DATE February 22, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Novelist Hisham Matar talks about his debut novel, "In
the Country of Men," which is loosely based on his experiences
growing up in Libya in the first decade of Qaddafi regime
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Hisham Matar grew up in Colonel Qaddafi's Libya in the '70s. He
writes, "The Qaddafi regime penetrated every sphere of civic life. It
implanted revolutionary committees in every institution and organization,
subjugated the press and dismantled one of the most progressive university
student unions in the post-colonial Arab world, executing its leaders in
public squares. Matar says families such as his, who were educated, wealthy
and internationalist were seen as bourgeois and backward. That's why his
father, a diplomat, was wanted for interrogation. The family fled the
country. While living in Cairo, his father began writing against the Libyan
regime and organizing other exiles to unite and overthrow Qaddafi. Then one
day, in 1990, a man came to speak to his father, and as Matar writes, "Father
went to the front door and never returned." Hisham Matar now lives in England.
His debut novel, "In the Country of Men," is semiautobiographical. It was
shortlisted for the Mann Booker Prize, Britain's highest literary award.
Hisham Matar, welcome to FRESH AIR.
I want you to read a scene from the book but before we do, I want you to put
it into context. The scene I'm going to ask you to read is the scene of a
public interrogation on television, and the interrogation leads to a public
execution that is televised as well, and this is the kind of thing that went
on in Libya when you were living there?
Mr. HISHAM MATAR: Yes, it did, not in the same exact way, meaning that this
isn't a document of it, but it is definitely inspired by scenes that I saw,
some worse than--even worse than this.
GROSS: Just tell us a little bit what interrogations were like when they were
broadcast on TV.
Mr. MATAR: Well, they were rather surreal in the sense that, you know,
information wasn't provided clearly, you know. The accusations, the
testimonies and so on. Suddenly a person would appear on television sitting
in a rather stale-looking, frightening room with a spotlight against them and
they are asked a series of questions and they have to reply and they usually
look very unsettled, frightened. You know, you occasionally did see people
that you knew. Libya's a very small country, yeah. Then the population was
only three million people, and so it was very common, particularly, in my,
experience I remember it was rather common seeing people I knew on television,
and I saw my uncle, for example. I saw friends of the family, neighbors...
GROSS: Getting interrogated?
Mr. MATAR: Yes, yeah. Appearing on television.
GROSS: And what kind of questions were they asked in the interrogations?
Mr. MATAR: Mainly questions to do with their loyalty to the government.
See, any regime, I think, has to create, for it to regain a sense of
legitimacy, to vitalize itself, as it were. It has to recreate the dark arts
of witch-hunting, and so it comes up with new criterion against which to test
the loyalty of its followers and of the--in this case of the public.
GROSS: And what is the character in your novel accused of?
Mr. MATAR: He's accused of being a traitor. He's a professor at the
university, and he's accused of corrupting his students. In fact, his
accusation isn't even that precise. It's sort of just being a traitor.
GROSS: Is there anything you want to say to set the context for this scene
before you read it?
Mr. MATAR: Yes. In this scene, the neighbor, Ustad Rashid, who had been
seen before interrogated on television in a different setting, in a room, is
then--then appears onto a basketball stadium and a committee of interrogators
is there. The basketball stadium is filled to the rafters and the family of
the protagonist, Suleiman, who are watching, have an inkling that Ustad Rashid
might appear, but they're not sure yet, so it starts with the stadium, the
crowd, but Ustad Rashid isn't yet brought onto the stage, as it were.
(Reading) "The crowd's chanting and cheering was so loud, so hysterical and
constant that it fused into a continuous hum, like the hum of a giant vacuum
cleaner. When the people calmed down, the camera moved onto the court again.
A few meters in front of the committee, another man was now present. He had
his hands tied behind his back and was sitting cross-legged on the floor in
front of a microphone on a stand. He kept looking behind him at the rope."
"`There he is,' Moosa said, then the camera zoomed in, and we could see that
the handcuffed man sitting on the floor of the national basketball stadium was
Ustad Rashid. His forehead shone with sweat, his moustache, too, was moist.
