Transcript:

Gloria Naylor: Well, when I think of the American dream, I think of exclusivity, to be quite honest with you. I think that dream, just like the Foundation of America, was only held out to a few and it was only met for a few. You know, it was not for the most part, for those who had come from Europe, who were land owners, who were part of the aristocracy, who had helped to them the promise that they could indeed prosper in this country. The Constitution was not intended for people who were landless, for people who were not male, for people who were not white. You know, this country was just simply not founded that way. We had to have amendments in order to make this democracy more and more inclusive. And so with the American dream as well, it was held out to those who were white, to those who were male for the most part, and others had to fight for inclusion in it.

Interviewer: So think about yourself for a second. You know, you're growing up roughly 200 years after the Constitution. What did the American dream for you compete with? A lot of settling down after that first question, first question started, OK? Shouldn't my concern, I might do it again and those do it in my rhythm. So thank you very much. So for you, what is the American dream in your life or the image or the pictures when somebody says American dream? What are the pictures that pop into your head?

Gloria Naylor: The ability to be able to live as a full citizen when I was coming of age, the dreams that were held out for me to attain were ones of self actualization. They were not so much succeeding within society as to succeed within one's own skin and to try to attain a sense of your own full humanity, because that was the fight in those years. You know, you were constantly being degradation. Wherever you looked. There were stereotypes about you, about your culture, about you, your social class. And so my parents always sort of reinforced in my sisters and I that you have to set your own standards of excellence. You have to strive to become a full person. It did not reach beyond the self into, let's say, attain then attaining success within society because it was sort of a given. If you can just first maintain your own humanity, reify your own personal worth. You then flow into the system as an entity.

Interviewer: So let me ask you first, since that picture I have of the American dream is you have a snapshot of.

Gloria Naylor: The picture I have of the American dream is one of an illusion. It's one of an illusion that that's been set out for us and that we have to shape our own image. You know, it is it is it is indeed a dream. A dream is something that that's ethereal in a dream is something that's not really quite there. And when I think of the American dream, that's what I think of something that is manufactured, something that is ethereal, something that's not quite there yet.

Interviewer: So. Does any room literature do you get a sense of of the dream in American literature for you and in any books? I mean, the books maybe that we're reading or other books that, you know, you read as an adult or as an adolescent?

Gloria Naylor: I think perhaps of of the books that we were reading, the one that really stands out the most about the American dream is the street. I think for that character, Lutie Johnson, she believes the hype. She looked at at the model that was set for the likes of the Ben Franklins of this country. And she felt that, yes, indeed, I can attain that because I am told if I just work hard enough, if I want it badly enough, if I save enough, then I should be able to better myself. Which makes perfect sense if you are indeed in the mode of the Ben Franklins. Well, what Lutie Johnson did not take into account was her race and her sex and her class, you know, and so she did work very hard. She did want things very passionately. She did save and scraped and sacrifice. And she ended up in Harlem running from a murder.

Interviewer: So I want to hold off for this beautiful honor. And it's a perfect introduction to Straight. And I want to really dive into the novel in its own totality.

Gloria Naylor: But as far as the American dream being ethereal.

Interviewer: I think the question I want to ask you is, given all that. Do you think the American dream is a lie?

Gloria Naylor: Yes. If we want to get real, let's get real. I definitely think it's a lie. I think. I think it's part of the same philosophy that flows. This is a real democracy. You know, this is not true democracy. It's important that this society and any society be ruled by the few. Because there was never any trust in the masses.

Interviewer: So the American dream? What role does it play>

Gloria Naylor: What it helps to do is to keep people calm. It helps to keep a society contained, because then an individual believes, like the Joads, for example, in The Grapes of Wrath, that if I'm not prospering, if I'm not attending these things, there's something that I'm not doing. It's not that the society is flawed or that the system is flawed or weighted. It's just that there is something wrong within me.

Interviewer: The first as I said, there's something wrong with me. Let's move on, if we can, to our to the books we want to talk about. And let's start with Noel since passage. Let's just start the basic level of the book. Is a Gatsby like reinvention of self in your mind possible for African-Americans?

