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Journalist Mark Bowden

Journalist Mark Bowden discusses Saddam Hussein, the subject of his cover story for the May issue of The Atlantic Monthly. The story is –Tales of the Tyrant: The private life and inner world of Saddam Hussein. Bowden is also author of the bestseller Black Hawk Down, which was made into a film. His book Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the Worlds Greatest Outlaw, about the U.S. government's role in bringing down Colombian cocaine kingpin and terrorist Pablo Escobar is now in paperback. It won the Overseas Press Club Award for best non fiction book on foreign affairs.


Other segments from the episode on April 4, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 4, 2002: Interview with Mark Bowden; Interview with Richard Rodriguez; Review of Seiji Ozawa's "Vienna New Years Concert with Seiji Ozawa".


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Mark Bowden discusses Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi
leader's personal life and outlook

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The Bush administration is considering trying to accomplish what the Gulf War
failed to do: bring down Saddam Hussein. My guest, Mark Bowden, has written
an article about the daily life and inner world of Saddam Hussein. That
article, Tales of the Tyrant, is the cover story of the May issue of The
Atlantic Monthly. Mark Bowden is also the author of "Black Hawk Down." His
book, "Killing Pablo," about Pablo Escobar, comes out in paperback next month.
It won an Overseas Press Club award for the best non-fiction book on foreign
affairs. Bowden is also a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he
was a reporter for 22 years. Bowden's article on Saddam Hussein is based on
interviews with Iraqi exiles who once worked closely with Saddam Hussein.

Let's start with Saddam's daily habits. I asked Bowden where Saddam sleeps at
night, and if he thinks of himself as being on the run.

Mr. MARK BOWDEN (Author): I think he definitely is on the run, and it isn't
just from, you know, American agents or enemies from outside his own country.
He has to be on the run within his country because he has so many enemies.
So he sleeps at any one of a number of secret locations. There are about 20
to 25 extremely elaborate, beautiful palaces that are ostensibly his
residences, but I'm told that he rarely actually sleeps in any of them. He
has homes in, you know, nice neighborhoods here and around Baghdad for the
most part, and he moves from place to place every night so that nobody,
probably not even, you know, members of his family, are aware on a given day
where he's going to be that night.

GROSS: And you also write that all of the palaces, all of the more than 20
palaces, prepare three meals a day for him, even though he can't be at all
those palaces...

Mr. BOWDEN: Right.

GROSS: ...for each of the meals.

Mr. BOWDEN: Exactly.

GROSS: Why do they do that?

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, they do this elaborate pantomime, as thought he was there,
in order to obscure where, in fact, he is. I mean, if you could watch, you
know, where his chefs went every day, or you could watch, you know, where the
helicopters were taking off and landing all the time, or where the convoys of
limousines were heading, you could figure out where Saddam was. So they
maintain the pretense at all these palaces that he's present, so you'll see
bustling, you know, comings and goings, limousines arriving, limousines
leaving, all of the food preparations going on, helicopters coming and going,
as though he was there, and they do this at all of his palaces, so it's a
shell game.

GROSS: And what kind of food are they preparing for him that he's not going
to eat at each of the palaces where he's not going to be?

Mr. BOWDEN: I'm told it's really good food. He imports a lot of seafood and
things that are harder to get in Iraq. He likes to eat well. He's got an
educated palate and he has chefs who've been trained in Europe and around the
world, and they prepare really wonderful meals. And I don't know whether the
staff gets to sit down and feast on it when he's not there, but it's prepared
for him as though he were there. And I suspect that the people preparing it
don't really know, you know, whether he's going to be there or not. So they
have to prepare it as though he was going to be.

GROSS: How does his staff ensure that the food isn't poisoned?

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, I imagine it's tested fairly thoroughly. What I'm told is
that all of the food that's going to be prepared for Saddam is irradiated by
nuclear scientists who make sure that there's no dangerous, like, radioactive
material in it, there's no kind of--like, one way of tracking a person in this
modern age would be to infect them or get them to eat something that has a
radioactive element that could be detected or traced and so they look for
that. And it's also tested for poisons. So that's at a preliminary level.
And then I presume, you know, in the kitchens, there are members of Saddam's
personal bodyguards who would oversee the preparation of the food and I
suspect would, you know, taste it themselves to make sure that it hadn't been
poisoned in the kitchen.

