Attorney Laura Coates has witnessed the dissolution of voting rights first hand
While working for the Department of Justice, attorney Laura Coates says she saw voter rolls being purged and instances where polling places were moved to known Klan locations. She also worked as a prosecutor and had to grapple with her own relationship with law enforcement, as a Black woman. Coates is a CNN analyst and hosts a SiriusXM show. Her new memoir is 'Just Pursuit.'
Other segments from the episode on January 17, 2022
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Laura Coates, worked in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, specializing in the enforcement of voting rights. But she left in frustration after finding that the bureaucracy was unbearable and lobbyists and elected officials at the state and federal levels would often interfere, rendering investigations futile. She left that division to become a criminal prosecutor as an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.
Coates is Black. When she worked to enforce voting rights, she was seen as a hero. But as a prosecutor, she was often seen as a traitor. How she grappled with that and the injustices she witnessed and sometimes felt complicit with are the subjects of her new book, "Just Pursuit: A Black Prosecutor's Fight For Fairness." A quote from her book about serving as a prosecutor seems especially germane on this Martin Luther King Day. She wrote, quote, "I had thought each case could represent a dot on the arc that Dr. King hoped would bend toward justice. Now I wondered if I was bending the arc of justice or breaking it, and afraid the justice system might just break me," unquote.
Coates left the DOJ and has been an adjunct professor at the George Washington University Law School and is a CNN senior analyst and a Sirius XM host of "The Laura Coates Show" on the POTUS channel. Laura Coates, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Voting rights is one of the most important issues in the country now. You were in the voting rights division during the early years of Obama's first term. So this was before the Voting Rights Act was gutted by the Supreme Court. What was your job, and what did you hope to be able to achieve?
LAURA COATES: You know, as a voting rights section attorney, my job was to investigate acts of discrimination across the country and to observe elections and help to carry out the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in jurisdictions that have a history of discrimination. At the time, we still had Section 5's formula for preclearance, which was a very big and strong aid in nipping discrimination in the bud. We also had Section 2, of course, as well, if, after the fact, there were an issue.
Now, of course, the Supreme Court has rendered the Voting Rights Act largely anemic, and we require legislation to fortify it. But at the time, our role was really to make sure that the gains of the Voting Rights Act could not be clawed back based on bigotry and prejudice. And everyone had the opportunity to vote and vote freely and have the strength of their voting power realized.
GROSS: And I should mention, since 2013, when the Voting Rights Act was gutted, at least 26 states have passed new voting restrictions. You write about your frustrations in your job trying to uphold voting rights. And you write that lobbyists, elected officials at the state level and federal levels often interfered, rendering Justice Department investigations futile. How did they interfere?
COATES: They would often interfere by trying to put their thumb on the scales in terms of which jurisdictions we looked at, which jurisdictions we were proactively investigating and whether there was going to be litigation as a result of our investigations. As you can imagine, it's very politically unfavorable to have your jurisdiction be targeted by the Department of Justice. And so you had many officials who would go out of their way to try to influence the department to look the other way or to look at it in a different way.
And it was frustrating to be confined to the lowest hanging fruit when you knew that sometimes the problems were at the root of the tree - and having to only look at it through the lens of the political consequences, the perception of being partisan, as opposed to simply, here are the facts, here are the discriminatory practices, here's how the law protects it, and here's how we can prevent and resolve it. It was frustrating for me to see the politics of how we prosecute cases.
GROSS: What were some of the most common voting rights issues that you saw, in your experience?
COATES: Oh, my goodness. People went to great lengths to try to engage in voter intimidation, whether it meant trying to move polling places to known Klan locations, to changing or attempting to change the Election Day practices, limiting the hours of registration. And you would have jurisdictions that would try to advertise their elections on a different day than Election Day, on a different - on a Spanish-language station - you know, purging voter rolls, pretending that there was widespread voter fraud and then trying to codify that into legislative language. You had so many instances of people who were well aware of the guarantees of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and were trying to do end runs around those protective measures.
And we saw this, frankly, throughout not only the South, but also in jurisdictions you wouldn't necessarily expect. We saw it - we would investigate places in Washington state and California and Philadelphia and the Northeast and all through the country. And so the perception that Jim Crow only flew below the Mason-Dixon line when it came to voting rights was actually a fallacy.
