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Voice-over: This is The New Yorker Radio Hour. A co-production of WNYC Studios and The New Yorker.
David Remnick: Welcome to The New Yorker Radio Hour. I'm David Remnick.
Actor 1: What'd he say?
Actor 2: Said he found out where her family came from. Wanted me to come home so I could go there with him.
Actor 1: He's still obsessing over her ancestry? I thought he'd given all that up when she passed.
Actor 2: "I know that you like your mother. You think that you can forget the past. You can't. The past is a living thing. You own it, owe it. Now I have found something about your mother's forebearers. You have a sacred secret legacy, a birthright that's been kept from you."
Actor 1: That's strange. That doesn't really even sound like your father.
Actor 2: I haven't even gotten to the strange part. The place he wants me to go with him, it's in Lovecraft Country.
David Remnick: The new show Lovecraft Country is not exactly about the writer, H.P. Lovecraft, but it's set in a fictional world that Lovecraft pioneered; a world of horror and fantastical beings and ancient evil. Lovecraft died in 1937, but it's getting a lot of attention in 2020. In addition to this new show that bears his name, the science fiction writer, N.K. Jemisin published a book this year. It's very much a response to H.P. Lovecraft. It's called The City We Became. On a very windy day last winter, N.K. Jemisin met up with staff writer Raffi Khatchadourian on the pedestrian walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge because The City We Became has a key scene that takes place there.
Raffi Khatchadourian: Nora, in the opening of your book, you have set upon this bridge a giant tentacle bioluminescent, interdimensional creature to tear it apart.
Nora Jemisin: [laughs] Basically, yes. Nobody can see it except for a few select individuals for reasons that will become clear in the book. It is a giant tentacle that smashes out of nowhere, shatters half the bridge, causes massive destruction and damage all over the East River and no one really knows why except for a few people. What it means is that half this beautiful old bridge gets torn apart and smashed into the water. I laughed while I did it.
Raffi: We ducked into a bar on the Brooklyn side of the bridge to talk out of the wind.
Nora: This is nice. You got a place opened up just for us.
Raffi: Science fiction is transporting, it's whimsical. It can go in many different directions. It can be apocalyptic. To say that you were interested in science fiction opens up the question. What kind as a kid interested you and in which of these directions, did you feel yourself being pulled as a reader?
Nora: I really didn't start to engage with science fiction until I hit my teens and started to find different voices out there. Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin; stories that also ranged beyond the very traditional confines that I had seen for fantasy and science fiction at that point. I wanted to know what else fantasy could do, and then along comes Le Guin who was doing it before it was cool.
Raffi: You mentioned that it took a while to find some of these other authors. My understanding is that wasn't accidental because science fiction publishing when you were a reader as a kid in the '80s, almost went out of its way to mask the identity of writers of color. Octavia Butler's Dawn is an example of a book that we both own .
Nora: The protagonist is described in the book as a tall, very dark-skinned Black woman with a cloud of hair. I don't think Butler ever actually uses the word Black, but there's many other indicators in there. Then the addition put a white woman with black hair on the cover, and there were no author photos of Butler. There was no mention in her bio in that edition that she was Black. It really was hidden and yet despite all the attempts to hide it, I realized basically within the first few pages, "Oh my God, I think she's Black." That was just earth-shattering.
Raffi: This cultural invisibility that the system publishing engendered had a personal impact on you because when you were, as I understand it, growing up and thinking about considering possible careers for yourself [crosstalk] . You didn't consider writing, you didn't think that will be possible to make it work.
Nora: Yes. That was coming from a lot of different directions. I don't want to make it sound like it was coming strictly from within the industry. I can remember having conversations with relatives other than my father, about the fact that I love to write and them then handing me a Toni Morrison book and saying, "Do you write like this?" When I said, "No," the response was always, "You need to write like this. You need to write realist, mainstream-oriented fiction that will focus on life in America today as a Black person or oppression or something like that." I was just like, "But I want to write about Black people in space." [laughs] For a lot of times when I would say that, the response would be, "Well, you can."
Raffi: Why in the Black community do you think that was the case?
Nora: It is the nature of any group of people that you understand you are capable of what you see. Role models operate on lots of levels. If you never see a Black person in a particular space, then you get the really clear message that you're not welcome in that space. I got that message loud and clear when I was young. I was like, "You know what? I'm going to be a counselor." [laughs] I'm going to grad school for psychology. The writing is a fun hobby. It's clear that that field is not one that I can be successful in without a lot of trouble and drama and stress. I don't know that I want that in my life. Then basically, I hit a point where I realized I was just not happy. The writing bug had been in me since I was a child. I'd always done it. I'd read many books that had been published that I felt, "I can do that. I can do at least that good." I hit a point where I decided that it was worth the danger or worth the trouble and the stress and the drama. It sure has been since trouble and stress and drama but the rewards have been commensurate.
