FRANK STASIO, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Frank Stasio in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.
Here are some of the stories NPR is following today. The Red Cross says it has credible information that the US personnel at Guantanamo Bay have mistreated the Koran. This is just days after Newsweek retracted a story saying a Pentagon report had confirmed that allegation. And the World Health Organization says an outbreak of ebola in Africa is under control after only a few weeks, but 500 miles to the south, the Marburg virus is still spreading months after it began. More on those stories this afternoon on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.
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Now as part of Think Global, public radio's week of special coverage, we turn from the cold numbers and social changes of globalization to its place in the literary imagination. A freak snowstorm in Japan strands thirteen strangers for a night in a forgotten airport in a forgotten country. To pass the time they do what strangers do, they are thrown together and they do what they've done throughout the ages: On the pilgrimage routes of Britain, hiding out from the plague in Italy, well, they tell stories--fantastic tales of an entrepreneur who falls in love with a doll, Sleeping Beauty reimagined as the daughter of an Indian call center owner, a traditional craftsman betrayed by designer goods. It's the world of "Tokyo Cancelled," a new book of intertwined stories by first-time author Rana Dasgupta. He joins us now from the Paris studios of the BBC.
Welcome to the program.
Mr. RANA DASGUPTA (Author, "Tokyo Cancelled"): Thank you for having me.
STASIO: We want to hear from listeners as well. Is there a particular book or movie that illuminates our interconnectedness in the world for you: the role of art in globalization, the role of imagination in dealing with the changes of globalization? Give us a call: (800) 989-TALK; (800) 989-8255. You can send us an e-mail at email@example.com.
Rana, what was your inspiration for this book?
Mr. DASGUPTA: Well, I think I wanted to follow up some of the ideas that you were talking about then, and that is to try and talk about--to think about how it's possible to respond to this condition of globalization through literature, and I think in trying to do that, I mean, there were two things that were significant. One is that globalization is not just out there, it's not just something that happens outside in the world, but it's also something that's interior to us, and all of us have our thoughts and daydreams traveling around the world. And to me it seemed improbably that a novel about these kind of things could be contained by national borders, and so I wanted to think about that state of what it means to be global inside.
And the other thing, I think, is to think about a project of what people who get together in airports--strangers who may come from many different sides of the world--have to say to each other, what it's possible for human beings who don't know each other to actually communicate. And so this collection of stories was, as you point out, a kind of experiment in the limits of human communication and the limits of the imagination around the world.
STASIO: Yeah, it is a fascinating--the framing narrative itself. It's not just that you're having fantasies and sort of ideas beyond what's possible in your own mind, but the framing narrative--that you sit down and you talk to others and that they're strangers.
Mr. DASGUPTA: Yeah, I like the idea of strangers a lot. I think one of the things that often charms us about literature is that it gives us accurate portraits of things we know, people we recognize and this gives us a feeling of recognition. But I think I personally am interested in trying a different approach which is to try and encourage people to love and identify with characters that they don't know at all, and to think about how your emotions as a reader can flow into characters that are very different from you. So that is set up right at the beginning of the book because none of these characters are really identified. We don't really know where they're from or who they are. They remain these sort of shadowy, mysterious figures that the reader has to sort of try and glimpse through the darkness of their airport.
And I think fairy tales--and this book has a kind of fairy tale flavor to it--fairy tales are very useful for this because they provide you with this kind of language. None of us really know anything about Red Riding Hood or Sleeping Beauty. We don't know what kind of music they listen to or what their relationship was like with their parents, but we still have an amazing amount of identification with these characters. And I think that one of the things, for me, that's interesting about trying to think through the idea of globalization in literature is the ethical issue of how we as a species--human beings--can start to identify morally and in every other sense with people whose lives we understand very little.
STASIO: I'm talking with Rana Dasgupta, who has written a book about globalization, but it is a fantastic book in the literal sense of that word: "Tokyo Cancelled." You can join our conversation about the role of art, and dealing with issues like globalization would seem well beyond the ability of the mind to sort of get around, as busy as we are. (800) 989-8255. Chris is on the line from--is that Montague, Michigan?
