John Updike Explores Arab Immigrant Culture John Updike has made a career out of chronicling American culture. In his new novel, Terrorist, he tells the story of a young Muslim who is repelled by it.

John Updike Explores Arab Immigrant Culture

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The novelist John Updike has been thinking about immigrant identities, including his own.

Mr. JOHN UPDIKE (Novelist): It's been a long time since the Updikes came to New Amsterdam. They came in about 1650. Nevertheless, I am aware of myself, dimly, as a Dutch-American. You know: hardworking, thrifty, wooden shoes, Vermeer. All that is part of me.

INSKEEP: Which gets John Updike thinking about how Americans assimilate over time, or how they don't. This morning, Updike joins our conversations about immigration. He's been writing about the tension between Muslim immigrants and the culture that surrounds them.

Mr. UPDIKE: The excesses and lapses of American culture are visible for all, and are much complained about in the Arab world. They find us fairly disgusting in our waste, in our sexuality, our interest in our own sexuality. And it's hard to deny.

INSKEEP: John Updike has made a career out of chronicling American culture. And he didn't seem to have trouble conjuring up a young man repelled by it. The teenager, Amad, is the central character of Updike's novel, Terrorist, which is set in the changing immigrant neighborhoods of northern New Jersey.

Mr. UPDIKE: It's interesting how you make a mosque, actually. In parts of New Jersey that I visited, you just take the cross down and put up a crescent. And it's that simple. And a lot of the mosques are fairly modest, but there obviously are enough believers and practitioners to make the erection of mosques a fact in these neighborhoods.

So I can only believe that the very nature of Islam calls forth a certain fervor. His is, in a way, artificial and special - bred of his own psychological needs, and the absent father, and idealism, of black and white, really. A wish to live among absolutes and have the comfort of absolute faith. But, I think he's not wildly untypical, of many young Muslims. After all, there are many young, fervent Christians, are there not? It's very attractive to young people.

INSKEEP: I love how you say that this young man wants to see the whole world in black and white, because that his uniform: black pants, white shirt, always.

Mr. UPDIKE: Right. Well, it is kind of a clerical outfit he's donned. And I don't know where I got that idea. But yeah, I did see him dressed very severely and chastely. Chastity is part of his shtick.

INSKEEP: I guess shtick is probably not the word he would have chosen for it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. UPDIKE: No, but it's his signature. It's his identity, a way of presenting himself to the other teenagers. So there's a problem of gang identification also, of red and blue, and of Hispanics and blacks. And he's announcing that he doesn't belong to either of their color sets.

INSKEEP: Did you end up liking this young man, you created, with all of his disdain for America?

Mr. UPDIKE: No. I began by liking him. And he did nothing really that offended me and caused my dislike. I like him because he's idealistic and trying to find the straight path in life. He's at an age when you're looking for the path. In other ways, a part from Islam, he's a nice boy; a nice boy who believes. And belief entails certain uneasy-making consequences in the real world.

INSKEEP: And I guess, given that the book is called, Terrorist, it's not giving away too much to say that this character that you created is tempted to strike out, violently.

Mr. UPDIKE: Well, he's enlisted under the rubric of, do you love God and do you love Him enough to die for him. They're looking - the sinister conspirators - are looking for a lamb. And they find it in Amad.

INSKEEP: You populate this book, that you've written, with a variety of immigrants from the Islamic world. And one, in particular, is described as an old time immigrant; of the variety who makes his way in the system, works hard, and now owns a furniture store. And he's contrasted, at one point, with others who clearly have very different viewpoints, and are very much alienated from the system, and deliberately so.

Mr. UPDIKE: Well, I think the original Arab immigrants came in search of work. They came looking for a better material life, and by and large, achieved it. The very vocabulary of radical Islam didn't exist, I don't believe, with any force, then. But now, the whole notion of this is somehow unholy behavior - the wish to get ahead, the wish to pump your oil, and open a small shop - all that is cast into doubt. And to those who fail or dissent from the system, there exists a vocabulary of resistance. And, I suppose, if you work hard enough at it, you can find an organization of resistance.

INSKEEP: You said that there's always been enough for America to offer to draw people away from their original ethnic identities and ethnic roots. Is that still true for young people today?

Mr. UPDIKE: I don't know an awful lot of young people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. UPDIKE: I have some grandchildren who are pretty assimilated and willing to be assimilated...

INSKEEP: I mean young immigrants, or children of immigrants, like the young man you write about in the book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. UPDIKE: I think that although Amad is fairly impervious to the charms of hip-hop and TV, I think, by and large, it's very seductive to the young. American culture abroad, does terribly well. It's one of the few American exports that does do well, is our culture. Its particular mixture of impudence and casualness, and frank sex, and glamour - I don't know, it's a language that carries surprisingly well into all kinds of places. And is one of the dangers that the mullahs and the imams of the world feel.

INSKEEP: John Updike, author of the novel Terrorist, and participant in our discussions on immigration. You can read an excerpt from his book at

Now tomorrow, we will meet Jorge Ramos, known to millions of Spanish speakers as a TV news anchor. We will talk about language and our national identity.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.