Code Switch Book Club: Summer 2019 Our listeners suggestions include American history, compelling fiction, a few memoirs—and Jane Austen, re-imagined with brown people.
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Code Switch Book Club: Summer 2019

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Code Switch Book Club: Summer 2019

Code Switch Book Club: Summer 2019

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(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MICKEY MOUSE BOOK CLUB THEME")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Books - books are your friends, my friends. Books keep you company. Books take you across the sea and down along the trail that never ends.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

This is CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:

And I'm Karen Grigsby Bates, in for Gene. And that was the theme song from the Mickey Mouse book club - the 1950s Mickey Mouse book club.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: Shereen.

MERAJI: Yes?

BATES: You're too young to remember that, but maybe you remember this. What do these books have in common - "Native Son," "The Grapes Of Wrath," "To Kill A Mockingbird," "The Great Gatsby" and "1984?"

MERAJI: They're all depressing.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: They're definitely not about topics that are lively and fun and fluffy. They're about racism, income inequality, our dystopian future - and by future, I mean right now.

BATES: Present, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

BATES: Well, there's that. But I was thinking that they've all been part of our summer reading lists, you know, when we were growing up. Maybe in high school?

MERAJI: I had to read "To Kill A Mockingbird" and "The Great Gatsby." Those were the two that I had to read in high school. And the reason why we're talking about all this is, if you haven't figured it out yet, we are going to be doing the CODE SWITCH summer reading list - a reading list of our own, the 2019 edition. And like last winter's book list that Karen was here for, all of these are by or about people of color. And in this case, on this show, they are by and about people of color. Right, Karen?

BATES: Yep. We asked our listeners to suggest books that they think people might read over the summer.

MERAJI: Or maybe listen to - because Karen firmly believes that listening to a book counts as reading a book. I'm on the fence about that.

BATES: Well, it's not exactly the same, Shereen. But I do both because I can't hold a book while I cook or walk the dog. And I like books, so I can cram in more this way.

MERAJI: Hm, OK.

BATES: Anyway, we're going to talk about a few of their suggestions in the first half, and after the break, we'll talk to two writers who've done different cultural spins on another book that's on a lot of high school's summer reading lists - Jane Austen's "Pride And Prejudice."

MERAJI: I have never read "Pride And Prejudice." I haven't seen the movie. I'm really curious about how "Pride And Prejudice" gets brown and proud.

BATES: Well, there's a long tradition of "Pride And Prejudice" adaptations, and there are at least a half-dozen movie or television versions. So we'll have to watch some soon and bring you up to speed.

MERAJI: Yeah.

BATES: But first...

MERAJI: Our readers got books.

BATES: Lots of books.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: So we have a pile of books, and we're going to jump right in. CODE SWITCH listener Jeremy McGinness (ph) recommends a book that connects segregation back in the day to some things we've reported on here in the past couple years. Take a listen.

JEREMY MCGINNESS: Hi, my name is Jeremy McGinness. My book this summer is "Race, Riots, And Roller Coasters: The Struggle Over Segregated Recreation In America."

BATES: That book is by Victoria W. Wolcott.

MERAJI: And this is definitely something we've talked about on the CODE SWITCH podcast - people trying to integrate public pools, amusement parks and city parks.

BATES: Yep. Jeremy says, after reading the book, he was astounded at the lengths to which some of these places would go to make sure they remained whites only.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: Jeremy says he started out in Pennsylvania but then later moved to Lynchburg, Va.

MCGINNESS: Lynchburg had a public pool that they cemented over so they would not have to integrate it back in the '60s. And it's still there. The cemented pool is still physically present. You feel just the weight of it. These spaces you assume to be public and available are not.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: Jeremy says Wolcott's book draws a direct connection to the policing of black and brown bodies we see today - the BBQ Beckys, the pool Pattys (ph) and that Starbucks incident. This is why he suggested it for our list.

MCGINNESS: I think this fits really nicely in that sweet spot of culture - right? - because you've got your public spaces - of race and also of - what I think CODE SWITCH wrestles with is it's not geographically located. It's an American issue, right? And so Wolcott is pulling from across the entire nation, from Florida to Seattle.

MERAJI: And it's definitely a national issue. And just thinking about parks and public space, there is a park in our neighborhood, which our local magazine, LA Magazine, just wrote up, calling it one of LA's most undervalued retreats, which I found really interesting because this park is full of people of color all the time.

BATES: And I found really predictable and very much in the vein of a lot of what we call city service magazines around the country that only focus on certain parts of the city. So they're saying it's undervalued. It's undervalued by whom? You know, there's lots of bodies in there on weekdays and on weekends...

