Writer Richard Lourie
Writer Richard Lourie. His new book, Sakharov, is a biography of the Russian scientist, dissident and Nobel peace prize winner Andrei Sakharov. He's considered one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century. Sakharov created Russia's H-bomb, but later confronted his country over issues of nuclear responsibility and human rights.
Other segments from the episode on April 25, 2002
DATE April 25, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Richard Lourie discusses the life of Russian scientist
and human rights advocate Andrei Sakharov
MARGOT ADLER, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Margot Adler, sitting in for Terry Gross.
A poll taken in Russia not long ago posed this question: Who are the three
most important people who have defined Russia in the 20th century? The answer
came back Lenin, Stalin, and the third person was Andrei Sakharov, the winner
of the Nobel Peace Prize, the developer of the Soviet hydrogen bomb who, along
with his second wife, Yelena Bonner, became a tireless fighter for human
rights. Before the downfall of the Soviet Union, Sakharov was exiled to
Gorky, went on three debilitating hunger strikes and was forced to rewrite his
memoirs from scratch several times after his manuscripts were stolen by the
My guest today is Richard Lourie, who was written a new biography of Andrei
Sakharov. Lourie wrestles with the complex question of Sakharov's
transformation from a scientist accepted into the highest Soviet circles, to a
dissident whose view of the world had completely changed.
Sakharov started, of course, as a scientist, and when one thinks of a
scientist, particularly one enthralled by theory, by quantum physics, string
theory, the nature of thermonuclear reactions, one doesn't normally think of
an activist fighting for human rights. And Sakharov did some of his best work
before he really took an interest in politics. In fact, wouldn't it be fair
to say that often freedom to create in science isn't necessarily blocked by
authoritarian systems and, in fact, it's sometimes the one place where people
in those systems can be creative?
Mr. RICHARD LOURIE (Author, "Sakharov: A Biography"): That is an
interesting paradox. Sometimes it's true that--well, at least it was true in
the Soviet Union--that the physicist, especially after Stalin realized what
the potential of atomic weapons was--that is to say after Hiroshima and
Nagasaki, the physicists in the Soviet Union were given rather wide latitude,
which meant, on the most practical level, they were paid a lot of money. They
had access to materials, magazines, journals from the West that no other
Russian could get near and if had in his possession would be in trouble. So
they were of some use to the state, but as Stalin remarked candidly in private
conversation, `Well, we can always shoot them later,' meaning that their
utility was not ever going to encroach on his authority.
So they did have a certain amount of freedom, and they did amazingly creative
work. I mean, not only the scientists, but some of the Russian writers did
excellent work under terrible conditions. And the odd thing is that after
1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, I, for one, expected to see a great
outpouring of painting and novels and literature in general, and nothing of
the sort happened, as if the dynamic of repression and counterforce somehow
was necessary for the Russian creative dynamic, because as we know, in the
last 10 years anyway, not a great deal has come out of there.
ADLER: I wonder--when I was reading "Sakharov: A Biography," I was wondering
about what he thought of his role as developer of the hydrogen bomb. I
started thinking of that famous quote--Was it Oppenheimer?--you know, "I am
Shiva, destroyer of worlds." And how did he feel about his own role? Did he
feel guilty? Did he feel proud? Was it a mixture of things? Do you have any
sense of how he confronted that role?
Mr. LOURIE: I don't think Sakharov had a scintilla of guilt about developing
the Soviet H-bomb. The Soviet Union had just been through a terrible war on
its own territory; the Nazis had invaded them, come to kill people. I mean,
what could be worse than Nazis coming to kill you? He had seen all that. He
understood perfectly well at the time that parity was the only security for
his country, so he never had any great second thoughts about his work on the
H-bomb. He wasn't the kind of person who would even waste emotional time
feeling needless guilt. It simply wasn't in his character. When he was
working on the H-bomb, he was doing it for two reasons. One, because it was
so scientifically exhilarating to unleash the energy that drives the sun and
the stars, which is how he put it, and because he felt it was his patriotic
duty. He called himself a soldier in the new scientific war. That's pretty
much an exact quote. The United States of America had used the atomic bomb
twice, and by 1949 it was clear that the wartime alliance between the Soviet
Union and the United States was completely over, so simply on the level of
survival, the patriotism of survival, it was important to make sure that you
country had parity with any other country.