Tears silvered his cheeks. He didn't cry honorably. He cried like a baby.
He looked back at the rope, then at the committee who were to one side of him
and said something inaudible."
"`Speak into the microphone,' the man in the center ordered."
"Ustad Rashid looked to one side and saw a man come from behind. He looked up
at him, tried to say something. If I had to guess what, it would be something
like `I kiss your feet, for God's sake, for your parents' sake,' because when
the man placed his hand on the microphone to adjust it, Ustad Rashid tried to
kiss it. When the man walked away, Ustad Rashid looked back, searching for
"`What do you have to say in your defense?' the man at the center of the
table said. Ustad Rashid looked at him and cried again. He checked the
hanging rope, then turned to the man, raising his eyebrows, pursing his lips,
pleading like a guilty child."
"`We are giving you a chance to defend yourself. If you are innocent, speak,'
the man said with a grin, leaning back in his chair and looking to the man and
woman on either side of him who seemed to understand his humor."
"`Innocent, innocent, innocent,' Ustad Rashid latched onto the word."
GROSS: And that's Hisham Matar reading from his new novel, "The Country of
Did your parents try to prevent you from watching these when you were very
Mr. MATAR: Yes, but when I was a young teenager, my father handed me a
videotape of a very famous execution that had taken place in Libya, that this
execution is very loosely based on, as it were, and I was--perhaps I was 14 or
15 when I saw it, and I was deeply unsettled by it, but also deeply intrigued
because I couldn't understand this, and I wanted...
GROSS: What was his point in giving it to you?
Mr. MATAR: Well, he felt I was old enough to know, and I think he was right.
I was old enough to know, and it was my right and responsibility to know what
had happened in one of the dark chapters of my country.
GROSS: Well, had he already been working for the resistance when he gave you
Mr. MATAR: Yes.
GROSS: So he wanted to know how bad--he wanted you to know how bad the
Mr. MATAR: I think so, although he didn't put in these terms. This has to
put in a caveat that my father and I disagreed very passionately at that time
when I was about 14 years old over how the resistance to the government ought
to be, in what sort of frame it should be placed. For me I felt that the only
resistance to anything that an individual can do is in their own behavior and
their own conduct of their own life. At least then, I believed that, and I
think I believed it then because I was selfish, and I wanted my father all to
myself. It is a very harsh experience to know that your parent is devoted to
a cause the scale of which is beyond your family. And so I wanted to adjust
this what I then perceived as an imbalance. And so we used to have these
arguments and perhaps this tape was given as one of the--but I don't remember
it in that sense. I don't remember him trying to convince me of anything with
this tape. I remember my brother and I very, very intrigued and wanting to
GROSS: Did it change you politically? Did it change your point of view about
how to resist?
Mr. MATAR: I don't remember that it had then, and it certainly hadn't--it
Mr. MATAR: ...later, but I don't remember then that it changed the way I
feel. I feel that actually one of the few things that I'm proud of, and I'm
not proud of many things, is that with all of what has happened to Libya and
to Libyans and to my father and countless others, I have never fantasized,
even in a moment of absence or, you know, have never fantasized at all about
watching the perpetrators suffer in this way. I fantasized about justice,
certainly, but not about revenge. And I'm very comforted by this because I am
often rather disturbed by human beings, including myself, and so this rather
comforts me that I don't wish that on them. I don't wish them to suffer. I
don't wish their children to suffer, for them to lose their property. All of
the things that they have exacted on my family. I never wish them to suffer
that but I do long for justice indeed.
GROSS: My guest is Hisham Matar. His new novel is called "In the Country of
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Hisham Matar and he's written a
novel called "In the Country of Men." He grew up in Libya and left the country
when he was around nine. Moved to Kenya and then Egypt, and then at around
the age of 15 moved to England where he went to boarding school and then
Your father had been a member of the Libyan mission to the UN and because of
that he spent time out of the country, and one of the times when he was out of
the country, he got word from a friend that he was on the list of people to be
interrogated and that he shouldn't come back. So then your mother had to
figure out what to do. Should she stay? Should she go and try to meet him?
