Monthly Archives: September 2015

From Syria To South Africa, A Passion For Wine Flows Bottle By Bottle

One chapter in Cathy Huyghe's Hungry for Wine is devoted to the Vinkara vineyards in Turkey where "hero wine" is produced.i

One chapter in Cathy Huyghe’s Hungry for Wine is devoted to the Vinkara vineyards in Turkey where “hero wine” is produced.

Courtesy of Cathy Huyghe

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Courtesy of Cathy Huyghe

One chapter in Cathy Huyghe's Hungry for Wine is devoted to the Vinkara vineyards in Turkey where "hero wine" is produced.

One chapter in Cathy Huyghe’s Hungry for Wine is devoted to the Vinkara vineyards in Turkey where “hero wine” is produced.

Courtesy of Cathy Huyghe

To make wine, you’ve got to have patience and passion – a lot of it. Cathy Huyghe, who is a wine columnist at and Food52, wanted to understand how and why and where passion for wine runs deep. So she traveled around the world – from Patagonia to New Zealand to South Africa — to document producers for her new book, Hungry for Wine: Seeing the World Through A Glass of Wine.

Many of the producers she finds are making wine under challenging circumstances: war, post-apartheid tensions and nascent markets for their product. But they’ve all built a life around wine, and their stories offer rich insight into politics, environment and community.

The hunger in the book’s title has multiple meanings. It doesn’t just speak to the winemakers’ passion – it’s also literal hunger for some of them, who need wine to put food on the table.

In the wine world, we don’t hear a lot about the people picking the grapes. So Huyghe made a point of asking each producer about the people who work for them — to deepen the story behind each wine. Her stories feature migrant workers who travel long distances from their homes to work in the vineyards. (For more, read the except below.)

Paperback, 130 pages, Provisions Press, List Price: $21.59

Hungry for Wine

Seeing the World Through the Lens of a Wine Glass

by Cathy Huyghe

Paperback, 130 | purchase

For two Syrian brothers, hunger for wine means producing and bottling wine despite the chaos and tragedy of a civil war. They conduct their entire business – including tasting and analyzing the grapes grown on a Syrian mountainside — via courier over the border in Lebanon. They’ve kept their same employees, paying them their same salaries, despite the risks. To the winemakers, continuing the business helps them keep “a sense of cohesion and purpose … acting like a family in times of distress and problems,” Huyghe writes.

Another chapter is devoted to Turkey’s “hero wine,” named for the defiance and creativity it took to bring the wine to market. It’s a story of how winemakers struggled to introduce their wines in a country where marketing alcohol was against the law despite increasing energy among young wine drinkers. Huyghe discovered what was expressed in the wine told the same story as the country itself.

“The winemakers themselves have at their disposal native grapes, indigenous grapes, that most of us can’t even pronounce, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon, and as well as Chardonnay,” she tells The Salt. “And so they’re trying to bridge – the way that Turkey itself is a bridge between East and West – they’re trying to use blends to bridge Turkey with the international trade.”

Hungry for Wine also brings this passion and desire back home to the wine drinker.

Huyghe’s first chapter is about the notion of regret many wine lovers struggle with when trying to decide when to open a special bottle of wine. And she explores this theme of patience in two other chapters: one about a winemaker in Chile who spent her lifetime trying to understand one specific vineyard, the second focused on the required years wine must age before it can be released in the famed La Rioja region in Spain. And Huyghe also reminds us about the desire to be part of a community – through urban wine groups and the eyes of some new California winemakers.

“There’s a mystery to wine … There are things we’re never going to know about wine. And the outer limits of what we can know about wine — there is none and there are no outer limits. It’s just a constant curiosity about wine that can just keep feeding our interests. There’s no end to it,” Huyghe says.” Or you can just drink the stuff and be perfectly happy.”

Join The Salt and Cathy Huyghe for a conversation on social media about the bottles of wine you’re hungry to drink by posting your thoughts and photos with the hashtag #hungryforwine.

Now Is Not The Time For Realistic Fiction, Says Margaret Atwood

Writer Margaret Atwood says she’ll try anything once. That spirit of adventure — coupled with her curiosity about the intersection of storytelling and new technology — led her to write a serialized book for the digital publisher Byliner. That book, The Heart Goes Last, is out now in a physical edition.

