Writing the Jersey Shore: The Millions Interviews Daniel H. Turtel

-

Earlier this week, Daniel H. Turtel published his debut novel, Greetings from Asbury Park, which in 2020 was awarded the Faulkner Society’s Best Novel Award. The book, which is set on the Jersey Shore and follows three half-siblings as they deal with a family death, has received praise from the likes of Junot Díaz, Julia Glass, Tom Perrotta, and Rae DelBianco, who called Turtel “our next Philip Roth.”

The Millions caught up with Turtel—who is pursuing an MFA at The New School—to chat about Greetings from Asbury Park, his process, New Jersey fiction, and a whole lot more.

The Millions: You have a degree in mathematics from Duke and are currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing—and your first novel publishes next month. Tell us a little about that trajectory. Did you always want to be a writer?

Daniel H. Turtel: My first creative writing course was a poetry seminar taken purely to satisfy a humanities requirement. My professor, Deborah Pope, was really inspiring, and I started branching out from poetry; by the end of the year, I had enough material that I felt comfortable applying for a novel-in-progress course with Oscar Hijuelos (The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love). Oscar completely changed the way that I thought about writing and I could not have asked for a more fantastic mentor as I began to consider fiction as a career and not just a hobby. He accepted me for a one-on-one independent study to coach me through writing my first novel which, rightfully, never saw the light of day, but had elements of what would later become Greetings from Asbury Park.

TM: How did Greetings from Asbury Park come about? What was the genesis of the book?  Isn’t that the title of Bruce Springsteen’s first album—what’s the relevance to your book?

DHT: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson was one of the first books I read that made me really want to write. In a sense, it’s an investigation of a town’s worth of disparate characters as they push another character through the universe of Winesburg and, ultimately, onto a train that leaves it forever. So, I started with this framework in mind for a non-traditional narrative that jumps around in perspective in order to give shape to some common underlying element that sits at the intersection of these different experiences.

Daniel H. Turtel

The novel started as a group of short story-ish standalone vignettes which were not explicitly connected, but all revolved around a common set of events. In beginning to think of it as a novel and not just a set of short stories, I knew that I wanted to make use of the music that Asbury Park is so famous for. So, there is meant to be an improvisational aspect to the shifting perspective, which, in some sense, is meant to imitate the jazz that shows up over and over again in the pages.

As for the title itself, it’s less a nod to the album than an acknowledgement of the way in which these bright, shiny words (usually printed on bright, shiny postcards) have come to define and dominate the way that a messy, complex town is seen from those outside it. There’s a sense of dramatic irony to the upbeat phrase.

TM: Tell us a little about the book, and the way focusing on a specific family—one with a few issues, to say the least—allows you to explore larger issues.

DHT: I remember reading Arundhati Roy’s wonderful The God of Small Things in high school; most readers were put off by the incest at the end, but the twins’ love scene was absolutely critical. We cheer for the cultural transgression represented by an intercaste love affair, but when it comes to a transgression that is morally problematic for us, that enthusiasm goes away entirely. Which is to say that American culture glorifies the transgression of boundaries that we deem unjust, but it is remarkably slow in examining the notion of what makes a boundary unjust in the first place. Few people who oppose the moral admissibility of a love affair do it because they want to erect an unjust barrier; to be cognizant of that would defeat the basis of the opposition. Instead, people really feel that they have some moral obligation to prevent something from transpiring, or some boundary from being transgressed, and that is a much more dangerous type of opposition, because it is born not necessarily of cruelty but of misguided moral compulsion.

Contemporary American fiction is filled with strawman controversies, and the experience of reading these is less challenging than affirmative. Most readers today are not pushed into a moral quandary when they come across an interracial or homosexual relationship; this is, unequivocally, a good thing for society, but it also means that in reading stories which focus on such relationships, as many of our stories today do, we are not so much being asked how we would respond to something that makes us morally uncomfortable, but rather we are reading a somewhat pure story of overcoming what reader and writer agrees is injustice. That’s fine, but it makes it difficult to ask: who gets to decide if two consenting adults can do something in private that you personally disagree with morally? Specifically, who gets to tell two consenting adults that they are not allowed to love one another? While most incestuous cases come with a litany of legitimate issues (growing up in the same house allows one to influence another, etc.), Casey and Gabrielle meet for the first time as fully formed adults, armed with developed psyches and capable of making their own decisions. This comes to a head in the chapter “Greetings from Asbury Park,” which spotlights Gabrielle as she grapples with the question of whether certain boundaries ought not to be crossed, and who can cross them and why, which is really what the whole book is about.

TM: Greetings from Asbury Park is set on the Jersey Shore, where you grew up. Can you talk a bit about your relationship to that area and why you chose to set the book there? What’s your message for people who only know that area from reality television programs?

DHT: I grew up right outside of Asbury Park, and returning there each summer from college was eye-opening in several ways. For one, I slowly went from year-round local to “Benny” (those taking the train from Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark, New York) and had the feeling of becoming a tourist; for another, the changes evident in the area were stark when separated in time by absence. As kids, my brothers and I used to ride bikes or play in the abandoned and empty Convention Hall—the building on the cover—which now hosts several boutique clothing shops, two clubs, a gelateria, an oyster bar, and a coffee shop. But just as its once-decrepitude was contained, so has the revitalization and change in demographic been specific to Asbury Park. The unique communities that border Asbury—most relevantly to the novel, the United Methodist community in Ocean Grove and the Syrian Jewish enclave in Deal—remain largely insulated and have largely resisted change. It all makes for a fraught, tense setting with genuine explosive potential.

TM: If you were to situate your book among other novels set in New Jersey, which titles do you think it’s in conversation with? Which other New Jersey novels influenced your book?

DHT: There has been no shortage of good fiction about New Jersey, from Richard Ford to Junot Díaz to Judy Blume to Philip Roth. But, for whatever reason, the Jersey Shore has been largely overlooked, which is a shame—it’s a fascinating, complex, multicultural behemoth that squeezes hundreds of unique communities into a very narrow space, and then erupts each Memorial Day as the summer crowds come. I’m hoping to see more fiction about and from the Jersey Shore in years to come.

