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Novelist Jeffrey Eugenides

Novelist Jeffrey Eugenides is the author of the novel The Virgin Suicides which was made into a movie. His new novel, Middlesex, is about a contemporary hermaphrodite. Eugenides' fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Yale Review and Best American Short Stories. He currently lives in Berlin, Germany.


Other segments from the episode on September 24, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 24, 2002: Interview with Jeffrey Eugenides; Interview with Sharon Olds; Revie of Dixie Chicks new album "Home."


DATE September 24, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Jeffrey Eugenides discusses his new novel, "Middlesex"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

You may know my guest, Jeffrey Eugenides, as the author of the novel "The
Virgin Suicides," which was adapted into a film. His second novel has just
been published. It's called "Middlesex." The narrator of the story was born
in 1960, and starts life as a girl named Callie, but as she approached
puberty, she realizes that she isn't like other girls. Eventually she
discovers that she was born a hermaphrodite, and she is becoming more
physically masculine with age. In her early teens, she abandons her identity
as a woman and changes her name from Callie to Cal and begins to live as a
man. The novel also covers the two preceding generations of the narrator's
family, starting with his Greek immigrant parents. New York Times book critic
Michiko Kakutani writes, `The novel turns the story of Cal's coming of age
into an uproarious epic, at once funny and sad, about misplaced identifies and
family secrets. Eugenides has delivered a deeply affecting portrait of one
family's tumultuous engagement with the American 20th century.'

Let's start with a reading from "Middlesex."

Mr. JEFFREY EUGENIDES (Author, "Middlesex"): `I was born twice, first as a
baby girl on the remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960, and then
again as a teen-age boy in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in
August of 1974. Specialized readers may have come across me in Dr. Peter
Luce's study "Gender Identity in 5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphrodites,"
published in the Journal of Pediatric Endocrinology in 1975. Or maybe you've
seen my photograph in chapter 16 of the now sadly outdated Genetics and
Heredity. That's me on page 578 standing naked beside a height chart, with a
black box covering my eyes.

My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most
recent driver's license from the federal republic of Germany records my first
name simply as Cal. I'm a former field hockey goalie, long-standing member of
the Save-the-Manatee Foundation, rare attendant at the Greek Orthodox liturgy
and, for most of my adult life, an employee of the US State Department. Like
Tiresias, I was first one thing and then the other. I've been ridiculed by
classmates, guinea pigged by doctors, palpated by specialists and researched
by the March of Dimes. A red-headed girl from Grosse Point fell in love with
me, not knowing what I was; her brother liked me, too. An Army tank led me
into urban battle once. A swimming pool turned me into myth. I've left my
body in order to occupy others, and all this happened before I turned 16.'

GROSS: That's Jeffrey Eugenides reading the beginning of his new novel

Jeffrey, why did you want to write about a contemporary hermaphrodite?

Mr. EUGENIDES: Well, the first kernel of the idea came to me when I read an
actual memoir of a 19th century hermaphrodite that Michelle Foucault found in
the archives of the French Public Department of Hygiene. And I thought this
would be a very interesting book, and went and read it and was filled with
frustration, because the hermaphrodite in question, Herculine Barbin, was a
convent schoolgirl, or at least in her early years, and when she came to write
the story of her life, she wrote very much like a convent schoolgirl. I
actually brought the diary with me in case you wanted to hear some of it. But

GROSS: Oh, you bet.


GROSS: Why don't you read a few lines from it?

Mr. EUGENIDES: I will. This is midway through her memoirs when she has
fallen in love with her best friend at the convent school, and this is the
first night they spend together.

`Happy about this pretext, which was only too true, one evening I asked my
friend to share my bed. She accepted with pleasure. It would be impossible
to express the happiness I felt from her presence at my side. I was wild with
joy. We talked for a long time before going to sleep, I with my arms
encircling her waist, she with her face resting near my own. My God, was I
guilty? And must I accuse myself here of a crime? No, no, that fault was not
mine. It was the fault of an unexampled fatality which I could not resist!!!
Henceforth, Sarah belonged to me!! She was mine!!!'

