial law. But it was only free from it for about six...
GROSS: So that's 22 years, yeah.
Mr. KASSEM: Yes, yes, since 1981. But it had only been freed from it for
about five or six months and then reimposed again. So, I mean, that gap
aside, I think it's closer to 40 years now, maybe more.
GROSS: So what does that mean in terms of daily life? What are some of the
things that you cannot do because of martial law?
Mr. KASSEM: Well, I mean, it seriously curbs any potential for political
activism, and like any meeting where there are more than five people, you come
under the brunt of martial law. You could be arrested for that, you know.
Six people debating on politics could be considered a violation. And in many
ways, martial law is becoming a law of its own or a parallel law or legal
GROSS: My guest is Hisham Kassem. He's president of the Egyptian
Organization for Human Rights and publishes the independent, English-language
newsmagazine Cairo Times. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Hisham Kassem, and he is the
editor of Cairo Times, Egypt's only independent, English-language
newsmagazine. He's also the president of the Egyptian Organization for Human
Before the war in Iraq, you were a supporter of the war and thought that it
might help push democracy not only in Iraq but in other countries in the Arab
world. Do you still feel that way? Do you still feel confident that there
will be an emerging democracy in Iraq and in other Arab countries as well?
Mr. KASSEM: Yes, certainly. And I saw the military intervention. Iraq is a
correction of American foreign policy. For years, where the United States or
Europe had supported what they call stable regimes, which were basically, you
know, our plight or, you know, the dictatorships that vary from psychopathic,
like in Iraq, or authoritarian, like in Egypt, it certainly had an impact on
the region. We're beginning to see regimes opening up. They all realize that
there is no future for authoritarian regimes. I saw the intervention as a way
to evade a much wider intervention because the Arab region was headed to a
situation where you'd probably have three or four failed states. The
demographics show that 60 percent of the population are under 25 and no job
creation because of a lack of development, and this is because of the lack of
accountability and democracy. I saw the intervention as a lesser evil, and
the effect is beginning to clearly be seen there.
GROSS: What effect are you seeing?
Mr. KASSEM: All across the region you're seeing regimes that are becoming
tolerant of dissent. Like, suddenly, a place like Saudi Arabia is allowing
human rights organizations to be set up, a human rights conference to be held
there. They're talking about elections. There's a wave of elections taking
place across the region. Most of this is cosmetic. I don't see any of the
regimes truly have a commitment for reform, but it's the realization that
either they move in that direction or they risk the downfall of their own
regime. We've seen something like the Colonel Gadhafi in Libya backtracking
on his, I mean, futile or silly program of weapons of mass destruction, and
beginning to realize that the money should be used in the development of the
country rather than on ridiculous projects like that. I mean, I could go on
forever about the changes happening now.
GROSS: What was your reaction to the report by the former US weapons
inspector, David Kay, that it looks like Iraq didn't have weapons of mass
destruction any longer, that they haven't had weapons like that since, I
think, '98 was the year that he gave?
Mr. KASSEM: Well, I mean, you know, to me the issue of weapons of mass
destruction was something I never really bought or went along with. I didn't
think Saddam had weapons of mass destruction or delivery systems. But to
begin with, if that was the threat to American national security--and I'm
talking from your perspective now--there is a much bigger threat to American
national security, and that was to have three or four failed states, three or
four Afghanistans by the oil depots of the world. And even with the
correction in American foreign policy that will allow the chance for
development to start taking place, I think there still will be failed states.
So I guess it's an issue of, this was the pretext that the government went to
war over, but in my case, my support was not over WMDs. It was liberate the
people of Iraq. You know, a military intervention is something, I mean, that
is easy to make a decision about. Is the cost of the intervention in human
life less than the regime staying? I think it is, and upon this, my support
was for the intervention.
GROSS: Now you are an intellectual and a human rights activist and a
publisher. I have read that there are places throughout the Middle East and
I've read specifically--This has been true in Cairo--where a lot of people
believe that there was a Jewish conspiracy behind September 11th, that all the
Jews who worked in the World Trade Center were told not to show up on
September 11th, you know, 'cause the whole thing was part of this Jewish
conspiracy. I'm wondering if you come across a lot of that thinking and, as
an educated person, as an intellectual, what you make of it.
Mr. KASSEM: Oh, sadly, of course, that conspiracy theory did rotate around
for a while, and several other conspiracy theories just as ridiculous. This
is probably the result of a total meltdown of information systems in the
region, and not leaving scope for decent media to exist. It's, to me,
something that could be the cause of a lifetime to help get out of the
GROSS: Have there been a lot of publications that have printed conspiracy
theories like that, you know, that help generate theories like that?
Mr. KASSEM: Yes, under authoritarian regimes, the best and brightest
journalists either will leave the country, and people begin to realize that to
make it up in the media, you know, you basically need to be a government
sycophant, and it reflects on the quality and the professionalism of the whole
industry, and eventually you get theories like that filling pages.
GROSS: In Egypt, there were a lot of anti-war protests before the war in
Iraq. Did the war activate radical sentiments or anti-American sentiments in
Mr. KASSEM: Yes, certainly. I mean, anti-Americanism is at its highest.
I've never seen anything like this, because prior to that there was also the
issue of the intifada and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, it's not
accumulative, it's not something that's building into institutions and
collective bargaining over the matter. Now if the United States can stabilize
Iraq and succeed in the road map, which I'm optimistic about both, it will
have to follow with something like a Marshall Plan for development, because
the GDP of the region, there is no chance that we conduct the development on
our own, and right now I don't think Europe is going to be the necessary
partner in this development, nor will Japan, and so that leaves the United
States. If a Marshall Plan is introduced and it helps revitalize the economy
and brings about jobs, most of the sentiment will be gone.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much...
Mr. KASSEM: My pleasure.
GROSS: ...and I wish you a good stay in the United States.
Mr. KASSEM: Thank you.
GROSS: Hisham Kassem is president of the Egyptian Organization for Human
Rights, and he publishes the English language newsmagazine Cairo Times. He
spoke to us from Washington, DC, where he's on a panel of judges deciding this
year's recipient of the Roger Baldwin Human Rights Award, which is given by
the group Human Rights First.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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