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Jeffrey Gettleman: Reporting From Mogadishu
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
As the East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times, Jeffrey
Gettleman spends most of his time covering wars, except, he says,
they're not exactly wars. He calls them un-wars, conflicts where terror
has become an end, not just a means. Gettleman covers 12 countries,
including Kenya, Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, which he describes
as the most dangerous place in the world.
He's won two Overseas Press Awards: in 2003 for a story on a Pakistani
boy who was kept as a sex slave in an Afghan prison, and in 2008 for
reporting on human rights abuses in Ethiopia. In 2004, when he was
reporting from Iraq, he was captured and held in Fallujah.
We've been wanting to talk with Gettleman, and his current three-week
visit in the U.S. has given us that opportunity. Before we start the
interview, which I recorded earlier this week, I want to let you know
that Gettleman gives some graphic and disturbing descriptions of
atrocities he's reported on in the un-wars.
Jeffrey Gettleman, welcome to FRESH AIR. If most of your time is spent
covering un-wars in Africa, how would you describe what an un-war is?
Mr. JEFFREY GETTLEMAN (East Africa Bureau Chief, New York Times): Well,
what we're seeing across Africa today is many conflicts, internal
conflicts that have an absence of ideology. They're more criminally
From the reading I've done and compared to the liberation wars of
yesteryear, in Eritrea, in Zimbabwe, in Ethiopia, even in Angola, there
were causes back then. And, of course, there was criminality and there
was violence and there was gratuitous bloodshed, but it seemed like
these rebel movements actually stood for something. They had popular
For example in Eritrea, they had classrooms to teach people all sorts of
things, like literacy and numeracy. A big part of that liberation
movement wasn't just to have a separate country, but it was to
revolutionize society. And men and women fought on the front lines
together, and a whole society was behind this liberation movement, was
behind the rebel group.
Today it's totally different. A lot of these rebel organizations prey
upon the people they're supposed to be liberating. If you look in Congo,
there's dozens of so-called rebel groups and they have absolutely no
In Somalia, for instance, you have the Shabab rebel group that is
fighting against the government and trying to overthrow the weak
transitional government in Somalia, and these guys are widely reviled by
the Somali population. They're trying to impose a harsh and alien form
of Islam, and the people are chafing under their rule, and they have
very, very little popular support.
GROSS: So what we're seeing now is more like militias and warlords as
opposed to liberation movements. So what do these warlords want?
Mr. GETTLEMAN: Well, that's an interesting question. Sometimes, it's not
clear. Let's look at the LRA, which is a long-standing rebel group
originally from Uganda. It's now terrorizing a wide swath of Central
Africa, including Congo, Sudan, Central African Republic. They're even
bumping up against the border of Chad.
And this group is different from the liberation movements or rebel
groups of yesteryear. For example, they don't want to take the capital.
They don't want to take territory. They don't want to rule. They just
want resources, and they want to terrorize.
And so, the leader of the LRA is this very elusive fugitive figure named
Joseph Koney. He's wanted by the International Criminal Court. He's been
wanted for years. And it really seems senseless. The LRA moves through
villages. They chop off people's lips. They kill civilians.
I did a story a couple months ago about a horrible massacre in Congo
where maybe 300 civilians were killed. It looked like it might have been
part of a brutal recruitment campaign, but it wasn't really clear, and
the LRA just moved through this arc in eastern Congo, in a very sort of
ungoverned, remote area, just hacking their way from village to village,
and then they left. And what's the military objective of that?
And there's an interesting tie-in to child soldiers here that as these
movements gravitate further and further away from having an ideological
root, from having a real cause, there's basically no adults that want to
join them. There's no reason to join them.
So then they're left with trying to steal or kidnap or conscript
children to fight their wars because no reasonable adult is going to
GROSS: In describing some of the atrocities that the Lord's Resistance
Army has committed, the army that you were just talking about, you met
women who were mutilated. You met women whose lips were cut off by the
LRA. How did they continue to function?
Mr. GETTLEMAN: It's horrible. I was in Uganda a couple years ago, and we
asked to speak to some victims of the LRA, and very quickly, some elders
assembled dozens of women who had been mutilated by these guys. And they
live in horrible shame. They're unable to ever forget what happened to
them. It's a situation where there's no answers for them. What do you
I was just in eastern Congo a couple months ago, and there had been a
girl who had been kidnapped and had her lips cut off by the LRA, and she
was sitting in this medical clinic in a very remote town. The few aid
workers in the town were trying to figure out what to do because she
needs help. She needs a plastic surgeon. She needs some way to restore
her dignity, and she's living in one of the most cut-off parts of the
GROSS: You've been describing the kind of sadism that African militias
are responsible for. Do you have any sense of what unleashes this kind
of sadism, where people are doing this to their own people?
