For writers, the greatest reward is human connection. But when that connection is absent, the failure of empathy can be painful.
To be loved or to be read?
That was the question I had been asking myself ever since hearing Richard Nash describe how, upon the publication of their first book, authors often realize that what they really want–more than that physical object–is to be loved. For a while, I argued the point in my head. What I wanted out of publication, I thought, and maybe what most writers truly want, is for those stories to be heard.
It occurred to me, though, that I had made an arbitrary dichotomy. I wanted to write about intentions, but I hated to set up a choice between two things that are not mutually exclusive, or are not exclusive at all. I searched for a third option. It took the latest episode of Radiolab, a podcast and science-based storytelling project out of WNYC, New York’s Public Radio station, for me to realize that what I really want to do, as a storyteller, is to reach.
I have been going on about Radiolab for years now. It started when someone pointed me toward an episode about a parasite that can control another bug’s mind—this ability is out there, in the animal kingdom—an episode that becomes even more amazing when that science is applied to a human story, of a man who thinks he is being controlled by a parasite in cat scat. He turns to parasites as a way to explain his social isolation, it seemed to me, and Radiolab describes this man’s story with empathy and fascinating science.
I had constructed the question to be loved or to be read in the passive. But the storytelling on this show seemed to grab me by the shoulder and say, hey, this is relevant, to, well, humanity. And isn’t that what a storyteller—be it poet, essayist, radio personality, etc—wants his work to do, to reach people? The desire isn’t necessarily about being loved, and isn’t about the pageviews, not really, for all their video-gameness, or even for the implied audience size. It is the hope that something in a story, the true truth, can connect with what audience you have, can change them.
I came up against this recently in the comments of two essays I published online. One was about the yellowface in the Cloud Atlas movie, which met with plenty of backlash from (it must be said: white) people defending the choice to have (mostly white) actors play multiple races despite the historical context of yellow/blackface. These comments never upset me, even when they came close to attacking. I wondered why, then, a comment on an essay about the danger of singular models—the first comment—upset me so much that I spent an entire day thinking I might stop writing essays altogether. This comment was not so nasty as those on the “Yellowface” essay. It was about my choice to mention something the commenter had emailed to me, though I kept her anonymous and no one would have known who’d said it if she hadn’t identified herself.
What upset me about the comment was not that I wasn’t being loved. What upset me was not that I wasn’t being read, either, since the commenter is, or at least was, an active reader of my work. What upset me was the possibility that readers who might respond to the essay enough to share their own stories about singular models, their own experiences, would be met in the comment thread by this attack not on the essay or the ideas expressed therein and might be dissuaded from sharing. What upset me was that I was unable to reach this reader, and that her comment might derail the essay’s ability to reach others. I had tried my best to make myself vulnerable so that I might reach others’ vulnerabilities, and this comment seemed to cheapen that, somehow, to make it seem as if I had written for my own self-value, to be read or to be loved.
I got over it, but I did start wondering why I write.
And then along came the new Radiolab podcast, “The Fact of the Matter,” which took as its subject truth. It was as if the podcast had been made to address my wonderings. When I started listening, the episode was only 2 hours old. I was taking care of my 15-month-old baby with the podcast in the background—my preferred method, these days, of babycare, since it allows my mind to expand at the same time as it must focus on all the tiny dangers of everyday life. I listened along to filmmaker Errol Morris’s tale of his search for the truth in two photographs. Then the podcast transitioned to the story of a possible chemical weapon, “Yellow Rain,” used on the Hmong people by the Viet Cong in retaliation for the Hmong involvement in the Vietnam War. By the end of the segment, I was crying. My baby was confused, patting my face to comfort me, but I could not be comforted. I wasn’t crying for the truth in the story, though. Unfortunately. I was crying for the mistreatment of truth. A part of me, too, was mourning the end of Radiolab, its end for me, at least, and the end on the show of true storytelling, of putting the story before the storyteller.
This is what happens in the episode [spoiler alert]. One of the producers talks to a retired CIA officer who was stationed in Laos directly after the Vietnam War. At the same time, Robert Krulwich, one of the Radiolab hosts, interviews a survivor of this genocide, Eng Yang, who is translated by his niece, Kao Kalia Yang. The interview opens with Eng describing how the Viet Cong attacked the Hmong people (the slaughter of an entire village), setting the scene for the reports the CIA officer starts receiving.
The reports are about “yellow droplets” falling on the Hmong from Viet Cong planes. “They all,” Jad Abumrad (our other host) says, of all the reports, “said, whatever this was, when it landed it made people violently ill.” Many died. An investigation was made into the possibility of chemical warfare.
The segment then veers off into the study of this “Yellow Rain” and whether it was actually a man-made weapon. At first, it seemed to be. The US blamed the Russians and began production of their own chemical weapons in response. Later, though, scientists started to find that the yellow rain was not a chemical weapon. The episode builds up evidence showing the yellow rain was actually bee feces. At this point, we return to the interview with Eng and Kalia, where we left their story of the Hmong genocide.
