Before I started my Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California, I had heard about Percival Everett’s teaching philosophy. Due to the pandemic, my first year at USC was entirely online. Everett Zoomed in to one of my classes from his workshop where he kept his jazz guitars and the tools to fix them. He struck me as both a performer and a repairman. This dual identity perhaps explained his literary mastery: by fixing the issues in the art-making process, he learned the fundamentals of the craft which in turn granted him more freedom in performing in the arts.
After the campus reopened, Everett and I had the following conversation in his office. We talked about his latest novel The Trees, the power of humor, our common misconceptions of realism, and the language in our daily politics. He imagined an alternative reality in which people crave knowledge and wisdom instead of cheap sensations: “What if our heroes on television are not throwing shields at each other? What if they were heroes because they were smarter?” Art, as he inspired me to see, has the potential and capacity to mend the world.
Jianan Qian: Everyone marvels at your many talents: novel writing, abstract painting, training horses, repairing instruments, playing jazz guitar. You once said to James Yeh at the Believer that they are all the same thing. How so?
Percival Everett: Art is art. It’s my attempt to express myself. Even more precisely, it’s my attempt to understand the world. I never think of these things as challenges. You live in the world. You do stuff. What else am I supposed to do with free time? My idea of doing nothing is doing something.
Working with my hands is a great complement to working with my head. I love painting also because it’s physical. I love playing instruments because I’m doing something with my hands while I play. And I’m thinking too. It’s hard when I’m writing. Sometimes I wish I were Chinese because there’s so much art in making the ideograms. It’s fantastic to me how people would display their intellectual prowess with their calligraphy. We don’t have that, though I think at one point script was more important than it is now. Even Roland Barthes goes on and on about the kind of pen he writes with that makes the French have a different relationship to language from the English speakers. There’s this connection to something physical in writing that I wish I had.
JQ: You grew up in South Carolina and spent a lot of time in the American West. How do different places influence your work?
PE: When I first saw the western landscape, I realized this was my landscape. I feel comfortable on the West. Los Angeles is not representative of what I mean when I say “the West,” though I like the city of Los Angeles far more than any other American city. I love the wide-open, non-populated state of Wyoming. That helped my work because I spent a lot of time by myself. Likewise, I used to spend summers in New Mexico. I would take a horse up into the mountains and use the camp for a few weeks. When you don’t see anyone for a few weeks, two things happen. You really appreciate your solitude; you also really appreciate people. More than place, I used to be around animals. I consider them as a place in a way.
JQ: I wonder if you can talk more about South Carolina? It is representative of the American South and racism. But you also mentioned that the American South is oftentimes the scapegoat of the pervasive racism in this country.
PE: It’s arguably true that every American work of art is about race, which is sad but also the experience of this American culture. If there’s no race in it, that itself is a comment about omission. I think of the television show Friends. The crazy thing about that show was they lived in New York and there were never any Black people. Finally, after many seasons, they tried to insert a Black character. That’s an industry of omission and that tells us something about how America would like to see itself.
But one thing that white Americans don’t seem to understand is that Black Americans don’t wake up in the morning thinking about being Black. There’s a scene in Chester Himes’s novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go. The main character is having a very nice day. He’s crossing the street and he sees a white man in a car glaring at him. He wasn’t walking around thinking, Here I am, a Black guy in America. He is just a person. But the racial gaze, the stare of white Americans at Black people, is a constant reminder that you don’t belong. That’s not so different from what people experience insidiously and perhaps unconsciously, when they see a television show like Friends with no Black people in it. Where’s the representation of people like me?
JQ: You mentioned every piece of writing is experimental. But it occurs to me that people use the term “experimental writing” to differentiate from “realistic writing.” What is your view on realism? Is it a convention, a restriction, or something else?
PE: First of all, there’s really no such thing as realism, the same way that paintings are never photographs. You can have something that’s representational. Then you’re going to have something that pushes against the representational, or what we think realism is. Take crime novels—crimes never happen in real life the way they have in crime novels. It’s formulaic. It’s completely unreal. This is an abstraction of what we think reality is. If anyone had a real notion of what reality is, we could solve a crime every time it happens. That’s also “a trick of the eye,” to use a term from paintings that are considered painstakingly real. It’s forgetting the fact that we don’t see in three dimensions. We see in two dimensions. Our mind creates that third dimension. That’s what’s interesting about this whole idea of realism. In my mind, my most experimental novel, Wounded, is the one that people might call the most realistic. I can see it’s experimental because I wrote it understanding that there was no such thing as realism.
JQ: Most of the craft advice in today’s writing workshops comes from the tradition of realism. For example, events have to be believable and characters must be complex. What’s your take on craft advice in general?
PE: If you were to find what you consider the most realistic fiction, memorized with a friend a portion of dialogue from that novel, then sat on a bus and acted it out, people would think that you are crazy. It is not realistic fiction. This is the magic of fiction. It seems the same way that you can have on a canvas that looks really three dimensional. It can’t be. Also, if you were to record the most meaningful conversation you’ve ever had with your best friend about something really important to you and wrote it down on paper, it would be the worst dialogue ever written. It’s a trick, recreating illusion. So it isn’t necessarily not realistic. It’s something else that gives us the appearance of realism. Given that, there can’t be any rules. You’ve already started from a place that is unreal.
JQ: I am always captivated by the seemingly effortless humor in your novels. Particularly, in The Trees—a novel that deals with the history of lynching—the humor seems both disarming and offensive. Do you intentionally choose humor as the narrative tone?
PE: I’m a product of reading Mark Twain. I don’t shy away from humor, or maybe a better word for me, irony. In the death camps, people made jokes. Humor is a way people survive. Maybe it’s because if you take irony away from the people, then they really are dead. If you take their ability to step outside of themselves and see the world, then they will not live. When we step outside and see the irony, I think that’s often where hope resides. You realize that as small as it might be, you have some power over yourself, over your world.
JQ: Do you also use irony as a weapon to offend those who deserve to be offended?
PE: Someone once asked me a question early on about The Trees, “Do you think you are afraid of the white people?” I said no. The depiction of Black people, Chinese people, Latino people in American popular culture has been ugly for a long time. Just to turn it around. Have you ever seen the film Blazing Saddles?
JQ: No, I haven’t.
PE: It’s Mel Brooks’s last Western movie, made back in 1974. It’s much smarter about race than we are now. That is, not to take into account that the film is misogynistic and homophobic—get rid of those things. In the movie, the bad guys want to take the town so the railroad can come through and they can have the money. In order to combat all the bad guys, the townsfolks get the Chinese and Black people working on the railroad to come and join forces with the white people from the town to stop the bad guys.
There’s one line where one of the white guys in the town says, “Okay, [in return] we’ll give the land to the chinks and the niggers but not the Irish.” (Excuse me for quoting the language they used in the movie.) All the Black people and the Chinese say no, no. Then the white guy goes, “Okay, everybody.” In order to thwart the bad guys, they build a replica of their town—only the fronts of the buildings. Everything is a facade and then the bad guys attack the wrong place. To me, what’s wonderful about the movie is that when they do include everybody, it’s not America. You’re invited to build something not real. You’re invited to fight and protect something that doesn’t belong to you.
JQ: Another thing that strikes me about your novels is that the drama keeps escalating. I am thinking of Suder, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, and The Trees. Did you worry how you could possibly end the story when the plot seemed to spin out of control? What are your views on how to end a novel?
PE: No story ends. Stories are abandoned. You can always ask the question: what happens next? Even if it’s the story of human history in which everybody dies, what happens to all the other animals? What happens to the planet? There’s always another question. The story will end since we are god in the creation of a work of art. It ends when we say it ends. But that really isn’t the end of a work. If what we have created is a work of art, what is thought after consuming it is the real story. That’s the story that I get to participate in making. Instead of thinking novels as a complete work, I consider them as a springboard for work that happens in the world.
JQ: Do you think it necessary to give a work of art a sense of ending?
PE: I do it, but it’s not necessary. Now you say it, it really makes me not want to do it (laughs). I’m sort of contrary by nature. I read about how they test the ending of a movie by showing it to a small audience before they decide what they are going to do. I’m not sure how true this is. There is a scene in the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Sabotage, where the bus carries a bomb. The tension rises as the bus gets closer to the town where the bomb is supposed to go off. In our understanding of those kinds of scenes, our main characters will resolve the issues eventually. That’s one of the reasons why television shows are so strange to me. When you have a main character who runs into danger, and we feel this, but we know she’s not going to die—she’ll be back next week. But back on the bus scene, that was one of the ending editions that the bomb goes off. Imagine you have an audience sitting in the room, then the bomb goes off, and the tension has nowhere to go. That’s not the ending they use because no one was satisfied. People are satisfied when you get their main character back. They need that safety. In fiction, you don’t have to worry if everybody blows up in the beginning. That’s one thing you’re exploring. When the bomb goes off, you have to resolve, but never to the extent to satisfy your audience. That’s how different films and televisions are from fiction. What we do is even harder.
JQ: Your transition from analytical philosophy to fiction writing is beautiful. I wonder what you think about the role of language in shaping our daily politics and our perception of reality?
PE: Language has suffered in the hands of American politics. Part of it is because we have a political party who would really like an uneducated population. This is why they’re hostile toward higher education and completely anti-intellectual. We have even experienced the death of philosophical ideas.
One of my pet peeves is that the term “to beg the question” has been changed to mean to raise the question. It’s a great philosophical concept which isn’t quite summed up in the notion of assuming that conclusion. As a philosophical notion, begging the question is a way to call out someone who is arguing poorly, someone who is not answering a question by reposing the question in a different way. It used to be a valid complaint about someone’s argument. It was the case in politics when you say, “He’s begging the question” and everyone understood it. No one understands it now. To say to someone that you’re assuming a conclusion doesn’t carry the same weight. Language suffers.
JQ: Do you happen to track the language of the pandemic?
PE: Not really. But I hope someone will write something about it. I’m sure language has suffered throughout and certainly science did too. Science is, in some ways, always shifting, and so paradigm shifts happen. But it’s never, in the strict sense, religious. So all of a sudden we have people who don’t have faith in science. That line of thinking is very strange to me. Why are you talking about faith in science? Sciences are our best attempts to understand things in empirical way. It doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily correct. But they are our best attempts. We can’t simply decide what’s true or false in the physical world. It doesn’t work that way.
JQ: You reject the notion of writers’ block. How do you keep yourself motivated?
PE: I put my bills on my desk. Just kidding. I do ask myself a question: Do you want to write a book? If I want to write a book, then I write a book. If I go out with a shovel, I ask myself, “Do you want to plant this tree?” If I do, I dig the hole. If I don’t, I go back inside. I don’t have time to stand around there playing the show. If I have a student who wants to write a novel. Then write a novel. If they don’t, then that’s not going to happen. Usually that’s enough motivation for people: Shame.
JQ: In recent years, the world seems crazy—or maybe it’s always been crazy. Many young writers, me included, feel compelled to do something to help change the reality. But instead, we are writing stories that not many people would care. What would you say to people who feel that way?
PE: I think about Picasso’s Guernica. It affected the world. Does it affect the world now? Not really. But it did. Art has that capacity. But you don’t know when that’s going to happen. If we only made art for numbers, we wouldn’t do anything. If you were a farmer, would you stop because you can’t feed everybody? It’s not just because I do it, but I believe that art makes us better. Art makes us think, and that’s the first step to being smarter. If more people consumed art, I think more people would consume all sorts of knowledge. That might be naïve, but I have to believe in it.
I don’t like what I see in the world, and I don’t mean entertainment. There used to be those racks at the supermarket, full of trashy romance books. They no longer exist there now. But I always thought what if there were books about ideas and those were the books that people would pick up as they were checking out of the market. And those were the books that they would read. I am happy when people read anything. But what if those books are not about romance, but about philosophies, about people who care? What if our heroes on television are not throwing shields at each other? What if they were heroes because they were smarter? That would be a very different world. But how do you get an audience to do it? That’s where art comes in. Maybe, maybe we could solve and change.
(The Chinese translation of this interview appeared in the Shanghai Review of Books on May 22, 2022. The interviewer would like to thank Philip Kurian for his generous and thoughtful contribution to the interview.)
Before I started my Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California, I had heard about Percival Everett’s teaching philosophy. Due to the pandemic, my first year at USC was entirely online. Everett Zoomed in to one of my classes from his workshop where he kept his jazz guitars and the tools to fix them. He struck me as both a performer and a repairman. This dual identity perhaps explained his literary mastery: by fixing the issues in the art-making process, he learned the fundamentals of the craft which in turn granted him more freedom in performing in the arts.
I’d like to
consider 2021 as a year of convalescence. Worldwide, cities have to regain
normalcy and vivacity from lockdowns; people have to recover from the loss of
their close ones, jobs, and social connections. Personally, I am trying to live
with the loss of my grandma, an ongoing separation from my parents, and a lack
of motivation to write.
Once again, I
take shelter in literature.
three books have offered me the greatest comfort this year.
Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson
Had I not been commissioned to translate her works into Chinese, I wouldn’t have known the domestic horror elements in her stories originate from her real life. As an American woman in the mid-20th century, Jackson fulfilled the expectation of a housewife and mother. She was responsible for raising four children, cleaning, cooking, grocery shopping, and walking dogs. Her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, was a well-known literary critic at the time. He was frank about his philandering and insisted on sharing all the details with Jackson. While she struggled with terrible anxiety and depression, he sat at his desk and chewed over the state of American literature.
Reading the stories Jackson wrote in her later life, I don’t know which terrifies me more, her life or her writing? Several pieces in Dark Tales begin with the women protagonists’ impulses to leave home, murder their husbands, or surrender to their husbands’ deadly violence. Jackson showcased a rare brilliance in digging into the women’s psychology. Take “The Honeymoon of Mrs. Smith.” A neighbor warns the newlywed Mrs. Smith that her husband looks exactly like the serial wife killer in the newspaper. Not surprised at all, Mrs. Smith shows her husband’s nearly-empty drawer and closet to the neighbor. “I cannot leave him only because of my suspicion,” Mrs. Smith says. “But even if I find a knife in his coat pocket, what does it prove anyways?” Shirley seems to question how one can even know whom their partner is.
Take another story, “Louisa, Please Come Home.” Two years after she ran away from home, Louisa returns to meet her parents and sister. Her family—who have been looking for her through radios and newspapers—accuses Louisa of being a con artist. “Ask me questions,” Louisa pleads. “What does it matter?” her sister asks. “All the answers are in the newspaper.” A chill ran down my spine as I found that I, too, might not be able to prove who I was.