Gloria Naylor: I have seen it happen. There are some African-Americans who are today able to quote unquote pass and they they're able to pass on great if not so much a skin color, but to pass into the larger society by simply sublimating those things which are considered, quote unquote, too ethnic or too political. So therefore, they aspire to the values of the broader society. They they try very hard not to stand out as far as the way they look physically, the way they might dress, the language they might speak, the foods they might eat, the values they might hold. And they are acceptable. The Colin Powells of America. It was such a phenomenon to me, that Colin Powell was so deeply loved by the American media and actually tabbed as becoming president. And when you look back at the man, you sort of understood what could be more American than someone who was willing to die for this country. You know, then then a man who was a general, then a man who was that conservative, you know, a man who was also fair skinned, which was extremely important and who had Republican leanings.

Interviewer: So give me a sense then, if if if as you sort of kind of modern passing that we're talking about, Colin Powell is not pretending that he's white, but kind of in every other way, you frame it for me. And no, last time she's writing the book in the mid 20s, what are the dynamics of access to the American dream, if you will.

Gloria Naylor: In those years the access was to the color of the skin. Did you even have hope at running the race? Although, like I've already said, the race cannot be won. But even the hope of running the race, you had to be white to enter. So in those years, what a person did who had that complexion was simply going to assume the mantle of whiteness, to have a chance at the gay chance at the game today. You no longer need to assume that mantle of whiteness as far as the skin color, as long as you assume certain values and certain political stances and you don't make waves.

Interviewer: All right. Talk about the book. What do you think? Why do you think Larsen starts passing with this? Well, during a sweltering summer heat. That's how it more or less of a narrative, more or less, because that's themes I was talking about.

Gloria Naylor: You know, why I interrupted it? I think it starts with that sweltering kind of heat because that symbolizes the oppressive ness of society in which the Irene's of the world lived. And Irene was a middle class black cent who was talking of saying our children to Europe. And they they took summer vacations at Martha's Vineyard and this sort of thing. And yet still, what she was oppressed by was the color of our skin. So she had to worry about whether or not when she was taking a nice tea at the top of this very fancy hotel, well, then that she would be embarrassed and shuffled out.

Interviewer: It would have occurred because one of the things I want to do is always kind of help us with the narrative. How does Irene escape the heat?

Gloria Naylor: Irene passes. That's right, Irene, as she doesn't announce that she is white. But she doesn't deny it either. So she just simply she she goes up. She she's very enough to pass as white. And she sits there and she just simply pretends. And that that's what Clare brought out to her later in the book. You have when it has been convenient for you, you have indeed passed. I just did it for higher stakes.

Interviewer: So they're on the roof of the written kind of the Drake Hotel. And Irene kind of this woman looking at her.

Gloria Naylor: And she's afraid that maybe there's a white woman who has recognized that she's black and that she's about to be accosted. And then you have this whole wave of emotion that flashes to her. You know, first there's anger, then embarrassment, and then she steals herself. But what she thinks is an impending confrontation. And that shows you it's quite a way to live, is it not? Irene is not able to just move as herself as a human being throughout that society. She has to always be second guessing herself.

Interviewer: But it's not she's not confronted with somebody saying you're you you're a Negro. You have no, we're going to roll out. OK, let's roll up. What does that mean? It means we're. Any history with a clear injury or is this kind of just a random meeting to talk about?

Gloria Naylor: No, they go way back, as the saying is. But but Clare had sort of been the not the outcast, but but she had definitely not been of Irene's social class when they were coming up. Her father was a janitor and he was a bit of a drunkard. If I if I remember correctly and so clear, it had been the sort of tag along in Irene's social group.

Interviewer: So it's so it's two African-American in the day, the two Negro women meeting at the top of the being who they are. They're both pretending, I guess, on that hotel.