And at that time, Sakharov believed that his society, the Soviet society, was
what he called a breakthrough society. He believed in socialism. He was--to
the degree that he was aware of what went on in the West, he was appalled by
its inequities of wealth, its social injustice and its tacky mass culture.
ADLER: Now when Sakharov first began to buck up against the system, it
happened when he started arguing against nuclear testing. How did that lead
him to rethink his whole world view?
Mr. LOURIE: Actually, it was very interesting how this all happened. It all
began with a pencil and paper. He sat down one day and figured out that every
megaton tested releases a certain percentage of fallout into the atmosphere,
and that it can be realistically calculated that every megaton would, over the
course of time, invisibly cause 10,000 deaths. And we all have friends who
are dying from cancer at young ages now, and every time that happens to
someone in my life, I have to wonder if this isn't an instance of Sakharov's
prophecy coming true.
Now he made that simple calculation, one megaton equals approximately 10,000
deaths. That did not directly lead him to say testing should be ended. It
led him to think that any testing that was not absolutely necessary should be
ended. Now the point was in the Soviet Union, some tests were purely
scientific: Let's blow this thing up and see what we get. But some of the
tests had a definite political aspect to it. For example, when Khrushchev had
decided to renew the attack on Stalinism at a major party conference, the
22nd, he wanted what Sakharov called a `big bomb' to be exploded on that very
day to lend sort of thunderous authority to his voice. It was a purely
political test, and it was that kind of test, and other similar tests, that
Sakharov initially opposed. So you could say that his road to dissidence and
his road to human rights began with two things. One was the pencil and paper
he used to figure out that each megaton tested will cause 10,000 deaths, and
his willingness to stand up to Khrushchev and say, `Unnecessary tests should
not be conducted.'
ADLER: But this transformation, it seems to me--when I look at it, it seems
quite incredible. Here is a man who is doing science in an installation that
apparently was designed, or was certainly built by slave labor, correct?
Mr. LOURIE: Correct.
ADLER: And he even says that he saw prisoners walking around, and really
never thought about them. So how did that consciousness change? How did
someone change to someone who thought primarily about philosophy and science
to someone who suddenly was in the forefront of a battle for human rights?
Mr. LOURIE: Sakharov always believed in evolution rather the revolution. He
saw in nature and in society that the best path for change was slow,
incremental alterations. And I would say that more or less describes the
inward transformation that he went through. It was a gradual, daily awakening
to the reality of life around him, which came through thinking, which came
through reading, which came through contact with other people. And he began
to actively look into the crimes of the Stalinist past, the successes of the
American economy, the problems of the world in other places; population,
He began to give real thought and real time to all the big questions of the
era, and by 1968 he had written his book, "Peace, Progress and Intellectual
Freedom," which was published in its entirety by The New York Times. It was
about a 70- or 80-page essay, which was one of the few books of The Times that
ever published in its entirety, because it was of such great importance.
So anyway, sometime between the death of Stalin in 1953, which Sakharov
genuinely mourned, and the summer of 1968, he had created for himself a
complete world view which was never fixed and was never inflexible, but now he
had his own standpoint to view his country and the world and, on that basis,
to take action, some of which were very personally costly to him. For
example, allowing the publication of that essay in The New York Times and
abroad, outside of the Soviet Union immediately cost him his job at the
installation, and he was never to set foot there again, except to go and clean
out his desk.
ADLER: My guest is Richard Lourie. His new book is "Sakharov: A Biography."
We'll talk more with him after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
ADLER: My guest is author Richard Lourie. His new book is "Sakharov: A
Biography." Richard Lourie is also a producer of television and film
documentaries and other books, including "Russia Speaks" and "Hunting the
In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev gave his historic and, at that time, astounding
speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party, revealing the brutality of
Stalin's purges. This event had incredible reverberations in Russia, and all
over the world, certainly among Communists all over the world, including in
the United States. Isn't it hard for people today under 50 to comprehend the
impact of that speech?
Mr. LOURIE: I mean, I don't know if this is a useful analogy, but in a
certain sense, some of the turmoil that the Catholic Church is going through
these days, if the pope himself turned out to be a child molester, that would
send a shock wave through the Catholic community of the world that would be
similar, I would imagine, to the shock wave that passed through the socialist
community of the world when the full extent of Stalin's crimes was revealed by
Khrushchev, not the full extent, but...
ADLER: Certainly a lot.
Mr. LOURIE: ...certainly a great deal of what Stalin had actually been about
was revealed by Khrushchev in 1956.
