Jonathan Freedman is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, author, and writing mentor. His novel, THE LAST BRAZIL of BENJAMIN EAST is being published by Bright Lights Press of Palo Alto. He graduated from Columbia University, traveled overland from America to Bolivia, and lived in Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland. He is married to a physician who conducts experimental cancer therapies. He has four children and two grandchildren.
Interview with Jonathan Freedman
Traves Warren: Hello, this is Traves Warren, President of City College of San Francisco’s Forum Literary Magazine Club, interviewing Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jonathan Freedman.
Jonathan Freedman: Hi, this is Jonathan Freedman and I’m really pleased to be here.
TW: So, Mr. Freedman, I’d like to begin by asking you what lead up to your writing that won you the Pulitzer Prize, and why you wrote it?
JF: I was thirty years old, unemployed, freelancing in Haight Ashbury. I went down to San Diego for a job interview at The Tribune. The editor took me to the cafeteria. “Jonathan, on my way to work, I saw these poor migrant workers hiding in the bushes in the rain. I’ve worked for this newspaper for thirty years. Every day we report murders and terrible things on the border. But we’ve never gone into depth on the issues underlying illegal immigration. If we did that, we could win a Pulitzer Prize.” I needed a job. The idea of a Pulitzer Prize was beyond my imagination. I got hired and trained as an editorial writer. Six months later, I said, “Mr. Bennett, do you remember what you said about the border?” “Yeah, but we have no time,” he said. “Write me a proposal.” So I wrote, “The border between Mexico and the United States is where water flowing from the Colorado River stops, and a river of humanity flows northward from Mexico to United States.”
“Bull! You don’t know anything about the border. Tomorrow, you’re going to the border.”
So, the next day, I went to the border outpost at the extreme southwest corner of the United States and Mexico. I saw a hole in the chain link fence. It was the size of a crouching man. Then I interviewed the border patrol agents. They told me how they’d get alerted when someone trips a wire. They’d chase them; they’d arrest them; they’d deport them. And the next day, they’d be back. I saw a holding tank for people who had been caught trying to cross the border. It was dark and dingy and someone had written on the wall mojado power, “wetback power.”
So I came back and I wrote an editorial. There’s a hole in the fence between Mexico and the United States. Each year, thousands of people cross the border illegally. Their first act is to violate law. They’re hunted like animals. That began a series of editorials exploring illegal immigration from different points of view. Every week, I would go to a new place. I would go into Mexico, follow the people across the border, go to the strawberry fields. I asked the same questions: “What can we do to protect our borders? What can we do to help the people living here illegally? They’re providing food, harvesting crops, doing all kinds of jobs. But they have no rights. I wrote a series of editorials that began in 1981 and continued for six years. Our purpose was to convince Congress to pass a just and compassionate law. My editorials from the border were read in the halls of Congress. They were instrumental in the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The law granted legalization to over two million people. I was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in Distinguished Editorial Writing in 1987. But the law did not solve all the problems of immigration.
TW: So, in the beginning, was this done out of your personal compassion?
JF: When I was the age of City College students, I wanted to be a writer. I went to Columbia University in New York. I won a writing prize. When I was 23, I traveled overland from Mexico, through Central America, over the Andes Mountains, into the Amazon jungle, across the desert of Peru, all the way to Bolivia. I got a job as a reporter with the Associated Press in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. So, to answer your question, my compassion came from traveling and seeing the lives of people in Latin America. I saw the conditions they were living in. I felt great respect and love for the people. Later, when I came to San Diego I saw how illegal immigrants were being treated in America.
TW: So, you got this law passed in 1986 by speaking to actual people along the border. Would you say that your reason for writing is to try to get to the root of problems and find solutions?
JF: Yes, I’m a very solution-oriented journalist. It wasn’t my goal to humiliate leaders and make people look bad. I wanted to listen to the voices of people who are downtrodden and suffering, to learn from them. What do they have to say? I interviewed people like you are doing now. I wanted their voices to be heard. That was theme of my career. That’s why I’m leading a writing workshop in the English Lab at City College. I believe that every human being has an important voice, something valuable to say. I want to help students find their own voice. When you speak truly, your words will reverberate with other people. To tell your story, and to be heard: that is a life-changing experience. It gives you power. It can help you live a better life.
