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For Novelist Jonathan Lethem, Radicalism Runs In The Family

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. People who don't believe in God but have an almost religious belief in causes are at the center of the novel "Dissident Gardens" by Jonathan Lethem. The story begins in 1955, in Queens, New York, when Rose Zimmer, a secular Jew and a Communist, is expelled from the party, ostensibly because the local committee disapproves of her affair with a black police officer. Rose is a single mother who raises her daughter Miriam to believe it's only a matter of time until the Nazis or the FBI come knocking. Miriam flees Queens and her perpetually dissatisfied mother to live a bohemian life in Greenwich Village. The characters of Rose and Miriam were inspired by Lethem's own grandmother and mother. "Dissident Gardens" is now out in paperback. Lethem's 1999 novel, "Motherless Brooklyn," won a National Book Critics Circle Award, and his 2003 novel, "The Fortress Of Solitude," was a bestseller. Terry Gross spoke with Jonathan Lethem in 2013.


Jonathan Lethem, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the new book. Why did you want to write about three generations of a family where radical political convictions and utopian ideology create more conflict within their own circles than these convictions accomplish in terms of social change?

JONATHAN LETHEM: Wow. I think that I didn't - I couldn't possibly have started by wanting to do that.


LETHEM: What I wanted to do was write about my grandmother's sex life.


GROSS: So I hit the nail on the head, didn't I?


LETHEM: But I did - I think I did end up doing what you just said. I mean, I hope so. It sounds really great.


LETHEM: And the thing is, you know, you don't end up where you began with a giant book, and especially one that's just so loaded up with all kinds of really different things that interest and perplex me. I knew that I had a kind of a legacy. I grew up in a family of protestors, and that I'd never really gone there, and I wanted to touch it. I wanted to think about it. I also wanted to think about just, I don't know, somehow I was ready to think about my grandmother's weird, lonely, imperial existence in Sunnyside, Queens. And so those urges and those interests led me into the thicket that you just described.

GROSS: Well, we must get right to your grandmother's sex life, which is really how the book starts. So why don't you read the very opening of the book?

LETHEM: Sure. (Reading) Quit consorting with black cops or get booted from the Communist Party. There stood the ultimatum, the absurd sum total of the message conveyed to Rose Zimmer by the cabal gathered in her Sunnyside Gardens kitchen that evening, late fall, 1955. Saul Egland(ph), important communist, had rung her telephone. A committee wished to see her. No, no, they'd be happy, delighted to come to her home this evening after their own conference just across the Gardens. Was 10 too late? This a command, not a question. Yes, Saul knew how hard Rose labored, what her sleep was worth. He promised they wouldn't stay long. How did it happen? Easy - routine, in fact. These things happened every day. You could get exiled from the cause for blowing your nose or blinking at suspicious intervals. Now after so long, Rose's turn.

GROSS: Was Rose getting exiled from the party because she was having an affair with a black cop?

LETHEM: Well, you know, nothing is ever what it claims to be, and especially in the paranoid world of a communist cell. I mean, I think they don't really like that she's consorting with the police, and the particular policeman she's in this relationship with is a staunch, totally typical, anti-communist American, good American of the time. So he's got no sympathies to the cause. But - and of course there's probably a layer of denied racism or discomfort in this group of people, right? But they would never say that it was precisely that. And so - and Rose has aggravated them, you know, for decades by now. So they've been looking for the chance to ask her to have nothing more to do with the official operation.

GROSS: So this touches on Rose, your character's, sex life. Let's get really to your grandmother's sex life.


GROSS: Why were you interested in exploring her sex life? That's not something people usually say about their grandmothers, that that's what they're interested in.

LETHEM: You know, I mean, I felt that she was in love with Abraham Lincoln and in love with...

GROSS: She didn't have sex with him. I'm sure of that.


LETHEM: Fiorello LaGuardia...

GROSS: Nor him.