GROSS: Apparently, he occasionally drinks wine even though that's forbidden
by Islam. How much wine does he drink?

Mr. BOWDEN: I'm told he's not a heavy drinker. He likes to have wine with
his meals. He's not an oenophile. He prefers, I think--Matus Rossi(ph), I'm
told, is his favorite wine. But he just likes it with his meals. He's not a
heavy drinker. In fact, it's interesting that Saddam, you know, is fairly
abstemious about most things in his life. He lives, at least in terms of his
personal habits, a life of moderation in how much he eats, what he drinks,
his, you know, personal affairs, whatever.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Bowden. He's the author
of "Black Hawk Down." He has the cover story in the May edition of The
Atlantic Monthly. It's about Saddam Hussein's private life--his personal
life, his daily habits, and the piece is called Tales of the Tyrant.

You write that Saddam Hussein has a slipped disk in his back. How long has he
had that?

Mr. BOWDEN: I don't know. I'm not sure. I was told that by General Wophick
Sameri(ph), who was Saddam's chief of intelligence during the Iran-Iraq War.
And so he spent over the eight-year period of that war a lot of time with
Saddam, almost every day, and so he was the one who told me about the back
condition, the fact that his doctors have prescribed that he walk two hours a
day, but he didn't indicate to me nor do I think he knows exactly how he hurt

GROSS: And how does the slipped disk affect his mobility and just his
day-to-day life?

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, he works hard to keep it under control because it's very
important for Saddam not to appear to be aging or to be weak in any way. He's
somebody who has a lot of enemies and he also lives in a society that respects
sort of his macho qualities and youth and vigor, and so even though he is
getting older--he's, like 65, 66 years old, and in various ways, he's becoming
weaker and infirm, he works hard to disguise that. He swims, for instance,
every day to keep the back condition under control. But apparently it leaves
him--the only manifestation of it is that he walks with a slight limp. And so
he avoids being videotaped or filmed walking for any distance. You'll see him
in tapes walking a few steps, but he avoids being seen publicly walking 'cause
he doesn't want to be seen to be limping at all.

GROSS: Because it makes him look vulnerable.

Mr. BOWDEN: Mm-hmm. It makes him look vulnerable and old. He goes to the
length of having his speeches printed out on paper with just a few lines per
page so that the lettering is so large that he can read it without his reading
glasses. I mean, there are few of us over the age of 45 or 50 who don't need
some kind of help reading. It's just the most normal thing that could happen
to a person. But for Saddam Hussein to wear reading glasses would be to
suggest that he's getting old, that he may be over the hill. And so he tries
to avoid giving the appearance of aging.

GROSS: Now you write about the books he reads and also the books he's written
or that at least have been ghostwritten for him. Let's start by talking about
the books that he's written. Give us the overview.

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, Saddam fancies himself a writer, and he really admires
statesmen like Winston Churchill who were, you know, powerful political leaders
but who were also writers and artists. And so he has written any number of
books about political theory and philosophy and history. He's written with the
help of a ghostwriter an extensive autobiography, and he's also written three
novels which he apparently writes himself. And the reason I think that it's
likely that he writes those himself is that he sends out the manuscripts of
his novels to writers who he admires in Iraq, soliciting their advice about
his style and plot and everything else.

And I don't think he would go to those lengths if he wasn't serious about the
writing himself. His novels are like romance novels but they're set in a kind
of mythical Arabian past, sort of like in the period of the "Arabian Nights."
And, you know, he writes about kings and peasant girls who the king falls in
love with. But he also uses them as kind of little morality parables and
political parables to explain why he does the things he does and how he sees
himself. So in that sense, I think they're really interesting for anyone who
wants to try to better understand him as a person.

GROSS: Have you read the books?

Mr. BOWDEN: No, I haven't. I don't read in Arabic and the books have not
been translated into English, so I had to settle for interviewing people who
had read them.

GROSS: Now you also learned that there's a 600-page hand-lettered copy of the
Koran that is said to be written with Saddam Hussein's own blood, which he
donated a pint at a time over three years. How can you be sure that's not an
apocryphal story?