TW: So, would you say that the emphasis of your writing is placed on giving a voice to people who otherwise would not have it?
JF: Yes, that’s true. I think that in the immigration series, what I did was to go and interview people. It’s a very complicated issue and everyone has a justifiable point of view on it. Some people are afraid of illegal immigration, other people are profiting from it, but everyone has a point of view. I wanted get learn from the people on the scene, whether it was a farmer who’s hiring, or someone who is working in the sun; whether it was children playing in the pesticides by the ditches. Whoever the person is, I wanted to give voice to bring the reader into those places, to experience it in real life. I trusted in the human heart, that readers’ compassion would compel them to do the right thing.
TW: What part of that do you believe was integral to you helping to get the amnesty to pass in 1986?
JF: I think that people had been discussing the issue of illegal immigration as us versus them: us being Americans, and them being foreigners. People take political positions on that. I wanted to add the human stories. So readers would not just think all illegal aliens are the same. The words “illegal aliens” turn people into objects. Aliens could come from outer space. Illegal means you broke the law. Well, who are these people? What are their stories? Is their desire to have a better life not unlike ours? How do they threaten us; how do we threaten them? I wanted those voices heard in Congress. Not just talking heads spitting out ideology.
The same issues are happening today. We have an even larger population of the undocumented in America. Yet the political argument is still us-versus-them. There are undocumented students at City College. They did nothing wrong. They were brought here by their parents. Now they want to have a college education. But some people say no. They don’t have a right to the student loan, because they don’t have papers. I want to work with them, with all City College students. To help them develop their own voices, to speak up, to be heard. At this stage of my life, this gives me great satisfaction.
T W: So, coming from your experiences in Latin America, getting the law passed, and winning the Pulitzer Prize to now, what is significant in your life as a writer?
JF: When I was a young man, I wanted adventure. I grew up in Colorado, and had a privileged life. But it seemed if I was missing something. I heard the music of Brazil. I saw a movie about carnival. It seemed there is so much more life down there. So I seized the chance to go to Latin America. It took almost nine months of hard travel. When I got to Brazil a whole new way of life opened up. Brazilians seemed to put music, laughter, dancing, food, and love ahead of money. There was tremendous poverty in Brazil. But lives of the people seemed rich. There was violence and political torture and all kinds of bad things happening. Yet I thought that the Brazilian Spirit gave them a joyous quality of life. I wanted to bring that spirit back. I wanted to write a novel that captured that life, that spirit in Brazil. So in my late 20’s, I started writing a novel. It began with what-if questions:
What if I was an old American who had lived for many years in Brazil? What if I’d lost my wife, lost my money, lost my fortune, and I came back to America? What if I put that character, whose name is Benjamin East, on a Greyhound bus? What if a young woman named Amy ran into that bus station? She was fleeing her husband, who’d raped her What if she collided with this old man, and pleaded, “Take me to New York!” What would happen to them?
I wrote a novel about this odd couple crossing America on a Greyhound bus. It took me two years to finish, but I couldn’t get it published. I put it in a drawer in 1983. Then my career as a journalist took off. Flash forward thirty years. The newspaper business is dying. I’ve had my own successes and failures. I’m nearing the age of Benjamin East. I find this old box containing a manuscript. I begin reading. The spirit of Benjamin East lifts my spirits. But the book has flaws. I vowed not to destroy it. So the older and younger Jonathans collaborated to bring the book to fruition. It took two years to edit and revise. The Last Brazil Benjamin East is being published by Bright Lights Press of Palo Alto this year.
The main story takes place in 1980 on a bus ride across America. But the back story takes place in the 1950s, when Benjamin and his wife traveled up the Rio Negro. I’m honored that an excerpt from this river trip is being published in FORUM.
TW: Do you feel your book’s demographic is aimed not just at Americans, but at Brazilians as well? Do you think they would like to read your book?