TM: What, if anything, do you want readers to take away from Greetings from Asbury Park?

DHT: As mentioned before, there’s an experimental, improvisational style to the novel, and I’m hoping that it’s read as much for this as it is for its traditional narrative. I’m a little bit rhythm-obsessed as I write, and I really love the craft on the level of the sentence. So, I’m hoping that comes across.

Aside from that, I’m hoping that some of the moral questions posed don’t just ruffle feathers, but actually get people thinking about some difficult questions.

TM: Tell us a little about your process. And does your study of mathematics inform your writing process in any way.

DHT: I don’t think my studying of math does much to inform the way I write, but my study of music certainly does. The cadence of the sentence is critical to me, and I read everything aloud as I write it.

As for process, I take a ton of notes throughout the day. I feel like I’m supposed to carry a mysterious leather-bound journal, but I actually just use the notes app on my phone. The first thing I do when I sit down to write is type out all the notes that I’ve taken, separating them into different categories and tweaking the sentences as needed. The idea of sitting down and doing all my thinking in front of a blank page really terrifies me, so I try to minimize that—mostly because I just don’t feel that it is a productive way to go about writing. So, I feel like I do a good chunk of my writing while walking around or reading or doing anything but writing, and then I clean it up when I’m actually in the document.

TM: In the writing world, people seem to either be pro-MFA or anti-MFA. How has your experience at The New School been? And how do you view that odd divide over MFA programs?

DHT: I’ve had a really great experience at The New School. Coming from a non-creative writing background, this was my first real opportunity to participate in workshops, and I found the feedback invaluable. It just takes all the guesswork out of writing for yourself, and its enormously useful to find out if some specific style is or isn’t working.

That being said, I think it’s important to take all criticism with a grain of salt so that you don’t end up sounding like everybody else; I think the foundation of the anti-MFA side is that it transforms what should be a generation of individual American writers into one big, conglomerate fiction-making machine that produces cookie-cutter fiction. I haven’t come up against any sort of prescriptive approach to fiction at The New School, and that’s a great thing. I also was mostly remote during my time there, which—who knows?—might be an effective built-in tool for checking the collective influence that a classroom of critics has on your work. There’s a protective/insulating element to interacting only through Zoom, and there could be some value in that, from the perspective of avoiding formulaic fiction.

TM: What are you working on now? Another novel? Short stories?

DHT: I have a second novel coming out in February of 2023. It’s a retelling of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Greco-Roman myth as a multigenerational Jewish family saga (called Morfawitz, obviously). It’s very, very different than Greetings from Asbury Park. And I’m finishing up another novel now which is pretty different from both of those. Coming to creative writing relatively late, I feel that it’s only within the past few years that I’ve escaped having my fiction sound like whatever it is that I’m reading at the time, and really begun developing a voice of my own. It’s an exciting time for me, and I’m honing or making up new little tricks of craft every day.

TM: I have to ask, are you still using that math degree?

DHT: Not even a little bit.

Evolution Is Never a Straight Line: The Millions Interviews Douglas R. Burgess Jr.

-

In his latest book. When Hope and History Rhyme: Natural Law and Human Rights from Ancient Greece to Modern America, jurist and historian Douglas R. Burgess Jr. offers up an incisive exploration of natural law for our current era of deep political divisions, while also charting the long struggle to protect human rights.

Burgess, who is a broadly published writer and professor of legal history, covers everything from the Greeks and the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, the Nuremberg Trials, and the 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The result is a book with historical sweep and great contemporary significance that’s a must read for anyone concerned with the future of democracy.

The Millions caught up with Burgess to discuss the book, the connection between natural law and democracy, and being hopeful for the future.

The Millions: Can you explain the connection between natural law and democracy?

Douglas R. Burgess Jr: Natural law states that there are certain universal, inalienable rights which supersede any man-made laws: namely the rights to life, liberty, security, and property. Theoretically any government which exists to uphold these rights is just, whether it be a democracy, monarchy, or whatever. As a practical matter, however, democracies—which base their existence on the consent of the governed—have proven more likely to uphold natural law rights. Many, including the United States, base their entire system of laws on these foundational principles.

But that does not mean democracies hold some form of moral superiority when it comes to rights, nor that democratic government is a necessary precursor to a rights-based body of law. Those assumptions, which have underlaid U.S. foreign policy for decades, are cancerous to future progress because they chain the U.S. to securing universal democracy before universal rights. On the contrary, we should be primarily concerned with the question of whether each nation protects these basic rights for its citizens, and only secondarily consider their political rights.

TM: Can you briefly chart the course of natural law and human rights—how have these concepts evolved and how has that evolution impacted our lives? And where do you see them going?

DRB: The rights to life, liberty, property, and security are to be found in almost every body of laws, ancient or modern, Western and non-Western. Their very universality across time and space is perhaps the strongest argument that they are indeed natural rather than man-made. In the West, the concept of natural law began with a recognition of universal justice emerging, as Cicero wrote, “from the mind of Jupiter.” This Platonic idea of a perfect law outside human creation was wedded in medieval times to Biblical law: the mind of Jupiter became the mind of God. Just as we do not know all of God’s mind, we only know as much of universal law as reason allows us to discover. In the late Renaissance and 17th century a transformation occurred from the concept of universal justice to universal right. The individual rather than the collective became the focal point of law in the writings of Hugo Grotius, John Locke, and others. This led, in the 18th century, to a radical reconsideration of the very purpose of governments: from collective security to upholding individual rights. The 19th century added an imperial perversion: natural rights were bundled up with Western dress, technology, religion, etc. in a package deal called “civilization” that was imposed by fiat by the West on its captive colonies. This, in turn, led to a postcolonial reaction against such “Western” concepts of right that becomes the core of cultural relativism today.

TM: How should American domestic and foreign policy be decided? And who or what should guide that policy?

DRB: Every nation has a moral responsibility to consider the welfare of its own citizens when formulating foreign policy. That said, nations in a global community also have the responsibility to encourage behaviors and practices amongst themselves conducive to universal harmony. Since 1945 we have recognized that certain crimes committed by a state—even if only against their own people—threaten the stability and future of the entire world. As Robert Jackson said of the Nazis, “The real complaining party at the bar is Civilization…The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.”

