Timelessness

Card: What is your writing style?

Gay Talese: Well, as I made reference to before, through my father’s craftsmanship, I write every sentence with a sense that it had better be the very best I’m capable of because I had an exalted sense of the lasting value of what I work. I mean my own work I believe is written in such a way that can be read 10 years after I write it or 20 years after I write it with the same sense of the presence I bring through prose to the subject I’m writing about. I never wanted to write ever, I mean even when I was young, I’m 76 now, when I was 26, 50 years ago, it was the same thing, I never wanted to write topically. I never wanted to write about something that was in the news today; therefore, that was why I was getting into print because I was writing about something current. I always stayed away or tried to stay away from anything that I thought wasn’t going to thanks to my careful chronicling or prose writing that wouldn’t be able to be read years hence with the same interest on the reader’s part as whatever the reader might bring to what I wrote immediately after it was published. So I didn’t want to be a journalist in that sense. In fact, I never was a very- I don’t think I was ever celebrated as a journalist; however, I’ve been celebrated-- reason I’m on this show. Whatever brings me to this show is not because I was a prize-winning journalist. I mean I wasn’t the kind of person that would win a Pulitzer ‘cause I wasn’t doing that kind of work. What I was trying to do when I was on a newspaper and continually throughout where I am today was trying to bring a sense of presence to what I’m writing to a reader who would otherwise not know about what I’m writing about. And therefore, I was trying to write in a way that was more identifiable with fiction writers or the great short story writers or the great novel writers or the great playwrights. I wanted to write stories. The only thing I wanted to bring to the kind of stories that I do and have always done is reality in the sense of the real name of the person and situations that are verifiably true. I believe that reality can be fantastic if you know people really well, if you can spend the time with people and get deeply into their character, into their sensibilities. You can write what seems to be fiction and it’s not. One of the reasons I take so long, I mean I’m hardly a prolific person when you consider I’ve been working, you know, for more than a half century and I have 11 books and 3 of them are rather short. But the reason it takes me so long is that I have to know the people very well. I have to establish a kind of relationship that goes beyond just professionalism, that becomes personal. Now, you know, I mean I’m not writing for the personal approval of the people I’m writing about. I’m not. I do maintain as a writer the prerogative of being fully in control of the manuscript. But on the other hand, I am so sensitive to the people I’m writing about and I know them so well and believe I can actually know how they think, not what they say as I’m speaking to you now, but I want to know and do think I do know how they think. And I bring that interior monologue into my prose. It isn’t direct quotation. It is how people think and when you have to spend that time knowing people, time passes. So much of my time is getting to know people long before I’m writing anything and even before I’m making notes. I mean the last book, A Writer’s Life took me about 10 years, the book before that Unto the Sons 10 years, Thy Neighbor’s Wife published in 1982, another 10 years. The book on the gangster family I hung out with published in 1972 called Honor Thy Father, that was also nine years. The book on The New York Times, I had a whole 10-year experience on the paper before I wrote about it. So I really do not write a lot, but what I do write, I know what I’m writing about. I know the people I’m writing about. So the books hold up so they’re being reissued as they are this next year. Two old books, Honor Thy Father and Thy Neighbor’s Wife published, as you said, 1982 and 1972, are being reissued without a word changed. Now, am I taking pride in that? Yes. Do I sound boastful? I hope not. But what I’m trying to do is give you an understanding of my value system as a writer, which is to write in a way that can hold up as my father when he made suits said, “Make sure the buttons don’t fall off.” The stitching has to be perfect hand-stitching, not done quickly or causally because it had to withstand time. And that’s what I took from my father.

Card: What drew you to writing?

Gay Talese: Well, the sense of wonderment about who I was in this rather alienated society that I described to you earlier. Who am I? And also I believe that while we were a most ordinary family in rather ordinary circumstances, the town is a small town, Ocean City, New Jersey, not known for very, very much. It was seashore resort catering mostly in the summertime to people from the Philadelphia area. I never saw people from New York down there. But what drew me to writing was that in the World War II period when I was just not even a teenager, I thought there was an international story just in our little address in that little tailor shop and dress shop and the apartment upstairs, which was where we lived. But during the World War II period, my father, having as I told you, Italian brothers fighting in the Italian Army against the US brought to this little location in Ocean City a sense of awareness about the international event, the World War II event, and how this tailor was every night connected through shortwave radio listening to the war news. And the war was being brought into our living room at 11 o’clock at night or midnight and I thought here is a story of people living a kind of double life or triple life. In the daytime, the tailor, my father and my mother, who ran the dress shop, talking to the American people, selling them clothes. My father would sometimes as a tailor not make suits ‘cause there was a shortage of material during World War II and what he’d do often is just alter the suits of soldiers or maybe sew on a chevron. Maybe a guy was promoted from corporal to sergeant and my father would sew on. And I’d see here are these American soldiers who are fighting Italy and here’s my father sewing on the chevron, you know, but what a connection to the international event, the tailor who comes from Italy and who has sentiments toward the safety of his brothers and maybe privately praying for the survival of his village as allied bombers and allied troops from the Americans, the British, the Canadians were moving right through his village and the kind of curious, complex situation of a tailor in a small town, a protestant town. I thought, “It’s interesting. Someday I should write about that.” Well, someday I did write about that. It was called, Unto the Sons and it’s gonna be on HBO. The director, writer- Stanley Tucci, the actor, is directing this and writing this now as I speak to you. Well, here is this story back in 1943 in the mind and eyes of a rather obscurely defined 11-year-old me and now in 2008 or 2009, there will be this HBO series inspired by the flawed and rather insecure mentality of a kid. And so there’s really again a reaffirmation of how things are perceived in one way at a certain time and later on are translated, a half a century later in this case, to what will be an HBO series.

Talese was drawn to journalism by the sense of wonderment about who he was in an alienated society.

America’s education system is centuries old. Can we build something better?

The Lumina Foundation lays out steps for increasing access to quality post-secondary education credentials.

Sponsored by Lumina Foundation
  • America's post-high school education landscape was not created with the modern student in mind. Today, clear and flexible pathways are necessary to help individuals access education that can help them lead a better life.
  • Elizabeth Garlow explains the Lumina Foundation's strategy to create a post-secondary education system that works for all students. This includes credential recognition, affordability, a more competency-based system, and quality assurance.
  • Systemic historic factors have contributed to inequality in the education system. Lumina aims to close those gaps in educational attainment.
  • In 2019, Lumina Foundation and Big Think teamed up to create the Lumina Prize, a search to find the most innovative and scalable ideas in post-secondary education. You can see the winners of the Lumina Prize here – congratulations to PeerForward and Greater Commons!

First solar roadway in France turned out to be a 'total disaster'

French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.

Image source: Charly Triballeau / AFP / Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • The French government initially invested in a rural solar roadway in 2016.
  • French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.
  • Solar panel "paved" roadways are proving to be inefficient and too expensive.
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What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
  • After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps, ostensibly for national security purposes.
  • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.