It’s a hard book to define, even for its author. Is it a satire? Is it a parody? Dystopian fiction comes close, though Atwood says wryly, “any fiction that shows a society which is worse than your own is dystopian.” In truth, she adds, “I think I’m just writing reality as it is unfolding.”

It has to be said, The Heart Goes Last is a strange version of reality, complete with sex robots, Elvis imitators and a beautiful woman who falls madly in love with a teddy bear. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves — the book begins in the not too distant past, “roughly parts of the Northeast in 2008, when there was a big financial meltdown involving people’s mortgages getting foreclosed and a lot of them ended up on the street, or living in their cars,” Atwood says.

And that is exactly where young couple Stan and Charmaine find themselves after losing their jobs and their home. They have to scrounge for food and are constantly threatened by roving gangs of criminals trying to steal their car and their few possessions. Then, Charmaine sees a commercial for Positron — It’s a social experiment that promises a return to full employment and middle class life, in an idyllic 1950s style town called Consilience. The only problem is, you have to spend half your life in prison.

“Half of the population spends a month in the prison while the rest of the population is acting as guards and town support people,” Atwood says. “Then, on changeover day they switch places, so those who have been prisoners come out and act the civilian roles, and those who have been acting those roles go into the prison. Not only that, they get to time share the houses.”

Related NPR Stories

Once you move to Consilience, you can never leave. But, as Atwood points out, the project entices people with the promise of a comfortable life and a common purpose — clean sheets, a tidy yard, a meaningful life.

The Heart Goes Last skewers a culture that trades freedom for creature comforts and views prison as a vehicle for profit. Atwood says she was interested in writing about a for-profit prison scheme for one simple reason, “because it’s happening and it has a long history of happening. So it goes all the way back to pre-modern times, say the ancient Greek and Roman world. The energy source in that world was slaves, and you could get to be a slave in various ways — but one of those ways was getting convicted of a criminal offense.”

It doesn’t take long to realize that something quite dark is happening in the pristine prison where residents spend half their lives. And it doesn’t take long for the time sharing arrangement to fall apart and veer wildly into sexual escapades and a bizarre escape plot that leads to Las Vegas — which is where the Elvis impersonators come in. Some readers may find these turns jarring — one reviewer called the book “a silly mess.” But novelist Mat Johnson disagrees.

“When I read Atwood, I kind of enjoy the process of giving up my footing because one of her greatest gifts is unsettling the reader,” he says. Johnson reviewed The Heart Goes Last for The New York Times. At first he thought the book’s beginnings as a serialized novel might explain the change in tone half way through. But, he says, he realized it’s just Atwood being Atwood.

“I think you have to approach a book like this and say, not what do I need this to be and is it fulfilling my preconceived notions, but what interesting things are happening here. It changes dramatically over the stretch of the book and I love that! Like, I love the surprise of her work and I love that she’s going in these different directions. At the same time, the themes are not all over the place.”

For her part, Atwood says this is not the time for realistic fiction — and it’s no coincidence that dystopia and fantasy are on the rise now. “I think they’re coming out of people’s feeling that things are going haywire, and you cannot depend on a stable background for ‘realistic fiction.’ And when there’s perceived instability that’s happening you can’t write that kind of novel and have people believe it.”

At 75, Margaret Atwood is still plunging ahead fearlessly into terrain that few writers would dare to enter. “Writing is just fun for me.” she says — and at this point in her life, it’s obvious she believes that literary risks are well worth taking.

How ‘The Martian’ Became A Science Love Story

Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who relies on science to survive on a hostile planet.i

Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who relies on science to survive on a hostile planet.

Giles Keyte/EPKTV

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Giles Keyte/EPKTV

Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who relies on science to survive on a hostile planet.

Matt Damon portrays an astronaut who relies on science to survive on a hostile planet.

Giles Keyte/EPKTV

If you watch the film The Martian, you’ll see Hollywood explosions and special effects galore, but you’ll also see some serious science.

Actor Matt Damon, who plays stranded astronaut Mark Watney, must calculate his way through food shortages, Martian road trips and other misadventures as he fights to find a way off the red planet.