GROSS: With the voting rights restrictions that have been passed since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act and with, you know, the lie that Trump actually won the election and all the challenges to votes in the 2020 election - challenges to the electoral vote even - and, of course, the insurrection, do you think, given your history in the Justice Department, that American democracy is at stake now?
COATES: Yes. Democracy is absolutely in peril, not only because of the big lie that's questioned the integrity of our electoral system, but also because it's a lie that jurisdictions were, in fact, believing - that there was widespread voter fraud. In many respects, the jurisdictions that have already tried to claw back Voting Rights Act and have tried to codify different aspects of this lie of widespread voter fraud - they wanted to do it before Donald Trump. They wanted to do it before the 2020 election. They just found it convenient to be able to capitalize on this big lie because now it had the platform and gravitas of a sitting president of the United States.
But our democracy is in peril every time we claw back the gains of the Voting Rights Act because we dilute voting power, we dilute voting strength, we undermine the philosophy of one person, one vote, and we pretend that race has no impact. And that, in and of itself, is a lie.
GROSS: You moved to the Justice Department's Criminal Division as a prosecutor because you got so frustrated with trying to deal with voting rights and all the obstacles you faced with doing that. A Black colleague told you, you're not going to be able to get used to this type of human misery every day in the Criminal Division. Did that prove to be true?
COATES: It did prove to be true. And I was shocked when my colleague said that, Terry, because in my mind, I thought, well, if there's somebody who's in control of trying to eradicate misery, I would assume it's the person who was able to try to prosecute cases that would either vindicate one's rights or protect them and give them justice. But it ended up being quite true. The extent of human misery in our justice system is something that is almost unbelievable in its scope. But it also impacted people - and the misery I saw, to one extent, were those who were not who you would think would be the victims of such misery or the cause. It's the people who are often in the periphery, as well.
GROSS: When you became a criminal prosecutor, this was the period when dashcams and cellphone videos were first revealing to Americans how Black people are often brutalized or murdered during things like traffic stops. And your husband installed a camera in your car. Can you tell us the story about that?
COATES: You know, my husband is a huge techie. And I can't tell you the number of boxes that come to my home.
COATES: And I think, is this another gadget? You've got to be kidding me. I mean, and during COVID - forget it. I feel like I should have a lot of stock in Amazon at this point. And I tell you, one day I came home, and my husband was tinkering around on my dashboard. And I said, what is he doing now? And he brought me outside to show me the latest of the gadgets. And I assumed it was for me because oftentimes, he's showing me ways to make my life easier for whatever reason.
And he'll say - he says to me, Laura, here's something I want to show you. Here's how this camera works. And before he even began, I sort of cut him off and said, I don't need this. We don't need another gadget. What are you doing? We have how many of these gadgets around our house, for whatever reason. Why would I possibly need this? Why would you need to have this? And he said, with sort of tears in his eyes, which is the first I had really seen of my husband like that - and he said, Laura, it's a gift for you because in the event I'm ever pulled over by the police, I'd like you to know what happened. And I'd like you to know that I would never have left.
And in that moment, it was something that still brings tears to my eyes to this day to think about because I was, on the one hand, humbled that I had made an assumption about something being very frivolous to him. The other hand, I felt so saddened that here I was a criminal prosecutor, somebody who I believed could bring justice to people. And my husband, a Black man, felt an inevitability of his own demise at the hands of police officers. And he had no comfort or no thought and faith that a prosecutor might be able to prevent an injustice or his own family from knowing what happened.
And in that moment, I realized that even though he may have seen me as somebody distinct from the perception of prosecutors who were in cahoots with police officers and not trying to do the right thing, he did not see me as the standard but the exception. And he feared for his own life and what it would mean for all of us. And that was such an eye-opening and jarring moment for me. And I realized that that camera was a love letter to me and his children.
GROSS: Have either of you ever used it and felt the need to use it?
COATES: Yes, I have been pulled over when I have been with my husband. He has been - as a driver. And I remember he checked the camera. And he made sure it was working and told the officer that he had a camera present. And it became a conversation piece for my young children, who were in the back seat, who asked, why did you tell him that? Were you afraid? And watching a man have to admit to his children not only of a fear but also to contextualize it so that they themselves would not be afraid and nevertheless cautious was very difficult for me as a wife and mother to see.
GROSS: What was the reaction of the officers when your husband said there's a camera in our car that is recording all of this?