JF: I hope Benjamin’s journey inspires young people to travel, to find their own path, to explore possibilities.
I’d also like to say what City College means to me. The students who attend my workshop come not only from San Francisco, but also Mexico, China, Ethiopia, Vietnam… Some are young, others in the middle age or late in life. They have hopes, dreams, and incredible stories. The mission of City College is to provide education to students of all ages and walks of life. The professors are extraordinarily committed to their students. Yet CCSF’s accreditation is being threatened. This institution is vital for San Francisco’s future. City College needs to survive, grow and thrive. The very fact that you are interviewing me here shows the connections between generations that City College makes possible.
TW: At this point in your life, could you sum up why you feel you write today and also put in something for aspiring writer? Why they should write today?
JF: My advice for aspiring writers is try this: go to a quiet place, take a notebook with you, set an alarm clock for one hour, and start writing the first thing that comes to mind. It doesn’t have to be a sentence, even just some words like “my ear itches” or “why am I doing this?” And then write the next thing that comes to your mind, and the next. When I was sixteen, my teacher gave me this assignment. I was a lonely boy in a boarding school, far away from home. I began writing aimlessly and then the words began to carry me on a river of memory. I saw grandmother and my parents and my friends. Writing carried me home. After that experience, I decided to become a writer. I want to help students find their voices, to stand up for themselves, to seize their futures. The power of writing is for everyone.
Excerpt of novel to be published by Bright Lights Press of Palo Alto, CA
THE LAST BRAZIL of BENJAMIN EAST
By Jonathan Freedman
Amazon Rainforest, 1958
The Rio Negro branched into a river without name, the river of hope. Benjamin, the American fortune seeker, sat in the bow of the dugout. Gisela, his Brazilian bride, balanced in the middle. Ceara, the cross-eyed boatman, paddled from the stern.
The rainy season had come. The journey from Manaus, the Amazonian capital, had taken six weeks, and still they hadn’t reached a deposit of precious minerals—emerald, uranium, gold—that he was seeking. The boat had overturned in a storm, swamping their gear. They had wasted many days huddling in a lean-to by the swollen river, swatting at clouds of mosquitos, watching trees and islands of earth sweeping down the churning waters. Then, as quickly as they had come, the rains stopped. Benjamin wanted to continue. But his Gisela, heavy with child, refused to go any farther. Ceara agreed to stay with her a few days while Benjamin went up river alone.
Benjamin clutched the crudely carved paddle, dug into the water, thrust backward, pulled it out of the swirling eddy, switched hands, dug into the water, thrust backward, paddling up the gloomy river in the predatory jungle. He didn’t think, just paddled, his hands blistering and then popping, and the skin rubbing off to raw flesh. It was the second day of non-stop paddling and he was feverish. The swelling on his arm from mosquito bites had gone down, but his tongue and insides swelled instead. Malaria swept into his body, microbes spawning in his blood and sending chills down his spine. In his fever, he thought he saw a young girl, her hair black as the Rio Negro, beckoning from the bank of the river then running away as he approached. He hated himself for leaving Gisela behind. But he was obsessed. He could not return to Rio de Janeiro without finding something in the jungle. He kept paddling. Beyond this bend, or the next, or the next, there might be an outcropping of emeralds, a radioactive deposit, a seepage of oil… anything, he told himself.
The canoe made its way up the river to a tangled maze of undergrowth where it narrowed and a path began. Benjamin tied up the boat, climbed on the slippery bark of a fallen tree and teetered to the end, where another fallen tree connected, and then another, a chain of trees leading into the jungle. In his fever, it looked like an Amazon highway.
An aquamarine, or was it the reflection of the sun flickered in the water? Parrots took off, chattering, and the jungle echoed with mocking laughter. He crept, then walked, then ran from tree to tree, following the reflection skimming in the water.
He broke into a clearing and halted. Was he hallucinating?
An immense aquamarine lay in the creepers. The odor of the shell necklace rose from the earth, a fragrance of crushed flowers and steamy humus. He knelt down in the moss to pick it up. A snake darted from the undergrowth. He felt a stabbing pain then the cool stone, like ice in his hands.
