Edward Said. © Brigitte Lacombe. All images courtesy of Knopf.

Edward Said has been for decades a major literary critic and, in academic circles, a pioneer of postcolonial studies. His seminal work includes Orientalism, Covering lslam and Culture and Imperialism. He is also a noted, sometimes controversial, political activist, championing the Palestinian cause. His own background, raised in a Christian Palestinian family in Egypt and Lebanon, with English and American cultural aspirations, led to a richly confused sense of identity and displacement, which he has now explored in a compelling memoir, Out of Place—perhaps his best book, certainly his most personal and least polemical. Having known Said casually for years as an exquisitely charming if somewhat testy man, I interviewed him at his Riverside Drive apartment (courtesy of Columbia University, where he is a distinguished professor), whose interior with its spectacular river views handsomely follows the curve of the building’s facade.


Age one with his mother in the Mena House gardens.

Philip Lopate Edward, the writing in this book seems different from your other writing; it’s a much more belle-lettristric style.

Edward Said Well, I found that it was necessary for me to do it every day, because I was quite sick most of the time. If you’re talking about memory, you have to get it down so it’s exactly right. I found myself writing and rewriting a great deal, which I often don’t do. It’s always interesting to try the line between so personal that nobody can understand what you’re saying, and so formal that everybody will predict exactly what you’re going to say. If you’ve been around as long as I have, you try to be a little bit unpredictable. Somebody who wanted to excerpt the book thought it wasn’t political enough. The whole point of the book was not to be political but to write about this peculiar, rather eerie world I grew up in and to write as honestly as I could.

PL You mention in the preface that you don’t want to hurt anybody, but it is your story and you have a right to tell it subjectively.

ES My maternal grandmother’s family is Lebanese, and Lebanon has gone through this incredible civil war and the family’s split up onto different sides, I couldn’t help but seeing the roots of that conflict there. In a way, I often felt that I was reneging on the past, because my mother’s family were people I was very close to but who I grew away from with time, and then of course, found myself on the opposite side of during the civil war.

PL The most glaring example is your cousin-in law, statesman and philosopher, Charles Malik. He’s an uncanny character because he is portrayed somewhat sympathetically even though he identified with the Christian Maronites.

ES And with the West.

PL It seems like his position made perfect sense, given his background. Why were you so surprised?

ES Malik was an ideal to me as I was growing up: somebody who had studied with Heidegger. Of course, I didn’t know much about Heidegger’s past either, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. But he represented a search after truth. He had an incredible presence; he was a Socratic, meditative, rather craggy, unusual philosopher. But as time went on, through the late ’70s, the more I found out about Malik the more sordid it became. After he was Lebanese ambassador to the U.S. he came to feel Communists should be killed, and Muslims are this, that, or the other thing…It was an ugly transformation that I never came to terms with.

PL There’s that terrible moment when your father dies and he doesn’t go to the funeral, because he has “a very important lunch with the papal nuncio.”

ES I never forgave him for that. My father had been one of his early patrons. Anyway, many people still admire him. There are streets in Beirut named after him. I feel he did something he shouldn’t have done. In other words, I think he went from being a spiritual advisor to being a political advisor. And for us, as Palestinians, it was very hard to take because of the massacres.

PL You could say that you were the one disloyal to your tribe, not him.

ES And I know those who feel that way. I think that’s true.

PL If one were to view the politics of the memoir at a slightly detached angle it seems as though you were completely oblivious to all this when it was happening. Then later on, almost in compensation, you became strongly committed, a militant in the Palestinian movement. Your disloyalty writing the memoir is the same you speak of when describing your icy detachment in general, and siding with your mother’s relatives against your father. There seems to be a pattern of needing to break from the tribe.

ES Not only that, but the memoir itself is not a very common Arab form. I’m concerned about its reception in the Arab world, where political, or spiritual memoirs are common, but intimate memoirs are quite rare.