COATES: You know, it was actually a Black officer, and he said, I understand. Believe me. I understand. And I thought in that moment, it was so poignant because I would have assumed that an officer would have sort of scoffed at that or maybe even guffawed and thought, really? I'm just pulling you over for something totally unrelated to any problem. Are you kidding me right now? But instead, in that moment, the color blue did not trump the color black on his skin, and he understood why there would be the cause for concern.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Laura Coates. She's the author of the new book "Just Pursuit: A Black Prosecutor's Fight For Fairness." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Laura Coates. She worked in the civil rights unit of the Justice Department, specializing in the enforcement of voting rights. She left that division to become a criminal prosecutor as an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. She is now a CNN senior legal analyst and the Sirius XM host of "The Laura Coates Show" on the P.O.T.U.S. channel. Her new book is called "Just Pursuit: A Black Prosecutor's Fight For Fairness."
You write that when you were in the Justice Department in the voting rights division, Black people saw you as a hero. But when you moved to being a prosecutor in the criminal division, you were seen kind of as a traitor. Explain that to us.
COATES: I did not appreciate that although I was still under the same division, the umbrella of the Department of Justice, how the two roles were in such stark contrast in terms of public perception. When you are a civil rights advocate and civil rights trial attorney in the Department of Justice, you are presumed the advocate on the side of the people who are most impacted by discrimination. As a federal prosecutor, though, in a criminal context, I was viewed as an agent of the man. And it was something to be considered and viewed and conflated with people who, for the public's perception, were against the communities of color, were against Black people, were trying to harm them in some way.
And I noticed from the very beginning the ways in which when I'd be inside the courtroom - I would see the ways in which people would question my allegiance. Was it to the United States of America? Was it to the Black community? Was it to the Department of Justice? Whose side was I on? And I would often be criticized by my defense counsel counterparts about, how could somebody who has an interest in civil rights, is a Black woman - how could you be on the side of prosecutors?
GROSS: But didn't you also represent a lot of Black victims of crime?
COATES: Well, that was the big irony. I mean, the assumption that you were on the side against Black people, even when Black victims were overwhelmingly represented by the crimes. I mean, that was something that was so shocking to me because my victims and my survivors were more often than not Black people. And so the notion that by prosecuting people who harmed them, I was actually harming the people who were victims and revictimizing them was something that I could never resolve and, frankly, I could never concede to because that wasn't the case. I think that people require an advocate and a champion. And the fact that there has been injustices in the Department of Justice historically does not mean that people who are victimized do not need to have the best advocates they possibly can. And I tried to be that.
GROSS: You felt that the work sometimes put you at odds with your own principles and lived experiences as a Black woman. And I think an example of that is the - one of the stories that you tell in the book. And this is a middle-aged Latino man whose car was stolen. He reported it to the police. You were prosecuting the alleged thief and had to do a criminal background check on the victim. What did you find about the victim?
COATES: I found that the victim had a deportation warrant pending for immediate deportation. He had been in the country illegally for decades at this point. And although he was a victim of a crime, we do routine background checks to ensure that there are no outstanding warrants of any kind, to alert the marshals if you do. And when I found that, it was one of the - I hate to call it the worst experience professionally of my life because it pales in comparison of what it was like for him. I had to contact even though I tried - and I write about in the book in great detail what it was like for me to have an order to aid in the deportation of this man. It was very jarring to my own moral compass.
And I thought that if I was ever confronted with a directive that was at odds with my moral compass that I would have an easy time rejecting it, that I would simply be steadfast in my own personal resolve, consequences be damned. And I found that there was a huge conflict for me and a battle of allegiance and that notion to think about, what do I do now? I tried. I went up the chain. I tried to save this man's life within the United States of America. I write about it in the book because I think that there is such complexity and nuance in the choices we ultimately are required to make. And what we choose and prioritize might surprise you.
GROSS: And just a little background about this man - I mean, he had come to the U.S. at the age of 16, crossing the border illegally. He was supposed to show up for deportation trial - is that the right word? - and never showed. And so there was - he had been wanted for the past 20 years. There'd been a warrant out for him. And that was his situation. But since then, I mean, for that 20 years, like, he never committed any crimes. He had a job. He had - you know, he had a family. So, you know, he had been a contributing member of American society. So it sounds like this still haunts you.