ADLER: One of the most amazing stories that you tell in "Sakharov: A
Biography" is about the tenacity that Sakharov had in writing his biography
over and over--his autobiography, I guess; his memoir--as the KGB stole those
writings when he was in Gorky and he would begin again and again and again.
Tell that story.
Mr. LOURIE: The KGB stole Sakharov's autobiography in manuscript from him
twice, the first time by tricking him in a dentist's office and leaving his
bag--which he always kept with him because he was aware that they were wanting
to steal it--and then again by smashing the glass of his car, spraying his
face with an aerosol narcotic and grabbing the same bag, which had had the
manuscript in it, for the second time. Now that was a manuscript of something
like 800, 900 typed and handwritten pages.
He was suicidally depressed each time after the manuscript was stolen from
him, but once he got through that suicidal depression, he simply sat down and
started from scratch and wrote the thousand pages all over again. He simply
was not about to be defeated by the KGB.
ADLER: Let's talk for a moment about his second wife, Yelena Bonner. She's a
Jewish woman; she's still alive. She was attacked by many in the Soviet Union
as kind of the `evil genius' behind this man who swayed this pure scientist
into politics. What do you see as the truth of their relationship, and how
influential was she on him?
Mr. LOURIE: Well, actually, what Yelena Bonner says about Andrei Sakharov is
actually what I just said from a different point of view, that once Andrei
Sakharov had made up his mind, no force in the world could dissuade him, and
even though Yelena Bonner is a considerable force as a person, she had no
power to dissuade him once he had set his course.
Bonner likes to tell the story of--there was an explosion in a Moscow subway,
which the KGB blamed on Armenian terrorists--I think that was in the early
'70s--and Sakharov had a very strong sense that, in fact, the whole thing was
a KGB charade. I mean, it actually happened, but it was the KGB who did it
for their own purposes. And Bonner absolutely told him not to say that
publicly, the KGB would never forget or forgive such a statement. And of
course Sakharov, after thinking it through, went ahead and did exactly that,
and Bonner was right, the KGB never forgot or forgave that incident, and when
they got the chance, punished him severely. But it is a good example of the
fact that if Sakharov made up his mind to do something, neither the KGB nor
Yelena Bonner nor anything else on Earth could sway him.
ADLER: What was exile in Gorky like? What did that life seem like, look
like, feel like?
Mr. LOURIE: I think the essence of the exile in Gorky was isolation. I
think the attempt was to give Sakharov the outward trappings of a reasonable
life. Gorky is a nice city. It's not deep in Siberia. It's sort of a city
with a kind of European, old-town heart. It has movie theaters. It has art
galleries. It has a little something. But no one could approach Sakharov on
the street. No one could communicate with Sakharov without official
permission, and neither could Sakharov communicate with anyone without
So I think it was--and of course the apartment was completely bugged, so you
always had that sense of you could be sitting in your living room with your
wife, but knowing that every sigh and whisper was being listened to probably,
live--not even recorded, but live. So it was a very 1984-ish experience,
outwardly not bad. You had a reasonable apartment in a nice city, and yet
you're in a kind of super space-age plastic bubble of isolation, where nothing
can reach you and you can't reach anyone.
On the other hand, Sakharov was a realist, and Bonner was, too, and they made
the best of it. He did some good scientific work there. He wrote his memoirs
there. They had a lot of time to be together, which they enjoyed greatly,
because back in Moscow previously there had been so many activities going on
constantly, so many causes, trials, arrests, that they never had time for each
So ironically I call that chapter The Blessings of Exile(ph) in the book,
because there were some blessings to it.
ADLER: Now he--after Gorbachev comes to power, he suddenly has his freedom,
and he travels to the United States, he travels elsewhere. How would you
describe the last period of his life?
Mr. LOURIE: The last three years of his life were, in a sense--well, he went
from being enemy of the people to a people's deputy--he was officially
elected--so he became directly involved in the shaping of Soviet politics at
that time. He was able to leave the country. He always considered the right
to leave one's country to be a fundamental human right; the right to leave and
return. If you can't do that, then essentially you're a prisoner in your own
country, which he, like nearly every other Soviet, was. In all his years, he
had never set foot outside of the Soviet Union until he was in his 60s. He
simply had never been allowed abroad for various reasons. Once he was too
valuable as a scientist; later because he was too dangerous as a dissident.