The very term “civilization” has been corrupted to mean Western-democratic society, but at its core it is a natural law idea: that all humans exist under the same basic principles of justice and right. All nations have the responsibility to protect those rights in their citizens. If they fail to do so, the greater community—humanity itself—must compel them to do so. Not just for the sake of the victims, but for civilization and progress.

Progress, like civilization, has also become a dirty word. I am not speaking of technological or political progress (nor even whether those concepts have validity). I am speaking of progress towards a distant, utopian goal: universal human rights. This is the idea that we do not merely exist, but evolve. Once described as knowing more of God’s mind, it is now better understood as the “upward path” Franklin Roosevelt spoke of when articulating a vision of global justice. He committed the United States to following that path and ensuring that others did the same, and every president—with one glaring exception—has accepted that mandate.

TM: How did you come to write this book?

 DRB: Twenty years ago, in July 2002, my partner David Gritz was killed in a terrorist attack at the University of Jerusalem. He was there on a fellowship studying the philosophical foundations of international human rights. His death left that project unfinished, and for years—even as I completed my JD and eventually received a PhD in legal history—my mind returned again and again to the problem of universal right. It seemed to me that even those promoting such rights had little understanding of where they came from, or what they were. The rights to life, liberty, property, and security were bogged down or obscured by a plethora of other “rights”–all important, but not all equally so. This made it easier for other states to deny their validity, or cherry-pick which rights to favor and which to ignore.

It also disturbed me that foreign policy under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, especially the former, preferenced democratic government over rights, parroting the Reaganite assumption that one was predicated on the other. I began assembling materials for a book examining the natural law foundations of human rights in early 2016, intending it as a kind of scholarly policy guide for the next administration.

Then came Donald Trump. I watched with horror as the American president cossetted dictators, advocated (and exemplified) cultural and moral relativism, turned a blind eye to the most horrific human rights abuses, withdrew from nearly every international covenant, and even attempted to rewrite natural law itself out of existence through an Orwellian “Commission on Unalienable Rights.” My scholarly project took on new urgency. I began writing for a post-Trump world, when the U.S. would have to reassume FDR’s mandate after four (or potentially eight) years of desuetude and disgrace. While Trump himself would inevitably depart the stage, I wanted to scotch out every trace of his racist, nativist, isolationist, and amoral “America First” foreign policy, lest it burrow itself like a parasite in the body politic.

TM: What do you want readers to take away from the book?

DRB: First, the existence of natural law rights, what they are, and where they come from. Second, the necessity for restoring the U.S. and other nations to the “upward path” of legal progress laid out by centuries of scholars and heads of state, and articulated most cogently by FDR. Third, a sense of hope and optimism that such progress is not only possible, but inevitable.

TM: How do you see the concept of natural law playing out in our current political climate, both in the U.S. and abroad?

DRB: The project of reestablishing America’s place in global human rights has already begun under President Biden. To some extent this is a return to the mean: his conflating of political and personal rights–and arguing for a demo-centric view of those rights–places him squarely among his predecessors, excluding Trump. This is good and bad: good that we are again adding our voice to the cause for universal justice, but bad that we are trumpeting the same tired tropes of Western-centric democratic rights that much of the non-Western world has already rejected as a legacy of imperialism.

Moreover, we remain reluctant to call out abuses unless it is to our advantage to do so, or use all the means at our disposal to combat them. The most glaring example is China, which is currently pursuing a genocidal policy against the Uyghur minority. Our ongoing trade relationships, and our participation in the Beijing Olympics (admittedly with a diplomatic boycott) undermine any meaningful attempt to condemn or curtail these abuses.

My hope is that this book will present an alternative to the Western democratic vision of human rights, and a new (old) way to articulate basic rights for all people, everywhere. By asking the U.S. to recommit to that upward path, it also recognizes that the American people and their government must be willing to sacrifice something to the cause—economic hardship, strained relations with both allies and enemies, even the possibility of military conflict in the most extreme circumstances. But a great deal can be done simply by reawakening Woodrow Wilson’s “moral diplomacy,” binding the U.S. to its pledge to promote basic human rights around the world and backing that pledge with real sanctions.

TM: Considering the many challenges to human rights, are you hopeful about the future? Why or why not?

DRB: More than hopeful, certain. I’m always reminded of when Winston Churchill arrived in Washington in Christmas, 1941. At that moment London was on fire, Soviet resistance was collapsing, half the U.S. Pacific fleet was sunk at Pearl Harbor, and the Japanese were on the march throughout Southeast Asia. “Mr. Prime Minister,” a journalist asked, “how long do you think it will take for the Allies to win the war?”

“It will take exactly half as long if we manage it well, and twice as long if we manage it poorly,” Churchill replied.

So too with human rights. That “upward path” is not a mirage or a pipe dream; it is very real, present, and easily identifiable. It is simply not possible to look at the history of humanity for the past 1,000 years and not recognize the existence and evolution of human rights. This trick of perspective gives historians an advantage: we can think in terms of centuries and remain relatively untroubled by present events. Not discount them, certainly: Donald Trump remains one of the greatest threats to human rights and human progress since Adolf Hitler. But he is also an old man who will die soon. What matters most is that we do not allow the contagion of his nihilism to infect our foreign policy, or that of the international community. If that were to happen, it would be a classic example of “managing it poorly.” The cause of human rights would still advance, but more slowly and under different leadership.

Evolution is never a straight line. Nature itself makes mistakes, suffers reverses, scrubs the board and starts again. So too with the evolution of human society. The greatest advocates of universal human right also in the same breath warned us that the path is rocky. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” said Martin Luther King. It is. But it also bends towards justice.

Living History: The Millions Interviews Jason Sommer

-

Most readers know Jason Sommer from his poetry. But the author of five poetry collections—mostly recently Portulans—is publishing something a little different this March: Shmuel’s Bridge: Following the Tracks to Auschwitz with My Survivor Father, a memoir that documents Sommer’s relationship with his father while exploring his painful family history.