How did your mother try to handle it?
Mr. MATAR: Well, I dare not speak for my mother but I think, from my
perspective, she handled it fairly well. She tried to get us out of Libya.
She didn't succeed because they were in effect holding us hostage for him to
return, and then an amnesty was issued. He returned and then that way we were
able to leave, but my father wasn't able to leave, so the situation was
reversed. I mean...
GROSS: This time around you left the country and your father stayed behind.
Mr. MATAR: That's right. Yeah. We stayed--we went to Kenya and then from
Kenya, we went to Egypt, and eventually my father caught up with us about a
year and a half later.
GROSS: You know, in an essay that you wrote about your family, you tell this
incredible story that when your mother was trying to get herself and her two
sons, you and your brother, out of the country, you couldn't get past the
immigration officials, so she tried to bribe the officials with, what? With
Mr. MATAR: Yes, actually, she succeeded in bribing the official with her
brand-new BMW that had also in it a brand-new television and video, which in
the late '70s was as good as gold, and she--and the man--she sort of dangled
the key in front of him and said, `Let us through.' He looked at the key, took
the key, nodded and walked away. So we thought, we must wait. Now, he's
going to come out and tell us the good news. Well, he vanished through a door
that had a sign, a private sign on it and never came out. We waited for hours
and then we learned that he had gone home and needless to say our car wasn't
outside. So not a very successful attempt.
GROSS: It was a very expensive gamble.
Mr. MATAR: Yes, more expensive the other way, you know, I mean, one's life
and--is more--I mean, our life wasn't in danger, but mother really was keen on
us growing outside of Libya, or at least at that time, no one thought it would
be this long. We all thought that things might change. But one of the
peculiar things about exile, which is one of the themes that the book is about
is that the place--there's a presumption that the place you've left is going
to remain the same, and, in fact, you are going to remain the same and neither
are true. The place changes beyond recognition in some respects, and you
alter and change and take on new experiences and identifies and so on.
GROSS: One of the ways in which Libya has both changed and stayed the same,
Qaddafi is still the head of the country and--but now, well, for a couple of
decades, your father has been in prison there. That is, if he's still alive
and you don't really know that for sure. He was arrested after he moved to
Egypt. After he got out of Libya and joined your family in Egypt, why was he
Mr. MATAR: Because of his political activity, and my father was very candid
about his position. He felt that a project of democratization in Libya has to
take place and that cannot happen with Qaddafi being in power, and so, you
know, he engaged in that, and after 10 years of living in Egypt, he--detained
is not really what happened. What happened was that he was abducted and
vanished, basically. We didn't know where he was. The Egyptian authorities
kept telling us that he was actually in Egypt, held in Egypt, by them because
he had crossed the line, as it were. They spoke in all these ambiguous terms.
That he was doing too much from Egypt against Libya which was by then a
friendly country. And said that basically what would guarantee his release is
our silence, and so, of course, we were, you know, frightened for him and kept
very quiet about this. This went on for two years, and we would visit the
officials at the Secret Service headquarters in Cairo regularly and be told
exactly the same thing. And after two years, we received a letter that was
smuggled from a very large and notorious political prison in Libya called Abu
Salim, written by my father, signed by him and smuggled out by someone who had
then delivered it to us in Egypt, and it was really a shock, and looking back
at it now, it was very naive of us to think anything else but it's very
difficult to give up hope. At times, it's almost easier to pretend that
things were different.
GROSS: What did the letter say?
Mr. MATAR: The letter described in detail his detention by the Egyptian
secret service people and then his subsequent handing over to the Libyans.