LETHEM: And she couldn't get into bed with either of these guys. But I also felt she was in love with a local beat cop, that he was more than a figure of, you know, kind of public order and decency, but there was something too sexy about her admiration. And this made sense to me. She was a woman who was mostly single, even if she did have affairs, and I think she did have affairs. I don't know who they were with. And I should be really specific, I don't know who they were with. But I felt all of the things that she avowed most as kind of noble and heroic were - first of all, had a sexy quality to them,

to her, that she would never have acknowledged. And the other thing was they were kind of authority figures. So this person who was a socialist was also really into presidents, cops and mayors and judges and even priests - because she would sometimes talk about the, you know, if there was, like, a local Irish Catholic priest in Queens who was doing a lot of good for the local boys, she would be over-involved in her admiration. And I thought, this is where this person is really complicated, that she loves a man in uniform.


GROSS: Do you know how your grandmother became a communist and what that meant to her during the period that she defined herself that way?

LETHEM: Well, here's the thing, I really don't know how she would have described her own affiliations or sympathies. In fact, I asked my father, who was the nearest resource I had, do you think that she was ever actually in a cell or, you know, a card-carrying communist is the term. And he said, with no motive to conceal anything, he said, I really don't know. And I really wouldn't know because I'm not a great researcher, and you know, anyway, there was something liberating about not knowing. I really don't know how to find out or if there's a way to find out. I do know that there was something that my Uncle Fred thought she'd gotten wrong circa, like, 1956. He'd been taunting her. All through my childhood there was this something that Uncle Fred thought was pathetic or ridiculous in my grandmother's political life and that she was mum on this topic. So whether she'd, you know, tried to be pro-Soviet much longer than a lot of other people tried and was humiliated, was hung out to dry by the Khrushchev revelations that, you know, kind of hit the world in 1956 and stripped the last layer of denial from even the most blinkered and idealistic pro-Soviet Americans.

GROSS: The grandmother in your novel, Rose, is a communist who's kind of kicked out of the party. But what defines her more than her politics is really her paranoia and all of her fears. And part of those fears are because of the Holocaust and, you know, all the persecution that Jews faced in addition to the Holocaust. And you write that for Rose, God existed just on the puny extent he could disappoint her by his non-existence. Her anger at him was immense, almost God-like. So...


GROSS: I'm just wondering how you think the Holocaust affected your grandmother and her relationship with God or her perception of a lack of God's presence.

LETHEM: Yeah, I mean, what a tormenting situation, to be an intellectual woman of her generation and grow up with this enormous identity, but it was an identity founded on belief that she couldn't sustain. She was violently secular. She loved culture, and she loved books and all sorts of things that Jews care for, but she couldn't believe in the Jewish god or any god. And, you know, she felt terrible about it. And she felt enraged that other people didn't see the obviousness of it all at once. But she'd substituted, I think, at some point, other kinds of beliefs - belief in a kind of - I guess the best word is humanism. And I think, if she was at any point seriously a Communist, and I think probably she was somewhere in there, maybe not till 1956, that was a belief. And as anybody who's studied the history of communist movements knows, it has a religious - you know, it's analogous. It draws passion out of people and sometimes irrational passion. So all of these things are muddled up for her. And then maybe some of those later beliefs become disappointed, violently disappointed, as well. Other gods die. The god of literature fails her. The god of socialism fails her. And yeah, she was paranoid, and she was - she took the Holocaust very personally. And yet, it didn't belong to her the way it belonged to some other people because she was also conflicted, at best, about her Jewish identity.

GROSS: Rose is a very - gives off a very negative energy, the grandmother in the book. And as one character says of her, she was all about power, the power of resentment, of guilt, of unwritten injunctions against everything, against life itself. Rose was into death. And I'm wondering if you felt that from your grandmother and how it affected you to be around such negative energy.

LETHEM: Well, I think she was different ways at different times. And, you know, in my life, which isn't what I've written about directly here, there's a before and after in my experience of my grandmother. And it's a tragic one. She lost her daughter, my mother. You know, my mother died when she was 36; I was 14. I don't work out, exactly, my grandmother's exact age, but she lost her only child. So there's my grandmother while my mother was still alive and healthy, and there's my grandmother after she begins to see that my mother's cancer is going to - going to kill her. And she was a very dark person. She was betrayed. The world had betrayed her utterly. But I also think that - I was very interested in the book, in writing about the perplexities of seeing someone who was so into so many kinds of theoretical freedoms. She embraced such - diversity is a very bland word, but she really - you know, diversity was like heroic to her. And that was a passion that mattered to me. But at the same time, there was a kind of a control freak. There was a kind of intolerance of - I mean, my grandmother, for instance, was always taking me on her rare - the rare chances she could get and pry me away completely. She would rush me to a barber for a haircut. Somehow, it seemed like that was - you know, whatever kind of freedom she was into, she was not into the 8-year-old boy having long hair that made him look like a girl. And so these - you know, the different ways you can be free in your mind and free in your heart, I guess for me Rose is an emblem of the contradictions.