CHRIS (Caller): Montague, Michigan.
STASIO: Is that right?
CHRIS: You got it.
STASIO: Hi, Chris.
CHRIS: Hi. Nice to get on. I love your show. I just--it's interesting because there's a little bridge between the last section and this. I think one of the most interesting examples of globalization in culture right is the television program "Lost." And that "Lost" actually--they have really--they've brought together some cultural stereotypes from around the world and they actually--part of the program is actually sort of deconstructing those stereotypes and finding out who these people really are from these different cultures.
STASIO: All right. Now I have not seen that, and I don't know if you have, Rana, yourself.
Mr. DASGUPTA: I live in Delhi in India, so I have a different television culture from you, I think.
CHRIS: Well, it's on ABC, I believe, and it's on Wednesday nights, and it's become sort of a pop culture phenomena, you know, in the sense that they had no stars and they put it together in a great hurry and it's become, you know, much like "Star Wars," an addiction for many people, but it's really a story about a bunch of people crashed on an island, a airplane crash, and they're lost, and it's an extraordinary globalization story. Anyway, if you guys don't know about it, I guess you can't talk about it. But I put that out on the table.
STASIO: Well, what we can do is talk about this whole notion of people, as you suggested earlier, who don't know each other--What do we talk about?--and there are these themes, these fears. You deal with--in the billionaire's sleep, for instance, this call center. The guy's very wealthy, but he's having a hard time sleeping. You deal with some ancient issues, the whole idea of sabbath, which is a very, very old idea in ancient imagination, coming through in a guy who's dealing with a call center and cloning, for goodness' sake.
Mr. DASGUPTA: Yeah. I think one of the things about globalization and one of the reasons that I think it's interesting to put alongside each other a number of stories from different places is that we are starting to have a very global--I guess mentality, which is a set of fears and a set of aspirations, and I think in my book I was very interested in exploring some of those fears, which are raised for all of us by things like technology and by the kind of intensity of life, which is what our billionaire suffers from. He's running a 24-hour business, and he's earning a lot of money, but unfortunately, the side effect is that he never gets to sleep and never has done. So through these kind of sort of metaphors--yeah, exactly. It's an attempt to try and process some of these things that unite a lot of us in the world when we look at globalization.
But I think what's interesting about--and this is sort of the rubric of your show--what is interesting as a writer, I think, is that your job is really to imagine, and part of the problem about the pace of globalization is that the future becomes extremely scary because we really can't imagine it very well. And I think writers, and other people whose job is to imagine, are called upon in that kind of circumstance to enter this unknown space and try and make it exciting and beautiful and all those kinds of things so that it doesn't appear to starkly alien as it seems to. And part of that, I think, is to look at all the fears and, indeed, the hopes that globalization arouses.
STASIO: I was going to say, one of the interesting things about the book is that it allows the reader to imagine the unimaginable, so that you have alternative endings to, you know, however you think globalization's going to turn out. But you do have the context of people talking to each other, so the most intimate kind of personal conversation is involved in taking on flights of fancy that are beyond, you know, human imagination or the human mind.
(800) 989-8255 is the number to call. Are you going to reply to that?
Mr. DASGUPTA: Well, I was just going to say that I think there is a utopian aspect to this book, and I think that one of the problems we will have thinking about these issues is that we are very, very locked in to ideas of the nation, and we think that there is something very--it's very difficult for an American and maybe a Sudanese to have much to say to each other. And I think that one of the things that we have to think around when we think about this globalization issue is how we can imagine those two people as human beings who have things to talk to each other about and not simply as people divided as nation-states. So I think my book has tried to approach that problem by the fairy tale culture, which is quite a universal culture, and it's got a certain romance about travel, and earlier cultures of nomadism and hospitality and all those kinds of things. So it tries--it is often very dark and a lot of the fears that you're talking about come through, but I think it tries to offer some kind of hope and a kind of language for talking about these things through the scenarios of the fairy tales which are familiar to most people in the world in fact.
STASIO: Let's go to Ann on the line from Kansas City. Hi, Ann.