PL In the early pages, you say, “I didn’t read memoirs while I was writing this. I didn’t want to be influenced.” But that struck me as faux naive, because you’ve been reading memoirs all your life.

ES But I didn’t go back to them. It was an exercise in memory; that’s what I found I was left with as I was going through the harrowing ordeal of my illness.

PL What is the connection between your leukemia and writing the memoir?

ES My mother died a year before I was diagnosed. As you can tell, I was very close to my mother. She died of cancer and there’s continuity between her illness and mine. And the other thing was that I felt my life was being eaten away. There’s something insidious and sinister about a disease for which there is no known cure. So from the outset I was prepared for something, but I was spared for two, three years, really, no symptoms and no treatment. Once I began treatment, I realized there were no limits to what could happen. One’s imagination takes over; writing this book was a way to excavate the past, which I hadn’t done ever, a way to escape this travail. And I traveled. I made my first big trip to Egypt in the interim between my first treatments. I went to where I grew up in Cairo. That seemed a way to keep my sanity and my—I guess you could call it—dignity, or integrity.

PL Because going through medical procedures is so invasive?

ES Yes, and dehumanizing. Especially last summer, when I finished the book, I had this horrible 12-week treatment. They give you stuff to make you drowsy, so you feel it less, and I would resist it and so I would get terrible shakes and a high temperature, and so on.

PL You mention holding on to your dignity. Would it be fair to add that you also wanted to satisfy a literary ambition in that classic pattern of critics who write novels or memoirs? Alfred Kazin writing Walker in the City, or Edmund Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County, or Lionel Trilling’s novel—he regretted that he hadn’t written more fiction. Did you ever feel that?

ES No, not in that way. I’m perfectly happy with what I’ve done and I don’t make those kinds of distinctions. It’s not literary ambition, but a part of my life that I feel hasn’t been done justice to in general. Not so much my life as the environment.

PL The milieu.

ES That got me started, and then, of course, my family and my role in it. In that order, strangely enough. Not being anxious to expose myself quite as much as I have, I took it on with some misgivings.

PL What do you think about having entered a genre under such criticism?

ES That was one of the reasons why I didn’t read memoirs or enter into the whole discussion. The fact that everybody writes memoirs now, the whole confessional mode, is something I find completely distasteful. So I kept telling myself that I wasn’t really writing about myself but more about this world I played a role in and that mitigated it a bit. Also, there was the fact I was trying, as much as possible, to write with irony rather than with self-righteous…

PL Solemnity.

ES Yeah. As you can tell from the book, I didn’t have a very high opinion of myself in my early years—I was always sort of harried and slightly with my back against the wall. There were moments of illumination.

PL You talk about the different Edwards. As a kid you felt you were always letting your family down, not living up to their expectations. Yet your mother brings up incidents where you seem to have been a child prodigy. Why don’t you remember that side of yourself?

ES It’s the continuity I missed. The years I lived in Egypt—I kept on moving from one place to another, which didn’t allow for the development of anything. The transience of it all really struck me. I still feel I’m in transit. There’s a sense of provisionality.

PL I was going to ask you this later, but…I’m a native New Yorker and very pro-New York, and I’m a little resentful that you never acquired a sense of being at home here, that you’ve been insufficiently grateful to this city.

ES I feel at home in a funny sort of way—not like being at home in the sense of somebody in his bathrobe and slippers—but in the sense that New York is very dynamic, constantly in motion. I don’t think I could live anywhere else!

PL It’s so odd and poignant when you write about the milieu you grew up in. Your life in Cairo seems almost like a Victorian boyhood, the whole business of your parents confronting you about whether you were masturbating or not.

ES It was very anachronistic in all kinds of ways.

PL I suddenly got this feeling as in Georgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Contini’s, of this provincial, upper-middle-class world.