It would be ruthless to say that Jackson owed the depth of her writing to the torment of her marriage. As a reader, I only feel fortunate that her talent was undefeatable and that we get to see the real horror of being a particular kind of American wife and mother in the 1950s and ’60s.
Othello by William Shakespeare
In the fall semester, I took a seminar on Shakespeare with professor Rebecca Lemon at the University of Southern California. Professor Lemon drew our attention to particular key words and inspired us to see the texts through a different lens.
Among all the plays we revisited in that class, Othello horrified me the most. For a long period of time, most Shakespeare scholars claimed that Othello is not about race. But the tragedy has everything to do with race.
Iago, the villain, tries to make Othello believe the infidelity of his innocent wife. I am not surprised by how relentless Iago is to commit his crime. Nor am I astonished to see that Othello falls into Iago’s evil plot and kills Desdemona in the end. What saddens me is the fact that, by stepping into Iago’s trap, Othello fulfills the narrative the Venetians fabricate about the Moors, as jealous, lustful, violent, and full of witchcraft. The Venetians believed this in the beginning of the play and even more so after Desdemona’s end. When Othello realizes his mistake, his last request is “Speak of me as I am.” Unlike Hamlet who has his friend Horatio to recount the full story, Othello does not have anyone to represent him fairly.
Representation in today’s media is still questionable in many ways. But Othello does provide us with a rule of thumb: we have to speak of others as they are.
The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa, translated from Japanese by Robert Hass
I read the haiku by Basho, Buson, and Issa while I was in middle school in China. But this year, Kobayashi Issa never felt so close. Issa had an extremely miserable life. He lost his mother as a child. After his father remarried, Issa did not get along with his stepmother or stepbrother. At the age of 14, his father sent Issa to Edo to study. Issa spent decades drifting around until his father died. He thought he could finally come back to his hometown to live, but his stepbrother did not let go of their father’s estate. Even after the brothers reached an agreement with the help of a Buddhist monk, Issa’s later years continued to be turbulent. He lost his first wife and three children in infancy, had a brief second marriage, and suffered the burning down of his family house.
If you know nothing about his real life, Issa’s poems may strike you as if they were composed by a carefree person. “Don’t worry, spiders,/ I keep house/ casually.” “Mosquito at my ear—/ does he think/ I’m deaf?” “A huge frog and I/ staring at each other,/ neither of us moves.” His imagination seem so spontaneous, free, almost childlike. But it is because he understood being vulnerable that he felt great empathy and sympathy for all the critters in the world. He might be the only poet who advocated the existence of flies: “Look, don’t kill that fly!/ It is making a prayer to you/ By rubbing its hands and feet.”
Issa’s perhaps most famous haiku reads, “In this world/ we walk on the roof of hell,/ gazing at flowers.” If we ever find ourselves in a dark period of our lives, don’t forget that we always have flowers blooming around us.
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After spending almost a year translating English professor Laura Dassow Walls’s most recent biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life, I was finally done. I thought I deserved some celebration, something fun, fiction perhaps. So, I took The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction from my bookshelf and flipped to a random page: “A Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka. At first, I was disappointed at the serendipity. As a teenager, I had read the story twice in Chinese —it revolves around a weird man who starves to death for a performance—but I decided to go with the flow. This time, the story made me tremble. You may think I say this because my mind was still full of Thoreau, but it is true: “A Hunger Artist” is a portrait of Thoreau’s life.
Thoreau is now widely regarded as a nature writer and political activist, but a close look at both his life and works suggests an inherent performative quality. Take Walden and “Civil Disobedience,” two of his most famous pieces. He displayed his rejection of industrialization and materialism by living by the lake for two years, two months and two days; after being confined for one night in a Concord jail, he wrote “Civil Disobedience,” which embodied his resistance to slavery and the Mexican-American War. As Laura Dassow Walls beautifully puts it, Thoreau, known for his endeavors in “the experiment of life,” aspired “to turn life itself, even the simplest acts of life, into a form of art.” However, this performance artist side also makes him controversial.
For example, during his Walden years, the practitioner of avowed self-sufficiency went back home every weekend for dinner, and his mother probably did his laundry. Hypocrite? Yes, that’s what Kathryn Schulz calls him in her famous 2015 New Yorker piece, “Pond Scum.” But I wonder if hypocrisy is avoidable in any public staging: any dramatized gesture might strike others as fake. The problem of performance is also far more complicated than that. With any expressive art form, something is always lost along the way; this results in a disparity between what the performers think of their acts and what the audience takes away from them.
Shortly before his suicide, David Foster Wallace wrote a short critique of Kafka’s humor in “Laughing with Kafka”: “Kafka’s comedy is always also tragedy, and this tragedy always also an immense and reverent joy.” It is Wallace’s style to drop bombs of recondite wisdom without further explanation. But he offers an interesting lens through which to view both the hunger artist and Thoreau: while they offer their lives as tragic, the audience always receives them as comic.
Both Kafka’s hunger artist and Thoreau, in their own ways, have very serious religious motivations. The fictional character is a fasting performer, and the climax of his show “was fixed by his impresario at forty days,” a loud echo of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ’s journey into the desert. In American Nonviolence: A History of an Idea, theology professor Ira Chernus argues, “Thoreau’s religious life, which was for him the sum total of his life, was a quest for direct experience of this spiritual process of ultimate reality.” To Thoreau, God’s “Higher Laws” manifest most strongly in nature, where he first saw the interconnectedness of all reality. For example, in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Thoreau was shaken by the image of innocent fishes thrown into the hydraulic machinery of the Billerica Dam. Soon, he saw similar power and injustice rampant in human society: slaves controlled by their owners; Native Americans expelled by Anglo Immigrants; Mexicans threatened by the war of conquest. Thoreau’s various roles—spiritual seeker, writer, abolitionist, naturalist, and environmentalist—aligned with one another in his religious pursuit; he tried to live up to his moral ideals.
However, in a modern world, serious religious practices happen and stay in the church. In the public sphere, a secular audience tends to receive everything—religious performance included—as entertainment. Therefore, the more seriously the performers act, the more entertaining they become. As Kafka writes: “He made no secret of this, yet people did not believe him, at best they set him down as modest, most of them, however, thought he was out for publicity or else was some kind of cheat who found it easy to fast because he had discovered a way of making it easy, and then had the impudence to admit the fact, more or less.” Because nobody fasts anymore, only Kafka’s hunger artist knows that fasting is the easiest thing in the world. But even a simple message like this gets warped by the public’s skepticism.
The last thought in the quote—“some kind of cheat”—is the same accusation Schultz levels against Thoreau’s grand Walden show: he “kept going home for cookies and company.” (Note the secular word choice here.) Yet Thoreau is a bit different than Kafka’s performer. The reason Thoreau had to head back to Concord so often is perhaps more daunting, not more cheerful. As Walls explains in her biography, “Thoreau kept on taking jobs as the town handyman, just as he’d done for years—jobs on which he depended for his modest but still necessary income.” He did carpentry, painted houses, and built fences for a dollar a day. He didn’t live comfortably in his cabin, romanticizing his ascetic life as Schultz implies. Thoreau’s Walden years were as difficult as the rest of his early life. Evidence suggests that he didn’t even have a “loo” in his “lake house.” But in Thoreau’s time, even the poverty he wore as a badge seemed ridiculous to others. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau’s mentor and close friend, tried to reason with Thoreau’s actions from a secular perspective, but he too ended up with contempt: “I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition.”
Any human flaws and distress can often strike a humorous note in a secular context. Our laughter has a cruel nature; we take pleasure feeling superior to others. Take physical appearance, for example. Centuries ago, Aristotle had already identified the link between ugliness and comedy in Poetics: “Comedy, as we have said, is a representation of inferior people, not indeed in the full sense of the word bad, but the laughable is a species of the base or ugly. It consists of some blunder or ugliness that does not cause pain or disaster…” Charlie Chaplin was devastatingly handsome, but he knew that he needed a toothbrush mustache, a derby hat, and a duck-like gait to appear comical. In “A Hunger Artist,” Kafka adopted an “anti-hero” to add to the character’s absurdity. He looks “pallid in black tights, with his ribs sticking out so prominently.” He is so odd that the only suitable place for him is in a cage among the straws. Nobel Prize Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is a similar story. The protagonist—the supposed “angel”—is bald, toothless, and has “huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked.” To match his appearance, he is shut in a chicken coop. Similarly, and unfortunately, Thoreau was born ugly. When the soon-to-be famous author Nathaniel Hawthorne came to live in Concord in 1842, he thought the 25-year-old Thoreau “a singular character…ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat macabre behavior Although Hawthorne would later claim that Thoreau’s ugliness suited his honest and agreeable character, I find his use of the expression “ugly as sin” very interesting. Today, the phrase has lost much of its religious connotation; at the time, however, Thoreau’s sorry appearance seemed to suggest some hidden, inner flaw. Not only because he lacked the charisma that naturally accompanies beauty, but because his failure to live up to God’s image seemed to contradict his self-portrait of a god-like, moral man.
Through performance, ugliness—among other human flaws—is received by the audience as otherness. (Consider, for example, our reaction to Chaplin’s characters: it is not that they look ugly—well, they do—but that they look odd, and thus hilarious.) Still, we must remember, as Aristotle says, that the strangeness must not “cause pain or disaster,” or else people won’t laugh. Wallace uses the phrase “entertainment as reassurance” to distinguish American humor (think about Tom and Jerry) from Kafka’s humor. Wallace suggests that Kafka’s jokes are unsettling and thus inaccessible to American college students. But I think the balance between eccentricity and comedy is present in Kafka’s stories; it is the audience, not Kafka, searching for “reassurance.”
From the very beginning, eccentricity offends people because it violates social norms. In “What Is to Be Done about the Problem of Creepy Men?,” her discussion about people’s judgment of “creepiness,” law scholar Heidi Matthews reminds us that our “gut” has more to do with “regulating the boundaries of social mores than keeping us safe.” She has a point there, but I would argue that social norms are our primary source of security. So, to cope with the uncanniness of eccentricity in others, we try to explain their behaviors in a way that will solidify the validity of our social rules.
Consider the media coverage of any appalling crime. The first thing journalists do is to seek out explanations for the macabre behavior, which is usually when the family shit comes in. We are satisfied with the fact that the perpetrator was, for example, abused by his father in his childhood. We feel safe because, as long as we prescribe family values to our children, they won’t grow into psychopaths. Wallace, in the same essay on Kafka’s humor, mentions some of the tropes Kafka plays on in “A Hunger Artist.” The word “anorexia” shares the same etymological root with the Greek word for “longing.” Therefore, we can read the protagonist’s strange behavior as “starved for attention or love-starved.” We don’t know whether or not he fasts in order to build connections with people; yet when we believe that he does, we are not troubled by his strange conduct.
Then, to further strengthen our wounded sense of security, we emphasize the otherness of the “other” even more. When someone commits a horrifying crime, the newspapers are eager to interview his classmates, teachers, neighbors, and even those who only had chance encounters with him; they are searching for any possible hints to the nature of his otherness. Therefore, as readers, we feel relieved that we can always detect those signs in a potential criminal and thus avoid danger. Also, because the odd—as the word and its synonyms suggest—are rare, once we lock them up, we will be fine. Once we feel secure, we can devour their eccentricity with pleasure in the same way we relish celebrity gossip.
It is no coincidence that the stories mentioned above—“A Hunger Artist” and “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”—both apply metaphors of confinement: the cage and chicken coop. We keep distinct boundaries between us and the other; as long as these boundaries are in place, freak shows are amusing. Yet, the most disturbing moment comes when the eccentric claim they are no different than us, that they abide by social norms, and that we should see ourselves in them. Towards the end of Kafka’s story, the hunger artist confesses he is a normal person:
“Are you still fasting?” asked the overseer, “when on earth do you mean to stop?” “Forgive me, everybody,” whispered the hunger artist; only the overseer, who had his ear to the bars, understood him. “Of course,” said the overseer, and tapped his forehead with a finger to let the attendants know what state the man was in, “we forgive you.” “I always wanted you to admire my fasting,” said the hunger artist. “We do admire it,” said the overseer, affably. “But you shouldn’t admire it,” said the hunger artist. “Well then we don’t admire it,” said the overseer, “but why shouldn’t we admire it?” “Because I have to fast, I can’t help it,” said the hunger artist. “What a fellow you are,” said the overseer, “and why can’t you help it?” “Because,” said the hunger artist, lifting his head a little and speaking, with his lips pursed, as if for a kiss, right into the overseer’s ear, so that no syllable might be lost, “because I couldn’t find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.” These were his last words, but in his dimming eyes remained the firm though no longer proud persuasion that he was still continuing to fast.
This is the moment when we lose our laughter. The artist hints at a possibility that any of us could become him as simple as that. But Kafka is still able to maintain the comedy by showing people’s desperation in clinging to their safety nets. In the story, the way people forget the strange artist is by buttressing his otherness. After his death, a panther is put into the cage to replace him. Unlike the pathetic fasting performer, the animal is full of life and shows no nostalgia about his freedom. The ending achieves two things. First, it erases people’s sad memories by offering something completely different. Second, it reassures people of otherness. For example, if someone should mention the hunger artist again, people can point at the animal cage, suggesting the late performer was not even human.
There is a similar tension between Thoreau’s lifelong performance and his spectators. Many readers, though they admire him, find his self-righteous and didactic tone unbearable. (Consider this quote in the opening chapter of Walden: “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”) I tend to view these “teachings” as his confessions; I can even imagine him speaking in the same voice of the hunger artist: I have to live a principled life, I can’t help it…I couldn’t find an existing ethical lifestyle.
Thoreau, like Kafka’s hunger artist, was addicted to confessing. He admitted his hypocrisy. He fussed about human nature. Take his attitude toward eating meat: when he was with friends, he ate whatever was served. But alone in the woods, he interrogated himself about the ethics of eating animals. “I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized.” He also groaned about the immoral modern world of which he was a part. After he took to natural science, he questioned its ethics: “The inhumanity of science concerns me as when I am tempted to kill a rare snake that I may ascertain its species—I feel that this is not the means of acquiring true knowledge.” When land surveying finally brought him steady income at the age of 32, he found himself becoming an accomplice in destroying his beloved nature. The forest he had surveyed just a year ago was clear-cut and subdivided into fifty-two house lots by its owner. “Trade curses everything it handles,” Thoreau remarked. His reaction resonated with his antipathy towards commerce back in his Harvard years: materialism, he said in a debate, “enslaves us, turns us into brutes. To be human is to cast off these material desires and walk forth, freely, into paradise.” Ironically, even his most honest gesture to fight against immorality seems suspicious and hence quixotic. “You all know,” he warned his neighbors in his first public speech in Concord, “the lecturer who speaks against money is being paid for his words—and that’s the lesson you remember.”