The book, which Sommer began, in part, due to his father’s failing memory, also documents a trip the father and son took to Eastern Europe in 2001: from the town where is father was born to the labor camp he escaped to Auschwitz. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly praised Shmuel’s Bridge, saying “This stunning tribute isn’t to be missed,” while Kirkus said, “The author provides an undeniably intriguing tale of travel and remembrance, filled with fascinating characters and places caught between the war-torn past and the post–Cold War future.”

The Millions caught up with Sommer to talk about the genesis of the book, the importance of preserving memories, fathers and sons, and a whole lot more.

The Millions: Can you tell us a little about the genesis of the book and your desire to preserve your father’s memories of the events that defined his life?

Jason Sommer: This book’s immediate beginning was in the imminent threat of loss. It wasn’t just my father’s mortality—he’s 98—or mine, but the mortality of memory. Dad had begun to forget, to confuse his personal history. What he had told me had changed perhaps in emphasis over years of telling, but never in substance, but now details were getting alarmingly muddled, and significant incidents were vanishing utterly, beyond anyone’s prompting. Besides his memories, I wanted to preserve the record of our experience together, our 2001 trip through Eastern Europe that had further illuminated the things he had spoken of for such a long time, reviving memories for him, and making me a better preserver and conduit for them.

But in a very real sense this book has been on its way much of my adult life, certainly since I began to write. The events of my father’s life, his memories of them, also did much to define my own life in a family where narrative was dominated by the Holocaust. I felt compelled to do my part in preserving what are, after all, extraordinary accounts for their own sake, and for my sake I needed to understand what they had made of me. That need is at the heart of this book and its inception.  So, what my father, as well as my aunt and uncle, had gone through had been the subject of poems of mine over the years. These survivors had charged me, sometimes quite explicitly, to write about these things.

TM: Your father’s life story is remarkable and documents the horrors of the Holocaust—and it’s probably a story you heard many times during your life. How did hearing these stories from your father impact you, both when you were younger and today?

JS: Around my family was an aura of story even before I began hearing the specifics of his, a sense of mysterious things at the margins, things that had happened that were not addressed directly, at least not near children. My father often seemed angry and didn’t sleep well. There was a recurrent, if intermittent, sense of unease around the family, a kind of haunting. Eventually the ghosts, and the demons, were named.

At a fairly young age, almost randomly, I was getting a sense of the general dimensions of the catastrophe—I had seen pictures, glimpsed newsreel clips on TV; I’d gleaned information, furtively, from the adult section of the library. I was drawn to what was barely comprehensible to me and frightened me. My father began speaking in my presence, often to adults, sometimes to other survivors, but to me, too. I overheard and heard what he went through as a child, the anti-Semitism around him that gave what followed—the massacres, and the camps—a terrible logic.

He spoke about what happened to him and others more frequently, feeling the responsibility of witness as his contribution to “never again.” So, often, I was present for accounts of suffering, endurance, and accomplishment, accounts of a life that therefore had more authority and authenticity than mine might ever have. Certainly, in my adolescence I began to feel, on top of its ordinary resentments, the pressure of the stories, which reiterated, reaffirmed, how inhospitable the world could be for Jews and how people could literally do anything to one another—and had. Any torture that could be imagined had been imagined and applied. This is what I learned and could not unlearn but, at times, simply wanted to escape. It made an ordinary life and ordinary pleasures seem trivial.

But I came to understand, as an adult, how significant my father’s narrative was, in part because it was so various: he’d escaped from a labor camp, been in hiding, had been coerced into the Russian army. Though I could admire and appreciate the courage and tenacity he had mustered to survive, and his subsequent achievements in America, I also had a better idea of how his difficult experiences had marked and scarred him. While I had been drawn deeply into his story, it had also been a barrier between us. The trip we took together promised the possibility of more authentic communication, to arrive where we are now with each other, with a clearer path between us, a less complicated love.

TM: Can you speak to the importance of preserving memories of this sort—the importance of not letting individual stories of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust be lost to history?

JS: Of course, we must preserve these memories, they are the testimony of witnesses. My father’s experience, in fact, is a chronicle of some lesser-known aspects of Holocaust history as concerns the Hungarian contribution to the war against the Jews. The Hungarians had their forced labor battalions, were effectively brutal in their roundups and deportation of Jews. What German Nazis instigated was not accomplished without allies like the Hungarians. But in a sense the larger history is the background of often remarkable individual stories. But that history lives with vividness when we focus on the person in the midst of it. It’s a sort of commonplace to speak of the human tapestry with each thread a person’s life story. I’d alter the metaphor a little and think of the threads as nerves in a neural net that bind us all together in one feeling body. Because that’s what the individual stories do, make us feel for each other, move us a little closer to feeling for the other as we do for ourselves.

TM: Did the current political climate in both the U.S. and in parts of Europe play a factor in your writing the book?

JS: The political climate during the writing of the book certainly lent something to my determination to do what I was doing. It’s hard not to feel added purpose given what I was writing about when around me, nationwide and worldwide, authoritarianism was rising and encouraging the old hatreds. One of the oldest hatreds gave us the 11 dead at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and evidence of more threats at every monitoring. In Hungary, Orbán is driving the rewriting of history and the whitewashing of Hungary’s enthusiastic collaboration in the Holocaust. In Poland, too, the so called “politics of memory” has seen scholars brought to court for examining the facts of Polish cooperation with the Nazis in wholesale murder of Jews. The assault on history is a sign of something already well underway in Europe just as the big lies and the smaller ones undermine us here. That said, it’s hard for me to believe that whatever summons to memory is implicit in my book contributes much to the resistance. Maybe I can imagine the book as a single voice seeking to join a chorus of those who support the truth, or at my most hopeful, I might think of it as I do of poems, moving through the culture almost secretly, headed to individuals and inward, aiming to exert some force for good.

TM: Can you tell us a little about the trip to Eastern Europe you took with your father in 2001 and the role it played in writing the book?

JS: The trip is at the root of the book, but obviously that root and this book took a while to come into being.