Gloria Naylor: Oh, yeah, well, definitely. Well, with Clare Kendry, her entire life has become a lie. You know, she is living as a white woman. She is marry a man who is a racist white man who is a racist. So every day of her life, she must live a lie. And I think as far as an artistic choice, that was an interesting one that Larson made because she could have married a man who was a libertarian, could've been quite possible. But she had her marriage racist, which is which is is to show how oppressive it must be for that woman to hear these things about herself each day of her life. And this man who hated black people.

Interviewer: I want to get to that because I actually even want to read a little bit of a person wrote about John Bolu. But Clare at this moment tells I read, We don't know as a reader yet about booboos racism. No. But in the moment that we're getting to in the book, Clare says to our room, well, that's what everyone wants. Just a little more money. All things considered, it's even worth the price. Do you think that there's sort of what's what's worse than trying to say here in that moment about money and passing and access.

Gloria Naylor: That basically that in order to attain Clare's concept of the American dream, which is the attaining of materialism, that she is willing to make any sacrifice to go beyond the sacrifices that I even laid out in the mandate, which is which are hard work and thrift, she's actually willing to sacrifice her own psyche in order to attain material things, in order to attain a certain amount of psychological freedom, because that's all she's getting is basically basically psychological freedom because she came from a mileiu where she could have married a black doctor or a black lawyer. Those are the people that there that she moved among. She could have married. Irene's husband was wealthy. You know, he could have put her up. Well, as far as material things. But I think Clare Kendry was after something else. And I've often wondered about that with this book. It must have been that she wanted the psychological freedom to move within American society and to be considered a human being because even the wealthiest black was not considered the equal of the poorest white.

Interviewer: It's interesting that you say psychological freedom because it's me when I read the book. I don't see Clare as having any. So I think she's psychologically tormented.

Gloria Naylor: Because of the situation that the writer put her in. I'm sorry. Yeah.

Interviewer: My question is not going to be there. So what did you see her? You don't see her as psychologically tormented?

Gloria Naylor: I see her as being drawn back to her own roots. Definitely. Yeah. Yeah. Because one must be what one is, you know, and at some point you want to just breathe free and to truly be yourself as the same thing with with with with people who are homosexual and who are in the closet. There's a point when you just want to simply not have to guard every word, guard every gesture, but to simply be oneself. And and that's what Clare Kendry gives up. So in a sense, she is in a psychological cage. But then there are other times in her life when she can be in the rooftop of fancy hotels and not have to worry, you know, when she can go into stores. But they don't really do much when you think about it. It's it's it's a very prescribed world that that these women move in. It's a world of shopping and of tea parties and cocktail parties and of of second homes. So that's why I kept saying to myself, what is it that she wanted that she couldn't have a change if she stayed in the black bourgeoisie. And that is that freedom to be what I think you have that freedom once you move in the outside society. Yeah.

Interviewer: Can I ask you if you were also thinking of The Great Gatsby? Do you see any similar in between Clare going bad and Gatsby going back? I mean, here they're both characters that reinvent themselves. And what do they do? They go home.

Gloria Naylor: They go home, you know, because they have that that's where you get your basic instinct. Talking about clearing Gatsby. You have your basic freedom from. Except that The Gatsby doesn't quite go home because. He reinvented himself and the time he was 12 years old when he left the Midwest, you know, here he had been the child of farmers, I believe, failed farmers, and he left. But he goes back to that moment in his life when he was a young army officer and he could have married Daisy Buchanan, you know, so he returns, I think, to her in that sense, he doesn't go all the way back. What Clare country does is that she literally wants to go back into the black world of the black bourgeoisie and to just move among these people and be there. Although it's wealth with Gatsby and with Clare, it's their ties to their past that lead them to destruction, you know, because each of them because of the mate of someone from their past. For example, with Clare, it's because of Irene. She begins to have the affair with Irene's husband. And that ultimately leads to her demise because Irene undermines her and she doesn't let her know that she's met Clare's husband and that he knows now that Irene is black. So therefore, Clare must be black. She doesn't let her know this. So at least a very explosive confrontation with Gatsby has the affair with Daisy, which leads to Daisy's husband letting the other man now. It's so bizarre letting him leading him to believe that perhaps it was Gatsby who'd run over his wife. And that leads to Gatsby's death. But the particulars aren't important. What I think both offers are showing is that these characters being drawn back to their past ultimately leads to their destruction. If they had stayed there in the first place, perhaps that's where true happiness would have lain. So there's a sort of cautionary tale, I think, in both of those books seems almost to me to this point exactly that you're making, that if you choose to reinvent yourself, you know, there's a price to pay.