Thoreau’s words are disturbing to us because they reveal our hypocrisy. We don’t want to be plagued by moral quandaries every minute of our lives. In truth—like the aforementioned fictional characters—Thoreau “lived in a cage” throughout his performance career, as he spent much of his time in isolation. On the one hand, he never joined any political organization. His faith in individualism was consistent with his faith in moral freedom promised by God. Thoreau was cautious to avoid any coercion and believed “shared religious or moral values will enhance community only if they are adopted voluntarily.” On the other hand, the public was eager to paint his heroic singularity into eccentricity. After that work was done, his audience could proudly conclude that Thoreau’s solitude led to his isolation; it was his personal fault, and the spectators were let off the hook. “Poor Thoreau,” Schulz derides him in her New Yorker article. “He, too, was the victim of a kind of shipwreck—for reasons of his own psychology, a castaway from the rest of humanity.” Schulz’s criticism was typical during Thoreau’s lifetime. After Thoreau’s imprisonment, Emerson defended his own adherence to the social norm—paying tax—by scolding his young friend: “Your true quarrel is with the state of Man.” When people laughed at Thoreau’s quirkiness, they successfully simplified and silenced his message. That is why, in her same-titled essay “Civil Disobedience,” Hanna Arendt doubts Thoreau’s politics by quoting scholar Nicholas W. Puner: “Civil disobedience practiced by a single individual is unlikely to have much effect. He will be regarded as an eccentric more interesting to observe than to oppress.”
For Wallace, the central comedy of Kafka’s work is the horrific struggle that Kafka’s characters undergo to establish and confirm their human selves. Wallace’s view reminds me of Albert Camus’s final analysis on Sisyphus in The Myth of Sisyphus: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Whereas one can only speculate about the heart of Kafka’s characters or Sisyphus, Thoreau exuded joy and hope. Since the Fugitive Slave Act passed by Congress in 1850, he had been grilling himself with this dreadful query: “I walk toward one of our ponds, but what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base?” But Thoreau never let himself wallow in despair. In a journal entry that would later appear in the ending of “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau captured a silver lining in nature: “But it chanced the other day that I scented a white water-lily, and a season I had waited for had arrived. It is the emblem of purity.” As Walls argues, rooted in “the slime and muck of earth,” those pure, fragrant flowers symbolize Thoreau’s belief in the “purity and courage” that will be born of “the sloth and vice of man, the decay of humanity.”
Though Thoreau and Kafka’s characters may experience a similarly absurd reality during their lifetimes, their afterlives are as different as night and day. The characters in Kafka’s fiction are often trapped in time. The hunger artist has to repeat the 40-day performance over and over again. Gregor, in The Metamorphosis, is first urged by human time and then tormented by bug-time. In the eponymous short story, Kafka’s Poseidon is burdened with endless paperwork and never gets to see the oceans. (Yes, another tragedy turned comedy!) The only thing that saves them from the labyrinth of time is death—which, then again, leads to nothingness, meaninglessness, and the irredeemable. In contrast, as Walls shows in her biography, Thoreau was able to believe in “the constant slow work of creation” by enlarging the scale of time:
It was easy to see destruction, which is sudden and spectacular: everyone hears the crash of a falling tree. But who hears the growth of a tree, the constant slow work of creation? “Nature is slow but sure.” She wins the race by perseverance; she knows that seeds have many uses, not just to reproduce their kind. “If every acorn of this year’s crop is destroyed, never fear! She has more years to come.” Here was his [Thoreau’s] solution to the baffling waste of the white oak crop: what made no sense on a human scale could be understood by lengthening the measure of time to the scale of the planet. The man who was running out of time now thought as if he had all the time, literally, in the world.
Consequently, Thoreau’s death transcends him into a living soul in his books—pure and bodiless—the state he longed for when he was alive. Over time and space, he himself facilitates creation in the way he favored: he inspires his readers to grow voluntarily, freely, and deliberately. Among them, probably two of the most famous Thoreauvian readers are Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Roughly a century after Thoreau’s death, both Gandhi and Dr. King put Thoreau’s philosophy into practice. In India and the United States, officers resigned their posts, jails were filled with conscious objectors, and the “machinery” of the unjust system was “clogged.” Through his seemingly ineffective political struggle, Thoreau was able to elevate those that came after him to a different point in that struggle.
While people today still find themselves stuck in absurd, Kafkaesque situations, we mustn’t deny the slow but sure progress of human civilization: the abolition of slavery, the creation of the national park service, women’s suffrage, the end of segregation—just to name some of the most visible examples in the United States. Indeed, as Thoreau once wrote in a letter to Harry Blake, a Harvard Divinity School graduate, “It is not in vain that man speaks to man. This is the value of literature.” Despite all the voyeurism, blasphemy, and suppression, Thoreau’s life of performance art is truly an immense and reverent joy.
Ever since I announced that I had started reading War and Peace, more than one person has warned me about its ending, particularly of its female protagonist, Natasha. “The more you like her in the beginning,” a friend said firmly, “the more disappointed you’ll be toward the end.”
My friend is right. I fell in love with Natasha at first sight, when the thirteen-year-old girl scampers into the room, embracing a doll and laughing her loud, contagious laughter. My favor for her grows when she nags her mother about what dessert will be served for that night, and when later, on a sleepless night, she expresses her wish to fly to the moon. Even her affair with Anatole cannot remove me from her fan club. I try not to see her as only a naïve girl readily seduced by a playboy, but a courageous young woman who is willing to pay the price for giving her heart. (She uses the word “love” to define her relationship with Anatole.) I admire her kindness and tenacity in tending to Andrei on his deathbed, her ex-fiancé who broke off their engagement when he learned she was unfaithful. Perhaps like Andrei and Pierre in the fiction, I am drawn to Natasha’s vivacity and, more importantly, her tremendous joy that is independent of any external condition; as Andrei once marvels, “this slender and pretty girl did not know and did not want to know of his existence and was content and happy with some separate—probably stupid—but cheerful and happy life of her own.”
My frustration with the ending comes not as a surprise. Natasha turns out the very opposite of what she used to be. Seven years after she marries Pierre, she has “filled out and broadened,” her inner fire for life has extinguished, and her contentment derives from the one and only source: her husband and children.
Like any movie viewer who is unhappy with a tragic ending of her beloved character, I accuse the director of his personal malevolence. Tolstoy, I decide, has a very narrow understanding of women at best, or is a hidden misogynist at worst.
We have every reason to suspect him. Unlike Gustave Flaubert, who famously said that he had to let Madame Bovary die because that decision was made by aesthetics, Leo Tolstoy is known as both an artist and a preacher. This does not only refer to the fact that War and Peace is interpolated with large prosy passages about history but also, as critic James Wood observes, the two seemly distinctive selves of Tolstoy are intertwined. (James Wood, “War and Peace: Many Stories, Many Lives”) In other words, Tolstoy is sermonizing while telling a story.
Tolstoy is very emphatic and specific about our takeaways from his tales. Take his anti-war message. Almost all the male characters start out harboring a youthful passion about the Great Men and the war. Tolstoy uses a romantic language to describe Nikolai Rostov’s adoration of the tsar: Nikolai fantasizes what “happiness” it would be “simply to die before the eyes of the sovereign,” and realizes that he is “indeed in love with the tsar.” Later, the exact same language is applied to depict the feelings that Petya—Nikolai’s younger brother—holds for his leader in the army, Dolokhov: in one scene, Petya is too infatuated to let go of Dolokhov’s hand; rather, he leans toward him and requests a kiss. Romance, almost by definition, suggests an ignorance of reality and admits illusion and falsehood. Soon, we attest to those characters’ awakening. After seeing the self-satisfied emperors and many devastated soldiers and civilians, Nikolai rids himself of all the halos of a glorious death. “We’re told to die—and we die,” he concludes, “If we’re punished, it means we’re guilty; it’s not for us to judge.” Similar moments of disillusionment can be found in Andrei’s and Pierre’s wartime experience. Petya, who doesn’t have enough time to acquire this insight, is shot to death in a battle. Nevertheless, you won’t miss Tolstoy’s emphasis: Dolokhov, Petya’s Great Man, doesn’t even bother to bury the dead admirer.
We may easily trace those morals to Tolstoy’s personal answers to the big questions he poses in the book. For example, he rejects the pervasive notion that Great Men determine the trajectory of history. Adopting the preacher’s voice, he argues in the beginning of Volume Three, Part Two, “the drawing of Napoleon into the depths of the country [Russia] occurred not according to someone’s plan, but occurred as the result of the most complex interplay of intrigues, aims, and desires of the people participating in the war […] It all occurs by chance.” In that regard, the enlightenment those male characters have attained during the war are artistic footnotes to Tolstoy’s outlook. There is also his answer to what a “true life” is, the philosophical inquiry that firstly loomed large before Tolstoy out of his fear of death: How can there be a meaning of life that is not canceled out by the inevitability of death? Tolstoy, through a lengthy spiritual journey, has found the key in faith and collectivity. Faith, as he wrote in A Confession, is the “meaning imparted by infinity—a meaning not extinguished by suffering, deprivation or death.” Collectivity, as a way out of one’s clinging to immortality, points to the possibility of a union with others through love. (Tolstoy, On Life.) Even though both essay collections, A Confession and On Life, were composed after War and Peace, the Tolstoian characters in the great novel have already come to the same conclusion, and their revelation arrives precisely at the moment when they are facing death. “I experienced the feeling of love,” the dying Andrei murmurs in hallucination, “which is the very essence of the soul and which needs no object. Now, too, I am experiencing that blissful feeling. To love my neighbors, to love my enemies. To love everything—to love God in all His manifestations.” Andrei’s epiphany is interchangeable with the lesson Pierre has acquired after he barely escapes death himself: “He could have no purpose, because he now had faith—not faith in some rules, or words, or thoughts, but faith in a living, ever-sensed God.” Andrei and Pierre’s revelation serves as the dramatic underlining of Tolstoy’s own philosophy of life.
This pronounced intention of storytelling complicates our perspective of Natasha’s ending: Is the abandonment of personhood Tolstoy’s ideal picture for women? Clues that support this hypothesis abound. First, we have the omniscient narrator’s explanation for Natasha’s disinterest in talks regarding women’s rights:
These questions, then as now, existed only for those people who see in marriage nothing but the pleasure the spouses get from each other, that is, nothing but the beginnings of marriage, and not its whole insignificance, which consists in the family.
[The same questions do not exist] for whom the purpose of a dinner is nourishment and the purpose of marriage is the family. (Tolstoy, War and Peace)
Arguably, the voice belongs to Tolstoy. Later in What Is Art, he draws a similar analogy between dinner and art:
People come to understand that the meaning of eating lies in the nourishment of the body only when they cease to consider that the object of that activity is pleasure. And it is the same with regard to art. People will come to understand the meaning of art only when they cease to consider that the aim of that activity is beauty, i.e., pleasure.
If family, as Tolstoy claims, is the only true purpose of marriage, it is logical that he applauds Natasha’s motherhood as the only true purpose of womanhood—even at a price of losing her individuality. As a matter of fact, we can find a personal note in Tolstoy’s real life to this, what seems now, very limited view of women. Like Pierre in War and Peace, the young Tolstoy lived a life of indulgence; he once confessed to Anton Chekhov that he had been “an indefatigable chaser after women.” In “Tolstoy the Apostolic Crusader,” scholar Rene Rueloep-Miller observes that after his famous conversion, the great author “regarded women as evil because they threatened to awaken man’s sensuality and to provoke what he called ‘the sin of fleshliness.” Tolstoy even recorded his generalization of women on the page: “Women are harmless only when they are wholly engrossed in the duties of motherhood, or when they have acquired the venerability of old age.” (Rueloep-Miller, “Tolstoy the Apostolic Crusader”)
In that light, every change that happens to Natasha in the end substantiates Tolstoy’s dichotomy of women’s virtues and physical attraction. In the novel, this dichotomy is also illustrated by a stark contrast between Pierre’s previous and present wife. Helene is extremely beautiful and always brags about a string of lovers. Natasha, when in her prime, almost sins by eloping with Anatole while she is still engaged to Andrei. However, as she grows obese, plain, and dull in the wake of marriage, she no longer poses threat to her husband’s moral integrity; rather, her lack of charm is sufficient proof of Pierre’s lofty mind: Pierre has finally learned “to see the great, the eternal, and the infinite in everything,” and leads a content life of simplicity. Interestingly, Tolstoy adds a nationalistic note to this outlook: the preservation of self, talent, and appearance after marriage is very “French,” with a prejudiced undertone of immorality. In contrast, the selfless, charmless, and very often mindless Natasha epitomizes Tolstoy’s authentic Russian women.
This type of transformation doesn’t happen to Natasha alone. Princess Marya who used to be a fervent spiritual seeker is also reduced to a mother and wife after marriage. Her religious side which previously gained Nikolai’s respect is no longer shown; instead, same as Natasha, she displays a complete failure in connecting to her husband’s intellectual concerns. The only difference between Princess Marya and Natasha is perhaps that the former doesn’t have the urgency to grow out of shape, since she has been stamped as ugly from the very beginning.
James Wood notices that Tolstoy’s storytelling has a lot in common with fairytales. For one thing, Tolstoy sometimes begins an episode with a throat-clearing “Here is how it came about.” (Wood, “War and Peace: Many Stories, Many Lives.”) The objects and plants in War and Peace sometimes can talk. (An oak tree once exclaims, “Spring, and love, and happiness!”) Also, Tolstoy punctuates the characters with their physical attributes: the “fat” Pierre; Prince Vassily with his “shinning bald head”; the “round” Little Princess. Yet, the most fundamental similarity Tolstoy’s stories share with fairytales is perhaps character “types.”