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, I think, you know, I weighed the information that I got
depending on the source. Actually, that fact has been reported in The New
York Times, and a number of the people who I talked to were aware of it,
sources who I think had no reason to make up something like that. So I
believe it's true. It's also sort of in keeping with Saddam, who is given to
making very grand personal gestures. For instance, one of the huge statues in
Baghdad which honors the so-called victory in the Iran-Iraq War consists of
these two huge forearms and hands grasping swords, rising up out of the
ground. And Saddam modeled for that himself. Those are his arms and his
fists. So it would be like him to do something like have a version of the
Koran written up in his own blood, as a demonstration of his own blood
commitment to, you know, this faith.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Mark Bowden. His article about Saddam Hussein,
Tales of the Tyrant, is the cover story of The Atlantic Monthly's May edition.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Journalist Mark Bowden is my guest. He wrote the cover story of the
May edition of The Atlantic Monthly. It's called Tales of the Tyrant: The
Private Life and Inner World of Saddam Hussein. Mark Bowden is also the
author of "Black Hawk Down."

Another thing you wanted to know is what are Saddam Hussein's favorite movies.

Mr. BOWDEN: Right.

GROSS: Why'd you want to know that?

Mr. BOWDEN: Because I love movies, and, you know, it's one of the things that
I find interesting in meeting and talking to anybody: what kind of books they
like, what kind of movies they like. I was told that he likes films and that
he reads a lot, and so one of the questions I asked of everyone was, you know,
`What kind of books does he read? What kind of movies does he like?' And,
you know, it wasn't--some of them weren't terribly surprising. The fact that
he likes movies that deal with political intrigue, conspiracy, assassination,
movies like "Day of the Jackal"--he likes movies that sort of portray the
world as being manipulated by powerful figures behind the scenes, which
suggests to me that he sort of is the kind of person who believes that you
can't judge things by the surface, that nothing is as it seems. He has that
kind of conspiratorial mind-set.

But he also likes films, you know, like "The Old Man and the Sea." That's the
one that really threw me. And any number of people told me that he both liked
that book and that movie. And, you know, I got that from, like, three or four
different people who knew him well, and I found that to be really strange. I
mean, that would seem to be--well, it's not strange; I mean, it's a wonderful
story and it's a great movie. But it's not in keeping with what you would
predict, I guess, a dictator to be particularly fond of. It tells the story
of a poor old man with nothing who, you know, wrestles against this giant fish
and ultimately succeeds, but succeeds in a way that no one really knows or
understands. And it's a kind of both heroic tragic tale. I've always really
liked it myself, so maybe that's why I found it so interesting.

GROSS: Saddam Hussein, you say, commissioned a film about his life called
"The Long Days," and that it was edited by Terence Young, who directed three
James Bond movies?

Mr. BOWDEN: Right. They paid him a huge amount of money, and he went to
Baghdad and basically, for the money, you know, put his professional talents
to work piecing together this film. And I never had a chance to see it, but
I'm told it's just, you know, endless, and very few people can stand to watch
it all the way through. But I wanted to actually interview Young.
Unfortunately, he died late last year, I guess. I had put him down on my list
of people who I definitely wanted to see, but he unfortunately died before I
had a chance.

GROSS: What have you been told about how the movie has been screened and who
it's been screened for? Is it a theatrical release? Is it shown at

Mr. BOWDEN: It's shown a lot in Iraq. It's shown in schools. It's a
documentary, you know. It's six hours long, although it's a fictionalized
documentary, and they have scenes in it where actors act out parts--in fact, I
think Saddam's nephew plays the young Saddam in the movie. But, you know, I
would imagine it's probably required viewing for a lot of people in Iraq.

GROSS: One of the things you wanted to find out by writing this piece about
the inner life of Saddam Hussein is what drives him.

Mr. BOWDEN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Did you reach any conclusions?

Mr. BOWDEN: I did, yeah. I think that, you know, dictators all over the
world throughout history have been by motivated by any number of things. Some
are just venal and are motivated by, you know, trying to amass as much money
as they can, someone like, say, Idi Amin, or Papa Doc in Haiti. You have some
who are just sadists, I think. You have some like Hitler or Stalin, who were
ideologues, who really believed that they possessed knowledge of how to create
a superior state.

Saddam Hussein appears to be motivated primarily by vanity, by personal
vanity. He doesn't have a great deal of interest in money. He lives, as I
said, a kind of abstemious existence, so he's not a hedonist. He wants to be
remembered. He wants to go down in history as a great man. And of course,
the world that he inhabits is actually very provincial. Saddam hasn't
traveled outside of the Arab states. I know that he's been to Egypt in his
youth, but in his adulthood, he's been basically in Iraq and neighboring Arab
states. He has been to conventions or conferences in Havana, I believe, but
beyond that, he hasn't traveled widely, so his vision or ambition is rooted
completely in that Arab culture.