I think those were years of immense work, sweet satisfaction, a great
enjoyment of the world, which he had thought about so much, but had never been
allowed to see. He met everyone from Maggie Thatcher to Daniel Ellsberg,
traveled everyplace he could go and worked absolutely tirelessly to direct
what was being called then glasnost and perestroika, towards a reshaping of
his country that he had always dreamt of himself. He always felt that the
only solution to world problems was convergence, that the Soviet Union and the
United States had to become more like each other so that the differences
between them could not lead to nuclear war, and now he had a chance to
actually see and shape that in action.
ADLER: How would you assess his innovations as a scientist? What, in fact,
did he create?
Mr. LOURIE: Sakharov's principal contributions, interestingly, come at the
opposite extremes of science. He made important discoveries and, I would say,
more positive, important and useful theories in particle physics and in
cosmology. That is to say, he was interested in both the very smallest and
the very greatest of scientific questions. Great American scientists like
John Wheeler acknowledged that their own thinking had been greatly influenced
by Sakharov's views on the nature of gravity. What is gravity? How does it
work? Is it made of anything?
But Sakharov also gave a great deal of though to the origin of the universe,
and one of his favorite statements was that the most beautiful thing to him in
all the world was the lingering hiss of the big bang, which could be picked up
as background radiation noise. That we could still hear the creation of the
universe with subtle enough scientific instruments was for him a source of
tremendous pleasure. And he was the sort of scientist--a little bit like
Einstein in this sense, but only a little bit--who by gazing or contemplating
constantly the magnitude, the intricacy, the beauty of the universe, came
essentially to a position that was almost religious in the sense that
Sakharov, at the end of his days, had to believe that there was more to the
universe than we could ever know, and that there was something behind it all
or within it all that was--I think he used the word `warm,' meaning that the
universe is ultimately not cold, that there's something warm and alive in the
very particles of existence, in the very nature of things.
ADLER: Richard Lourie is the author of "Sakharov: A Biography." His other
books include "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Russia Speaks."
Yesterday Republican Congressman Chris Smith and Democratic Congressman Barney
Frank introduced a joint resolution in Congress to grant posthumous honorary
citizenship to Andrei Sakharov.
I'm Margot Adler, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music; credits)
ADLER: Coming up, one woman, 26 characters. We meet Pamela Gien, actor and
writer of "The Syringa Tree," the new off-Broadway production set in apartheid
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Pamela Gien discusses her play "The Syringa Tree"
MARGOT ADLER, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Margot Adler.
Playwright and actor Pamela Gien grew up in South Africa during apartheid and
during the turbulent years before the end of white South African rule. She
has written a powerful play called "The Syringa Tree," which tells the story
of a white family and a black family whose emotional lives are intertwined.
Much of the story is told in the voice of a young girl, Elizabeth, based in
large part on Pamela Gien's own childhood. Gien plays 26 different characters
in "The Syringa Tree," young and old, black and white. A film version of the
play will air on the Trio cable channel on May 6th.
The idea for "The Syringa Tree" arose unexpectedly during an acting class
taught by Larry Moss in LA. In the class, Gien was given an exercise: Turn
to the person next to you and tell them a story. Don't censor yourself.
Suddenly, a memory long repressed rose up unbidden. Gien started talking
about a formative event, a terrible night in 1967 that became the seed for
"The Syringa Tree."
Ms. PAMELA GIEN (Playwright/Actress): It took place on the farm of my
grandparents, which was up in the northern transvaal, and it was an attack on
the farm. It was something that was so unprecedented at that time and, sadly,
something that has become, you know, an everyday occurrence now in Zimbabwe
and other places in South Africa. But we believe that it was what they refer
to as a terrorist who came across the border from Rhodesia, then called
Rhodesia, at nighttime and just walked into the farmhouse and attacked my
My grandfather was 82 years old at the time and really an extraordinary man, I
think. In retrospect now as an adult, I look back and see that he was a
tremendous humanitarian and a very kind, kind person who, despite the laws of
the time, allowed black families to live on his farm. And, you know, the
memories I have of that place were so idyllic that I think when this happened,
it was such an extraordinary shock and certainly such a devastating thing for
my mother--it was my mother's father--that we moved on. We did not speak
about it. The farm was called Clover(ph), and Clover was lost to us forever.
We never went back there, and just basically got on with our lives.
ADLER: And this event was sort of hidden in your own being, I guess, and then
you then began to write, you then began to develop the play over four years,
as I understand it, and you have 28 characters, 24 characters--How many
characters are there?--and you play them all. And who are these characters?