Mr. GETTLEMAN: I think it's partly a function of very weak states and
that when you have these large, ungoverned spaces in very poor
countries, these things emerge and they take on an energy of their own.
For example the LRA, it started out in Uganda in the late '80s, when the
state was very weak. It hadn't been that long ago that Idi Amin had
brutalized the country. There had been a lot of political turmoil. The
current government was just beginning to get some traction.
And there were large parts of the country that were still chaotic. And
this movement was able to use that as first an excuse to exist and to
fight against the government but then as a way to spread and to operate
because the government wasn't strong enough.
We see the same thing in eastern Congo. The collapse of that country,
one of the biggest countries in the heart of Africa, that borders
something like nine different African countries, this stunningly
beautiful, lush, rugged place, and it is a basket case because the
central government is so weak, and the place has been so traumatized by
a brutal colonial rule and then almost 30 years of very corrupt, very
dysfunctional leadership under Mobutu, Zaire's former dictator.
And that has left this immense country disconnected, isolated, not
functioning in most places, and that's allowed these rebel groups to
thrive. And one of the effects of this is horrible violence against
Eastern Congo is considered the rape capital of the world. Hundreds of
thousands of women have been raped in the jungles there. There really is
no end. And it's just like Somalia or Sudan or, you know, what we're
seeing in other parts of Congo that as long as there's a very week state
government, and as long as there is easy access to weapons, and Somalia
is a great example.
It's probably the modern world's longest-running example of a chaotic
state with no central government. This is despite billions of dollars,
enormous diplomatic attention, you know, one peace effort after another,
and 20 years later, the place is chaotic and violent and hopeless in
many ways, as it was in 1991 when the government collapsed.
GROSS: Okay, so you say that Somalia is, like, the example of the weak
state, or in Somalia's case, no state virtually, and how that kind of
unleashes this â can we describe it as gang warfare?
Mr. GETTLEMAN: Yes and no. I mean, Somalia has been so chaotic and
violent for so long, the warfare has evolved. It started out as battles
between rival clans, and clan was always a very important part of Somali
And then it became almost ideological or religious-based, and that's
what we're seeing today, where different groups adhere to different
versions of Islam, and they're fighting against each other, and they
have these crossed clan lines, and you have this new sort of axis of
But the problem is when you have these places that remain mired in this
state of anarchy for that long, every day they're like that, it gets
harder and harder to re-impose authority, and I've seen it with my own
In Somalia, people adapt. They get used to the fact there's no central
government. Businessmen start schools. Neighborhoods band together to
provide their own generators. I even saw, during one of my first visits
to Mogadishu, a privatized mailbox where you buy a stamp from some
businessman, put it on a letter, stick it in a certain mailbox, and they
come and deliver the mail.
So people begin to get used to not having any government. And then you
begin to have these vested interests that profit off the chaos. You
know, for example, people that have taken over old government buildings
and are renting them out, they donât want a new government to show up.
Or people that are importing expired goods or not paying any taxes to
bring things in and to sell them on the streets, they don't want a
And then you have businessmen and other warlords that have gotten used
to having their own, independent power base, purely by force. And
they're worried that if there is a legitimate government, they're going
to be held to account for all the horrible things they've done, and
they're going to be kicked out.
So Somalia is a very obvious example, but what we see in eastern Congo
and even in parts of Sudan begin to resemble it, which is if you have no
government there for that long, it gets harder and harder to bring it
GROSS: al-Shabab is the Islamist group, the radical Islamist group,
that's trying to take over Somalia and impose a very harsh form of
Islamist law. What is their Islamist agenda?
Mr. GETTLEMAN: Well, al-Shabab started out as a local group. It's not
quite clear exactly when they formed, sometime around 2004, 2005, maybe
2006. But they got a lot of popular support in 2007 because the
Ethiopian military was occupying Somalia, and al-Shabab was spearheading
the resistance to them, and a lot of people appreciated that.