MERAJI: Lots of brown bodies.

BATES: ...Who are enjoying the space that apparently didn't exist until this magazine discovered it. So yeah.

MERAJI: Anyway, just a little detour, but the book is called "Race, Riots, And Roller Coasters." And that's something for history buffs. What's next?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: Lynette Jacobs-Priebe (ph) had three suggestions, and we'll list all of them on our website. But here's one of her picks.

LYNETTE JACOBS-PRIEBE: My book recommendation is "Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History Of Racist Ideas In America" by Ibram X. Kendi.

MERAJI: Fun reading by the pool.

(LAUGHTER)

BATES: This is a big book.

MERAJI: You know, I've been trying to finish this book for an entire year. It's very dense.

BATES: Yeah.

MERAJI: It's good, but it's dense. Why did Lynette choose this book?

BATES: Well, she says she likes long reads for the summer, and this would be one of those. And Lynette says Kendi narrates this story in a really interesting way.

JACOBS-PRIEBE: He tells the history of America through five different characters in American history. And so you learn about those characters, but you're also learning about the history of racist ideas.

MERAJI: And the five characters are...

JACOBS-PRIEBE: Cotton Mather - who is a Puritan preacher - Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. Du Bois and Angela Davis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Sorry to correct you, Lynette, but I think it's Du Bois - W.E.B. Du Bois.

BATES: Mm-hmm, that's how he pronounced it. And boy, if you could put all five of those people, all those brains, all that ego, in one room and locked the door, the roof would probably blow off.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

BATES: Although, if I were a betting person, I'd put my money on Dr. Davis.

MERAJI: Oh, yes.

BATES: Yeah.

MERAJI: Go Angela.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: So what else do we have?

BATES: Well, Lindsay Martin (ph) suggested "The Nickel Boys" by Colson Whitehead. It comes out next month, so keep an eye out for it. You might remember him as the author of "The Underground Railroad."

MERAJI: Which I absolutely loved. It was one of my summer reads, and I can't remember if it was last summer or the summer before that. It was right after it came out. Anyway, I loved it. It's still very much with me. And I'm not the only one who loved it. It's won a bunch of awards.

BATES: Yeah, two biggies - the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.

MERAJI: "The Underground Railroad," just in case you haven't read it, is a surrealist novel about escaping the very real brutalities of slavery. And so I'm very excited about his new book. What's this about?

BATES: Well, it's about a boys' reform school called The Nickel Academy, and it's set in 1960s Florida, when Jim Crow laws were still officially on the books. The story follows two black boys who end up there and the terrifying abuse that occurred at that school. Lindsay hasn't read the book because it does come out in July, but the early buzz about it has her really excited.

LINDSAY MARTIN: I think "The Nickel Boys" should be on the list because this story is a buried piece of Florida's history.

MERAJI: Isn't Florida where they kept finding children's bodies buried under the ground of one of these schools?

BATES: Mm-hmm. Florida ran a boys' reform school. I think it was called the Arthur Dozier School. And after some tips, investigators were shocked to find several bodies buried on the property - bodies of boys at the school who had mysteriously disappeared some years earlier.

MERAJI: Wow.

BATES: Yeah. Anyway, "The Nickel Boys" is a novel based on the true story of schools like Arthur Dozier, and Lindsay thinks it will be a must-read.

MARTIN: I truly believe we need to confront our history. The bad can no longer be hidden and swept under the rug. It's the only way we can move forward together as a society and get one step closer to equality.

MERAJI: Now, these are my kind of reads. I love to scream and cry and, you know, punch my fists into the air when I'm reading a book. I love to feel very deeply.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: But what about our listeners who don't maybe want to feel those types of intense emotions?

BATES: Readers who want a little happy, Shereen?

MERAJI: Yes. How about some happy? (Laughter).

BATES: How about a mother-daughter story for a change?

MERAJI: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRIDGETT DAVIS: So I'm Bridgett Davis, and I'm the author of the memoir, "The World According To Fannie Davis: My Mother's Life In The Detroit Numbers." And it's a memoir about my mom making a way out of no way, when we were all growing up in the city, by choosing a very unorthodox profession. She decided to become a numbers runner. She made a living by taking people's bets on three-digit numbers and collecting their money when they didn't win and paying them out when they did and profiting from the difference. And thanks to that profession, she gave us a middle-class life.

MERAJI: And it was illegal back then - right? - playing the numbers?

BATES: Oh, yeah. Playing the numbers were highly illegal. Although later on, interestingly, Shereen, the states basically did the exact same thing by establishing lotteries.

MERAJI: Yes.