Numbers are a matter of life and death for Damon’s astronaut, and in this movie they’re not pulled from thin air.

“If you care to double-check the results from what you see in the film, then you’ll find out it’s accurate,” says Andy Weir, who wrote the book on which the film is based.

The book began as a thought experiment by Weir, who is a longtime computer programmer. He began by imagining what a real mission to Mars might be like, and the potential problems the astronauts would need to plan for.

“I finally thought, ‘Huh. This actually might make for a pretty interesting story,’ ” he says.

(Left) Jordan's Wadi Rum desert was chosen as the backdrop to Matt Damon's Mars. (Right) The real Mars, as seen by Curiosity, a NASA rover.i

(Left) Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert was chosen as the backdrop to Matt Damon’s Mars. (Right) The real Mars, as seen by Curiosity, a NASA rover.

Twentieth Century Fox/EPKTV; California Institute of Technology/NASA

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Twentieth Century Fox/EPKTV; California Institute of Technology/NASA

(Left) Jordan's Wadi Rum desert was chosen as the backdrop to Matt Damon's Mars. (Right) The real Mars, as seen by Curiosity, a NASA rover.

(Left) Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert was chosen as the backdrop to Matt Damon’s Mars. (Right) The real Mars, as seen by Curiosity, a NASA rover.

Twentieth Century Fox/EPKTV; California Institute of Technology/NASA

Weir approached his plot with the meticulous thinking of an engineer. He quickly determined that the main problem for a stranded astronaut would be food.

“We have the technology to turn carbon dioxide back into oxygen; we have the technology to take sewage and turn it back into drinkable water,” Weir says. “But we don’t have a technology to easily generate food. The only way to make food is to grow it.”

There are no quick Hollywood fixes to the challenges faced by the astronaut castaway. He can grow potatoes the crew brought along, but he needs soil. The dirt he brings in from Mars is sterile, so he has to find fertilizer (there’s only one source on Mars: himself). Then he finds a new problem: The mission brought enough water to drink, but not enough to grow crops.

Each need is based on actual calculations done by Weir. And his solutions are based in scientific fact: “My primary research tool was Google,” says Weir, who used the search engine to dig up research papers and old Mars mission designs.

The novel first appeared on Weir’s website — where he guesses the first draft was read by about 3,000, or so, hardcore fans. These readers loved all the detail.

“These are nerds like me,” he says. “These are my people. And so I was writing something for them; I was writing a story where I show my work.”

Weir’s supernerd readers pushed his realism even further. Whenever he made a mistake, they let him know. And because the book was initially posted online, he could easily rewrite it to make it right.

How accurate is the resulting novel?

The Martian has almost all of its technical details correct,” says Robert Zubrin, the head of The Mars Society, which advocates sending people to explore the red planet. Zubrin, who has written nonfiction and fiction books about going to Mars, points out there have been many other accurate books written missions to Mars. What makes the Martian special he says, is its simple man versus nature plot. “It’s about one person, one human mind, one human heart,” he says.

And even this story isn’t perfect, adds Suzanne Smrekar, a planetary scientist NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who is helping to put together a robotic mission to the red planet. She spotted a hole in the film’s plot right away: The astronaut is stranded on Mars by a powerful dust storm that separates him from his crew.

“The atmosphere of Mars is one one-hundredth the density of our own atmosphere, so it really cannot provide much of a force,” she says. “That’s the one big artistic license of the whole book.”

Author Andy Weir told Weekend All Things Considered that he knew dust storms on Mars wouldn’t be that fierce, but he wanted a thrilling way to start his novel — so he allowed himself some literary leeway. After all, it is science fiction.

‘Zeroes’ Is A Superhero Story — About Teenage Losers

Marvel Comics elder statesman Stan Lee is widely credited as the first successful writer to understand that while superhero stories are power fantasies, they’re more relatable and appealing if they come with a hefty dose of limitation as well. The characters he’s credited with co-creating in the 1960s — particularly Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four’s Thing, and the X-Men — all came with phenomenal abilities, but also with built-in angst over their inhuman bodies, the tragedies they’d failed to prevent, or their alienation from the mainstream world.