Since then, though, the Ethiopians have left. A moderate, Islamist
government, so to speak, has come to Somalia with the support of the
United Nations and the U.S., and there's less of an obvious cause now
for why al-Shabab is fighting.
And one thing they seem to be driven by is this global jihad mission,
where they are attracting people from all corners of the planet to come
to Somalia and fight for Islam.
And we've seen a number of American, young American Somalis join their
movement. Even non-Somali Americans have come, Western Europeans, people
from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Chechnya. There's probably hundreds, if not
thousands, of foreign fighters now that are the backbone of al-Shabab.
GROSS: So among the laws that al-Shabab is trying to impose on Somalia
are no music, no gold teeth and no bras. I know no music has been
applied in other Islamic states. I donât understand the no gold teeth
and the no bras.
Mr. GETTLEMAN: It's pretty confusing where they're getting this from.
From what I've been told, that any evidence of the modern world is
suspect, and I guess women weren't wearing bras in 7th century Arabia.
Therefore, al-Shabab doesn't want women in Somalia in Somalia in 2010 to
They've been pulling out gold teeth from people, saying that that's un-
Islamic. They're making men grow beards in some of the territory they
now control. They have killed people for watching TV. They have stoned
to death adulterers, and they've cut off hands of teenage thieves.
I was in Mogadishu a couple months ago, and I did an interview with two
boys who had their right hand cut off and their left foot because they
had been accused of stealing cell phones. And it was this gruesome,
public amputation, where they herded together hundreds of people â and
there's not a lot going on in Somalia right now, and there's very little
entertainment, there's very few public gatherings of any sort.
So these people were sort of pushed together into this, you know, big,
dusty, open field. These boys were brought out on gurneys. They were
strapped down, and this one kid told me that one of the men who were
operating, so to speak, on him had this huge knife with maybe a 10-inch
He said â the boy told me it was the kind of knife used to slaughter a
camel. And they â and two men pulled his arm really tight and squeezed
on his wrist, you know, so much that the boy screamed out in pain, and
then they just started sawing through his wrist bones with this big
And he said it took like 10 minutes, and he fainted from the agony of
it. And now he's left totally helpless, you know, no right hand, no left
foot, an oddity in a place where it's hard enough to make a living and
survive, and he has to have this stigma of shame of having had this
happen to him in public and never really being able to move on from it.
GROSS: What a really horrible description. And I guess this is an
example of why you describe Somalia as the most dangerous place in the
Mr. GETTLEMAN: Well, there's no green zone. There's no one part of
Somalia that's safe. That's the problem.
In some of these other countries like Iraq or Afghanistan, where I've
worked, there are conflict areas, there are lawless places, but there's
one part of the country that is somewhat stable, where if you needed
help, you could get it. In Somalia, that doesn't really exist. You're on
The minute you land at the airport, you have to fill out a form that
asks for your name, address and caliber of weapon. And guns rule the
place. It's â that is the law. It's the business end of a machine gun.
GROSS: My guest is Jeffrey Gettleman, East Africa bureau chief for the
New York Times. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jeffrey Gettleman, and
he's in the United States for a three-week visit before returning to
Africa. He's the East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times.
We've been talking about Somalia, which you describe as the most
dangerous place in the world. You've reported from there. You've been
there, what, about a dozen times? You say you visited refugee camps,
insurgent hideouts, mosques, schools, warlord dens, famished villages.
Mr. GETTLEMAN: Let's not forget the pirates, too.
GROSS: You've talked to one of the pirates who captured that American
Mr. GETTLEMAN: That's right, and I met a pirate boss in Northern Somalia
last year who had claimed to have captured 25 ships and was part of a
secretive pirate group called The Corporation.
GROSS: What explanation did he give you for why he's a pirate?
Mr. GETTLEMAN: A lot of these guys say the same thing. They say they
were fishermen, minding their own business, and when the government
collapsed, all of sudden, the waters of Somalia became a free-for-all.
Big fishing ships from around the world came to pilfer the resources
from their seas. So they had to take up arms to protect their coastline.
GROSS: And do you think that's the genuine answer?
Mr. GETTLEMAN: I think there's some validity to how it began, but it has
quickly morphed into a pure criminal enterprise. And this guy, you know,
was laughing about all the different ransoms he had secured and said
that he had, you know, gotten millions of dollars. And a big question
is: Where's the money going? Because it's not like there are, you know,
skyscrapers rising out of the desert in Somalia, or these guys are
driving around Bentleys.