It sort of goes on in that fashion, and I was just terribly frustrated because
she was evasive about her story, and all of the things I wanted to know about
a hermaphrodite's life she was unable to tell me. And I got the idea of
writing my own story, and in contrast with the way most hermaphrodites in
literature have been handled, usually as mythical creatures or as fanciful
creations like Orlando in Virginia Woolf, I wanted to write a story about a
real-life hermaphrodite and be as accurate as I could about the medical facts
and the biological circumstances.

GROSS: What's the medical explanation for your main character's condition?

Mr. EUGENIDES: Well, it's a very rare genetic mutation, and the condition is
called 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome. And it occurs in very isolated
communities. What it basically is, if you inherit this mutation, your body is
unable to respond to certain androgens, or male hormones, for a long time, and
as you're formed in the womb, if you would have an XY chromosome, you would be
male, and you would be born looking very, very much like a girl, almost
undetectably so. And at puberty, as testosterone gets stronger in your blood,
you would then virilize and become quite masculine in appearance. So it's one
of the most dramatic hermaphroditic conditions that exists, and that's one of
the reasons it appealed to me. But in that it was usually occurring only in
in-bred communities and isolated communities, I then saw a chance to broaden
this story from a fictional memoir of a hermaphrodite to a story about an
entire family, a Greek American family in this case, and the transmission of
this gene down through the generations until it finally is inherited by the
narrator and flowers in her body, and later as a man, she tells the story.

GROSS: And since this genetic condition happens in in-bred populations, you
have this character's grandparents being not only husband and wife, but also
brother and sister, and the characters' parents are not only husband and wife,
but also second cousins. Why did you want to explore that kind of familial
marital relationship?

Mr. EUGENIDES: Well, the inbreeding was demanded by the genetic condition I
was using, and to bring in mythology again, of course, Zeus and Hera, I
believe, are brother and sister in Greek mythology, and so I was playing with
some of these ancient ideas in literature. I needed to dramatize inbreeding,
and inbreeding is actually quite boring. It takes generations and generations
and centuries, and so in order to dramatize that, it required me to speed up
the process and to actually have grandparents be siblings. It seemed to me to
be the best way to dramatize, you know, what was going on at a cellular level.

GROSS: Jeffrey Eugenides is my guest. He's the author of the book "The
Virgin Suicides." Now he has a new novel called "Middlesex" about a

Now in the beginning of your book "Middlesex," the narrator explains that he
was born as a girl and reborn as a teen-age boy in an emergency room at the
age of 14. What happens in the emergency room?

Mr. EUGENIDES: Well, in the emergency room is the first time when someone
other than Callie sees her anatomy in bright light. At that point, Callie is
14, she still looks like a girl, though a flat-chested one, but after an
accident, she's taken to the emergency room and in undressing her to see if
she has any broken bones, the doctor does see her genitals which, at that
point, would be not characteristic, or entirely characteristic, of a girl of
her age.

GROSS: And why does your character decide to be a boy?

Mr. EUGENIDES: Well, it's a long process and a difficult one for her. The
condition that she has, of course, is so virilizing that after she goes
through puberty, she would basically have musculature, facial hair and a deep
voice and would appear to be male. So it would be easier at least to operate
in society as a male. And Cal, as he talks about his life in Berlin as an
adult, he's careful to say that he operates in society as a male. It's not
clear whether he considers himself a regular man or a regular guy, but it is
the way that he most easily can get along.

GROSS: He seems to have a consciousness of what he is, which is something
that's strictly neither a hundred percent male nor a hundred percent female.

Mr. EUGENIDES: Right. But I think in terms of the book itself, because
Callie falls in love with her best friend, that that did provide a certain
impetus for her decision to be a boy. But then, of course, when she goes to
the sexual agenda identity clinic, she does find out about her chromosomal
status being XY, and that is another reason why she finally decides to adopt a
male gender identity.

GROSS: When she decides to adopt a male gender identity, she has to learn the
outward characteristics of men. I want you read a paragraph--this is on page
449--in which your main character describes that kind of transformation of
learning to walk and talk like a male.