Raffi: When Jemisin talks about the trouble and the stress and the drama, she's partly referring to a backlash from conservative science fiction writers and readers. Among them, people associated with the alt-right. They claim, and this will sound familiar, that the success of non-white authors and women in science fiction has somehow been undeserving, a form of identity politics. It's been very, very ugly. Jemisin's new book, The City We Became addresses the legacy of racism in the genre. In fact, the book that's coming out in March continues to speak to those issues.
Nora: In some ways. One of the inspirations for The City We Became was the controversy surrounding the World Fantasy Award. Until maybe two or three years ago, the World Fantasy Award was the stylized bust of H.P. Lovecraft's head. The controversy about this started when a Black writer, Nnedi Okorafor, who's a friend of mine. Nnedi won the World Fantasy Award and they handed her Lovecraft's head and she was like-- [laughs] You can find her words online about it. She did. She most definitely pointed out that Lovecraft is an inappropriate way to honor a Black writer's success. Let's just say.
Raffi: Who is H.P. Lovecraft?
Nora: Lovecraft is probably one of the most seminal writers in American modern fantasy. He wrote at the turn of the century, but a lot of the ways in which American fantasy and American horror engages with subcultures, cults, religion, and so forth, were all influenced by Lovecraft. You saw sinister cults that had taken over towns. There's echoes of that in The Stepford Wives, for example. You saw tentacle monsters that didn't come at you roaring or screaming, but slithered into your life and integrated themselves into your community and then slowly destroyed you from within. You see aspects of that in things like aliens [chuckles] in the alien films. Lovecraft may not be very well known, but you see elements of Lovecraft in nearly all dark, fantastical American media these days. He's that influential, and he was exceptionally racist. Lovecraft had a poem, and I cannot speak the title because I don't use the N-word, but the title of the poem is on the creation of N-words. His cat was named the N-word. He was even by the standards of the racist era in which he lived, he was huge, hella racist.
Raffi: Do you think that there is a way to separate whatever his creativity, whatever his skills were at evoking horror-
Raffi: -from his biases?
Nora: No, his biases were the basis of his horror. The monsters came from his own fear of brown people, of immigrants, of Jewish people, of whatever, in several of his stories, particularly one set in New York. Lovecraft spends a lot of time lavish his description on how terrifying it is to do something like walk through Chinatown, and look at these alien, frightening faces speaking in this terrible language. You feel his fear as you read these passages. You feel his disgust, you feel his unease at being surrounded by people who don't look like him. There's a scene in The City we Became in which the minions of the Woman in White--
Raffi: The Woman in White being the chief manifestation of these aliens that come to invade New York City.
Raffi: This in effect, the embodiment of the Lovecraftian enemy, let's say that the protagonists are taking on.
Nora: Yes, the antagonist of the story. The Woman in White has many forms and many faces and one of the ways through which she works is through like-minded people who she infects with her ideology, literally, in some ways, some cases. She infects a group of artists who call themselves the Alt Artistes, and who present to one of the characters, this painting called Dangerous Mental Machines. The painting--
Raffi: You didn't make up the title of that painting.
Raffi: That is something that comes from Lovecraft.
Nora: Dangerous Mental Machines is what he called Chinese-Americans because he believed that Asian people were equivalent to white people because they at least knew how to work and make money, but he didn't think that they had souls. He thought that they were machines that were good at calculation but there was no humanity in there.
Raffi: No, I remember this passage of the book. It's vivid in my mind because you describe the painting as both being incredibly seductive of it being beautiful. In fact, one of the chief protagonists almost falls into a trance while looking at it.
Nora: It's good art.
Raffi: It's good art even though it has this undeniably horrific component to it.
Nora: I'm not good at analyzing my own work, but with Lovecraft, the balance and the struggle is always between appreciating the fact that there's some good stuff here. He does some incredible imagery as powerful work, but it's frightening. It's frightening not always for the reasons that he meant it to be frightening. It's frightening because it's a way to look into the mind of a true bigot and realize just how alien their thinking is, just how disturbing their ability to dehumanize their fellow human beings is. This man literally saw the people of New York as monsters. That's what I decided to write against.
Raffi: What do you think as a society or community of readers, the response to Lovecraft should be today? To put in a box and set it down at the bottom of the sea?