Three days later, he was on an airplane to Tripoli, and he described all of
this in great detail. Feel such a privilege really because one of the--you
know, one of the most moving things is when a loved one doesn't conceal you
from the truth regardless how painful it is, and he listed these things with
eloquence and such, sort of a sober attention to detail that was--that never
stopped from being incapable of humor and reference to history and so on. And
it's such a--I find that letter--he sent another letter later on and a
recording, a cassette tape recording of his voice, sort of an audio letter. I
find them moving not only on a personal level but as a testament to the
individual really, to the dignity of man. He describes these details of the,
like the cell, for example, that he's in. He describes the furniture. He
describes all the insects that are there in such an amusing way that
doesn't--you know, doesn't shy away from the gruesomeness and the pain of the
GROSS: Do you know if he was tortured?
Mr. MATAR: I do, yes. He says it. The first three months of being there
were rather difficult, and when my father says that it's quite telling, so he
doesn't say, `I was tortured,' but he says the first three months were rather
difficult, but then he was tortured in other ways in the sense that he wasn't
allowed out of the cell for months and months at a time. A speaker was placed
in the center of the ceiling playing continuously from 6:00 in the morning
'till midnight, speeches by Qaddafi and various revolutionary propaganda. I
find that detail deeply telling actually because it suggests that the problem
is that you have not listened, not that--disagreeing with the regime is a sign
of madness, and in fact, you know, the regime has several times confirmed this
GROSS: Hisham Matar's new novel is called "In the Country of Men." He'll be
back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
I'm Terry Gross back with Hisham Matar. His new novel, "In the Country of
Men," is loosely based on his experiences growing up in Libya in the '70s,
during the first decade of the Qaddafi regime. Matar's father was wanted for
interrogation so the family fled the country. Living in exile in Cairo, his
father started writing and organizing against the regime. In 1990, he was
taken from his home in Cairo and sent to a prison in Libya. When we left off,
Matar was describing his father's letters from prison. His last letter was
sent in 1995.
Do you know if your father's alive or dead?
Mr. MATAR: I do not.
GROSS: There must always be a part of you that's wondering about that.
Mr. MATAR: Yes, of course. It's, you know--living with inconclusiveness is
very difficult, but there's an odd comfort actually in knowing that you can't
know. At least that's one thing that you can be certain of. That you've
exhausted all of--we'll continue to try, of course, but so far I've exhausted
all of the roots, really, to get information...(unintelligible)...
GROSS: What are the roots?
Mr. MATAR: Asking the Libyan government. Asking the Egyptian government.
And when I say asking, these are letters that are written every week by
various amnesty chapters, not only us as a family. For example, I know one of
the chapters that has held this case for, you know, pretty much from the
beginning. From about '93 they started sending weekly letters--this is the
Dutch chapter--weekly letters to Libya. So imagine, from '93 until today,
weekly letters, an average of about 30 letters a week and not one answer. Not
even an answer to acknowledge the letter. Now this is the same for the French
chapter, for the London chapter, for the Japanese chapter. Curious.
GROSS: How has your father's disappearance and imprisonment affected your
sense of how you want to spend your life? I mean, you described...
Mr. MATAR: Hmm.
GROSS: ...yourself as not really being inherently political and of being more
of an aesthete than somebody involved in politics...
Mr. MATAR: Hmm.
GROSS: ...but you have to be politically engaged in some way to just kind of
keep up the action, you know, in demanding an answer to the question about
where is your father and is he alive.
Mr. MATAR: Yes. I mean, I think, the best way to bore me actually is
political discourse. I find it deeply dull most of the time, and so I didn't
seek to write a book that had to include elements of politics. I--it's not a
political book in the sense that to me, a political book is a book that
documents a political movement or a book with a political message, and this is
certainly not my book. But it is a book that cannot exclude the political
happenings around the characters, the principal characters because it's a
significant part of the landscape. But with my father, it's my yearning for
him and my calls for him are personal, and for me that is very, very
important, that he is not clutched away from me into these realms of--to do
with politics or in fact to be a victim or to be, you know, a symbol of the
Libyan suffering. I resist that very strongly. He to me is a man and a man
whom I knew very well and loved very deeply and whose company I miss very
sorely. And he happened to be interested in political ideas that conflicted
with this dictatorship in Libya and was punished for them, and I want him
rescued, not only in the physical and the literal sense rescued but I want him
also rescued within my own memory and my own imagination for him to never
become that symbol.
