DATE September 10, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Ken Wiwa talks about his book, "In the Shadow of a
Saint: A Son's Journey to Understand His Father's Legacy"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
In the new memoir titled "In the Shadow of a Saint," my guest Ken Wiwa writes
about being the son of a man who was a hero to his people and became a martyr.
Wiwa's father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was best known in his country, Nigeria, as a
fearless newspaper columnist, the author of about 25 books, the writer of a
popular sitcom and an environmental activist who led his people, the Ogohl
people, to protest the impact of Shell Oil on their land. In 1995, Ken
Saro-Wiwa was executed by the military dictatorship. He was hanged along with
eight other Ogohl activists.
Ken Wiwa was 26 years old when his father was executed. He was living in
Canada, beginning his career as a journalist. He now writes for the Toronto
Globe and Mail.
Although his father was a public hero, he wasn't always a hero at home. Wiwa
sometimes resented his father's activism, which interfered with his role as a
Mr. KEN WIWA (Author, "In the Shadow of a Saint"): As a family, you were
aware that what he was doing was for the good of the people, and that was--we
didn't resent that, as such. But it was when the activism in itself became
impinged on the family life, that's when we really felt--you know, we resented
it, if you like, primarily, you know, when my youngest brother died very
suddenly of a heart attack, you know. That was--we sort of felt that perhaps
it was something to do with his campaign against the military, that there was
something suspicious about my brother's death. So when that begins to happen,
you begin to get a sense that, `Well, perhaps is this worth all the trouble
that--you know, his family has been threatened because of his political
GROSS: Was there any truth behind that fear? You know, the fear that
possibly the military or the government was behind your brother's death?
Mr. WIWA: No. I mean, you know, he died of a heart attack. He was 14 years
old, and he died very suddenly. And it just so happened it was at a time when
my father was beginning to attract a lot of attention from the military. So
it's just a juxtaposition of the timing of his death that made--you know, when
something like that happens in a family, you look for reasons. And often it's
not very--you know, you're very emotional and you're not very rational and all
kinds of things then come into play. And I guess when there's some underlying
resentment about your father's activism, it's easy to make the connections at
that particular time. But you know, with hindsight and a little bit of
distance from those occasions and perhaps, you know, the two weren't linked.
But you know, one can never know.
GROSS: You write that you were so hostile to your father at home. You
thought that he might have been seeking refuge in the unquestioned adulation
he received as the father of his people, the Ogohl people.
Mr. WIWA: Yeah, that's right. I mean, I think, you know--after my father
was executed, I mean, I felt guilty that perhaps I was somehow responsible for
pushing him into his political activism because, of course, when he did come
home, I kind of made his absence felt; made him feel guilty for not being
around as a father and as a husband.
GROSS: Wait. Well, when you say you were hostile to your father at home, how
did you express that hostility?
Mr. WIWA: Well, I mean, I think--specifically, again, going back to when my
youngest brother, Didamis, died in 1993, at that point, you know, my
father--the campaign was really coming to the boil back at home in Nigeria.
At this time, we were in England. My brother died in England. Of course, he
had to leave behind what was happening in Nigeria to fly over to England for
the funeral. And I made it very clear to--I mean, to me, it seemed that he
couldn't wait to bury his son and then rush back to Nigeria. And I made my
feelings clear to him. I mean, it wasn't explicit, but I think he was aware
that throughout the whole burial, the funeral--my brother's funeral, that I
was watching him and feeling fairly hostile towards him and wishing that
perhaps, you know, that he stuck around to comfort the family and--because,
you know, we were all devastated at that point that something could happen
to--you know, my youngest brother was almost the center of the family; very
bright, very intelligent young man, and we were absolutely devastated, you
know, that he could just suddenly drop dead of a heart attack at 14. But my
father didn't stick around long enough to do what you would expect a father
would do because he had just as important matters to deal with in Nigeria.
GROSS: Meanwhile, you spent a lot of your formative years in England, where
you father sent you to study. Why did he want you to study in England?
Mr. WIWA: Well, I think he had grown up when Nigeria was still a British
colony. And he'd been sent to sort of a colonial public school--private
school, if you'd like. And he'd received a sort of classical English
education. And--but by the time, you know, his children are ready to be
educated, those kind of schools were no longer available because the
wherewithal of our system had run down the good schools we'd inherited from
the British colonialists. But--so he decided to send his children abroad to
England to get the same kind of standard of education that he'd received as a
boy. And, really, you know, he did that because he wanted us to acquire a
first-class education so that we would come back to Nigeria and sort of apply
our minds--our well-trained minds to the problems facing our people.
