Exile on J Street: Author Scott Carrier releases Prisoner of Zion

Prisoner of Zion author Scott Carrier poses with Jesus Christ at Temple Square's Visitor Center. Photo: Julian Cardona

Fans of National Public Radio will probably know the voice of Scott Carrier.  Carrier is a feature writer on various NPR programs, most notably Ira Glass’s This American Life. His greatest radio accomplishment, however, is the Peabody Award he received in 2006 for  “Crossing Borders,” a series broadcast on Hearing Voices about drug-gang violence in Juarez, Mexico.  A Utah native, Carrier planned for decades to escape the Beehive State, but he has at last come to terms with this land.  “I feel claustrophobic away from the mountains,” he says.  “I gave up trying to leave.”

Carrier, uncomfortable with being labeled a writer, transitioned into pure audio after leaving the Anthropology Film Center in Santa Fe, N.M.  “I use to script voice-overs for my documentaries, until filmmaking proved too expensive for me.”  Carrier says he then began to concentrate exclusively on his voice-overs, which colleagues said already stood on their own as monologues.  In the early ’80s, Carrier took these with him to the NPR studios in Washington, DC.  His work got a warm reception from Alex Chadwick, one of the initial developers of the popular shows Morning Edition and All Things Considered.  So began Carrier’s career in radio. 

Talking, listening and imagining have remained central to Carrier’s craft.  “Writing goes back 10,000 years, whereas talking is much older,” he says.  “We have more practice at getting it right.” Carrier’s interest in other archaic practices lead to the production of one of his most popular and influential books, Running After Antelope. This piece shows Carrier road testing his speculative hypothesis that early humans hunted by chasing their prey to death.   Conceived together with his brother, a practicing biologist, Carrier’s notion may well have sparked the current barefoot-running craze.  “Upon first hearing it, people become possessed by the idea,” Carrier says, “like the ring in Tolkien.  Everyone is certain the idea is their own.”

Penguin contracted with Carrier for a follow-up to his book Antelope, something which would focus on the oddness of Utah culture and appeal to America’s new fascination with Mormonism.  “Not that it’s a bad idea for a book,” Carrier says.  “Still, I think Mormon beliefs and stories are no stranger than anyone else’s.”  Carrier produced a very different manuscript than the one Penguin anticipated, a book the publisher rejected.  Carrier was left with a sizeable cash advance and permission to self-publish his manuscript electronically.  The project would eventually become Carrier’s newest book, Prisoner of Zion.

On Aug. 29, Carrier released Prisoner of Zion, a collection of anecdotes linking his world travels with his insider’s observations about Utah.  Written in the plainest conversational prose, Prisoner does comment on Mormon culture and recent local events.  In particular, the book focuses on the abduction of Elizabeth Smart by Brian David Mitchell, and Mitchell’s sensational trial and sentencing.  However, Carrier sets these happenings within a broader, global context, one including fundamentalist Islam in Afghanistan.  Though no analogy is overtly announced, Carrier allows us to see Smart dragged through downtown Salt Lake, wearing what amounts to a burka.  Here, Carrier forces a familiar story to appear strange and new again, while simultaneously making scandalous foreign customs to appear a little too familiar.  While not judging Mormons as individuals, Prisoner still takes issue with a tenet central to their faith—one shared by a number of other world religions—the belief in a promised land for God’s chosen people.  “Mormons think the Constitution was written so Joseph Smith could start their church in this country,” Carrier says.  “But Jefferson wrote the Constitution to keep Jesus out of America.”  Carrier considers the belief in any Holy Land both absurd and dangerous, leading to intolerance, violence and war.

Carrier timed his book’s release to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks and the United States’ subsequent entry into Afghanistan.  Soon after these events, Carrier traveled to Afghanistan and then Pakistan to meet the people whose land America had made a warzone.  Carrier describes his sojourn in one of the most dreary and dangerous places on Earth. He says the conflict pitted the world’s strongest nation against one of the weakest.  “Ten years of fighting have accomplished nothing,” Carrier says.  “This war is the longest in American history, yet we have more enemies now than when we started.”

Carrier’s narrative explores his difficult friendship with his translator, Najib.  He vividly recalls his first encounter with the teenage boy.  “He was a fantastic creature, with shaved head, dark eyes and huge lashes.  I couldn’t tell if it was a boy or girl.” Najib’s skill at manipulating others proved invaluable to Carrier, more than once saving him from angry mobs.  Back home, Carrier, now a professor of communication at Utah Valley University, arranged for Najib to come to America on a student visa.  The book closes with Najib’s introduction to American literature.  Najib finds a kindred spirit in the protagonist of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, a rootless youth who also survives by sheer pluck and cunning.  “If Najib, the product of a culture of perpetual conning and violence, could be touched and changed by a book,” Carrier says, “then there is still hope for humans and the humanities.”

The digital version of Prisoner of Zion can be purchased through Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

Prisoner of Zion author Scott Carrier poses with Jesus Christ at Temple Square's Visitor Center. Photo: Julian Cardona