ANN (Caller): Hi. An example of a novel that I a read a couple of years ago that was a good example of this is the novel "Bel Canto." I believe the author may be Ann Patchett.
Mr. DASGUPTA: Ann Patchett.
ANN: Yes. An American opera singer who was taken hostage in a South American country to be--was so admired by a Japanese businessman that the many cultures involved there of the hostages that were all in that home together, and it was just a wonderful example of different people's sensibilities and approaches to life and love.
STASIO: Thanks very much, Ann.
ANN: Thank you.
STASIO: I just want to remind all of you that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Frank Stasio in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan.
My guest is Rana Dasgupta. He's the author of "Tokyo Cancelled," a book of fiction that takes a look at globalization. You can join the conversation by calling us at (800) 989-8255.
Are there particular themes that you were really interested in in the whole globalization issue that drew you to this work?
Mr. DASGUPTA: I think one of the things that I was interested in doing came out of what you just said about the unimaginable, because I think it's one of the problems that writers, and I guess anyone trying to deal with this issue is what he said at the beginning of this segment, the sort of unimaginable fantastically vast aspect of globalization, and especially because we usually think about globalization as a set of economic processes which are so abstract that it's very difficult to relate to. And I think that as a writer you have to sort of launch out a little bit into things that you really don't know much about and take a gamble on all this stuff that is sort of, you know, like background noise in your life of the fact that your products are made elsewhere and that your life is deeply implicated in the lives of so many other people around the planet, but you don't really understand how that fits together. So this book for me was an attempt to step out into the unknown to a very great extent, and some of the places I've written about are places that I have researched deeply but never actually been to. And it's an interesting condition for a writer because I think there are lots of pressures on writers traditionally to write about what they know about. But I think in the condition of globalization, you're kind of obliged to step out into the unknown and welcome it into yourself and into your writing.
STASIO: Well, is that--and it sounds to me in a sense like that has been traditionally the role of the prophet, to not only chide the society for the direction that it's going, but somehow imagine an alternative.
Mr. DASGUPTA: It's a very interesting connection, and in fact, my--the book that I'm writing right now has as its central character a contemporary prophet, and I think it's an interesting connection for another reason and that is that traditionally a lot of the language that we've used to talk about something so abstract as humanity is religious language. It's religious language that gives us a sense of the human race as a kind of entity, and that has provided us often--I mean, across the ages--with a reason to care about human beings that are very different from ourselves. And so I think the reworking of religious themes and religious language in--well, certainly in my work is very, very crucial because I think that though I'm not a religious person, I think that religions are, in this kind of case, providing us with answers to really crucial questions which more sort of economic language of how human beings relate to each other, which is what we often have when we speak about globalization, can't really deal with.
STASIO: Questions of meaning. I think we have time for one more call. Kevin's on the line. Hi, Kevin.
KEVIN (Caller): Oh, hello. First of all, I just want to say that I really enjoy your show, and the other thing that I wanted to mention was that about two weeks ago I was in Chicago attending an psychology conference. I had the opportunity to see a movie called "Crash," with, you know, Sandra Bullock and Brendan Fraser and there were a couple of other actors. I thought it was really interesting that a lot of the friction that you see between these characters, despite the fact that their lives overlap so much, is due in large part to race. And I think there's this one really interesting character...
STASIO: You know what, Kevin? I know we're not going to have time and I'm very sorry to have done this to you, but thank you for your call. But let me just get a quick response from Rana about that, about the sort of divisions that you see and how artificial are they, and can they be bridged.
Mr. DASGUPTA: I'm not exactly what he said there. Was it race?
STASIO: Race. Yeah.
Mr. DASGUPTA: Yeah. I think that is the whole project. It's finding an imagination for conversations between strangers, so I hope this book goes somewhere towards it.
STASIO: And the book is "Tokyo Cancelled." The author is Rana Dasgupta, who spoke with us from the studios of BBC in Paris.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Thank you very much, Rana, for being with us.
Mr. DASGUPTA: Thank you very much.
STASIO: I'm Frank Stasio. Neal Conan will be back on Monday.
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