The trend Lee kicked off, where superheroes are as flawed and troubled as the people they protect, dovetails nicely with the rise of young-adult genre novels, which also usually focus on dramatic action running parallel to big, painful personal problems. Series like Michael Grant’s Gone or Michael Carroll’s Super Human thoroughly embrace Lee’s idea that with great power comes great excitement, great misery, and great narrative hooks.

Authors Scott Westerfeld, Margo Lanagan, and Deborah Biancotti continue the trend with their first collaborative young-adult novel, Zeroes, but they focus more on weakness and frustration than on agony. Their protagonists don’t suffer as much as other comics heroes, but they spend as much time wrangling faulty or uncontrollable abilities as they do facing larger problems. They call themselves “the Zeroes” as a self-effacing joke, but there’s real frustration behind the label.

The worst off is Ethan, a.k.a. “Scam,” whose power controls him more than he controls it. “The voice,” as he thinks of it, speaks through his mouth, manipulating people into cooperating with whatever impulse is driving him. He’s often surprised to hear himself saying things he had no way of knowing. But the voice only cares about his short-term feelings, not the long-term consequences. When it talks him into a particularly bad corner, involving a bag of stolen drug money and a fatal shootout, the rest of the Zeroes get involved to protect their identities. They’re a fractious group: Crash, who can destroy technology with her mind; Anonymous, a boy who people forget or ignore when they aren’t talking to him; Flicker, a blind girl who can see through other people’s eyes; and Mob, who can direct, fuse and surf a crowd’s mood. And their self-appointed leader Bellwether manipulates everyone’s emotions to heighten their confidence and camaraderie — and control them for his own ends

Westerfeld, author of the Midnighters and Uglies books and 2014’s Afterworlds, has already written many novels about people whose superhuman abilities come with tight strictures. Lanagan has worked more in YA romance and fairy-tale-inspired fantasy, and Biancotti in short stories in a variety of genres, but their styles fuse seamlessly in Zeroes. The authors each took charge of two characters, in a process like the shared-world system behind George R.R. Martin’s long-running “real-world superhero” series Wild Cards. But while Zeroes changes its point of view every chapter, it still reads as a single cohesive story.

The approach does have issues. The six POV characters each have a private agenda, or a concern that takes a creative angle on the trouble with their powers. Anon hates his involuntary invisibility. Mob is a sensation junkie who never feels comfortable outside a group. Crash finds technology psychically painful, and has a hard time controlling the reflexive desire to mentally smash every itchy cell-phone and stinging computer in her mental range. The emotions are blunt and broad, but the rationales behind them are unique and intelligent. At the same time, the large cast and the rush to action doesn’t leave enough space for character development, and some of the protagonists don’t go much past a power and a problem.

But at its best, Zeroes is expansive and evocative, especially when it takes time to describe what it feels like to use or be used by a power. The rapturous scenes where Mob rides a wave of crowd energy, or Crash gives in and lets her abilities run wild, make all the drawbacks of being different seem worth the risk. Zeroes is a trilogy launch, and it openly leaves room for development that’s still to come. But it also leaves room for a little joy amid the turmoil, and a sense that even limited, troublemaking supernatural abilities would be worth the hassle.

Tasha Robinson is a freelance writer and a former Senior Editor at The Dissolve and The A.V. Club.

In Sophomore Year, Kirkus Prize Features An Eclectic Mix Of Finalists

The Kirkus Prize will announce its winners at a ceremony in Austin, Texas, on Oct. 15.i
The Kirkus Prize will announce its winners at a ceremony in Austin, Texas, on Oct. 15.

Out of 1,032 books, only 18 remain.

Judges for the Kirkus Prize have whittled a vast list of eligible entrants down to just six finalists each in three categories: fiction, nonfiction and young readers’ literature. The shortlists for the literary award, now in its second year, boast a healthy mix — between Americans and writers in translation, second-timers and old hands, headline-grabbers and small presses.

And that’s not to mention the picture books.

Newly named MacArthur fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates — who is having himself quite a year — is on the nonfiction list for Between the World and Me, along with Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, which last year won the U.K.’s top nonfiction prize. They are joined by nonfiction finalists Whirlwind, by John Ferlin, The Deluge, by Adam Tooze, The Invention of Nature, by Andrea Wulf, and Simon Winchester’s Pacific, which boasts a subtitle so long, it deserves a paragraph of its own:

Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers.

