Iván Brave lives in New York, where he writes poetry, reviews, and novels, as well as teaches English to international students. He is a graduate of New School, earning his Master in Fine Arts for Creative Writing in 2018, after a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from The University of Texas at Austin. Texan by birth, Argentine by blood, and Brooklynite by residence, his work explores a range of topics that draw from his eclectic background and from his extensive travels around the world. Language and multiculturalism, with a focus on origins, family and love, are the themes currently dearest to his heart. In addition to winning the Writing Award from The Vera List Center for Arts and Politics, Ivan's writings have appeared or been mentioned in literary magazines like The American Scholar and The Acentos Review. Iván recently published his debut novel, The Summer Abroad, available on Amazon in Paperback and Kindle. You can read his blog at ivanbrave.com, or view some cool pics on Instagram @ivanbrave_.
Creative Writing at The New School
Founded in Greenwich Village in 1931, Creative Writing at The New School continues to promote, engender, and shape innovative literature.
1. Who is your favorite villain, and who is your favorite protagonist in literature?I bet my classmates who graduated with me could answer this for me! I was obsessed with a book we analyzed in James Lasdun's class on Form, Style, and Meaning, a book from not a few years ago called Anna Karenina. Ha! The memories from that class. Seriously, that book, and the in-depth look we did informed much of my writing - in addition to being a total pleasure to read. If you had asked me half of the question, I might have answered Don Quijote or Chinaski (from Bukowski) as my favorite heroes, but because the villain/protagonist here is asked in tandem, how can I resist? Vronsky and Levin are my favorites in literature. Although it never comes to fisticuffs, there is a spiritual fight between the two boys (to not say thematic, or romantic) that propels the novel forward, as we watch the life of one unfold, and the other unravel.2. When did you know you were a writer?When I wrote it on my website, ivanbrave.com, a few months ago. Just kidding! What's odd is that I have always been writing, but never considered myself a writer until much later. I attended creative workshops in Elementary, loved writing essays all through elementary and high school, even wrote publicity for a major music festival, South by Southwest, while in college studying a writing-heavy degree, philosophy.I only began wearing the title after my undergraduate degree in 2013. I was interning at a radio station at the time, even writing music stories then. But, as we say, there I was, some weekday afternoon in Austin with an empty bottle of wine and a lot of time, sitting at my desk without a care in the world. This spark came to me, and for once not given to hesitation, I put it down on paper. A confession from a father. A national park. A sunset. These images fell into place, and then I wrapped it up in a bow: I had written my first story, one page long, which gave me a chill down my back like an ice cube the moment I stopped typing. I re-read it, felt the same chill. I knew then, that quiet weekday afternoon, what I wanted to do the rest of my life.I carried that one-page story to parties and interviews, and told folks, "Read this, look, I'm a writer." It felt awkward at first, for me mostly, but over the years, and many stories later, and of course my MFA degree in 2018, my passion now feels like a career. I'm a writer.3. What are you currently working on?I recently published my first novel, The Summer Abroad on Amazon. The next steps are to do a second launch in bookstores through Ingram Sparks, and start selling the thing mano a mano on the weekends -- all the while continuing to pursue avenues for online marketing and advertising.It's been a leap, for sure, but I feel, for this project, my first, that it was the right move. Although I had written the entire book years before, it was workshopping some chapters during my first semester at New School that gave me the confidence to keep going. Both because of the inspiring comments from my professor, and from the keen suggestions from my peers. The book is very much stamped by the lessons learned in the program. I thank the school in the book.4. How has your writing process changed over the years?I've gone from writing in the evenings with a bottle of wine to writing sober before sunrise, to now writing whenever I have the chance between MTA rides and teaching. I have always liked paper and pen, or typing, even scribbling in notebooks. Mostly alone, though, occasionally in a cafe. One thing that's marks my growth is creative liberty. Every year I feel freer and freer to put down what wants to come out -- no hesitation, no second guessing. Each year, the lesson seems to - just do it, but more this time, and better. I suppose that is what has changed over the years. Returning to the blank page with more knowledge, more impulse, and fewer excuses.5. Describe your writing style in one sentence.Can it be run on, ¡por qué no!Five Questions, by Nicole L. Drayton. Nicole is a writer, screenwriter and independent filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Liberal Arts from The New School, and currently works for the university in the MFA in Creative Writing Program office.
Randy Winston is the Associate Fiction Editor at Slice Literary Magazine, creator of Milkshake Scholar, and a first grade hula hoop champion ('92-'93). He earned his MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction 2016) from The New School. He has been published at Medium, BrooklynMagazine, Slice Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. Winston is represented by Ed Maxwell (Greenburger Assoc.).
1. Who is your favorite villain, and who is your favorite protagonist in literature?
Protagonist? I'm rolling with Nadia from Mohsin Hamid's Exit West. I sobbed on the Q train from Church Ave to Union Square when she... Well... You'll have to read Exit West; I'm not one to spoil things. Nadia was a force in that book. Patient, stern in her morals, calm under pressure. I trust her with my life.
I'm going to cheat and roll with another protagonist, Mrs. Vhd Vhd from Italo Calvino's Distance of the Moon, one of the greatest short stories in greatest short story history. She was the captain's wife but loved another man, the main character's cousin. The cousin (he had no name) was in love with the moon.
When Mrs. Vhd Vhd realizes cousin's love for the moon is too great, she stays on the moon alone to become one with the one thing the main character's cousin loved more than her. And every night when he looks to the moon he sees Mrs. Vhd Vhd.
2. When did you know you were a writer?
In middle school. I wrote poems for my friends in the days leading up to Valentine's Day. That's when I knew I was destined for greatness. Ironically, I had no one to write poems to.
3. What are you currently working on?
Being simple, squeezing milkshakes into a diet that restricts me from having dairy, life without Waffle House, and a manuscript I've deleted more times than Facebook (I hope my agent doesn't see this).
4. How has your writing process changed over the years?
undergradI'd wake up at 5:15AMevery morning and write until my hands ached and a migraine set in. I'd keep my door and the curtains closed until I reached my word count or chapter count for the day. Today I have a full-time job which means writing after 5PMand on weekend mornings. There's no true blueprint to any of this. These days I write with my eyes and ears more than I do my hands. I read a lot more as well. And what works for one draft of a manuscript won't always work for another; I understand this and try not to fight it.
5. Describe your writing style in one sentence.
In 2010 a classmate told me my writing reminded him of Jim Morrison, "lyrical" he said. I personally would've liked Jimi Hendrix or Marvin Gaye, but a compliment's a compliment.
Five Questions, by Nicole L. Drayton. Nicole is a writer, screenwriter and independent filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Liberal Arts from The New School, and currently works for the university in the MFA in Creative Writing Program office.
By Liz Sheldon
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2018.
Liz Sheldon, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Christopher Bonanos about his book Flash: The Making of Weegee The Famous. As the city editor of New York magazine, Christopher Bonanos is no stranger to the hustle it takes to make it in the NYC media world. But that inside perspective is just part of what Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous, his new NBCC-nominated biography of mid-century crime and pop photographer Weegee, so much fun to read. In exploring how tenement kid Arthur Fellig became self-taught photographer, early branding expert, and true New York character Weegee, Bonanos (whose first book was Instant: The Story of Polaroid) also takes us on a romp through the history of the tabloid industry, the rise and fall of the New York mob, and even the golden age of Hollywood. Bonanos took a few minutes to chat about Weegee’s wild legacy and the process of distilling it into Flash.
LS: First things first: Why Weegee?
CB: “I would say two things: one, I usually write about New York City history, and the history of the press, and two, because my previous book about photography. And they all cross paths with him.”
LS: In fact, so much seems to cross paths with him—the history of New York, the origins of tabloid journalism, the evolution of street photography as an art form...
CB: “It’s so true, he keeps popping up in other people’s stories, which makes him an interesting person to trace through the culture. And you can follow him through his work, as well as through his life, because his pictures are a great history of New York in his time.”
LS: The book includes hour-by-hour replays of some of his nights hitting the streets and hustling to get back and forth to crime scenes and dark room in those early days. How did you put those timelines together??
CB: “The International Center of Photography has his estate, so some of it was from their archive. They have a lot of manuscript pages from magazine articles, and a few drafts of the autobiography he wrote, so I could go through the cut material for details. But mostly I put together the blow-by-blow by going through all the newspapers from those years. His career in the thirties is not very well-documented. Later on he becomes easier to trace because he started to get famous, especially once he started working for P.M., the now-defunct paper that turned him into a character. He authored columns for them, and they also wrote more about him. But before that, he wasn’t wasn’t really in the habit of saving much of his work, so a lot of what he shot went into the anonymous stream of news photographs. But about every other week a paper would run an image from him with a credit, so I tracked his nights via those. What’s challenging about that though is that most of the papers from that time still haven’t been digitized. There were nine dailies in New York at the time, and the only way to find all the photo credits is to turn every damn page on microfilm. So I would sit there in the New York Public Library every Saturday and Sunday—I can tell you from experience they’re also open late two nights a week—and I would just turn pages. I went through five years of the New York Post, and five years of the New York World-Telegram, and five years of The New York Sun. There were patchy databases of the Post and the Sun online, and two of the bigger papers, The New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune are digitally searchable. It was a big job—but those three papers, and The New York Evening Journal, were the ones that credited him the most in the early days, so I focused my efforts there.”
LS: A running theme in the book is the question of how much posing and fudging Weegee did to get the shot—and also the extent to which his work is considered capital A art, and you’re pretty egalitarian about it. How did you decide how much of your feelings about those topics to insert?
CB: “The academic art historians have their own strong opinions on this. I like the academics who have written about Weegee a lot, but they look at it as purely artistic practice. I come at it differently because I am also a member of the press, and I see how newspaper and magazines photographers work. It fascinates me how we see these pictures so differently. I’m thinking about the way our New York photographers have shot and what it’s like in a press scrum, and art historians are just thinking about the end result. Mind you, I’m not suggesting that my perspective is better or more accurate, it’s just different.”
“In terms of actual value judgement, I think he was well in line with the values of his time. The business of occasionally setting up a picture—I think a lot of news photographers did that at the time. There are so many stories in memoirs of the time of a photographer giving a kid 10 bucks to go stand in the right place. You can get on your high horse about it as a journalism critic, or you can say, ‘that’s how the job was done then’. That’s just a fact. And the pictures sometimes do tell the truth even when they’ve gotten a little help.”
LS: Can you talk a bit more about how being an editor affected how you tackled this story?
CB: “As a member of the press, there are times that I can recognize what he’s going for in a photograph that an art critic might not—and vice versa! He was also working during the Great Depression, when the tabloid and newspaper business was going great guns, but it was not as rich as it had been a few years earlier. There were mergers going on that diminished the number of outlets at some points, and it was a place where freelancers were scraping by. All of which might feel kind of familiar if you’re paying attention to the industry.”
LS: Part of how Weegee became a household name was by inserting himself into his news photographs. Was he the only photographer to take things that far?
CB: “I’m not sure, and I’ll tell you why. Because you do see people pointing in pictures, but you don’t know who they are. Is that some random passerby that the photographer grabbed, or is it himself? I would guess that what Weegee did was a little more unusual. He was such a lone wolf and he wanted his face in the paper. I bet he felt like he was putting one over the photo editors now and then. And it did work for him. As I said at one point in the book, he created a personal brand before we had that word, and it has lasted a hundred years. He was built for the age of Instagram. He was self-promoting, and what is Instagram if not a tool for self-promotion? I always say if he were alive today he would be pitching a reality T.V. show about his life called I Shoot By Night. I’d watch it!”
LS: Do you have favorite of the anecdotes about his wild adventures?
CB: “What I love especially are the news stories behind the photographs. Like, for example the image of William Hessler, who turned up in a trunk in Brooklyn. I love the detail that he was found with 48 ice pick wounds in his chest and a nickel in his pocket, and the nickel was left there by mobsters in order to give the victim car fare home. I mean, c’mon!”
“In terms of his life story, the joyful hustle of it all is incredibly pleasurable. I also love that story about the photo that really got him into the game in 1936, when he went racing out to photograph the couple of murderer teenages in Bayonne New Jersey at four in the morning. It’s an amazing story of getting there in the two-hour window after the morning papers came out without any pictures, and before the deadline for the afternoon papers.”
LS: He’s such an interesting lens through which to view the NYC media landscape. Was he just in the right place at the right time?
CB: “I think that’s sort of half true. In the beginning he was just a working stiff press photographer. He had some talent, but he was nothing special. Over the first few years of shooting, partly because he worked all the time and partly because he turned out to have an eye, he learned how to do it as well as anyone, and then to elevate it past the level of workaday, take the picture for the paper and up to something more meaningful. But he really embraced the job you could get at the time. He was very practical that way. He also got started very late. He didn’t quit his job to go freelance until he was 36, and he didn’t get famous until he was in his forties. Nobody does that! It’s really wild.”
LS: How did you hit on the irreverent, kind of fast-paced tone of the book? It’s such a great match for the story you’re telling.
CB: “That’s something I thought about a great deal. My own voice as a writer is shaped by magazine work, so I was part way there. I write for a popular audience. But I did make a conscious choice that I wanted to avoid any sort of formality in the language. I wanted it to be a restrained version of a tabloid voice. Now I am not a tabloid writer, they write short sentences and I write long sentences, but I wanted a little of that snap and verve to get in there somehow, and I was never sure if I’d got it. So it’s great to hear if people are seeing that in there.”
“The definitive quality of Weegee’s photos is this sort of playful ghoulishness, and kind of reveling in the picture of the dead guy bleeding on the sidewalk, about which Weegee said ‘I really wanted to make it look like he was taking a little nap.’ So I tried to summon up that voice. Weegee’s particular New York-accented idioms are also very familiar to me. It’s pretty much the way my grandparents and their friends spoke, and his voice, which I have come to know on recordings pretty well, is one that I recognize from real life. And maybe that got in my head a little bit too. There’s a video called Weegee Tells How, it’s a recording he made in 1958 explaining how he made some of his more favorite photographs. You can hear his accent, and it’s pretty unbelievable.”
LS: Weegee was so prolific—how did you pick which photos to include in the book?
CB: “I had a long list! I had a budget, so that determined the number. There’s about 60, and it was definitely painful chucking out a few at the last minute. Sometimes I wanted to illustrate a particular anecdote or make a point about his photographic technique. Other times it was too good a photo to leave out. For example The Critic has to appear, it’s so famous. Then in three or four few cases, they were pictures I just loved too much not to include. There’s one photograph of Robert Joyce, the guy who drank 18 beers and shot two guys in an argument about the Brooklyn Dodgers. It’s an amazing face, and I just knew I had to have it.”
LS: I couldn’t decide at the end if this is a triumphant story, or a sad one. What do you think?
CB: “I don’t know either. It ended badly for him in that he was broke. But he wasn’t alone, he had Wilma, his on-again, off-again partner. She was the silent hero who safeguarded his archive. He ended sort of forgotten and not really happy with the way things had turned out for him—but at the same time, there is a sort of triumph, in that he wanted to be famous, he wanted to not be forgotten. It’s 2019, he’s in a 400-page book and here we are talking about his story.”
Christopher Bonanos is city editor at New York magazine, where he covers arts and culture and urban affairs. He is the author of Instant: The Story of Polaroid. He lives in New York City with his wife and their son.
Liz Sheldon is the Editorial Director at Of a Kind and a current MFA candidate in fiction at The New School.
Mishka Anthony is an MFA poetry candidate at The New School currently living in Flushing, Queens. She is working on a collection of poetry and essays on the transgender experience and has become fascinated and awestruck with the makeup industry. When she’s not writing or teaching herself how to apply makeup on her face, she’s learning how to navigate the world as a lady and dancing the night away with her New School family.
1. Who is your favorite villain, and who is your favorite protagonist in literature?
My favorite villain in literature is the diabolically Iago from Shakespeare's play, Othello. “Favorite” is loosely used here considering how evil Iago is in Othello and though there is no justifying his actions throughout the play, I am more interested in the queer undertones to Iago's motivations.
My favorite protagonist in literature is no other than the great poet Dante. Though seen as an epic poem, I’ve never encountered a text that fascinated me more than The Divine Comedy, and to think that this one man somehow wrote what would become one of the greatest poems ever written is nothing short of extraordinary considering just how influential his legacy is in the current literary landscape. We will probably never have another Dante or Divine Comedy which is more the reason to keep revisiting Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.
2. When did you know you were a writer?
I didn’t know I was a writer until three years ago when I was in my second semester at The New School. I had just started in a writing program called Riggio and I was taking this class with Richard Tyson called “Poetry and the Creative Process” and it was through his class and what he taught where I started to develop this deep relationship with the written craft, specifically, with poetry. I never imagined that I could use the poetic medium as a device to explore, to wonder, to heal but once I learned how to write, how to understand a poem, there was no going back. I made a commitment to being a writer and not a day goes by where I doubt that decision or wish I had taken up another path for a more sustainable lifestyle.
3. What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on two projects: one is a collection of poetry that I view as a farewell to my male identity—a thematic exploration of the male body and the decaying that happens when one is transitioning to another identity, another gender. The other project is a large scale documentation of my transitioning from before I came out to what I am currently going through. I have been working on a collection of essays along with collecting images, conversations, notes, prescription bottles, photographs, ect., that I’d like to contribute to this final piece that I have in mind.
4. How has your writing process changed over the years?
When I first started writing at The New School, I wasn’t sure the kind of writer I wanted to be. I gravitated towards fiction because I enjoyed the narration of stories but I learned through trial and error that I wasn’t very good at writing a story, which was fine because my determination to be a better writer brought me to the poetry program as an undergraduate. It wasn’t until the end of 2016 when an event happened that changed my life that I realized I could use my ability to write to make sense out of the pain that came from that event. If anything, it was because I learned how to write that I was able to come out as queer and understand what that meant for me personally. My style changed alongside with my identity and as I made sense of my own writing, prose
andverse, so did the queering of my body, which greatly altered the poetry I’d write.
5. Describe your writing style in one sentence.
Suspended profoundly in animation.