The person I talked to, his name was Absher Boya(ph), was dangerously
thin, you know, maybe six-foot-four, 160 pounds. He was trying to hit me
up for some money to buy him cigarettes. And I said, hey, wait, I
thought you had just, you know, hijacked all these ships and have
millions of dollars.
And he's, like, listen, we have to split it between, you know, a lot of
people. We have guards and underlings and businessmen and, you know, a
whole â and whole family networks to pay. And every time we get a big
ransom, we divide it up, and it disappears, you know, within days.
GROSS: Do you think he â that was true?
Mr. GETTLEMAN: I think it's true to some extent. I think â and he, this
guy, a lot of these guys are very, you know, they're obviously street-
smart. And he was telling me â he hadn't been educated. Many of the
pirates I've spoken to said, you know, they never went to school, just
like a lot of children in Somalia today.
But he was saying if you don't have any experience handling money, once
you get it, you don't know what to do with it. And that seemed to make
some sense to me.
GROSS: So when you go to Somalia, you've written you hire 10 gunmen when
you go to Somalia because you have to. Otherwise, you don't stand a
chance. So how do you find gunmen? I mean, you're not going to go on
Craigslist or Google for gunmen.
Mr. GETTLEMAN: No, no, you have to work through contacts that you have.
It's all based on trust because the amount that you pay these gunmen to
guard you is way less than what they would get if they kidnapped you and
then tried to ransom you back.
And we've seen that. Several journalists have been kidnapped, sometimes
by guards that were ostensibly working for them. And then it was this
whole protracted drama where, you know, weeks went by, and a lot of
money changed hands, and then finally, the journalists or aid workers
So it's a very trust-based society. In the absence of more formal
institutions, everything is based on personal reputations. So if you're
invited by the right person, who says I will guarantee your security,
you are a guest of mine, if anything happens to you, I look stupid, that
person then has a motivation to make sure nothing happens to you. And
that's how we operate.
So if we go to Mogadishu, we check in with the right authorities, we
tell them what we want to do, they offer to give us some protection, a
militia, we then work out a deal where we pay the guards a certain
amount per day, we buy their food, we buy their khat, which is this leaf
that Somalis chew that's slightly â it's like a slight upper that gives
you a buzz or a high â and that's the only way to operate.
And it's not great because if you walk into a refugee camp or you go
meet with a pirate or you just want to kind of get a sense of daily life
in a place like Mogadishu, you're constantly shadowed by this wall of
gunmen behind you that are making sure nobody kidnaps you.
GROSS: So has anything really bad happened to you in Somalia?
Mr. GETTLEMAN: No, it hasn't. I've been lucky. The trips I make there
are very focused. We try to minimize our time on the ground. There are
some local journalists that have helped me immensely and have looked out
for everything, including my life.
So, no, I've been to Somalia more than a dozen times, maybe close to 20
or 30 times, and it's never easy, but it's always really, really
GROSS: My guest, Jeffrey Gettleman, will be back in the second half of
the show. He's the East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times. I'm
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross, back with Jeffrey Gettleman,
East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times. He covers 12 countries,
including Kenya, Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, which he describes
as the most dangerous place in the world. He's won two Overseas Press
You wrote an amazing story recently about child soldiers in Somalia. And
one of the things that made the story so interesting was that the child
soldiers you were writing about werenât fighting for the warlords, they
were fighting with the government. Now granted, it's not a very stable
government, it's not a very powerful government, but still, the child
soldiers were being used by the government. Why is that so significant?
Mr. GETTLEMAN: Well, because this government that's trying to rule
Somalia is purely surviving on Western aid. If it weren't for the United
States and the United Nations and the European Union, this government
and Somalia would collapse probably within hours. And that's what a lot
of people were very upset about is that why is it that the U.N., which
has been on numerous passionate campaigns to get armies to demobilize
children from their forces, why is it that that same U.N. is giving
money to the Somali government, which is openly employing child
And the same for the United States, the United States has criticized
many African rebel forces for kidnapping and conscripting children like
the LRA, which has made that its signature tactic. And yet, at the same
time, the American government is pumping millions of dollars and weapons
into the Somali government and they're openly employing child soldiers.