He awoke with a sharp burning sensation on his legs. He opened his eyes and saw a snake slither away through the grass. The stone was gone. His body felt like it was on fire. He lifted his head and found he was lying on a mound of earth, his knees buried in an anthill. Inch-long ants streamed from the mound and swarmed up his legs, their red bodies flaming. He tried to scream but ants leaped on his tongue, sinking pincers into the tender flesh. He rolled over, crushing dozens under his body, and climbed to his feet. Afire, he crashed through vines to the edge of the river and dove into the water, trying to extinguish the pain. But the water only made the bites blister. He crawled out and rolled on the bank, covering himself with mud.
He came to at dawn, his body swollen nearly twice its size.
His legs throbbed and his heart beat like a drum in his ears. He hallucinated that he was being hunted. The drumbeat approached and he crept into the leaves and started to run on all fours. He was a jaguar and a hunter and the dart from a blowgun entering his flesh.
The drumbeat subsided and a steady low clicking awakened him the second time. He was still burning but the fever had died down and he could stand on his feet. He followed the sound through the jungle, past the anthill to the river, where his canoe bobbed on its rope tether. He realized, with a shock, he had gone in a circle no more than 1,000 yards in diameter. The Geiger counter was making the clicking sound, loud and steady. Either there was a radioactive deposit in the vicinity, or the device had also been stricken with fever. He no longer cared, for the Amazon had reduced him to a savage struggling for life. He switched it off and the clicking continued, mocking him. It was cicadas.
It was easier to paddle downstream. The river carried him swiftly and surely, carving piles of driftwood, which vanished in the backwash. A strange peace fell over the jungle. The trees glowed under the setting sun, toucans skimmed the water, their reflections panning over the mirror-smooth surface. He leaned over the side and washed himself. His face, shimmering against the blue reflection of the sky, was gaunt and contrite and almost human. He dreamed of Rio, settling down in a bungalow on the beach in Ipanema, sitting on the front porch with Gisela, rocking the cradle.
She lay in a hammock, her face flickering like a mask in the firelight. He ran up the embankment and buried his face in her belly, and she winced and pulled his head up, running her fingers through his hair, tugging his beard.
He cupped her belly to his cheek and kissed the life growing inside. She winced again and pushed him away.
“Nao, meu amor. E tarde.” It’s too late.
“What do you mean?”
She pressed his head against her belly, flat as a deflated balloon.
“Perdi o anjinho.” I lost the little angel.
The return journey was silent — no motor, no words. Weakened by the miscarriage, Gisela lay in the bow of the boat; Benjamin paddled in the midsection, Ceara steered in the stern.
They passed the Indian village. The dock was empty, the huts abandoned; a famished dog howled at the water’s edge.
“What happened?” Benjamin asked the boatman.
“Nao sei. Talvez foi a praga do branco.” I don’t know. Maybe the white man’s plague.
The sun rose before them now, and black water flowed beneath the dugout as they were swept downstream by rains, or stilled by the noonday sun. The trees looked somber, the flowers grotesque; even the birds’ calls were despairing.
After a fortnight, they reached Manaus. The dome of the opera house glinted in the sun. But they found it rotting on its rubber pavement, surrounded by beggars and brothels. He paid the boatman and thanked him for taking care of his wife. Ceara smiled though his eyes held sadness. Gisela held out her hand and squeezed his and his eyes seemed to uncross. But it was the angle of the light reflecting off the river.
Benjamin put his arm gently around Gisela, guiding her to the hotel, but she stormed ahead into the bar and ordered a bottle of whiskey, the most expensive in the house. She guzzled it like water.
“Come on now. You’ve had enough.”
She looked up with dagger-point eyes, hiccoughed, and started to cry. Picking her up, he carried her to the room, laid her on the bed, and kneeled beside her. He pressed his head to her belly and shivered in the heat as cicadas screamed.
“We’re young,” he whispered, stroking her hair. “We can have another baby.”