And so to Saddam to be a great man means to be a powerful Arab leader, someone
who, 100 years from now, or 500 years from now, when, as he sees, it, the
Arab culture will have triumphed and will be prevailing throughout the world,
he will be remembered as one of the architects and one of the great men of
history. So I think these are the things that motivate him.

GROSS: This is the kind of thing I always wonder about dictators and tyrants:
If on the one hand he wants to be remembered positively in history and he
wants to be a hero because he's, you know, motivated by that type of vanity,
he must know that his own people fear him and that many of them despise him,
and that many people around the world, including in some Arab countries,
despise him as well. So how does that feed his vanity?

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, I think that the question betrays a kind of cultural bias.
I think that, you know, one of the ways that we would define greatness in the
Western world would be someone who is fondly remembered, someone who is
admired for the good things that they did, for their kindness, let's say, for
the broadness of their vision, you know.

In Saddam's world, someone is remembered and revered for their strength and
for their power, and one of those things, as he would see it, that he has to
do to project that strength is he needs to be vicious. He needs to be cruel.
The fact that he has enemies, and he has many powerful enemies, enhances his
vision of himself, because he sees himself as a sort of a lone warrior, you
know, leading his people, Iraq, against an overwhelming tide of Westernism.
And you know, the fact that he keeps the faith, that he strikes fear into his
enemies, is something that I think he believes will, you know, in the long
run, make him a great figure.

And in fact, if you look back in history, you know, to some of the great
conquerors of history, from Saladin, who, say, is a great Arab leader, I mean,
they were brutal men. They, you know, slayed their foes. When they defeated
an enemy, they raped and pillaged and burned, and you know, they struck fear
into people who didn't follow them. So I think, you know, he sees himself
more in those terms than in what our concept would be of great leadership.

GROSS: The Bush administration has been trying to get international support
for attacking Saddam Hussein and trying to depose him. Did you get a sense
from the Iraqi exiles that you interviewed what their thoughts about that were?
The people who now oppose Saddam Hussein, what would they think of American

Mr. BOWDEN: Well, all of the people who I talked to would welcome some form
of American intervention, but they disagree in dramatic ways about how they
would like to see that done. Because of the nature of the people I'm
interviewing--these are all exiles from Iraq--you know, they would like to see
a regime change. They would like to see Saddam gone. But some of them
want--for instance, the Iraqi National Congress people, like Enti Fahd(ph),
who's the engineer, actually works with the Iraqi National Congress, would
like to see a straight-out invasion of Iraq, for the United States just to
come in militarily and remove Saddam.

Others, like General Sameri, feel that that would be a disaster, that Saddam
would unleash weapons of mass destruction against Israel and perhaps even
against other Western countries and against his own people if that happened,
and would much prefer and think it would be more effective to cultivate some
kind of an internal coup, to find someone within the Iraqi military who could
be enlisted to step up and arrest or kill Saddam Hussein and overthrow the
regime from within.

So they all would like to see him gone, but they vary in their techniques.

GROSS: Mark Bowden's article, Tales of the Tyrant, about Saddam Hussein, is
the cover story of The Atlantic Monthly's May edition. Bowden is also the
author of the book, "Black Hawk Down." His book "Killing Pablo," about Pablo
Escobar, will be published in paperback next month.

We'll talk more about Saddam Hussein in the second half of the show. I'm
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: Coming up, how Saddam Hussein holds on to power. We continue our
discussion with journalist Mark Bowden. Also, writer Richard Rodriguez tells
us why he rejects the term `Hispanic.' His new book is called "Brown." And
Lloyd Schwartz reviews the new recording of the Vienna Philharmonic conducted
by Seiji Ozawa.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to our interview with Mark Bowden. His article, Tales of the
Tyrant: The Private Life and Inner World of Saddam Hussein, is the cover
story of The Atlantic Monthly's May edition. Bowden is also the author of
"Black Hawk Down" and "Killing Pablo," about Pablo Escobar. His article on
Saddam Hussein is based on interviews with Iraqi exiles who formerly worked
closely with Saddam Hussein.

What do you consider to be the most frightening story about Saddam Hussein
that you were told?