Interviewer: Explain.

Gloria Naylor: There there is definitely a price to pay. Isn't there something I mean. Yeah.

Interviewer: What's the price? What wild price there?

Gloria Naylor: Is it because you you are constantly living a lie?

Interviewer: Give me the sense of reinvention because I'm not going to know. Yeah. Why are they paying the price?

Gloria Naylor: Well, I think because each author is saying to their character and to the audience is that what these individuals were after was shallow. They were after something that they could not truly attain, or even more importantly, that they probably should not have wanted. You know, Clare should not have wanted to move in the white world. She should have wanted perhaps to stay where she was to thrive and be fruitful within her own race. Gatsby should not have wanted to move into this very shallow world of the wealthy and accept it there in East Egg. He should have perhaps strived where he was.

Interviewer: Remember that as a reader, you have any understanding, any empathy for Clare or for Gatsby?

Gloria Naylor: Course I do. You know I do, because what can we attain to accept what we are given? You know, you have a child that comes up and they look at the world and they are told, if you are white and blue eyed and blond haired, you will be a happy little girl. And if you are not that kind of little girl, if you have no old alternative message, then you are going to believe that those are the values that will make you happy. And if you look around the world where you live and you see that little blond haired, blue eyed girls move with freedom, are considered pretty, are allowed to go to certain colleges, to certain stores to live in certain neighborhoods. Well, then society is saying to you, that's what you should aspire to. So therefore, the I don't think that Clare had much choice and Gatsby either.

Interviewer: May I ask you, because you you finish one of these two sites that you choose. I have sympathy for Clare. I don't have sympathy for Clare because.

Gloria Naylor: I have sympathy for Clare because she wasn't given by her country an alternative way to believe that she could be happy. Yeah, I have sympathy for Cliff for that reason. I don't have sympathy for Clare because she could have stayed within her own race and found a sense of freedom and worth if she had worked for it.

Interviewer: Do you think Irene finds that?

Gloria Naylor: Irene's an interesting character. She really is. Irene, in a sense, when I was reading the book, I said to myself, you know, Irene is passing in her own way because what she's done is to suppress all of our own desires, all of our own ambitions in the service of her home and of her husband. And what Irene wants to be totally and fully is just simply a good wife and a good mother. She spirals from nothing else and she's willing to give up everything else to do that. She's willing to even destroy her husband's dreams for her own security. You know, so what was your question about Irene again?

Interviewer: We'll just if you have sympathy for Irene, let's move on to something else. The corporate sector. So I could ask the question I'd like for you. OK.

Gloria Naylor: Clare Kendry wants company, and so she invites Irene and another woman who's also passing as white, who's a butcher's wife. As a matter of fact, not even of their same class. She invites them to have tea at her house. And so there they are talking about the things that only people who are passing could talk about in secret. The fear that when they had children, those children might be too dark. And there's this sort of thing. And Irene, who has not really passed for White, feels a little out of place with these two women who are living this lie, you know, and to a little bit insulted because she says, well, one of my sons is dark, you know, and of course, she had no problem with that because she was living her life as a black woman.

Interviewer: Fantastic. That's great. OK, so now we can revoke. How do you how does that fit you when you read something like that? What do you what's your response to?

Gloria Naylor: My response is how very nightmarish it must be for that woman to live like that. You know, and I I feel emotively that this is the extreme of the price that you have to pay. She must die a little inside. Each time he looks at her, each time he calls her beautiful.

Interviewer: Does it make you sad? Does it make you angry? What?

Gloria Naylor: It is a pathetic situation because I believe that she wasn't given many choices and this was one of her choices. But I think to. But you I mean, just to talk emotively. But I know also about artistic choices. And I think that the author purposely put her in hell, you know, because the author wanted to say this is not the path to go and this is the extreme price that you pay if you choose the path of reinventing yourself for gain. For gain.