GROSS: Was it your intention to go back to Nigeria?
Mr. WIWA: Well, you know, I left Nigeria. I was 10 years old when I left.
And by the time I finished my education, I was arguably more British, more
English than I was Nigerian, you know. I have this dual personality. I have
the African personality and identity, but I also have this English identity.
So my loyalties were really divided and torn. And by the time, you know, I'd
finished my education, I was slightly more conflicted about this idea of
returning back to Nigeria.
And, you know, I looked around and I saw the most of my--most of the friends
I'd grown up with in Nigeria were desperate to get out of the country, which
offered them no opportunities whatsoever. And so I didn't see that--I didn't
feel that I--that there was anything in Nigeria that could offer me, you know,
a halfway decent life. However, my father felt that, well, the struggle was
something that I needed to come back to. So--and, you know, so having been
sort of determined to be apolitical for most of my teen-age years, my father
was offering me a political life to come back to in Africa. So, of course, it
was a difficult choice for me to make.
GROSS: Is part of what you were feeling about your father just the pressure
of having to live up to his image as someone who was an opponent of the
military regime, an environmental activist, an advocate for his people, a
satirist with a popular TV sitcom. I mean, he was pretty successful. Is that
part of the problem, that you felt like you have to live up to this?
Mr. WIWA: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, my father was
a great man and--I mean, a very successful man in many fields. And, you know,
I was his first son and his namesake and, of course, so expectations that I
would follow in his footsteps and wherever I went, you know--you know, I
imagined the people were comparing me to him. And I still imagine people are
always, you know--always say, `Well, his father did this. What's so special
about his son? I mean, has he got this--is he made of the same stuff?'
GROSS: Being compared to your father and being his namesake was such an issue
for your that you actually changed your name. Your name was Ken Saro-Wiwa.
`Saro' means `son of.' You took out the Saro.
Mr. WIWA: Yeah, `saro' means `the first son.' Yeah. I mean, I just dropped
the Saro and became Wiwa mainly to distinguish myself from him. A very
practical thing, as well, because I was a journalist in England. And I also
wrote for Nigerian newspapers. And I didn't particularly want to be Ken
Saro-Wiwa, Jr. I just wanted to create and make--try to make a name for
myself. I just tried to tell people that, you know, I had things to offer as
an individual regardless of who my father was. I mean, most people don't go
around, you know--if you're John Wilson, you know, nobody says, `You're the
son of John Wilson.' And nobody--you imagine, if I was Ken Saro-Wiwa,
immediately people would bring preconceived notions or assumptions or
whatever. So I just wanted people to take me at face value. It's always a
double-edged sword when you carry a famous name because, you know, on one hand
it opens doors, but on the other hand, you know, you carry sort of a weight of
expectation, which is often unwarranted.
GROSS: My guest is Ken Wiwa. His new memoir is called "In the Shadow of a
Saint." We'll take more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ken Wiwa. He has written a
memoir called "In the Shadow of a Saint: A Son's Journey to Understand His
Father's Legacy." His father was Ken Saro-Wiwa, a Nigerian environmental
activist, tribal activist and anti-government activist who was executed by the
Nigerian government in 1995. He was hanged.
Your father was arrested several times for his activism. The final time he
was arrested--you didn't realize it was the final time and he was soon to be
executed, you wrote to him complaining that his life has restricted your
choices. In what way did you perceive that, you know, that his life had
restricted your choices?
Mr. WIWA: Well, I mean, I think--you know, at the time what was happening
was that he was insisting that I give up my job to travel around the world
raising awareness of his predicament. Now, you know, he'd been arrested a
number of times and we'd come to sort of expect that that was a pattern, and
each time he would be released. You know, he'd be arrested for a day, two
days, a month and then he would be released. So, you know, if you're--and
it's easy with hindsight to see what happened, but I mean, at the time, he's
arrested. Here I am working at a job as a journalist. And what do you do?
Do you give up your work to go and live--to go and spend your lifetime paining
for your father? How do you meet your rent? How do you pay your bills
because it's not a paying job? What happens if he's released, you know, in
two weeks' time and then you have to go back to work? And then he's arrested
again, do you give up your job? So, you know, it's a question of what I was
saying to him, you know, `Is it every time something happens to you I have to
drop my life for you?' So, you know, that was the dilemma that I faced in
1994 when I heard he'd been arrested again.
And that's why I mean by saying that his life is always dictating my choices,
my responses, because of his political activism. I was--you know, I had to
change my name. I--you know, to try and carve out, you know, my own identity.