Five Questions, by Nicole L. Drayton. Nicole is a writer, screenwriter and independent filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Liberal Arts from The New School, and currently works for the university in the MFA in Creative Writing Program office.
Aditya Goenka came to New York City to pursue a MFA in fiction from The New School, on a sabbatical from his job as a police officer in Meghalaya, in northeast India, where he has worked since 2008. Goenka’s family accompanied him, and he and his wife enrolled their children in PS 165 on 110th street inHarlem. One day his daughter, who is in first grade, came home from school traumatized. She had been stuck in the restroom during a lockdown drill. When Goenka asked her what the exercise was for, she told him it was how students were meant to respond if there was a shooter in the school.
Goenka’s daughter’s story took him back to his experiences as the commanding officer of a counterinsurgency special unit. He has been in shootings up close. There have been casualties in his unit during operations, and as district chief of police he has supervised investigations into violent crimes involving the death of civilians. That his six-year-old daughter should have to deal with such things, however, was shocking to him.
Guns find a pride of place in the global patriarchal culture. They've become symbols divorced from their effects, normalizing extreme violence in our everyday lives. The proliferation of arms across the globe gives any individual anywhere extraordinary potential to harm both themselves and others.
AFTER EFFECTS is the artist's attempt to take the onlooker into an immersive space where they can witness the effects and stand testimony to this violence. Furniture from children’s schools has been shot using a variety of weapons, from pistols to shotguns to automatic weapons.
AFTER EFFECTS engages the senses by using the smells typical of an art class in school. There is a shelf with rolled scrolls of poems and statistics. At the end of the installation, there is a recreation of an active lock-down. The onlooker is invited to fold his arms over his head and look at the display with earphones.
AFTER EFFECTS is a part of Goenka’s creative thesis, under his advisor Dale Peck and John Reed, it was supported by Latief Dickerson of NJ Firearms Academy.
AFTER EFFECTS is located on the third floor of the sky bridge in Alvin Johnson/J.M. Kaplan Hall, at 66 W. 12th Street. It is open for viewing from the March 28th till April 5th. Goenka is available at email@example.com.
Marie-Helene Bertino is the author of the novel 2 A.M. AT THE CAT’S PAJAMAS and the story collection SAFE AS
HOUSES,and was the 2017 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Fellow in Cork, Ireland. Her work has received The O. Henry Prize, The Pushcart Prize, The Iowa Short Fiction Award, The Mississippi Review Story Prize, and has twice been featured on NPR's Selected Shorts. She teaches at NYU, The New School, and Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM, and lives in Brooklyn, where she was the Associate Editor for One Story and Catapult. Her third book, PARAKEET, is forthcoming from FSG in Spring 2020.
For more information, please visit: www.mariehelenebertino.com.
1. Who is your favorite villain, and who is your favorite protagonist in literature?
My favorite villain is society, personified in many stories as the torch-wielding mob. I find myself not really buying most villains as evil because, like, according to who? Many characters we were taught were villains were merely dark-haired stylish single women who decided not to have children. However, society in mob form? Now that I can hate.
Societyrepresents the most mediocre, fearful way of being, and in mobform has directly threatened some of my favorite protagonists like Edward Scissorhands, Elvira Mistress of the Dark, witches throughout time, Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, The Addams Family, etc... Being part French, I'm naturally suspicious of anything a group believes. The hero is the maestro, the individual, the weirder the better. Communal thinking, lack of private space, and mediocrity--I can't think of anything more evilthan that.
2. When did you know you were a writer?
I was four and found a family of bunnies on my grandmother's lawn and felt compelled to write about it. I learned from my brothers who were older and acquired obvious joy from scribbling into their notebooks. I can't remember a time when I didn't process the world by writing.
3. What are you currently working on?
I'm revising a novel, PARAKEET, which will be published in Spring 2020 by FSG. When I take breaks, I tinker with stories.
4. How has your writing process changed over the years?
As time passes, certain elements of writing become easier, and others, harder. The easier I am on myself in certain ways, the harder I am on myself in others. For example, I don't beat myself up anymore if I go a stretch without writing. That has never led to anything but anxiety.
5. Describe your writing style in one sentence.
The world does its thing: with its middle distances, ink refills, breezes and Nicholas Cages, its shattering cruelties and its sometimes equally-as-shattering kindnesses, your little cousin showing you a dance step, the ten minute meditation on my Jet Blue flight last week guided by a honey-voiced woman who repeated "Inhale, exhale, hands" so many times I giggled, its sudden, sharp fallings into love: I take notes.
In April of 2018, Alia Malek spoke with Zia Jaffrey at a nonfiction forum event at the New School. Malek read from her memoir The Home That Was Our Country, a book about Syria, published in 2017.
The Home That Was Our Countrybegins with a portrayal of Malek’s great grandfather Abdeljawwad, a prominent statesman in the city of Hama, who came of age during the French colonialization. Alia uses her great grandfather’s life to shed light on the politics of that time. The book then moves onto the life of his daughter, Malek’s strong-willed grandmother, who, despite having limited opportunities as a woman, tenaciously carved-out her independence in Damascus. She became the first person in Syria to sell Avon products, in bulk, to large department stores. Like her father, who ignored her, she loved to hold court at her modern apartment building, the Tehaan—a multi-story, multi-family home, built in the forties. She welcomed poets, politicians, seamstresses and neighbors, and anyone who knocked on her door in need of assistance. As her reputation grew, she utilized her influence in the military and government to aid families in life or death situations. Malek uses the Tehaan to show Syrians’ capacity for peaceful coexistence; Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and a diverse multi-ethnic population, dwell within its walls. In the second half of the book, Malek takes us to 2011, to a Syria on the verge of civil war. Under the guise of returning to her ancestral home to renovate her late grandmother’s apartment, Malek researches and reports on the Assad regime and Syria’s disintegration.
P.M.: How would the story have changed if you’d written it after Trump took office? And in writing nonfiction, is it more critical for you to incorporate political-historical rhetoric or more of a ground view based on interviews?
A.M.: So the first one, I have to think about the second one, but the first one, I don’t think it would have changed it, because I think the longevity of the work would be affected in a less positive way if you were trying to be responsive. Time moves, things happen and change and if you’re trying to responsive to every single thing, you’re going to lose the coherence of the overall narrative part.
And the second question: there are different kinds of narrative nonfiction; mine is definitely based in interviews. I don’t know if you saw it, but Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple’s book, Brothers of The Gun, there’s no context, no explanation, it’s just the narrative as it is. I asked them if that was a conscious choice and Molly said there was a tension because she felt that an American reader needed more context, but he didn’t want to deviate. He felt like people could google the history. But because in Syria the history is so contested, we have fake news and deliver obfuscation by agents from Russia and Iran, and I didn’t feel like I could leave that to chance because Syria is such a vacuum of knowledge. I did feel obligated to fill in. Some people would say I didn’t maintain balance. Some people loved the narrative parts and wanted less history, but I kind of wanted people to get through the book and come away with a deep understanding of what is going on. The story is there to drive you forward, but people did need to understand the history of economics, and colonialism to understand the moment, and that was a choice I made. But if I were writing a book about America for America I could just tell you the story. So many Syrians don’t know their history because it is purposefully deprived of knowledge, authorial dictatorship requires that. It was also important for me to lay things out, also using the work of scholars. I’m very scholarship heavy in my work. People have done wonderful historical work and studied the political economy or the regime. It’s a long-winded answer, but that’s sort of my approach.
P.M.: What were the most useful strategies for condensing the history and narratives?
A.M.: I think readers will extend you a certain leniency, but ultimately you need to be propelling the story forward, and what’s what editors are for. I am someone who loves history, the minutia of it. That’s not the majority of readers and sometime my editor would be like this is too much detail. Sometimes, you have to read five books to write five paragraphs. Your job is not to report everything; it’s to take what you learn, so your reader gets what they get what they need to know. The end of the Ottoman Empire in Syrian History is only being excavated in recent years. I basically stopped doing anything for a month and went into the minutia and interviewed the scholars whose books I was reading to be able to give the readers the five paragraphs they needed. When all else fails, your editor is there to clean it up for you.
P.M.: Sounds like a team effort.
A.M.: Yes, or you should have a trusted reader. In my earlier work, my sister was my trusted reader. In my current work, my partner is also great at that.
P.M.: You touch on the psychological effects of the Assad Regime; do you see parallels between the propaganda tools the administration uses here and over there?
A.M.: Yeah, I mean regrettably. We at least have our free press. That’s why there are all these dispersions of the free press and fake news. In a dictatorship, you have state T.V. Take North Korea, it’s very effective. The other thing about Syria is that because everyone was afraid that someone would inform on them nobody spoke openly, nobody knew what other people thought. The state was kind of like this chaperone that was omnipresent. The state isn't omnipresent in the US, but now, because you can choose your truth – you choose your Fox News, or you choose your MSNBC—we’re not interacting with everybody else, and in that you can ferment a kind of suspicion or a fear of the other, and that’s what’s crazy. We are self-selecting; we’re opting into this. Although people over there are too, I think I talked about it a little bit, either you’re watching Al Jazeera or State T.V. Honest, open interaction between different parts of society were not existent in Syria, and now, here in the US where they should be plenty existent, because we choose our partisan line, feed, news, you’re seeing something similar; it is dismaying.
P.M.: It happens on Facebook too.
A.M.: Right, you can curate your feed, and now the algorithms are speaking to that. I watched the Republican reaction of people who attended Trump rallies last week; I mean, they’re not seeing the news the way we’re seeing it. They’re not mortified about what’s happening at the border. There’s clearly a lack of knowing each other.
P.M.: Were there any pressing questions you had while writing and were you consciously addressing them in the book?
A.M.: A part of me wonders: how did we get here? That was the big overarching question. What chances are there for reconciliation? What could the future look like? Yeah, those are the things I’m still trying to figure out and ask. Who were these people I come from? And why do I feel disconnected from them in many ways.
P.M.: I can relate to that.
A.M.: Who were they? It’s so frustrating; they’re not alive to ask them.
P.M.: Is there anything you didn’t get a chance to ask grandmother?
A.M.: So much I would want to know from her, like was she happy. Mostly I’d want to know about happiness and fulfillment and how did she feel about the way her father treated her mother. I can try to understand, but it’s not the same as asking her, I wish there was so much I would have asked her. Is there any hope for Syria? Did it have to go this way? I would have asked her a lot. You know, what was she wrong about? Did she prevent her own happiness? These are the things I’m curious about now.
P.M.: What shocked you most about the Assad regimes approach to its citizenry?
A.M.: I thought: there are new ways to manipulate populations, like brute force, I didn’t think they would go that route, you can break a people many other ways, and they chose the most traditional, although they’re being rewarded, at least in the short term, so maybe we’re all the idiots.
P.M.: Like they’re getting the last laugh.
A.M.: Yeah, I think they’ve engineered their continuity, but to what cause? A lot of skilled and entrepreneurial smart people have left the country. In the long run, those are the type of people you want to build the country—activists, people with consciousness, people who never thought of themselves as activists, but people who stood up in the moment and said that this isn’t right. I thought they were more modern and would have co-opted the movement, but no one will ever rise up again, people’s lives have been so broken. It’s horrible. Stealing their property. Everything is done in legal ways, like confiscating properties, absentee properties that are considered abandoned so you can’t return. The reconstruction is going to make the people who are already in power even richer. The money that’s about to be made is sick. Sorry, this isn’t really optimistic.
P.M.: Do you have any advice for people who are detached from what’s happening or feel powerless to do anything?
A.M.: Those are two different people – the first one, what goes around comes around. The international system in many ways has sort of showed that evil can triumph, so why would anyone stand up. I think Americans have a problem imagining that anything can happen in the US, and to those people I recommend they read, a very dystopian novel, American War, he [ Omar El Akkad] imagines a new civil war here in the US and shows how things can come apart and people from the outside can also manipulate that. But we have a playbook where the world will not take action; you know obfuscating the truth, now that the truth is so malleable in the end, to destabilize the Middle East is not a good thing. A lot of things we’ve taken for granted have been put into question by what’s happened in Syria. For those people you’re wrong to think that you shouldn’t be alert.
For those who feel powerless about it that’s good – good news to them, they’re still kind of human, but we can demand that you differ the kind of discourse, because a lot of the language – like illegal refugee – is meant to dehumanize other people. The Muslim Ban the Syrian Ban we’re all here, this is a representative government, speak up. Go, volunteer, there are ways to extend yourself to show that we are not the same as our leaders.
P.M.: Can talk you a bit about your work with Europa?
A.M.: Yeah, that was valuable information to relay to refugees, and people trying to make this journey. I don't know how much it of an impact it will have on Syria, but when I see people aboard the rescue ships readingEuropanot only does it show the world the different side of refugees, but there's some value in it, and that makes me feel very good about that work. I'm glad we created something that spoke to them a different way, because implicit in making work like that is saying, I recognize that you are human and educated, and people of understanding.
Plamena Malinova is a Bulgarian-American writer, educator, and lover of cats. She is an MFA candidate at the New School focusing on dual concentrations in Nonfiction and Writing for Children and Young Adults.
The Creative Writing Program will be represented at this years AWP conference. Come by booth 9041 to say hello Thursday March 28-30.
Below is a list of events including our faculty and students:
R263. What's Craft Got to Do With It?: On Craft, Race, and the Black Imagination. Thursday, March 28, 2019 3:00 pm to 4:15 pm. C124, Oregon Convention Center, Level 1. Featuring Dianca London Potts,Dennis Norris II, Jessica Lanay, Cole Lavalais.
In an age when Black authors are on the rise, why is craft still dismissed as "bougie" or adjacent to whiteness? Why are Black narratives analyzed primarily through a sociological or anthropological lens rather than one of literary craft? Why do so many readers and writers still resist the merit of craft when it comes to Black literature? This dialogue examines, confronts, and unpacks the creative and cultural implications and potential of craft within the contemporary Black literary canon.
*Offsite* BitchReads Live! Thursday, March 28, 2019 6:00 PM – 9:00 PM. Lagunitas Community Room 37 Northeast Broadway Street #300 We're bringing our BitchReads partnership with Powell's Books from the page to the stage on Thursday, March 28. Join Bitch Media at the Lagunitas Community Room on Thursday, March 28 to eat, drink, and mingle with the Bitch staff (even our remote folks are flying in!) and hear from past Bitch contributors and writing fellows!Andi Zeisler, Naseem Jamnia, Dianca London Potts, Aya de Leon, Ilana Masad, Randa Jarrar, and more!
F269. WriteOn: How to Begin and Grow a Community-Oriented Writing Fellowship: Friday, March 29, 2019, 3:00 pm to 4:15 pm, D135, Oregon Convention Center, Level 1. Featuring Catherine Bloomer, Helen Schulman, Austen Osworth, and Kiri Milburn.
WriteOn is a fellowship offered by The New School that places MFA candidates in under-resourced middle and high school classrooms as creative writing instructors. Join New School administrators, faculty, and fellows to discuss creating a new organization within a university, creatively partnering with community organizations to meet needs symbiotically, and preparing MFA candidates to enter the world as teachers, professors, and literary citizens.
F286. Beyond Voice: Teaching the Craft of Consciousness in Poetry. Friday, March 29, 2019, 3:00 pm to 4:15 pm. Portland Ballroom 255, Oregon Convention Center, Level 2. Featuring Erin Belieu, Adrian Matejka, Dana Levin, Monica Youn, Mark Bibbins.
In workshops, much is made of a writer’s “voice.” But it may be more apt to think beyond this privileging of utterance and conversational tone to consider a more three-dimensional idea of how we shape a distinct consciousness on the page. In this panel, we discuss strategies for encouraging students to think beyond voice, offering ideas on how intellectual engagement, conceptual structures, poetic form, and the tensions of argument and rhetoric help build a fuller sense of a poem’s speaker.
F165. Extreme Exposure: Going Public with Deeply Personal Stories. Friday, March 29, 2019, 10:30 am to 11:45 am Oregon Convention Center, Level 1. Featuring Nancy Hightower, Alison Kinney, Doreen Oliver, Julie Metz, Alice Eve Cohen
After realizing that a story must be told, the writer faces difficult questions. What are the rewards for the writer in going public with their most personal experiences? What are the risks? How might these stories benefit individual readers? What is the value for the larger community? The #MeToo movement has demonstrated the power of sharing stories once shrouded in secrecy. In this panel, essayists and memoirists discuss artistic and personal complexities of sharing their most personal stories.
R191. Let's Talk About Race, Baby; Let's Talk About You & Me. C123, Oregon Convention Center, Level 1 Thursday, March 28,
201912:00 pm to 1:15 pm. Featuring Jean Kwok, Mira Jacob, Mitchell S. Jackson, Irina Reyn, Devi Laskar.
This panel is for anyone, regardless of color, who wishes to improve the way they write about, teach or publish racially- or ethnically-charged issues in this complex time. How do we handle race and ethnicity with sensitivity, in real life
andon the page? How can we overcome discrimination in workshops and the publishing world? May we write negatively about a characterof a particular race? This panel of successful writers provides honesty and humor and suggests strategies for connection.
S206. What a Heroine Can Do: Female Protagonists Take Back the Narrative Oregon Ballroom 203, Oregon Convention Center, Level 2
Saturday, March 30, 2019, 12:00 pm to 1:15 pm. F
eaturingAlexander Lumans, Kirstin Chen, Marie-Helene Bertino, Mira Jacob, Katherine Hill.
To ignore the female protagonist is to slight a necessary and integral character in literature, denying not only her past achievements but also her future potential to be an agent of her own change. In this panel, five established and emerging fiction writers give voice to the dynamically resonant women at the centers of their novels. Through individual readings of their potent protagonists, these writers challenge the patriarchal view that a woman cannot be a hero.