Robert brings up the scientific evidence for bee poop. Eng replies that he saw people dying with his own eyes, those who were covered in the yellow dust. The interviewers point out that the deaths may have been caused by dysentery, disease, etc. from their flight from the Viet Cong. Eng says that chemicals were definitely involved. Robert asks whether there was always a plane and then rain or sometimes rain without a plane. Eng says they didn’t stop to check. They ran or hid from the bombs and looked afterward. But the yellow rain was only being dropped on large concentrations of Hmong people. Robert questions again the fact of airplanes.
When Eng protests, Robert says to Kalia, “But he himself is not clear whether it’s the bee stuff or whether it’s other stuff. Because there was so much stuff coming down from the sky.”
When Eng says he knew there were chemicals, whether from bombs or yellow rain, chemicals were being used—it’s just semantics—and that there is a “sad lack of justice” that the word of a man who saw his people dying must be pitted against the word of a Harvard professor, Robert cuts in again. “But,” he tells Kalia, “as far as I can tell, your uncle didn’t see the bee pollen fall. Your uncle didn’t see a plane. All of this is hearsay.”
Kalia is choking up at this point. And her long response ends the interview. Here it is as well as I could transcribe it:
My uncle says for the last 20 years, he didn’t know that anybody was interested in the deaths of the Hmong people. He agreed to do this interview because you were interested. You know what happened to the Hmong happened. And the world has been uninterested for the last 20 years. He agreed because you were interested. That the story would be heard, and that the Hmong deaths would be [well?]-documented and recognized. That’s why he agreed to the interview. That the Hmong heart is broken. That our leaders have been silenced. And what we know has been questioned again and again is not a surprise to him or to me. I agreed to the interview for the same reasons. That Radiolab was interested in the Hmong story. That they were interested in documenting the deaths that happened. There was so much that was not told. Everybody knows that chemical warfare was being used. How do you create bombs if not with chemicals? We can play the semantics game. We can. But I am not interested. My uncle is not interested. We have lost too much heart, and too many people, in the process.
Every time I listen to this, I start to cry. Every time. About ten times now.
“I think that the interview is done,” she says.
Then there’s a long pause, over ten seconds of dramatic radio silence. When Jad and Robert return, Jad describes Kalia as asking them to stop looking at the bee pollen instead of the larger story of the Hmong genocide. Then this happens: Robert says, “That is exactly what she’s saying. And that is wrong. That is absolutely—to my mind, that is not fair to us.” He says, “It’s not fair to ask us to not consider the other stories and the other frames of the story. The fact that the most powerful man in the world, Ronald Reagan, used this story to order the manufacture of chemical weapons for the first time in 20 years. I mean, that is not unimportant, it’s hugely important. But it’s not important to her. So should that not be important to us?” He says, “I thought her reaction was very balancing. But her desire was not for balance. Her desire was to monopolize the story. And that we can’t allow.”
I have tried not to leave out anything that could make his response seem more measured. But in the end, it always comes down to: “Her desire was to monopolize the story. And that we can’t allow.”
To his credit, Jad does push back against this. Though Robert says, “Oh, if you listen to the words, that’s what she says.”
Aside from him putting words in Kalia’s mouth, aside from taking complete ownership of what they said, interpreting their words for his own purposes (ironically enough, to express indignation that Kalia and Eng might take ownership of the story), there’s the idea that Robert has the power over what truth should be presented. That Radiolab will dictate where the story goes. The Hmong taking ownership of a story about the Hmong genocide, “that we can’t allow.” I’ll come back to this, because this is where storytelling dies its death on Radiolab.
Jad seems to take the role of the calmer head then. He says, “I just think that they feel like their trauma has never been fully acknowledged, and that they’ve attached it to this—because maybe they felt like they had to—they’ve attached it to this idea that Yellow Rain was a chemical weapon. And if Yellow Rain suddenly isn’t a chemical weapon, that doesn’t just un-validate the Yellow Rain, it negates their whole loss. And I think she might be right.”
This, in the end, is what they seem to come to an agreement on. And at first glance, it doesn’t sound that bad. But then take into account again that Jad is ascribing a motivation to Kalia and Eng (though we could have heard from them directly if the interview had been handled correctly) and that the ideas Jad is ascribing are, to be direct, quite ludicrous. That they’ve attached their trauma to the idea that Yellow Rain was a chemical weapon? Kalia and Eng seem naturally to be more concerned with genocide and with the silence on that topic than with what exactly killed the Hmong, And then Jad says that if Yellow Rain is not a chemical weapon, it negates their whole loss. He believes that this is what she thinks. Perhaps because this is what Robert seems to be doing in the interview, negating their loss. And Jad ascribes this whole train of thought to Kalia and validates it with his own confirmation–he thinks she might be right–though it was always his opinion alone. He is speaking for her, completely. He never allows her words to speak for themselves, the same mistake the interview makes.