Mr. BOWDEN: I think the most frightening story told to me was told to me by a
gentleman who didn't want me to use his name. And he had been a sort of
midlevel bureaucrat in Baghdad. And soon after Saddam took power, one of the
crusades that the new regime undertook was to rid the Baghdad government of
corruption. And so some of the bureaucrats in this man's office were
investigated or were accused of accepting bribes.

And as he told me, it was probably true, that some level of petty corruption
did exist within his department. But all of those who were accused of
accepting bribes were executed. They were hung. And every member of the
office, including the man I interviewed, were required to come to the prison
and watch their friends, one by one, being marched to the scaffold and hung as
a lesson to them in what would happen.

And, to me, I think--some things register to me just personally. I've always
had a particular horror of execution. And, you know, to imagine this scene,
where, you know, people who were accused of accepting a bribe--which is
clearly wrong and, you know, they should be fired or punished--would be
executed for that, and that, you know, that I as a co-worker, or one of them,
you know, would be there to witness it--I mean, it just showed a kind of
casual sadism in that society, that was so appalling to this man that he made
a decision that he had to leave just because he refused to live in a place
where something like that could happen.

But I think that it illustrated to me the kind of fear that people live with
on a daily basis. And more than any of the other stories I was told, that
kind of made my skin crawl.

GROSS: Do you feel that you understand any more now how Saddam Hussein has
managed to hold on to power for over a decade since the end of the Gulf War?

Mr. BOWDEN: I do think I, you know, understand it better. I have a much
better understanding of the pervasiveness of the fear in that country and the
skill with which Saddam exercises that power and makes people afraid. But he
also lavishly rewards the people who are faithful to him. And, you know, he
surrounds himself with his own villagers, people from his own extended clan,
so that--I mean, he can trust them, I guess, more than almost anyone else.

It's a very--it remains, Iraq does, a very tribal society. And, you know, I
think Saddam--one of the more interesting facets of the piece is this
explanation that I was given by my friend, Al Bazaz, the editor in London, of
the difference between what he calls tribal mentality and city or town
mentality, and how Saddam typifies tribal mentality.

I think that, that analogy to understand what's happening in Iraq, to
understand how Saddam has become as powerful as he is, has, I think, much
broader implications in the world. I think those of us, for instance, in the
West fall into the category of town mentality. You know, we live in a society
of laws. We believe that the ultimate good is peaceful coexistence. We
believe in the need for compromise.

Saddam comes from a world where what Al Bazaz calls tribal, or village,
mentality, where power exists for its own sake, and you don't cooperate or
compromise with your enemies. You defeat them and you frighten them to the
extent that they are willing to put up with your oppression. And I think
that, that defines a sort of philosophy of power and governance that is
pervasive in many parts of the world. And it's something that we here in the
West, I think, don't fully understand.

GROSS: As the Bush administration considers attacking Iraq, or trying to
overthrow Saddam Hussein, did you learn any information in the course of your
research that made you think about the nature of the threat that Iraq poses to
us? How grave is the threat? What type of threat is it?

Mr. BOWDEN: I do think, after researching this piece, that Iraq poses a
tremendous and immediate threat to the United States and to the rest of the
world. And I didn't really think that so much before I worked on it. But
there's no question in my mind that Saddam has aggressively been pursuing the
development of weapons of mass destruction, chemical and biological weapons in
particular, that could kill hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.
He's also had a fairly sophisticated nuclear weapons program under way for
some time.

I don't think that we here in the West, or even Israel, face any real threat
of being attacked directly by Iraq. But Saddam--and he's quoted throughout
the piece that I wrote, talking about how his war with the United States has
never ended; that he still considers himself to be at war, and he still plans
to win this war. If he possesses these weapons, which I think almost every
source that I find, both ones that I interviewed myself and the research that
I did on this piece, are in agreement that if he does not yet have these
weapons, he will in fairly short order. There's no doubt in my mind that he
will get those weapons into the hands of people who will use them against us.

And so I think that the kind of weapons that we're talking about can really
only be developed by a state, because they require, basically, the creation of
an industry in order to make happen. And that's why Iran and Iraq and North
Korea are such a threat to us right now. The only way that you can produce
these kind of weapons on the scale where they would be really effective is in
a state like Iraq.