GROSS: Why did you want to write your novel, "In the Country of Men," from
the point of view of a nine-year-old in Libya?
Mr. MATAR: When I first began, all I had was a voice. It intrigued me
enough to want to write it. And because the voice was of a boy living in
Libya, I, of course, immediately assumed that I could put it through, as it
were, some of my own memories, things I've witnessed or heard about. So, as
it were, what was happening was that the life of the author, or more precisely
the memory of the author, was beginning to constrict the possibility of his
imagination. This was a tremendous lesson for me, because every time I placed
my unconsoled protagonist in episodes fished out from my past, he, like an
uneasy guest in a fancy dress party, began to squirm and to resist these
recollections, and after a year or so of this grueling and not very productive
work, I realized that the moments that the book came alive, or what I was
writing then--it wasn't quite a book then but what I was writing. The
episodes that came alive were the episodes that weren't trying to remember
anything. They were imagined, invented episodes, and so I began to trust in
the imaginative process itself. There was a very sinister, deep distrust in
me before toward the imaginative process, and so I discarded that and began to
trust in it, and I think this is why also I'm deeply--I feel deeply indebted
to this book in a very personal way because it taught me this very precious
lesson that--not to write from memory but from the imagination, to create, not
to attempt to reconstruct or--in many ways, writing is about salvaging things
from the past but...
GROSS: Why did you distrust your imagination?
Mr. MATAR: I think because I didn't quite believe that I could write, you
know. I was, you know, haunted--still am, actually--haunted by doubt. I find
writing deeply, very difficult. I find it very, very difficult, and so I just
didn't think I could rely on that, so I didn't yet even know actually that I
distrusted it. It was through the work, it became clear that I did. If you
had asked me then I'd say, `No, I have deep faith in the human imagination,'
but it only became clear as the writing--you know, that's faith, only really
was tested through the writing.
GROSS: Hisham Matar's new novel about growing up in Colonel Qaddafi's Libya
is called "In the Country of Men."
Coming up, covering Jeb Bush when he was governor of Florida. We talk with
journalist S. V. Date, author of "America's Next Bush."
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Journalist S.V. Date of The Palm Beach Post talks about
his new book "Jeb: America's Next Bush," which is about the former
governor of Florida, Jeb Bush
TERRY GROSS, host:
Many political experts thought that Jeb would be the son of George H.W. Bush
to run for president. After George W.'s election, there was speculation Jeb
would try to succeed his brother in the White House. Jeb is the brother that
my guest, S.V. Date, covered for eight years, the two terms that Jeb was
governor of Florida. He was elected in '98 and re-elected in 2002. Date has
written a new book about the former governor and what it was like to cover him
called "Jeb: America's Next Bush." Date is the Tallahassee bureau chief of
The Palm Beach Post. His investigative reports on Bush won awards from the
Florida Press Corps, the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors and the National
Education Writers Association.
S.V. Date, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Now, my impression is that when you gave the book its title, "Jeb: America's
Next Bush," you thought he was going to run for president. Do you still think
Mr. S.V. DATE: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It's America's next Bush. It
didn't say when he'll be the next Bush, but I'm firmly convinced that in his
soul he has to run for president of the United States.
GROSS: Are you expecting him to be a vice-presidential candidate somewheres
along the line?
Mr. DATE: Actually, that's something that I've changed my opinion on years
ago, seven, eight years ago. I would have thought that would be very silly,
given Jeb Bush's personality, to think of him as a vice anything. It just
seemed a little bit absurd. But now, given where we are, given where his
brother is in the polls, I think actually that would be a very good fit for
Jeb because that allows him to introduce himself to the national press at
first and then to the whole country in a more nonthreatening way, I think,
than running for president himself, and then people can see that, in many
ways, he is not his brother, and that, I believe, is to his good right now.