Ms. GIEN: Well, there are, I think, 26 characters now. There were 28 and we
cut some and we added one or two, we took them away again. But somebody said
a wonderful thing to me, which was: When you watch the performance of "The
Syringa Tree," it's like watching somebody channel different people onto the
stage or into the world. And it's almost as though you see all those
different characters. And what I love about that is the idea that so many
characters can live in one body. And, really, in a sense, that's the message
of the play, the message of tolerance and truth and, you know, how we relate
to one another, and that good and evil live in our hearts and not in the color
of our skin. So if all those characters can exist and come out of one body,
it's a lovely idea in the end. So I'm very glad we stuck to it and we
ADLER: When you, as Larry told it, when you morph, when you change into these
characters and you go from one to another, I think it's going to be hard for
people who haven't seen "The Syringa Tree" to sort of understand what that's
actually like. Can you sort of explain what you do?
Ms. GIEN: Sure. Well, I think at the beginning, you know, when we first
started it, it was very, very sort of basic and, you know, going from one side
to the other as you would if you were sort of standing pretending to be two
different people. But I also worked with Jean-Louis Rodriguez, an Alexander
teacher, and he and Larry worked tirelessly with me to accomplish this. And
really what it is, is that you don't have to wait for a break between the two
lines. You don't have to make a break between the two lines of two different
characters speaking to one another in a conversation. You can actually use
the tailing art energy(ph) of the one into the energy of the next.
ADLER: So give me one example.
Ms. GIEN: One example. Gosh. Out of the whole play, now what could I
choose, Margot? Golly. Well, I could take it right from the beginning, where
little Elizabeth is playing up in the tree, and she comes down. And at this
point, the audience has only seen her alone on the stage. And then she turns
around to the back of the stage, and as she comes around, she's suddenly
Salamina(ph). So it's an interesting thing. There's a lot demanded of the
audience in this. But I think they get it very, very quickly, and then part
of the game of the play is, you know, being with each different character so
quickly. And this is how it happens in the play.
You be quiet, huh? If you wake her up, the master is going to give you a big,
big hiding. Come, help me to iron.
Going to England ...(unintelligible), Salamina, I've got my baby on my back.
Oh, very good, Miss Liz, very, very good.
Dun-da-dun, see what I learned in my school today? ...(Unintelligible).
Oh, Liz, you are jumping like a monkey.
I know. I'm hyperactive. I've had too much sugar. (Making noises). That's
a ballet. Lusika(ph) showed me next door. We can do the twist, and we don't
even get dizzy of it. You can't do that.
Sure, not with my big stomach, Miss Lizzy.
When is your baby going to be born, Salamina?
Very soon. The master, he say the baby is coming very, very soon.
I will say hello to the baby. I'll say to him, ...(unintelligible).
ADLER: Watching you play this role and listening to the dialogue, what I
felt, particularly when watching the girl, the 6-year-old girl or 10-year-old
girl or whatever, as she's in her swing, as she's talking, I felt amorphous
fear. You know, there was a lot of fear that she expressed, fears that laws
will be broken, fears that people will be taken away. Did you feel that fear
growing up in South Africa? Was it palpable at the time?
Ms. GIEN: I did, and I think as a child, you know, when you're surrounded by
something, you don't realize that that's not the norm. You make it the norm
for yourself. So I think it's only in retrospect that I realize how
frightened I actually was as a child. And I'm often asked how close I am to
little Elizabeth in the play, and people say to me, `Were you really like that
as a child?' And obviously, I have no objective memory of what I was like as
a child. I think the whole thrust of Elizabeth is about trying to take care
of everybody, trying to make sure that everything is all right at every single
minute. So there is no moment for her to rest. She's in charge of keeping
everybody safe in her own mind. So that keeps her busy, busy, busy.
And one of the things I was going to say about that is that I don't really
have any objective idea of how I was, but I certainly remember how I felt, how
I experienced things around me. And I think part of what contributes to that
as a child is that we don't have a way to analyze or understand the events
happening around us. We just experience them. We really just take them right
into our heart and react to them and witness what we see.
ADLER: Now your father, was he a doctor just as the father in the play is a
Ms. GIEN: Yes, he was. And...
ADLER: And was he Jewish?
Ms. GIEN: My father's family were Jewish. His father was Jewish, but he
married a non-Jew, so, you know, my dad was not a religious Jew, but, you
know, he had...