The good, married female type can also be found in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s other masterpiece. Kitty, a pretty, lively girl before marriage and a faithful, devoted mother after marriage, reminds readers of Natasha. And, like Natasha and Marya, Kitty is indifferent to her husband Levin’s intellectual side. The lofty, converted male types may include Levin. Just as Pierre gets to appreciate the simple beauty in life after his encounter with the peasant foot soldier Platon Karataev, Levin returns to his childhood Christian faith after talking to a peasant. Even though Levin doesn’t transform immediately, he believes that faith will eventually guide his life toward righteousness.
In essence, this is precisely how fairytales convey their morals: ascribing good or bad endings to different types. The beautiful, kind princesses always win the heart of the handsome, brave princes and vice versa; together they live happily ever after. In other words, virtues such as kindness, courage, and loyalty are always rewarded in fairytales. However, the real world is hardly—if ever—that simple. In a similar and yet more complicated way, Tolstoy tries to convince us that a submission to suffering promises a fulfilled, joyous life. Take the story about an old merchant that Platon Karataev tells Pierre when they are both taken prisoners by the French. The old merchant is wrongly charged for manslaughter and robbery and sent to hard labor. Coincidentally, the real culprit happens to be in the same labor camp with him. Feeling profoundly sorry for the innocent merchant’s suffering, the culprit writes a note to confess. With time, the tsar finally orders the release of the merchant. But when the message finds the poor man, he has already died. “The hardest and most blissful thing is to love this life in one’s suffering, in the guiltlessness of suffering,” so Pierre summarizes the moral he has drawn from the tale. The story itself and the “rapturous joy” Karataev exudes when telling the story make me uneasy. Although I concede that suffering may potentially offer a deeper understanding of life, I wouldn’t go so far as to say all sufferings are meaningful and therefore necessary. But it is hard to push back. Tolstoy hijacks our way of thinking by imposing a religious condition: you don’t appreciate the significance of suffering because you don’t believe all is God’s will; if you have faith, you will agree with me. No, Tolstoy, that’s not a fair play.
The danger of preaching through types is that those types are no longer various personalities, but absolute moral judgement. In fairytales, for example, one of the most common villain types is the stepmother. With perpetuation and reinforcement, a moral connotation is carried directly through this identity, regardless of its specific contexts. We are imparted this false “rule of thumb”: all stepmothers are evil. This is what happens to Tolstoy’s female types. His bias of women wears the garment of universal truth: either they are attractive, childless, and morally suspicious charmers, or plain, dumb, dedicated mothers. He murders the energetic and pretty Natasha because he doesn’t believe women could be both glamorous and virtuous. He is responsible for Natasha’s death.
As a modern woman, I always stay alert when reading the portrait of women of the past. The married Natasha who speaks only her husband’s mind can easily find company in many other stories. In Chekhov’s short story “The Darling,” which was once reviewed by Tolstoy, whenever the female protagonist, Olenka Plemyannikova is attached to a man, she becomes a tape recorder of his opinions. There is also the story by Hans Christian Andersen, “What the Old Man Does Is Always Right,” in which the wife applauds her husband’s each and every stupid decision. Those characters do not necessarily bother me, as I know those kinds of women exist in a miscellaneous collection of humanity. But when I stumbled upon Margaret Schlegel in E. M. Forster’s novel, Howards End, I couldn’t hold still. Margaret and her younger sister Helen represent the “New Woman” type: independent, compassionate, and liberal-thinking. Earlier in the novel, when Margaret hosts a luncheon for Ruth, the matriarch of the wealthy Wilcoxes, Margaret is in every way the opposite of this conventional woman in service of her husband and family. When Ruth utters her belief that “it is wiser to leave action and discussion to men” and her gratitude in “not to have a vote herself,” the table falls into a polite but alarming silence. Unfortunately, after Margaret replaces the deceased Ruth to become the new Mrs. Wilcox, she accommodates herself to the role by taking her husband’s words as orders. It pained me to see her suspect the cold and distant notes Helen has written to her as signs of mental illness; she absorbs this thought from her practical-minded husband Henry who always defines Helen’s attraction to spiritualism, music, literature, and art as clinically-defined “hysteria.” For a certain period of time in that fictional world, Margaret the New Woman—with all her advanced knowledge and progressive ideas—falls back helplessly to a conventional woman type which she refused to be before marriage.
The unsettling picture reminds me of a remark my college professor once made about his female classmates: “I am really sad to see those who used to talk about philosophy and art now only discuss infant formula and diapers.” It may sound insensitive as uttered by a man, but I, too, have mixed feelings when seeing some of my female Chinese friends switch from a challenging job they enjoyed to a stable, routine bureaucratic position so they would have more time for their family. Like Margaret, they have turned into the women they once swore not to be. Viewing Natasha through the same lens, I guess what upsets me the most—more than her tragic loss in physical glamor and personhood—is a retrogression of her life trajectory. Spiritually speaking, the Natasha in the Epilogue is not that different from her thirteen-year-old self when she first emerges: bundling a doll in her skirt, she proudly tells her guest, “This is my younger one.” It feels as if she hasn’t advanced an inch of length in her spiritual journey with all the events she has been through in her life.
Almost all the male characters in War and Peace, on the contrary, have undergone a certain level of intellectual and psychological transformation. Take Pierre. He first appears as the illegitimate son of Count Vladimirovich and as a depraved young man. He is placed in the company of Anatole and Dolokhov; the three of them drink, gamble, and tie a policeman to a bear merely for fun. But through failures, struggles, and revelations, Pierre ripens into a New Man: kind, wise, content, a symbolic figure of the future Russian revolutionary. Tolstoy builds noticeable parallels between the two main characters: Pierre and Natasha. They are both seduced by extremely attractive lovers, and they both face the death of their loved ones toward the end. However, while the death of Karataev triggers Pierre’s rebirth, the death of Andrei is subject to oblivion for Natasha to move on. According to Tolstoy, whether the problem of death would initiate a revelation depends on whether the thinker confronts death concretely and corporeally. Pierre does. What ends Karataev’s life may have ended his too. The fear, anxiety, and despair pushes him to find a resolution or reconciliation in faith. Natasha doesn’t. Though heartbroken to see her ex-fiancé die, she is not threatened by war or illness or death, nor does she feel the urgency to search for the true purpose of life. In fact, all the Tolstoian female characters, domestically bound, fail to attain revelation through life experience as their male counterparts do. When Nikolai is awarded the St. George Cross, for example, Natasha’s initial response is “I’m so proud of him,” so are Sonya and Nikolai’s mother. However, exposed to the brutal nature of the war, Nikolai has already grown ambivalent about the decoration. I am not defending Tolstoy, but the huge discrepancies in the level of male and female life experience might partially explain his stiff portrait of women’s incapacity to connect with their husbands intellectually and spiritually.
Then again, this conundrum itself is a patriarchal social construct. Women’s lack of exposure to life experience outside the home originates from men commanding women to stay at home. In War and Peace, we can also see a curious parallel between Pierre’s and Marya’s religious pursuit. Pierre runs into a “traveler” who will introduce him to Masonry. But, when later he meets Marya’s wanderer woman, he speculates that Marya is dumb enough to have been deceived by a false monk. “It’s a trick,” Pierre blurts out. He does not realize that Masonry also craves his wallet, neither is he aware that the war itself is the biggest trick. As a woman, Marya does not have the freedom to wander and gain spiritual experience. She can only imagine herself walking in “coarse rags,” “with a stick and a bag down a dusty road,” and in the end arrive at the place “where there is no sorrow or sighing, but eternal joy and bliss.” That is the exact image of Pierre after his moral conversion: “Pierre’s clothing now consisted of a dirty, tattered shirt, the only remains of his former attire, a soldier’s trousers, tied with string at the ankles for the sake of warmth, on Karataev’s advice, a kaftan, and a muzhik’s hat, […] His former laxness, expressed even in his gaze, was now replaced by an energetic composure, ready for action and resistance. His feet were bare.” Clearly, Marya’s confinement in a conventional gender role prevents her from transforming into a New Woman.
Besides, the paternalistic cultural models that encourage men to protect women from potential harm often results in further restricting women’s life experience. Take the different impact that carnal love has left on Pierre and Natasha. Pierre almost kills a man out of jealousy and, reflecting on the whimsical duel, learns that his feelings for Helene are only wild lust, not love. Natasha does not seem to acquire any emotional knowledge from her aborted elopement. By driving Anatole out of town and locking Natasha up in her room, Pierre saves her reputation but stops her from possibly learning a life lesson from her failings. As a result, Natasha will fall for the next available suitor like before and her happiness will still be entirely dependent on whoever asks for her hand. This protective rhetoric is tricky because it is justified by the sad fact that women do not have the privilege to err. In Howards End, Leonard Bast—an impoverished lower-class man—summarizes the meaning of privilege sharply, “If rich people fail at one profession, they can try another. Not I.” Similarly, if a noble man like Pierre fails at his marriage, he can try remarrying, but not women, not Natasha. So the vicious circle goes on and on: the more men feel the need to prevent women from irredeemable pitfalls, the more they infantilize women.
Perhaps—and I am aware of my idealistic thinking—rather than sheltering women from the exposure to potential harm, or any life experience in general, we should instead fabricate a safety net for the underprivileged. That way, they can gain miles in their spiritual journey and, if they fail, they can start anew without paying too big a price.
Motherhood and an abandonment of individuality, in Tolstoian sense, is never a solution to women’s dilemma. (Tolstoy might even go on to deny that women faced any dilemma at all.) The final picture of Howards End as a home where the free-spirited Helen Schlegel and her extramarital son can fall back upon is closer to the concept of “safety net” which I proposed, but still, even that home is conditional on Henry Wilcox’s changeable conscience and hardly a guardian of women’s precarious lives. Nevertheless, fiction, as an agency of real life experience, engages us in the joy, shame, sorrow, and fear of others. By experiencing their struggles with women’s pressing issues concretely and corporeally, we may come to our respective resolution in reality, the same way Pierre realizes the meaning of a “true life” in facing the death of Karataev, an epiphany Natasha would have attained if given the same opportunity.
spiritual crisis this year was not triggered by the pandemic but by the trees
in St. Louis. Almost every day at noon, I took a walk to see the trees in my
neighborhood: branches reaching into the sky and leaves shimmering in the sun.
I marveled at their majesty and wanted to know what they had to say to me. To
figure that out, I downloaded a plant-identification app on my phone and paid
extra attention when I came across trees in literary works. But the more I
read, the more confused I became. The app fed me the knowledge about their
names in Latin, flowering period, the uses of their fruits and wood. Literature
offered me miscellaneous metaphorical meanings of trees: endurance of hardship,
ancient wisdom, and sense of belonging. At the end of the day, I started to
wonder whether we humans had ever seen trees as what they were or merely imposed
our desires and needs onto them.
having a picnic in a park with a friend, I catapulted the same question to him.
As soon as I finished my sentence, I looked up and saw a bird flap her wings
and fly away. “See?” I said to my friend, “I’ve scared the bird away.” Right there and then, I realized my
interpretation of the bird stemmed from a fundamentally human-centered point of
A month after that picnic, I moved to L.A. and started a new Ph.D. in English at USC. I would run into a quote by Italian Philosopher Benedetto Croce: when we peek into nature, we see only ourselves.
aside, do we really see other humans as who they are? Most of the time, we are
pleased with what we think others may have felt without asking what they have
really felt. Our family and friends may have also become the object of our hope
and fear; we love them perhaps because we love our own images in them.
do not know how or whether it is even possible to get out of a human-centered
and self-centered perspective. Here are a list of books that I read this year
in order to seek the answer.
War and Peace by Leo TolstoyOnce in an interviewwith Paul Harding, he shared the joy of reading a big book. “You get to live with it longer,” he said. “It becomes like a friend or lover.” Early this year, I ticked an item on my bucket list: reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. It is a big and rich world, and I felt fortunate to experience the lives of many different characters. Eventually, I knew why this book was a classic.
I also found the didactic quality of the novel disturbing. All the male characters
go through similar disillusionment of the Great Men and the war; they come to reconcile
with death only through religious faith. Reading Tolstoy’s essays alongside
with the novel, I realized those characters’ revelation presented Tolstoy’s own
philosophy of life. A more tricky question came up with the female character
Natasha: eventually, she abandoned her personhood and became merely a wife and
mother. That was the only happy ending Tolstoy could picture for a woman in his
time. Then again, I wonder if he did see characters as who they were or merely manipulated
them to convey his morals.
Howards End by E. M. ForsterHowards End inspires me to see the possibility of human interconnectedness. There is a lot to admire in this fantastic novel, in particular its architecture. The Wilcoxes are strong-willed, conservative, practical, and preoccupied with their material interest and social position. But they are the people who have built the British Empire in the first place. The Schlegel sisters are open-minded, idealistic, and passionate about art, music, literature, and thoughts. They represent modernity and change. Just like that, the novel beautifully epitomized the English society at an intersection of transformation.
marvelous still is Forster’s use of the gendered characteristics to display the
strength and weakness of England’s past and future. The masculine Wilcoxes
promise the country with power and stability, but they are also self-indulgent
and cruel. The feminine Helen Schlegel is kind, loving, and passionate about
social justice but oftentimes too romantic to know what responsibility really
means. The conflict between the two sides tears England into fragments.
Forster’s literary solution to this problem is another Character: Margaret
Schlegel. Childless and asexual, Margaret eventually becomes the reconciler,
connector, and communicator between the two conflicting sides.
Back to my question about egocentrism: if we cannot change my default human-centered or self-centered mindset, perhaps we could still try hard to become an intermediate and communicator.
The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter WohllebenWhen I was talking about my spiritual crisis with my friend in St. Louis, he reminded me the relation between consciousness and being. As René Descartes famously said, “I think and therefore I am.” The trees and the bird exist in my consciousness in the first place. “Only humanity has consciousness,” my friend said. “Animals and trees don’t.”
I tried to talk myself into embracing consciousness, but when I stumbled upon The Hidden Life of Trees, I learned that nonhuman beings may have consciousnesses as well, albeit in a very different sense. According to Wohlleben, trees are “social beings,” who “share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors.” Wohlleben also shows the way trees communicate with each other. On the African savannah, for example, the acacia trees refuse to feed the giraffes and thus exude toxic substances into their leaves. Those trees do not only protect themselves but also give off ethylene to warn their neighboring trees of the presence of the giraffes.
though Wohlleben adopts an anthropomorphic and thus more accessible language to
describe trees, the consciousness of trees may still help lift us at least out
of human hubris. I think that is a good start to really see nature.