ES Yes, always on the decline, always threatened with extinction, especially in the ’50s. The early years of the Egyptian revolution, of which we were all in favor, nobody had any nostalgia about King Farouk—the second era of menace came around the time of Suez, in ’56 and again during the ’67 war. There was a sense we were the enemies of the people, compounded by the fact that we were Palestinian.

PL Your passages about Nasser are tentative. You seemed to be in a difficult spot, as if you didn’t really want to criticize him as fully as you might have. Obviously, you don’t want to align yourself with the King Farouk faction, but on the other hand…

ES —Or the Sadat faction, who came out later and sort of reversed everything.

PL You report how the mobs burnt down your father’s store.

ES That was the last of the Farouk days, six months before the revolution. My biggest indictment of Nasser in the book was the part about my friend who was tortured in prison; his assault of the Left. I still have never forgiven him for that. At the same time that Nasser was playing an important role in the Arab world, unifying the Arabs, he led a massive campaign against people who are my great friends today, Left-wing intellectuals, many of whose lives were destroyed by their years in prison. It’s still not entirely clear to me what he was doing, because he was very closely aligned with the Soviet Union and yet he destroyed the Egyptian Communist Party.

PL A powerful leader sometimes kills off his competition.

ES They were competition. But the other thing I find troubling is how the world has changed as a result. People began to think xenophobically. The worst evidence being what happened in Lebanon: Christians versus Muslims, Palestinians versus Arabs. It’s the whole problem with Israel, where people think in terms of identities.

PL You talk about that in Culture and Imperialism: the curse of identity politics.

ES That’s ruined a lot of lives, and that’s why I’m so resolutely against having this tremendous sense of where you belong. It’s overrated. It doesn’t give people enough of a chance to feel different, to feel like the other, which is an important feeling to have, and it’s slowly disappearing.

PL I would agree. Naguib Mahfouz’s book Miramar, was also about the disillusionment with Nasser…

ES Absolutely. That’s a great book.

PL What do you think of Mahfouz? He looms so large in Cairo and yet he’s never mentioned in your book.

ES I didn’t know him in those years. I mean, he wasn’t part of my education. I left Cairo when I was 15—which I still resent. I was entirely the product of British schools—I knew more about India, Malaysia and the other colonies than I did about the place I was living. I didn’t come to terms and become reacquainted with Arabic literature and culture until after I had come to teach at Columbia. I discovered Mahfouz in 1972 when I had my first sabbatical. So it was a parallel world.

PL It would seem from the memoir that in your creation of selfhood, music was more important than literature.

ES In a way, in a way not. They went together, especially in the art of song. My most powerful musical impression as a kid was when my mother sang. I was preternaturally gifted for music. Unfortunately I never had really first-class teachers. I mean, it wasn’t the environment for it.

PL It seems as though music had an erotic meaning for you. You talked about how certain operas focused these erotic feelings.

ES It was also a realm of privacy for me. It wasn’t polluted with the interventions, the injunctions, the morals, the labels that we use to describe social beings. I didn’t have to share it with anybody, really. It was a realm of relative autonomy for me, and in that respect it was tremendously important.

PL It’s been said that memoirs of growing up succeed or fail on the strengths of the portraits of the parents. You did a wonderful job portraying your mother and your father. Your mother is the most important character in the book, more important even than you.

ES My mother is always with me. She’s been dead for almost ten years. The role she played in all of our lives is something we’re still trying to come to terms with; I’m not sure I have. My father is a more sculpted figure, his outlines were more definite. My mother was insinuated into all the details of our lives in a melting sort of way; whereas there’s something granitic about my father.

PL You say she was his interpreter.

ES Their relationship was very interesting. I haven’t quite fathomed it completely. She used to say openly that she wasn’t in love with my father when she married him, but then became in love with him. So of course, the mind immediately goes to the period when she wasn’t. What was that like? My father was always very official about it: you have to get married, settle down. Which has turned domesticity for me into the horror of all horrors, because it was my father’s preferred goal. But he obviously had a secret life which I have been unable to find. I know it must have been there in the years before he married my mother when he left Palestine and lived in Cairo in the late ’20s—it must have been quite something. Those were the years of Cairo’s most famous decadence, the fleshpots, which he showed me, and which I began to wonder about later on.