Mr. EUGENIDES: `Like a convert to a new religion, I overdid it at first.
Somewhere near Gary, Indiana, I adopted a swagger. I rarely smiled. My
expression throughout Illinois was the Clint Eastwood squint. It was all
bluff, but so was it on most men. We were all walking around squinting at
each other. My swagger wasn't that different from what lots of adolescent
boys put on trying to be manly. For that reason, it was convincing. Its very
falseness made it credible. Now and then I fell out of character. Feeling
something stuck to the bottom of my shoe, I kicked up my heel and looked back
over my shoulder to see what it was, rather than crossing my leg in front of
me and twisting up my shoe. I picked correct change from my open palm instead
of my trouser pocket. Such slips made me panic, but needlessly. No one
noticed. I was aided by that. As a rule, people don't notice much.'

GROSS: I'm wondering if when you wrote that, you thought back to your own
puberty and when you were going through the process of turning into a man from
having been a boy, and if you felt that you were acting in a way, acting the
role of man.

Mr. EUGENIDES: This continues to be something that I feel like I do. In
order to get those characteristics that I thought were more common amongst
females than males, I didn't think back to my early years. I actually walked
around my room trying to imagine how do girls usually look at things when
they're stuck to their shoe? How do they count change? And it actually took
me a long time to come up with just those few examples that seemed to me
evidently female or male.

GROSS: My guest is Jeffrey Eugenides. He has a new novel called "Middlesex."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Jeffrey Eugenides. We're talking about his new novel

For your novel "Middlesex," you've really mastered a lot of the medical
language of the contemporary hermaphrodite. You know a lot about the intersex
support groups. What kind of research did you do so that you would have both
like a medical and social understanding of what hermaphrodites might be going
through today?

Mr. EUGENIDES: Well, the debate right now in terms of intersex people, and
in terms of sexual reconfiguration surgery, is between the pediatric
endocrinologists and the hermaphrodites, or the intersex community. So I
basically read text from both sides of that debate. I read a lot of sexology.
I read books by John Money, who's the leading theoretician in the sexology
field, or has been. And I read a lot of things published by the Intersex
Society of North America based out in San Francisco, and corresponded briefly
with the executive director of that organization. And they have a newsletter
that is called Hermaphrodites With Attitude, and they also publish other books
and writings by hermaphrodites. So I read all of those. I watched videos
that they offer about hermaphrodites telling their own stories. And I left it
at that. I didn't interview intersex people, and I didn't go on the road to
visit their demonstrations. I tried to acquire the knowledge through reading
what they had to say and then imagining the rest myself.

GROSS: Why didn't you want to go to the demonstrations or meet any intersex

Mr. EUGENIDES: I just don't usually work in the entirely reportorial mode. I
need a certain amount of information, but I work largely through my
imagination and through a sort of method acting where I try to imagine if I
put myself into this situation, how would I have reacted? And in that way, I
hope that the story seems more believable. And I don't try to look at another
person and try to imagine what it's like for them. If I had been a
hermaphrodite, this is what I would have been like, and it may not be the way
other intersex people are, but it certainly is the way that this character
would have been. Because I also don't believe that there is any one
experience that would be the intersex or hermaphrodite experience. There
would be just as many as any other population, just as various.

GROSS: At the same time you were reading the sexology literature and the
intersex literature, were you also reading ancient Greek literature?

Mr. EUGENIDES: I didn't read a lot of ancient Greek literature while writing
"Middlesex," but I took seven years of Latin. I started studying Latin in
seventh grade, and this influenced my writing quite a bit. In fact, I was
just thinking the other day, in 10th grade, our Latin teacher had us read
Ovid's "Metamorphosis," and we were reading about the argument between Zeus
and Hara and the argument was about who had the most pleasure in the act of
love, men or women. Zeus said men did; Hara said women did. And they argue
and then they decide, `Well, let's ask Tiresias.' Tiresias was both man and
woman. Tiresias is brought in and says, `Women enjoy the great part of
pleasure in lovemaking.'