And so, you know, I wrote to him. He said--that's when he said, `It's a pity
that children can't choose their parents.'
GROSS: How honest was he with you when he wrote you letters from prison about
how he was being treated? For instance, he was being tortured. Did he let
you know that?
Mr. WIWA: No, he didn't. I mean, that was a curious thing is that, you
know, in the sub-text of all this we were writing quite tough letters to each
other. But I was sort of--in the back of my mind, I was aware that, of
course, you know, the conditions he was under--under the circumstances, I
perhaps had no right to be saying some of the things I'd been saying.
But at the same time, he was responding in a very generous and warm way,
which, in the end, enabled us to make the connections, as father and son, that
we hadn't made for 10, 15 years. And we were beginning, actually, to repair
our relationship. And, you know, halfway through it there was sort of a tacit
agreement between us to kind of put that to one side. I was gonna go out,
give up my job and campaign to save his life. And then we would pick up the
thread of our discussions after he was released. Of course, the hangman cut
short our reconciliation. So, in a sense, when I came to write this book, I
really wanted to pick up that process of the reconciliation, the attempt at
reconciling our differences.
GROSS: So what did you do before your father's execution to try to save him?
Mr. WIWA: Well, I traveled around the world, you know. I spoke at schools,
at universities. I wrote editorials in newspapers. I lobbied governments,
NGOs, you know, and I collected awards on his behalf; really, all the things
that you can try to do once a man becomes sort of a human rights hostage, as
it were, which is--which, in effect, is what he was. I mean, we were trying
to build the pressure against the Nigerian government; build an international
coalition; raise public opinion and awareness of what was happening. And,
also, at the same time, really, to spread the word about what was happening to
our people, because it wasn't just about Ken Saro-Wiwa. It was about the
Ogohl people and. Yes, Ken Saro-Wiwa was representative of what was happening
to the Ogohl people, but you know, always--my father always made sure that I
was aware it wasn't about him. It was also about campaigning on behalf of
the Ogohl people.
GROSS: So when you were traveling around the country campaigning on your
father's behalf, did you lose your apartment because you couldn't meet the
rent or did you lose your job?
Mr. WIWA: No. I gave up my job and, you know, I was supported by my
girlfriend and by my father. So it was a very curious thing that, you know,
in a sense, I was growing into myself as an activist, as a man who was--you
know, I felt good about myself because I was doing something not just for my
father, but for my people. I was bringing aware--you know, bringing our
people's plight to the awareness of Americans, of Germans, of Irish people,
British people. But at the same time I felt that, you know--I felt myself
being diminished, in a way, that--and I wasn't being able to take care of the
things I should have been taking care of, you know. I was 25 years old and,
you know, you live this kind of scrambled existence where you're doing good
things, but, you know, you're having to be supported to do the good things.
It's a very--it's a curious kind of way of being.
GROSS: When you were traveling around before your father was executed,
traveling in the hopes of saving him, you say the experience increased your
cynicism about politics. You write, `I thought I had found every reason to
loathe politics and politicians, but I found some new ones during the last
week of my father's life.' Like what?
Mr. WIWA: Well, you know, it's just the way--I mean, as I describe in the
book, the deceptions that I came across. You know, there was--my father had
been sentenced to death. I was in New Zealand at the Commonwealth Conference,
and I was lobbying prime ministers and presidents, trying to tell them, `Look,
you know, you must send out a concerted statement to General Abacha'--the
Nigerian ministry's leader at the time--`that he must not execute Ken
Now, you know, in every meeting I went to, you know, they heard what I was
saying and then, you know--and then they did nothing. And often--and I
realized that, actually, that what they were doing was that they were being
seen to be doing something, i.e. meeting the son of the imprisoned writer.
But when I left the room, they would go behind closed doors and they would sit
around and discuss the implications and other factors above the inhumanity and
the injustice of what was happening to the man coming to play, i.e. they
didn't want to upset--a giant multinational didn't want to upset a valued
So, you know, I realized that politicians, you know--in a sense, I grew up. I
lost my innocence. Politicians work to a consensus and, often, that
consensus--if that consensus means an innocent man is--that they do nothing
whilst an innocent man is hanged, then that's what they will do, I mean. And
that's what I came to realize is what politics is about. It's about this kind
of making these kind of horse trading and playoffs. And I find that very
disquieting because, of course, you know, I was involved in something which
was--which, for me, had a moral weight that was more important than, you know,
maintaining the political status quo. But, you know, that's the way of the
GROSS: What happened the night of your father's execution, to the best of
Mr. WIWA: Well, it was a night for me, but it was--'cause I was in New
Zealand. But it was, obviously, mid-afternoon for my father. But I remember
I had just had a meeting with the Canadian prime minister and I came out and
we'd heard the day before, or a few hours before, we'd heard that executioners
had gone to the prison to carry out the executions and had been turned back
because they didn't have the right paperwork. But they were going to come
back in a few hours. So we realized that unless the politicians did
something, it was--you know, my father would be executed. So there was this
sort of frantic few hours of running around holding press conferences, trying
to meet people like President Mandela and the British prime minister to try
and get them to make this statement, to make the call to General Abacha. We
were trying to get President Clinton to call General Abacha.