BATES: And no, there were not a lot of women at the upper levels of the numbers business. Bridgett says there wasn't a lot of work for black women that paid decently if you weren't college educated. Her mom happened to have been a math whiz, so she put those skills to work and decided she could do better and support her family by running numbers.

DAVIS: It dawned on me that my mom was symbolic of a way of life that African Americans had to figure out on their own and largely because of discrimination, that she had to chase her American dream by getting around the obstacles that were put in place.

MERAJI: This definitely sounds like a love letter to Bridgett's mother.

BATES: It totally is. Fannie Davis died several years ago, but Bridgett wanted people to hear her mother's story and understand her determination and drive and to see that what her mom did was, in some ways, representative of how many black Americans had to do workarounds, legal and not, from Jim Crow in order to live their lives and support their families.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: All right, so those are some of our reader recommendations and one of Karen's.

BATES: Yep.

MERAJI: You'll find these and more summer reading recommendations at npr.org/codeswitch. So go there at the end of the podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: Meanwhile, when we come back, the reading assignment that made you groan as a high-school student, remixed with brown people.

MERAJI: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Shereen.

BATES: Karen.

MERAJI: CODE SWITCH.

All right, Karen, it's time for you to tell us about not one but two books loosely based on Jane Austen's "Pride And Prejudice." I didn't read "Pride And Prejudice," so for those of us who have no clue what it's about, can you do a quick recap?

BATES: Basically, it's about upward mobility for women through marriage in England in the early 1800s. And it focuses on classism and what happens when we make assumptions about other people.

MERAJI: Oh, assumptions. Like the old folks say, when we assume, we make an ass out of you and me.

BATES: Erg (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: I love that saying because I got to say ass and hear people say ass, and I just thought that was great. Still do.

BATES: Well, here we go (laughter).

MERAJI: Anyway.

BATES: So the original "P And P" (ph) was set in the countryside outside London and was the story of the Bennets, a family of five girls, all of whom needed to be married off...

MERAJI: Of course.

BATES: ...Because upward mobility. The second eldest, Elizabeth or Lizzy, had no interest in that.

MERAJI: Team Lizzy.

BATES: Yes. She found the whole looking-for-a-husband thing demeaning and too...

MERAJI: Transactional, I'm sure.

BATES: Yes. But eventually our Lizzy meets Fitzwilliam Darcy, a handsome and, most important, obscenely rich young man. And she turns her nose up at him because she finds him snotty. Only, as she discovers once she stops assuming, he's not snotty. He's just really, really shy, and he wants a woman who wants to be with him, not his piles of money.

MERAJI: OK. Sounds romantic. I'm feeling this. So how do these two new versions of the old "Pride And Prejudice" compare? Am I to assume stuck-up rich dudes play a role?

BATES: Yeah, shy dudes who are maybe kind of stiff because they're so shy. And, yeah, they have some money.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

BATES: The first book is called "Pride." It's actually a young adult novel. And instead of the English Bennet girls, "Pride" centers on the Benitez family.

MERAJI: Aha.

BATES: I knew you'd love that - a close Afro-Latino family of five girls. Instead of Lizzy Bennet, we have Zuri Benitez. And instead of the English countryside, "Pride" is set in rapidly gentrifying Bushwick, a Brooklyn neighborhood.

MERAJI: All right. I'm feeling this already, and I love that it's set in Bushwick.

BATES: Here's "Pride's" author, Ibi Zoboi.

IBI ZOBOI: I grew up in Bushwick. And Bushwick has seen a lot of changes, and I wanted to really write a love story where the young people are grappling with that change without the violence, without all the disenfranchisement that usually comes with urban spaces.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: The story begins, Shereen, when the Darcy family - yes, they have the same name as the rich guy in the original "Pride And Prejudice" - moves into a brownstone across the street from the Benitezes that several families used to live in.

MERAJI: Ah, sounds like gentrification.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: One of my favorite topics.

BATES: It is indeed (laughter). "Pride's" heroine, Zuri, immediately tags the Darcys as colonizers even though they're black.

MERAJI: Ooh.

BATES: Yeah, but she hasn't met that kind of black person in the public school she goes to. And her attitude lets Darius Darcy know he doesn't belong, especially compared to his friend Warren, who goes to the same private school as Darius. Only, Darius' family is paying full freight, and Warren is a scholarship student. Warren grew up in the projects not far from Zuri's home. Ibi Zoboi says she really wanted to delve into the intraclass tension among black people that she doesn't see reflected very often in popular culture.