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The first few chapters of Sayed Kashua’s latest novel, Track Changes, didn’t impress me much. For those acquainted with the most common tropes of immigrant fiction, the setup is familiar: one day, our narrator receives a note that his father is dying. He leaves his wife and three children in the United States and flies back to his hometown of Tira in Palestine. Gradually, we learn more about his extreme estrangement. He has not talked to his parents or siblings for 14 years. Meanwhile, his marriage in the States seems like a piece of wreckage: every night after kissing his children goodnight, he rides a bus back to his grad student dorm alone.
I wondered as I read, is this another narrative about the unbearable burdens of displacement, or about the failure of the American Dream, with a bit of mid-life crisis in disguise?
However, as the multi-layered narrative unfurled, piece by piece, like the skin of an onion, I was surprised and satisfied to see all my expectations overturned. This inventive structure drives readers, deliberately and yet subtly, into the core of a larger, abstract question regarding the nature of fiction.
In a speech last year at San Francisco State University, Kashua confessed that for him, “writing always caused a lot of troubles.” In Track Changes, the anonymous protagonist inherits a similar fate. In college, he composes a piece of precocious fiction piece that derails his life, as well as the life of a young woman he barely knows. In his story, he makes love to a female character named Palestine on the rooftop of a high school. Unfortunately, the story circulates back to Tira where there is actually a young woman of the same name. Rampant rumors abound and the protagonist is obliged to marry her.
“Fiction is never innocent,” Brett Ashley Kaplan concludes in her review of Track Changes for Haaretz. From her perspective, the novel demonstrates the potential danger of “fabrication and invention.”
I harbor mixed feelings about Kaplan’s reading. On the surface, the disastrous outcome of the protagonist’s teenage writing confirms the high stakes inherent in fictionalizing. But it is also misleading to suggest writers should abandon their creativity altogether. To me, Track Changes explores the deep roots—rather than the tragic consequences—of “fabrication and invention.”
For one thing, the novel implies that alterations of fact are inevitable. Earlier in the book, the protagonist recalls a childhood episode: a car crash that left his uncle confined to a hospital bed and killed his uncle’s wife and children. As the “good kid” of the family, the narrator is asked to stay with his uncle and hide the horrid reality from him.
“Why hasn’t your aunt come to visit?” he asked me as soon as it was just the two of us alone in the hospital room.
“I don’t know, Uncle,” I told him. “She’s probably with Omar in Petach Tikva.”
“Have you seen him [Omar]?” he asked, and I, who only that morning had seen Omar’s body, answered that I had and that he was “fine, totally fine. He even asked about you, and then we played that game that he likes with the chutes and the ladders. He beat me four to one.”
“Yes, he likes that game,” my uncle said and smiled. “You know, you’re the only one I really believe. Now I can relax. I thought the adults were lying to me. Adults always lie.”
“Never, Uncle,” I said. “I never ever lie.” And I swore to God.
What shall we, then, make of the protagonist’s lie? Is it a white lie aimed at some fundamental goodness? Or is it a betrayal of his innocence and faith? The novel is filled with such moments when we are compelled to answer those difficult questions. I take his lie as his concern for his uncle; he doesn’t want to see him hurt.
In the same vein, the narrator’s later habit of editing and altering his own and others’ memories also stems from his emotional needs. He slips his fondest childhood memories into the memoirs, which he ghostwrites because he has to get his pent-up nostalgia out. He glosses over the tension that happens in reality between him and his family members because he longs for their understanding and forgiveness. Even the short story that reshaped his entire life serves his yearning for a homeland. After all, the protagonist is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, and Palestine is a state, not a woman.
That is the complicated relation of truth to fiction: although the story is a lie, the emotions couldn’t be more real.
Ideally, if readers read the stories as what they are, the same emotions will come through and the stories will, in a way, strengthen human empathy. However, as Kashua’s sobering novel suggests, the readers participate in the reading, bringing their various presuppositions and sentiments with them.
Going back to “Palestine,” the short story that changes the protagonist’s life forever: The culture of honor that runs through the Palestinian community of the novel denies its members the space to read the story as fiction. In that regard, the protagonist and his soon-to-be wife, Palestine, are innocent; they both come under a microscope where even fiction is proof of transgression.
In 1968, psychologist Stephen Karpman theorized what is known today as the drama triangle. In this social model of human interaction, a conflict usually involves three players: the victim, the rescuer, and the persecutor. Different role-players are acting upon their own distinct needs. In Track Changes, we can see how those roles switch from one to another across a narrative depending on the characters’ needs. After the protagonist’s father wakes up in his sickbed, one of the first questions he hurls at his son is whether the latter still fabricates his memories and whether he is still the victim in those stories. The narrator does and is. Earlier in the book, he keeps dreaming the same dream of brandishing a machine gun to protect his village in a war: a victim of war, but a rescuer, too.
Almost all the post-traumatic narratives in the novel are shaped in the same way. For those Palestinians who take on the role of persecutor of the innocent woman, Palestine, they feel their belief in preserving traditional culture is threatened by the protagonist’s fiction and so their punishment is vindicated. A similar shift of roles happens to the Jewish residents of Tira as well: after three Jewish boys are kidnapped and murdered, the protagonist feels his Jewish colleagues look at him differently—they now feel the right to accuse, hate, and oppress him—and that is why he chooses to leave his hometown for the United States.
Here the novel becomes a precise metaphor of a larger cultural context, i.e., the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Both nations are shaped by the experience of collective suffering and memory: the Holocaust and the Nakba, experiences that continue to trap generations in conflict.
Track Changes thus reads as an agonized citizen’s failure to belong. Returning to the sickbed of his dying father, the protagonist hopes to leave his past transgression behind and reconcile with his family and community, only to find his people and state still filled with a sense of shame and hatred from historical traumas.
Paradoxically, the key to end the drama triangle of post-traumatic narratives may inevitably require an extent of “fabrication and invention.” Toward the end of the novel, losing his father—his organic bond to his people and state—the protagonist imagines an alternative historical moment, a moment in which he can see Palestine as a whole and without bitterness. In that polished memory, he stands on the roof of his high school, on the eve of Independence Day, and sees a girl “so beautiful that it is enough to look at her once and know that life has a purpose.” She takes down the Israeli flag and replaces it with a hand-drawn Palestinian flag.
In her now-classic feminist manifesto The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir talks about “the myth of woman”: “If the definition provided for this concept is contradicted by the behavior of flesh-and-blood women, it is the latter who are wrong: we are told not that Femininity is a false entity, but that women concerned are not feminine.” The concept’s aim, as argued by Beauvoir, is to cast women as “the absolute Other” so they will always remain a subject that, in turn, “justifies and even authorizes” the abuse of the ruling caste: the men.
As we see in The Second Sex, and in later feminist movements, such a political manipulation of “myth” does not only apply to women, but to all underprivileged social groups: ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people. When one says, “Oh, they are just different,” what he is really doing is reconciling ignorance and indifference. This manipulation of myth—with its concomitant ignorance and indifference—also creates problems in the portrayal of minority characters in fiction. Today, we are aware of the racism inherent in the so-called Western Canon. When white male authors wrote The Other—consider, for example, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Kipling’s The Jungle Book—they tended to exploit the racial and cultural difference to render an unfathomable myth, thus consolidating white supremacy. To me, the flaws of those authors reflect the pervasive racism of their times. But, to this day, a literary dilemma persists. On the one hand, fiction requires an element of the mysterious to keep readers engaged; on the other hand, does the mysterious—similar to the concept addressed by Beauvoir—perpetuate the unfathomable myth and abet readers’ inability or unwillingness to truly understand The Other?
There is, of course, another option: writers can kill the mystery/myth, can resolve it, at least, in the end and teach readers a cheap lesson: that every human, regardless of background, is similar by nature. But that methodology can be problematic. I remember discussing A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood with some workshop friends in Iowa City. A woman said the novel helped her realize that love between gays was no different than love between man and woman. “But that’s not the point,” a gay friend interrupted. “Every individual and every love story are unique. If an author only shows the similarity without touching on individuality, then he pleases his readers by simplifying the facts.”
As a writer of color, Meng Jin must know the stakes and inherent challenges in writing a novel set mostly in China featuring characters that are Chinese or Chinese immigrants . The setting and characters will be The Other to English-speaking readers—and this means the mystery of the novel will naturally be received as foreignness. Additionally, Su Lan the central character of Jin’s debut novel, Little Gods, is not a likable person by any conventional standard. The book opens with Su giving birth to her only daughter, Liya, on the night of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. As the novel progresses, we learn more and more about Su’s complicated personality. She is a woman who endeavors, deliberately, to erase all the traces of her past, a scientist who devotes so much time to her research that her daughter feels neglected and unwanted. Su also behaves in such a way that her husband suspects that all men—himself included—will fall victim to her cruel, manipulative games.
Yet, Jin offers insights into the debate surrounding literary mystery/myth. And, Little Gods retains an element of mystery to its very end, without simply feeding readers a pleasing political message. In a way, Little Gods responds to Beauvoir’s myth of woman: in essence, the myth of woman is conjured by other self-centered parties. In Su Lan’s case, the two parties are her daughter, Liya, and husband, Yongzong.
Mother-daughter conflict is all too common. A lack of maternal warmth may result in a daughter’s constant hunger for love and intimacy; an excess of motherly love, by contrast, may diminish a grown daughter’s adulthood. But, what underlies all these tensions is perhaps the reduction of women to motherhood. As Beauvoir put it, if the definition of motherhood “is contradicted by the behavior of flesh-and-blood women, it is the latter who are wrong.”
In Little Gods, Liya, cannot understand or appreciate Su’s longings outside the realm of motherhood; and this lack of understanding and ignorance mutate into a growing mystery in the narrative. Su’s scientific aspirations—she dedicates her life to reversing the flow of time—are to Liya a rival for her mother’s attention. Of course, this is understandable for a small child, vulnerable and sensitive. A childhood episode explains the root of Liya’s tense relationship with Su: one night, Liya woke to find her mother missing. Frightened, she went to look for Su, ending up in the house of a neighbor who called the police. Su had gone to her lab to finish some work; she is, of course, reprimanded for neglect. But her mother’s frustration at juggling her various roles cements in Liya long-standing feeling of shame. “As I got older,” Liya confesses, “as my mother and I grew apart, I would be visited from time to time by that grey-black failure. I would find myself crouching again behind my mother’s legs, watching my opportunity to save her walk away.”
Immigration reinforces and perpetuates Liya’s inability to understand her mother. Su encourages Liya to learn English and to “sound exactly like an American.” However, the urgency of cultural assimilation pulls against maternal intimacy. “When I realized what was happening,” Liya says, “that with every new word of English I was becoming more and more unlike her, it was too late. I wanted to be exactly like my mother and she wanted me to be nothing like her.”
Indeed, prioritizing work and imposing integration on her daughter could be seen as maternal failures. But, as Liya later learns—when she takes Su’s ashes back to China after her mother’s unexpected death—a daughter has her own blind spots. Liya failed to recognize Su’s flesh-and-blood humanity, her pains, passions, and introverted personality. Additionally, Liya doesn’t grasp the hidden gender issues until she comes of age and reads Su’s letters: “Did you know Einstein was cruel to his first wife? And probably to his second? He was a bad father too. He had a daughter he never met—no one knew what happened to her. He had two sons. One died in a mental institution, alone.”
The heartbreaking story of Liya and Su Lan reminds me of a short essay I stumbled upon years ago. I forget its title, but still remember the opening: “Before grandma’s funeral, I only knew that I’d lost my grandma; but after that, I realized that my mother had lost her mother.” We are all likely to only perceive our relationships, and that is a major reason why The Other always appears so mysterious, almost impossible to comprehend.
Su’s husband, Yongzong, shares the limitations and faults of all mediocre, self-absorbed male characters in fiction. As his family’s only son, Yongzong has “no chores,” and picks “the best pieces of meat at meals.” Growing up taking his family’s care and attention for granted, Yongzong lacks sympathy even for those closest to him. After Su first visits his family, she speculates as to the magnitude of his mother’s illness, a fact to which Yongzong—then a trained doctor— had never paid enough attention. On an aesthetic level, I find Yongzong’s narrative the most suspenseful and intriguing
Take the love triangle between Yongzong; his high school best friend, Bo; and Su. Yongzong suspects he and Bo are made pawns in Su’s game of romance. But, the text also suggests a loss of primacy in adulthood is what really unsettles Yongzong. Su, like every woman, is free to choose her significant other, and this process is inevitably replete with confusion, regrets, and reluctances. Yongzong, habituated to viewing women as object of desire, fails to tackle the complexity of relationships. And only by blaming all his problems on Su, can he gloss over his incapacity for love between equals.
What I admire most about Little Gods is the intersection of Yongzong’s personal failures and China’s epochal political event. Since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests are among the few things American readers know about China, a writer must fight the temptation to take advantage of that existing knowledge. Meng Jin refuses to let politics define her fictional characters. In the novel, the marriage between Yongzong and Su is failing before the political storm rages. The main reason is fundamentally personal: Su’s pregnancy changes her body and makes her ugly; at least it seems so to Yongzong. However, the coming political movement provides Yongzong an opportunity to leave his mediocracy and selfishness at home—and to appear as a respected, responsible citizen on the streets. Su’s observations sound the alarm for today’s protesters:
Have you seen these children? If you watch them for even a second you can see they just love the attention, they love hearing the sound of their own voices followed by thunderous clapping, they love hearing their words repeated and chanted by the mob, and that’s my husband too.
Later in the novel, Yongzong, irresponsible husband and father, will accuse his wife of being indifferent, irresponsible, and unpatriotic. In this way, his hatred for his wife finds legitimacy in a politically charged context.
Besides the brilliant and beautiful depiction of the myth/mystery in the eyes of egocentric beings, Meng Jin exhibits a rare appreciation of the depth of humanity. Su’s most striking attribute is a desperate need to wipe away the traces of her past. In a country that values history and rootedness, her conduct seems uncanny. However, toward the end of the novel, in an earnest effort to better know her mother, Liya learns Su’s choices have everything to do with China’s decades of poverty and her people’s toxic tendency to glorify self-sacrifice and suffering.