In fiction, a pair of nominees for the National Book Award — Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies — have made the Kirkus shortlist, along with Susan Barker’s The Incarnations and Mexican author Valeria Luisielli’s The Story of My Teeth, translated by Christina MacSweeney. Also on the list is Jim Shepard’s The Book of Aron, a Holocaust novel that NPR’s reviewer Michael Schaub calls “horrifying, brutal and angry” — yet still imbued with pitch-black humor.

Rounding out the fiction finalists is Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women, which Fresh Air‘s Maureen Corrigan called a showcase for a “hard-earned, one-of-a-kind voice and vision.”

The finalists for young readers’ literature — split evenly between picture books, and books aimed at middle grades and teens — can be found in full below.

To be considered, books first had to receive a starred review from Kirkus Reviews, then underwent consideration by panels of three judges each. The winners of the $50,000 prize will be announced on Oct. 15.

Kirkus Prize Finalists

Young Readers’ Literature

Lauren Child, The New Small Person
Jonah Winter (writer), Shane W. Evans (illustrator), Lillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
Pam Muñoz Ryan, Echo
Duncan Tonatiuh, Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras
Martha Brockenbrough, The Game of Love and Death
Daniel José Older, Shadowshaper


Susan Barker, The Incarnations
Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women
Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies
Valeria Luiselli, The Story of My Teeth
Jim Shepard, The Book of Aron
Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life


Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
John Ferlin, Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War that Won It
Helen Macdonald, H Is for Hawk
Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931
Simon Winchester, Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World’s Superpowers
Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World

‘Gold Fame Citrus’ Holds Fear In A Handful Of Dust

“Your people came here looking for something better. Gold, fame, citrus. Mirage. They were feckless, yeah? Schemers. That’s why no one wants them now. Mojavs.”

That’s Ray, talking to Luz, on the day they first met, explaining the draw of California, the curse of it. What drew down generations of wanderers and seekers and, eventually, brought the world to what it is today.

Or tomorrow, really. Maybe the day after. Because that’s when Claire Vaye Watkins’ new dystopia-du-jour novel, Gold Fame Citrus, is set: Just over a too-near horizon where everything is drought and lack and death. Where the water is gone and the people are gone and the southwest has become a wild, weird, rolling apocalypse that, sure, is a fiction today but might be history by next year.

Luz and Ray and Ray and Luz — the former model with her bad memories and hatbox full of cash and the AWOL soldier-turned-surfer wracked by nightmares. They’re the ones who stuck, refusing evac, dodging the law, living in the “laurelless canyon,” in a former million-dollar mansion of some forgotten starlet. Luz spends all day trying on left-behind dresses from the cavernous closets. Ray is building a half-pipe in the backyard because the bone-dry pool isn’t suitable for skating.

They don’t want to run. To be evacuated to Connecticut or Pennsylvania or the greener east. And they’re not the only ones. A ragged society of dribs and dregs has remained behind in Los Angeles. The illegal, the broken — those too weird or too wanted to face scrutiny from the National Guard, too useless for Washington or Oregon, where the borders are patrolled by armed men and no Mojavs are welcome; those who are having too much fun watching the world burn. Luz and Ray are all of those things put together — a species uniquely suited to scraping through the apocalypse.

But then one day, at a bonfire party down in the berms and culverts, they see a child being taken care of (poorly) by a gang of drunken teenaged gutter punks. A toddler. Two years old maybe. Neglected in a filthy sagging diaper, knowing no other world than this desiccated one. So they kidnap it.

It’s one of those things that seems like a good idea at the time.

The baby is called Ig. Luz and Ray have nothing to offer her but their love, their enthusiasm at the thought of life that is not their life, their ridiculous attempts at protection. They use maxi pads and a hundred of the starlet’s silk Hermes scarves as diapers. Arrange her modular furniture into a playpen. Give Ig a taxidermied turtle to play with. All of it is goofy and beautiful and heartbreaking, even when Luz and Ray decide that their life of ration colas, bottles of capers and boxes of crackers scavenged from the starlet’s pantry is no longer enough. Ig needs more, and the two of them set off into the wild.