And so one side had this meeting with the prime minister of Canada. I just
felt that perhaps I'd done everything I could and now it was in the lap of the
gods. And so I went off to sort of do one more interview for the BBC, a
breakfast program. And I did that. And then I went to supper with friends
who had been helping me coordinate sort of my media appearances and my
meetings with the politicians. And so we just had a sort of farewell dinner,
I suppose, because I'd already announced, you know, that I think I'd done
enough. I was going to leave and go back to London to be with my mother and
my brothers and sisters to wait to see what would happen.
And around sort of midnight of that dinner, I sort of felt this tugging
sensation in my chest as if my heart had just been ripped apart, and I didn't
really think too much of it. And I went to bed that night and I couldn't
really sleep and I heard--there was a little commotion in the corridor. And
in the morning, you know, my friend came in and told me the news. But when I
later sort of read the eyewitness account of his hanging--and it had a very
detailed account of it with times, when everything was happening--I think he
actually hanged at about midday in Nigeria, which is exactly the same
time--which is midnight in New Zealand, which equates to the time when I had
that wrenching feeling in my heart.
GROSS: What did you learn about the hanging? And what was done with your
father's body after?
Mr. WIWA: Well, you know, had this eyewitness account, you know, which I
have sort of written about in the book about there. But, you know, we've been
told various things, that acid was poured of his remains, and he was buried in
a pit with the other eight who were hanged along with him. To this day, we
still don't know because the authorities, even though we now have a civilian
government in Nigeria, they still won't tell us what happened to my father.
GROSS: Ken Wiwa. His new memoir's called "In the Shadow of a Saint." Wiwa
is a journalist who writes for the Toronto Globe and Mail. He'll be back in
the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
Coming up, Ken Wiwa tells us how his life was changed by his father's
Also, economists are talking about a possible recession. Linguist Geoff
Nunberg considers old and new euphemisms for economic hard times.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Ken Wiwa. His new
memoir, "In the Shadow of a Saint," is about being the son of a martyr. His
father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was a Nigerian newspaper columnist and environmental
activist who was executed by the Nigerian government in 1995. Ken Wiwa was 26
at the time of the execution. He was living in Canada, beginning his career
as a journalist. He didn't want to follow in his father's footsteps. He was
disillusioned with politics and with the impact that being a public hero had
on the family.
After your father was executed, everyone was saying to you, `Your father can't
have died in vain.' What did people expect you to do? What did you think you
should do to make sure that that death wasn't in vain?
Mr. WIWA: Well, I mean, you know, the world was outraged and, you know, the
news, it was headline news around the world, and everybody was commenting on
it. And really, you know, I was swept along this sort of--on this tidal wave
of emotion and disgust and outrage, and I suppose I swept along into more
meetings with--I met Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who was the secretary general of
the UN at the time. I met various other politicians and I had more press
conferences and so on and so forth. I suppose the idea was to isolate the
military regime, to try and get sanctions against the Nigerian regime, to
punish them for carrying out these executions.
But, you know, after a while, you know, it--again, these meetings with
politicians just--I got bogged down in it, and at some point, I realized,
`Look, my father is dead. I have to come to terms with that. The politics of
this will be dealt with. Somebody else needs to deal with the politics of
this, because I can't carry on'--you can't carry on, you know, sort of working
and doing all the things you're trying to do when your father's been hanged.
And ,you know, you have to come to terms with that, and I think that's why I
decided to stop being the public face of the Ogoni cause, and try to deal with
my own private emotions and things that--you know, the fact that my father was
GROSS: One of the things that you did was to travel to other parts of the
world to meet other children of famous activists and see how they had dealt
with that. What are some of the things you learned from those experiences?