In the same chapter of The Second Sex where the aforementioned quotes appear, Beauvoir calls out for women to be recognized as human beings. “To discard the myths,” she announced, “is not to destroy all dramatic relation between the sexes, it is not to deny the significance authentically revealed to man through feminine reality; it is not to do away with poetry, love, adventure, happiness, dreaming. It is simply to ask that behavior, sentiment, passion be founded upon the truth”
Little Gods is lyrical, stunning, full of wisdom, and the fruit of Jin’s pursuit of truth. Seventy years after the publication of The Second Sex, I find myself possessing a more flexible attitude toward the concept of “myth” and the more commonly used literary term “mystery.” After all, there is always the myth and mystery of humanity, which authors shouldn’t ignore or simplify. Yet, we must not allow any myth or mystery to excuse self-involvement, and every truth-seeking author must not facilitate readers’ unwarranted complacency.
Bonus Link from Our Archive:– Writers to Watch: Spring 2020
“There is infinite hope, only not for us.”
Jonathan Franzen began his New Yorker piece, “What if We Stop Pretending“ with this quote from Kafka. Franzen was referring, of course, to climate change, a topic he has been obsessed with for several years. His outlook was depressing: we wouldn’t be able to save our planet, and the symbolic expressions of unrealistic hope—ride your bike to work and the climate won’t get hotter—only served to deny the imminent disaster.
Not surprisingly, he was butchered on social media soon afterwards. People called him a “climate fatalist.” This new label was only one of many other labels people had given to him. When he warned that Internet utopianism was a lie technological oligarchs had fabricated to manipulate users, people mocked him as a “technophobe.” When he handed out 10 rules for novelists on Literary Hub, young people turned up their noses at his “elitist” and “condescending” attitude.
During my recent self-quarantine, The Initium Media in Hong Kong asked me to interview Franzen about his engagement in the public discourse. I had mixed feelings about the assignment. With the Covid-19 pandemic, the last thing I needed was for someone to take away whatever remaining hope I’d been clinging to. Nevertheless, I dialed his phone number. We talked about his experience in the crisis, the unsolvable problem of death, the notion of literary salvation, freedom of thought in the digital age, and humanity. I had expected to meet a much angrier man, bitter and cynical from everything that Twitter had said about him. Instead, he was patient, calm, and sincere. He was curious what I was doing in his hometown of St. Louis.
I find Franzen’s views sobering, rather than depressing. He rejects wishful thinking, but I do find a profound sense of hope in his words. “Freedom of thoughts persists,” he told me, when I expressed concern over the pressure to conform on social media, “but whether we are able to express them and whether we dare express them is a very different question.” Moreover, since death is unresolvable and disaster unavoidable, we might feel more urgency than ever to hold onto what we love. As he wrote in “What if We Stop Pretending,” “As long as you have something to love, you have something to hope for.”
The Millions: I happened to read your latest essay collection, The End of the End of the Earth, during my recent self-quarantine. The wide-ranging topics in the book—from climate change, to technology and oligarchy, to bird-watching—feel all the more relevant and sobering. How have you been handling the Covid-19 pandemic?
Jonathan Franzen: I’ve been declining all interviews about the pandemic. I can talk about my personal experience in the last six weeks, but the essence of the crisis right now is total uncertainty. Uncertainty about the virus and its transmission, even more uncertainty about how it’s going to play out economically and politically, and I’m no more clairvoyant than the next man. All I can tell you is that Santa Cruz was one of the first communities in the country to do a shelter-in-place order, and that Kathy, my spouse-equivalent, and I are following the rules. The county still has fewer than 100 cases, so I think the measures have been effective. We’re suffering, along with everyone else, for not being able to see people. I’m also suffering because I can’t leave the area to go bird-watching, not that I expect anyone to cry about that. But I can still go to my office, which has its own bathroom. I’ve been working away, trying to finish my new novel. In terms of my work, the crisis has probably been a net gain.
TM: Have you been using technology to connect with people lately?
JF: There’s been more email than usual, and I already spend a couple of hours a day doing email—the last thing I need is more of it. I’ve also done some Zooming, which I find tiring and really unsatisfactory. I’d much rather talk on the phone. To me, the devilish thing about the crisis is that it helps Silicon Valley, which I don’t think is anyone’s friend, unless you have money invested in it, in which case I guess it’s your friend. Trapping people in their houses, making them spend even more time on screens, forcing all the local businesses to close—it’s like a wet dream for the tech companies.
TM: Currently we are experiencing a sudden expansion of technology. Does that make you even more concerned about the future?
JF: My feelings about digital technology haven’t changed much since the middle of the ’90s. I thought it was hypercapitalism then, I thought the utopian rhetoric was a ridiculous lie, and now it’s even more hypercapitalistic. Now we have good evidence, like the presidency of Donald Trump, that these technologies, particularly social media, have on balance made the world a worse place, not a better place.
TM: Looking on the bright side, some people argue that the crisis actually helps us prepare for bigger disasters like climate change. Do you share that view? Why so and why not?
JF: It’s too early to say. My thinking about our climate situation has been evolving over the last six years. The point I finally came to, last summer, is that the fabric of our world is very fragile. Political institutions are fragile; international relations are fragile; the global economy is fragile; the natural world and its systems are fragile. All these systems are going to be hugely stressed in the coming decades, as the climate worsens dramatically. Out of that recognition, I’ve come to a greater appreciation of the value of local community. We’re going to become ever more reliant on what’s close to us, and the pandemic is a kind of stress test: How is your local community responding? Are people obeying the rules? Are people being kind to each other? Are people supporting individuals and businesses that are in trouble? Where is your food coming from? Maybe it’s good that we’re asking these questions now, good that we’re getting a little taste of the future. But a novelist is the wrong person to ask whether something is good news or bad news.
TM: I really enjoyed the talk you gave at Google in 2018. You said that technology imagines that it is going to solve the problem of death, but that literature doesn’t think it’s a solvable problem. So, what’s the beauty of unresolvable problems?
JF: The problem of death is emblematic of a number of other intractable problems. Like, the fact that people can be both very good and very bad, which seems to be a fixture of our species—under certain circumstances, people become entirely bad. Or you cherish your spouse but you’re attracted to that neighbor of yours. Or your loyalty tells you to do one thing and your conscience tells you to do the opposite. You can mitigate some of these problems technologically, or politically, but you can’t actually solve the problem of death; you can’t even solve a problem as simple as boredom in a marriage. And that’s where literature comes in. Its earliest roots were intertwined with religious narratives, which also take on the permanently tough problems. The point of the narrative isn’t to make the problem go away. It’s to represent it, to recognize it, to fully inhabit it, to make something beautiful out of it, and to connect you to all the other people who’ve ever struggled with it.
TM: You also mentioned on a number of occasions that literature saved you. Could you elaborate on the notion of literary salvation?
JF: What would I have meant by that? I don’t think it literally saved my life.
TM: I suppose it’s not that we take refuge in the beauty of literature?
JF: Not so much. The moment I come back to is when I was 21 and went home to St. Louis. I hadn’t spent a holiday with my family for two years, and suddenly the literature I’d been reading at college made sense. It wasn’t just something you studied at school. It was a way to understand what was happening in real life. I could suddenly see the levels of meaning in a simple sentence that my mother uttered. I’d been listening to her all my life, but now I could construct a story about where the words were coming from. I could read the coded messages, and I’d been given that key by reading literature. Did it “save” me? No, but it gave me a way forward. Part of it was trying to be a writer myself, because I was grateful to the authors who’d given me the key and I wanted to give something back. But it was also a way of being in the world—of being attentive to the hidden levels, of not being so quick to judge other people. Maybe that’s what I meant by being saved.
TM: It also occurred to me that, in the past, people used to resort to religion for answers to the problem of death.
JF: Technology took over for religion and became its own kind of religion. People still have an unshakeable faith in the goodness of social media. People continue to believe that electric cars will avert catastrophic climate change. Billionaires believe they won’t really have to die, because tech will find a fix for that. As I said in the Google talk, it’s just so dumb. What exactly are you going to be doing when you’re 9,000 years old? That’s what you want? Really? Think it through for five seconds!
TM: You warned about the polarizing logic of online discourse, and the pressure to conform on social media. What do you think of the role of freedom in our digital age? Are we as free-thinking as we think we are?
JF: One thing I learned from my immersion in the literature of East Germany and the Soviet Union is that freedom of thought persists. With any kind of repression, there’s punishment for saying things that aren’t acceptable. The beautiful word is “anathema.” And so much is anathema nowadays, maybe especially on the left. You’re simply not allowed to utter certain things, even if they’re true. But censorship doesn’t mean that everyone stops thinking. It just means they become very cynical, very careful whom they speak to candidly. And I find this weirdly hopeful. It’s hard to sustain a totalitarian system because, at a certain point, the disconnect between what people are saying officially and what they’re thinking privately becomes so huge that the whole thing just becomes silly and falls apart. So I’m not particularly worried about freedom of thought. My own self-appointed job, as an essayist, is to try to give voice to what people are afraid to say publicly, ashamed to say publicly.
TM: You describe the role of an essayist as a firefighter. “While everyone else is fleeing the flames of shame,” your job is to “run straight into them.” Would you say more about the risks you are taking? Are they worth the effort?
JF: There are definitely things I’m sorry I said the way I did. A trivial example: In the mid-’90s, I wrote a piece making fun of the utopianism of Silicon Valley, and I had a throwaway line about what a ridiculous idea online dating was—how dismal it was to imagine a relationship that started that way. And now something like half the couples I know met online. There are lots of little things like that—you take a risk and you get it wrong. More recently, the risk has been total incineration on social media, but that’s not all that big a risk for me, because I don’t read the stupid things people are saying, and it’s more than offset by the response I get from people privately, on my public email account and in letters that come in the mail. If you only looked at Twitter, you’d think my last climate essay, in The New Yorker last fall, was universally condemned. If you read my email, you’d think the opposite.
TM: In the piece, “The Essay in Dark Times,” you talked about the lesson you learned from Henry Finder, your editor at The New Yorker. There are two ways to arrange materials: one is “This followed that,” and the other is “Like goes with like.” The second method sounds fascinating. Would you say more about your nonfiction writing process?
JF: I mentioned Henry’s lesson because it’s valuable. You can either organize material according to category or you can tell a story, and you want to make sure you’re always doing one or the other, if not both. The more fundamental question is: What makes me want to write something? Typically, at some level, I’m angry about something. Sometimes it’s injustice, a literal injustice, or a crime against nature, or the underappreciation of a writer I think is great, Edith Wharton, Christina Stead. Sometimes I’m trying to correct a misunderstanding, a misunderstanding of our climate situation, a misunderstanding of me personally. But most often, I think, I’m angry about simplifications. There is such a thing as moral simplicity—slavery in the United States was purely wrong, and so was the discrimination and racism and oppression that followed it. But most things are not so simple. When I hear politicians and activists and online screamers acting as if things were simple, leaving out important facts, it makes me really angry.
TM: Like you once said, you have skin in the game. You write what you care about.
JF: You’re right. But I have the luxury of that. If I don’t write a single piece of journalism or a single essay all year, it doesn’t make any difference, because I also have my novels.
TM: How do you evaluate subjectivity in nonfiction writing?
JF: Almost by definition, an essay is subjective. If I produce something purely objective, I’ve failed as an essayist. I actually never intended to be an essayist. It was Henry Finder who saw something in my first piece of reporting, a couple of subjective paragraphs, and he said I should do more of that. It’s safer to stick to facts, because they speak for themselves. With subjectivity, there has to be a tone, the sentences have to work on the page. The subjectivity has to earn the right to be in the piece. In “Essay in Dark Times,” I made a comparison between the anxiety I felt in Ghana in November 2016, about not seeing as many birds as I’d hoped to see, and my anxiety that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t get enough electoral votes to win the election. Kathy was afraid I sounded like I was self-absorbed and didn’t take seriously how terrible it was that Trump was elected, although in the very next paragraph I talked about how terrible it was. I decided to leave the comparison in the essay, partly to make fun of myself and partly to convey the frame of mind of a person who’d been chasing birds for two weeks and was obsessed with seeing more of them. It just seemed kind of interesting. Even if it didn’t reflect well on me, I wanted to record what I was thinking, which was this strange conflation of Hillary’s Electoral College problem and my checklist problem.
TM: But obviously not many people share your passion about birds. So they may find the analogy insensitive.
JF: That would be too bad. I meant it to be ridiculous.
TM: Do people usually get your irony? Or do they usually perceive it in the wrong way?
JF: It happens all the time. I once called Michiko Kakutani the stupidest person in New York City. She’s given wonderful reviews to every novel of mine, but I was told that she’d trashed my book The Discomfort Zone. One of my friends reported screaming at her review, “She has no sense of humor!” And I was like, oh my God, did she really think I was serious? The book is full of stuff that could only have been meant ironically. I realized that if Kakutani, who’s the opposite of stupid, can miss the humor, then anyone can miss it.
TM: What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed about the author-reader relationship over the years?
JF: The fundamental relationship is that I write something by myself and you read it by yourself. Through the magic of printed words on a page, we feel a connection. And that is still the fundamental relationship. In the social realm, writers are much more accessible to readers now than they used to be. I’m definitely more accessible, not on social media but through the public email account. I have some kind of personal connection with a lot more people, and I try to remember that this isn’t the important relationship. It isn’t me with the page and the reader with the page. But if I’ve had a hard day, and I come home and hear from somebody who seems to have been moved by something I wrote, it makes a difference. And it’s nice to be able to thank that person. I don’t write long replies, but I try to have a moment of person-to-person feeling, the same as I do in a signing line. I only have 30 seconds, but I want to be present as a person. It’s probably the ’70s in me, the Midwesterner in me.
TM: What’s the biggest difference between yourself as an essayist and as a novelist?
JF: To do a novel well is much, much harder. You enter an obsessive state that’s going to last for a minimum of two years, and the number of problems to be solved is three orders of magnitude greater than with even a long essay. With an essay, you start with a topic, and you either have something interesting to say or you don’t. If you do, then you know that, with enough revisions, you can get there. Once you get the hang of it, once you’ve got a voice, an essay isn’t that hard. But the novel just gets harder and harder. The more levels you master, the better you see how many more levels you haven’t mastered. It’s just really hard.
TM: Do you feel more alone when you are writing a novel?
JF: If you stretch that out temporally, yes. With this novel that I’m almost done with, I’ve only had two readers, and even they only get a chunk of material every two, three, four months. So, for long stretches—big stretches of a year—I’m completely on my own. With an essay, I get immediate feedback from the editor, and pretty quickly it will show up in print or online.