PL Some of the wondering, the speculation, where you posit that he may have had a whole other wife and family somewhere, seems like wishful thinking. The truth may have been that he was a fairly stoical, somewhat celibate man who was a genius at his business.

ES I did try to make him more human, which was very hard.

PL He’s sympathetic in the book, you draw him stroke by stroke. It isn’t until page 97 that you tell us he was this incredibly important businessman in the Middle East. He invented the use of office equipment and modern stationery supplies in that part of the world.

ES Bureaucracy is what he invented. Rational bureaucracy.

PL Most people like that, Edward, are not sensuous. They don’t have this whole other divided side, where they lead a secret other life.

ES It’s very important to say this to you, even if it’s in the book: I don’t recall my father ever saying anything affectionate, which was very hard. But he was affectionate, in the sense of being totally generous. There was something fundamentally ungiving about him. The way he died, he turned his face to the wall.

PL And he turned away from you when you fell down.

ES That sort of thing. In many ways he may have given me the kind of detachment I now have, but at the time, it was a deprivation. I was always turning to my mother. I have this feeling, which my mother expressed once, that he thought it was important for me to get out from my mother’s clutches. That was one of the reasons he sent me to school in America.

PL In the memoir you say he freed you from your mother, somebody had to. So he was the liberator of your youth—like it or not.

ES I didn’t like it.

PL The repressor and the liberator.

ES Unwitting, I think. Because there was always this other thing about my remaining faithful to my mother. I was going to put this in the book but left it out: I gave a piano recital in 1957 in Cairo after my graduation from Princeton. My father was after me for a week beforehand to stand up and thank my mother at the beginning. I said, “I can’t do that, it’s a piano recital!” He was adamant in a gentle way, but I wondered what that was all about. I think he felt guilty that about separating me from my mother; he wanted me restored to her.

PL In your portrayal of your mother, she’s coming at you, wave after wave. He’s a sculpture; she’s an ocean. You describe her as infinitely loving and then withholding, promising something and then not delivering it. I wondered when I was reading those passages how much of this was simply the removal from the breast, implicit in the mother-son relationship? Being everything to you and then taking everything away?

ES She had the same relationship with my sisters. My mother felt she had to mediate every relationship in the house, and was infinitely prepared to do that. It was a lot of work, and in her older years after my father died, it kept her from enjoying life. She became difficult to please, she was always unhappy and depressed. She said, "My life is my children!” I said, “But mother, your children are all away and over 30, so you can do other things!” “No, I’m too stupid. I’m not good for anything else!” She was certainly one of the most brilliant woman I’ve ever met. But she refused to do anything other than be a mother.


Edward Said and his sister Rosy in traditional Palestinian dress, Jerusalem, 1941. Reprinted by permission.

PL You have that very interesting metaphor planted in the book; you compare her to a colonial situation. She ran everything through herself, so it was like colony to metropole.

ES She was the metropole, everything had to go through her. She made sense of things for us. She was a great interpreter, not only of my father, but of the situations in which we found ourselves. My mother was an inveterate village explainer. No, that’s not grand enough for her, she was the ultimate interpreter. My mother did nothing but interpret: she interpreted inanimate objects for us, she explained people’s behavior to us, people’s intentions, people’s histories. A lot of it was based on incredible speculation; there was often none or very little evidence, but the idea that there was this whole complicated, pulsating world…

PL It shows a novelistic temperament.

ES She was an avid reader. The great novels—Dickens, Dosteyevsky and Tolstoy—all came to me through my mother. She had an amazing gift for endless speculation on What could this mean? You’d be sitting there and she’d say, “Did you notice the way Phillip was sitting? What do you suppose that means?” And off she would go, not waiting for your answer. It was a challenge to keep up with her. The most mystifying thing she ever said to me—quite out of the blue—was, “My children are a disappointment to me!”