ADLER: Well, he's portrayed in the play as what I would call an English
Jewish progressive doctor, and...
Ms. GIEN: That's correct.
ADLER: ...it made me think about the whole history of English progressive
Ms. GIEN: Right.
ADLER: Nadine Gordimer...
Ms. GIEN: Gordimer, right.
ADLER: ...but I'm also thinking of that incredible movie about the death of
Ruth First, who was married to Joe Slovo, who was a Communist Party official
in South Africa.
Ms. GIEN: Right.
ADLER: And it was told from the point of view of the daughter, of a little
girl. And what I remember in that movie and what I also remember and what I
think about when I think about "The Syringa Tree" and about that little
6-year-old, 10-year-old, whatever, girl dancing was that sense of being in an
alternative world, of not being a part of the mainstream reality that is in
the country and the world that you're living in.
Ms. GIEN: Right.
ADLER: And of feeling alienated in some sense from the society that you are
growing up in. Did you feel that in some sense you were, as the slogan goes,
a stranger in a strange land?
Ms. GIEN: You know, I think we did in a sense, but I would also say that, you
know, my family did not feel called to be revolutionaries or working in that
extreme way that they were in that film. I think they were much more just
regular people trying to make sense of their lives. And one thing I think
that was unusual about my family was that my father, being a doctor, he had
access to a wide cross-section of the population. So he would see from the
poorest black person in his consulting rooms to, you know, a white policeman
who would tell stories of things that were going on in the townships that were
not common knowledge or were certainly not in the daily newspapers because of
the censorship of the media at the time. And then he would see boys who had
come back from the border fighting in Angola, you know, young boys sent off to
defend apartheid, basically.
So we would hear the stories of that at the dinner table at night, and I would
see the effect that that would have on my father, and I think where he wasn't
a person who went out, you know, as a revolutionary, per se, and he was not
somebody followed around by the secret police, I certainly did have a feeling
as a child of nervousness about what was going on, and particularly some of
the smaller events like, you know, somebody phoning the police because he was
seeing a black child in the white section of the consulting rooms. So
somebody would get upset about that. And I had this fear as a child that my
father would be in some sort of trouble, that some trouble was imminent.
But I think a lot of that had also to do with what was going on around us
politically in the country. And it was a pervasive feeling that everything
was not all right and that there was this separation, a sort of divide between
the Afrikaans and the English-speaking people. But then saying that, as well,
I would say that there's a strange kind of intimacy in South Africa also
between all of the people there that we were designated by law to be separate
from the blacks, and yet we had this intimate, close connection with them
living in our homes, taking care of us as children, really almost part of the
family. And I have so many letters from people telling me about the woman who
cared for them when they were a child. And, you know, the crossover between
the different groups there.
ADLER: My guest is Pamela Gien, author of "The Syringa Tree," a play that is
inspired by her childhood in South Africa. Gien plays all the parts in the
play, from herself as a 6-year-old child to a black woman in her 80s.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
ADLER: My guest is Pamela Gien, author of "The Syringa Tree," a play that's
inspired by her childhood in South Africa.
What is the symbolism of "The Syringa Tree"?
Ms. GIEN: Oh, "The Syringa Tree" is...
ADLER: Well, what kind of a tree is it, first of all?
Ms. GIEN: You know, Margot, I'm always asked this question, and I keep
thinking I have to go to that book and look it all up and be absolutely clear.
But, you know, really I wrote it from the love I had for the syringa tree that
grew in our backyard. It was an enormous tree. It's part of the lilac
family. And I think it's very different than the lilac trees that we have in
America certainly, and certainly in England. The flowers are not the sort of
bushy, purpley flowers that we see here on the lilac bushes and the trees, but
really more like a very delicate little flower that's in a star burst cluster.
And then they have green berries that turn golden. So to me, it was a magical
tree always with the golden berries. And the flowers are so fragrant. Once
you've smelled that, you never forget it.
So I, I think, as a child had that as a place of refuge. And in the play I
use it as a refuge for the black people trying to hide from the police, and
also a sort of spiritual place. I think the tree--I mean, in African
mythology one of the things that I loved so much was the story of how the
spirits, when they die, pass into the leaves and the trees and the berries so
that they're with us always, and around us. So to me, it just seemed an
appropriate and really magical place, and then a special place for Elizabeth
to hide, to go and think. And one of the lovely things my dad said to me
after he'd read the play was--he said, `I didn't realize that little girl up
in the tree saw so much.' And I love that so much 'cause it was really the
spirit of the play, in a sense.