Interviewer: That's great. That's great. So what do you think? What do you think Lawson's identifying with that sort of conflict?

Gloria Naylor: I think with that whole milieu, you know, that homo you are of the black Upper-Class person because he's not here. So I think it is because what struck me as interesting in this book and a little offensive when she talked about Working-Class black people, there was there was a maid who was called Zula or Zuhal, Zula or Zula or something of that nature. The one friend in the group who is the darcus of the group with the sort of bushy is hair. She's one of the loud colors and the loud music at the parties. I think Larssen had a slight problem herself with with working class black culture.

Interviewer: Do you know anything about Larsons life to help inform?

Gloria Naylor: Nothing. Nothing specific. I know that she was of that milieu of the black middle class. Yeah.

Interviewer: So why is in the book I read Threatened by Clare. What's going on?

Gloria Naylor: Irene is threatened because what Clare presents to her husband is a certain sense of danger and flare and the exotic that Irene doesn't have. Irene has Cookie Cookie cut it herself into being a wife and a mother. And that is it. That's what she wants. She wants to simply do those duties. She wants predictability and stability in her life. She wants to see day in and day out. Clare comes in and Clare, who is a woman who's had the guts to pass, you know, and she represents for Irene's husband that extra spice, that difference, and which she threatens Irene's very existence.

Interviewer: Well, I mean, they just become good friends. A bridge person?

Gloria Naylor: Well, no, she she's a threat. She threatens our existence by having you fear for husband. There's always the possibility that he might leave.

Interviewer: How do we find out that this affair. Is it.

Gloria Naylor: It's interesting when there is that this one. Jamesian moment I missed you. You really missed it. Yeah. Women, she's she's at the dressing table. Tom and Clare and the other guests are downstairs, and her husband and I were talking. OK, go ahead. Yeah. No, there is I call it the Jamesian moment because Henry James would do this quite, quite well.

Interviewer: Third time of your charm. OK. You know.

Gloria Naylor: It I call it the James your moment because Henry James could do this quite well.

Interviewer: All right, for real.

Gloria Naylor: OK, do it now. I call it a Jamesian moment, because Henry James could do this quite well. There is this frozen instant of time when I read that the dressing table and her husband comes up and she says, why is Clare downstairs? And he said, well, I invited her. And she sees and she hears and senses the defensiveness in his voice. And there's a waiting in his posture that he's waiting to be attacked, waiting to be exposed. And it's that moment that tells her all.

Interviewer: Yeah. So how is that beautiful, by the way? Thank you. How is Clare's world been undermined by Irene?

Gloria Naylor: Well, what Irene does. And this is a sin of omission. She meets Clare's husband in the street just by happenstance. And Irene is walking arm in arm with another one of her friends, who is obviously a black woman. She looks black and the husband sees the two of them together. He makes the connection. Oh, my God. The woman that was in my house with my wife is a black woman. And that makes him suspicious. Now, Clare. Irene could have warned Clare that that that her husband had seen them and he might be suspicious. But she remained silent. And so what he does is that he secretly begins to follow his wife and he finds that indeed she's hanging around with black people. And so she must be black.

Interviewer: And he walks into that party and he confronts her eyes are shouting.

Gloria Naylor: Yeah. That you're a [Unrecognized]. You're a [Unrecognized], you know. And then there is that ambiguous moment.

Interviewer: Before we get to that in a moment. John Blueish screaming You're a [Unrecognized], you're a [Unrecognized]. Do you think that there is a sense, if you're clear of finally release? Probably it's over.

Gloria Naylor: I think Larsen actually says that there was this strange, enigmatic smile on Clare's face, this unreadable smile. You know, where I think almost where perhaps, you know, she might have Clare Kendry could have in that moment been glad for his pain because look at all the pain that he had unwittingly committed upon her all of those years when she had to take those barbs. And that was perhaps just for that one sweet moment. Revenge.