Nora: Oh, no. No, no, no. There's too much to learn from examining that tension between the power and the impact of the art and realizing where that art comes from and what the impetus behind that art is. The best way to engage with twisted or otherwise problematic art, in my opinion, is to first off acknowledge that that art has an impact, hurts people, and understand that engaging with it could perpetuate some of the harm that that art is capable of doing, but flag it, worn it, put it off to the side where people can engage with it at their leisure, at their choice or at a point where they're strong enough or capable of doing so, but then engage with it. There's a line between respecting the work and honoring the person. You can respect the craft. You don't have to put that person on a pedestal. Artists are human beings and that means you need to examine them in all their facets. You have to recognize that these are people and that the things that make them sometimes horrible people are sometimes the things that make them good writers or good artists and that's what you want to engage with. [music]
David: N.K. Jemisin, author of The City We Became and also of The Broken Earth trilogy which received three Hugo awards. She talked early this year with staff writer, Raffi Khatchadourian. This is The New Yorker Radio Hour, stick around. [music]
Voice-over: The New Yorker Radio Hour is supported by The Morgan Library & Museum. The Morgan is delighted to announce its public reopening with a free opening weekend, September 5th and 6th, and early access for Morgan members, September 2nd to 4th. For more information about visiting and safety precautions to reserve tickets, and to see what's on view, please visit themorgan.org. [advertisement playing] [music]
David: Welcome to The New Yorker Radio Hour. I'm David Remnick. As summer draws to an end and schools attempt to reopen, it's becoming very clear that pandemic restrictions will extend through the fall and perhaps well into next year. The prospect of that is daunting for everybody, not least for anyone with kids in the house. After months without summer camps or team sports or scouting trips, the idea of keeping kids indoors seems like more than a parent could bear, but it's happened before and not that long ago.
Jill Lepore: I'm Jill Lepore. I'm a professor of history at Harvard. I'm also a staff writer at The New Yorker. As a historian, I always think a lot about, "Was there comfort to be found in times in the past when people have had harder struggles and gotten through things?" Immediately comes to mind for me, the state home campaigns that were run during the polio years.
Hubert Humphrey: For all the boys and girls of Northwest during radio's stay at home campaign. Now, listen. [music]
Jill: Polio had first hit the US in 1916, and some years were worse than others. A lot of viruses, a bait in the hotter months, but with polio, the warmer the weather, the virus spread faster, but also polio was most effectively transmitted by water. In the summer when it got hot, this is before the age of air conditioning, kids would be outside wanting to go to swimming pools, jump in the river, and it's not like they have homeschooling assignments. It's the summer. [laughs] They're supposed to be outside playing catch and playing baseball and drawing hopscotch with chalk on the sidewalk and it's really hard to keep them inside. I came across this incredibly charming clip from WCCO in Minneapolis, which had a Sunday morning program called Fun at Home during [chuckles] the stay at home campaign.
Hubert: Well, it's nine to five and time for all your kids to gather around your radios and listen to The Funnies. This morning, we have an excellent special guest--
Jill: They would do anything to be entertaining to kids. This clip is from 1946 and it's the fairly young Democratic mayor, Hubert Humphrey. I think of him maybe as the Andrew Cuomo of the moment, although more charming. He comes in and volunteers to come into the radio station on Sunday to read The Funnies out loud.
Hubert: We start right off with Blondie and you know what? It looks like Blondie and Dagwood are going to go out in a fishing party. Toby, you got any fishing music over there?
Presenter 1: Yes, yes, a little bit by the sea. [music]
Hubert: Yes, that's good. That's fine. Oh, listen to that. Now, just take a look at that. There's Dagwood, kids and there's Dagwood right along. There's he right alongside the lakeshore there and he says, "I don't know why it is I can't catch a fish. Doesn't he look old? He just looks all down in the dumpster--"
Jill: [laughs] He loves it. You can tell because he brings his kids with him. He does voices and he tries to be Dagwood and Blondie, and his kids keep asking questions, and they want him to read Popeye instead.
Hubert: And a can of worms in there and look at that funny hat on there just like he's hunting a lion. Do you see that, Skip? He says--
Skip: I have one of them too.
Hubert: Oh, do you have? Sure you have a hat like that. Then Dagwood says, "They pull out fish as fast as they throw in their hooks--"
Jill: When I first listened to this clip, maybe in the fall sometime, I was like, "It's so adorable, and it's so sweet, and it's so quaint," but somehow, the pathos of it didn't strike me.
Hubert: including chocolate eclairs for bait. You just use everything but you can't anything. There--
Jill: One of the strange, maybe only, blessings of the COVID pandemic is that kids seem to be far less vulnerable to it, but with polio, it was exactly the opposite. For a long time, polio was called the "baby plague", which is this heartbreaking name just to think about that. What it does to know that your children, babies, toddlers, pre-schoolers are the most vulnerable.
Hubert: He says, "Fishing on private property, huh? Without a license, huh?"
Nancy: Is that a policeman?
Hubert: Oh, that's a policeman, you bet you. Without a license--
Nancy: He got a long nose.
Hubert: Oh, he got a long nose, yes. I wonder who that's a funny-looking guy.