BIANCULLI: Author Jonathan Lethem, speaking to Terry Gross in 2013 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2013 interview with author Jonathan Lethem. The characters in his novel, "Dissident Gardens" are inspired by his own family. The grandmother in the novel is a Communist. Her daughter is a peace activist and hippie who moved away to Greenwich Village to escape the suffocating presence of her opinionated mother.

GROSS: You were talking about how Rose, the grandmother, has all of these convictions about freedom and diversity, but she doesn't want her daughter to kind of have the freedom that the daughter wants. The daughter wants to leave college and go to Greenwich Village and live a very bohemian and then hippie life, which the daughter actually succeeds in doing, much to her mother's dismay. So that was like your mother. Your mother, I think she dropped out of college?

LETHEM: Yeah, she never finished college. Later in her life, she had this - I remember she would look at these matchbook covers for Empire State College, where you were supposed to be able to certify various kinds of life experience and get course credit for it. And she always joked that she would graduate from Empire State College from a matchbook cover. But she left Queens College, I guess, maybe as a freshman; certainly by the time of her sophomore year I think she'd kissed it off.

GROSS: And she headed to Greenwich Village. And your mother actually knew people like Tuli Kupferberg of The Fugs and the protest singer Phil Ochs and folk singer Dave Van Ronk. These were really key people. How did she get to know them?

LETHEM: Well, I think she just did what you could do in that generation. And, you know, that scene was small, and she was vivacious and not a shy - I guess it was almost as a teenager that she'd made her first contact with that world. And she was just in the right place.

GROSS: What did your grandmother think of your mother's bohemian life?

LETHEM: Well, again, I'm, you know, I'm guessing. What I got was the residue of battles long since fought - you know, lost, won, abandoned, who knows. And, you know, by the time I came along and could even glean that this had been controversial, it was in things that had been distilled into nice little anecdotes. But the one that I think might stand for the rest is that my parents were going to be married by the Reverend Gary Davis. He was a great blues guitarist, a blind blues guitarist who lived in Queens and was a kind of finger-picking guru to the most serious of the folk guitarists, like Dave Van Ronk. And my mother was sort of in with him, and his wife had kind of taken her in. And he was going to marry my parents, which was really, you know...

GROSS: That's amazing, yeah.

LETHEM: Great thing to claim, right? Well, I think at the last second, my grandmother, in a beautifully paradoxical gesture, insisted that they have a rabbi instead, which is just...


LETHEM: It's like - you know, so I went back and I made that right in the book. I got the Reverend Gary Davis into the picture instead. But, you know...

GROSS: But that's a perfect example - what happened in real life is a perfect example of some of the hypocrisy that happens in the book, where somebody has this, like, deeply held conviction, but their actions are just the opposite of that. Like...

LETHEM: Yeah, everyone's...

GROSS: Your grandmother was so, like, secular to the core and so embracing of diversity. And you have this, like, fabulous, renowned, you know, like rediscovered, you know, African-American blues man and, like, no, he can't marry your mother and her fiance. It has to be a rabbi.


LETHEM: Yeah. I'll tell you a story about my grandmother that has nothing to do with the book because it's far outside the scope of - you know, once I'd invented these characters, they could only do certain things. They could contain some of these energies, but I had to - you know, I had to make the book work. But when I was in college, one of the - really one of the last times I saw my grandmother, you know, well, up and living in her own apartment, I brought a girlfriend home from college. And for some reason, I made the misstep of bragging to my grandmother that I was bringing a Jewish girl to meet her and thinking that she would just be interested in this because I'd had - in high school, just before that, I had girlfriends who weren't Jewish. And my girlfriend, of course, completely secular girlfriend and I both showed up at my grandmother's apartment. And my grandmother put on this fascinating charade of being a religious Jewish woman.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LETHEM: I'd never seen her do anything like this before. But she suddenly was full of these weird beliefs and behaviors. And the way she served the food was - and I didn't know what to think what's going on, but she had somehow - her guilt or her confusion had suddenly dialed up this weird wrong number. And, you know, she thought I was insisting that she be more Jewish than she'd ever been for me before. She'd served me TV dinners throughout my entire childhood.