ADLER: The characters in "The Syringa Tree" include, of course, Elizabeth,
the little girl...
Ms. GIEN: Mm-hmm.
ADLER: ...Salamina, the girl's nanny, who cries and bellows and has this
deep, deep voice full of pain and wisdom, Elizabeth's parents--we talked about
the sort of overworked doctor and Elizabeth's mother, who I gather is sort of
a woman who stays at home, a South African woman.
Ms. GIEN: Yes.
ADLER: And, of course, there are also some very racist Afrikaner neighbors
Ms. GIEN: Mm-hmm.
ADLER: ...are very complicated. And then there is the tiny daughter of
Salamina, Malisan(ph), who...
Ms. GIEN: Mm-hmm.
ADLER: ...in some sense is the heart of the play, isn't it?
Ms. GIEN: Yes, she is. And the lovely gift to me of "The Syringa Tree" was
that I thought when I began to write it that it was a story about my life and
about me, but it really isn't. It's a story about the children of South
Africa and what they went through and what they gave to have the very basic
thing that we pretty much take for granted, and that is freedom and human
dignity. So once I understood that--and really, it came from a profound
lesson that Larry would teach me as we went along in the development of the
play. And I would be so frightened to perform it. Obviously, I was standing
there, by myself performing 28 characters. And I would be so nervous. And he
would say to me, `It isn't about you.'
And I would say, `What do you mean it isn't about me?'
And he would say, `It's not about you. It's about being in service of
something greater, something more important than any of us individually, and
that is the idea of freedom.'
So little Malisan in the play carries that message, I think. And Jason
Alexander actually came to see a workshop, and he said, `You know, I love that
little Malisan. I want to hear more of her. I want to see her more.'
And I said, `Oh, no, no. She's hidden. That's why she's hidden. That's why
she doesn't speak, because she's illegally on that property, and that was her
experience and that was her life.'
And he said to me, `No, no. I really want to hear more.'
And Larry pushed me and championed me into that idea and said to me, `You have
to write the thing that you're most frightened of.'
And I said to him, `You know, I don't feel that I have a right to speak for
her. I'm not black. I'm not a child in that time growing up in her shoes, so
I have no idea. And I don't feel that I can write for her.'
And he said to me, `If you don't speak for her and for those children who lost
their lives, who will?'
And once I understood that, I think I really learned a lesson as an artist
that we're here to channel things into the world, to bring ideas and whatever
that mysterious process is, to be of service to something greater. So Malisan
really is that for me.
ADLER: Is her death in the play supposed to be the Soweto uprising of 1976?
Ms. GIEN: Yes. Yes, it is. And I was a student at university at that time.
And I remember this idyllic world--so-called idyllic world--that we lived in
where you knew that things were wrong going on around you. You didn't feel
that, you know--and I really should only speak for myself, but I certainly
didn't feel that I could personally change anything other than by my own
personal behavior in the world. You know, they had such military strength,
and it was almost like--I think of it now almost like being, you know, when
the Berlin Wall came down, that no one could believe that it actually came
down. It had been there forever and ever and ever, and it seemed that it
would be there forever and ever. But it came down and this miracle happened.
So at that time when the riots began, I remember being at university, and I
remember the chaos going on around me and people running from place to place
and saying, `They're rioting. They're rioting in the township, and the
children are burning everything.' And that feeling in the pit of your stomach
that you knew it would come and now it was there. I will never, ever forget
that. So I try to write my idea of what they went through.
And there was a child called Malisan born at my house. And we did hide her
away. And then, of course, she went off to school. And part of what I wrote,
as the Malisan in the play, was what I was always haunted by with regard to
that child, I always thought, `Well, here we were growing up in the same
house, sharing the same things, playing together. And then she went off into
her life with her black skin and I stayed in mine with my white skin. And
what happened to her? Where did she go? What happened to her? So I really
wrote my deepest fear in the play.
ADLER: My guest is Pamela Gien, the author of "The Syringa Tree," a play
inspired by her South African childhood. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
ADLER: Let's get back to our conversation with South African playwright and
actor Pamela Gien about her play "The Syringa Tree."
What was it like, Pamela, when apartheid ended for you?