COATES: It still haunts me because I remember the screams. And I remember the tears. And I remember his eyes looking at me, as a Black woman, believing I would have been able to help. And there was a kindred spirit I think we have among communities of color in this country based on some aspects of shared oppression and shared discrimination. And the idea that I was unable to carry the torch is something that disturbs me. And also, the idea that when faced with a decision to either be punished for falling in line with my own moral compass or for following a directive of the Department of Justice in my role as a prosecutor, the choice still surprises me that I chose to follow the orders.
GROSS: What could you have done if you chose not to follow the orders?
COATES: I could have, I suppose, told him, as some of my colleagues, frankly, advised me to do, to tell him to run or to not acknowledge his presence in some way and allow him to go home, or give him a heads up. And all of these things would have led to my disbarment, would have led to my firing from the Department of Justice. And it would have led to me aiding and abetting somebody with a warrant for arrest and deportation.
But I could have still made that decision. And I could have, you know, rolled the dice as to whether the consequences would have come to me. But that would have been so out of line with what I have demanded of those who are facing prosecution to this day. And the idea of the rules applying for some and not applying to others would have not been in line with my own personal sense of justice as well. And so I question it. And it haunts me, not because I think the decision ultimately should have been different on my end, but because it exposed to me aspects of myself, of my limitations, on my thoughts of civil disobedience.
GROSS: Let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Laura Coates. She's the author of the new book "Just Pursuit: A Black Prosecutor's Fight For Fairness." She's also a CNN senior legal analyst. We'll be right back after a break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Laura Coates. She worked in the civil rights division of the Justice Department, specializing in the enforcement of voting rights. She left that division in frustration, feeling blocked by lobbyists and federal and state officials and then became a criminal prosecutor as an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. She left that in frustration as well and is now a senior legal analyst at CNN and the host of the SiriusXM show "The Laura Coates Show" on the POTUS channel. She's the author of the new book "Just Pursuit: A Black Prosecutor's Fight For Fairness."
I want to talk about another case in your book. You were prosecuting an alleged car thief - another alleged car thief. The victim was in her 70s - a Black woman. And when she found out that the alleged thief was 20 and he was also Black, she asked to give a statement in the courtroom. What was her message in that statement?
COATES: You know, victims of crimes are able to give what's called victim impact statements, where they talk about how they were impacted by the crime and are able to tell the judge what they would recommend as sentencing or their views on a prosecutor's recommendation for sentencing. And this woman, upon hearing that it was but a 20 year old who had committed this crime, was insistent on coming to the courtroom, where she had previously been reluctant and, frankly, had decided not to issue a statement. But once she heard his age, she wanted to come in, and she wanted to speak her piece.
I had no notice in advance of what that piece would precisely be. But when she came into the courtroom, she conveyed a message to the judge that I think was one of the most meaningful moments in the courtroom that I have seen in recent times - and that she spoke about the injustices within the Justice Department and how in a world where second chances are readily offered to young white teenagers, to young white 20-somethings, to young white alleged criminals, that is precluded and foreclosed and withheld from those who are people of color.
And where she saw - whereas many would see an opportunity to throw the book at someone, she saw somebody in need of a second chance. She believed in redemption. And she believed that as the victim of this particular crime, she was in the unique position to be able to demand second chances. And she spoke directly to the young man. She spoke directly to the judge - to speak about why she felt it was necessary to give a second chance where she knew society would withhold it.
GROSS: And she talked about, like, when her son was 20, the age...
GROSS: ...Of the alleged perpetrator, the alleged thief, you know, he made stupid choices, and so did his friends. And he was able to survive those choices. And she thought that this young man should be given that choice, too. And she said, as a victim, you know, she lost a car, but she had another car. Insurance was going to pay for the car that she lost - and that she felt like she wasn't really, like, harmed in any serious way. But then you had to make a decision, too. What decision did you have to make after her statement?
COATES: The judge - you know, when the judge heard this impassioned victim impact statement where she was talking about how, look; this was an opportunity to provide a second chance - a second chance that her own children she hoped had had and did have and benefited from, the judge turned to me, as the prosecutor, to change the recommendation for sentencing because he wanted an opportunity and a reason to depart from that guideline. He wanted me to change our position and to echo her sentiments.
And I chose in that moment to allow the judge simply to make a decision based on what this victim impact statement had said and not to change the prosecutor's position in this case not because I was not moved by her statements but because there was a case that was going to follow that day as well where there would be no champion coming. There would be no eloquent victim who would be able to persuade a judge. There was no effective counsel who would defend that person and be able to champion for him.