Mr. WIWA: Well, I think, you know, when my father died, you know, after he
was executed, I was wrestling with a whole bunch of confusing, conflicting
emotions. On the one hand, I was very proud of my father. On the other hand,
I was very angry with him for having left me with this sort of huge political
legacy as well as his own personal legacy, which I was struggling to deal
with. And then I also felt guilty, like I said earlier, that perhaps I'd
pushed him out of the home and into the struggle. I also felt guilty that
perhaps I hadn't done enough to save his life, I hadn't worked hard enough to
save him. And then I felt guilty that when he died, I didn't really feel any
emotion, you know, I didn't cry, I didn't feel the things you're supposed to
feel, you know, when your father dies.
And so I had all these conflicting, contradictory emotions. I didn't
really--and perhaps, you know, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and
I thought there was something wrong with me for having all these different
emotions and so on and so forth. So when I went out, I went out to meet
people like Zinzi Mandela and Nkosinati Biko, who's the son of Steve Biko.
And it was only when I talked to them that I realized that, yes, they had been
through the same conflicts, too, so there wasn't something wrong with me. It
was perfectly normal to feel these contradictions, because when you have a
father who is a political figure, you know, there are complexities of it which
other people don't appreciate because, you know, he's not--they don't have
that biological emotional tie. But when you do do that, you do have these
And so, you know, in a sense, meeting someone like Nkosinati Biko was like
meeting a kindred spirit, a brother, in a sense, you know. As I say, when we
were talking, we were finishing each other's thoughts, because we were on the
same wavelength and we understood each other. And he understood what I was
going through, and he'd been through it with his father and he'd managed to
sort out all the emotions, too, and so in a sense, he was giving me the
benefit of his experience. And I realized that, you know, in time, with time,
I would come to terms with all these conflicting emotions, I would be able to
sort through all the things I was feeling or was trying to feel about my
father. And so all those conversations helped me to, you know, come to terms
GROSS: Do you feel like you're in a different place emotionally now than you
were when your father was alive, or shortly after he was executed?
Mr. WIWA: Oh, yeah. I mean, right now, you know, I still have the respect
for my father, but I've also been able to find the love that I once had for my
father. You know, when I was a young boy, my father meant everything to me.
I loved him unreservedly. And, you know, over time, we sort of lost that.
But now, I think, you know, I've found that love again. But, you know, the
most painful thing is not being able to say that to him; to sit him down and
say, `Look, you know, now I understand why you were doing those things. I
understand why you weren't available for us. I forgive, and I hope you
forgive me.' And, you know, at the end of the book, I write a posthumous
letter to him, and it is my way of saying sorry, and it was a sort of love
letter to my father.
And, yeah, I have children myself, and it's a source of real pain that my
grandchildren will never see their grandfather, that great man. And, you
know, when you have grandchildren, I guess what you do is you compensate for
the things you couldn't give your own children, and I suppose that would have
helped him himself, too, to come to terms with--you know, because he felt pain
that he couldn't give his children the kind of emotional support that other
fathers can perhaps give their children, that perhaps, you know, having seen
his grandchildren doing that would have compensated for that and would have
helped settle his own pain. So...
GROSS: So what got you to change? What got you to see things more from your
father's perspective; I mean, to understand his motivations better than you
did when you were younger?
Mr. WIWA: It's writing the book. You know, I mean, it's a process of
maturity, you know, it's reading about Nelson Mandela, meeting Zinzi Mandela,
meeting Aung San Suukyi in Burma, becoming a father myself and understanding
that, you know, there are so many things that compete for your attention with
your children. And so, you know, it's just a process of becoming older and
becoming wiser. And, I mean, it's a process we all go through. You know, we
all want the relationship we had with our parents as children, but, of course,
you know, over time, that changes and it changes again. It's the arch of a
GROSS: Do you think your father would have approved of you being so honest?
A lot of parents have the kind of attitude, like, `Don't hang our dirty
laundry in public.'
Mr. WIWA: My father was a searingly honest--you know, the truth was--I mean,
he fought injustice with truth. And a lot of people who knew him say he would
have read this book and laughed. And I was a bit taken aback by that when I
first heard that, but then I realized, looking at my father, is that here is
a man, who, although he fought very serious issues, he was a man with a
tremendous sense of humor. He was always laughing, and he enjoyed a good
debate, he enjoyed a good argument, and he would have been happy to engage
with this. I mean, he may have said, `Oh, that's a load of nonsense' or
whatever, but, you know, in the end for him, life was about debate, it's about
exchange of opinions, it's about communicating. And the sadness for him was
that when he offered a way forward, a vision for his people and for Nigeria,
you know, the small-minded people who run our country, run my country, felt so
threatened by what he was saying that they had to execute him.