PL I remember that scene because I wanted to ask you about it!

ES I don’t know what she meant.

PL This is classic; this is what parents often feel and say to their children.

ES Do you say it to your daughter? Would you ever say it?

PL I wouldn’t.

ES Nor would I.

PL But in the Japanese director Ozu’s movies, the parents are always saying how disappointing their children are.

ES But they explain why.

PL A little bit.

ES My mother said, “You’ll never know,”

PL It’s the figure of the slightly hysterical mother, the drama queen.

ES There are other examples, but I can’t explain the shattering effect it had on me.

PL Considering all that parents give to their children, how important their children are, and how the children always turn away, there’s bound to be some kind of profound disappointment.

ES I agree. Let me push it a little further and say more precisely what I think she was doing. Don’t forget she was the great interpreter—but withheld the key. She interpreted the situation, but wouldn’t tell you according to what standards. I was left staring at this closed door. We were still too young then to have careers, I was 15 or 16 and my second sister was a couple of years younger, so we’re not talking about fully formed people. It was unprovoked. We were led into her confidence, but not given the reason for the disenchantment. Then life resumed. It was a riddle, at least that’s the way I lived it. Which obviously bore on me.

PL That rings another bell. You talk about spending a good part of your professional life trying to demystify power and its implicit assumptions. One of the things you dislike most about the ideology of the ruling class is that it changes its standards without notification. In what you’ve just said, it seems as though you’re trying to find the key, psychoanalytically, to your own politics. And your mother may be very important to that. I haven’t found it.

PL But do you feel like you’re giving your enemies a weapon? As people used to say about SDS [Students for a Democratic Society]: their rage is just an Oedipal expression?

ES I don’t associate it directly with my politics. A lot of what I say about my mother is based on her appearance. She was a stunningly beautiful woman and her elegance completely overshadowed her children. We all felt ill at ease in her presence. She was a wonderful hostess, a great conversationalist, she had a winning smile, which you see in the pictures in the book.

PL You describe her as so seductive, making everyone feel important and then suddenly making them feel like they’ve disappointed her in some way.

ES The way she treated her mother was quite extraordinary. Her mother was a very mild and sweet old lady, and I have no recollection of anything but a semi-snarl of scorn on my mother’s face for my grandmother. She must have done something to deeply wound my mother. Maybe give her away to this man to marry, I don’t know.

PL Maybe she wasn’t stimulating enough for your mother.

ES No, because my mother wasn’t unkind, but she had—there is a line in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist I’ll always remember—where he talks about Dante’s super-refrigerating apparatus. That’s what my mother had. She had this incredible power of coldness and at the same time had another side.

PL You speak of your own icy detachment. There is a little of your mother in you; in your presence I always feel I’m the most important person in the world to you. Then you don’t call me for five years. (laughter) You’re a seductive character.

ES I don’t think of myself that way, but my children have made me feel that. When we can’t get a table in a restaurant or something, my daughter will say, “Daddy, use your charm”

PL I think some of the best passages in the book are of self-analysis. You talk about your attitude toward time as one of deadlines, feeling like you don’t know how to relax, and that you’re always behind the eight ball in terms of commitments.

ES You don’t feel that way?

PL I do indeed. I sometimes experience my mind as an airport: “We got that plane off but the next plane has to take off soon. We sent that essay off, now this one’s coming in.” There’s something essentially anxious at the core of a workaholic. But, does it minimize the amount of pleasure that you get from writing and doing work? Maybe it isn’t that you don’t know how to relax, but that working is how you relax.

ES It’s a sense of obligation, a sense of threat sometimes and a certain kind of pleasure, but that’s very momentary.

PL What pleasure isn’t?

ES Well, that’s the trouble, I suppose. Why can’t we have a bit more? How old are you?