And I knew that as a prosecutor, sometimes judges - in fact, normally the judges will only value your recommendations as long as you have credibility with that judge, as long as you are perceived as being impartial and objective. And in the limited instances that you want to change a judge's mind or change recommendation, you have to preserve your capital and credibility.
GROSS: But there was another issue, too, which is the woman who was the victim didn't know the full circumstances of the arrest. It was a high-speed car chase. One of the officers was injured in the process. Was he injured by...
GROSS: Tell us more about that.
COATES: Well, you know, it's not just the idea - when a victim is speaking at times, they have the limited perspective of, here is what happened to me. It was my car that was taken. I wasn't troubled by it. And so I'd like you to have - more lenient toward this person. But because I was privy to the entire file and what happened after that car was taken and what was in that defendant's possession - was a large amount of - I believe it was drugs as well - there was also the injury to officers, the high-speed chase that took place through the District of Columbia that risked other people's lives, that involved traffic accidents as well - because of all of those factors, even the most impassioned plea for leniency and redemption did not override the risk to the public that had happened that day as well.
And so, you know, the judge, I think, was looking for an exit ramp to be able to provide the second chance. And it was within his power to do so. It was in his power to be able to independently assess, given all of the different factors, what he thought was the appropriate sentence. But he and I had to take into account the fact that this was one victim impact statement, where other victims, in terms of police officers and potential risk to the society at large, were also at stake.
And that's really the balancing test in so many respects, Terry, about what prosecutors and judges, frankly, are grappling with. It's never simply the individual victim that's harmed - because remember; they're not my clients. She was not a client. I represented the people of the United States. And when the crime was committed, the people of the United States were who was offended. And that was who was also at risk that day.
GROSS: As a prosecutor, what was your relationship to police who were involved in the case?
COATES: We worked very - I worked very closely with the police. They were completely critical to the ability to prosecute cases, whether through their testimony, through their evidence-gathering, through their help in contacting and being a go-between for witnesses and others. But I always met them with a healthy level of skepticism from having been and continuing to be a Black woman in America. You know, I'm the daughter of a Black man. I'm the wife of a Black man. I am the mother of a Black girl and a Black boy growing up in this world. And I have been a student of history and a student of the present, and I'm trying to ensure that I can be - and have an impact on the future.
So I think about the skepticism that I approach officers, and I look at them through the lens of a skeptical juror who is questioning whether they have followed the Fourth Amendment, whether they have used the right amount of force, whether their statements sound more like the regurgitation of a script or genuine observation. And that was always a difficult needle to thread - to, on the one hand, know that you must rely on them and also to doubt them based on your own personal and professional experience, that sometimes, like everyone else, they are fallible.
GROSS: But you also met cops you really respected who you worked with, right?
COATES: Absolutely. And there were many officers who, as I mentioned, are very critical and helpful. And really, you have a symbiotic relationship, and you have to honor that. They have a very difficult job. They put themselves in harm's way when 911 is called. I don't care if you are an absolute believer that police officers are corrupt; you still call 911, and you hope that a great cop shows up to help protect you. We feel that. We know that.
And there were many officers who were completely invested - I would say the majority of the officers I ever came across were completely invested in the pursuit of justice. They believed in the integrity of their roles, and they carried that out with aplomb, frankly. And they were as infuriated by the officers that caused people in the community to doubt them because it made their jobs harder, them less safe, and it made people reluctant to tell them what was really going on - to snitch, so to speak - to help them solve crimes because they did not trust police officers, which, of course, hurts the communities that need the assistance in particular.
GROSS: Let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Laura Coates, author of the new book "Just Pursuit: A Black Prosecutor's Fight For Fairness." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Laura Coates. She worked in the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, specializing in the enforcement of voting rights. Then she went on to become a criminal prosecutor as an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. She is now a CNN senior legal analyst and hosts the Sirius XM show "The Laura Coates Show" on the POTUS channel.
So let's talk about some of the stories your parents told you about what civil rights meant. They were both born in 1952. Where did they grow up?
COATES: My mother grew up in Fayetteville, N.C. and my father in Worcester, Mass. And my mother actually moved from North Carolina to Connecticut after her parents secured work as domestics and also my grandfather as a chauffeur and butler for the most prominent families in the Northeast, whose - frankly, are the namesake of companies that I later represented as an attorney. And my father grew up predominantly in foster care in Worcester, Mass. They actually met in college when they went to Amherst and Smith, respectively. And they would share stories about their lives, you know, the distinctions between being a Black boy in New England versus a Black girl in the South. And although Jim Crow, obviously, had its geographic boundaries, the impact of race was felt equally for both of them and especially during the '50s and '60s.