In the writing of the book, and in the living of our lives together, my father’s and mine—there is this pilgrimage that had turned quest, so important to both of us. During our travels I had no book in mind, as focused as I was on the purposes of the trip, personal ones. I thought the experience might come into my poems and I certainly took notes, but I had never written book-length nonfiction and wasn’t considering it. Initially my father proposed a sentimental journey of a sort, where some of the sentiments would be quite dark.

Dad had been eager to have me visit his homeplaces for some time. He wanted to go to his mother’s grave and to have me with him. He also wanted me to see the site of the labor camp from which he had escaped, and there would be other places in Eastern Europe, too, along the way. He had been on the run in Hungary and later traversed the region as a translator with the Red Army. He had asked me to go before, and I had found plausible reasons to refuse. I finally felt able to go, and I wanted to. But I also wanted—with a little trepidation—to add something else to the trip.

My father’s greatest loss was his younger brother’s murder in 1944. The fact that Dad’s family homes, a hut in Kustanovice and then a basement in Munkacs, would be among our destinations would naturally bring us to where Shmuel had lived, too. My father’s love and admiration for him was evident every time he spoke about him: the youngest brother but physically imposing, a protector, and as devoted as Dad was to their mother and to the labor that allowed the family a bare subsistence. He was attuned to nature and adept with animals. Moreover, Shmuel had resisted deportation, attempting to escape from the train to Auschwitz. He’d become a hero to me, almost a mythic figure. Yet my father would tell me on occasion that I resembled him. I supposed it was some physical resemblance. Around the survivors in my family I’d learned an etiquette: one didn’t probe in painful memories. And here I was, in 2001, urging what hadn’t been in Dad’s plan, something that could be seen as more for me than him, for whom it might be distressing.  Still, I asked that we arrange an itinerary that included a search for the place that Shmuel had died. We could visit all the places that my father had detailed, and from Munkacs follow the tracks through Slovakia and Poland to Auschwitz. Though pointing out the difficulties, my father agreed. And that is what we did and what I wrote about, which gathered to it and tended to so much of what mattered to my father and me, and so much that was the matter.

TM: Your book is about memory and history but also about the relationships between fathers and sons—relationships that can often be fraught. Can you tell us about your relationship with your father and how it has changed over time?

JS: I believe the book is most about the father-and-son relationship in it, though it’s a relationship greatly impacted by history (and long enough now to think of as having a history of its own).

I want to start by saying that we have arrived at a good place in our relationship, and that continuing gift, as I indicated, was at least in part granted by our travels. I arrange for his homecare; he is relatively strong and well in body, but his memory has become very impaired. He knows me, but when I visit, if I leave a room for a moment and return, he is likely to be surprised to encounter me again.

I’ve said that my father seemed angry when I was a child, and on occasion his anger at me was expressed physically. It was not merely the disciplining that so affected me then, but that the eruption of rage during felt almost out of control, gigantic. Those incidents colored my relationship with him, though I think I had some sense even then that there were other forces working in him. I had witnessed similar episodes with my cousins; my aunt and uncle were also survivors.

Conversations among those survivors in my family were an important part of my introduction to the Holocaust and what my father and others had been through. Those grim revelations, his pain, also dictated the character of the relationship. We children—seen as gifts, compensation for suffering—tried not grieve the parents who had grieved enough.

Yet, I was proud of my father. A penniless refugee, he’d arrived in America in 1948, and holding down menial day jobs and going to night school, he graduated from Brooklyn College in 1956. I was there. I remember. It took him only eight years in America, though I wouldn’t have done the math then. Later, I would remind myself through the math—in 1945 he was still in danger of his life in Europe, in 1950 I was born. Five years. I made an effort to keep that math in mind.

The omnipresence of his difficult personal history, which made such a claim on my awareness, seemed to require a curb on happiness. On and off I would avoid the subject and therefore him. The trip central to the book marks a change in our relationship and changed it further. I suppose I felt I had enough substance in my own life that I could manage, and be open to, such a full immersion in his past.

TM: The title of the book stems from your father’s brother, Shmuel, who was killed on the way to a Nazi camp. Can you talk about how the book’s title came about?

JS: I wrote a long poem in the mid-90s that had a section entitled “Speaking of the Lost,” and it was about Shmuel, from what his brothers—Dad and Uncle Harry—had told me. In it I made a sort of promise—“I have a plan to follow rivers/ if only on the maps until they intersect/ the lines of track, and I will have the place/ How many trestle bridges can there be…/.”

The hedge to the promise was “if only on the maps.”  I left myself an out, as if I might never make the effort in the world the maps represented. But I registered my desire there. I had a “plan.” In the event we hadn’t followed the rivers, but the tracks themselves.

It was strange that I hadn’t immediately thought that the centrality of Shmuel to the memoir ought to be reflected in the title. But I hadn’t. The working title had been “Joining the Story,” from a poem of mine with that same title. It had a lot of resonance for me, which probably derived principally from my own associations with the poem, which concerned a survivor and his child in America. But my editor, Kevin Stevens, in his customary wisdom, pointed at its almost generic quality. I could see that I needed a title that led the reader more directly to something essential in this book.

The bridge was Shmuel’s because it was the place he attempted his escape: a railroad bridge over a river in Eastern Europe that my father and I had been determined to find. We were guided mainly by one story: the account of Shmuel’s girlfriend who had been with him in the boxcar and she had survived. Other survivors added a few additional details about that transport and I had done further research. So, Shmuel’s bridge was, indeed, at the heart of the narrative. But that was the literal bridge. How could it not have occurred to me earlier? It was a figurative bridge too, a bridge between my father and me.

TM: Your previous work has been poetry. How was the writing process for a memoir different? Do you prefer one form over the other?