GROSS: My guest is Ken Wiwa. His new memoir is called "In the Shadow of a
Saint." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Ken Wiwa, son of the executed Nigerian activist, Ken
Saro-Wiwa. Ken Wiwa's new memoir is called "In the Shadow of a Saint."
When you were going to college in England, you didn't really want to return
home to Nigeria. You wanted to stay in England because you liked your life
there and there weren't many opportunities in Nigeria. Now that you have two
children who are growing up in Canada, do you feel strongly like, well, you
have to, at some point, take them to Nigeria, so they know something about the
country that you're from?
Mr. WIWA: Yeah, well, I've taken them back to Nigeria already, and, you know,
they're going to be aware of where they came from perhaps even more than I
am, because, in a curious way, some of these things may skip a generation.
GROSS: Oh, I know what you mean, yeah.
Mr. WIWA: So, you know, in my sort of ambivalence towards Africa, they may
have a yearning for Africa.
Mr. WIWA: So I'm aware of...
GROSS: And you can handle that? I mean, you can accept that?
Mr. WIWA: Yeah.
GROSS: Things skip a generation and...
Mr. WIWA: Sure. Sure.
Mr. WIWA: I mean, that's why I wrote this book, so they have a--you know, I
didn't want them to grow up with a romanticized version of Ken Saro-Wiwa,
their grandfather. I didn't want them to read all the nonsense that's been
written about their grandfather, and then come to me and say, `Is this true?'
or whatever. And say, `Well, look, read this book, and you'll have a much
better sense of who your grandfather was, a man of magnificent complexity and
contradictions, but a brave and courageous man at the same time.' And, you
know, the world is a complex place and my relationship with Africa--I mean,
wherever I am, I take Africa with me and I continue to promote my, you know,
Africa and Nigeria and the Ogoni people, a hope for a better future for our
people, and, you know, one day, maybe I may even live there permanently. I go
back every three months because I have to. You know, I still have my father's
businesses to run and deal with and I still have family there, so I've become
the head of the family. So Africa's still in me. It's still very much a part
But, you know, what's interesting is that I was watching--the little ones were
watching a documentary about the lions on the Serengeti in East Africa, and it
says that when the lions--they have these cubs, and when their cubs are old
enough, the parents chase the cubs away, and the cubs wander around the
Serengeti until they're ready to settle down and establish a pride of their
own. But each time a lion is about to die, it always goes back to the place
where it was born to die.
GROSS: Interesting, yeah.
Mr. WIWA: But, you know, and when you think about that, yes, it's a bit like
the human journey, as it were, from birth to death. But at the same time, it
has an implication for our sense of home, because every succeeding generation
has a different place of home; home is a different place. So one lion moves
to another place, establishes a place for home, he goes back to die, but his
own children will go somewhere else and establish their home and then come
back to another home. But it's not the original home. So, you know, perhaps
humans are born to migrate, to move, to take their home with them and recreate
new homes, which becomes sort of, you know, the idea of home for the next
generation, but the generation after that has a different place to call home.
And so perhaps my children will have that, too, you know. Maybe for me, the
place called home is a very particular place in Africa, but for my children,
the place they call home may not be the same place I think of as home.
GROSS: In your memoir you write, `One of the toughest things about death is
finding a balance between forgetting and remembering.' And has that balance
shifted for you? I mean, are there different things that you want to forget
and remember now than you thought you wanted to forget and remember right
after your father died?
Mr. WIWA: Yeah. That's right. Yeah, it does change. You know, you're
absolutely right there. I mean, I hadn't really thought about that, but,
yeah, there are. I want to remember different things. Right now, I went
through--you know, I remember my father--all the times we smiled, all the
times we enjoyed together, enjoyed each other's company. I actively seek out
the positive things that I remember of my relationship with my father and
the positive things about him. Often, you know, there are other things which
crept up from time to time. You know, my father had children with other
wives, other women, and that causes me an immense amount of stress sometimes,
but, you know, I choose to go beyond that anxiety and the anger that I feel
that he created for me and just remember that, you know, he made his choices
and he lived with it, and what I must try and do is to try and help him. But,
you know, in the end, what I try to do is try to remember the good things,
because it helps you to solve the problems.
GROSS: I'd like to end with asking you to read a letter that your father
wrote you from prison. And would you explain when he wrote this and what you
were doing when you received it?
Mr. WIWA: This is at a time when I'm still wrestling with what I want to do
with my life. You know, I'm living in England, he's in detention, and I am
still struggling to sort of find my place in the world. And he writes back
and he says, `Look, it's not'--you know, he's trying to give me some advice.