And of course, they often share stories about when they were first married and looking for housing, where they would be denied, you know, applications when they realized they were Black. Or at one point when they were living in New Jersey, they got a knock on the door one day. After finally securing housing, they got a knock on the door one day from the head of the community, their equivalent of an HOA, saying, excuse me; we'd like to buy you out; you're not wanted in this particular community and home - and being forced to move and choose between either being defiant and staying there or thinking of the safety of young children and themselves and leaving the area and moving to a different location. And these are the stories I grew up with.
GROSS: You refer to the struggles your father went through trying to get financing to start his dental practice. What kind of struggles did he go through trying to do that?
COATES: It was nearly impossible to secure financing and loans, and not only to secure them but to secure an adequate amount of loans and financing, to be able to have the kind of practice early on, the kind of equipment early on that you needed to really override people's prejudice and bias about what it was like to have a Black doctor or a dentist. And my father would often say, you know, in a world, Laura, where people don't want Black men to be in positions of power, let alone, you know, date one's daughter or marry one's daughter or go to school with you or whatever it may be, imagine what it's like to ask someone to put a Black man's hand into their mouth and trust them with pain and trust them that they will not create pain.
And I remember thinking about what that was - what that must have been like for him as he first began. He continues to practice this day and has thrived nonetheless, but early on, the experience of trying to secure that funding and financing and watching his white counterparts do it with ease and have the ability to have intergenerational wealth, which was denied to my family, playing a role as well.
GROSS: You write that your parents taught you to understand the civil rights era not as finite but as a movement that you were duty-bound to keep in motion. Is that part of the reason why you entered the Justice Department?
COATES: Yes. To me, it was something that was a calling, a familial calling and a familiar calling because I revered the heroes of the civil rights movement, those who are the sung and unsung heroes, those who were involved from the Charles Hamilton Houston's to the Ruby Bridges to, you know, obviously the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Rosa Parks and so many others - and the Claudette Colvins - so many others whose stories are known and also heralded.
So for me, when I thought about who my heroes were, it was those people who saw an injustice, thought about a way to solve it, took advantage of every different aspect of our government to do so and advocated for those who didn't have a voice. And for me, I wanted to be and walk in those shadows, in those footsteps and feel as though I had given back in some small yet meaningful way to those who had given so much to me.
GROSS: Since we're broadcasting this interview on Martin Luther King Day, I'd love to hear what Martin Luther King Day means to you and what he means to you.
COATES: When I think of Dr. King, the first thing that comes to mind is going to his museum down in Atlanta and looking at the number of times he was arrested. Now, that might seem an oddity to people. Mostly we think about his speeches and the impactful words, and he was an eloquent orator, and he was obviously deserving of all the accolades as it relates to his speechwriting and his sermons. But for me, I think about the number of times he was a civil rights first responder. Here we are, heralding those who put themselves in harm's way, and we applaud those who are on the front lines.
For me, the number of times he went into the battlefield, the number of times he pulled an entire race out of the wreckage, the number of times that he subjected himself to physical violence - it's the notion that myself as a mother looking at my young children when all I want to do is grow old and watch them grow even older, that he had to accept the inevitability that he would not do the very things every parent wants to do. And why? Because he was thinking not only of his own children but my children and my children's children.
And you think about what it's like to be in prison today or to be at the hands of a police officer. And we hope that there will be those with integrity who will abide by the Constitution. We expect there to be. To think of all the times when that was not a given, and he did it anyway, I think about that as the sacrifice, the sacrifice of being able to watch your children grow, the sacrifice of being able to live your full life.
And I, frankly, have always marked the time - every time I think about his death, I think to myself, God, was that how young he was? And every year that I live beyond that, I thank him because the life I have is because of the choices he made, because of the discomfort he experienced. And I just love this man for making those choices and for aligning his moral compass with what he was willing to do.
GROSS: Laura Coates, it's been a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you so much.
COATES: Thank you, Terry, and thank you for taking the time to read the book and to really ask such beautiful and illuminating questions. I appreciate it.