At which point post-apocalyptic L.A. suddenly feels like civilization. Feels like a safe place that they are leaving behind with a child and a dream of finding a green and better world that will have them. After all, there were blueberries in L.A. (even if they cost $200 for a handful and tasted terrible). A roof. All those scarves.

When Luz and Ray strike out, Watkins’ world opens, becomes more shattering, more starkly beautiful, exponentially more deadly. Gold Fame Citrus is a dreamy story with a mystical streak and a core of juvenile irresponsibility that does not go unpunished. But Watkins’ vision — not just of a world broken by ecological disaster, but of the sorts of people who would thrive in that world — is mercilessly sharp. She’s got a knife eye for details, a vicious talent for cutting to the throbbing vein of animal strangeness that scratches inside all of us. Religious fanatics, doomsday prophets, survivalists — they make their way on the ragged edges of the Dune Sea, the new dustbowl. Luz and Ray and Ig fold in among these groups, break away, pass by. They are our witnesses to the new world, to this slow apocalypse becoming.

And if what they say is true, that all our disposable dystopias are just thinly-disguised fantasies — safe playgrounds (without jobs, without bills, without calls to return or soccer games to attend) into which we can imagine our best or worst selves — then Watkins’s fantasy is a particularly dark one.

First, because it is so terribly current, so terribly believable.

And last, because not everyone we love is going to make it out alive.

Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

Michelle Dorrance: ‘I Just Knew I Would Never Stop Tap Dancing’

Tap dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance is the founder and artistic director of Dorrance Dance/New York. She has been dancing since she was 4.i
Tap dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance is the founder and artistic director of Dorrance Dance/New York. She has been dancing since she was 4.

Tap dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance is the founder and artistic director of Dorrance Dance/New York. She has been dancing since she was 4.

Christopher Lane/John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

People often ask dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance when she knew she wanted to become a professional dancer. Her answer is simple: “I just knew I would never stop tap dancing,” she tells NPR’s Robert Siegel. “I knew it was possible because our masters die with their shoes on. … You dance until your ’90s.”

Dorrance was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship on Tuesday. Each of the 24 fellows receives $625,000 over five years to pursue his or her work without conditions. Dorrance is the founder of the Dorrance Dance/New York Troupe.

“I think tap dance is the ultimate art form, at least for me,” Dorrance says. “To be able to be a dancer and a musician at the same time, there’s nothing like it. … There’s something that’s really organic in your footfall. There’s something organic in your biorhythms, your heartbeat. And to be able to demonstrate that inside of a moving form is phenomenal.”

Interview Highlights

On when she decided to become a tap dancer

My mother was a professional ballet dancer. … My father — who’s a soccer coach — I knew I had his very tight leg musculature. So I wasn’t flexible and I did not have the feet. But I immediately excelled and gravitated towards tap dancing I think, in part, because of its musicality.

So I studied ballet, played soccer, studied tap dance, studied a little bit of jazz. Did as many things as I could for as long as I could at the level that I could be at my best. But there was I point where I had to choose to focus — really, truly focus on tap. And it wasn’t really a choice. I just wanted to do it all the time, every day.

On how she improvises with jazz musicians

That’s truly the tradition, the great tradition of tap. … In its roots it is improvisational. That’s the way it was innovated and the way it was communicated.

On how her troupe worked creatively at St. Mark’s Church-In-The-Bowery in Lower Manhattan, where they were not allowed to use metal taps [Click here to see video from that performance]

I worked there before and we had put a few wooden tap mats, if you will, on top of the beautiful wooden floor that we were not allowed to use metal taps on. And after doing that, I decided no, we need to explore this space as an instrument. And we used bare feet, we used socked feet, we used wooden taps that we made ourselves. We used a leather-soled shoe, which was the original tap shoe before wooden taps were made and then later aluminum taps.

On the associations between tap dancing and minstrel shows

It’s very interesting. It’s such an important part of the tradition — and I say important in part because it reflects the great oppression and racism present in our culture and is of course reflected in the form. And the history of the form really reflects a history of the United States in a very strong way. And if you think of a performer in a minstrel show owning some element of their artistry — even though part of what they’re doing is having to belittle themselves — the one thing you can own inside of that is your innovation, your rhythm.