R258. The Cuba Writers Program Faculty and Alumni Reading.B115, Oregon Convention Center, Level 1 Thursday, March 28, 2019,3:00 pm to 4:15 pm. Featuring Alden Jones, Tim Weed, Ann Hood,
DarielSuarez, Suchita Chadha
The Cuba Writers Program launched during the Obama administration to bring writers to Cuba for workshops and engagements with Cuban artists. Its mission is to encourage meaningful interactions between the US and Cuba and to generate writing that opens transnational dialogue. Join faculty and alumni with various perspectives—Cuban, American, Canadian, citizen, expatriate, traveler—as they share their work exploring issues specific to the Cuba/US dynamic and beyond these boundaries.
F322. What Now? When Good Writers Act Awful. Portland Ballroom 255, Oregon Convention Center, Level 2 Friday, March 29, 201, 4:30 pm to 5:45 pm. Featuring Michael Croley, John Freeman, Erika L. Sánchez, Tomás Q. Morín, Bonnie Nadzam
In the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, it’s hard to know how to regard the work we love when we’ve lost respect for its author. How do we reconcile the two and how should we respond to them and their work in real life and on social media? Should an educator erase these authors from the syllabus?
Isredemption for them and their work even possible? Five writers wrestle with this crisis and with what justice in our literary community should look like.
S164. Editor-Author Relationships: How Should They Be?. E145, Oregon Convention Center, Level 1 Saturday, March 30, 2019, 10:30 am to 11:45 am. Featuring Jennifer Acker, John Freeman, Tracy O'Neill, Yuka Igarashi, Patrick Ryan.
Literary journals and small presses provide a platform for launching the careers of writers, and strong editorial support is key to this role. Collaboration between editor and author happens in real time, on the page. In turn, editors are often writers, with their own distinct experiences sending work into the world and being edited. What can and should editors provide authors, and how can their own experiences as writers and literary citizens inform and expand these collaborative relationships?
F220. The Art of the Book Review. B110-112, Oregon Convention Center, Level 1, Friday, March 29, 2019, 1:30 pm to 2:45 pm. Featuring, Carolyn Kellogg, Gabino Iglesias, Veronica Scott Esposito, Joseph Salvatore, Siddhartha Deb.
Thousands of books are published each year. We're led to many of them by intelligent, engaging, well-made book reviews, which not only investigate and articulate the mysteries and pleasures a literary text offers, but also please the reader with their style. Five widely published writers/critics/editors discuss the review as a genre in its own right, a unique form that offers—and invites—critical reflection, raises the level of public
discourse,and establishes professionalreputation.
by Mark Wagstaff
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2018.
Mark Wagstaff, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Luis Alberto Urrea about his book The House of Broken Angels (Little, Brown) which was among the final five selections in the category of fiction for the 2018 NBCC Awards.
Mark Wagstaff: Significant themes in the book are informed by events in your own family, including the death of your eldest brother Juan. You said previously that writing about your brother’s death was ‘a cry against ugly disrespect’. Did you conceive of the book as a form of resistance against disrespect?
Luis Alberto Urrea: I set out to tell a universal story about a family. Not a Mexican story or an American story, but our human story. I see that as a radical act.
A lot in the book stems from my father, a man of high standing in Mexico who could only find work as a bowling alley janitor in the US. There’s nothing wrong with doing that work, but the collapse of my father’s self-worth haunted the family. The ‘entrance exam’ into the US is a brutal Social Darwinist test. Part of that sacrifice was to give me an American life.
To give an idea of the impact of that sacrifice, my father didn’t like that I visited him at work. I think he was embarrassed for me to see him cleaning bathrooms and so on. Part of the book’s origin is in a particular incident when I had gone to see my dad and I witnessed the manager of the bowling alley behave in the most condescending way toward my father. He completely belittled my father, he made some remark about what a good worker he was and patted his head like a dog. What made it worse was that I knew the manager, we’d been in high school together. He had no idea of the man my father was.
My big brother Juan had that same drive to show people that the family was worth something, starting with graduating from college. To see me become a published writer meant everything to Juan.
For the record, the scene at the party where Big Angel confronts the gangbanger who tries to kill Lalo serves to honor my father. It was a quinceañera party. Some fool pulled a pistol on the family and my dad gave him such a tongue-lashing that the guy turned tail and ran. It was where my father regained his authority, this man who had been demeaned by some bowling alley manager. That’s why Big Angel knows he cannot lose. At that point he has already become a legend.
MW: About that role of family patriarch. The male characters in the book seem to inhabit iterations of masculinity that, for the older generation, are traditional, but for the family’s younger men are more ambiguous and circumstantial. Were you looking to place the current watershed of masculinity in the Mexican-American family context?
LAU: The ‘broken angels’ in the story are the men. They have been handed a rulebook of masculinity, but they don’t know what’s wanted of them. Big Angel is haunted by his father’s ghost and by memories of his grandfather Don Segundo, who readers will recognize as the cowboy from The Hummingbird’s Daughter.
That background of part-noble, part-toxic masculinity produced the Big Angel generation. And now their sons and grandsons wrestle with changing conceptions of masculinity. There’s Ookie the deranged neighborhood boy who has a remarkable talent. Dave who is remaking what it means to be a Jesuit Most of all there’s Yndio, the prodigal son whose way of being a man is unacceptable to the family. Yndio was inspired by my nephew, who left town to follow New York metal band Cycle Sluts from Hell. He saw the world but it cost him his family. He died of AIDS and there was still family tension at his funeral.
MW: Big Angel’s own code of masculinity stops him from accepting help, from claiming welfare. Yet he has considerable tenderness to balance that hard outlook.
LAU: My mother was a New Yorker, something of a socialite. After she married my father there were certainly hard times financially. Yet my parents always kept to that creed that ‘one does not accept handouts’. It’s a matter of pride. Though if the neighbors accepted welfare, like those cans of government peanut butter, it was okay for us to accept those things as gifts from neighbors. It wasn’t a handout if it came from neighbors.
Big Angel is tender with a somewhat mystical slant, and that reflects my brother who was a mystic and believed in astral projection. Big Angel needs signs and symbols to show who he really is and that reaches its ultimate point in his relationship with Ookie, where he helps this confused young man to recreate the whole of San Diego in Lego. For Big Angel, that tenderness is part of the legacy that should define him for the future. It’s as much a part of his legend as facing down the gangster.
MW: There’s a particular moment when Lalo, who has served with distinction in the US army, is taken by his son to get revenge on the gangster who killed Braulio and Guillermo. Yet Lalo can’t kill the gangster. There’s a question about whether the macho response is to pull the trigger or to show restraint. There’s also a strong indication that Lalo has been cheated by the US.
LAU: Aiming a gun at the gangster is the moment when Lalo realizes who he is. He is somebody’s son, he is somebody’s brother, he’s not a gangster. Lalo is part of the conscience of the book. He served the US then when the US was done with him, he was made a criminal and deported.
I wrote a piece a while back about undocumented kids who joined the US military, went to war, came back with problems and were criminalized and deported. Though, and this is the sweet part, as they were not dishonorably discharged, when they die they can be buried in the US. The deported vets would stand at the border fence, saluting in silent protest. Refugees have been defended by Uncle Sam’s deported warriors.
MW: The de la Cruz family is established on both sides of the physical border. One of the current debates around identity concerns respectability politics, the idea of being ‘not enough’ to identify with a given community. Does the book reflect your personal feelings about what it means to be ‘Mexican enough’ or ‘American enough’?
LAU: One can’t escape those issues. My father waged war on the notion of ‘Mexican time’, he always arrived early for appointments and he always left events early, he always wanted it to seem that he had a plan.
My brother Juan pushed himself hard to succeed in impressive jobs. He ran the computer center at the Magic Mountain Ski Area in Valencia, California. He took me to see it – this was back in the day when computers were huge and used reels of magnetic tape. Those old computers made a lot of noise, a lot of clicks and whirrs, and because my brother was a mystic he told me I should ‘listen and hear the ghosts speaking’. That was his description of these machines processing data, the ‘ghosts speaking’. It created a strong sensation, like seeing faces in clouds.
The dynamic of ‘how much are you’ has been part of our lives forever. Are you Mexican and mystical or are you American and practical? Being from the border, I see that as a false dichotomy. I wasn’t sure ‘how much’ of whatever I was supposed to be until I chose writing, that’s the place where I belong.
There’s an endless negotiation demanded by the culture that one’s in. I came from Tijuana to the US because I was dying from tuberculosis. Crossing the border meant going from Mexico to a kind of ‘Mexico lite’, a barrio where everyone spoke Spanish. Though my mother got us into a white neighborhood north of San Diego, I went through high school speaking with a Mexican accent. I hadn’t seen green lawns until I joined the Boy Scouts. How American is that, to join the Boy Scouts? My scout buddies cornered me in the bathroom and called me a ‘greaser wetback’.
People don’t say that now. Instead I get threatening messages, death threats, especially after The Devil’s Highway was published. People telling me I’m a traitor and threatening to kill my children, to stop the contagion. I started answering those messages. I corrected the spelling and grammar and graded them on content and originality. I sent them back with ‘teacher comments’. They stopped after a while.
These are the things which fuel my writing. Art is a pre-emptive strike against all the threats.
MW: What’s your view on how Mexico reacts to border issues? Are there deeper divisions?
LAU: Mexicans are like anyone else, they are just as terrified of ‘the other’. The Mexican middle and upper classes dislike being faced with people in need. Especially people from other countries. It’s a place of complex responses. One can go to Mexico City and have the gender on one’s birth certificate changed. Same-sex marriage has been legal for some time. But right wing groups attack Guatemalan and Honduran refugees and accuse them of bringing the country down.
Colorism is prevalent throughout Latin America, the privileging of lighter skin tones. My parents had old-fashioned views about black people. Where families straddle the border, different generations attach different labels to themselves: Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicano which some still see as an insult.
We have created this baffling landscape of barriers. Yet ultimately all of us are stuck on this same rock. There is no ‘them’ there is only ‘us’.
MW: The family matriarch, whose funeral dominates the first part of the book, is called Mamá América. That reminds us that ‘America’ is not an English word and that it means more than the United States. How do we keep sight of our shared humanity when even simple terms are contested?
LAU: ‘America’ is an incredible amount of land, an astonishing number of cultures, languages and people. America is Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic Circle. It’s much more than the fact of lines on the ground. We don’t live in a place, we live in our story of that place. That’s part of what drove me to write The House of Broken Angels. It’s a family story. The story of our home town, of a landscape and people. But it’s not about political identity. Politics is a false religion.
There’s a long history of sisterhood and brotherhood across that artificial border. I have cousins who are Apache and Yaqui. Those people lived for many centuries in what is now northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. That border means nothing to indigenous people. The people are the fact. The border is an imaginary line. When Mexico was beaten in 1848 and sold its northern lands for $15m, the border moved arbitrarily and native people, who had been citizens under Mexican law, lost those rights as the US government refused to recognize them. No surprise that my cousins say, ‘We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us’.
Countries are imaginary. They are lines drawn on maps, often for obscure, pragmatic or mendacious reasons. Those imaginary distinctions play into the stories we tell about ourselves – it’s a Mexican story, an American story. But overarching all of that is the human story.
My books are not about one border, but the endless series of barriers running between us. Those borders between each other that we create everywhere. It’s the job of the writer to draw attention to that. To write notes and throw them over the fence. That’s the task of the writer. To celebrate our common humanity across whatever borders we construct.
A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his landmark work of nonficiton The Devil's Highway, Luis Alberto Urrea is also the bestselling author of the novels The Hummingbird's Daughter, Into the Beautiful North, and Queen of America, as well as the story collection The Water Museum, a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist. He has won the Lannan Literary Award, an Edgar Award, and a 2017 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, among many other honors. Born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and American mother, he lives outside of Chicago and teaches at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
Mark Wagstaff has published short stories in journals and anthologies in the US and UK. In 2012 Mark's story 'Burn Lines' won The New Guard Machigonne Fiction Contest. In 2013 his story 'Some Secret Space' won the William Van Wert Fiction Award. His second short story collection, also called Burn Lines, was published in 2014 by InkTears. Mark won the 39th Annual 3-Day Novel Contest with Attack of the Lonely Hearts, published by Anvil Press. Currently Mark is studying on the MFA program at The New School in New York.
By Victoria Richards
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2018.
Victoria Richards, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Ada Limón about her book The Carrying (Milkweed), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry.
The intimacy in ambiguity is worthy of exploring in The Carrying by Ada Limón. How much are humans able to carry? Why are we always striving to grow what will eventually die? What is identity? This interview with Ada Limón took place over the phone.
VR: Did you know what The Carrying was going to become and the themes that it would explore before you wrote it?
AL: No. Everything for me happens poem by poem. Very rarely do I have an idea of where something is going to go. It’s not until I have about 40 or 50 poems when I start to think ‘oh, it’s taking shape and now I know it might have potential for something more’. I had to put all the poems together and really lay them out and look at them. And then I would add poems to that after I felt like I had the book and it was in a good place. Then, from there I gave myself prompts to explore the theme fully.
VR: How do you write thematically without mental blockage? How did you manage to write around a particular theme without the poetry sounding forced or robotic?
AL: I really have to ask myself the big questions. ‘What are you leaving out? What are you not saying?’ And those questions get to the heart of things and often times you find that you’re leaving out large subjects that you’ve somehow deemed in your mind aren’t worthy of a poem or aren’t poetic subjects. Usually what it ends up doing is leading me to a place where I’m utterly surprised by the outcome.
VR: In reference to the poem Mastering, did you find it difficult writing about an intimate conversation between a friend and yourself without embarrassing them?
AL: I don’t want to self sensor when I’m creating, but after the poem is created and I feel like there is something worthy in it of being published, then I make the effort to reach out to that person and run it by them and just say ‘hey I wrote this…if this hurts you in any way please tell me…if it’s okay I’d like to send it out…if not I would understand.’ I’m a big fan of asking permission. I know that not everybody is, but I just think we do a disservice to the art form if we claim that we are the only people who have the right to tell a story. Just because I’m a writer does not mean I get to write everything, especially if it involves someone else’s trauma or experience. For example, in the poem Mastering, it’s a good friend of mine. So I asked him straight up. And he said “I don’t remember it that way at all but at the same time I would never sensor your poem. I think it does really interesting things. It may not be for me the truth of that afternoon but it’s true in some way.” That was enough for me. That was good permission.
VR: In The Raincoat the speaker has an epiphany about the relationship between mother and child. Why do you think self-realization is so hard to channel in adolescence but seems to come later in adulthood?
AL: I think that as we grow older, we gain perspective about what life means. Things shift and change at each age when things get thrown at us. We experience joy and trauma then come to a new consciousness and that consciousness I think offers every step of the way some new revelation. I’m growing still. As a child, the great freedom is to not think about everything. You get to be selfish and the one who is taken care of. There is beauty in that, too. There is beauty in the person that gets to play. The person who gets to think, “Isn’t this a joy for my parent to get to drive me around. I bet this is what they love more than anything.” What a selfish, beautiful thing! And not all people get to have that in their childhood. I’m very aware that as we discover our own limitations and privileges, they open up new avenues for poems, revelation and self-awareness.
VR: The phrase “a woman by a river indestructible” in the poem Wonder Woman is such a beautiful way to connect nature and growth. You write, “Invisible pain is both a blessing and a curse”. Why has that been the case for you?
AL: For me, the blessing of invisible pain is that you get to hide it and practice this wonderful delusion with everyone else that you feel great and you’re fine. I have friends who have visible disability issues and everyone acknowledges what they’re going through. They walk into a restaurant and everyone is like ‘oh this person is disabled in this way’. So, the invisibility is a kind of mask that you can wear and take off. We can sort of disappear in an ablest world. The curse of it of course is that no one knows your suffering and there are times when you’re in pain and you actually have to speak it and say it out loud and be vulnerable. You have to give it language and that can be hard.
VR: Is it important for you to know your origin or where you come from in order to create life? Was identity an important theme for you in The Carrying?
AL: My main questions around identity are all questions as opposed to ‘this is who I am’. I feel like sometimes when we give ourselves too many labels and monikers that we end up being limited, even things I take pride in like being Lantinx and being a woman. When I wrote the poem A Name, it is very much about what it is to not know who you are, but to actually ask the world who you are. And instead of saying ‘This is my world and land’ to say ‘Land and nature I belong to you. What am I? Name me back’. It’s less about the conscious, rigid identity and more about a fluidity and tenuous quality that we have with the great “I am”.
VR: What do you think makes us want to grow things? Why do we fear humanity yet want to reproduce at the same time?
AL: There is a level where we are all very desirous to leave a mark on this world. I think there is always a part of us that is always thinking about legacy. What a better way to soothe and feed the ego than to propagate…to increase…to become more of. All of those things come from a place of identity and my ability to claim more of myself. I’m very interested in what it is to grow things in a garden just for the sake of growing them. I’m very interested in what it is to also allow for a kind of mystery about ownership and the need to be producing all the time. It’s like you finished one book and the first thing someone asks you is “what are you working on next?” I had my book in my hands for maybe like fifteen minutes and someone was like “So are you going to read from the new book or are you going to read new work?” And I was like this is my new work it literally just came out yesterday.
VR: “Maybe this letter is to say, if it is red where you are know there is also green, the serrated leaves of dandelion, lemon balm, purple sage, peppermint, a small plume tree by the shed” These lines are very striking and universal. Did you ever think to end with this poem?
AL: The order felt very natural to me. It felt like it told someone a narrative of my life over a four of five-year period and that poem in particular is a letter to Natalie Diaz and is so intimately related to her, her work and who she is. When I chose to end on the poem Sparrow, What Did You Say?, I wanted it to be open on some level. The way that the book ends is really an ambiguous place. I wanted there to be permission for mystery and not like ‘here is the answer and this is the way things worked out and this is the way one should live a life’. I really wanted it to be, ‘whatever happens could be a good thing’.
VR: Sparrow, What Did You Say? could mean many things.
AL: With lots of books that we read lately there has to be this narrative ark. We expect someone to start at point A, go through B and end at C. That’s just not how life works. Nothing works in a linear way. Time is not the arrow we perceive it to be. I wanted there to be fluidity. It’s not an answer. I know right now that my husband and I are not going to have children and I am at peace with that decision. But I wanted someone to have that opening there to have it be whatever it needed to be so that there didn’t seem like a right or wrong answer but instead that this is just life.