GROSS: Laura Coates' new memoir is called "Just Pursuit: A Black Prosecutor's Fight For Fairness." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review one of the most anticipated books of the year. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of one of this year's most anticipated books - "To Paradise" by novelist Hanya Yanagihara. Her 2015 novel, "A Little Life," dealt with the challenges of disability and trauma and became a bestseller. Here's Maureen's review of "To Paradise."
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Beyond everything else it is, Hanya Yanagihara's new novel, "To Paradise," is a deliberately difficult novel. It weighs in at just over 700 pages and breaks into three distinct books, which read like semi-autonomous novels in their own right. Each book is set in New York City a century apart and invokes an array of literary styles from the novel of manners to alternate history, from the old-fashioned epistolary novel to the explicit social commentary of speculative fiction.
Repetition is Yanagihara's organizing principle here. The same names and situations resurface every 100 years, and other random coincidences abound. Perhaps that's why, when reading "To Paradise," I couldn't help but think of the coincidence that it's being published in the centenary year of another deliberately difficult novel, James Joyce's "Ulysses." "Ulysses" also weighs in at just over 700 pages and is also packed with repetitions, scenes where characters unknowingly repeat incidents from "The Odyssey."
There, the comparisons end. But my own take on "To Paradise" does mirror the reactions of "Ulysses'" first overwhelmed readers. When "Ulysses" came out in 1922, it was hailed by a few critics as brilliant but dismissed by others as baffling and dull. Virginia Woolf confessed she had to force herself to push past the first 200 pages. I have all those responses to Yanagihara's novel. It's inspired and vivid. But there are also long stretches that are so flat and opaque that only a looming deadline made me press forward.
Book I of "To Paradise" is the most reader-friendly and contains some of the novel's most gorgeous language. It's set in 1893 in a New York that belongs to an independent nation called the Free States. The Free States have legalized gay marriage and given full rights to women but keep out Black and Indigenous people. The way communities and nations, even allegedly progressive ones, define themselves by whom they exclude is a theme Yanagihara touches on frequently.
Events here take place largely within a townhouse in Washington Square. That's Henry James territory. And sure enough, this section riffs on James' novel called "Washington Square," the story of a charming cad seeking to marry a shy, plain heiress. The lovelorn heiress of this tale is reimagined as an heir, a young gay man named David Bingham, whose sickliness and awkwardness have made him damaged goods on the marriage market. As David reflects, he was a man living in his grandfather's house, waiting for one season to shade into the next, for his life to announce itself to him at last. What ensues is a melancholy story about seduction, willed self-delusion and the cruelty the world inflicts on the vulnerable.
The second book of "To Paradise" takes place 100 years later in 1993, partly in that same townhouse in Greenwich Village. The David of this story is a cash-strapped, young Hawaiian man living with a debonair, older lover named Charles. The AIDS epidemic imbues this section with a twilit mood. But unfortunately, Book II drifts into a dense ending monologue narrated by David's father, who belongs to the Hawaiian royal family.
The final and longest book of "To Paradise" drags us deep into dystopia. New York, in 2093, has been ravaged by climate change and mutating deadly viruses. That Washington Square townhouse is now chopped into apartments. Among the characters we meet here are two reincarnations of the Charles character - a Charles who's a renowned virologist and his granddaughter, Charlie, who's emotionally and physically compromised. It's her grandfather's effort to save her from the ruthlessness of an authoritarian government that propels this narrative after a sluggish start.
The greatest pleasures of "To Paradise" are technical ones - the seemingly effortless variety of Yanagihara's writing styles, the changes she rings on a fixed group of characters and situations. But unlike other sprawling books that are also explicitly contrived - yes, "Ulysses," or Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" and, most recently, Anthony Doerr's "Cloud Cuckoo Land" - "To Paradise" sacrifices emotional depth to artistic design. With the exception of the fully realized David in Book I, characters seem summoned up simply to serve the novel's pattern. And that pattern of eternal return makes this big novel feel confined. Sometimes a complicated puzzle contains dazzling individual pieces that lose their luster when pressed together.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "To Paradise" by Hanya Yanagihara. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Brian Cox, one of the stars of the HBO series "Succession." He plays the patriarch of a family that owns a conglomerate which includes a conservative cable news network, a cruise line and theme parks. The series is a political, social, family satire embedded in a drama. Cox has written a new memoir that begins with nearly dying at birth. The drama on and off stage and screen continues from there. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF HANS-PETER KLIMKOWSKY'S "RELAXING ON A BEAUTIFUL MORNING: RELOADED FOR PIANO SOLO, PT. 1")
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