Kalia and Eng do want to make their story heard. “And that we can’t allow,” Robert says. We can’t allow their story to become the main story. Why?
Why, I ask? Why?
A quick side note: I feel I must, at this point, mention the cultural factors at play here. Jad and Robert are starting with the genocide of an Eastern people as a jumping-off point to talk about the effect (of one aspect—Yellow Rain) of that story on the West. Robert discusses the importance of the story being the fact that the bee feces, not ultimately a chemical weapon, spurred the US to manufacture chemical weapons. Surely this is indeed important, but it seems to me that framing the story this way and insisting on that frame is prioritizing the importance of the effect genocide had on the Western countries (production of chemical weapons) over the effect (death) on the people who directly experienced the event, the Hmong.
To state my point differently, I would submit that when the pursuit of the truth overlooks suffering for potential suffering, that is not a truth that is true. Maybe it is too easy, when thinking about how the actual Hmong deaths are sidelined for the story of the weapons, to read race and cultural dominance into the decision. But one thing is for sure, Radiolab is prioritizing the potential over the actual. The Hmong died. This happened. The story of those deaths, however, the story with which they begin and which carries the emotional impact of the segment, is not a focus Robert can allow. It is not the truth he wants to tell. Why?
Storytelling. I want to quote, here, the poet Dean Young (from The Art of Recklessness): “The highest accomplishment of the human consciousness is the imagination, and the highest accomplishment of the imagination is empathy.” I am missing the empathy in Robert’s interview. I am missing the empathy, but also, even, the imagination.
The episode, “The Fact of the Matter,” talks at one point about truth being fact, that if you keep looking you will find a yes or a no. But we who tell stories should know better. Writers, and storytellers of all forms, know that an important part of telling a story is to allow the story to go where it must, where the emotion is, where the empathy is, where the imagination leads it. This sounds vague and too conceptual maybe. But think of it like this. I want to tell a story about whether or not something is a chemical weapon. And in doing so, I stumble across the story of thousands of people who were murdered because of their race. Do I stick stubbornly to the story of the nature of the chemical weapon, or do I let the story that emerges be the story I offer readers? I am not writing for myself.
Why do we tell stories? Which story is it that really reaches people? Maybe it is not the story Radiolab started with, maybe it is not the story they wanted to get out there, or wanted people to appreciate, but the story of the Hmong is the story that reaches me. It seems the same for others, if the comments amassing on the episode page are any indication.
One of these comments, it so happens, is from Kalia’s husband, who was present for the interview. He mentions that in a part of the interview that did not run, Eng mentions having seen canisters releasing chemical weapons. He also mentions that Eng knows what dysentery looks like, knows how bees behave and what bee poop looks like. He mentions that no apology was ever given, and “When Kalia asked if she could have a copy of the entire interview, Krulwich responded “youll [sic] need a court order for that”
Other comments I noted right away are one that mentions that Eng says in Hmong that he has some “experiential education in bee feces” but this background is never acknowledged by the program. Another mentions that Kao Kalia Yang is an accomplished writer, and that while Errol Morris and others in the episode are mentioned as “filmmaker Errol Morris,” given credentials, Kalia is never given a context that could in give her any claim to authority.
Maybe it was these comments that elicited a response from Jad in which he says they were not trying “to minimize the suffering of the Hmong people, quite the opposite.” But as a last note in this response, Jad sticks to his guns. He defends Robert, saying, “He believes, as we all do, that the truth [about the nature of the yellow rain] is a matter of life or death. It’s not just bee poop.” I wonder if this misses the point. The genocide of the Hmong people was also, literally, a matter of life or death. The decision to manufacture chemical weapons is not yet a matter of life or death, though it could be in the future. In the interview, Eng insists that whether the chemicals were from bombs or yellow rain, chemicals were used. Proving that the sample of yellow dust was bee poop, doesn’t mean that there weren’t chemical weapons. It simply means that there was bee poop. These are not mutually exclusive truths. Here is a truth either way: thousands of Hmong were murdered.
Radiolab has lost me as a listener. But, in fact, I have learned something about story and truth from this episode. I have learned something from the comments on the episode. After listening, I felt so let down. As with the comment that seemed to derail my essay, I almost convinced myself that people have stopped caring to connect with each other genuinely. I felt, with my baby pawing my face, as if something that I believed in, about stories and our human need for stories, something I wanted for my own writing, had died. It had died. But in the comments, in other people’s outrage, I actually found hope. I found that people out there, the people who are listening and reading and trying to understand, want to be reached. That it doesn’t matter if they love you or listen to you loyally or not—many of these commenters are long-time Radiolab listeners who have decided to give the program up—it matters if the story being told is trying to reach out to them or not. It matters to them, to us. It matters so deeply that we will let those stories take root in our hearts, or we will cut the storytellers off forever.
Goodbye, Radiolab. I will miss you.