PL Fifty-five.

ES You’re much, much younger. We have this idea that one becomes a little more discriminating as one grows old. Kenneth Koch said, “Edward, you seem too busy all the time. You shouldn’t be that busy.” But maybe it’s a temperamental thing. You keep responding to the challenges, and…one thing keeps leading to another. I write two articles a month, which develops something I had never had before, an audience, a very large audience. The idea that people await your articles gives you a certain need to write them. You get hooked. It’s a fix.

PL There’s something wonderful about writing for a periodical and knowing that you’re going to get an audience quickly, become a figure in the culture, not just in academia.

ES Its satisfactions are intermittent. In my case, I’m trying to cram as much as possible into the day. I’ve been told it’s not the leukemia that’s going to get me, it’s my immune system, which is so compromised and depressed as a result of the disease and the chemotherapy. Why should I be an invalid before my time? I’m going to be an invalid, so in the meantime I might as well take on too many things.

PL That’s the argument against suicide too.

ES In a way it is, an argument against the inevitable.

PL But to return to the question of pleasure. It’s like the passage in your memoir about home movies. You see the home movies and—as in all home movies—everybody is laughing and happy, and you think they’re putting on an act. But the obverse might be true: that you simply haven’t been able to retrieve as much happiness as there really was in your childhood. Just as you may not be able to retrieve as much pleasure as there is in your writing, in your work life.

ES It is a question of how much you can retrieve. How I came to feel—living alone and alienated, et cetera, especially after I became involved in politics—was that my early years were an idyllic period. It wasn’t until I was in my 50s that I began to realize it was more complicated. In other words, problems and sensations now I can trace back to that early time.

PL When did you go into psychoanalysis?

ES Intermittently. When I was about 40 for a short period, and then more vigorously when I was in my 50s. It was an important experience, but it was also shattering, because I discovered things about my past I simply couldn’t deal with. One of the main things—it was quite dramatic—was the extent of my reliance upon, and the affection and kind of admiration I had for my father, who had been the great tormentor of my life.

PL How much do you think ideas of psychoanalysis shaped the memoir?

ES The book ends just as I’m about to get married for the first time in the early 1960s. I’d already read some Freud but hadn’t read him systematically until this point. What particularly interested me was that it was totally at odds with not only the way I had been brought up, but the culture I came from. I remember coining the phrase, “We Arabs have no unconscious.” We don’t believe in it, everything is pushed out towards the front. I found myself locked in a silent battle with my past, through Freud, through his insights. Then there was the fact that he was Jewish. I was getting politically involved at the time; it was absolutely riveting. I realized that the people who had had the most influence on me, Auerbach, Freud, now Adorno, were not only émigrés and Jews, but also people who would have had very little interest in me.

PL That’s not true.

ES I think you’re wrong. For example, I’ve written a lot about and played a fairly important role again, I’m not being modest—in the appreciation of Auerbach. I translated one of his essays.

PL I adore him.

ES Me too. So much so that about 20 years ago a publisher came to me and asked me to edit a volume of his uncollected essays. I had translated one with my first wife, so I said yes. It was all laid out and then the calls from this particular press—a respectable, university press—began to be fewer and fewer. I finally tracked the guy down and said, “What’s going on?” He said, “We’re still waiting for permission from the estate.” To make a long story short, permission was denied, because of me: “It would go very much against my father’s politics to have someone like Said edit his collection.”

PL But that’s not to say that Auerbach himself wouldn’t have been interested in you

ES But there would be this sense of hostility, which I think is important. Part of the beauty is that it’s an impossible situation.

PL You’re not going to meet Auerbach, because he’s dead. One thing that does make you a complex and fascinating figure is that on one hand, there are going to be people, particularly in the Jewish intellectual world, who will view you as the devil incarnate.

ES And do.