TM: I usually close my interviews by asking great authors to give suggestions for young writers, but I want to try something different here. I’m not a bird lover. I didn’t ask any questions about bird watching. But like many critics, I read the birds in your writing as a symbol. Birds reveal how inhumane we have become. Do you have some suggestions for those who want to be more humane, especially young people?
JF: That’s a big question. I do think reading a good novel is a way to be reconnected with one’s humanity. If you’re young and you don’t know what a good novel is, it’s a good way to discover your humanity. So, that would remain my first suggestion. If you don’t immediately know how to read a novel, I think studying with a good teacher, or talking about something with a book club, or just having a friend who you can read the same book with, can deepen your engagement and help you see all the levels of meaning available in a novel. So that would be one thing. The other thing would be to open your door and go outside. Even though you think you’re being very human and connected, texting, Instagramming, Facebooking, all that stuff, there’s a point of diminishing returns. You’re not actually getting that much from the screen, it becomes a kind of compulsion, and much of the discourse is either trivial or fake. Paradoxically, one way to find the self is to walk away from it. Even if you just go to a city park and spend time with a tree and look carefully, look at the bugs that are on it, the birds that are in it, it can be incredibly restorative. That would be my other suggestion.
The Chinese translation of this interview appeared first on April 19 in The Initium Media.
During our school years in Shanghai, we were always reading two books at the same time. One was our textbook, which sat open on the desk, protected by extra covers, lines highlighted and margins filled with tidy handwriting, reflecting our diligence; the other was the book we were actually reading, hidden inside our desks, probably dog-eared and without notes. As our teacher droned on and on, our souls slipped into the worlds of those books: some of us fought to be Kung Fu masters, others fell in love with someone magnificent.
Now, years later, I often hear people say that the books we loved in youth are not good, and that we liked them only because we desperately wanted to escape from the chore of schoolwork. This year, I spent a lot of time rereading the same books I used to sneak into my desk back in old days. And I mean to say this: We don’t need to feel apologetic about loving these books. Most of them still speak to us.
1. Walden, “Civil Disobedience,” and Other Writings by Henry David Thoreau
For most of this year, I was translating English Professor Laura Dassow Walls’s most recent biography, Henry David Thoreau: A Life, into Chinese. I took the opportunity to reread Thoreau’s major works. Now, it’s safe for me to say that I still admire Thoreau. Not because I, as a city person, fancy the romantic idea of living in the woods, but because I appreciate his moral struggle and his life-long journey to elevate himself.
There have always
been two Thoreaus: one was the hermit by the
lakeside, a moralist who maintained his self-purity by disengaging with the
infected human society; the other was a politically responsible citizen who
would rather go to jail than support the unjust American government by paying
poll-tax and who tirelessly called on his people to do the same, to commit
Walls’s biography inspires me to see the two contradicting images as one. Thoreau saw the interconnectedness of all reality—“A man is a bundle of relations” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)—firstly in nature, where the newly-built hydraulic machinery threatened the lives of innocent fish. He defended the fish in his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Later, he extended his defense to include all oppressed forms of life: slaves controlled by their owners, Native Americans expelled by Anglo Immigrants, Mexicans threatened by the war of conquest…He was not merely interested in self-cleansing, either; he aimed to be the “chanticleer” (Walden) who would wake his neighbors with the dawn and remind them to live up to Higher Laws.
a time when we are so easily lost in the trappings of material success, perhaps
we can always turn to Thoreau for insight and courage. As Walls beautifully puts
When [Thoreau] wrote that “a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone,” he meant not an ascetic’s renunciation, but a redefinition of true wealth as inner rather than outer, aspiring to turn life itself, even the simplest acts of life, into a form of art. “There is Thoreau,” said one of his closest friends. “Give him sunshine, and a handful of nuts, and he has enough.” (Henry David Thoreau: A Life)
2. After the Quake by Haruki Murakami
One often has to defend their love for Haruki Murakami in the same way one must defend their love for J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. It is true that there are certain books that you will never truly understand—and, even if you do understand, you will never experience that same electrifying feeling—unless you have read them at a certain age. This speaks to my experience with Norwegian Wood, which we carefully kept away from parents and teachers during adolescence and which offered us an exciting glimpse into what then seemed to us the mysteries of adulthood.
Earlier this year, I reread After the Quake, a collection of stories Murakami wrote after Japan’s 1995 Kobe earthquake. This time, I must confess that I enjoyed the book even more. I remember I used to adore “Thailand” and “All God’s Children Can Dance,” but now my favorite piece is “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo.” In this story, an average Japanese salaryman is chosen by Super-Frog to save the metropolis. When this ordinary man doubts himself for lacking any traditional heroic qualities, Super-Frog convinces him otherwise: “Tokyo can only be saved by a person like you. And it’s for people like you that I am trying to save Tokyo.” Amanda Lewis, in her essay about Murakami and his un-Japanese style, suggests that Murakami’s exploration of “the needs of the individual” is his refusal of “the essence of the Japanese mind,” which often contains an undertone of “a disregard for the sacredness of human life.” (Amanda Lewis, “The Essence of the Japanese Mind: Haruki Murakami and the Nobel Prize.”)
I am not saying I like all of Murakami’s works—some of them are disappointing—but the books that enthralled me when I was young—Norwegian Woods, After the Quake, South of the Border, West of the Sun—have quite a lasting charm.
3. The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner
My American friends often find it unbelievable that I read Sound and Fury when I was a teenager. Back then, I read its Chinese translation; Li Wenjun, the translator, carefully inserted footnotes to offer the much-needed context when time-shifting occurs. So I didn’t find it too difficult. This year, to write a script for a Chinese radio show, I reread the book in English. Because I already had the plot in my mind, I was able to appreciate the beauty of Faulkner’s writing.
section stunned me, as it had years ago. What seems like nonsense—long, chaotic
sentences without quotation marks is also pure poetry. Of course, the young
Faulkner—he was only 31 when he wrote this masterpiece—was probably also
showing off his mastery of different prose styles. His genius may overawe all
the aspiring young writers of today. But it is fine to feel intimidated; that
is how we push ourselves to write better.
P.S.: As a woman of color myself, I am aware of the race and gender issues in “the Western canon.” So, I would also like to recommend the best history book I have read this year: A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights Movement by Jeanne Theoharis. Theoharis argues that politicians have twisted the narrative of the civil rights movement. Now, we feel as if American democracy is a self-correcting and self-renewing system. However, the struggle of African Americans is proof of the system’s problems, not of its perfection. By glossing over the complexity of history, the current narrative turns us away from the still-dire racial present. The most deep-rooted racism, Theoharis suggests, doesn’t take the form of violence; it lies in the way parents assert their rights as taxpayers to maintain a dominantly white “neighborhood school.” Racism happens not only in the Deep South but also in New York City, in Los Angeles, in all those big cities which purport to embrace diversity.
Besides, while we appreciate the problems and values of the literature of the past, we can also keep an eye out for the potential classics of the future. I enjoyed reading The Study of Animal Language by Lindsay Stern and 99 Nights in Logar by Jamil Jan Kochai. And I am also looking forward to reading the following books, all of which boast excellent reviews: In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow, The Travelers by Regina Porter, and The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo. Yes, these authors are all my workshop buddies at Iowa, but I will feel honored to have been one of their first readers.
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When Viet Thanh Nguyen visited Iowa Writers’ Workshop in May, everyone—including me—was starstruck. He talked about a prevailing belief back in his college years at Berkeley. “People say literature saves the world,” he said. “No, it doesn’t. But social movements do.”
At a time when democracies around the world keep making bad decisions and young writers feel the urge to facilitate social changes, Nguyen’s role as one of the leading public intellectuals in the literary world is both inspiring and motivating. He is aware of the underrepresentation of minority groups in literature, but he also understands that great fiction is much more than making one’s community look good. He views the customary writing adage “Show. Don’t tell.” with suspicion. As writers, we need to make great art and bring to light vital social issues, he says, rather than simply trust that readers will understand.
In the following interview, we talked about the aesthetics and politics of his brilliant novel The Sympathizer; how his literary education has nourished his writing; and how he deals with opposition and hostility from people with very different worldviews.
The Millions: I’d like to start by talking about The Sympathizer. Like everyone, I was hooked from the beginning: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” This distinctive perspective challenges the binary thinking that people often have. We cannot use words like “good” or “bad” to describe the narrator; we cannot use words like “failure” or “victory” to describe the war. How did you come up with this premise?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I had to write a novel. And I wanted to write an entertaining novel—that was also a very serious novel at the same time—and a novel that would grapple with politics, history, and obviously the Vietnam War.
The spy novel was the genre that was a perfect fit for all of these concerns. And also because I enjoyed reading spy novels, so I knew the genre very well. And as a writer, I gravitate toward both highbrow literature, like modernism, and so-called lowbrow literature, the genre literature. I don’t agree with any of these classifications, but the spy novel would allow me to bridge all these things.
Lastly, the idea of making a man of two minds and two faces was there from the very beginning, because I wanted the novel to be a cultural critique as well. I wanted the novel to deal with both cultural divisions—the so-called East-West divide—but also ideological divisions between capitalism and communism in the Cold War. So that’s where the man with two minds came from. And in order to make that seemed organic and not simply something that I was forcing onto the book, I made him a mixed race—half Vietnamese and half French—and someone who was both infatuated with capitalism but also a devoted communist. Putting all of these elements into his character made these theoretical ideas very organic as the plot unfolded.
TM: To follow up on that: In his book The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois said that this American world yields “no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.” He ever feels his “twoness”: “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts,” “two warring ideals in one dark body.” Also, the opening of The Sympathizer pays tribute to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I wonder if African-American literature has influenced your writing and the way you perceive the Vietnamese and other previously colonized Asian communicates (e.g. Korean, Filipino)? If so, how?
VTN: I have another book called Nothing Ever Dies. And the title comes from Toni Morrison’s Beloved. And in my book, the section where I talked about W.E.B. Du Bois, the quote that you just mentioned to me, and Du Bois’s notion of the inevitable twoness of the Negro that he sees himself through his own eyes and those of others, is also true in many ways for Asian immigrants and Asian Americans. You see that also in the work of someone like Chang-Rae Lee, in the thoughtful Native Speaker.
It’s no doubt that African-American literature has been very influential on me. I think that African-American writers have created, in the United States, the body of literature that is both most politically committed and yet also most aesthetically elevated. I mean, the masters, the most accomplished practitioners of African-American literature—like Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison and many more—have demonstrated that you can be both politically and artistically engaged at the same time. And that if you are, in fact, a minority in this country, you need to do both at the same time. So, their model of aesthetic and political commitment was very important for my own work.
TM: Who are some of the other writers you most admire, and what else do you feel you have learned from them?
VTN: You know, I had a very good literary education as a student when I was growing up before I went to college. So that meant that I had read some of the modernist and classical literature of the West. And then when I got to college, I also encountered African-American literature and Asian-American literature, including Maxine Hong Kingston. And so I’m trying to bring all these different strands together. So Asian-American literature in general has been very influential to me, including Kingston, but also, for example, Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, which I mentioned, and many other works, because they foreground Asian-American experiences. And among other Asian-American writers that I haven’t included, there would be the classics like John Okada, Carlos Bulosan, Frank Chin. Contemporary writers, after Kingston, like Susan Choi—her book, The Foreign Student—or Julie Otsuka, in her novels about the internment.
When writing The Sympathizer, I wanted to write a novel that was a so-called minority novel and that was unapologetic about being a person of color in the United States, but also a novel that could contend with both the Vietnam War canon and American literature as a whole. Hopefully it will be an American novel that will also have a presence internationally. So that was why it was important to The Sympathizer to directly confront the Vietnam War, so that I could contest the narratives of American writers of the Vietnam War, like Tim O’Brien, just to name the most famous example. And in writing The Sympathizer, I had my eye directly on how this novel would fit at the canonical level of American literature. Because I had studied writers like Herman Melville and William Faulkner, I wanted this novel to gesture at these major novels and their major concerns, their major themes about American literature and culture.
And finally, in writing The Sympathizer, I was also reading European modernist literature, because I always felt that this was not going to be the great American novel; this was going to be the European modernist version of the American novel. So that would be writers like Dostoevsky, Louis-Ferdinand Celine from the 1920s in France, Antonio Lobo Antunes from the 1970s in Portugal. So I really wanted this to be a novel that was both very specific to being Asian-American and American, but also to have those global ambitions as well.
TM: You grew up in the age of “narrative scarcity.” In other words, there were not many stories told from an Asian-American point of view. Because of this, minorities cared more about their representation as a group on the big screen or in fiction. Did you consider the potential reaction of your readership while you were writing? Did you do anything to avoid being misunderstood or misinterpreted?
VTN: I was worried about those kinds of things. When I wrote my short story collection The Refugees, most of which was written before The Sympathizer, I was concerned about how my audiences would respond to my work, both Americans in general but also Vietnamese readers. And when I wrote The Sympathizer, I decided that I no longer cared what my audiences thought, that in order to write the novel that I wanted to write, I had to stop caring. Because even as conditions of narrative scarcity were true, which they are, I don’t think a writer can allow herself or himself to be shaped by those conditions. We should be aware of narrative scarcity, but we can’t let our writing be shaped by that. For example, the anxiety that because there are so few stories about us, we have to write our stories to make our own community look good, whatever that community is.
The Sympathizer is written from the perspective of a communist spy. And when I did that, I knew that my community, which is the Vietnamese-Americans, many of them would reject the novel because communism is completely antithetical to Vietnamese-Americans. But I couldn’t care about that. And then I knew many Americans would reject the novel because the novel was a very strong critique of American culture. But I couldn’t pay attention to that either, not to write the novel I wanted to write. So that can be a tricky position for writers who live in narrative scarcity, we have to be aware of that condition. We have to fight back against it, but we can’t let our work be driven by the anxieties around narrative scarcity.
TM: Have any of your family members read the novel? What was their feedback like?