Ada Limón is the author of, most recently, The Carrying and Bright Dead Things, which was named a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Kingsley Tufts Award, and was named one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of 2015 by The New York Times. Her previous collections include Sharks in the Rivers, Lucky Wreck, and This Big Fake World. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and American Poetry Review, among others. She also works as a freelance writer and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.
Victoria Richards is second year MFA poetry student at The New School and has been published in the Inquisitive Eater. She is a 2018-2019 Teachers & Writers Collaborative Editorial Associate and lastly, a connoisseur of all things Black girl magic.
By John Apruzzese
MFA in Creative Writing student John Apruzzese interviewed Nora Krug, winner of the National Book Critics Cicle Award for Nonfiction, about her book Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home .
On a mild February morning in New York City, I met with German-American illustrator and author Nora Krug to talk about her poignant new graphic memoir about growing up German after the Second World War. In Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home, Krug marries image and text in exploring the dark legacy of National Socialism and the Holocaust on post-war German life and the long shadow it continues to cast on German society today. She treads the chasm between the war’s perpetrators and its hero-resisters so she can hone in on the Mitläufer or ‘followers’ – the large gray area of individuals who fall into history’s dark crevices and are forgotten – and she hovers there obstinately in order to finally ask the painful questions no one ever has.
Krug begins her quest at home, returning to her native Karlsruhe where she delves into the archives and interviews family members. She uncovers the untold, troubling stories of her family’s past and grapples with the notions of home and identity and how they shape our understanding of ourselves and the world. Throughout her journey, she seeks not only to come to terms with her family’s and community’s role in a tragic history but also to plunge the depths of its meaning for contemporary Germany and for all of us today.
John Apruzzese (JA): The words “belonging” and “reckoning” stand out in the title of your graphic memoir. They suggest that your belonging to your home, your Heimat, cannot be taken for granted but must pass through a reckoning with history.
Nora Krug (NK): German society is deeply shaped by our troubled political history. We are the way we are because of the war and atrocities our country committed. It’s a big part of the German psyche and cultural identity. I grew up feeling culturally disoriented because the war had such a major impact on our understanding of who we are. It’s a feeling that hasn’t gone away for Germans of my generation. Even though I was aware of this feeling growing up I didn’t understand what I could do as an individual to address the feeling of paralysis and collective guilt, which I felt stood in the way of my taking responsibility and fully facing my country’s past.
JA: Why did you feel it necessary to tell this story now?
NK: I never would have written this book if I hadn’t left Germany. During my 17 years living abroad, I felt more German than ever before. As a German living among non-Germans, I realized I would always be as much an individual as a representative of my country and therefore my country’s history. I was often confronted with negative stereotypes towards German cultural identity, but I was also asked sincere questions about my family’s past I didn’t know how to answer. Over the years, I felt a growing urge to tackle my country’s history in a new way. I realized that to overcome the collective, abstract shame I had grown into as a German two generations after the war – which I came to recognize in retrospect as a feeling of empty paralysis – I needed to go back and ask questions about my family, my hometown, those questions I was too unreflective as a child and too afraid as a teenager to ask.
JA: How does this book speak to contemporary German society and culture and the wider world community?
NK: During my six years writing the book, a new extreme right-wing movement emerged in Germany, a movement that, I think, had long been underestimated. The extreme right is driven by fears of globalization and waves of migrants. To a certain extent, the German educational system is at fault as well: we learned everything there was to learn about the war and the Holocaust in school, but we weren’t provided the tools to apply what we’d learned from history to the present – to ask ourselves what we’re doing now to contribute to a more tolerant and open society, to defend our democracy, to recognize that democracy is a process and not a state of being – questions which, alongside memorializing the past, provide the most important way in which we can take responsibility for our country’s atrocious actions. Germans like myself who believe we need to continue to talk about our past and confront our country’s atrocities find it difficult to foster a sense of love for our cultural heritage. Contemporary Germans have to learn that critically facing our past doesn’t stand in contrast to whole-heartedly committing to our country, because if we don’t, the extreme right will claim exclusive ownership over that love. A country that is only embraced for the best moments in its history, or for only one particular kind of people, isn’t a country fully loved. Germany needs to go through a cultural transformation that allows the people to look back at a critical angle while also embracing the country and its cultural achievements.
JA: In a speech at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in November 2018, you say, “It is important to shed light on people like my uncle and grandfather and those who fall in between the categories of heroes and culprits – the gray mass – in order to understand how dictatorial regimes come to be.” Can you expound on this?
NK: The names of the perpetrators and those who resisted the Nazi regime are very much in the public eye in Germany. I’d always assumed my grandparents came from the group of ‘followers,’ so I decided it was that particular category I needed to concentrate on. This group of people living in between the category of perpetrators and heroes feels much closer to home and is therefore more painful to look at. It is especially important for families of the ‘followers’ – those who lived in the moral gray zones of the war, whose guilt is more difficult to measure – to look closely at what happened and ask individual questions about decisions their family members made. When your grandparents fall into this category, it’s easy to conclude there’s nothing more to say or ask, because most Germans fell into that same category. But it is exactly this category we need to examine closely because it’s the one that teaches us most about how dictatorial regimes come to be. These are the people who voted for Adolf Hitler. They chose him as their leader out of their own free will. To understand how this could happen, we need to understand their motives, what they thought, what concerned them.
JA: The question of ‘identity” is at the heart of your book. We live in a world where individuals are increasingly identity-focused. How do you see national and cultural histories shaping individual and collective identities?
NK: The collective and the individual cannot be separated, just as the political and personal or the national and private cannot be. We are deeply impacted by the particular country and time we grow up in and the cultural perspective of our families. We need to be aware of where we come from and what our heritage means to us. Recognizing we are deeply informed by the society we grew up in is important because it allows us to distance ourselves from it and recalibrate what we believe to be our place in the world. Culture doesn’t isolate us, but shapes us. But we need to learn how to look at it in perspective and understand it in relationship to other perspectives. It’s part of being a citizen of the world.
JA: You are an illustrator and graphic artist, but also a writer. You say that, “drawing is an act of empathy.” Can you expound on this idea and tell us how you developed your hybrid approach to your work?
NK: I started out as an illustrator and never thought of telling this story without images. There’s no hierarchy for me between images and text. They are two components that work in parallel and provide different kinds of emotional access to a story. The process of illustrating and writing allows me to distance myself from reality by elevating it onto a different plain, then reinterpreting it through a visual and verbal lens. This distancing process also, paradoxically, allows me to get closer to the individuals I portray because I have to picture them in situations I didn’t experience myself. I felt a closeness to my family I’d never felt before because I drew them, because I had to reflect so deeply on the circumstances they found themselves in. At the same time, making their lives visible allowed me to test the limits of my own empathy towards decisions they made. I see illustration as a tool to shed light on something, to make things visible. Drawing is an act of witnessing. As an illustrator, I am committed to looking and seeing and therefore to bearing witness. Through drawing, I witness the effect history has on my personal life and I make it visible to others. I see the book as a commitment to looking and to not looking away. Using visuals also allowed me to think about how memory works, the memory of war in particular. Memory isn’t static. It is fragmentary. That’s why I used the fragmentary collage character in the writing and the images to convey that history is nothing but the accumulation of individually experienced moments in time we piece together to make sense. That’s where the power of visual mediums lies because they can talk about history and memory in a very direct and visceral way.
JA: Who are your influences?
NK: Visually, I’d say that my work is very influenced by German Expressionism, for example the work of Otto Dix and George Grosz, who did a lot of work on war and who were proponents of seeing and looking, shedding light on what happens if we engage in war. I also read a lot of fiction, but also non-fiction, for instance the work of Alexandra Fuller. I love literature that manages to convey emotion from a perspective of restraint. I’m also a fan of essayistic documentary films, such as the ones by Werner Herzog, Joshua Oppenheimer and Hubert Sauper, which provide insight into the complexities and contradictions of human conflict.
JA: This was not an easy book to write. Do you fear angering or offending people further?
NK: My biggest concern was that telling the story of the war from a German perspective could offend victims of the Nazi regime and their descendants. I thought a lot about how to tell the story, about how to combine images and words in a way that would ensure it wasn’t misunderstood as a defense or victimization of Germans, as an attempt to excuse their actions or ask for forgiveness. I’ve received heartfelt messages from Holocaust survivors and from descendants of some of the persecuted Jewish men and women from my hometown whose stories I tell in the book. I have received a lot of mail from German readers telling me the book has inspired them to do more research and confront their own families’ history in a new way. But I have also received isolated messages from extreme right-wing Germans who accuse me of dragging Germany through the dirt and spreading anti-German propaganda.
JA: How you wish to transmit your German heritage and history to your own children?
NK: I have a three-year-old daughter who is both American and German. I don’t want her to grow up with the same guilty paralysis I knew because this feeling doesn’t allow us to face our past in a concrete and active way. I hope to send her to a German school in the United States, in part because it is important to me that she learns about the Nazi period and the Holocaust from a German angle. Learning about it at an American school would mean learning about it from a distance, which would allow her to remove herself, to look at Nazism from the perspective of an outsider, someone who doesn’t necessarily feel propelled to ask the uncomfortable questions I would like to encourage her to continue to ask.
JA: What have you learned from writing the book?
NK: Working on this book has taught me that history isn’t a thing of the past, that we don’t exist in a historic vacuum, that we are who we are because of what came before, that we need to keep on dismantling history and our memory of it, that we need to continue asking detailed and uncomfortable questions so we don’t resort to stereotypical, mythical or finite interpretations of history, and that we need to understand and stand up to the responsibility we have as carriers of our countries’ pasts. This is, I hope, where the universal meaning of my memoir lies.
Nora Krug is a German-American author and illustrator whose drawings and visual narratives have appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Le Monde diplomatique. She is a recipient of fellowships from Fulbright, Guggenheim Foundation, Pollock-Krasner Foundation, and Maurice Sendak Foundation. Her visual memoir Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home was chosen as a New York Times Critics’ Top Books of 2018, one of The Guardian’s 50 Biggest Books of Autumn 2018 and Best Books of 2018, an NPR Book of the Year 2018, among Kirkus Reviews’ Best Memoirs of 2018, and one of Time Magazine’s 8 Must-Read Books you May Have Missed in 2018, among others. Krug is an associate professor in the Illustration Program at the Parsons School of Design in New York City.
J.P. Apruzzese is a writer and poet currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing (fiction) at The New School in New York City. He is also the Translation Editor at LIT Magazine. His writing has appeared in The Adirondack Review, Brooklyn Magazine, and PANK Magazine.
by Daniel Goulden
Daniel Goulden, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Steve Coll about his book Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Penguin Press), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.
Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the story of a seemingly endless war. A month after the September 11th attacks a shaken United States invaded Afghanistan, overthrowing the Taliban government that had been providing Osama
Bin Laden safe harbor. 18 years later, the war is still going. Many soldiers currently serving there have no memory of 9/11 attacks. Steve Coll, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, former Managing Editor of the Washington Post, and the Dean of the Columbia Journalism School,
began his career as the Post’s South Asia correspondent, long before the September 11th attacks would put the region at the center of international affairs. Directorate S is a follow up to Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, which recounts the events leading up to 9/11, ending on September 10th. Directorate S begins on September 11th. Initially the United States saw
Afghanistan’s neighbor, Pakistan, as an ally in the war on terror. However, the Pakistani intelligence service, the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) was secretly funding the Taliban and other terrorist organizations, through its
directoratetasked with supporting these organizations, Directorate S. On the American side, the CIA, caught off guard by the September 11th attacks, desperately scrambled to identify future threats, resorting to torture to
do so. Directorate S is the sobering account of how the Afghan War turned into the longest war in American history. It recounts the mistakes and missteps that led to the situation today. It is a definitive account of the war and essential reading for anyone who wants to know how the tragedy of the war unfolded. I interviewed Steve Coll about his work. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In your prologue you describe watching the attacks on the World Trades Center and the Pentagon and realizing that Al Qaeda, an organization you had been covering for years was behind them. You must have been one of the first civilians to know what was going on. What was it like coming to that realization?
It was a strange day. I drove downtown and the sense that the city was under attack was familiar to me from war coverage, but for so many Americas it was a new experience. It wasn’t until noon that it was clear there would be no more planes coming down. The main thing that I was focused on was trying to get our coverage at the Washington Postright. It did help to have some confidence that it was Al Qaeda. We could get our reporters to see if there was information in the intelligence system, cargo manifests and so forth, that would lead us in that direction. By the end of day it was clear [that it was Al Qaeda], because of the two guys on the plane that struck the pentagon were well known Al Qaeda people under surveillance before.
Directorate is a truly massive book, nearly 700 pages with 50 pages of notes. Your sources included interviews, diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, and your own reporting. What was the process like of taking so much information and turning it into a cohesive narrative?
I’m afraid its the only way I know how to do things. I keep thinking of ways to make my work a little bit smaller in its ambitions, but I think for this book, the challenge was to achieve my own goals for what level of original material I was trying to deliver. I have to spend the first couple of years of a project in just pure discovery mode. I’m just thrashing around trying to dig out insights that will feel fresh even to people who know the material pretty well, as well as thinking about the scope and the range of material that the general reader is going to want if I’m going to deliver this as a fairly comprehensive volume. In this case I was sort of burdened by the first of the two books. Its kind of strange to write a second volume of a two part history when you didn’t intend the first volume to be the first of two. That meant I had to understand what the scope of the book was, then pick that up and lay it onto a very different history that had a lot more conventional war. And so, I was kind of working on that in my head for the first couple of years and at the same time trying to break through as a reporter, so I could deliver something original. The other big challenge of this book compared to Ghost Warswas that in the case of Ghost WarsI had accidentally been assigned to this part of the world and I had worked on it for a long time, then 9/11 came along and made it relevant. I wrote that book to try to help Americans and Afghans and Pakistanis to an extent, understand what the backstory was to 9/11, to separate rumor from truth and deliver it in a readable way. There wasn’t much competition for that project. This time it was completely different. There was tons of stuff written about what happened since 9/11. So I had to figure out how to get underneath the surface even more than in Ghost Wars, in order to deliver something original. And then the challenge is once you’ve broken through and finally gotten to the material that you think is worthy, then you have a geometry problem. You have to write a narrative that works with that material. You can’t just start with what would make for the best story, you have to start with the deep reporting you’ve got. So early on I think about the outline and the character selection and the motion of the narrative, the sections. I knew the history pretty well, but I had to find the new material that would drive the book and that took a while.
What was the process like of capturing a narrative from this? It sounds like you had to let the material determine the narrative?
I had some principles that I knew I would follow and reported into those. I wanted to work in the triangle formed by Washington, Islamabad, and Kabul and I like intervals so I wanted to go back and forth. Not too much time in Washington, then Pakistan, then Kabul, then back to Washington. I knew I wanted to narrate as much of the book through the three intelligence services as I could and that would be my way of avoiding a kind of pure military history of the Afghan war. So then it was a question of how do I sustain deep reporting and certain characters across that outline and what else needs to be in there besides that. There are certain things you just can’t ignore. I couldn’t write a book that intended to be definitive about this period if I didn’t treat heroine and opium. That doesn’t really fit anywhere. It’s not a CIA story, it’s not an ISI story. So I came across arguments in the intelligence community about measuring what the significance of the opiate economy was for the Taliban and I built a chapter around that.
Why did you pick ISI and the CIA to be the center of the story?
Well partly its an extension of the history that’s in the first volume, but partly it was because the book is really about why the United States failed in Afghanistan from an American perspective. The biggest single reason was that the Taliban and Al Qaeda enjoyed geographical sanctuary in Pakistan and the reason they enjoyed sanctuary was ISI’s role in defining what Pakistani regional security needs were, which included keeping these militias alive to counter India. The US was blind to that for a while. Eventually they realized what was going on and it was almost too late to recover because the guerrilla war had acquired such a momentum inside Afghanistan. There were no good answers. Pakistan was not an easy problem, but the fact that they didn’t solve it, and that it kept on going on despite all their pleadings to the Pakistanis to do something different, just embittered people as the years went on. There is still so much bitterness in the system about the reason the war failed, even though the war failed for many reasons, not just ISI. But that’s the one that’s at the heart of it, sort of the Moby Dickproblem of the war.
A lot of what we find so controversial about the Middle Eastern wars, particularly the “enhanced interrogations,” or torture, and the drone strikes originated in the CIA. How did the history and culture of the CIA lead to the birth of these practices?
The CIA has a long history of abusive interrogations going back to the 50s, experiments, weird experiments in coercive interrogations, some of them even worse than waterboarding. The agency was in an existential crisis after the September 11thattacks. The whole purpose of an intelligence service is to give strategic warning of attacks and when you miss one on that scale everything is at issue. The leaders felt like they could lose their whole place at the table in the American system if there was another one. They really were in a panic for about 2 or 3 years and they didn’t have any good information. The main thing after 9/11 was that they told every intelligence service in the world: “If there’s anyone who’s ever been on your radar as a radical extremist, arrest them on anything you can get them on and interrogate them.” So you get all this really bad information. You’re basically asking people to tell you about made-up threats.
Or sell out their neighbors.
Yeah. Or sell out their neighbors. And so it was a mess. When they finally caught a couple of people who they thought would know what was coming next, they decided they had to proceed this way. There was a core in the middle of the agency that just felt like they couldn’t afford to miss something, particularly when they had Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. They thought that he was the one who could, prevent an attack.
I think the drone strikes were a different beast. Those were fully authorized by President Obama. It was basically a secret air war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. There’s something unsettling about the hovering tech, the fact that they’re like dragons circling the sky, but their basic function against these militias and cells was no different than the air forces bombing. And the fact that it was carried out by the CIA made people uneasy and it was done in secret. Obama was trying to figure out how to transfer authority for these strikes to the military so it could be handled in a normal, accountable way, but it wouldn’t have changed the experiences of civilians on the ground.