Jill: It didn't really hit me that this was a desperate measure. It just seemed to me, adorable. I listened to it again. I almost listened to Hubert Humphrey with what I think of these COVID years, and it's still sweet, it's still charming, I still love listening to it, but it's also quietly desperate.
Presenter 2: Humphrey, we're going to have a song by Toby Prince. The original Sad Sack . Toby, take over with Put Your Arms Around Me. [music]
Jill: One of the reasons I study history is I like to see how things began so that I can imagine how bad things end. There were good polio years, and bad polio years, but the worst polio year in the United States was 1952. A few years after Hubert Humphrey made that recording reading The Funnies. 58,000 Americans got infected, and it was also the year that a young epidemiologist named Jonas Salk developed a vaccine.
Presenter 3: Was made. A virus that causes polio has been successfully grown inside chicken eggs. This may lead to the development of potent vaccine to prevent the dreaded disease.
Jill: A really promising vaccine. A really controversial vaccine and it had to be tested. Then he began what became the largest field trial in the history of public health.
Presenter 3: Even so, it was the largest such medical test ever attempted.
Jill: Finally, in this momentous day, April 12th, 1955, the beginning of spring.
Presenter 3: Heading the medical men was Dr. Jonas Salk.
Jill: Summer is coming, it's going to be another hard polio year. People expected it to be a very hard polio year, the clock is ticking, the calendar is turning, everybody wants that polio vaccine before the summer of 1955. This is quite incredible. Announcement is made at the University of Michigan. Hundreds of reporters go there and they printed out these press reports with all the details of the results of the field trial that they're going to announce.
Presenter 3: Reporters press forward to get the results the whole world was waiting for. Rushed to their typewriters--
Jill: The reporters are literally climbing over each other trying to get to the copies of the press release, so eager. You can imagine that now, it doesn't take a whole lot of imagining to imagine that now. If someone had a vaccine and we'd waited 18 months to know if it worked, and it works.
Presenter 3: An historic victory over a dreaded disease has dramatically unfolded at the University of Michigan. Here is scientist Sasha [unintelligible 00:24:26] ran a new medical age with the monumental report--
Jill: [chuckles] You picture a medieval turreted castle and the trumpeters blowing their horns, and the flags are for the standards of being unfurrowed, and [trumpet sound] . Here's just this like, "The vaccine works." The relief, the joy, the exaltation, the exhilaration, the knowledge that this thing could end.
Presenter 3: 90% effective and modest Dr. Salk answers newsmen's questions.
Dr. Jonas Salk: The great work of events that has accumulated and the experiences of many is well represented in the report made this morning.
Jill: You often notice that people from different generations have these different timestamps in their early memories. There are people whose first memory is of 1969 and watching the Apollo moon landing or whose first memory is of 1963 and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I remember for years when I would ask students what their first memory was of an event of global significance, it was 9/11. I grew up with the vaccine, but people not very much older than I am suffered from polio. Watched polio, knew people who suffered from polio, but my kids don't know anyone has had polio. I don't think they know how it works or how terrifying it was. That's the great blessing of a vaccination program. We forget how bad the disease was. There's a generation of Americans whose most significant early memory is of waiting in line to get the Salk vaccine. I have a colleague who I once asked about this and he said, "Oh, I can remember the taste of it in my mouth. It was like a sugar drop. It was almost like a lollipop." My mother said "This will save your life. You will have a life." I think about that. I think about the generation of kids who we can only hope will remember the day that they go to get the coronavirus vaccine and it will be their timestamp. [music]
David: Staff writer and professor of history, Jill Lepore. Jill's just written about the science of spending most of your life indoors, and you can find it at newyorker.com. This has been a summer of reckoning with our past. Confederate monuments have come down in Charleston, Richmond, Jacksonville, and many other places. Mississippi has removed the stars and bars from its flag at long last. There's just one Confederate monument left on public land in the state of Maryland. It's a statue that honors soldiers who died fighting for the Confederacy. Some were said to have fought against their own neighbors and cousins who serve for the union. Removing that statue has proved to be much more complicated than you might guess. On our program next week, Casey Cep brings us the story of the Talbot Boys monument and one small town's struggle over its history. This is The New Yorker Radio Hour and I'm David Remnick. Thanks for joining us. [music]
Voice-over: The New Yorker Radio Hour is a co-production of WNYC Studios and The New Yorker. Our theme music was composed and performed by Merrill Garbus of tUnE-YArDs, with additional music by Alexis Cuadrado. This episode was produced by Alex Barron, Emily Botein, Ave Carrillo, Rhiannon Corby, KalaLea, David Krasnow, Caroline Lester, Ngofeen Mputubwele, Louis Mitchell, Michele Moses, and Steven Valentino with help from Alison MacAdam, Morgan Flannery, Ingfei Chen, and Emily Mann. The New Yorker Radio Hour is supported, in part, by the Charina Endowment Fund. [music]