GROSS: So we've been talking about the grandmother, Rose. Her daughter, Miriam, who is the bohemian, ends up living in something of a commune. And I'd like you to read a short passage from the book. And this is actually a letter that she's written to her father who lives in East Germany, who is separated from her mother, a long story. I don't think we'll get into that part of the story. But here she is, trying to explain her living situation to her father, who she really doesn't know well because he left when she was three. And during this reading, you're going to mention the name of Tommy. Tommy is Miriam's husband, and he's a folk singer.

LETHEM: (Reading) We live in a commune, something I suspect you wouldn't really be familiar with. Honestly, Tommy and I are like the parents, and they're like the children. So it isn't really a legitimate commune, not like the Maoist one around the corner on Avenue C, which has meetings nearly every night; and they go on for hours, and they never figure anything out. Ours is somewhere between a commune and a hostel. We started by letting Stella move in upstairs. Then we had to fill more rooms to afford to keep this place because Tommy hasn't made any money from his records in a long time, and the money from the ACLU settlement for my wrongful arrest on public property is a distant memory. Did I ever mention I was one of the Capitol Steps 13? We sued their asses. Then I spent the money mostly at Pathmark, on bread and veggies and ground beef. By this time in the morning, the phone has started ringing, and usually someone has rolled a joint. And things are getting a little harder to put down in order - I mean, after the kid is off to school. I spend a lot of time listening, actually. You might not think so from this letter, which is all about me, but I do. The phone rings, or someone comes downstairs, and the kitchen is pretty much full of people for the rest of the day.

GROSS: That's Jonathan Lethem reading from his new novel, "Dissident Gardens." How close is that to the home that you grew up in?

LETHEM: Well, at times, very close. I mean, my parents did, essentially, turn our home into a commune. In retrospect, it seems clear to me. Although, ironically, in the way kids make distinctions, I was always very particular about it. I knew what the communes were. They were the collective households that were all over our neighborhood - 'cause there were a whole bunch of them- where there was no family at the center of it. You know, they had kind of a flat, egalitarian rule. Everyone was an equal, and everyone was chipping in for the rent. And my parents, you know, they really were running the show. In the end, they were collecting rent from people who in another context might have been called, you know, boarders. But we shared dish nights, and we shared cooking nights. And we had these consternating house meetings where grown, human adults would air out their grievances to 8-year-old children as if we were all equally entitled to suffer one another's complaints. And, you know, I kind of loved it. I write about it in the book fairly affectionately. But it was, you know, certainly confusing for me in certain ways.

BIANCULLI: Author Jonathan Lethem, speaking to Terry Gross in 2013. His novel, "Dissident Gardens," is now out in paperback. We'll continue their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2013 interview with author Jonathan Lethem. His novel, "Dissident Gardens," about three generations of one family, is now out in paperback. In the story, the grandmother is a secular Jew and a Communist. Her daughter moves to Greenwich Village and marries a folk singer. They live in a commune where they raise their son. The grandmother and mother are inspired by Lethem's own grandmother and mother. When we left off, the author and Terry were talking about the similarities between Lethem's life and the son who was raised on the commune.

GROSS: From one of your personal essays, I got the impression you were exposed to naked bodies around the home because it was a period when people were trying to be very comfortable about their bodies.

LETHEM: All the time. Yeah.

GROSS: And - yeah. So I always wonder, what was it like for the kids who grew up that way? And how did it affect your sense of - your comfort with your own body?