He's in detention at the time, and he's trying to give me advice about, you
know, how to tackle this issue which all of us all feel, you know, how do you
find your place in the world, what do you want to do with your life. And, you
know, these words have become engraved in my mind and, like, you know, I keep
it up in my study and I always remember that this is the last piece of advice
which my father gave me, and I hold onto it very dearly.
And so he writes, `Knowing what you want out of life is the real thing. Once
you are clear, you can work towards it, to make alterations where necessary.
You must have ambitions, goals. I don't see you with your education
scratching around the fringes of British society. You should use the
advantages which your British experience has offered you to promote your
African and Ogoni-ness.
`And don't feel intimidated by my success. I do not demand or will never
demand the same of you. I repeat, I'm not trying to build a dynasty. If you
can be yourself, if you can be a success in a little way, in one little field,
you will have satisfied me. I cannot recommend the sort of life I've lived to
any of my children. It's been too dizzying, too controversial, but it was my
`I hope you relax, build a good family and help our people when you can. But
always write. You have a good style.'
GROSS: You do have a good style. It's a very well-written book. And it's
interesting, you know, that he gives you that advice, you know, `write.'
Little did he know that what you wrote would be a memoir about him. I mean,
you also are a journalist and you write all the time...
Mr. WIWA: Right.
GROSS: ...but, I mean, little did he know that your first book would be this
memoir about him.
Mr. WIWA: Yeah. I mean, perhaps it may be a--knowing my father, he probably
hoped I would write about him, too. But, you know, I think that's become my
destiny, a sense, you know, to tell his story and history and to tell our
GROSS: It's funny, that letter kind of lets you off the hook, you know? It
says: `I don't expect you to live my life. I don't expect you to--don't feel
pressured to be successful. I don't recommend my life to you. Find your own
Mr. WIWA: Yeah. It releases me, in one sense. But in another way, by saying
I should write, it was a challenge, you know? I had to write; I had to write
something, because that was the least he expected of me. I mean, OK, fine, I
don't have to do the same as him, but I have to write, which meant I had to
write. But even...
GROSS: You weren't going to do that anyway?
Mr. WIWA: Well, perhaps I was going to do that anyway. Maybe it was
always--you know, I was a journalist already, so it was the obvious thing.
That was my destiny was to be a writer. But it was also a challenge to write
a book about what had happened. You know, I felt that very keenly, even after
his--I realized I had to write something. But even beyond that,
having written something, I still feel, well, `What good is a book? Is this
book going to deliver water, education, electricity, hospitals, decent schools
to our people?' You know, I can sit here for the rest of my life and write
100 books. If it doesn't deliver our people from their hell, their suffering,
what good is that? So, you know, the writing, in itself, may not be enough,
you know. You know, This is something that I'm going to have to wrestle with
for the rest of my life.
GROSS: So what you're wrestling with, in a way, is if you should become the
kind of activist your father was.
Mr. WIWA: Oh, this is, you know, in a curious way, what my father--you know,
my father wrote 50 books, numbers of articles. He wrote a, you know, sitcom
watched by 30 million people, but nothing changed. He decided to give up
writing and take the word to the streets, and when he did, he was able to
finally mobilize our people to stand up and protest against their injustice,
their situation. Now for me, knowing what happened and knowing what happened
to my father, there's a curious thing that, you know, there's a satisfaction
in having written, but there's also a very, very strong dissatisfaction in
that it hasn't changed anything at home, either. So, you know, I'm going to
have to wrestle with this, too.
GROSS: Right. Well, Ken Wiwa, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. WIWA: Thank you very much. My pleasure.
GROSS: Ken Wiwa has written a new memoir called "In the Shadow of a Saint."
He lives in Canada and writes for the Toronto Globe and Mail.
Coming up, as the economy falters, linguist Geoff Nunberg considers old
and new euphemisms for hard times. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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Analysis: Words used to denote an economic downturn
TERRY GROSS, host:
A lot of people breathed a sigh of relief when the Commerce Department
recently announced that the Gross Domestic Product for the second quarter of
2001 had grown by 2/10ths of a percent. According to a widely used
definition, that means that the US economy didn't satisfy the technical
definition of a recession. As our linguist Geoff Nunberg observes, it's just
one more sign of the influence that economists have on the way we talk about
hard times nowadays.