So the existence of organizations like al-Qaeda, who will unhesitatingly use
these weapons against us, and the existence of a state that's actively trying
to manufacture those weapons--put those two things together, and I think we
have a real and immediate threat to our country. And so that's why I
personally think that I'm in agreement with this administration, that we, in
our own self-interest and self-defense, need to act very strongly and very
soon to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

GROSS: If we were to either assassinate or depose Saddam Hussein, do you
think that, that would effectively end his regime?

Mr. BOWDEN: I think that if we got rid of Saddam Hussein, it would end his
regime, without a doubt. The problem--the big question is what would follow
it. Saddam's regime is a cult of personality and a cult of family, basically.
He trusts so few people, and those people who he does trust, he trusts
primarily because he knows they fear him. He hasn't distributed power widely
throughout Iraq. He doesn't anymore represent an ideology or a particular
party. He is, essentially, a party of one. And if Saddam Hussein was gone,
there would be a real power vacuum in Iraq.

And the problem, or the fear is, that you would then have, potentially, you
know, some maniacal dictator who would take over or a civil war. You would
have, perhaps, you know, the growth of the Shia movement in Iraq where you
could get, you know, some kind of fundamentalist Islamic government there.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BOWDEN: So the--in fact, I think the reason that Saddam has survived as
long as he has is that there's been a real quandary about, you know, what
would come after Saddam and what that would mean for the region and for the
rest of the world.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us about Saddam

Mr. BOWDEN: You're welcome. My pleasure, Terry.

GROSS: Mark Bowden's article, Tales of the Tyrant, about Saddam Hussein, is
the cover story of The Atlantic Monthly's May edition. Bowden is also the
author of the book "Black Hawk Down." His book, "Killing Pablo," about Pablo
Escobar, will be published in paperback next month.

Coming up, Richard Rodriguez talks about his new book, "Brown."

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

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

Interview: Richard Rodriguez discusses his new book, "Brown,"
and assesses the meaning of `Hispanic' in American culture

My guest, Richard Rodriguez, has just written the third volume of his memoirs
about being Mexican-American. His new book, "Brown," is in part an
examination of what it's like to be neither black nor white in a country that
is obsessed with race. Rodriguez is a contributing editor for Harper's
magazine and the Sunday opinions section of the LA Times. He's also an
essayist for "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on PBS.

Rodriguez opposes the brand of multiculturalism that emphasizes the politics
and literature of identity. He writes, `It's one thing to know your author,
man or a woman or gay or black or paraplegic or president. It's another thing
to choose only man or woman or gay or black as the only voice empowered to
address you.' But here's the paradox: Although Rodriguez criticizes
multiculturalism, all of his books are about being Mexican-American.

Mr. RICHARD RODRIGUEZ (Author, "Brown"): What I oppose is the relegation of
literature to sociology, and that what I'm--those readers who use books as a
way of reducing a human life to a kind of case study or type. I describe in
"Brown" this moment when I was doing a reading some years ago at the
University of Arizona in Tucson, and I had the 6:30 slot. There was a lesbian
poet who was coming on at 8:00. And so there at 6:30, I had my
Mexican-American readers, and God bless them, they came, postponing their
dinners, to listen to the Mexican-American writer.

And somewhere in the course of my reading, this young Mexican-American, who
was probably impatient with my voice and with my prose, noisily got up and
walked out of the auditorium. And at the moment at which he opened the back
doors, I could see all the lesbians waiting in the lobby for their lesbian
poet. And I thought to myself, `Why couldn't I get the lesbians at my reading
and the Mexican-Americans get the lesbian poet?'

Why do we always use literature in this way simply as a way of discovering
ourself? Why don't we discover ourself in the other? That's obviously been
the great engagement of my life, trying to find myself in African-American
literature, for example, to the point now that I cannot imagine this voice,
the voice I'm using now, without having read James Baldwin. He gave me my

GROSS: In what way did he give you your voice?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: He taught me--I remember reading Baldwin, especially Baldwin
the essayist, in the 1950s, when I was a very precocious young reader. I'd
just been moving away from Spanish, which is my mother tongue, moving into
this new language. And Baldwin had this clarity of style that also disguised
and held in check his anger with such elegance that he taught me the way to
use language that was fierce and hot and urgent, but do it in a way that
allowed the reader to breathe.

And I'd thought as a young--I remember watching Baldwin on David Susskind's TV
show in the '50s. This dates me, I realize, but--and I remember his frog eyes
as he came on the show and his cigarette and the way his eyebrows would arched
at Susskind's question. And I thought to myself, `This is the writer. This
is what I want to be,' and I found my model in him.