Interviewer: Yeah. You know, I was when I read it, I thought to myself, you know, it's like the worst thing in the world could have. The worst that could have happened, happened. And it wasn't so bad. Oh, yeah. So what happens now? There's this phenomenal ambiguity because Clare doesn't walk away from the novel unscathed.

Gloria Naylor: She has a debt she owns. I mean, for some reason, she flips out of that window and we are never told by Larson whether or not Irene, who was very close to her, took that moment to push her, because I reseize in this moment of the dissolution of Clare's marriage that Clare will be free. And she says, I cannot have her free because we're she free. Then there is the danger that she might run off with her husband. And so suddenly Clare is out the window and we don't know how she got out that window.

Interviewer: Is it a satisfying end for you?

Gloria Naylor: I would have preferred if the novel could have gone on another 20, 30 pages and we would have known for sure I would have preferred to have had if Irene had indeed pushed Clare out that window, that we then began to keep working with with that psychological layout and take it to some kind of conclusion. Yeah.

Interviewer: So you as an author, what kind of conclusion or the reader want to say as a reader, what kind of conclusion then do you take it to? Given all the space that Larson leaves you?

Gloria Naylor: Yeah, I believe that that she was murdered. I believe that Irene pushed her out of that window. I really do.

Interviewer: And what does that leave you with? And in the book about. Just in terms of. How do you think about the world of those characters? Just in terms of. How do you think about the world of those characters?

Gloria Naylor: Once again, what desiring if Irene did indeed kill, what did she kill for? You know, she killed for stability. She should keep. She she she killed for the continuance of our own material well-being. She killed for that elusive American dream.

Interviewer: Great. I'm going to ask one last question about this book. You know, when I when we selected this book, a lot of people didn't know the novel. And I guess the question I have for you that is, do you think the book then lost its relevance? Is that.

Gloria Naylor: That's a good question. I mean, I think you have to take it low. It's definitely worth reading it to understand a bit about the history of race relations in this country. Definitely it's worth reading. I think that the whole concept of passing a white society is more refined now. And one must make the intellectual leap to understand that passing is still possible. But it's no longer so much the color of one's skin as it is what's inside of one's head. If you're willing to whiten inside of your head, you are fine, you know. But I think it as an artifact. Sure, yeah. But I don't think that this is going to be a classic, for example, like Native Son will be, you know, because Native Son taught them. Well, we don't talk my Native Son.

Interviewer: We can talk a little bit about history. So let's cut first sectors to sort of shift gears if we can. So what is something like the event, like the Depression due to the American dream?

Gloria Naylor: I think the depression came it came closest to actually destroying the illusion of the American dream, because what the people saw in Mass is that with all of their hard work, with all of their sacrifice, they were getting poorer and poor and that perhaps this country was not about succeeding on one's own worth. Perhaps this country was about big business and big interest and that those were the only people who were prospering. I mean, that that's why the Communist Party was flourishing so much during the Depression, because people began to actually have this is the average man, the one who must be contained. The one who must be propagandize. The average man began to question whether or not America was really working for them.

Interviewer: So it seems to me that is the idea that hard work guarantees nothing, you know, that.

Gloria Naylor: Well, that's what the Depression kind of showed, that hard work guaranteed you nothing. Hard work is supposed to guaranteeing you a modicum of comfort. You're supposed to do that. Is you supposed to be able to buy the little house to have a little dog outside. The two point seven children. And to go back and live your life and not worry about the bigger picture, not worry about the fact that the politics of the country are for the big interests, that that that the whole foreign policy of the country are for the big interest that your sons die for big interests. Now, what happened with the Depression is that people were not even able to attain the modicum. That they had worked for. And that's when.

Interviewer: Is it a dry, unimpassioned, removed reporting of the facts.