President Trump has recently declared that he will withdraw troops from Afghanistan, which his critics say is a rash decision. What do you think about his decision and is there a right way to withdraw from this war?
The right way to withdraw is to attempt to find a negotiated path forward that doesn’t leave behind a civil war that causes a massive humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and destabilizes the region and then creates the potential for more radical groups to carry out violence. That’s what Zalmay Khalilzad, Trump’s special envoy, is trying to do, but the situation is very difficult partially because the president keeps undermining the project by randomly tweeting stuff that is hard to evaluate. And the funny thing is the main leverage that the US has in this negotiation is Trump’s unreliability because everyone involved realizes they could wake up one day and he could be tweeting something like “we’re all done its over.”It’s not in anybody’s interest to have another civil war. Not in Pakistan’s interest, not in China’s interest, not in Russia’s interest. We’ve seen that movie in the 90s and the instability and the violence and the migration of refugees just spills across borders. It would be like Syria in the region. But trying to prevent it is complicated, In a perfect world you would take two or three years to work on this, but there’s a clock ticking, which is trumps thumbs.
The Afghan government under Ashraf Ghani have has felt boxed out of the negotiations with the Taliban. This sounds a lot like Obama’s earlier attempts to reach a peace deal with the Taliban, when then President Karzai felt excluded. Is history repeating itself?
There are really close similarities and partially its because both Karzai and Ghani are in a relatively weak position as presidents. There constituency is largely the international community, they don’t have a solid power-base inside of Afghanistan, Ghani even less so than Karzai and Karzai was a weak figure. And so they feel especially vulnerable when they cant control whats going on because they don’t have their own base to rely on to protect them. And a second reason why its happening the same way is because the Taliban have not shifted their negotiating position which is “we’ll talk go the Americans about leaving and we’re not going to talk to this puppet government, maybe ever, but certainly not first.” It sounds like Khalilzad has in principle gotten the Taliban to agree to a framework in which they would talk to the Afghanistan government, but they have to agree to a bunch of things that are onerous to the Taliban. Not just that, but also a long term ceasefire. To make it even more complicated there’s a presidential election coming in Afghanistan this year and the whole politics of what to do about the Taliban is part of that contest.
You describe in your introduction the tragedy of Afghanistan wasted potential. What do you see for the future of the country? What would an Afghanistan at its full potential look like?
You can see it there today in the cities. There’s a young generation that grew up in Afghanistan after 2001 that is very nationalistic and determined to hold onto their the gains they have had. That country was absolutely shattered in 2001. You wouldn’t even call it a third world country. You would call it fourth world. It was at the very bottom of all of the tables. And today the country is connected, it has a multi-ethnic urban culture that includes, what are those talent contest that we have on Fox?
Americas got talent?
Yeah. And there’s women in the workplace and a lot of people in school. There’s a real national feeling. One thing that Pakistan has done for Afghanistan, apart from foment war, is to strengthen Afghanistan national identity in opposition to Pakistan. And the neighborhood has changed a lot. You have China and India, these huge economies. they’re looking to influence the region and build alliances. India’s relationship with Afghanistan was there before 9/11, but now India is a much different country. It has got real wealth and it’s the fastest growing economy in the world. China has a long alliance with Pakistan, but it wants a stable economically integrated central Asia it can prosper from. So there is opportunity there for a gradually transition to a more natural regional state, where Afghanistan is more of what its always been, a bridge country in between great powers. It’s at least possible.
Steve Coll is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Ghost Wars and the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, and from 2007 to 2013 was president of the New America Foundation, a public policy institute in Washington, D.C. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and previously worked for twenty years at The Washington Post, where he received a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism in 1990. He is the author of seven other books, including On the Grand Trunk Road, The Bin Ladens, Private Empire, and Directorate S.
Daniel Goulden is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn, NY. His work has been featured in Asymptote Journal, Europe Now, and elsewhere. He is working on a novel loosely based off of the life of Zeppo Marx that examines Jewish life in America throughout the 20th century.
By Aubrey Moraif
Aubrey Moraif, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Anna Burns about her book Milkman (Graywolf Press), which is the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.
Milkman is a book unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It is surprising. I was surprised by its pink cover. I was even more surprised, when I opened it, to discover its narrative voice. The first line: “The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.” The language is innovative and unexpected. It requires concentration but still moves. I was so immersed in the narrator’s mind, an unnamed 18-year-old girl trying to navigate through the complications of sexual and political predators in a world based on Belfast at the height of the Troubles in the 1970s.
It is the narrator’s unique perspective on the effects of tribalism, fear, paranoia, and sexism on her violent and unstable world that are at the core of my questions for Anna Burns. Milkman is told in a unique narrative style that allows for the strange and beautiful combination of humor and pain. With none of the names of objects provided in the narration, the story becomes one that is about Belfast during the violent period of the Troubles in the 1970s but also takes on a dreamlike universal quality which allows the reader to look inwards and explore our modern-day world while also reading about horrors that were not so long ago.
AM: What inspired you to write Milkman?
AB: Initially I had the idea to take a few hundred words of notes from another book I was writing at the time to start me off into a short story to send to a magazine. These notes were about reading-while-walking which I used to do a lot. People would say to me, including strangers in clubs and shops and bars and cafés, ‘You’re that girl who reads and walks!’ I would continually be startled at having this pointed out, mainly because it seemed an activity not particularly worthy of note. And also, I was surprised to be noticed doing it by so many people. I wanted to try to write something around the possible reasons why this was being pointed out to me, rather than about the activity of reading while walking itself.
When I started to write these notes up to make a fiction, a character appeared, a teenage girl. She was reading Ivanhoe while walking down an interface road in Belfast (or what I took to be Belfast). I went with her and she told me thoughts. She wasn’t concentrating on her book but instead was preoccupied with thoughts of her elder sister, who had told her off recently for something. After that, another tiny bit of prose came, again of this same character, now in a bar with her best friend. This friend was berating her also over something. After that, the scene changed to one that eventually became the start of the last chapter of the book. This was where her elder sister suddenly slapped her face.
And those three scenes became the beginning of the writing of Milkman. Not a short story after all.
AM: What was your artistic process?
AB: I wait for my characters to turn up and tell me their story. I discover the book from them as I write it. Frequently I am surprised and astonished by what they come and say. They are their own people. There are no guarantees. That’s the bargain. There is no bargain. They call the shots. They also tend to give me information backwards. So it’s a messy process. Eventually though, the book cleans itself.
AM: The narrative voice provides an intimate exploration of trauma and a veracious perspective of womanhood in this backwards, broken society. What inspired you to write in this stream-of-consciousness style?
AB: The language of the novel appeared at the same time as the teenage narrator, with its mix of high literary, archaic, cartoon, conversational and vernacular. This is the language of this entire fictional world. I don’t consider it stream of consciousness myself.
AM: Humor is not something I would expect to find in a novel with a society in which car bombs are commonplace, civilians caught in the crossfire of political violence are expected casualties, and sexual harassment is brushed aside and turned into neighborhood gossip. Yet, this novel associated with the Troubles incorporates comedy into the tragedy. What is the role of humor in Milkman?
AB: Humor has an important place in that society, perhaps in any society under prolonged stress. It’s another way of coping and responding to trauma and tragedy - with laughter and a different understanding. Also, one never knows for sure, for absolutely sure, what might make one laugh or cry - and when.
AM: In Milkman, none of the characters and places are given names. Instead, their name is determined by their relationship to others – middle sister, maybe-boyfriend, the country ‘over-the-water’— which allows for the setting to resemble Belfast during the Troubles without being explicit. How did that impact your writing and the story as a whole?
AB: The book didn’t work with names. It lost power and atmosphere. In the early days I tried out a few names, really out of curiosity rather than conviction. The book wouldn’t stand for it and it was right.
I think the lack of proper names adds to the atmosphere and tension in the book, to the sense of paranoia, the under-the-surface panic and unease, even if it also seems to offer an apparent protection to the characters of their real selves against the surveillance world they are living in. Also, throughout the book there is a sense of an imposed collective mindset, with obedience to it being of more importance in terms of survival than individual autonomy and identity. The individual, for the sake of survival, is required to be subsumed into the collective and hence the narrator’s harmless behaviors - looking at the sky, reading-while-walking, going to a night class down the town, having a maybe-boyfriend instead of getting married at sixteen etc - are seen as huge rebellions which pose a threat to the status quo.
This is also the case with the behaviors of some of the other characters: the issue women having their meetings; the pious women after they become the ex-pious women, the French teacher; the relationship of chef and maybe-boyfriend; the international couple; wee sisters studying their forbidden publications from ‘across the water’; third brother and tablets girl’s sister daring to be together as right spouses; the beyond the pales; those district inhabitants who dare to go to hospital; second sister marrying-out.
AM: One of the most memorable quotes in Milkman is middle sister’s reaction to longest friend’s scrutiny over her habit of reading while walking. She says, “Are you saying it’s okay to go around with Semtex but not okay for me to read Jane Eyre in public?” “Semtex isn’t unusual. It’s to be expected,” longest friend replies. How do norms and expectations play into the cautious society found in your novel?
AB: My book is a fiction about an entire society affected by long-term violence and existing under intense pressure. It is about how societies and individuals react and fragment through living their everyday lives in fear and paranoia and who are suffering both the conscious and unconscious damage that sneaks into every fiber of their being. It is a place where hypervigilance, distrustfulness and surveillance has become the norm. They are the coping mechanisms everyone uses to try to survive in their claustrophobic, totalitarian world.
AM: How does the setting resemble the setting upon which it was based? How is it different?
AB: It is recognizably a skewed form of a segregated, violent Belfast in the 1970s. I hope though, I have written it in such a way that it could also represent any closed society existing under similar restrictive circumstances.
Rather than trying to depict an actual environment with its historical events and specific locations, what’s important to me as a novelist is to get the world of the fiction true to itself, with its own inner logic and connections and emotional reality. I do this by writing what comes. The reality of the fictional world may end up being askew from the actual place it seems to be based on. To what extent that turns out to be the case is dictated by the story and the characters.
AM: Although set in the 1970s, this book is able to explore many current issues: abuse of power, sexual abuse, violence, oppression, borders, and the feared “other”. What compels you to explore these concepts in your work?
AB: My own history and experience of growing up in Ardoyne in Belfast at this time of huge pressure undeniably informs my interest in these issues. This is based on my need to understand and explore how these pressures built up and worked out in that specific time and place, as well as of what this might mean for similar places throughout the world in all different timeframes.
Anna Burns was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She is the author of Milkman and two previous novels, No Bones and Little Constructions, as well as the novella, Mostly Hero. No Bones won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. She lives in East Sussex, England.
Aubrey Moraif is an MFA candidate in Fiction at The New School. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bella Grace Magazine, The Hidden Scribes, and Equinox: Poetry & Prose. She is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and received a Master of Science in Education from Johns Hopkins University. She is currently writing a novel inspired by her experiences living and teaching special education in Hawaii for several years. You can find her on twitter @aubreymoraif.
by Zabe Bent
Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man, or L’Esclave Vieil Homme et Le Molosse, is a compelling tale of pursuit and escape by an elderly slave on a Martinique plantation. Through this journey, we see a profound transformation not just into the soul of Chamoiseau’s protagonist, this maroon, but in the colonial and elemental world around him. The result is an enchanting read that delves into questions of culture, identity, humanity, and language that are still relevant today. The French novel was released in 1997 and translated by Linda Coverdale for the New Press in 2018. NB: the majority of this interview is translated from French.
ZB: Some have called Slave Old Man your strongest work since Texaco (1992, which won the Prix Goncourt). Texaco was translated many years ago. What does it mean to have Slave Old Man translated now? How does it complement your collection at this point in time?
PC: I think it a good thing that this book is translated now because it explores our contemporary reality through an archetype of the Caribbean and American slave situation. The old slave who maroons in the woods and who, for hours or even days, is pursued by a mastiff, it is a primordial scene, it is part of the imagination of the whole of America plantations. This moment is first, the attempt to return to Africa, to the lost country, Africa represents then the place where one finds one’s lost humanity and thus where one finds the meaning to be given to the life and the world. Only this return will prove most often impossible for the slaves who tried it, and the Molosse who represents the death and the dehumanization was more often victorious. But there is an overcoming of this situation in which the mastiff cannot be victorious. It is this overtaking that this book tells. The old man slave who flees no longer seeks Africa, but runs with all his might towards himself, towards his own reality, towards what he has become, that slavery could not reach. His race becomes an act of radical renaissance. His marronnage, his escape, is not a mere resistance but a true creation or re-creation of himself: a becoming. It is by becoming that the slaves of the West Indies and the Americas managed to conquer death and dehumanization. This becoming found its creative vitality in dance, song, and music.
ZB: The two of you have worked together before, and Slave Old Man was written long ago. Why make this book available to the English-speaking audience now?
PC: It is not a formal decision, just a combination of circumstances and opportunities. This book is more than ever relevant: individually and collectively, we must all be reborn in the face of the major challenges and economic oppressions of the contemporary world.
LC: The simplest—and purely personal—answer is that I couldn’t get my hands on it before. The first Chamoiseau I ever read was Chronique des sept misères (1986), for a reader report, and I sat up with delight, such writing! Clearly a wonderful new voice, and when the publishing house offered to buy it if I would translate it, I hated to have to say no—but I wasn’t anywhere near ready to jump into Martinique out of nowhere. With Au temps de l’antan (1988), I began to learn to handle both the language and the terroir, so to speak. Baby steps in creole-inflected text for me, with children’s stories, but they are clever stories of survival in a colonized land, already imbued with the mystique of the Storyteller that colors all Chamoiseau’s writing, both in fiction and his essays. There were a few more before I was ready. Each time the bar is higher, but the terrain is more familiar, so the challenge can again be met and the beauty of the work in its humanity and wisdom can survive. Excelsior.
So, why Slave Old Man now? I’d read L'Esclave vieil homme et le molosse when it came out in 1997, and it was breathtaking, a creation myth of such heart and purity. But it had already been bought over here, so that was that. Then The New Press returned from a buying expedition with L'empreinte à Crusoé (2012) for a reader report, but a casual remark revealed that L'Esclave vieil homme et le molosse was back in play after almost twenty years (my second second chance at a Chamoiseau treasure!) so I pounced on it. And then the fun began.
The other answer to the question “Why now?”: this book is infused with the spirit of time, and holocaust, and man’s inhumanity to man, and the heroism of great souls in surprising places, and the sacredness of art that, like the Stone, keeps life alive even in death. Slave Old Man has the sublime arc of a rainbow, but not the one God sent promising never to send another flood to destroy all life on earth, no: that destruction has already begun, and humanity opened these floodgates with climate change. This time the sweet mercy needed to stave off what’s coming must come from us: if ever a book was timely, this novel is. All the faults, all the injustices, all the oppressions and destructions our species embodies flourish in the institution of slavery, and when the old slave breaks free to run back in time and into nature to shelter in the Stone he becomes, with all his imperfections, a flash of hope, “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” The rainbow leads not to a treacherous pot of gold, but to the Stone, a vision of chaos, acceptance, and redemption.
ZB: Slave Old Man is separated into seven chapters, seven sections, and I cannot help but see this as a nod to your work, The Chronicle of Seven Sorrows. Was this intentional?
PC: This book is a concentration of symbols of all humanities, of all civilizations. In his course, the old man slave goes back in a certain way to all the imaginations of the peoples of the world, beginning with those of Africa and the Americas. The number seven is also a symbolic figure that resonates in many spiritualities. In fact, our old man runs towards his own humanity, will rebuild it in the presence, and with all the cultures and civilizations of the world.
ZB: The subject of this story transforms himself throughout his escape. In some cases this is immediate, as when he disappears into the trees. In other cases it seems more gradual, and his surroundings, or his observation and language about his surroundings change with him. The effect is beautiful and haunting. Tell us a bit more about that decision, and how you structured it through the writing or the sections or both.
PC: It is a symbolic rebirth. The slave of African origin dies to be reborn to another state of his own humanity. He is no longer only in the face of his culture, of his language of the gods, but in the face of all cultures, all languages, all the gods. He does not return to his past, he plunges into his becoming and is reborn in himself and to himself. The wrenching of slave trade, slavery and colonial atrocities ejected him from his community of origin to bring him to the face of the world, of all the flows that come from the world: he is now in Relation in the sense understood by the poet Edouard Glissant.The metamorphosis of the old man is both physical and symbolic. The two shots mix in a sort of musical composition, a drum and jazz polyrhythm.
ZB: In this book, the old man experiences what some reviews have described as a Kafka-esque absurdism. How much does this world borrow from local or African folklore and traditions, vs your own generation of absurdism?
PC: The old man slave is experiencing a veritable chaos in which ancient Africa mixes with Amerindian cultures and almost all the cultures of the world through their main symbols. All of this mixes in a non-rational and completely unpredictable way, in a kind of “chaos-opera”. With the slave trade, American slavery and colonization, the peoples, cultures, and civilizations of the world have been interconnected in a massive, constant and irreversible way. Contemporary culture is a culture of cultures. Contemporary civilization is a civilization of civilizations. Today, each of us must realize his becoming, ensure his fullness of consciousness and will, by organizing his connection with all cultures, languages, symbols of the world. We now live in this vast flow that Edouard Glissant called: Relation
[the relational belonging of all things]
. The slave old man pursued by the mastiff symbolizes in a way our contemporary situation.
ZB: You speak widely about creolisation, as well as the difficulty and responsibilities of writing in a creole space--creating a language that bears witness to all languages. You have described the effect on writing as a sort of “langage de la langue”, where the style impacts the grammar--creating a grimace or a smile, depending on how it is used. The translation of this work, as well as others, it mimics the language of islands like Dominica and St Lucia, which have English for an official language but speak a French-based Creole. How does this piece fit into your descriptions of creolisation with that in mind?
PC: It tells the trajectory of creolization. During the Slave Trade, Africans were torn from the continent and plunged into the hell of plantations where they were somehow “decomposed” in an anthropological magma where many cultures and civilizations were found. They have been ejected from the single-rooted identity to force them to be reborn into an identity based on the relationship that one maintains with the diversity of the world. My old man slave is not heading towards his African past, he is running towards becoming in Relation.