GROSS: You talk about wanting to melt down categories so that, you know--to
rule out lives that so many people in America are made up of different groups,
so it's hard to just, like, define yourself as one type, one ethnic group, one
cultural group. I'm wondering if being gay has affected your sense of that,
'cause, you know...

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Oh, it's been a huge influence on my life. I didn't realize
that, really, until I was writing this book, because what I recognized was
that my lifelong preoccupation has been with this question of the dangerous
love. The most dangerous thing about me as a boy was that I was wrongly in

I remember there was a moment--I must have been about nine years old. I had a
very good friend, and I was frustrated by--I had a crush on him, and I was
frustrated by that fact. And I remember that one day throwing a hammer at
him, at his face, which he deflected, but it hit him. And I remember our
mothers talking that night on the telephone, and I remember my mother saying,
somewhere in the course of the conversation, `Well, boys will be boys,' which
is to say, `Boys finally get in fights.'

But I thought to myself even then, you know, that if she only knew that I had
a crush on my friend, the ceiling would collapse. The whole world would turn
upside-down, that the most dangerous thing that I could say was that I was in
love with him. So that as a very young boy, not only do I begin to guard my
eyes, but I also begin to focus my eyes on those exceptions.

The Irish bar in 19th century New York, with one solitary African-American
face--`Who is he? Why is he here?' I want to know that question--I want to
ask that question, because that's the question that I begin to ask myself.
`Why do I go to listen to Malcolm X? What is driving me there? Why am I the
only Mexican in the crowd in 1965 listening to Malcolm X? Why am I the only
Mexican in the crowd, apparently, at a British comedy that comes--a traveling
show that comes through Sacramento?' What is that except some kind of desire
to fall in love with those things that don't inevitably belong to me?

GROSS: Are there things that are supposed to define you in Mexican culture
that are completely the opposite of the things that are supposed to define you
in gay culture, like what it means to be a man, a sense of macho?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Yes. In Mexican culture, what it means to be a man is to
have children. You may be cruel toward your wife and sentimental towards your
mother--which is what Mexican men tend to be--but you also have to have
children, preferably sons, who are dreadful as you are.

GROSS: I'm going to stop you. Can you get away with saying that, that you
may be cruel to your wife and sentimental toward your mother?

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Yes, I think you can. I did it in my second book and no one
has objected.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: There is a cruelty in Mexico toward the wife that is balanced
by a kind of sentimentality about Mother. Mexicans are enormously sentimental
about (Spanish spoken) and casual about betrayals of the wife. `Machismo' is
not a word that accidentally happens in Mexico. There's a kind of sexual
license given to the male that's real.

My great sin in Mexico is that I'm (Spanish spoken), I am a queer. But the
evidence of that is that I'm dry, that I'm without children, and that I'm half
a man, or less, because of that. And that obviously weighs on me. You know,
the great drama of some of--in my early books was that anxiety about having
soft hands, that anxiety about not being manly in the way that my father was
manly, that anxiety of having too many words.

That I--you know, there is a saying in Spanish, that a man should be (Spanish
spoken), formal (pronounced for-mahl), ugly, strong. And `formal' (pronounced
for-mahl) is almost the English word for `formal,' but it's a little--it's
sober; a man should be sober. And what that means, as I understood it, is
that you're not chatty, and I was chatty. I was like a woman as a boy. I had
too many words. They were spilling all of the time out of my mouth, whereas
my father was always formal (pronounced for-mahl). My father--whenever people
were in need, whenever there was an emergency, my father was always there, but
always silent. And I never had that. I had too many words.

GROSS: In your book, you make the point that although you are often described
as Hispanic, you're not really sure that Hispanic is something that really
exists. There's no Hispanics in Mexico or Argentina or Chile. What do you

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: I mean that Richard Nixon's administration created that
category in the 1970s. They created the category the Asian. And that in many
ways, it's an absurd notion. But it comes into a country that has always
been, in its deepest obsession, obsessed with blood and race. So now most of
your listeners probably think that Hispanics constitute some new third race in
America, that there is now some brown race called Hispanics. Well, I want to
tell your listeners that we do not exist as a racial group, that you are wrong
about us. We are an ethnic group. We believe that we belong to a culture.
By asserting one's Hispanicity, one is saying one is related to religion, to
language, to food, to recipes, to weather.