We spent a couple days on the streets of Mogadishu and saw these kids
working. One of them, a kid named Awil, looked like he was 10 or 11
years old. His commander thought maybe he was 12, and he was carrying a
heavy AK47 automatic rifle, searching cars and stopping cars and he
could barely see over the hood of these cars. And he was a tough little
kid. He was addicted to khat. He smoked cigarettes. He looked like
somebody you didnât want to tangle with. And we met many boys like that.
One of them, a 15-year-old had been shot in the arm and he said that he
had been sent to Uganda for training when he was 12 years old. And a lot
of that training that's going on in Uganda is directly overseen by
American military advisors. So, it seemed like in the rush to stand up
an army to protect this very weak, fragile government, the government
was not discriminating, they weren't vetting and they were basically
grabbing anybody who could carry a gun, even though a lot of these kids
could barely do that.
GROSS: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think in response to your article
the Somali government and the U.S. government denied any knowledge of
the government using child soldiers.
Mr. GETTLEMAN: Well, the Somali government sent out a mixed signal. They
said they were not knowingly using any child soldiers but at the same
time, they said that they would demobilize any children in their forces.
The U.S. government had said officially we are not aware of the Somali
government doing this. Yet, unofficially, I had government officials
telling me that they were aware this was a problem. They had been trying
to convince the Somali government to stop this practice and that they
were offering them help. And the same goes for UNICEF. UNICEF had told
me that they had been, you know, they had very specific plans for the
government to demobilize these kids but the Somali government was too
disorganized to respond to them.
GROSS: So is the United States possibly going to be charged with any
crime if it knowingly supports a government that is using child
Mr. GETTLEMAN: Well, I didnât know it at the time but after I did the
story a couple senators in Washington complained to the State Department
and said that there were actually American laws that may have been
violated because there are certain provisions in Congress where the
United States government is not supposed to give any resources to a
military that uses child soldiers. So there's now calls for
investigations in Washington and for a deeper look into this to see if
any American money is actually going to pay child soldiers in Somalia.
GROSS: So looking at Somalia a little bit more, you know, Somalia has
been in a state of virtually no government or a very weak government for
a long time. Is there anything that has worked that the international
community has done to try to bring order to Somalia, as opposed to
things that have backfired? I mean, where are we now in terms of
intervention from other countries?
Mr. GETTLEMAN: Well, itâs a pretty discouraging track record. In the
early 1990s, the U.S. sent this huge mission under the first President
Bush and then under President Clinton that ended very disgracefully with
the Black Hawk Down incident in 1993, where Somali militiamen in flip-
flops with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades shot down two
American helicopters and killed a number of American servicemen. And
after that the U.S. got discouraged and basically pulled out tens of
thousands of troops. That intervention was considered a failure.
Since then, the U.N. has been involved to a lesser degree in trying to
help the Somalis stand up a government but none of it has really worked.
And now there's a new dynamic and that is that a lot of people worry
that even if this government in Somalia, even if it's not very good,
it's better than the alternative, which is a Somalia that is totally
ruled by the Shabab. However, people are beginning to challenge that
convention wisdom and this new theory has emerged in the last couple
months called constructive disengagement.
And some people are saying that it's time for the international
community to disengage from Somalia, that all their interference, all
it's really done is made things worse. It's further radicalized the
population. It's given a cause to some of these rebel groups that really
didnât have a cause. So some people say maybe itâs better for the
Somalis just to fight it out among themselves. And yes, it will be
bloody and it will get worse in the short-term, but maybe in the long-
term that's the only way to have a real durable reconciliation.
GROSS: Does it look like the international community is headed toward
that constructive disengagement?
Mr. GETTLEMAN: I donât think people are ready to call it quits yet. But
as the days go on, when this government really doesnât do much, they're
still holed-up in this hilltop palace in central Mogadishu and trying to
fight it out in these neighborhoods around there. They control very
little territory. They donât deliver any services. Theyâve been totally
paralyzed in the last couple months by infighting for this post or that
post. And these positions are more or less meaningless because the
government really doesnât do much.
So I think we're in a discouraging phase of support for the government
but we're not quite at the point yet where people are ready to totally
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is Jeffrey Gettleman. He's
the East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times and is on a brief
trip to the United States. Jeffrey, let's take a short break here and
then we'll talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If youâre just joining us, my guest is Jeffrey Gettleman. He's
the East Africa bureau chief for The Times.