(Soundbite of "The River")
Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) I got a job working construction. We're
a Johnstown Company. But lately, there ain't been much work on account of
GEOFF NUNBERG reporting:
That's Bruce Springsteen's "The River," one of this chronicles of
working-class desperation. The sentiment wouldn't be out of place in a song
by Woody Guthrie, but Guthrie wouldn't have talked about the economy. He
would have said, `There ain't been much work on account of times are hard.'
It's only in the last 40 years or so that ordinary people have talked about
the economy like that, as a natural force that blows hot and cold like the
weather. As time goes by, we turn to economists more and more for help in
talking about the vagaries of fortune, particularly when times are bad.
It began with the word depression itself. Economists since Adam Smith used
phrases like trade depression, but only in a literal sense, to mean that
prices of production were lowered. The word didn't acquire its modern sense
until after the stock market crash of 1893, which was triggered by the
overbuilding of railroad infrastructure. The general economic meltdown that
followed became known as the depression of the '90s. Before it was over, a
third of the nation's railroads were in bankruptcy, President Cleveland and
his party had been roundly repudiated in midterm elections and the word
depression was irredeemably associated with desperate times. Not long after
that, economists introduced the word recession as a new euphemism for economic
Just a few weeks after the Wall Street crash of October 1929, The Economist
magazine confidently reassured its readers that American prosperity was too
firmly based to risk a prolonged slowdown, even if we have to face an
immediate recession of some magnitude. But as the collapse got worse, the
delicacy of describing it as a recession became more and more incongruous. As
the narrator of a 1938 Eric Ambler thriller put it, `Trade recession, they
called it. As far as I could see, there wasn't a great deal of difference
between a trade recession and a good old-fashioned slump.'
Euphemisms tend to lose their usefulness when their cover gets thread bare,
and by all rights, recession should have suffered the same fate that
depression had. But by the second half of the 20th century, economists had
enough public influence to reclaim the word. About 40 years ago, the Kennedy
administration economist Arthur Okun suggested that a recession should
be defined as a period of two consecutive quarters of decline in Gross
Domestic Product. The definition was simple and convenient, and it caught on
quickly with the press. By now, it's even worked its way into some
dictionaries. Still, that definition could fail to capture some serious
slumps, and a lot of economists don't use it. Some of them define a recession
in terms of the unemployment rate or other factors, and others refuse to give
any precise criteria at all. In fact, the Federal Reserve Bank defines a
recession simply as a significant decline in general economic activity
extending over a period of time. Of course, you'd expect a certain amount of
vagueness from an institution that's made a high art of not tipping its hand.
But when you pin them down over drinks, most economists will admit that a
recession is really no more exact a notion than a bad hair day. Even so, that
technical definition of recession is attractive to politicians who are mindful
of what happened to President Cleveland.
Back in the early 1980s, Reagan administration economists took sharp issue
with a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research that claimed that
there had been two separate recessions in 1980 and '81. They argued that
there'd been only one long one, and that it was entirely Jimmy Carter's fault.
And just this past year, President Clinton used the technical definition to
rebut the charge that President Bush was inheriting a Clinton recession. If
the economy doesn't get any worse, it's a safe bet the Republicans will be
citing exactly the same definition when the midterm elections roll around in
But in the end, we all have a stake in pretending that the vicissitudes of the
business cycle can be reduced to precise definitions. As the stock charts
head downwards, it's comforting to watch the economists on the business shows
bandying definitions of market correction and expatiating about V-shaped
recoveries. It's all reassuringly clinical, like listening to a clutch of
cardiologists going over your EKG. It's striking how our economic talk has
been purged of all the emotionally charged terms of earlier periods. People
don't talk about financial panics anymore, now we have major sell-offs. That
suggests a more orderly retreat, even if the Exchange floor is still strewn
with bodies at the end of the day. And it'll be a cold day indeed before
anybody on CNBC ever talks about hard times, a phrase that recalls the gaunt
faces of the Dust Bowl farmers in the photographs of Walker Evans and Dorothea
Lange. Economic downturn is a more congenial turn of phrase. It makes you
think of out-of-work dot-commers networking at a south-of-market happy hour.
Well, and why not? Since the days of the cavemen, we've been counting on the
spells of the shaman to keep the bears away from our doors. And as we listen
to the economists on CNBC, we can take heart in knowing that prosperity is
just around the inflection point.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stamford University and the Xerox Palo
Alto Research Center.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
The Emmy Awards ceremony is this Sunday night. On the next FRESH AIR, we meet
two Emmy-nominated actresses. Jane Kaczmarek plays the mother on the Fox
sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle." Edie Falco plays Tony Soprano's wife in HBO's
"The Sopranos." I'm Terry Gross. Join us for the next FRESH AIR.
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