Your artistry lives inside of that form purely even if what your affectation is is not something that feels right in your spirit, or that is right in the world. … I think tap dance is an incredibly transcendent form. It is born of some of the most oppressed people our country and culture has known and, you know, finds its way to joy.

Cultural Capital: 50 Years Of Investment In U.S. Arts And Humanities


There was a time in the 1990s when the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities dominated headlines for funding controversial artworks and what were viewed as exclusive educational programs. Well, on this day, the two endowments were signed into law 50 years ago. And nowadays they’re absent from wide public discourse. But they’re still at work funding programs and trying to convince Congress and the American people of their value. NPR’s Tom Cole reports.

TOM COLE, BYLINE: Jane Chu, the current head of the National Endowment for the Arts, was 8 when the agency was founded.

JANE CHU: (Laughter) That’s exactly right. It was founded in 1965, September 29.

COLE: She was already playing piano in her Arkansas hometown.

CHU: I’d participated in every music camp I could get my hands on from grade school through high school. It really became my social life, too.

COLE: The chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities hadn’t yet begun studying philosophy in college. William Adams was soon to be deployed to Vietnam.

WILLIAM ADAMS: I was an infantry adviser to the Vietnamese army in the Mekong Delta in 1968, kind of in the epicenter of the war. And, of course, those were the times of great turmoil and strife around the war. But it was also a great time to be asking philosophical questions.

COLE: Three years earlier, President Lyndon Johnson alluded to a fundamental question about the role of arts and culture in American society when he signed the Endowments into law in the White House Rose Garden.


LYNDON JOHNSON: We in America have not always been kind to the artists and the scholars who are the creators and the keepers of our vision.

COLE: The man wrote the legislation was the late Livingston Biddle, who later went on to head the NEA. He had to convince his then boss, Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell, to introduce the bill, as Biddle told me in 1995.


LIVINGSTON BIDDLE: Most members of Congress looked at artists and the arts with considerable suspicion. We weren’t all that far from the McCarthy period and artists and Communists were equated, still.

COLE: But the bill passed and the very first NEA check went to American Ballet Theatre in response to an emergency request for help. Vice President Hubert Humphrey delivered the check personally in December of 1965. That same year, MacArthur award-winning choreographer Paul Taylor got his first NEA check for $5,000.

PAUL TAYLOR: In New York City, when I first came, there were no handouts. There was no Endowment, no businesses giving monies to modern dance. I don’t know that anyone had a manager. We’d just give concerts.

COLE: In 1995, Taylor told me he still applied for NEA grants every year. Everything seemed to tick along fine for the Endowments following their founding. Annual budgets increased from just under $3 million to more than $150 million each by 1989. That’s when the NEA raised the ire of Congress by funding the work of visual artists Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe. It was called blasphemous and pornographic, and its most vocal critic was North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms.


JESSE HELMS: The self-proclaimed art experts pretend that even if the art is gross and even if it is vulgar and offensive, it’s art, and it ought to be financed and subsidized by the American taxpayers.

COLE: The ensuing battle, which dominated the media for more than five years, resulted in lawsuits by artists, slashed Endowment budgets and a fundamental change in one way the NEA awards grants, says the agency’s current chair, Jane Chu.

CHU: The NEA no longer supports individual artists directly, but the NEA does specifically support individual writers.

COLE: Nevertheless, the Endowments together have distributed over $11 billion through more than 200,000 individual grants over the course of 50 years. NPR has been a recipient. But it’s not just about the money, says the current NEH chair. William Adams says it means something when the state chooses to support arts and culture.

ADAMS: We are having an argument in this country about the scope of government. But I’m not afraid to say that I think that scope must include this fundamental concern for culture. And the interest is not just financial. It’s also symbolic, and I think that’s one of the most important aspects of the history of these two agencies. They’ve been able to represent the public commitment to the historic and cultural legacy of the country.

COLE: They also, he says, help us to think about who we are and what we want to be. Tom Cole, NPR News, Washington.

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