Jeffrey, you also covered Iraq, and in 2004, you were captured in
Fallujah. And your life was in jeopardy when you were captured. And that
was in 2004, and ever since then youâve continued to cover war zones in
Iraq and through Africa. So I'm wondering what gives you the courage and
the stamina to keep being in war zones in spite of the fact that you
nearly lost your life in one of them?
Mr. GETTLEMAN: It's not an easy question to answer why you would put
yourself through all that or put your family through that. In the part
of the world that I work there are fewer and fewer journalists that have
the resources, that have the big media organizations that can back them
up, that can spend the money, that can take these risks and report these
stories. And if, you know, Somali journalists can't do it, itâs too
dangerous for them. They're under incredible pressures of their own.
They're not free to write about what they want to write.
One of the consequences of the child soldier story we did was the
government was so outraged at our report that they were using child
soldiers that they have threatened the local journalists that helped us
report that story. And in some cases, some of the people that worked
with us had to flee the country. And that's just an example of how
difficult it is in many of these countries to illuminate whatâs
GROSS: But let me just ask you, in a situation like that, how do you
weigh the fact that some people's lives are now at risk with the fact
that you were able to expose a very, very important story about child
Mr. GETTLEMAN: I think it's a really tough balance to strike. You know,
you could use a utilitarian way of looking at it and say, well, we're
helping more people by getting the word out and it might endanger a few
of us but the greater good is served by exposing what's happening and
maybe these kids will be demobilized and maybe other children in Somalia
won't have to go through what these boys are going through that we
interviewed. But it's very difficult.
I was arrested in Ethiopia in 2007 and put in jail for a week with my
wife, who was shooting video for The New York Times. It was a terrifying
experience. All we were trying to do was to get to a part of the country
where there's been serious allegations of human rights abuse, where the
population is really under the thumb of the military. It's like a Darfur
situation in that part of Ethiopia and we were just trying to go there
and put a spotlight on it and we were branded as public enemies by the
government of Ethiopia.
And you get caught up in a sense of duty. And maybe that sounds too
self-righteous, but you really begin to think that if you donât take
these risks yourself nobody's going to know what's happening in these
places. And there's a lot of lives at stake and there's horrible things
that are going on every day. And if nobody wants to take the risk to go
into these places, then nobody is ever going to know what's happening
GROSS: Were you and your wife in the same cell in Ethiopia?
Mr. GETTLEMAN: We were at the beginning and then they split us up. And
at one point they marched me out into the desert with a gun at my back
and said, we'll do with you whatever we want. You have to tell us
exactly who you talked to and why youâre here and give us your sources
and give us your information. And I said, no. And it was terrifying.
This again is an American ally that gets hundreds of millions of dollars
each year and American taxpayer money and the military there is accused
of being horrendously brutal to its own people and I got a little taste
These guys had, you know, they didnât care at all that I was a
journalist for an American newspaper, that I had an American passport,
that I had a legitimate visa. They didnât care about that at all. They
kept us incommunicado for a week, transferred us from secret prison to
secret prison and gave us a taste of what really happens in a country
GROSS: Well, Jeffrey Gettleman, thank you so much for talking with us.
And congratulations on all the, you know, excellent reporting youâve
been doing. Thank you very much.
Mr. GETTLEMAN: Thank you.
GROSS: Jeffrey Gettleman is the East Africa bureau chief for The New
York Times. He's currently in the U.S. on a three-week visit. You'll
find links to his recent stories about Somalia on our website,
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'Pearl Buck In China': A Child Across The Good Earth
TERRY GROSS, host:
In a new biography of the bestselling writer and Nobel Laureate Pearl S.
Buck, the author, Hilary Spurling, quotes a recent New York Times
article on Buck that says quote, "in China, Buck is admired but not
read, and in America, she's read but not admired," unquote. Spurling is
out to change that estimation of Buck.
Hereâs book critic Maureen Corrigan's review of "Pearl Buck in China."
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Ever since her 1931 blockbuster "The Good Earth"
earned her a Pulitzer Prize and, eventually, the first Nobel Prize for
Literature ever awarded to an American woman, Pearl S. Buck's reputation
has made a strange, slow migration. These days, it's her life story
rather than her novels, which are now barely read, either in the West,
or in China, that's come to fascinate readers.