ZOBOI: So Darius, within the context of Bushwick, doesn't feel black enough. And Warren, who does come from that neighborhood, has - feels like he has a leg up with capturing Zuri's heart. And in that sense, they - these are two guys - two dudes who look very similar but are expressing their blackness very differently because they do come from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

BATES: Zuri has to kind of get over herself to discover who Darius really is and what she really wants as she gets ready to leave home for college. So Shereen, it's an identity story and a love story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: So that's "Pride" by Ibi Zoboi. And yes, it sounds like it is definitely brown.

BATES: It definitely is.

MERAJI: And you said there were two brown "Pride and Prejudices," so tell me about the other one.

BATES: It's "Ayesha At Last" by Uzma Jalaluddin. It's a great story about a young Muslim poet, Ayesha Shamsi, who lives in Toronto and works as a substitute teacher in her day job. Ayesha doesn't have four sisters like Lizzy Bennet in "Pride And Prejudice" and Zuri Benitez in "Pride." But like Lizzy and Zuri, Ayesha meets a handsome, well-to-do young man she finds totally off-putting.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Because he's pretentious?

BATES: Well, she thinks he is. And because Khalid - that's his name - is what she calls a fundie (ph) guy, an Islamic fundamentalist.

MERAJI: A fundie guy.

BATES: Don't you love that?

MERAJI: I've never heard that.

BATES: Yeah. And he's super judgmental because he believes being faithful requires strict adherence to his interpretation of Islam. Khalid is an IT genius, but he wears a chest-length beard and a skullcap and insists on coming to work in a long tunic, and that makes some of the people at his job uncomfortable. Traditionalist that he is, when he marries, he's going to let his mother choose his bride because that's the way it's always been done.

MERAJI: I'm just going to say if I let my mom pick my boyfriends, I would have avoided a lot of heartache in my 20s. So I don't know. Maybe your mom picking your wife isn't so bad? (Laughter).

BATES: I don't know. (Laughter) Uzma says she didn't start out to write a Muslim "Pride And Prejudice."

UZMA JALALUDDIN: I just set out to write a funny, joyful book about Muslims because, as you know, we're a community where there's a lot of painful storytelling, but not a lot of joy.

MERAJI: This is true.

BATES: And that's exactly what Uzma wanted to counter with this story. She also wanted to examine how you can identify with being two things at once.

MERAJI: My life.

JALALUDDIN: I'm the child of immigrants from India. I was born in Canada. Most of my friends were born or immigrated very young to Canada. And so our experience is such - deeply rooted in a very close-knit Muslim community, but also very Canadian.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: Uzma says they ski and ice skate and go to hockey games and walk around with cups full of coffee or chai from Tim Hortons.

MERAJI: Timmies is our northern neighbor equivalent of Starbucks, I believe.

BATES: Oh, so it's a national birthright. OK.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

BATES: And like Uzma, Ayesha is a smart, modern, independent woman. She is a dutiful daughter and granddaughter, but she also performs at poetry slams.

MERAJI: Oh, all of this feels very '90s.

BATES: In this scene from the audio version, Ayesha's going to meet her best friend at a lounge for a spoken word night. She's settling in at a table when she gets some unwanted attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIOBOOK, "AYESHA AT LAST")

ROSHNI SHUKLA: Hey, beautiful. A tall man holding a bottle of Heineken smiled seductively. I'm Mo. I bet your parents don't know you're in a place like this dressed like that.

A veil-chaser - Ayesha could spot one a mile away. Veil-chasers thought women in hijab were an exotic challenge, like the pimply white guy who had asked Ayesha to prom every year in high school and even offered to wear an Indian outfit and turban if she acquiesced. Other veil-chasers had tried to pick her up at bus stops and malls. And on one memorable day, a veil-chaser had administered her driving exam. She'd passed and even given him her fake number. Mostly, they were a pain. They always commented on her headscarf and usually said something ignorant.

As if on cue, Mo gave her a smoldering look. If you're getting hot in that thing, you can take it off. I won't tell.

Mo, I'm not interested. Why don't you go smile at those girls? She waved toward a small group of young women crowded around the stage.

He didn't look away or even blink. You're so mysterious. Can I buy you a drink?

I don't drink, she said coldly. And if your name is Mo, short for Mohamed, you know why. Now, please, go away.

MERAJI: That was very polite of her.

BATES: (Laughter).

MERAJI: Also, this feels very reminiscent of my early years, going to spoken word events, getting hollered at by men named Mo (laughter).

BATES: "Love Jones," only with Muslims, yes.

MERAJI: (Laughter) Yes, exactly.

BATES: Uzma Jalaluddin says she thought showing this aspect of Ayesha was important.