GROSS: What would you say is Jeb Bush's place within the National Republican
Mr. DATE: He is the one who, I think everyone knows, is still a national
player and is biding his time until the conditions are right for him to run.
Now whether that's coming up soon or he's going to wait a little while, that
remains to be seen, but there are so many in the conservative wing of the
Republican Party who are looking around right now and not really seeing
anybody who they really like that much, but seeing Jeb and just kind of
looking wistfully at him and thinking, `You know, if only you could run. If
only this could be Jeb's year.'
GROSS: In 2000, during the Florida recount, Jeb Bush recused himself in
having any official role in the recount because it's a conflict of interest.
I mean, after all, it's his brother's election that was a stake here. But you
say after he officially recused himself, he unofficially still was active in
his brother's campaign. What did he do in a more unofficial capacity?
Mr. DATE: In Tallahassee, after the lawsuits got going, it became clear to
the legislature that they felt they needed to act to make sure that George W.
was going to win that election. It was a dominantly Republican legislature so
they were going to pass a law that gave the--Florida's electoral votes to
George W. Bush, irrespective of what the vote count could have been after
recounts, etc. And Governor Bush was very much involved in the
behind-the-scenes negotiating of how that would happen. You know, at first,
it was a question, `Well, maybe we can just do a resolution that doesn't need
a governor's signature,' or `Maybe it doesn't have to be a law,' and they were
quite close to passing that when the US Supreme Court decided the matter.
GROSS: When the governor recused himself, was that meant to cover unofficial
capacity, as well as official capacity?
Mr. DATE: In fact, I believe he actually said, `I recuse myself from
being--from my role as the governor but I'm not going to recuse myself from
being his brother' or words to that effect, and that was pretty clear that he
would know he was not on the--technically on the canvassing commission,
whatever the group is that does that at the end, but he was still there and
the e-mails and the phone logs afterward proved it.
GROSS: Now one of Governor Bush's major programs was a school voucher
program. You investigated that program. What obstacle did you run into in
Mr. DATE: We ran into any number of obstacles, from a refusal of the people
within the education department to tell us how much money was involved, where
it was going, which schools were involved, how many students. Just--it ran
the gamut of stuff they just weren't telling us, and it was public money in
most of these instances and tax credit money in other instances. It was
really phenomenal because the level of scrutiny the public schools were
undergoing, that you'd have all this money, $100 million-plus per year going
into private schools, religious schools most of them, religious schools that
in many cases proselytized children into their particular religion, and we the
people of Florida and the press had no idea how this money was being spent or
what kind of instruction they were getting or what kind of scores or how well
they were doing, and they did everything they could to make it impossible for
us to find out the answers to these questions.
GROSS: Well, specifically you say that there were documents that you thought
should have been public documents that were withheld from the press. What
were those documents?
Mr. DATE: Well, for example, the lists of schools that participated in the
program. Initially, we were told, `Well, we didn't really have the lists so
we couldn't give them to you,' and after some period of time, they generated
some lists. They were not very accurate. Ultimately, we finally got what we
were looking for, not from the governor's office but from the Florida House of
Representatives, where, it had turned out, the governor's office had given
them exactly what we were looking for. Exactly what we were looking for weeks
earlier. And to me that spoke volumes. That we will give them to our allies,
the people who want them or who want to know and we won't give them to people
who we think are inimical to our interests.
GROSS: So once this information was leaked to you by somebody in the state
Legislature, what did you learn from it and what kind of story did you
Mr. DATE: The stories were amazing because on that list were the school
codes, in addition to the number of students involved in each of the programs.
So, by then, we'd already built a table. We were able to cross-link the two
and showed that in, for example, the voucher program for children with
disabilities, 75 percent of the schools taking part in that program had no
teachers who were qualified to teach disabled children. We found that 80
percent of the kids almost were getting vouchers to religious schools, when,
of course, the state was pretty clear in its constitution about how that was
supposed to work. There were schools that were created in a very short period
of time to take advantage of vouchers, and when we went to investigate them,
some of them we couldn't really find. The state had problems finding them.