The big shift was set in motion almost 15 years ago, when literary
scholar Peter Conn lifted Buck out of mid-cult obscurity in his
monumental biography called simply "Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural
Biography." Now, award-winning biographer Hilary Spurling has made a
case for a reappraisal of Buck's fiction as well as her life. Spurling
claims that Buck had a magic power â possessed by all truly phenomenal
best-selling authors â to tap directly into currents of memory and dream
secreted deep within the popular imagination.
Spurling's book is called "Pearl Buck in China," and after reading it,
I've been motivated to dust off my junior high copy of "The Good Earth"
and move it to the top of my must-read-again-someday pile. Following
Conn's lead, Spurling further succeeds in making Buck herself a
compelling figure, transforming her from dreary lady author into woman
Spurling's biography focuses almost exclusively on Buck's Chinese
childhood, as the daughter of zealous Christian missionaries, and young
adulthood, as the unhappy wife of an agricultural reformer based in an
outlying area around Shanghai. Buck was born Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker
in 1892 and, from her earliest days, was much more than a cultural
tourist. She roamed freely around the Chinese countryside, where she
would often come upon the remains of abandoned baby girls left for the
village dogs, and she would bury them. Buck's first language was
everyday Chinese, and she grew up listening to village gossip and
reading Chinese popular novels, like "The Dream of the Red Chamber,"
which were considered sensational by intellectuals, as her own later
novels would be.
Buck's father, Absalom, was often away, traveling over his mission
field, an area as big as Texas, preaching blood-and-thunder sermons to
often hostile Chinese passersby. After the first 10 years he had spent
in China, Spurling tells us, Absalom had made, by his own reckoning, 10
converts. The young Buck and her family lived at subsistence level in
houses that were little more than shacks and apartments on streets
thronged with bars and bordellos. They managed to survive the Boxer
Rebellion and the subsequent violence that heralded the advance of the
By the time she arrived as a charity student at Randolph-Macon Women's
College in Virginia, Buck was indelibly alienated from her American
counterparts. Girls came in groups to stare at me, wrote Buck,
remembering her first harsh college days some 50 years later. She was
set apart not only by her out-of-date clothes made by a Chinese tailor,
but by her extraordinary life experiences, which encompassed firsthand
knowledge of war, infanticide and sexual slavery.
As Spurling deftly illustrates, that alienation gave Buck her stance as
a writer, gracing her with the outsider vision needed to interpret one
world to another. Buck's unconventional childhood also seems to have
made her resistant to groupthink. In midlife, as a famous novelist, she
made enemies criticizing the racism of the mission movement. She also
shocked contemporaries by writing in her memoir, "The Child Who Never
Grew," about her brain-damaged daughter Carol, at a time when such
children were quietly institutionalized and publicly forgotten.
Spurling quotes liberally from some of Buck's forgotten domestic novels,
which defied the mores of her time by depicting sexual despair and
revulsion within marriage. And, finally, she earned herself no points
with China's new leaders when she likened the zealotry of communism to
that of her father and his missionary colleagues. Writing in 1954 about
an encounter with a breathless Chinese communist woman, Buck said: And
in her words, too, I caught the old stink of condescension.
"Pearl Buck in China," similarly rescues Buck and some of her best books
from the stink of literary condescension and replaces that knee-jerk
critical response with curiosity.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth" by Hilary
You can an excerpt of the book on our website freshair.npr.org, where
you can also download podcasts of our show.
Coming up: David Edelstein reviews "Eclipse," the third "Twilight" film.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Slow 'Eclipse' Knows Just How To Stalk Its Target
TERRY GROSS, host:
It's no surprise that this week's opening of the latest "Twilight" movie
was boffo box office. It opened on more screens across the country than
any other movie in history.
"Eclipse" is the third "Twilight" movie adapted from Stephenie Meyer's
series of bestselling books. Her stories mix modern vampires and
werewolves with an old-fashioned gothic sense of romance and peril.
Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: At 9 p.m. on June 29th, I walked past hundreds, if not
thousands of mostly teenage girls in line for the first midnight showing
of "Eclipse" in Times Square, and wondered what it was about the slow,
old-fashioned, remarkably chaste "Twilight" saga that has mesmerized a
generation of kids whose catchphrase is what-ever - among them my 12-
You have Bella, a remarkably inexpressive teenage virgin, a gentlemanly
vampire, Edward, who's afraid to touch her for fear his bloodlust will
take over and he'll gobble her up, and a Native American werewolf,
Jacob, who doesn't have a prayer of landing Bella, but hovers
protectively, showing off his six-pack abs and deltoids like a human
muscle chart. In part, it's the trendy vampire fetish and the usual
blockbuster hysteria. But most blockbusters don't move so glacially and
withhold so much. Could it be that kids are actually thrilled for once
to defer their gratification?