ZB: You’ve also described your writing process as playing jazz on piano, tapping the keys of French and Creole to create a form of music. Over the years, have you developed a process for this way of writing, or is a more of a feeling? Has your process changed much since creating this beautiful piece of music, Slave Old Man?
PC: No it’s still the same practice. In slave plantations the resistance of our ancestor slaves was first with dancing, singing and music. Resistance by transcendence creation. Music is great when it is precipitated in literature because it allows us to escape the linguistic absolutes and to enter the infinite languages of the Relation.
ZB: This book, and your career, demonstrates a dedication to maintaining the culture and language of Martinique. The creole of Martinique is not widely taught in local schools. How does that affect your ability to write in this language and to work with a translator? Or in your case, Linda, as a translator?
LC: Chamoiseau writes in French. His French. His theoretical works outline superbly, and his fictions/memoirs elegantly demonstrate his self-education in the politics/psychology/economics/aesthetics etc. of créolité, but he does not write everything in creole, he writes with it, so to speak. Or perhaps within it. He has explained in many different ways how, in the gross categories of style and content, he writes in the service of créolité. But his mission is to reach the world, and through the French language he does that, by generating within his own mind, at the source of his thought and feeling, his vision of a creole world in French, not just in the elements of actual Creole that can appear as if spontaneously as he tells his stories. He has said countless times, in countless ways, that he channels his thought through whatever word arrangement he wants, and devil take the hindmost. Chamoiseau speaks Chamoiseau! Creole words are obvious, but at the other end of this continuum can be an innocent word with a certain aura that turns out to be a reference to something that suddenly adds another dimension to the text. Words, foods, characters, plants, what-have-you will lead, IF noticed, and IF followed up successfully, to treasure troves of extra significance and adventure. (Hence all my notes to the novel.) And there is always the inflection of creole here on what any writer does in a native language when he or she does something new with it, and that’s called poetry.
A translator needs to decide, as an individual, what faithfulness to the text means. My ideal is to give the reader in English as close an approximation as possible to what the most enlightened, informed French reader would read. My truest definition of translating is that I melt the French down in my brain and recast it, repeatedly if needed, into English, until my version cannot be reworked by me into anything more “like” what the original is to me.
Chamoiseau famously favors leaving some mystery in the text, that otherness without which his work would not be his. I think I can safely say that Slave Old Man is suffused with otherness. In the sneaky division of sound and sense, “Je sacrifie tout à la musique de la phrase”: in a showdown, for him the melody of the translated phrase is paramount. Somewhere in my towering stack of Caribbean Stuff, I still have the pages of creole words and their meanings he kindly sent out to his translators decades ago. Many months of research and translating brought me at last to what I felt was a proper shore, and that’s that. I hope Slave Old Man continues to astonish and enchant readers with this glorious creation by Chamoiseau.
PC: Creole is a living language, in Martinique everyone speaks it every day, but it is a dominated and especially threatened language. It is not taught systematically, and its lexicon is gradually forgotten by younger generations. The language I use in my novels mixes Creole and French. It mixes the lexicon and the imaginary of these two languages.
Languages no longer have to fight inside us. They must join together and give us the opportunity to create our singular language. Languages are not divinities that we must adore, but materials offered to the necessities of our expression. Today, the world put in relation offers to each of us, and to writers even more, all the languages of the world.
On the other hand, no language can save itself alone, no language can save itself from sinking by letting others die or by dominating them. The contemporary world, which is the world of Relation, must be built in all languages of the world, and with all of them. All languages must be safeguarded, taught, valued, in the presence of all the other languages of the world. Glissant often said: I write in the presence of all the languages of the world. He refused all linguistic absolutes. In general, I explain to my translators that the most important thing for me is the music of the sentence, I can sacrifice the meaning of a sentence to the music of words and verbs. I build my language first in a musical way.
Born in Martinique, Patrick Chamoiseau is the author of Texaco, which won the Prix Goncourt and was a New York Times Notable Book, as well as Creole Folktakes, among other works. Linda Coverdale has a Ph.D. in French Studies from the Johns Hopkins University and has translated more than seventy books. A Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, she has won the 2004 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2006 Scott Moncrieff Prize, and received the French-American Foundation’s 2008 Translation Prize for Jean Echenoz’s Ravel (The New Press). She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Originally from Jamaica, Zabe Bent is an urban planner living in Brooklyn. She is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction.
Mae Coyiuto is a Chinese-Filipino writer, born and raised in the Philippines. She is a second-year MFA Creative writing student concentrating in Writing for Children and Young Adults. She loves writing about Asian teens with artsy passions and wishes she gets to work with books for the rest of her life.
1. Who is your favorite villain, and who is your favorite protagonist in literature?
I think my favorite villain is still Tom Riddle/Voldemort. When I read his backstory in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I realized that evil people aren’t simply born evil. It was the first time I realized that villains get origin stories too.
My favorite protagonist is probably Daniel Bae from Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is also a Star. He’s a Korean American teenager who struggles between his parents’ wish for him to become a doctor and his own passion for poetry. He’s probably one of my favorite boys in YA literature. I mean, he spends the book trying to convince a girl he just met that they’re meant to be. I think his character really nailed the reality of balancing two cultures and living as a second-generation immigrant.
2. When did you know you were a writer?
During my junior year of high school, three of my best friends told me to write a love story. In between classes (and sometimes during class), I would jot down more and more of this story on a blue notebook. It was some cheesy story that starred a guy in a leather jacket named Nathaniel, and I loved writing it. I was nervous about my friends reading it, but I was so thrilled when they became invested and kept asking me what would happen next. I guess this was the moment I knew writing was something I really loved doing.
3. What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a YA story that’s set in a society where people are marked whether they’re destined for a soulmate or not. It stars two teenagers who find out they don’t get soulmates. I’m not sure where it’s heading, but it’s supposed to be happier than it sounds.
4. How has your writing process changed over the years?
I think (hope) that I’ve gotten more disciplined over the years. Before, I would only write whenever I felt inspired. Now I realize if I keep waiting for that moment to come, it would take me ten years to finish anything. I also used to be so pressured about how authors write and have routines, then I went to a Patrick Ness signing where he said, “I can’t tell you how to write. I can only tell you how I write.” Since then, I realized there’s no one way to write and I’ve been learning what works for me.
5. Describe your writing style in one sentence.
likea teenager, therefore I write teenagers.
by Emily Behnke
Emily Behnke, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Rachel Kushner about her book, The Mars Room (Scribner), which is among the final five selections in the category of Fiction for the 2018 NBCC Awards.
EB: How did you come up with the idea for The Mars Room?
RK: It seems to have been germinating over the course of my life, and I mean my whole life. But: one could possibly say that of any novel a person writes, at least I hope so, even as such a claim can’t not inspire eye rolling. In any case, when I finished my previous novel, The Flamethrowers, I felt, with it and the novel that came before it, that I’d been moving along a timeline as a fiction writer, a conveyance of lived and known histories that interested me and had to do with me, but were rooted in historical moments previous to contemporary ones: first the mid-twentieth century, and then the 1970s. What is my relation to contemporary life? I asked myself. Which must be asked, if you’re going to write a contemporary novel. Otherwise, why mess with the now? If you’re going to write about it, have some view on it. I live in Los Angeles. I am from San Francisco. I am shaped to some degree by the severe and brutal features of this city (LA), by other people’s lives, by women’s lives, and by my own adolescence, and the book resulted from those impressions and that shaping. This novel is my exploration of contemporary life, in California, and more or less “now.” Not Trump-now, but the deeper now, as in, the mean austere world that came after deindustrialization. And that’s not abstract, it’s real, occupied, lived. So, the Mars Room is my take on the contemporary novel. It’s also in a way a response to my last book, where men did all the talking. Women do most of the talking in this one. I wanted a book full of women’s voices and also full of people who are like certain people I’ve known and cared about and in certain ways have been. I fell into a vicious mood when I wrote it, a mood of vicious humor, perhaps, and that mood sustained for the five years it took me to complete it.
EB: Where did Romy Hall’s character come from?
RK: It’s hard to describe how she formed without falling into myth making. I can’t entirely remember. But the tone of her expression was probably the beginning. It’s a cold but petulant tone, in homage to I suppose somewhat idealized versions of other women I have known. I ruminated at the bottom of what felt like a well for a long time with this book, a good two years, before I was able to write in her voice. How would she feel about her situation, having been given a life sentence? It both does and doesn’t matter. I find psychologization in fiction somewhat cheap, pat, shallow. What mattered to me was how she expresses herself and what she occupies her time and mind with thinking on. I didn’t realize, at first, that she would be a girl from my own neighborhood, that her friends from childhood would be my friends, that the whole milieu that I know so intimately would come to be hers, but once it was, everything came together. I knew her and could talk in her voice.
EB: While this book is largely set in a women’s prison, it’s also deeply rooted in the city of San Francisco, California. Why did you choose San Francisco to be Romy’s home?
RK: Thank you for noticing that a lot of it doesn’t take place in a prison. There’s also the Central Valley, and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. And Los Angeles. And of course, SF. Perhaps my answer to this is in the above, but since I’m from San Francisco, and not only grew up there, but lived there as a young woman in the 1990s, and worked in the Tenderloin, and just know the city so well, it crept in. These decisions are made in strange ways, though: it wasn’t as if I went location scouting and thought, “Oh, I’ll set it in SF because I have the detailed background knowledge.” It wasn’t like that at all. It was more like the book mugged me in an alley and forced me to write about places and experiences and worlds that were in my own roiling unconscious and ready to be grafted to the more consciously made narrative I’d been attempting to pursue. It was only after that mugging that the book really started to make sense, in terms of why I was writing it.
EB: While this book is largely told from Romy’s point of view, we briefly get a glimpse into the minds of other characters, such as Gordon Hauser and Doc. Why did you decide to move between perspectives?
RK: I didn’t really decide. I went with inspiration, trusted it. I do not believe that fiction can really be forced to assent to the writer’s conscious demands about who should tell the story, or how. Which isn’t to say that I’m doing automatic writing or that it comes in a trance, exactly. Rather, I go toward the energy. Doc to me is a site of energy. I know him, and like Conan, he’s a vehicle for my own dirty mind and dirty jokes and he was part of the generally vicious mood I was in. Also, since I met a guy like him, whose essence went into my skin, I felt I had no choice. Gordon formed later, out of some writings I was doing from the perspective of someone who can come and go, freely, from the central valley prison where Romy is held, but who, it seemed to me, was in some other manner unfree, on account of who he was and the work he was doing, in a women’s prison. He sees the natural world and the social world beyond the prison as I did, and was able to, and what he saw seemed an important part of the story.
For me novels are not about the journey of one character, I should say. I’m not interested enough in character for that. Or rather, I don’t think one character can tell the kind of story I was trying to tell. Which was not merely about a woman’s life, some transformation she might undergo, but was about an entire cruel universe and a set of questions, some of them philosophical, and that don’t have good or easy answers. My sense of the novel is polyphonic. Not because I’m into voices, although I am, but because I’m not convinced that the secrets we need to look at lie inside the lives of individuals.
EB: Prisons are built largely off of systems, numbers, and bureaucracy, but storytelling and narrative seem to be important, too. Romy is repeatedly told stories of famous prisoners, and characters like Laura Lipp are intent on telling, or as others are, not telling, the stories of their past. Why do you think stories are so pervasive in this space?
RK: I get a little bored when writers talk about the importance of storytelling (I’m already yawning, what about you). And yet, people do tell stories, tall tales. They bullshit and prevaricate. But even when people are pulling your chain, they are telling you something. About them, about you. About lying. Or something else. And this has always really interested me. The way that people reveal themselves even when they are deep in some performance they think is constructed. But, about prison as a place where people talk: when you think about presentation and currency, people in the free world have a whole host of ways to communicate and signal who they are or who they think they are. But people in prison are stripped of most of those ways. What they have left is their personality. At least, those aspects of their personality that have not been yoked to, and broken by, the institution. So telling people, “I was this, we did that,” becomes hugely important. And also, “I am this, I am doing that.” Using your personality to charm, threaten, manipulate, seduce, entreat, etc. What people have is talk. They have time, and they talk. Whole intense relationships form between people who, in certain circumstances, don’t even get to be in the same physical space. They yell from cell to cell. Fight, fall in love, form really deep friendships. And given that they are denuded of almost their whole life in prison, the way they come to know one another is, in part, by what they say about who they were before they got there.
Lastly, I might add that I’m really interested in the confessional form, for use or misuse, the way the first person is a testimonial, whether it is being consciously used that way, or not. And as I was writing this book, I’d formed in my mind a kind of archipelago of “I”s, from St Augustine’s Confessions to Rousseau’s Confessions (let’s air quotes those), to Nietzsche’s final blow-mind book, Ecce Homo. All first person accounts with varying degrees and types of insight and performance.
EB: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
RK: The whole idea of a reader remains so abstract to me. I don’t think you can make art by anticipating the desires of other people, so I have no specific hopes in regard to what readers will find. While writing the book, I asked myself some questions about destiny. And violence. And the way society is organized. About moral complexity, which seems so painful for people, and why is that. And why is the truth sometimes foreclosed: what does it mean to live without it? What is justice? What is the law? Why has one dirty joke lived in my mind for forty years now? I mean, really! And where is everyone, and what has happened to them? Which is a line from my own book but I ask it all the time and feel dumbfounded.
A reader can take from my book whatever they want. I have no say, and no hopes for that. But, if they ended up asking themselves some questions that don’t have easy answers, like I did, I guess that would mean the book has had some effect on them, which is more than I hoped for.
Rachel Kushner is the bestselling author of The Flamethrowers, a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times Top Ten Book of 2013; Telex from Cuba, a finalist for the National Book Award; and The Mars Room. She lives in Los Angeles.
Emily Behnke is student in The New School's MFA in Creative Writing Program. She splits her time between New York and Connecticut.
by Lori Wieczorek
Lori Wieczorek, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Craig Brown about his book, Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) which is among the final five selections in the category of Biography for the 2018 NBCC Awards.
Craig Brown’s Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret blends parody, dreams, diary entries, famous run-ins and parties to create a sardonically funny and achingly tragic look into Princess Margaret’s life. Brown is both critical of the royal party girl and successfully creates the portrait of a woman who was complex. A woman who could be the life of the party one night and the person no one wanted to speak to the next. Each chapter, or ‘glimpse,’ is exciting and fresh. One section may feature the royal nanny’s diary while the following page details Pablo Picasso’s sexual obsession with the Princess.
I had the opportunity to interview Craig Brown about his process and how he selected his ninety-nine glimpses of Princess Margaret.
Lori Wieczorek: Princess Margaret is one of those figures in history that remains both a mystery and so frequently scrutinized. You encapsulate the idea that her life was completely on display, subject to ridicule and, at times, praise throughout this book. Yet so little is concretely known about her life and much of the information that people do remember of Princess Margaret is conflicted. What initially interested you in writing about Princess Margaret?
Craig Brown: I review an awful lot of non-fiction, and have done for the past 40-odd years. Over time, I noticed that Princess Margaret's name cropped up in a remarkably high proportion of post-war diaries and biographies and memoirs: everyone seemed to have met her. My previous book - Hello Goodbye Hello - was a daisy-chain of 101 people, each one of whom had met the next (eg, Mark Twain met Helen Keller, who met Martha Graham, who met Madonna). Originally, I thought it would be interesting to write a book about 101 people meeting Princess Margaret.
It was only when I came to write it that I began to realise that each meeting was going to be desperately similar, with Princess Margaret keeping everyone waiting, then becoming very informal, and then, in the early hours of the morning, after one too many drinks, retreating into an abrasive formality and often being very rude. Had I pursued this format, the book would have become a version of Groundhog Day. So I changed tack, and the book became something else completely - a sort of Cubist view of her life, seen from all sorts of strange angles, and written in a variety of styles.
You're right that she was subject to both praise and ridicule, and that she had friends as well as enemies, but I think this applies to a great many people. William James once wrote that “We have as many personalities as there are people we know”. I think one of the things that singles Princess Margaret out is that she was in equal measure comic and tragic, and that appealed to me.
LW: What struck me most about Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret was it’s unique form. Each little bit of information that we get is blended so cohesively that I barely noticed the transition from one account of the princess to an entirely different perspective during the exact same event. You have a hilarious passage in the book where you admit to having this dream where Princess Margaret arrives at your house and you fear that she will discover all of the documents you have about her strewn across your library. Was this a dream you actually had?
CB: If you are spending most of your waking hours thinking about a particular person, then it seems to me highly likely that at one time or another they are going to pop up in your dreams. This must surely be true of most biographers, but the straitjacket of more formal biography doesn't allow them to include it. Anyway, the moment I woke up, I jotted the dream down, regardless of what it meant, if anything. At one point, I offered her a drink, and she said she would like a Coloured Flimsy, and then I went into a panic because I didn't know what sort of drink a Coloured Flimsy was. A reviewer in The London Times interpreted this to mean that I sexually desired Princess Margaret and that I was worried that I wouldn't be up to it, hence the “flimsy”. This was news to me, as I have never particularly fancied her, but, then again, who is to say? I took it to mean that I was worried that my account of her life was flimsy, which seems much more likely.
I think every biographer of someone still living, or only recently dead, must feel a certain amount of guilt about intruding on their privacy, or cracking jokes at their expense, or even jumping to conclusions, right or wrong.
LW: Just jumping back to how you organized the information you gathered about Princess Margaret and mapped out the form of the book. What advice would you give writers about navigating vast amounts of information to create a nonfiction narrative that flows? How did you go about mapping out the book itself?