When my mother watches Univision or Telemundo, the Spanish-language television
networks, she'll watch a program, say, a discussion show, and she will see the
audience, and there will be blonde women, peroxided or not, and there will be
black men. There will be brown people like us. And she doesn't say, `Oh,
they're of different races.' She says, `Son todos Latinos,' by which she
means, `We are united by the culture, by the language we are speaking,
Espanol.' That's the culture.

When Americans look at an audience on "Jerry Springer," comparable audience,
they say, `Oh, there's a black girl in the audience, and there's a white girl
sitting next to her. And there's an Asian girl sitting next to her.' They're
making an assertion about blood. The Hispanic claim is a claim about ghosts.
It's about culture. It's about spirits. It's about tradition. It is about
all the ways we remember ourselves as created by the past, not simply blood,
but in some larger sense ghostly because all the things we carry with us from
the past, the most powerful things, are the hauntings that the past brings
into our lives, the reminders of grandmothers long dead.

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

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Richard Rodriguez is the author of the new book "Brown."

Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews a new CD featuring the Vienna Philharmonic
conducted by Seiji Ozawa.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

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

Review: New recording of the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by
Seiji Ozawa

Tonight begins the last series of concerts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra,
conducted by Seiji Ozawa, who is leaving for Vienna. His first recording with
his new orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, is an album of Viennese music.
Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has a review.


Critics don't often get asked to rehearsals and probably for good reasons.
Once, nearly 20 years ago, Seiji Ozawa was rehearsing Alban Berg's "Violin
Concerto" with violinist Itzhak Perlman, and the press was invited. But it
was embarrassing. Perlman kept leaning forward to explain to Ozawa some
musical detail. One time, he pointed his bow at the musicians sitting behind
him and informed Ozawa that they were playing a waltz. `Oh, a waltz,' Ozawa
exclaimed in surprise.

After his 29th season as the BSO's music director, Ozawa is leaving Boston for
the waltz capital of the world, Vienna. This past New Year's Day, he
conducted the famous annual concert with the Vienna Philharmonic, a Viennese
tradition since 1959, a concert made up mainly of waltzes. Probably a billion
people around the world watched it on television. The question still is: Can
Seiji Ozawa conduct a waltz?

It's a little hard to tell. The Vienna Philharmonic can probably play waltzes
in its sleep. It's recorded waltzes with the great Viennese conductors at
least since the 1930s, long before the annual New Year's concert became a
tradition. One of the best waltz recordings ever made was its 1989 New Year's
concert led by Carlos Kleiber, the son of yet another great Viennese
conductor, Erich Kleiber. Now you can watch that concert on DVD. I thought
it might be interesting to compare the two performances.

Here's Ozawa conducting one of my favorite waltzes, the tenderly nostalgic
"Artist's Life."

(Soundbite of "Artist's Life")

SCHWARTZ: Now listen to Carlos Kleiber; same orchestra, same waltz.

(Soundbite of "Artist's Life" from 1989)

SCHWARTZ: Waltzes are really about the illusion of floating. There's a lilt,
a lift, an airiness in the Kleiber performance that's missing in Ozawa's. On
the telecast, Ozawa seemed to be working very hard at the oompah-pahs. He
dipped and lunged, but the music itself remained on the ground. Looking at
Kleiber on the DVD, you see someone completely at ease, someone who loves this
music more than he likes putting on a show. He creates an atmosphere, and
transfers his visible affection for the music to the players.

Listen to Ozawa conduct the whirring "Little Dragonfly Polka" by Josef
Strauss, the waltz king Johann Strauss' younger brother.

(Soundbite of "Little Dragonfly Polka")

SCHWARTZ: This is perfectly respectable, but under Carlos Kleiber, the music
of darting wings is subtler, the shifting accents more delicately teasing, the
sound of the strings more magical in its iridescence. It seems to matter

(Soundbite of "Little Dragonfly Polka" from 1989)

SCHWARTZ: Carlos Kleiber didn't make a lot of recordings, but some of his
best consist of Viennese music. Two more are on DVD: Johann Strauss'
enchanting operetta "Die Fledermaus," and the beloved opera by Richard
Strauss--no relation to Johann--"Der Rosenkavalier," which has a touching
performance by British soprano Felicity Lott in the central role. But in
both, the real stars are the orchestra and the conductor.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of The Boston Phoenix.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music; applause)
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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