Ms. GIEN: Well, I think a huge sense of relief that it was over and that
somehow now there might be a chance to grow South Africa into an extraordinary
place. I always think of, you know, the joy I felt in coming to America, the
great pride I have in feeling that I can live in a place where there's
opportunity for everybody. And I remember thinking, well, now that can happen
at home. Now that can be, you know, what we can work for and what we can
create there. So I think it was...
ADLER: But you didn't move back.
Ms. GIEN: No, I have not moved back.
ADLER: Why? And you moved to America.
Ms. GIEN: Well, I moved to America, let me see, in 1980, so I've really made
a new life for myself. And it's been, you know, part of my journey, and I'm
immensely grateful to live here. But in another way I think of South Africa
as my home, and when I speak of home that's really what I mean. It's just
been, you know, a place that I've carried with me, and I think that's why
"Syringa Tree" came to me when it did.
ADLER: But it healed the broken heart. You wrote somewhere that you had a...
Ms. GIEN: Mm-hmm.
ADLER: ...broken heart about the place you grew up in when you came, at 26,
to live in America.
Ms. GIEN: Yes, I did. I really think I had a broken heart and didn't know
that I had a broken heart until I began to write the play. I would always try
to avoid conversations about South Africa. And, you know, when people would
ask me this or would ask me that, I would try to change the subject or just
try to get away from the conversation altogether. And I had such a feeling of
discomfort and dis-ease. And I think the reason for that was I didn't know
how to rationalize or make sense of it and really--I didn't know what I felt
'cause I'd put what I felt so far away in the back of my heart and my mind and
tried to run away from it. And I think I did that because it was painful to
me. I didn't realize at the time that's what I was doing.
And I would never say that I was--there are so many people who are exiles from
South Africa who left, you know, because they had done extraordinary work
there and were followed around by the secret police and thrown out and
deported. And, you know, I would never say that I came even close to any one
of those people who are considered to be great heroes, and many of them the
unsung heroes, of South Africa, some in my own family. But for me I don't
know if it's my own psychological makeup or what it was. I really tried to
hide it away. I tried to get as far away from it as I possibly could. And I
felt profoundly ashamed of that. When I started to write the play, I realized
it wasn't anger. It wasn't hatred. It was a deep, deep well of grief and
love and joy that I felt that I was unable to articulate.
ADLER: When did you last go back to South Africa?
Ms. GIEN: I was there, I think, eight years ago. And I'm looking forward to
going back. We're invited to take "The Syringa Tree" to the Baxter Theater in
Cape Town. I also want to go back to Clover. I want to go--this is a very
personal--I've never really spoken about it before. But I know there's
nothing left there, but I'd like to go back and see it.
ADLER: Is the land still possessed by your family?
Ms. GIEN: No, no, no. I think it was sold pretty much after that event a
long time ago. But I'd like to just go back there really, I suppose, for the
feeling of the place and the smell of the dust and the earth and, you know,
just to go back and remember those early feelings.
ADLER: Now have you contacted or been in contact with the people who cared
for you when you were in South Africa?
Ms. GIEN: Yes, I have. And one of the lovely things that happened was we had
been looking for them for quite a while. In fact, since I started writing the
play, I'd been asking--I'd asked my husband's brother, who's fairly involved
in certain communities in South Africa, and he was looking. And I asked my
dad, and he was looking. And I think right as I was finishing in New York, I
got an e-mail from my father to say that some of the people that I was looking
for were alive and that he had found them and that I could phone them. And I
was absolutely, I mean, just overwhelmed with...
ADLER: Did you?
Ms. GIEN: Yes, I did. And I've had several extraordinary conversations. You
know, and it's so funny when you drop into somebody's life like that and
you've been away from them for a very long time. You have no idea where
they're at and whether they would welcome you sort of imposing upon them. But
I have to say the feeling that I had when I phoned was one of such tremendous
joy and kindness and a welcome that I could never have imagined, really. And
one of them said to me, `Oh, Pammy, I wish I had wings to fly to you.' So
that's going to be, I think, a great part of going home--is going to be those
reconnections and, you know, just the time and being able to spend the time
again now, as an adult, to get to know and to look again and feel again.
ADLER: Thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. GIEN: Mm-hmm. Thank you, Margot. I had a lovely time. Thank you.
ADLER: South African actor and playwright Pamela Gien. Her play is called
"The Syringa Tree." A film version of the play will air on the Trio cable
channel on May 6th.
ADLER: For Terry Gross, I'm Margot Adler.
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