LETHEM: Well, just as I said that, you know, I kind of believe that, strictly speaking, we were in a commune. And I think we pretty much were a commune. You shouldn't overlook the human ability to partition things and make special categories and, you know, create exemptions. You know, this is, I guess, what we also call hypocrisy - right? - which is, as you pointed out, all over this book. But for me, there were the typical teenage fascinations with the mysteries of the bodies of the girls I was going to school with, you know, where to glimpse a bra strap might've blown my mind. And at the same time, I'd go home, and I'd go up to my dad's studio. And we might - I might sit there with him and draw from a naked model for a few hours. But that was, you know, that was art. That was another thing. Or it might take a shower with my cousin at her commune because they had a group shower and, you know, that was interesting to me too and probably titillating. But I kept these things very, very tightly organized in order to function. So I, you know, each thing was its own separate reality.

GROSS: Something else that you were exposed to in ways that you probably didn't necessarily know at the time - you write, again in a personal essay, that your parents had an open marriage and that you later learned that some of their friends were actually their lovers. And one of the characters in your book says, is anything more unforgivable than what a child learns about his parents from their lovers?


GROSS: Were you ever in that position?

LETHEM: Well, yeah. I mean, and this isn't directly part of this book or my other, you know, kind of autobiographical, emotional slagheap "The Fortress of Solitude." But I learned the fact that my mother was dying - not that she was sick, not that she was very sick, but that she was absolutely going to die - not from either one of my parents but from my father's girlfriend at the time. And now, this is a mistake, right? I mean, everyone involved is making some mistake; they've overlooked something. Probably my father thought I knew and understood already. But I, as I've just said, children are literal. I kept it in a box. If she was sick, she was sick. That's different from dying or dead. But the first time it was told to me clearly so that I couldn't evade it or mistake it for some other information, it was my father's girlfriend. And I hated her...

GROSS: Did she know that you didn't know?

LETHEM: I don't think she went into that situation thinking she was making a big move. I think she just said it. And maybe by the end of the encounter she grasped that she ended up telling me - not a good moment for anyone involved. And, yeah, I mean there - you know, if I want to feel angry - and, you know, I still know that person and am affectionate. I feel affectionately toward them. But if I wanted to feel angry, I could remember that moment, and I'd probably be able to get angry for the rest of my life.

GROSS: As you mentioned, your mother died of a brain tumor. And in one of your personal essays, you wrote that, you know, in part because of the Holocaust you were taught to be prepared to lose the things you love and that when your mother died you'd experienced it as kind of confirmation that you should be prepared for that 'cause...


GROSS: Your mother was taken from you.

LETHEM: Yeah. I think my parents' attitude towards the visionary world that they wanted to live in - it was an embattled one. And my grandmother's attitude towards, I think, her visionary beliefs, her idealism, was that of someone who'd been betrayed and that the Holocaust meant that, as Jews, even if we didn't care for that identity. You know, and my father was from the Midwest. I was raised with a whole lot of options as to, you know, what I should identify as or with. But at the same time, there was this message, this contradictory message that - my grandmother would almost whisper this. It was really one of the most doomy things to say to a kid. She would say, it doesn't matter what you think you are. When the Nazis come, you're a Jew. You know, like they're going to pin that yellow star on you, so it doesn't matter that you're going to Quaker Sunday school, or that you don't believe in God, or that I don't believe in God. We're stuck with this. And I also think that this was the city I was living in. New York City, in the '70s, was a collapsing zone. It was a dystopian city. The greatness, you know, that my parents both celebrated - they'd come to New York for its bohemian culture. My father was a painter. What do you do? You run away from the provinces to New York. My grandmother revered New York. But at the same time, this place was unmistakably in crisis. It might not be as great as it once was, and the neighborhood we were in exemplified this crisis. So I saw the idea that great things about your family, or your world, or your city, or your community, or your beliefs could be - before you even knew it, they could be slipping away. They could be taken away. It seemed to me to be the message that the world had all over the place. And I, you know, I celebrated temporary utopia. My family was great while it was great, and it fell apart.

GROSS: Your mother knew she was dying. Did she give any instructions about what she wanted done with her remains and if she wanted any kind of funeral or memorial?