JS: The power of poetry most often depends on compression, getting a great deal of meaning into a relatively small area. So, typically for me there’s a first wave of language—call it inspiration—that touches the poem off and carries it along as far as I can ride it. That might be an image, a detail, a fragment of speech, something that happened. I might be going over that same ground, a few hundred words perhaps, for hours and hours. It’s not just words that need to be managed, but the way words are formed into lines: lines to be rewritten, lines to be excised. A poet will pay all kinds of attention to sound, and I might be refining for a pattern of rhythm, too, and of stress, the traditional five stress pentameter for example. And I sometimes use rhyme. I’ve written sonnets. There seems to be lots of subtraction in the process and, for me anyway, lots of times I put an entire poem away for a while, or forever. A day might end with very little to show beyond the respite of my having had the self, in that ego-y version, disappear into the concentration of the act of writing—even if I am writing about myself. That, happily, was just as true for the memoir.

The language of a memoir, as opposed to that of poetry, seems to have more to do with accretion and impetus, what keeps a reader going onward to get to more of the story. I felt very aware of crafting motion, as I pushed forward, intuiting and planning where I needed to be next at each point in the entire narration. Working with events distributed over so much time made the memoir a very different proposition even to a narrative poem. Attentive as I had to be to prose rhythms, they are different rhythms than poetry, at the sentence-level and over the course of a whole work. So much energy goes into detail, above all the rendering of scene, with the people, with the surroundings, the inclusion of what’s been called the furniture of the world in as much tangibility as can be managed. And that’s the immediate writing process: there were also hours of research—done in years past and more recently—hours and hours with maps, histories of the region, films, testimony of various kinds. I loved it, though. If the labor was considerable, the satisfactions were also great. I could work just about every day, which never happened with poems. The pages grew—and remained—survived the editing process even if scenes sometimes ended up moved around in the book.

In the end I can’t say, shouldn’t say, I enjoyed writing the memoir more because the process was easier. (Four out of the nine muses have to do with poetry of one sort or another. I wouldn’t want to risk their displeasure.)

TM: What do you hope readers take away from Shmuel’s Bridge?

JS: I want my readers to have come along with me: to marvel at how people, a person like my father, can endure, survive, and prevail—can go on to outlast evil and make a worthy life. I do want them to remember what happened to him, to remember how many were lost and maybe sniff the air for danger even now.

I’d like my readers to remember some of the names—to remember Shmuel for his courage—and if the names themselves are not retained, then I’d have them hold onto the idea that there were names—and to keep in mind the places, that there were particulars, a world of particulars just like we live in now where what happened was allowed to happen.

I also would have them understand how history, even the most truthful of histories, can intrude and distort what should be the closest of relationships, and to see how important it can be to push toward whatever understanding that can be reached. I’d also want my reader to take some pleasure in the story, and to feel the language I tried to find for it served well.

TM: What are you working on now?

JS: I’ve been doing several different sorts of writing since completing Shmuel’s Bridge. I’ve returned to poetry in a way I hadn’t been able to do for several years. After I had completed the work for my latest volume of poetry—Portulans, published in 2021—I became totally absorbed in this memoir and had attempted very little poetry. But I think the intense revisiting of the time with my father—and my late mother—has sent me back to some wells of psychic energy, evidenced and impelled by some pretty vivid dreaming, and that has lately been channeled into poems, specifically about my parents. But writing nonfiction was such a good experience for me that I have been looking for ways to do it again and have tentatively begun some trial pieces about estrangement. I believe it’s a commonly unspoken feature within many families that hasn’t been well explored as a subject.

Sponsored by Charlesbridge.

Dance or Die: The Millions Interviews Ahmad Joudeh

-

Ahmad Joudeh, an internationally renowned ballet dancer, was a stateless refugee growing up in the Al-Yarmouk camp in Syria. Despite the dangers of the civil war and death threats from religious extremists, Joudeh was determined to become a dancer, which he did, first with the one of Syria’s top dance companies and later in Amsterdam with the Dutch National Ballet.

His memoir, Dance or Die, tells this remarkable story—looking back on his childhood in the Al-Yarmouk camp and following his journey to Europe—and has been called “heart-breaking and life-affirming in equal measure.”

The Millions caught up with Joudeh to talk about the book, his journey from a refugee camp to the stage, and what he’s working on now.

The Millions: Can you tell readers about your experience in in the Al-Yarmouk camp in Syria: how you ended up there and what life was like?

Ahmad Joudeh: Both my father’s father and my father’s mother were born and raised in Palestine. They were children when the conflict broke out there in 1948. Their families escaped from the battles and ended up as refugees in Syria, where they later met each other. My grandparents got settled and raised a family in Al-Yarmouk, a refugee camp in Damascus, where I was born and grew up. The social atmosphere was harsh there, but I had an amazing childhood being loved by all my family members. I wrote about my exciting days as a child there in the book.

TM: Certain organizations and groups threatened to kill you if you danced or taught others to dance. Can you talk about the forces working against your dancing: why it was forbidden and how this was enforced?

AJ: In the culture of my neighborhood, it was not acceptable that a man should be a dancer. As my father did not approve that I should be a dancer, we had serious conflicts, which are described in my book.

When the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, religiously fanatic extremists came into the country. They started targeting me, as I was a dancer and as I was teaching dance to children. In their thinking, I was leading the children to a wrong direction.

TM: Can you talk a little about the tattoo on you neck: when you got it and why?

AJ: The tattoo “Dance or Die” was my response to the threats by the extremists. Giving up dance was a not an option for me. I got the tattoo on the back of my neck, where the sward would fall in case of decapitation, to ensure that they would see it just before killing me. I chose to have it in the Indian language to pay respect to Shiva, the dancing God.

TM: How did you, in the end, manage to dance?

AJ: My mother supported my pursuit of my dream all the way through. When I was 16 years old, I joined Enana Dance Theater, the major dance company in Syria at that time. I also studied dance at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts.

TM: As a kid in the Al-Yarmouk camp, did dancing, in a way, save your life?

AJ: When I was eight years old, I saw ballet for the first time in my life. It was a group of girls dancing to a music from Swan Lake at a school event. The moment I saw them dancing, I started moving my body with them and felt a beautiful feeling. This life defining experience is described in my book.

I wanted to have that feeling all the time. Dancing alone in secret in my room gave me a peace and grace.

TM: How did you manage to get to Europe?