CB: I had no interest in making a linear, chronological narrative, for two reasons. Virtually every Royal biography gets bogged down in incredibly boring detail about their day-to-day lives, glad-handing dignitaries, cutting ribbons, and so forth. There is nothing more boring to read about than a Royal tour of Canada or Australia twenty five years ago. So I devised a method whereby I could ignore large parts of Margaret’s life, and no-one would mind or even notice. Also, on a deeper level, I think there is something essentially artificial about a chronological narrative of anyone’s life. When we think about our own lives, we constantly move backwards and forwards in time: only the most pedantic of us would trail doggedly from birth, through childhood and teenage years, and then on to career, marriage, retirement, etc, etc. Instead, we link something from our childhood to some anxiety we may have about the future, and that may give birth to a thought about something we did as a teenager. The advice I’d give biographers is to at least consider the possibility of a more experimental narrative form: it might not work for every subject, but it certainly would for some. And if you leave room for speculation and playfulness - inventing alternative lives and so forth - then this is a way of breaking the constraints of available information.
LW: Did you know what type of picture you wanted to paint of Princess Margaret before you began? I imagine, since you live in the UK, that you already had opinions about the infamous Princess.
CB: I'd go back to the William James quote: everyone is formed of a multiplicity of characters. Certainly, I had been very aware of Princess Margaret as a public figure all through my life, and I was intrigued by the way that, so soon after her death, she seemed to have become a forgotten figure. Most biographical subjects are born in obscurity, or at least semi-obscurity, and then, through talent or persistence, achieve something-or-other, and become famous. But if you are born into the Royal Family, that process is often reversed. Princess Margaret's birth was marked by the ringing of the bells of St Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, and a forty-one-gun salute from the Royal Horse Artillery in both Hyde Park and the Tower of London. At the age of six, with the death of her grandfather, King George V, and the abdication of her uncle, King Edward V111, she became second in line to the throne, after her sister Elizabeth. And this, in many ways, was her high-point: when her sister had children, and those children had their own children, Margaret became more and more marginal, until by the time of her death she was 12th in line, and a number of people told me that she was properly disgruntled by this endless decline in her own status.
After her funeral, her corpse was driven three and a half miles to the crematorium. Police were placed at regular spots all along the road, to control the crowds. But no-one turned out, and the hearse passed through the afternoon traffic without fanfare. This downward graph to her life rather fascinated me as I was writing the book.
LW: I loved the section in your book that ‘imagines’ Princess Margaret in different timelines. Her life was full of ‘what-ifs,’ especially when it concerned the men in her life. I’m curious as to why these imagined realities always ended rather tragically? Do you feel that Princess Margaret could never truly be happy?
CB: Someone who knew her well said he thought she was the unhappiest person he'd ever known. This might have been overdoing it, but after the age of 35 or so she certainly seemed disappointed by life. In 99 Glimpses, I write, that her life is “pantomime as tragedy, and tragedy as pantomime. It is Cinderella in reverse. It is hope dashed, happiness mislaid, life mis-handled.” Perhaps in one of the imagined lives I gave her - marrying Peter Townsend, or Picasso, or becoming Queen - I should have given her a happy ending, but there was something self-defeating in her character that would have made it seem bogus.
LW: Aside from her alternate destinies with men, you also include a short vignette that imagines her as the first born. The destined queen rather than Elizabeth. You also present her in a dismal light in this section. Did you write the chapter in this way because you truly believed, after all of the research and varying accounts, that she could stray from the person she eventually became?
CB: Even Royals - perhaps especially Royals - are prone to the question of nature or nurture. I liked toying with the fantasy of what she would have been like if she had been the first-born, and had ascended to the throne? Would she then have been the responsible sister - or would there always have been some crack in her character? Of course, it's impossible to answer, but the question remains interesting. John Updike once wrote that “Margaret would have made a more striking and expressive queen”, and then he went on to ask, “but would she have worn as well, and presided as smoothly?”
LW: You begin to close the book with the very public auction of Princess Margaret’s possessions. For a public that often scorned her actions, they were quite eager to pay enormous amounts of money for a piece of her. Aside from this acting as a sort of postmortem section, what were you trying to say to the reader by presenting us with this chapter?
CB: I originally placed the auction of her possessions near the beginning of the book, but later placed it almost at the end. First, I found it fascinating to list in detail so much that she had accumulated over the course of her life - from a signed copy of the autobiography of Liberace and a Walt Disney Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs tea-set given to her at the age of 7, to a diamond tiara worth many millions of pounds. Second, it showed the strange magnetic attraction the Royal Family still holds over the collective imagination. Third, I hoped it would show the way that all these extraordinary royal possessions - silver candlesticks and oak chairs and Faberge clocks and letters from the Pope - were all dispersed so speedily after her death. For me, the acts as a peculiar kind of memento mori: regardless of what happens in our lives, comic or tragic or somewhere inbetween, we all eventually come to dust.
Craig Brown is a prolific journalist and the author of more than fifteen books. He has been writing his parodic diary in Private Eye since 1989. He is the only person ever to have won three different Press Awards―for best humorist, columnist, and critic―in the same year. He has been a columnist for The Guardian, The Times (London), The Spectator, and The Daily Telegraph, among others. He currently writes for The Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday. His last book, Hello Goodbye Hello, was translated into ten languages and was a New York Times bestseller.
Lori Wieczorek is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. She is currently receiving her MFA in fiction from The New School.
by Allison Manuel
Allison Manuel, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Lacy Johnson about her book The Reckonings: Essays (Scribner) which is among the final five selections in the category of Criticism for the 2018 NBCC Awards.
Lacy Johnson’s work takes an unwavering look at injustice with the aim of repairing harm and reclaiming joy. Johnson is a writer, professor at Rice University, and founding director of the Houston Flood Museum. She is also a survivor of rape and attempted murder at the hands of a man she once loved—a story she shared in her critically acclaimed memoir The Other Side. While touring for the book, Johnson faced readers who asked if she wished death upon this man, to which she responded, “I don't want vengeance. I want a reckoning."
In The Reckonings, Johnson invites readers to walk with her through a mosaic of issues—healing and accountability around sexual assault, abolishing white supremacy, police murders of Black folks, the human and environmental toll of the BP oil spill and nuclear warfare. In doing so, she asks critical questions about the meaning and practice of justice, mercy, evil, and hope. Johnson does not preach from the moral high ground or push a platform of next steps. She speaks from the pain, possibility, and particularity of her lived experience. In assuming responsibility for her ongoing process of personal transformation, she asks readers to interrogate their own lives and find their own answers. We delved deeper into her creative intent and process as well as the questions that unsettle and guide her.
Allison Manuel: How have readers responded to the stand that you take around a reckoning as a reframing of popular notions of justice?
Lacy Johnson: People who have actually read the book respond really positively. I hear from a lot of people who are touched by this generous way of talking about justice. Especially for victims of sexual assault, everything about the whole conversation just perpetuates more injustice. From the way that you have to go to the hospital and experience further violations in the name of getting evidence because your word doesn’t count as evidence to being questioned by police officers. If the person is arrested and there's a trial, then there's a way that you yourself are on trial. Maybe the person goes to jail for a minute. But nothing about your life as a survivor changes. Women will be attacked every minute of every day. That to me is not what justice is.
It's been 19 years since I was kidnapped and raped, so I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I would want to happen or what would make me feel better. And imagining his suffering doesn't do it. It makes me feel worse. I just want him to say to my face what he did, and to acknowledge the harm of that, and then for him to spend his life in service of other people's joy, and for us to part ways, and for me to find my own pursuit of joy. That was honest for me, and I think it resonates with people who've had a similar experience. One person told me that it gives her a place to orient her attention in looking toward the future instead of thinking about the past, and that it has been so healing.
Alternatively, when people have not read the book, I get challenged on certain things. People really don't want to give up the idea that people who murder other people should die. They don't want to give up the idea that people who molest children should die. And I say, if you are imagining that I'm saying he should get away with it, I'm not saying that. And if the only two possibilities that you can imagine are he dies or he gets away with it, that to me is just a failure of imagination because there's a whole spectrum of accountability between those two extremes.
AM: You talk about how you consciously did not write a “how to” essay in this collection. Your essays forward critical reframings of popularly held notions of justice and mercy and hope and joy without putting forth a platform. How would you describe your aspirations for these essays and what you hope readers carry forward from them?
LJ: These are my genuine questions that I am working through in my own life. I'm thinking if I don't know the answer to this question maybe other people don't either. Can you come along and wonder about this with me? I don't like to be didactic in my writing and say these are the steps that you need to undertake, because that's so prescriptive. It has more to do with putting into practice these deeply held convictions that I've arrived at. What that looks like in practice is different for me than it would be for other people. I'm very conscious about not trying to tell you or anyone else how to live your life. I think people might be frustrated by that because they say, it would be so much easier if you just tell me what to do instead of leaving people with this sense of, “I need to change things. I need to reorient my beliefs. I need to rethink the way I am living my life.” But that's what I want you to do. That's what I'm doing. And so if readers arrive in that same place, then I feel like it's succeeded. That need and that compulsion toward action is exactly the effect that I want these essays to have.
AM: I was struck by how you speak to the ways that you are personally implicated in systems of oppression. You make visible how you've been hurt by but also participate in or benefit from systems of power. Why were these important choices for you as an author?
LJ: I have to be willing to put my own skin in the game. I didn't want to write a book that's all finger pointing and pretending like the problem is elsewhere. I think you have to open your perspective enough to be able to see yourself in these structures that you are writing about. The essays began with different problems or issues that upset me that I want to think about in a public way. Each of the essays begin with looking at the symptom but then tries to trace the problem up the chain of causality and responsibility to figure out what is it within the culture or other institutions that make something like this not only possible but permissible. And every single time I did that, I found myself implicated by those beliefs, because in some ways I believe them too, or I have believed them. It's always broader and more structural, and I am in that structure. So necessarily I have to point out those ways in order to help my readers see the way that they are also implicated in those structures. And by modeling how to hold myself accountable, I hope that I'm showing others how to do that in a way that isn't ego shattering.
AM: In "Goliath," you write that, "Any story that cannot accommodate nuances is not interested in the truth, but in obscuring it instead." How do you understand the power and possibility for nuance in light of a popular and social media culture that is increasingly sound bite oriented?
LJ: I've been thinking a lot about these Me Too moments. It's obviously a movement but there are moments within it when there's a wave of recognition. It's interesting to see the range of behaviors that are called out. It's interesting how social media has a flattening effect on them--that they are all equally reprehensible. A relationship that is not built on mutual respect somehow becomes the same as a relationship that is physically or emotionally abusive. I don't want to suggest that both of those things are not wrong and there's not an imbalance of power, but I think we do everyone a disservice by treating them as exactly the same. There are nuances that get obscured. Is every relationship with a power differential an abusive relationship or is it operating on a spectrum? How do we create within our culture and within our relationships a situation where we can recognize when there's a difference of power and repair it or make those relationships more equitable? I think that is a useful conversation to have that social media can't accommodate.
I don't think that every person who does a bad thing is a bad person or that when you do a bad thing that means that you're irredeemable. If I believe that people who are on death row should not be executed, then I am challenged to ask, are there ways that we shouldn't throw other people away either? Bryan Stevenson says, “Each of us is more than the worst thing that we've ever done.” I believe that too. Social media is a good place for outrage but not necessarily a good place for having some of these difficult nuanced conversations. I think it's important that none of us lie to ourselves about our own perfection. There's a line in one of the essays: “The first lie of righteousness: that other people are not as human as we are." I see a lot of that at play in call out culture. When a person makes a mistake, somehow they give up their humanity, which is something that I resist.
AM: In “Speak Truth to Power” you write, “Many women have told the truth about their lives, however impossible that may seem at the time, and the world has gone on pretty much as before.” In “Against Whiteness” you write about how “whiteness demands violence: that we either commit it or accept it.” I find myself grappling with a historical legacy of white women that falsely accused black men of sexual assault who then faced deadly consequences in the form of lynching. And I see that this continues with examples like Cornerstore Caroline in Brooklyn who called the police claiming a 9-year-old black boy had sexually assaulted her, yet video footage revealed his bag had simply brushed her. How do we hold this tension that women must be believed while also reckoning with this legacy of white women who have falsely accused black men and boys of sexual assault in service of white supremacy?
LJ: White supremacist patriarchy in particular, right? I don't know that I have the answer to that question, because it's something that I'm working through as well. One thing that occurs to me is the way that believability--there's a hierarchy of it. The issue of believability also applies to black men and women who have been saying all along that they're harassed by police and that they're being killed by police. There was an issue of believability around that until there was video footage. And it's not that it's new. It's just that suddenly we can see it. And the conversation has changed since we've been able to see it more readily.
Cornerstore Caroline said this person assaulted me. But the boy said he did not. There's a differential of power there that's worth examining. Part of the harm happens when we automatically believe everything that one person says and never believe anything that the other person says. When we say that these people are trustworthy and these people are not. That's when an injustice occurs. But if we are able to extend the potential for truth telling to anyone's experience, then I think we go back to that question of nuance and of grappling with experience.
It’s hard to tease out patriarchal violence from white patriarchal violence from white supremacy, because it's all tied together. I don't think there are any hard-and-fast rules across the board that we can live by except to move through the world with love and hold one another accountable in loving ways. The whole historical narrative around white womanhood is one of a protected, victimized status--like private property. It is not exclusive to white women, but white women in particular sometimes identify with the white patriarchy because they are attaching to the power of whiteness rather than with other people who experience oppression on various axes. That's certainly not where my head goes or where my allegiances go, but they clearly feel like they have something to gain in doing that.
AM: Your essays forward an unwillingness to give in to cynicism in the face of overwhelming realities of injustice as well as the radicalness of hope in supporting that. What have you learned about hope in writing The Reckonings?
LJ: Some things are worth doing not because there's any guarantee that they will work or that there will be any success, but just because it's the right thing to do. And if we don't do anything, there's no chance of success. That's just despair. And then we're swept along in in the tide of catastrophe and chaos and violence and war and destruction. And it's hard. I know how naive it seems sometimes to believe like I'm just one person I can do a thing or say a thing, and it will have some effect, but I don't think the idea that it has an effect is what hope is. The idea is I'm going to do it anyway, even though it seems like it's not going to work, because my spirit is oriented toward justice.
I'm not naive enough to think that perfect equality and freedom is near. I know that these are historically entrenched, structural problems, but I think they're worth addressing, as messy and confusing as it is, simply because it's the right thing to do. This sort of orientation toward love, toward fostering mutual joy is a good guiding principle. It doesn't make the world any less heart breaking, but it gives me ways to mend my own broken heart.
Lacy M. Johnson is a Houston-based professor, curator, activist, and is author of THE RECKONINGS (Scribner, 2018) and THE OTHER SIDE (Tin House, 2014). For its frank and fearless confrontation of the epidemic of violence against women, The Other Side was named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, an Edgar Award in Best Fact Crime, the CLMP Firecracker Award in Nonfiction; it was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writer Selection for 2014, and was named one of the best books of 2014 by Kirkus, Library Journal, and the Houston Chronicle. She is also author of TRESPASSES: A MEMOIR (University of Iowa Press, 2012), which has been anthologized in The Racial Imaginary (Fence Books, 2015) and Literature: The Human Experience (Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2013-2018).
Allison Manuel is pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts at the New School’s Creative Writing Program for nonfiction and fiction. She has been a multimedia storyteller and community organizer in the Bronx, NY for ten years. Currently she serves on the board of the Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative, a community-led effort to build an equitable, sustainable, and democratic Bronx economy.
by Virginia Valenzuela
Virginia Valenzuela, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed founder and director of Arte Público Press, Nicolás Kanellos about being awarded The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award for the 2018 NBCC Awards.
Nicolás Kanellos is the founder and director of Arte Público Press, the largest publisher of contemporary and recovered literature in America, and a beacon for the recognition of Hispanic American artists and writers since 1979. The effort started in 1972 with the establishment of Revista Chicana-Riqueña and then The Americas Review which both aimed to bring attention to Latino authors who previously had nowhere else to go to publish their work. Arte Público famously published The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, among other authors including Julia Alvarez, Rudolfo Anaya, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Miguel Piñero and so many more. They are established under the University of Houston and they publish around 30 titles per year. Arte Público Press is the 2018 recipient for the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle.
We spoke over the phone between the University of Houston and a small cafe in Brooklyn.
Virginia Valenzuela (VV): A lot of the things I’ve read about Arte Público Press mention that it got its start on the “artistic fringe” before achieving its current status as the oldest and most accomplished publisher of literature by U.S. Hispanic authors.
Nicolás Kanellos (NK): That’s a lousy word, I hate it, “fringe.”
VV: Yeah, I’d love to hear a little more about this “artistic fringe,” and the early days of the press.
NK: We were heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement—no “fringe” about it. Organizing blocks, marching, boycotting, producing newspapers, grassroots newspapers, publications, etc.
VV: Right, and I know that a lot of this work started with the Revista Chicana-Riqueña, which ultimately became The Americas Review, so, how did some of these grassroots movements play into the way that you looked for work and the way that you published new voices?
NK: Well, I was working with the theater companies in Texas and in the Midwest, and we were performing in communities and supporting the Civil Rights Movement and block organizing, what have you, and it became very obvious that we had lots of artists and writers that didn’t have any place to get their material published and circulated. That’s all we wanted to do. That’s what sparked our interest in founding Revista Chicana-Riqueña, working from the grassroots and the barrios, and getting these artists out to a national audience. It was very humble at first, of course, but eventually, through Arte Público Press, it became a reality.
VV: So, in 1980, the press moved from Indiana to Houston, Texas.
NK: That’s right.
VV: What changed with the new environment and the new backdrop of the University of Houston?
NK: We were in Gary, Indiana, which was very poor and depressed. Steel mills closed, you know, and so we moved to Houston looking for more solid footing for the fledgling press and for the magazine, and basically, we came to greater resources and to a more populous Latino community, so, those were the reasons why we came here, and it has born fruit over the years, at times, you know, with feast of famine, right? When we got down here the oil industry was in recession, and the savings and loan institutions were crashing, and we couldn’t get our hands on a lot of resources. But eventually the economy bounced back and we were doing better. Plus the University of Houston was a growing place, and we could tap into the resources of this very large state institution, versus the really small campus, minority campus, that we were at in Gary, Indiana.
VV: Let’s talk about the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project.
