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'The Wall' Brings a Grim World Back to Life

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'The Wall' Brings a Grim World Back to Life

Author Interviews

'The Wall' Brings a Grim World Back to Life

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Almost an entire generation of people have grown up since the Berlin Wall was brought down and totalitarian systems all over Eastern Europe collapsed. Peter Sis grew up in that world, mostly in Prague. How do you explain to people growing up today about a world in which religion was banned, you were required to turn out for Mayday Parades and mass gymnastics celebrating socialists ideals and were asked to report on the loyalties of your parents?

Peter Sis drew from an early age. One day, he was old enough to realize that his drawings could be used against him. He grew up to go to the World College of Arts in London, came to the U.S. and has since become an accomplished writer, illustrator and filmmaker. He's written an illustrated book about his early life. It's called "The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain."

Peter Sis, who's also a MacArthur Fellow, joins us from New York. Thank you so much for being with us.

Mr. PETER SIS (Author, "The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain"; Fellow, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation): Very nice to be here.

SIMON: People come to Prague today and say, what a wonderful, lively place. Did you want your children to know about something else?

Mr. SIS: That's what happened. We came to Prague with my American children, my American wife, and everything was so beautiful. And I was trying to explain that it wasn't always like that. And it somehow was impossible to explain so I thought I have to draw it. The reason (unintelligible) - did lots of books for my children when they were little, which were cheerful, telling them how wonderful the world will be and the colorful butterflies and everything and then came the age of them becoming young teenagers, and I thought, how do I tell them that they shouldn't just trust everybody. And that's how I came up with this book.

SIMON: It's a book of pictures, your drawings - I'm not inclined to call them cartoons - that explain what growing up in Prague was like. I wonder if you could share some of that with us. I mean, what's it like to be in the Young Pioneers?

Mr. SIS: I was very proud of it. That was the problem that when you grow up as a little child who trust your parents, who trust your street, who trust your class. And what I realized only much later was that the parents cannot tell you the truth because they would be in big trouble. So it's good they start to tell you how the world is and that everything is really ruled by bountiful Soviet Union. And if you would be a good boy and good girl, you would become the Young Pioneer.

So at third grade, you go to some special place and you get red scarf and you'll become the Young Pioneer and you meet what we call the boy scouts, I guess. But the political party was a big part of it. And some people, well, kept out, as I suggest in the book, was my gypsy school friend because he didn't think he's worth being a Young Pioneer.

SIMON: As an artist, what were you looking to achieve in these drawings?

Mr. SIS: I knew from the beginning, I finally look at my books, throughout the years, I was getting ready for this for a long time. I was sort of gearing up for telling the story about how it is if you try to brainwash the little child, which I find was the most awful about the whole thing.

So I decided that all the pictures would be the little boxes of little fragments of what I remember. And then I would have these larger pictures. They - telling what I was hoping for and what would be the whole sort of picture of the time. And so the little pictures from the beginning, I knew I want it to have in black and white with just little sparkles of red because I feel like Prague and Czechoslovakia and that time was so black - '50s, red flags and red stars everywhere.

SIMON: Yeah. Red flags, red stars and little red 'kerchief around little boys' neck for the Young Pioneers, I guess.

Mr. SIS: But theseā€¦

SIMON: And the hammer and sickle, yes.

Mr. SIS: And hammers and sickles. And then when you meet another pioneer and you wanted to be friends, you would sign each other's red scarf. And I remember, with the beginnings of rock 'n' roll, there was a big problem because one boy had written Elvis on his Pioneer scarf and almost became a major problem, but luckily the teachers sort of played it down and was claiming that Elvis was some boy from another country.

SIMON: That was very gracious of them, wasn't it?

Mr. SIS: It was very - there were moments like that when it really depended on one person if it would be a big trouble or not.

SIMON: Tell me about your relationship with your parents because I'm intrigued. You say in the book that you could draw whatever you wanted to at home, but you couldn't at school. It sounds as if your parents, in a very careful kind of way, were letting you know that there was something else in the world.

Mr. SIS: That's exactly what happened. My father was a filmmaker so he was also a person of privilege but he could travel. Unfortunately, when I was, like, 4 years old, he went to make a film in Tibet and was gone for two years. But he would always be able to travel around the world and tell me that the world is big and would tell me the stories. So was sort of open-minded. And he encouraged me to draw books. He even gave me deadlines to finish something by the end of the week or two weeks or a month.

And my mother was an artist who stayed home because of the kids so that was wonderful. Of course, then came the school where we were taught completely different things. And so it's still mystery for me like how did it happen that by the age we were, I think fifth, sixth grade, we started to understand there are two different worlds. The one world, which is the official world and then there's another world beyond that. It was strange, that sort of double life.

SIMON: Hmm. You became aware of the fact, at one point, that political people at school wanted to use you to, in a sense, check up on your parents?

Mr. SIS: I was invited by this very nice and very (unintelligible) principal who said, you seem like a nice boy. Sit down here. And if you would see anything, which is not really supposed to be happening in your class or at home, I'm sure you would come and tell me. And I was, luckily, so naive, because, I think, always, my art helped me in the way that I was always thinking about some drawings so I - it takes me always a long time to understand something. But in a few days, I understood that he wants me to come in and tell him. And I think it goes all the way to all these films and stories about secret service in Germany or all East European countries.

SIMON: How did it happen, Mr. Sis, that you wanted to live in the world of The Beatles? Because you turn a page and the book just explodes with color and the Union Jack and tie-dyed stuff, you know?

Mr. SIS: It was the most wonderful time in my life because I was 18, 19 and even the change is happening in Prague. And all of a sudden, we were able to travel. I go to London. I've seen one of the first performances of The Who. I've seen very first performance of the Cream. Everything, all of a sudden, became colorful and I really believed it. And The Beatles became reality. And we want to be The Beatles. And it was such a change from all the grayness.

SIMON: Then there's the startling moment when you pass along some of your teenage journals and pictures of yourself that time.

Mr. SIS: Right.

SIMON: If I might, March 1968, a rally for Dubcek. This is Alexander Dubcek, who would become the first secretary of the party.

Mr. SIS: Right.

SIMON: He's calling for socialism with a human face. Then May, censorship is lifted. We can have long hair and wear jeans, but our school magazine is shut down. The principal complains of anarchy. Then you go to the West and then things seem to be blooming and you turn a page and it's back to black and white. And then you've drawn a picture of a tank and suddenly it looks like you, the teenager, surrounded by a maze of tanks.

Mr. SIS: That was a shocking day of August 21, 1968. It was when the Russians took over Prague. That was a terrible shock to everybody because we all idealistically believed Dubcek project(ph) will work.

SIMON: I will just stipulate that the last two pages of illustration are one of the most powerful bits of artwork I've ever seen.

Mr. SIS: Thank you very much.

SIMON: We'll make people buy the book. (Unintelligible)

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Peter Sis, the author and illustrator of "The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain." Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. SIS: Thank you very much.

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