JALALUDDIN: One of the things I really wanted to do - and I think that is one of the central themes of "Ayesha At Last" - is the idea of diversity within diverse communities. And this is across the board. You know, a lot of people think of South Asians, you know, having a very strong tradition of arranged marriage. And while that is true in some families, in other families it's completely unheard of.

BATES: Shereen, Ayesha is from a family that will let her marry if and when she chooses. I mean, they'd like for her to. They want her to be happy. But they're not going to force her to. Although, as one of her aunties points out, she's too old - 27.

MERAJI: Oh, boy.

BATES: And too brown to be as eligible as the auntie's own paler, younger daughter.

MERAJI: So we've got colorism in this book.

BATES: Mm-hmm.

MERAJI: Which this type of colorism is something that we've talked about from time to time on CODE SWITCH.

BATES: Yep. And I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying Ayesha ends up in a good place with a good man.

MERAJI: Ooh. Well, I'm a sucker for a good romance. So one or both of these books might make my personal list, even though it doesn't sound like I'm going to be screaming or crying or shouting at anybody.

BATES: At some point you may, actually.

MERAJI: At the pool.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: Karen, did either Ibi or Uzma have any summer reading suggestions of their own?

BATES: Yeah. Ibi wanted us to consider this YA book.

ZOBOI: "The Sun Is Also A Star" by Nicola Yoon. When I think of that novel, it makes my heart and mind smile because it's equally smart and intellectual and heartwarming.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Ah, I love that. More love - yay. And also, Yara Shahidi is in the movie.

BATES: That's right. That's right. And Uzma's book is the story of two sisters who are completely different from each other and who love each other fiercely.

JALALUDDIN: "Sister Of My Heart" by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. I really, really loved it - lyrical, beautiful. It's a little bit older, but I really like that author. She's a fantastic author.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: And Shereen, do you have a book you'd like to recommend?

MERAJI: It's also a little bit older. It was published in 1993. And with this recommendation, I'm going to bring us back full circle to the beginning of our podcast because it is a book about a dark dystopian future that feels very present, very right now.

BATES: (Laughter) You like those fun books, don't you?

MERAJI: Oh, I do. It's Octavia Butler's "Parable Of The Sower."

BATES: Yes.

MERAJI: It's an amazing read.

BATES: It is.

MERAJI: The protagonist is young and black. Her name is Cora (ph). And she's trying to survive and make sense out of the world around her, which has gone...

BATES: Haywire.

MERAJI: ...Pear-shaped? I don't (laughter) - I'm trying to figure out how to say this.

BATES: Sideways.

MERAJI: Yes. She lives in Southern California. The country's violent. It's scary. It's run by an authoritarian government. Climate change and a drug epidemic are huge parts of the storyline. And let's just say, it made me want to update my emergency preparedness kit because it felt very real.

BATES: That's "Parable Of The Sower" by Octavia Butler.

MERAJI: And the next book on my list is its sequel, which is "Parable Of The Talents." I haven't read that yet, but I'm hoping it's just as good. What about you, Bates?

BATES: I loved a novel by Ayobami Adebayo called "Stay With Me." It's a fractured love story set in contemporary Nigeria, and it's about a woman's struggle to become herself, despite the expectations of her husband, parents and especially her in-laws. The heroine and her husband have been married for a few years, and they're having trouble having a child, and they're being pressed relentlessly to do something about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: Anything else would be a spoiler, Shereen. But trust me - "Stay With Me" is a deeply thoughtful book. I - yes, I did. I listened to the audio version, and the narrator, Adjoa Andoh, made it almost impossible to walk away from.

MERAJI: So maybe I'll listen to a book this summer.

BATES: Yeah, it's a good idea. Try it.

MERAJI: A new thing for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: And that's our show. If you want to check out the entire list of our recommended summer books, go to npr.org/codeswitch. Please follow us on Twitter. We're at @nprcodeswitch. And we want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. Sign up for our newsletter, which Karen Grigsby Bates writes most weeks, at npr.org/newsletter/code-switch. And subscribe to the podcast on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.

BATES: Today's show was produced by Maria Paz Gutierrez and Michael Paulino and edited by Sami Yenigun.

MERAJI: And big thanks to Penguin Random House Audio for that "Ayesha At Last" excerpt. It was read by Roshni Shukla.

BATES: Shoutout to the CODE SWITCH fam - Gene Demby, Adrian Florido, Leah Donnella, Kumari Devarajan, Kat Chow, Steve Drummond and LA Johnson.

MERAJI: Our interns are Michael Paulino and Jess Kung. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

BATES: I'm Karen Grigsby Bates. See you.

MERAJI: Peace.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In previous audio and Web versions of this story, Victoria W. Wolcott's first name was incorrectly given as Virginia.]

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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