Sometimes, they were no more than mail drops really to accept checks.
GROSS: So, you found out that a lot of the vouchers were going toward
religious schools although the state constitution said the public money
shouldn't go towards religious institutions. So the voucher program was
eventually challenged in the Supreme Court. What was the result of that
challenge? The state Supreme Court.
Mr. DATE: Right. The one voucher program that was challenged--there are two
others that still stay on the books--the one that was challenged was struck
down, and the wording in that ruling makes it likely that the other two are
going to be struck down as well when they are challenged. That's a matter of
when, really, not if.
GROSS: Now you said that the governor's office tried to prevent other papers
and to prevent the Associated Press from picking up on the voucher story that
you had written. How?
Mr. DATE: Well, they would call the other papers of the morning and say,
`Hey, you know, you guys aren't planning to do anything with that voucher
thing, are you, or if you are we'd like to, like, have our input into it' and,
you know, it's a very difficult story to do when it involves a dataset that
you haven't spent months working on. So it was not likely that they were
going to do it anyway, but we know from talking to other reporters that they
made an effort to kind of contain the damage, so to speak, to the readership
of The Palm Beach Post and limit it there.
GROSS: If everything that you're saying is true, can't you kind of say,
`Well, you know, Jeb Bush is really successful at managing information,' and
isn't that what every politician wants to do?
Mr. DATE: Oh, absolutely. I do think Jeb Bush is very successful at
managing information, and it might be what many politicians want to do. I
don't think it's good for newspapers, and I know it's not good for newspapers'
readers for them to be that successful. That's why we have open records laws
in Florida. That's why we have a Freedom of Information Act at the federal
GROSS: You were saying that during Governor Jeb Bush's eight-year tenure, it
was difficult to get access to him much of the time and also difficult to get
access to documents. There was a bunch of documents that you were trying to
get access to, and I believe other newspapers were too, and a group of
newspapers in Florida were considering suing under the state's open records
law, but instead of suing, the papers made a deal with the governor's office.
You say you regret the deal. What were the papers you wanted and what was the
deal that you made?
Mr. DATE: Right. Well, this would have been, actually, the first set of
documents that Jeb Bush created as a public official. There were the
paperwork, all the application forms and the e-mails and so forth from his
transition team. When he--after he'd won, before he'd taken office, he was
given state money, state office space, state equipment and state employees to
help him hire people and run background checks and so forth, and we wanted--I
wanted--other people in the Tallahassee Press Corps wanted this information
and Governor-elect Bush said, `Well, you know, we don't really think these
materials are public under the state open record laws because it doesn't
really speak to that.' And philosophically we were just amazed. I mean, here
all this stuff is being funded by taxpaper money. How could you possibly
interpret that it wouldn't be publicly available material? So I and others
suggested that we sue the governor-elect, and just so that we started out
understanding where we were and what we thought we had a right to, and in the
end, the day before the inauguration, in fact, the governor's people said,
`Look, we'll give you want you want, but we're not going to admit that these
things are public,' and our editors were fine with it because, after all,
after he's governor, there's no question then that these--that anything he
does is public, and so what did it matter? Well, I thought it mattered
because it was the principle of the thing, and, in the end, I think I was
right, because it showed the governor where we were, where we the press were,
that if it's going to cost money and it involved suing someone in high office,
probably we weren't going to do it, and that was the wrong message of weakness
to send, I think, and in the end, we all paid for that.
GROSS: S.V. Date, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. DATE: Thanks for having me, Terry. It was my pleasure.
GROSS: S.V. Date is the author of "America's Next Bush." He's the
Tallahassee bureau chief for The Palm Beach Post.
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a lively new book about grammar by Ben
Yagoda. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews new book about
grammar by Ben Yagoda, "When You Catch an Adjective, Kill it"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Writer Ben Yagoda's byline has appeared in Rolling Stone, Newsweek and The New
York Times. He's written books on Will Rogers and The New Yorker magazine.