Gloria Naylor: Definitely not. My goodness. It is extremely passionate novel. And the way it's constructed sort of reveals the author's passion because The Grapes of Wrath and some chapters becomes very close to being an essay, you know, because what you have is Steinbeck with the large picture of the fact that the American dream does not work. And then you have the Joes who are his examples of how it does not work. And Steinbeck is extremely angry about the fact that the common man who is striving very hard, who wants so very little, is not even able to attain that little if it backs up against the interests of the banks and of the big landowners. You know, and that's what The Grapes of Wrath, I think, is basically about, is about watching these people try to simply live who asking for little. They are not angry people. They are not revolutionaries. They are not sophisticated. They they simply want to farm a tenant farmers. They simply want to go out but their butts every day and get a small return and then pass that on to their children. And even that under certain circumstances is asking too much if you're going to inopportune the banking interest. And that's what made Steinbeck so furious.

Interviewer: It's interesting. One of the things we talked about is that the Germans seem to define themselves by work.

Gloria Naylor: Definitely by work. That that's that that's what makes a man. And that's what makes a man as being able to go out there and to feel that soil and to create the corn and to create the cotton. And what makes a woman is to be able to to put her hands into the dough and to feed her family and to sew the clothes and to clean the house that defined them as people. And they act for nothing else. This is sort of the pathos in that book. They wanted nothing else. They did not even aspire for their children to go to college. They wanted to pass on the land and that kind of work to their children.

Interviewer: So when the Joads are denied work. What happens to their soul?

Gloria Naylor: So it doesn't disappear? Because another message, I think, in this book is about the tenacity of the human spirit. But it definitely begins to shrivel up and to be transformed. And you see people who were just plain ordinary people become people who are somewhat bitter and a few of their element even become a little political.

Interviewer: So let's go back to just the author for a second, talking about this book that it is. What sense do you get of Steinbeck and how he must have approached his desk every morning when you read his work?

Gloria Naylor: I would say that he probably had to rein himself in a great deal to keep from becoming too didactic, that he had to just simply allow these people to evolve and to be. I really wonder if Steinbeck wanted them to come out in the end as quote unquote, good as they came out, because they still come out with their humanity intact and with with that ability to even nurture and to help someone of their own kind, they come out looking quite noble. I can believe, given his own political leanings, that he probably would have wanted them just as the writer to have ended up like the preacher, somehow enlightened about the true structure of American society and American economy and somehow more militant. But as a good writer, which Steinbeck is, he allowed his characters to evolve in their own way. And these people were not the kind of people who were going to join the Communist Party.

Interviewer: Do you think that Steinbeck's writing is overwhelmed by his anger?

Gloria Naylor: No, I don't think. I think he walks a fine line in this book. I myself read the anger in between the lines of the book. But I think where he goes off into these editorial forays, often you're walking a very fine line of being of being too didactic. I'm just letting your aunt tell the story itself, because the judge themselves is sometimes what you do is that you get a if you're impassioned about something, you get a tiny bit afraid that maybe the characters won't convey at all. And so you want to nudge them a little bit. And but yet Steinbeck allowed these people just simply to be their story is evocative enough. It truly does say what what he wants to say is that what he's saying is that people it's just not fair. That's what he's saying. That's what he's saying.

Interviewer: Beautiful. Help me understand the beginning of the book. Paint a picture for me as this this beautiful.

Gloria Naylor: Well, once again, you have. Once again, you have.

Interviewer: Because you started speaking.

Gloria Naylor: Oh, I'm sorry, because he said we should have a conversation. That's what happens in a conversation, kind of. Oh. You more.

Interviewer: OK, but give me a sense, how how does the book open up in that? Just, you know, how does the big portrait of this thing go once again?

Gloria Naylor: You have like in the passing the environment, the description of the environment, which is to foretell what's going to happen in the whole novel itself. So you open up with the land, not being able to nurture the corn that the rain comes. But it doesn't penetrate the earth. You have the dry when that's blowing the corn down and drying up the young stalks. You have this sense of oppressiveness and sterility and and a bubble. I think futility that even nature itself is futile and unable to flourish. And then slowly, what's moving from the horizon are these big tractors. And what these tractors are coming to do is to destroy the homes of the sharecroppers and to put in a huge agribusiness.

Interviewer: Why?

Gloria Naylor: Because it was not. It is more profitable for the stockholders to have an agribusiness than to have the tenant farmers there.