PL On the other hand, your whole presentation of self, your mode of being, fits so comfortably into New York Jewish intellectual life. Part of my affinity for you as a Jew is that I am also disloyal to my tribe at times. I don’t like tribal chauvinism. But at the risk of sounding sentimental, isn’t there something Semitic that makes a bridge between Arabs and Jews?

ES Certainly, that’s been true in my life. I noticed it first in my father, who would always sort of pick out and develop Jewish colleagues. Don’t forget, Cairo and Palestine were full of Jews.

PL Very often when I go to Israel and go to the Arab sections, I feel an immediate warmth, so there must be some connection. But you seem to be implying that you needed intellectual mentors who wouldn’t like you.

ES Not mentors. One of the things I have never felt, and I’m rather proud of it, I never was anybody’s disciple. These are people I admire, but who I never knew. Conversely, I’ve never wanted to have disciples. The last thing I’d want are people who try to do what I do.

PL Do you want to say anything about Cyd Charisse?

ES You know, I met her.

PL I didn’t know. You just said in your book that you carried a torch for her.

ES You did too?

PL Oh,yes.

ES I’ll tell you the secret. It’s really quite an extraordinary story in and of itself. It must have been about seven or eight years ago, she came to New York to take somebody’s part in Grand Hotel. I had read an interview in which she said, “In those days, the censorship was so strict that the only way we could get sex into the movies was through the dancing.”

PL You mention that in the book.

ES So, I was fired up again, after years of dormancy. My close friend Jean Stein [editor of Grand Street grew up in Hollywood, and I told her I’d give anything to meet Cyd Charisse. And to make a long story short, Jean arranged it. We met at the Café Des Artistes. There was Jean, of course, her husband, and Mariam—I got there late…

PL Oh, you let your wife in on this meeting?

ES Everybody, not only my wife, but my friends who had arranged it. And the three of them were sitting at one end of the table with this gorgeous creature who looked exactly the way she did in her movies. I sat down and for a moment or two I was tongue-tied. But then I started to talk; I asked her about obscure films like On an Island with You, which is a film even you haven’t seen.

PL I haven’t seen it.

ES I wanted to know what it was like to dance with Ricardo Montalban. They do a sizzling scorcher in the middle of the movie. She said, “Oh, Ricardo. He’s a wonderful person but he can’t dance. I was carrying him the whole way through.” She told me she had been married to the same man for 44 years. I think she repeated it too many times for my comfort.

PL That’s right. Tony Martin, the singer.

ES I said to Jean, “This is one of the great idols of my early years, I feel I have to give her something.” She said, “Don’t bring any flowers. Her hotel room is drowning in flowers.” So I brought her a copy of Orientalism, wrapped in a brown paper bag. At some point, we all trooped out of the restaurant and a limousine was waiting for her. That was the only time I could see her legs, which were as magnificent as one remembers them; tall, long—she was stunning. She started saying good-bye to everybody, and I said, “Ms. Charisse, I’d like to give you this book of mine…”And then, for some reason I stupidly added, “But don’t feel you have to read it.” She turns to Jean and said, “What does he think I am, illiterate?” She embraces Jean, shakes hands warmly with everyone else, and then curtly says good-bye to me and gets into the car, holding this book rather distastefully. (laughter)

PL You lost your kiss. Well, you saw her legs, that was the important thing. You know, for an intimate memoir, you’re very coy, you never say when you lost your virginity. We’re going from one school to another with you, and you’re still saying, No, there wasn’t sex at Mount Hermon, there wasn’t sex at Princeton. I keep waiting for the shoe to drop. When is sex going to enter this man’s life?

ES It doesn’t until after the memoir ends, I have to tell you.

PL So you weren’t being coy, you were just being honest?

ES I was being honest. It’s quite shocking. I was really the oldest virgin that ever lived…practically.

Tags:
Postcolonialism
Families
Cultural identity
Psychoanalysis
Cancer
Middle East
Memoir
critical theory
BOMB 69
Fall 1999
The cover of BOMB 69
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