AJ: In 2014, I participated in the Arab version of So You Think You Can Dance, which took place in Beirut. The videos were uploaded to the social media. Roozbeh Kaboly, a Dutch journalist, found me through the social media. He wanted to make a reportage of my life in Damascus. I refused first because it would be too dangerous for him to come to Damascus. But he insisted, as he was a war correspondent. We worked together, and the reportage was broadcasted in the Dutch national television in August 2016. Touched by the reportage, the Dutch National Ballet organized a “Dance for Peace Fund” and invited me to The Netherlands. I moved to Amsterdam in October 2016.

TM: Your story is both very personal and, at the same time, universal. Can you talk a bit about displaced people and refugees in general?

AJ: I know, from the stories of my family, both in the earlier and the current generations, and myself, what it is like to lose the home due to a conflict, to move to another country with another culture, to try to establish a new life in a society where you are regarded as a stranger classified as a “refugee” and/or “stateless.”

We are all human beings and have the right to be treated with respect and to be successful.

I should like to serve as a voice of millions of “refugees” and the “stateless,” who are mostly voiceless, through my activities as an artist. I want to be a living encouragement for them that there is a hope and that they should believe in themselves. I also want to draw the attention of the world to the struggles of the refugees and the stateless people.

TM: How did the book come about?

AJ: As I wrote in the book, Mr. Roberto Bolle, the principal dancer of Teatro ala Scala in Milan, Italy, has been my idol. By a pure coincidence, I could meet him at the Dutch National Ballet right after my arrival in Amsterdam in 2016.

Mr. Bolle was kind enough to invite me to dance with him in his first new year ballet television program “Roberto Bolle Danza Con Me” on Jan. 1, 2018, on Rai 1, the Italian national tv. We danced together to “Inshallah,” played live by Sting. Apparently, this performance had an impact on the Italian audience. An Italian publisher, DeA Planeta Libri, offered an opportunity to publish my memoir. At that time, there had been a lot of interview articles about me. But I wanted to tell my life in my words in my way, so I accepted the offer. The Italian version Danza O Muori was published in November 2018. Mr. Bolle was kind enough to write the preface.

TM: What was the biggest challenge you faced as a writer?

AJ: Since I was child, I loved describing things in words. I started writing when I was 16. I loved to write poetry in Sufi style. Already before the offer by DeA Planeta Libri, I had started writing about my life, some parts in Arabic and others in English. I collected all my writing and had a good collaboration with the Italian editor. But, as we had a limited time available, the process was hectic.

I am happy that Imagine has offered to publish it in English.

For the preparation of this version, we had good time available. I went through all the texts once again. I could take an “advantage” of the free time imposed by the lockdown under the pandemic of Covid-19. I had a good collaboration with Kevin Stevens, the editorial director.  With his encouragement, I added some important details to this edition. Going through my past once again was hard emotionally, but after all, it was a good process opening my eyes to see the world from different angles. It also helped me to work on the culture shock that I had been experiencing without realizing and to understand the process of my integration into Europe.

TM: Will there be another book? What are you working on now?

AJ: I should like to establish a choreography method that combines classic ballet and Arabic tradition. It is my dream to write a book of a new method of choreography.

TM: Tell us a bit about your current work fighting for human rights of children and refugees?

AJ: When I was Syria, I held dance workshops for children with Down syndrome, and for the children orphaned in the civil war living at SOS Children’s Villages in Syria. I tried to let them feel like artists. When you are creating, you can live in a world in which you can exist in a different way, however your situation is. I could see that their souls were having good experiences. I saw that the orphaned children became better at coping with their situation. This experience was repeated, after my moving to Europe, when I had an opportunity to have a workshop with children at SOS Children’s Villages in Italy in 2018. In 2019, I was appointed as an International Friend for SOS Children’s Villages International. Unfortunately, the pandemic has prevented me from working fully. I do hope that I can soon make further contributions for SOS Children’s Villages.

I have been also involved in events for raising awareness for refugee issues. In 2018, I performed at U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Nansen Refugee Award Ceremony. I hope to be able to make further contributions to UNHCR.

TM: Do you have a message for children in camps like Al-Yarmouk right now?

AJ: If you believe in yourself and keep on working, you can be a person what you want to be, no matter which label is placed on you, “refugee” or “stateless.”
Sponsored by Charlesbridge

Healing America: The Millions Interviews Manuel Hinds

-

With his latest book, In Defense of Liberal Democracy, Manuel Hinds examines a fractured United States and offers optimism and a framework for healing today’s divided America.

Through a combination of historical, political, and economic analysis, Hinds illustrates how rapid technological advances have led to the current crisis of divisiveness in America. Examining political and social polarization in the United States, Hinds, a former finance minister of El Salvador and a winner of the Manhattan Institute’s Hayek Prize, weighs the dangers of populism and shows how only liberal democracy can restore national stability—as it did during the Industrial Revolution and Great Depression.

Manuel Hinds, who is also the author of The Triumph of the Flexible Society, Money, Markets, and Sovereignty, and Playing Monopoly with the Devil, talked with The Millions about partisan politics, cultural divides, the rise of Donald Trump, the dangers facing the United States, and where we can go from here.

The Millions: Can you explain how technological advances have lead to our current political and cultural divisions? Was this a gradual process? Did it accelerate at a certain point?

Manuel Hinds: Profound technological advances, while opening the road for a better future in the long run, are terribly disruptive in the short term. They render obsolete the capital accumulated in physical assets; in human knowledge and skills; and, even more fundamentally, in the shape of the institutions linking the fabric of society.

These effects, however, are not symmetrical. Some people adjust to the new changes rapidly while others are left behind. Some people gain while some others lose. These asymmetries create divisions where they did not exist and reinforce old divisions that already existed, particularly in the case of a technological revolution that, like the one we are living through, privileges people with higher education. The current revolution, which goes in the direction of creating a knowledge economy, accentuates those differences. The asymmetrical disruptions delay overall adjustment and create resentments that evolve into divisiveness.

What we are seeing is a progressively open conflict between change and resistance to it. The resistance is embedded not just in the owners of the physical and human capital that is losing its value, but, more prominently, in the attitudes of all of us, who would like to obtain the benefits of the revolution but without the disruptions they are causing in the short term. This fundamental ambiguity is an additional source of divisiveness, this time inside all of us.