What are some of the most interesting things this project has uncovered? Have you been surprised by any of your findings?
NK: Well, as you know, we’ve recovered and made accessible hundreds of thousands of documents, everything from correspondence to entire books, published books, manuscripts of books, and so on and so forth. What has been a great boom for the recovery program has been the finding of a lot of women’s voices, and women who published and who were not published. We’ve recovered correspondence, we’ve recovered diaries, and we’ve recovered and published writers such as María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, who, under pen name in the 19th century, self published two novels that documented how the Californians, the Califorños, lost their lands to railroad and banking interests, and another one that dealt with race and gender in mid-19th century United States, dealing with Hispanic, or Latino, African-American, and indigenous groups, versus the Anglo-American society—two novels that really are now studied throughout the United States in various types of curricula, you know, from history to literature to sociology, and so on and so forth.
So, those two books are very very important, but also we’ve found women who were publishing their own newspapers, who were politically active, anarchist women, penning, in 1905, penning a manifesto to women throughout the world, outlining how women should take the reins of society, and combat the excesses of corporate structures and government and the church. So, theres been a lot of stuff, in fact, we have a magazine that was published called Feminismo International, out of New York, in 1921, 1922, all kinds of gems like that.
VV: And it sounds like it links very clearly to the Civil Rights Movement too, a lot of these topics and radical ideas.
VV: Alright, so, I’d love to talk about Piñata Books. How did the idea for Piñata Books come about?
NK: Actually, on our advisory board, we have some people from the industry, one in particular, a guy by the name of Mark Jaffe, who was an insider, very important guy, an executive in publishing in New York, and he said it became obvious that we had all of this talent out here and we had a great need in the schools and in society for children’s literature and we should be growing our own readers. So, we went ahead and founded Piñata Books to further literacy, to create a place that would be a bridge from home culture to the schools, and everything we do at Piñata Books, almost everything we do is bilingual, so, parents or kids who read in one language and are transitioning into the other.
And miraculously, today there’s this big movement in education for dual language education, and we’re virtually the only publishers of books that are doing this, that create authentic literature using real literature and authentic language and cultural situations of the United States, rather than pedagogical books, for dual language and bilingual language education. Our flip books, we call them flips books, can be read in either language in either direction, and they’ve done pretty well.
VV: And why do you think it’s important for there to be original content, rather than doing it the way some other children’s books do it, which is basically to translate the classics into Spanish?
NK: Right. It’s because we have our own history, culture, and traditions, and we have our own way of saying things, and our communities, our families, and our children will recognize themselves in those books. For kids to stay in school they have to see that there’s a place for them, they have to see that reading culture and education culture welcome them and reflect them, rather than just have them studying and reading about other people all the time. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the Spanish language, it’s about others, not us, so, we are combating the “other,” trying to promote the “us” in books, you see?
VV: That’s incredible. On the same note, I read a lot about ¡Salud, Familia! a program which helps educate children and their families on health and nutrition. Did you feel that Hispanic-American families did not have the same access to messages regarding health? Or that these messages just didn’t speak to Hispanic culture, the food, the habits?
NK: Well, like many poor people in the United States, they live in food deserts, where there’s hardly a supermarket close by or a place to get fresh fruits and vegetables, produce, and quite often the diet of poverty, no matter what tradition it’s from, is high in fats, sugar, and salt. What we do find in Latino and poor neighborhoods are the fast food places, and they’re nice and cheap, but they’re loading up the veins and arteries with fats and cholesterol and promoting diabetes. Diabetes is an endemic among Latinos.
So we decided, through our books, to start a program to, in a very soft and easy and entertaining way, give information to families and children about eating right and doing exercise, and what we believe is that the elements of eating right can be found directly in Latino culture, the things that are really healthy for us, such as avocados and beans and squash, all those staples that we’ve all grown up with, you know? So that’s what that lead to, and when we started the program and throughout the program we had advice, and it was overseen by some of the leading experts in nutrition, Latino nutrition, and health and disease from coast to coast, and some of the leadership in institutions for public health.
VV: So at this point in time, do you feel that Hispanic-American authors have left the fringe and become more of a staple in the mainstream?
NK: No, I don’t. I do not. All you need to do is read the Sunday New York Times Book Review and count the names, or read the New York Review of Books and count the Latino names whose books are being reviewed, and you’ll see that we’re pretty absent, and of thousands and thousands and thousands of books published by mainstream publishers, we’re not there. We’re not there in sufficient numbers. I would say that Latino literature lives in the small presses like us, not in the major publishing houses. Not in the major, commercial publishing houses, but in the small, not-for-profit presses. Of course we’re the largest one, but there are others that are small and putting out 1, 2, 3 books a year, and basically, among the nonprofit Latino presses is where Latino literature lives today. There’s only exceptions of a Pulitzer Prize here and there, and an author that gets a full treatment by the commercial publishing houses. For the most part, the Latino authors that do make it into the large publishing houses, their books are not the headline books, they’re not the leading books, they’re the mid-lift.
VV: Right, it’s like a constant conversation with people like Neruda and Lorca and Marquez and never anything contemporary.
NK: And they’ll publish foreigners, Neruda and Carlos Fuentes and so on, but the homegrown Latino authors have a hard time breaking through.
VV: Do you think there are any advantages to having the Hispanic American voices in the small press?
NK: Well, the advantages are mostly aesthetic and value-wise. These authors are very close to our history and traditions and to what’s actually happening in our communities, rather than their work being filtered through the larger presses to be more palatable to a readership of the Sunday Book Review.
VV: And what are some things you think we can do in order to get these voices to be more mainstream and more available to readers and to students of all ages?
NK: I would say that this award from the National Book Critics Circle is a big shot in the arm, and will help a great deal to make us more visible, to let people know that Latino writers exist, and that they’re available, and that they can speak to large audiences. Hopefully we can break some stereotypes. When we started publishing Arte Público Books back in the 1980’s, it was taken for granted that Latinos did not read, much less write.
VV: Wow, how terrible! I can’t believe that.
NK: That was a rule of thumb in the publishing world back then, so they didn’t address that market. And even today, we’re the largest minority in the United States and still growing; by mid-century we will be a third of the population, and the publishing houses are still not addressing this very large potential market.
VV: Do you think that correlates directly to class issues, or culture issues?
NK: Yes, I think it is a class issue. It’s an issue about who the publishing houses employ, who are the editors, and who are the agents. They’re predominantly non-Latino, and have no appreciation for what’s out there; and, of course, they’re very much tied to New York and quite often do not see what’s happening in the rest of the country.
VV: Yeah, that’s a great point. You mentioned when we were corresponding through email about contacting Marina Tristan (Assistant Publisher) and Gabriela Baeza Ventura (Executive Editor). It seems to me in that gesture that this has been a real collaborative effort. How important has collaboration been in this great success of cultivating a place for Hispanic American writers?
NK: Well, at our press collaboration is the most important thing, in fact, I’m about to go into your weekly Manager’s meeting in a few minutes. Yes, the collaboration is very important. It’s not just me. I mean, we have a whole team here that’s working and that’s idealistic and who bring their own genius. This is not a hierarchical institution at Arte Público Press. We share in the decisions and we’re out there plugging in our different ways and in our different programs, and in fact, at the awards ceremonies, the five of us will speak, very briefly of course so as not to go over our time.
VV: That’s great that you want to share the limelight, so to speak.
NK: There’s no other way to do it really.
VV: Is there anything else you would like to mention before we wrap things up?
NK: Just how grateful we are for this award. It’s very important for us and we accept it in the name of all Latino authors.
Virginia Valenzuela is a poet and essayist from New York City. Her poetry has appeared in the Inquisitive Eater and the Best American Poetry blog, where her fashion column “Fashion and Beauty with Poetess Vinny” debuted in fall 2018. She teaches English at New Jersey City University.
By Carrie Sun
Carrie Sun, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt about their book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation For Failure (Penguin Random House), which is among the final five selections in the category of Nonfiction for the 2019 NBCC Awards.
The bright red dust jacket serves as a warning: something’s wrong, on today’s college campuses. In The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation For Failure, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt investigate the new problems emerging in American childhood and education — from the rise of safetyism to the deleterious effects of call-out culture. They also provide explanatory threads for why this is happening. Ultimately, they give us hope: a series of actionable steps to improve the situation so that the long arc of history may, hopefully, continue its bend toward progress.
Carrie Sun: Can you speak about how this book came to be? Why now?
Greg Lukianoff: It's actually a personal story. The first part is that First Amendment law was my passion for most of my life. When I started at FIRE back in 2001, students were great on free speech. That all changed around 2013 to 2014, seemingly overnight. A big part of the book is trying to get to the bottom of why this change happened.
The second part is that I had a dangerous depression back in 2007 for which I ended up hospitalized. During recovery, what helped me the most was Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). While I was studying these cognitive distortions, I was working on campuses watching administrators teach what looked like the bad intellectual habits of catastrophizing and fortune-telling, by example. These are the very kinds of behaviors that CBT teaches you not to do if you want to overcome anxiety and depression. Then, around 2013 - 2014, we started seeing this sudden uptick in student demands for censorship. That's not unheard of in history: in the late 80s, early 90s, you had the first age of political correctness on campus, in which students pushed for new “speech codes” to curtail offensive, bigoted, or sexist speech. What made this current era different was how heavily the reasons for censorship relied on medicalized rationales. I discussed this with my friend Jonathan Haidt and together we wrote an article about it in The Atlantic, which came out August 2015. After we published the article, unfortunately, the problem on campuses relating to tolerance for freedom of speech and to issues of mental health got much more — so we decided to write a book.
I've never liked the title, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” My original title for the article was "Arguing for its Misery.”
CS: What was it like working on a book together? What was your process for research and for writing?
GL: We did a very good job of splitting it up. My research team and I worked on the front-end; Jon took over as we were getting closer to handing it in. It was perfect, because Jon has an unusual ability to understand entirely what I was trying to say, and make it shorter, simpler, and clearer.
Jonathan Haidt: Well, thank you, Greg. I would add that in producing anything, there's an expansive phase to creativity when you're generating novel ideas; then, the second half is the filtering and selection part where you're eliminating things. Greg is extremely good at the first part and, frankly, not as good at the second. And if you look at our personalities, at least intellectually, he's a bit more Oscar Madison and I'm more Felix Unger.
GL: I'm also very messy so it's apt.
CS: It sounds like a match made in heaven for this book. Moving on to the content: you set the stage for what's happening across college campuses by talking about three Great Untruths — fragility; emotional reasoning; and us-versus-them mentality. What are your biggest worries if these untruths continue to spread across American youth and the rest of society?
JH: Originally, we thought it was being generated on campuses. What became clear was that these problems were already being baked in to kids in Gen Z well before they got there. It was also happening in other English speaking countries — not so much on the continent, but in the UK, Canada, and to a lesser extent Australia. We saw a way of thinking and a way of being that would be extremely bad for mental health, productivity, cooperation, and diversity and inclusion — and it was spreading rapidly.
Two specific outcomes I'm most worried about are: The mental health crisis for teenagers, especially teenage girls. We are in danger of having a generation of girls that will have higher rates of fragility and, therefore, may accomplish less than the Millennial women. I think we will see Millennial women become extremely successful as #MeToo and other recent events and trends remove obstacles and make more room at the top. I think Millennial women and Gen X women — we're going to see them rising. It's possible that this progress may reverse for Gen Z women.
The other is that we're seeing a lot more email from people who work in business saying: "I have these students fresh out of college and I’m exhausted from mediating conflicts where somebody used a word that somebody else didn't like."
GL: So Jon, Carrie says she's been seeing that in her work. I wanted to ask her, can you elaborate on that?
CS: Yes, definitely. Jon, some of your work has come up before at a hedge fund I was working at before my MFA.
JH: That’s right! That's when we first heard it. There's been a lot since then.
CS: It's been a lot. What I've been seeing is: instead of solving the conflicts interpersonally, you go to HR. I’m seeing the creep of safetyism off campuses and into workplaces. We've jumped to my last question: Since the book went to print in May 2018, what updates do you have in terms of what you're seeing? Either on campuses, or elsewhere?
JH: One is that the situation on campus is changing a little bit. The spectacular shout-downs and disinvitations have gone down. There was a peak in 2016 and 2017 related to the presidential election. But, the real problem is the tens of thousands of cases of self-silencing — it's the call-out culture. I see no sign that’s abating. I've been speaking at some private high schools, and it's the same thing there.
GL: And on my end, some of the research that's come out since, particularly the hidden tribes survey, I thought was extremely interesting. A lot of these norms for what the survey dubs “progressive activists” comes from a group that is typically white, affluent, and surprisingly racially homogeneous. The only other group in that survey that was more racially homogeneous was the other end of the spectrum, the strict conservatives, which is remarkable given progressive activists’ focus on diversity.
JH: Adding to that, we presented a vision of far-right and far-left identity politics in the book. We described the polarization cycle. What we've seen, since then, is that the increase in race-based identity politics has been borne out.
CS: Speaking of call-out culture: is there a way to see this call-out culture as a response to previous ways, wherein bad behavior went unnoticed and was tolerated? How can we cultivate more of the positive side of call-out culture with less of the downside?
JH: Yes, we can definitely see it as part of the progress of increasing sensitivity. When there’s an improvement in sensitivity, there is progress. But the problem is the prestige economy of call-out culture. Any gain in sensitivity is counteracted by the gigantic loss of happiness, inclusion, trust, and well-being.
GL: One main theme in the book is this idea of “problems of progress,” that so much of this is the result of otherwise good trends. But any virtue taken to extremes can become a vice. We stress the idea of ancient wisdom. Wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to enjoy the fruits of progress, but also be able to learn from the wisdom of people who lived in much harder times?
JH: That's right. I think there is an important sense in which the 20th century was a century of extraordinary moral progress. But in the last few years, we're seeing a couple of important reversals of this progress. I would say that coming to judge people as individuals, not as members of groups, was progress — but that's reversing. Another is to have justice meted out by due process and not by mob action — that’s also progress, and it’s also reversing. The accusation is, for all intents and purposes, the conviction, and social media makes it all happen very fast. The loss of due process, the fact that the standard response to an accusation is that the person is fired — this is just stunning.
CS: That's really concerning. I’m wondering: you list six social trends or forces as having contributed to causing this problem. It seems to me like some of those factors might have a deeper, hidden factor having to do with capitalism and neoliberalism: bureaucracy of safetyism can be seen as the marketization of academia; anxiety and depression of both children and parents a result of increasingly precarious job situations. How might you address the idea that some of the factors you list might be symptoms of a larger issue?
GL: One thing we see as a potential seventh causal strand is the idea that, with such intense economic stratification, parents are so desperate to get their children into these top schools. There is a sense that those schools are life rafts you can take to get to the upper classes. This is not irrational, given stagnant wages and other bad outcomes for the middle and lower-middle classes in the United States right now. As long as colleges, particularly elite colleges, have this mentality that favors the products of helicopter parenting, it makes helicopter parenting not irrational, even though it's toxic.
JH: To give ourselves credit, we do point that out in our parenting chapter. The piece we did not say explicitly, that we should have, was the national rise in inequality. We did point to an increase in competition to get into college — we had half the story there. Some argue basically that it's neoliberalism and rising inequality contributing to this crisis. I think there's probably some truth to that. But on the other hand, rising inequality and social stressors, be it 9/11 or the financial crisis, should have affected the Millennials far more than Gen Z — and they didn't. So, of all the causes going on, my ranking is: one, the huge overprotection and the denial of childhood; and two, interacting with social media too early.
GL: I would probably just flip those. I think that social media is the whole reason why this got so bad, so fast.
JH: Absolutely. If we just had Internet 1.0, Google and Wikipedia and Khan Academy, it would have been great. But I do think it's social media, connecting us all in communities where you get prestige by calling out, that is what really hit us like a tidal wave.
GL: I realized a key part of the point I was trying to make earlier: since employers over-value you going to an elite college with a prominent name, that's one of the reasons why this has a real world effect on your life. And why parents, once again, have some rationality to helicoptering, unfortunately.
JH: The metaphor I've been thinking about recently is: some distance runners and cyclists train at high altitude because they want to train under adverse circumstances so that, when they are then in the realm of competition, they have an advantage. What we're doing to our elite kids is exactly the opposite.
CS: I completely agree. I went to MIT in the mid-aughts and the attitude was that you just kind of took it, and that that gave you a thick skin with which you could go into the world and do anything.
JH: Precisely. And that's why the Van Jones video that we put in the book is the best thing out there. Because he says: this is the gym. It’s the whole point of a gym, to train. If you get trained in these rarefied environments where there are no weights in the weight room, you're not hirable.
CS: Lastly, you mention green shoots for counter trends already underway: changing attitudes about social media, free range parenting bills, and more. Where do you think the momentum for these counter trends will come from? What’s next?
JH: Once businesses get involved and start saying, “We can't hire these kids because they destroy value in our company,” then what we're going to see, which would be fantastic, is more students shunning the Ivy Leagues for other schools who will not over-protect them. We’ll see businesses hiring more from non-elite schools, which will do wonders for inequality. Then the pressure is off the helicopter parents, too.
GL: Right, exactly. We're trying to spread the word that colleges listen to their alumni: they want their donations; they don't want to develop a bad reputation. Alumni see what higher education is doing is dysfunctional, and they're starting to push back in large numbers.
The other thing that's hopeful is the new organization, Let Grow. Clearly, it hit a nerve, because we have had the free range parenting law passed in Utah and a couple other places, and now potentially in Connecticut. That could definitely help change things as well.
Greg Lukianoff is the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Lukianoff is a graduate of American University and Stanford Law School. He specializes in free speech and First Amendment issues in higher education. He is the author of Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate and Freedom From Speech.
Jonathan Haidt is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He obtained his PhD in social psychology from University of Pennsylvania in 1992, and then taught at the University of Virginia for sixteen years. He is the author of The Righteous Mind and The Happiness Hypothesis.
Carrie Sun is a writer based in Brooklyn. She is at work on a narrative critique of capitalism, wealth, and the American dream.