Yagoda's latest book adds to the mounting pile of recent books about grammar
and sentence structure. His book is called "When You Catch an Adjective, Kill
It." Book critic Maureen Corrigan considers the odd grammar book trend and
Yagoda's contribution to it.
Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Of all the literary fads hot right now--chick lit, dog
biographies, and that queasy category of books I think of as grief-porn, in
which vulnerable readers are taken on guided tours of the afterlife, capped by
reunions with the dearly departed--well, of all these and other literary fads,
the one I find hardest to fathom is the grammar book craze. Lynn Truss kicked
it off big time four years ago with her best-seller "Eats, Shoots and Leaves"
and now it seems like every week brings another new book that parses out
sentences or describes the derivation of Elizabethan slang.
I know why I'm interested in the subject. For better and worse, I belong to
what was probably the last generation of Catholic school kids who was
commanded to sit, still, hands folded on tops of desks as our nun, yielding
chalk and a pointer, diagrammed sentences until the blackboard looked like a
map of the New York City subway system. For old time's sake, I still get a
kick out of diagramming sentences, but these days most of my students don't
even know what that phrase--or is it a clause--means, although they're always
amused, even charmed by my blackboard impersonations of Sister Mary Grammar.
So maybe the craze for this latest wave of sexed-up proper usage books amounts
to nothing more than that. Nostalgia. Like the cooking and home improvement
and antique shows that are currently such big hits on TV, grammar books offer
a dream of order to a contemporary audience living in a time of social flux.
If you can master the art of whipping up beef Wellington or installing pot
lights or identifying a dangling participle, chaos will be contained for the
nonce in your little corner of the world. Ben Yagoda doesn't stoop to notice
twee expressions like "for the nonce" in his zesty discussion of the English
language entitled "When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It," a sentiment, Yagoda
says, traditionally attributed to his hero, Mark Twain. The second runner-up
for a title, Yagoda confesses, was "Pimp My Ride," which tells you what's so
likable about this book. Yagoda isn't just trying to be hip with that second
title. He uses it to riff on the living wonder of the English language, how
parts of speech are constantly mutating, thus the noun "pimp" turns into a
verb, the verb "ride" into a noun.
In "When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It," Yagoda infectiously shares his joy
in language that's used unexpectedly and well. This is a grammar book, like
most, that will appeal to the already converted, although as its title
promises, it's loose and lively enough to attract those who are sort of
interested in reading about the components of good writing but who've been put
off by the humorlessness of the language police.
In nine highly subjective, enlightening essays on the classical parts of
speech, Yagoda has a blast chopping, mincing and dicing sentences back down
into their designated ingredients: conjunctions, verbs, prepositions,
pronouns and so on. Yagoda solicits help on this project from a wide range of
English language experts, citing quotes and serving up astute close readings
of, among others, Martin Amis, Ed Sullivan, Matthew Arnold, Paul McCartney,
Perry Mason and Gertrude Stein, who had as much disdain for nouns as Twain
apparently had for adjectives. As is essential in a book like this, Yagoda is
his own walking billboard for the joys of imaginative, precise and fresh
language usage. His chapter on adjectives opens with this apology.
(Reading) "Kicking things off with adjectives is a little like starting a
kid's birthday party with a broccoli course."
And here's the first sentence of his chapter on the interjection: "Any
unified theory of interjections--the words that all by themselves express
reactions or emotions or serve other purposes in discourse--would have to
start, like much else, with the Simpsons. The rapid descent from high diction
down to pop culture reference is what makes that sentence, and so many others
in this book such fun to read, or as Homer Simpson, taken aback, would
succinctly say, `Duh!'"
Yagoda's shrewd book on grammar has it both ways. He holds up that Golden Age
vision of order enticing to so many readers, while at the same time,
subversively acknowledging that language is mutable, rules are unruly. The
English language in Yagoda's estimation behaves a lot like Sister Mary
Grammar's sentence diagrams which emblazon themselves into the brains of my
generation but also disintegrated into chalk dust at the end of the school
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It" by Ben Yagoda.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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