Speculation aside, "Eclipse" is, on its own terms, quite good. I'm
grading on a curve - the last one, "New Moon," almost put me in a coma.
But the new director, David Slade, has more of a handle on the measured
tempo, and the screenplay mixes those long, lovelorn dialogues with
nifty historical flashbacks and lots of hissing vampire villains.
We're back in Forks, on the coast of Washington State, where Kristen
Stewart's Bella and Robert Pattinson's Edward are stretched out in a
meadow of soft-focused violets. Edward asks her once again to be his
bride and Bella stares at her lap and twists her wide mouth on her long
jaw and refuses to give him a firm yes or no until he promises to kill
and resurrect her as a vampire so they can be together forever.
She also wants to make love before she's a vampire, so she'll know what
it's like, quote, "while I'm still me." Edward, however, is old-
fashioned, having come of age a century earlier. He believes they must
wait until they're married before they have sex and he kills her. As you
can guess, his pure-mindedness puts a strain on the relationship,
especially with that werewolf at the door.
Also, there's this redheaded vampire woman - played in this film by
Bryce Dallas Howard - who wants Bella's scalp, or neck, or something.
After Edward whisked Bella off to Florida - not the best place for a
sun-shy vampire - the couple bump into Taylor Lautner's Jacob in front
of their high school.
(Soundbite of movie, "Eclipse")
Ms. KRISTEN STEWART (Actor): (as Bella) Hey.
Mr. TAYLOR LAUTNER (Actor): (as Jacob) Charlie said you left town.
Ms. STEWART: (as Bella) Yeah, to visit my mom. Why?
Mr. LAUTNER: (as Jacob) Just checking to see if you're still human.
Look, I'm here to warn you. If your kind come on our land again...
Mr. ROBERT PATTISON (Actor): (as Edward) You should leave. Now.
Mr. LAUTNER: (as Jacob) She has a right to know. She is the one the
Ms. STEWART: (as Bella) Victoria? Alice's vision.
Mr. PATTISON: (as Edward) I was trying to protect you.
Ms. STEWART: (as Bella) By lying to me.
You, why haven't you called me back?
Mr. LAUTNER: (as Jacob) I have nothing to say.
Ms. STEWART: (as Bella) Well, I have tons. Hold on.
Mr. PATTISON: (as Edward) Hey, Bella.
Ms. STEWART: (as Bella) Edward, you have to trust me.
Mr. PATTISON: (as Edward) I do trust you. It's him I don't trust.
EDELSTEIN: Sexual tension, pregnant pauses - that's "Eclipse," except I
hasten to add that the actors are very good-looking. And there are maybe
500 lengthy, monumental, screen-filling close-ups of them. Around the
200th, I became hypnotized by their flawless complexions: Was their skin
tone evened out in post-production? Did computers squeegee out their
Pattinson comes out worse than Lautner in this one: His Edward hangs
back, looking clingy and vaguely antiseptic. But the two have a good,
tense, cards-on-the-table dialogue that had me thinking, oh, why don't
you macho men kiss already?
Kristen Stewart can seem sullen, a little dull, but I like her. She
seems temperamentally averse to emoting. She's an anti-drama queen.
Given how florid this material is, I think she's smart to hold something
back, to let the audience project their own feelings onto her face.
"Eclipse's" principal threat is an army of vicious newborn vampires,
which means the upright vampires and righteous werewolves, normally
antagonists, have to team up against their common enemy. The big rumble
is a hash of smash-cuts and computer-generated imagery, but it's
surprisingly cathartic after all those tortured silences.
My ideal battle scene would have more splatter, but these vampires
apparently don't bleed. As my 12-year-old daughter explained, vampires
don't have any blood. That's why they need to keep drinking it.
I said I'd been watching vampire movies for 45 years, and they sure as
hell had had plenty of blood until now. And she said what I already knew
in my bones: Dad, these are not your vampires.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. He reviewed
And while we're on the subject of vampires, we'll close with the theme
from HBO's series "True Blood." The theme was written and sung by Jace
Everett. The album that it's featured on, "Jace Everett's Red
Revelations," was rereleased last month.
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