As you can imagine, this was of great interest to the young Latin scholar that
I was in 10th grade, and probably, in a way, started me thinking about
Tiresias, hermaphrodites and the whole issue of what it would be like if you
were a person who could experience both realms.

GROSS: While we're talking about gender, which is the subject that you write
about both in "The Virgin Suicides" and in your new novel "Middlesex," I'm
wondering if when you were growing up, there were aspects of masculinity you
felt you didn't fit into, and if there were things about being female that
particularly interested you, that you particularly would have liked to either
experience or understand more?

Mr. EUGENIDES: I mean, actually I've always been quite happy in my gender. I
was very interested in sports as a boy, and the only thing that I did that was
not terribly masculine was that I had a great interest in theater. And when
you are acting and in theater, you are, in some ways, going away from the
normal route of young boys. But I don't remember wanting to do things that
girls did, or anything like that. In fact, when I was about 12 or 13, I had
very long hair, and was sometimes mistaken for a girl. If I were with a group
of girls, a mother would come out and she would say, `Would you girls like
some Kool-Aid?' and I would absolutely be horrified by this. So I was pretty
Midwestern in wanting to be a boy and pretty happy with that.

GROSS: You're been living in Berlin for at least a couple of years. How long
has it been?

Mr. EUGENIDES: We're starting our fourth year. We've been here three years,
which is much longer than we ever thought. We were originally coming just for
one year on a grant, but we've liked the city and so we've stayed on.

GROSS: And, you know, at this time, when you've been writing about the
history of immigrants in America and what gender is like in America, you've
actually been living far from America in Berlin. And I'm wondering if you
feel like you've been living in an environment in which gender expectations
are slightly different than in the United States.

Mr. EUGENIDES: Well, one thing I first have to say about the experience of
living in Berlin, there's a famous--not a famous story, there's a story in my
family about my grandparents. When they first came to the United States, my
grandfather had to do all the shopping because he could speak English and my
grandmother couldn't, and she was frightened of the stores. And so he
basically was the public face for the family. He would talk to anyone on the
phone. He would do the shopping. He would deal with salesmen and things like
that. And because I started my German a little bit before Karen, my wife,
did, for the first years in Berlin, I was also this immigrant who could half
speak the language and had to do all of those things.

So when I was writing about my grandparents in Detroit getting used to
Detroit, I was actually in a similar experience as an immigrant or as a
foreigner in Germany.

GROSS: I would imagine one of the most frustrating things about that is that
when you can't speak the language of a country, a lot of people just assume
that you're not very smart.

Mr. EUGENIDES: That you're dumb.

GROSS: Yeah, because you can't articulate what you're thinking...


GROSS: ...or even what you want to buy in the grocery store.

Mr. EUGENIDES: Yes. And a fact about Berlin that might not be known is that
Berliners are the rudest people on the planet. They make New Yorkers seem
like they have Southern charm. And if you don't speak properly, and if you
dawdle, you will receive a tongue-lashing that you can't imagine.

GROSS: Or that you can't understand, either, if you don't speak the language.

Mr. EUGENIDES: Well, you can get the gist of it, believe me.

GROSS: Right. Well, Jeffrey Eugenides, thank you very much for talking with

Mr. EUGENIDES: Thank you. I really enjoyed it.

GROSS: Jeffrey Eugenides is the author of the new novel "Middlesex."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: Coming up, poet Sharon Olds reads from her new collection "The Unswept
Room." And rock critic Ken Tucker reviews "Home," the new CD by the Dixie
Chicks, their first album since 1999.

(Soundbite of music)

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

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

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Review: Dixie Chicks new album "Home"

The country music trio the Dixie Chicks has just released their first album
since 1999 called "Home." The Chicks are lead singer Natalie Maines, fiddler
Martie Maguire and banjo player Emily Robison. Rock critic Ken Tucker says
that the Dixie Chicks re-enter country music at a time when the tone of much
of the music reflects a post-September 11th mood.