Interviewer: So. How do you read the Joads here? You know, Tom is back from jail. Back to James. He meets the preacher, Jim Casey. They go to the family farm. Is it a big process? Family farm. And everybody's like Compton. Plug right back in and get on the tractor and go to work for Paul.

Gloria Naylor: No, it's nothing like that at all. I mean, it's it's a very struggling farm, and the fields around them are dying and they are getting ready to pack up and to leave. Yeah. So give me a sense of how you that first moment when you see the whole family, what you think of the jobs, what you see people trying to do physically is to say bits and scraps of their life and to move on with it. And so they're deciding, what do I take? What do I leave? Do I take the little China dog? Do I take the letter my brother wrote me just before he died? What long overload the truck as we try to move on with our lives? So you have this overwhelming picture of people just sorting through the little scraps and mementos of their lives, getting ready to leave that.

Interviewer: Gut wrenching.

Gloria Naylor: Yeah.

Interviewer: That they can't even take your life. They have to leave you remember.

Gloria Naylor: Yes. They have to leave memories. The fact that she didn't want to take the letter that her brother wrote just before he died, that there wouldn't be enough space for them.

Interviewer: But do you think that the Jones share Steinbeck Center?

Gloria Naylor: No. I know they don't. They don't what I know they don't share. I know the Joads don't share Steinbeck's anger with the what you see, the Joads doing. And what this book becomes is a sort of quest for one's humanity and that humanity is equated to having some kind of substantial work. So what the Joads keep moving from place to place to place, looking for a chance to work, looking for a chance to be human. They don't blame the banks in the east. They don't blame the stockholders. They don't blame the huge farm owners. The judge don't blame anyone. They don't really even blame themselves. But they feel as if they haven't tried hard enough. So you move a little further, you try a little harder. You know, you just simply you try for that one day to make that one meal and that that's. And when you think about it, what else could they do, given the kind of people they were? They were not people for big picture you. I don't believe in that whole novel. They ever once picked up a newspaper even.

Interviewer: Do you think that they see themselves outside of the American dream?

Gloria Naylor: I don't think that the Joads, if we see you because you're actually getting. How do I even define the American dream? I gave you my definition. If we just look at the overall sort of pat definition of the American dream, which is if you work hard enough, wanted badly enough, saved enough, that you will indeed prosper. I don't think the Joads even had that large a vision. I think what the Jodis wanted to do was to wake up in the morning to feel that they have had a productive day when they go to bed that night. That's what they want. They want to be able to provide for their families for that day.

Interviewer: And they're denied.

Gloria Naylor: And that that that's where Steinbeck's rage come in comes in because they are denied even that they are not allowed to be human beings.

Interviewer: Can I stop for a second just so I can catch my breath, like we're going to be one second?

Gloria Naylor: OK. It's my favorite passage in the book, because I think this is the closeness that the common people come to understanding the unfairness of the system, because when you have those oranges, which could feed starving people, it's kerosene poured over them and they begin to melt and stink in the air just for the sake of profit. When people are standing around watching this happen and starving, it just brings all of the philosophy. All of the rhetoric comes home in that one image that even a child can say, a six year old can say there's something wrong with this picture.

Interviewer: You really hear Steinbeck on that?

Gloria Naylor: Oh, God, yes. I mean, that that's where he gets it's from that passage that he gets the title of his book because it's he believes it is at this point that even people like the Joads can be moved to anger at the just at just the epitome of the unfairness of it all. Yeah.

Gloria Naylor
Interview Date:
2000-06-28
Runtime:
0:44:09
Keywords:
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
cpb-aacip-504-kw57d2qz79
MLA CITATIONS:
"Gloria Naylor, Novel Reflections on the American Dream." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 28 Jun. 2000, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/582
APA CITATIONS:
(2000, June 28). Gloria Naylor, Novel Reflections on the American Dream. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/582
CHICAGO CITATIONS:
"Gloria Naylor, Novel Reflections on the American Dream." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). June 28, 2000. Accessed December 01, 2021 https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/582

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