LETHEM: Well, I'm sure that my parents discussed this. I've never even thought to force my father to rehearse the details for me. But she ended up having two services, one very embracing and large at the Brooklyn Quaker Meetinghouse. And it was where all her friends, in the manner of a Quaker service, stood and testified about her importance to their lives. And it was the one that reflected her, the life she'd chosen even though she hadn't chosen Quakerism. She wasn't terrifically interested in Quakerism. She didn't go with us. My father took the kids to Quaker Sunday school, and my mother was too secular even for the Quakers. But, still, this was the place where she could have, you know, what I guess you'd call a hippie funeral, in a sense. It was a love-in, as funerals go. And then she also - and this will remind you of my grandmother's insistence that my parents be married by a rabbi rather than the Reverend Gary Davis. She also had a very dark, very cloistered, very small, Upper West Side Jewish service in a funeral home. And my grandmother, my great-grandmother, my great uncle, who I think I'd not met until that day and never met again, on my mother's father's side, were in attendance. And it was - the children were put in yarmulkes. And we went through the paces of giving her the proper Jewish memorial that she couldn't have possibly demanded but somebody did - probably my grandmother.

GROSS: So you were 14. What did you walk away - I mean, with having seen these two completely different ways of marking your mother's life and mourning her death?

LETHEM: Well, you know, I wasn't conjugating these things at the time. I was looking for an exit from the scene. My primary response to losing her was to decide to kind of graduate myself to adulthood, to move sideways out of my family into the world of my friendships and my interests and a handful of very warm and wonderful adult - young adult friends.

GROSS: Having grown up with two generations of people who believed in causes and were committed to causes - communism in your grandmother's life and, you know, like, the anti-war movement - did you have any, like, commitment to political causes? Or did you separate from the world of causes and head more in another direction?

LETHEM: I - I don't know, I'm pretty incoherent. And I think about...


LETHEM: I identify with a political life without, I think, successfully living one.

GROSS: Which is in opposition to the certitude that your family had.

LETHEM: Yeah. I mean - but the belief that you're making a kind of systematic and coherent political life is much easier to sustain, even for my parents and their generation. And I don't mean that critically. And as well for my grandmother, who was, you know, on close inspection, incoherent as well, even if she had a lot more of a sensation of righteousness than I can get away with day-to-day.

GROSS: You gave a commencement address at Bennington College. And I forget what year this was, how recently it was, but you mention the first advice that was given to you that really mattered to you. And it was a phrase from what you describe as, like, hippie-era Buddhism. And the phrase was, all paths lead nowhere. Choose one with heart. That's actually pretty good. And...

LETHEM: Yeah, I still like it.

GROSS: Yeah. Can you talk a little bit about why that works for you?

LETHEM: Well, I mean, first of all, you know, I was giving a commencement address to a college where I'd dropped out. And, you know, I hadn't...


LETHEM: I hadn't dropped out of Princeton or MIT. I dropped out of the most kind of forgiving, hippie, experimental college - right? - one of the places that defines that kind of school experience. And even there, I couldn't make it work. I was too at odds with institutions and too angry about various things to function as a college student. So here I was, circling back. And I was - it was a moment of healing for me, but a very confusing one. You know, you go through life having these crossroads, these reactions, where you basically - you know, in retrospect, what I said was, you can't fire me; I quit. I was afraid of what I was faced with at Bennington College. And here I was. I'd kind of made it all good. You know, it's a victory lap. Give the commencement address. And I wanted to make it better for myself in front of them that I was giving them such a strange - that in my own life was such a strange allegory of disappointment and satisfaction, of, you know, exile and return, that here I was, consecrating their capacity to do four years of college that I couldn't handle myself. But I did feel that, in one sense or another, I'd come back there and discovered that I'd honored the spirit of the place anyway. And I was in pretty good faith giving them advice if the advice was, all paths lead nowhere; choose one with heart - because what I'd done when I left Bennington was, you know, my courage didn't fail me then. I sought out other kinds of mentorship and experience. And I was an autodidact, and I was fearless about writing, even though I had very few people encouraging me to write for a while. And so, in a way, I'd had my cake and eaten it, too.

GROSS: Jonathan Lethem, it's been great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

LETHEM: Such a good time for me. Thank you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Author Jonathan Lethem, speaking to Terry Gross in 2013. His novel, "Dissident Gardens," is now out in paperback. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.