VTN: I don’t know about how many members of my own family have read the book. I don’t ask. That could be an awkward question to ask. But I think they are very proud of me, as are many people in the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American community. So when The Sympathizer came out and got uniformly great reviews, it made, I think, very little difference in the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American community, because like most communities, they don’t read, not on the average, right? I’m exaggerating a little bit. I mean, certainly, some Vietnamese-Americans sought out the book, and I got some very good feedback from them. But I also knew that a lot of Vietnamese-Americans were not reading the book, because they didn’t read books or because they heard it was from the perspective of a communist spy, and they just refused to engage. But after the novel won the Pulitzer Prize, all of a sudden, all these Vietnamese-Americans that never read the book and might never read the book were suddenly proud of me. And in Vietnam, the case was similar. But I think the difference the Pulitzer made is that it made more of them read the book. So in Vietnam, for example, even though the book is not available, apparently young Vietnamese readers who can read English will seek the book out in English. Because I encounter quite a few of them, who are foreign students in the United States and who told me that the book offers them something that is completely unavailable in Vietnam, which is history that is completely antithetical to the government’s point of view.
TM: If I am not wrong, the narrator is loosely based on Pham Xuan An, the Vietnamese man most beloved by American journalists during and shortly after the war. Can you say more about how you balance historical fact with fiction? What do you expect your readers to take away from a setting that is both real and imaginative?
VTN: In writing The Sympathizer, I felt that I had a fairly unique opportunity to engage with real historical events and real historical characters, because so much of what I knew about the war in Vietnam, and how it affected Vietnamese people, is fairly common knowledge in the Vietnamese refugee community but is not talked about widely or known widely to the rest of the world. It was actually relatively easy to construct the plot of the novel, because almost all the events are drawn from history. Very little in the novel in terms of major historical events are made up. And yet, for most people, this would be a completely new story. Writing this historical novel, I had an easier time probably than a lot of other historical writers would writing about events that are more widely known. And the major challenge was to put in enough historical detail so that the events would be convincing without writing a history book where there would be too much information. And so I always had to read much more than what actually appeared in the book. But the history from the book is drawn both from my fascination with the Vietnam War—over the last 30 years, I’ve read a lot of books and seen a lot of movies—but also from some very specific research I had to do for the novel. So, for example, while I knew that the Fall of Saigon had happened and I knew the general outlines of that, I still had to go and read 10 or 15 books on the Fall of Saigon in order to construct first 50 pages of the novel at a level of novelistic detail that would be compelling for the reader.
TM: Did you collect oral history?
VTN: No, that’s a completely different skill set for journalists. That’s not the book I wanted to write.
TM: Back when you visited Iowa City in May, you discussed your decision to open the novel in Saigon. You said that if the story had begun in the States and ended in the States, it would have been all about the life and death of the American dream. This inspired me to think about the prevailing immigrant narrative. Even though a lot of those stories intend to challenge the American dream, they are still built upon the assumption that the immigrants are attracted by the American dream in the first place, which, like you mentioned before, “affirms America to Americans.” But you identify as a refugee writer. Can you say more about the potential differences between a refugee narrative and an immigrant narrative?
VTN: I think that immigrant and refugee narratives overlap. We cannot completely separate them all the time. But as you were saying, immigrant narratives generally have a trajectory of moving from one country to the other country. And the immigrant narrative implies settling down in the new country. So we leave one home and we build another home. In the context of the United States, where the immigrant narrative is very strong, that idea of settling in the United States inevitably affirms this American mythology of the American dream. So that even when immigrant stories talk about how difficult life in the United States might be because of racism or economic challenges and so on, nevertheless, the very existence of the immigrant story itself—the immigrant novel that we’re reading—is evidence of the success of the immigrant story and the American dream.
The refugee story introduces other elements that can unsettle the immigrant and American dream story. These elements include, most critically, the fact that many refugees that come to the United States have come because of something the United States has done in their country of origin. The refugee writers, simply by acknowledging that history, introduce some troubling elements into the American story. So the existence of Vietnamese refugee writers talking about Vietnamese refugees, acknowledging the history of the war in Vietnam, means that the Americans who read these books or anybody who reads these books has to at least acknowledge this war took place. Now, the problem is, where the refugee and immigrant narratives overlap is that many refugee writers still, in the end, even as they acknowledge the refugee origin, including American intervention, often end with settlement in the United States. So that in the end, the refugee story looks like an immigrant story. And that’s why I think a lot of Vietnamese-American literature that deals more with refugees ends up focusing on what happened in the United States.
Writing The Sympathizer, I did not want to do that. If I look at the way that American literature has dealt with the Vietnam War, it’s bifurcated. It’s mostly Americans who get to write about the war in Vietnam, and it’s mostly the Vietnamese who write about the Vietnamese refugee experience in the United States. And when there are refugees who write about both parts, they write about their civilian experiences of the war in Vietnam and then the refugee resettlement. The Vietnamese soldiers who could write these war stories don’t write in English. So typically their story is only available in Vietnamese. What that means is that Americans still get to define the war. And so The Sympathizer is unique, I think, in this landscape by refusing the immigrant story, using the refugee narrative to demonstrate these contradictions of American intervention, and directly confronting the actual war in Vietnam, in a way that Americans are not used to. So I think that’s how the book is different, by deploying the refugee perspective.
TM: In your opinion, what is the difference between writing a novel and writing a short story? Do you have to train different muscles for different genres? If so, how?
VTN: I spent 20 years writing that short story collection The Refugees, and I think I exercised a lot of muscles, but maybe very different muscles and I never really coordinated everything together. So even now I could not explain to you what I’m doing in each of those stories and why I made the decisions that I did. It was, for the most part, a very intuitive process of trial and error in writing each story, which is very frustrating to me. Because I’m not a natural short story writer and I don’t have very good understanding of the short story form, it took a very long time to write that book. But I was exercising muscles.
So when it came time to write the novel, all of a sudden, it felt that I could put all these muscles together and work much more quickly, much more powerfully. And in the context of the novel, it felt much more natural. So it wasn’t as though there was no connection between short stories and novels; it was that they exercise different physical/mental capacities that I had. And with the novel, I feel like I can explain almost every single decision that goes into the book, and I can explain almost anything about the book that you could ask me about. It took two and a half years to write that novel versus 20 years for The Refugees, even though The Sympathizer is more than twice as long. So I don’t think I could have written The Sympathizer without having first written The Refugees. That being said, I would never want to go back to writing short stories and try to exercise those muscles again.
TM: Do you read to exercise your muscles?
VTN: Yeah. I tried to read books that personally move me both in terms of their story and concerns, but also how they move me at the level of a sentence. So unfortunately, I often pick up a book, I’ll read the first sentence or first paragraph, and I will decide immediately if I’m going to continue reading. I have so little time; I cannot afford to waste time on a book that doesn’t move me in every respect, but especially at the level of a sentence. Unfortunately, you know, in my life now, I have to read a lot of books that I would not necessarily pick up except that I’m reading books because I’m doing favors for other people and writing blurbs and things like that.
But in terms of reading for my own work, I tried to find books that I think are going to teach me something about some kind of literary technique or political concern that I need to know. So with The Sympathizer, it was very important for me to have discovered, again, Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night or Antonio Lobo Antunes’s The Land at the End of the World, because both of those books were doing things at the level of the sentence and at the level of politics. And the whole novelistic forms were not typical. They were very inspiring for me. And then finally when I’m actually writing, I try to read poetry, because the rhythm, the use of images, the use of sound, and these kinds of things are very important for me, in terms of trying to construct sentences and deploying images that are almost as concentrated as what you would find in poetry.
TM: I really enjoyed the introduction you wrote for The Displaced. You said something beautiful about memory. Your personal memory of displacement cultivates sympathy and empathy in you; remembering the best of humanity allows us to form an ideal that we can hope and work for. But others may go in the exact opposite direction for the same reason. Their past trauma teaches them to be self-centered to protect themselves; their recollections of the worst of humanity become the reason why we must close off our borders. Currently, the two groups cannot even have a conversation with each other. What’s your suggestion for a writer who aspires to speak to the latter group?
VTN: To the ones whose minds and hearts are closed? I think it’s very difficult because writers live and work oftentimes in environments and an entire marketplace that are different from the environments and marketplaces of people who are opposed to immigration and to refugees, for example. As writers, we like to believe that if we write an important story, the story will move people and change hearts and minds, because that’s our background; we’ve been moved by stories. But the people who really need to have the hearts and minds moved are oftentimes the people who are not going to be reading what we write, either because they don’t read literature or because they’re reading different kinds of books. And I can tell, based on my own personal experience; because I can go on amazon.com and see on my author page where my books are being sold, they are sold mostly in the so-called blue parts of the country, the coasts and big cities. But there are huge swaths of America where the books are not sold, and that is oftentimes a rural or red America. So that means that authors—especially literary authors who are writing fiction and poetry and so on—we have to be realistic about what our writing can actually do.
And we have to recognize that if we have a message that is not just an aesthetic message but also a political message, oftentimes we have to do different things to get that message out there, which is why I write op-eds. And I go give lectures in different parts of the country, because people who read my op-eds oftentimes are not people who are reading my books. And even in the context of the publications I write for, like The New York Times, Washington Post, or Time, they’re certainly not leftist, and sometimes they’re not even liberal. And so it is actually gratifying to see sometimes that people, like even childhood friends of mine who would not read my books, get Time. Or when I go give lectures, I have to go sometimes to very red parts of the country. And even if I’m giving these lectures in the blue parts of a red area, like a university, sometimes there will still be people who show up who are hostile to what it is I have to say. So they have to listen. And I have to acknowledge their presence. Sometimes I get some very difficult questions from people who come from a completely different perspective. So the work of changing hearts and minds is oftentimes not just at the level a book, but also at the level of personal interaction and going out there and having these kinds of conversations, trying to meet people where they’re coming from.
TM: How do you deal with hostility?
VTN: I think that I’m still relatively fortunate, because I know that women and women of color, especially in particular, get the criticism much worse than I do. As for me, I still get hostility, but it’s oftentimes restricted. You know, people will write me emails, they will send me letters that are very critical, but they’re still polite. The worst I heard is “Go back to where you came from,” which is bad, but not that bad compared to what people may actually have said. Social media allows people to have much more direct confrontations; people will send me messages on Twitter, or Facebook, or through my personal website. And sometimes, rarely, the conversations will be face to face. So people have said things very critical to me in an audience. But again, that doesn’t happen that often. And it’s happened less since I won the Pulitzer Prize. And so I think there are all these layers of insulation that I have that other people, particularly women and women of color, may not.
How do I deal with that? In a face-to-face moment, it’s important to have those moments, to not back away from that and to have that conversation. I don’t have a problem with that. And then with other kinds of written communication, sometimes I’ll respond. And sometimes these conversations will have an immediate dead-end, because the other person is so angry that we can’t have a conversation. But sometimes we exchange a few emails or communications, and we actually move forward a little bit in terms of understanding each other a little bit more.
TM: That brings me to my next question. How has the Pulitzer Prize changed your life as a writer? Have the changes been good, bad, or both?
VTN: Both. I mean, obviously I’m not complaining. There are negatives, challenges, but they’re completely outweighed by the positives. And the negative is that there has been a huge imposition on my time. So I’m about a year and a half behind in delivering my novel to my publisher. If I were to quantify how much time the Pulitzer cost me, that’s how much: a year and a half, because of giving lectures and responding to people and blurbing people’s books and things like that. The positives are that I’ve earned a lot more money. Because of the Pulitzer Prize, there’s no doubt about that. And that’s afforded me more time to write, my audiences have grown. I went from having no foreign edition to 30 foreign editions of The Sympathizer, because of the Pulitzer. So it’s turned me into more of an international author.
And it’s given me the prestige and the opportunity to speak to audiences I would never get to speak to before, both in terms of lectures but also in terms of op-eds. So I think the Pulitzer has, in every way, transformed my status as a writer, and it’s made me want to live up to that status, to use the Pulitzer for good and for other purposes.
The final challenge of the Pulitzer power play is what people will say about the novel that I’m writing now.
TM: I don’t want to get writers to talk about their ongoing projects. But in one of your previous interviews, you mentioned that you are working on a sequel to The Sympathizer. I only want to ask this question: What do you hope to achieve with this sequel?
VTN: Well, I think I want to write a good novel. That’s the most basic thing to do. And I want to write a novel that lives up to The Sympathizer, both in terms of its entertainment, but also its politics. And, let me set the expectations low and say, it won’t probably be better than The Sympathizer, but I hope it was at least be good and can live up to the reputation of that first novel.
But besides that, I think, going back to our earlier conversation about how I situate myself in terms of other bodies of literature and so on. Obviously, narrative scarcity, one of the problems for the so-called minority writer is that we get pigeonholed. We write a book that’s ostensibly about “our experience,” in my case, being a Vietnamese refugee in the Vietnam War. And we’re allowed by dominant culture to own that little piece of territory with the expectation that we won’t break out. That’s a trap. Because on the one hand, we want to break out; on the other hand, we don’t want to feel as if somehow we can’t write about what we just wrote about. I think about Philip Roth, arguably and possibly a minority writer, but definitely a majority writer. And no one now would ever say, “Oh, Philip Roth is only a Jewish writer, because he only wrote about Jewish experiences,” right? For me, the challenge is the same. That in the second novel, in the sequel, I’m still dealing with Vietnamese people, Vietnamese refugees and so on, which I’m not reluctant to do and I’m not apologetic about. But also, at the same time, I want to make the claim that just because I’m still writing about Vietnamese refugees and the consequences of the war, it doesn’t mean that it’s “only” about these things. In fact, we can write about these things, and yet they still are universally important. It’s up to me to prove that. But it’s also up to me to challenge readers who would not be able to see that.
TM: One last question: What are some of the habits that you think aspiring writers need to develop?
VTN: There are so many, but I think if there’s only one, that is to write a lot. Some writers would say you have to write every day. I don’t think that’s true. But I do think it’s true that you have to write a lot. No one ever became a writer by writing 100 hours. I think almost everybody has become a writer by literally thousands of hours. So however you choose to do it, you’ve got to do it. Whether it takes you five years or 10 years or 50 years. You can’t be a writer unless you do that.
And what goes along with writing a lot is enduring a lot. You have to endure rejection, obscurity, mockery, miscomprehension, apathy, that no one cares that you want to be a writer. And, in fact, life will constantly throw obstacles in your way. For me, one obstacle is I live in California, so to spend thousands of hours writing I have to sit in a room and not go outside and enjoy the sun. That may not be much of an issue in Iowa but it is here in California. So we endure and sacrifice a lot. So if you cannot write a lot, if you cannot endure, if you cannot sacrifice, then you should probably choose another passion.
The interviewer would like to thank Alyssa Asquith and Philip Kurian for their generous and thoughtful contributions to the interview.