(Soundbite of "Long Time Gone"; music)

Ms. NATALIE MAINES: (Singing) Daddy sits on the front porch swinging, looking
out on a bakin' field. Used to be filled with burr-leaf tobacco. Now he
knows it never will.

My brother found work in Indiana, my sister's a nurse at the old-folks' home,
Mom's still cooking too much for supper, and me, I'm been a long time gone.
Been a long time gone...

KEN TUCKER reporting:

Despite their girly group name, there's a toughness to the Dixie Chicks; an
implacable firmness. The lead-off track on their new album "Home," "Long Time
Gone," makes punning references to Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Hank
Williams. But for the Chicks, name-checking old-school country isn't a way to
score points with traditionalists or critics; it's a way of acknowledging that
they couldn't pull off their glossy image, high-tech, down-home synthesis
without rooting in the earthy emotionalism of their forebears. As a result,
"Home" already has the feel of a timeless recording, deeply exhilarating.

(Soundbite of "Truth No. 2"; music)

Ms. MAINES: (Singing) You don't like the sound of the truth coming from my
mouth. You say that I lack of proof. Well, baby, there might be some.

TUCKER: The Dixie Chicks' album arrives at a time when the biggest hit in
country music is Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry
American)," a well-intentioned song in the classic country mode;
straight-forward patriotism that in some circles gets panned as jingoistic.
Here's a bit of it.

(Soundbite of "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue: The Angry American")

Mr. TOBY KEITH: (Singing) American girls and American guys, we'll always
stand up and salute, we'll always recognize when we see Old Glory flying
there's a lot of men dead, so we can sleep in peace at night when we lay down
our head.

My Daddy served in the Army where he lost his right eye, but he flew a flag
out in our yard till the day that he died. A woman, my mother, my brother, my
sister and me to grow up and live happy in the land of the free. Now this
nation that I love has fallen under attack. A mighty sucker-punch came flying
in from somewhere in the back. Soon as we could see clearly through our big
black eye, man, we lit up your world like the Fourth of July.

Hey, Uncle Sam, put your name at the top of his list, and the Statue of
Liberty started shaking her fist. And the eagle will fly, and it's going to
be healed when you hear mother freedom start a-ringing her bell. And it'll
feel like the whole wide world is raining down on you. Oh, brought to you
courtesy color of the red, white and blue.

(Soundbite of music)

TUCKER: In an industry where it's standard for no one to say an unkind word
about any other country star, the Chicks lead singer, Natalie Maines, has
condemned this hit; telling the Los Angeles Daily News, quote, "I think it's
ignorant." I disagree. I think it expresses the anger a lot of people feel.
I believe Toby Keith's artistic sin, one the Chicks would never commit, is the
cutesy use of the phrase `courtesy of,' which turns patriotism into a

By contrast, the Chicks have produced a very intelligent album, sometimes
verging on the genteel. Maines' sharp-tongue phrasing redeems a few maudlin
tunes. The Chicks harmonies on Stevie Nicks' great weepy song "Landslide"
blend to approximate Nicks' own artfully hoarse modulated wail. Their
pleasure in the song could not come through more vibrantly.

(Soundbite of "Landslide")

Ms. MAINES: (Singing) I took my love and I took it down. I climbed a
mountain and I turned around. And I saw my reflection in a snow-covered hill
while the landslide brought me down. Oh, mirror in the sky, what is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above? Can I sail through the changing
ocean tides? Can I handle the seasons of my life? Uh-uh.

(Soundbite of music)

TUCKER: While they throw down fine hoedowns on "Tortured, Tangled Heart" and
"White Trash Wedding," their best moments are on tracks like "Long Time Gone"
and "A Home," performances that blend country, rock, bluegrass and pop with a
surging power that sweeps you along. The three Chicks have pulled off
something difficult: they've refined their trademark sound without allowing
it to turn into a copyrighted formula; no `courtesy of' label, because they
have no patience for mere courtesy. As a result, their "Home" sounds like an
entire world to be explored.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
the Dixie Chicks' new CD, "Home."


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "A Home")

Ms. MAINES: (Singing) Not a night goes by I don't dream of wandering through
the home that might have been.
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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