This process started almost imperceptibly in the 1980s as the income of the unskilled stagnated while that of well-educated people increased fast. Then it accelerated very rapidly as changes accumulated and people became aware of them. Now we are in the real fast portion of the curve, where lags are becoming shorter and more complex.

The solution to this problem is not stopping change. The current revolution is bringing about marvelous inventions that will improve our lives beyond belief. Instead, we must diminish the divisiveness it is eliciting, in two main ways: first, attenuating the asymmetry of its impact through investment in human capital and, second, reviving the spirit of compromise that has always characterized the country.

TM: You write in the book that our current era of partisan and cultural divisiveness isn’t so different from three past eras of instability. How are those historical periods similar and how are they different?

MH: They are similar because all of them have posed severe challenges to the country’s social order. They are different because the challenges have evolved from problems posed by nature or external enemies to problems presented by society to itself through the increasing complexity posed by the relationships between its members.

In this way, the first crisis found what today is the country as a set of 13 colonies, independent from each other, dependent from an external power, and left them converted into a single, democratic country based on the respect of individual rights.

The second crisis found this country deeply divided by an internal threat that Abraham Lincoln defined with his immortal words, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” The country, which defined itself in terms of freedom and individual rights, was defiled by slavery. The crisis left the country united in the most basic of its foundations, freedom.

The third crisis found the country transforming itself from an agrarian to a powerfully industrial society. This new world was, however, subject to fluctuations that could leave millions of people unemployed for considerable periods and destitute at the end of their career, without the family attention that was usual in the agricultural society. A solid social security network was needed to isolate people from these inevitable fluctuations. This was the great creation of the New Deal. Creating it required a shift in mentality.

A similar change of mentality is needed in our times. The country must find a way to invest in its own citizens to ensure the maintenance of a strong economy in the new knowledge society that is emerging, and, to ensure the return of the cohesive freedom that has been the mark of the country, it must defuse the divisiveness that has been growing in the last several decades.

Regarding the first point, in the industrial revolution, added value depended on machines; social expenditures were seen as a complementary activity, undertaken not to improve production but to take care of fellow human beings. The idea was: let’s produce first and distribute later. But in the knowledge economy, you cannot produce without high levels of human capital. Only a healthy and educated labor force will produce high added value. So, in the new world the ordering of activities is the reverse. Investment in human capital is necessary, which could then be used to produce wealth.

The true wealth of the United States is its highly educated population. As a society, however, its networks of educated people have enormous voids. In those voids, the United States is wasting opportunities and creating pools of divisiveness and resentment. Overcoming this problem requires going back to the principles of social interest that are the basis of liberal democracy.

TM: The book asserts that liberal democracy is what is needed to heal our nation, as it has done in the past. How did this function past eras and how do you see it playing out in our current era.

MH: There are two fundamental ways of organizing the enormous diversity of a modern society to attain a sustainable social order: you can either subject it to a vertical command that would eliminate diversity, or you can create order out of diversity through democratic compromise. The first is tyranny, the second is liberal democracy.

Authoritarian regimes are attractive to many people because they think they are more direct and effective: they rely on a single will and a simple plan and are not distracted by the checks and balances of democracy. But our world is too complex, too contradictory and too uncertain for that. To adjust to a transformation as deep as the current technological revolution you need a free and creative society, capable of fixing its own mistakes, of changing day by day through millions of free, small individual decisions, not through rigid enormous political commands. Rather than one single tyrant, you need as many active adjusters as possible, laboring under a common, democratic framework. To have them, you need liberal democracy, and to have the latter, a culture of compromise.

For this reason, strongmen like Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao failed to lead their countries to harmonious adjustments to the industrial revolution. In their efforts to repress diversity they became destructive and genocidal. In contrast, all the liberal democracies created unity out of diversity and succeeded in their adjustment to the industrial revolution. The United States was created on this basis. This is the meaning of E Pluribus Unum, the motto that the Founding Fathers legated to the country. A revival of the culture of compromise would resolve the two problems we are facing today: it would heal divisiveness, and, through this, it would turn society more flexible as well.

The ability to compromise requires understanding that all people in a society are in the same boat, that to reach a compromise you need empathy to understand the needs and desires of the rest of the population, and that you need self-control to honor your side of the compromises. All these requirements can be summarized in one: the social interest that must complement private interest to form a harmonious society. In the recent past, the United States has forgotten the need for this combination, believing that a successful society is the realm of self-interest exclusively. But self-interests are naturally divisive. If society is abandoned, if no one cares for it, if people refuse to compromise, as it is happening today, society will die, as it is happening today. To revive it, a spirit of compromise must substitute for the uncompromising attitudes of today.

TM: The subtitle of the book is: What We Need to Do to Heal a Divided America. What do we, as citizens need to do? And what can everyday people do to change a situation that seems so entrenched and immutable?

MH: The United States became a great country because its population met all these requirements, which were put to the test in the three big crises I mentioned in a previous question: that which led to the creation of the country, that which kept it united while eliminating slavery, and that which turned it into a modern industrial society in the first four decades of the twentieth century. In all these cases Americans adapted their institutions to new requirements and did so while keeping in place liberal democracy. This required a difficult exercise of self-discipline to understand how to reform institutions while firmly keeping in place the principles established by the Founding Fathers. In all cases, this self-discipline has paid enormous dividends. Americans not only remained free and protected in their rights but also led the world into increased creativity and riches.

The work that should be done is mainly internal to each individual. It is there, in the values of the Americans, that the incoming battle to eliminate divisiveness while keeping in place freedom and individual rights will be fought.

TM: How does a figure like Donald Trump fit into all of this? Do you see him as an aberration or a symptom of a larger social/political/technological shift?

MH: He is a symptom of a larger social/political/technological shift, but not one of what would be coming if the United States adjusted harmoniously to the new revolution. Rather, he is a symptom of the angst of the confrontation between change and resistance to it, a product demanded by people who think that social order can only be restored through authoritarian vertical commands—a social order that is consistent not with what the future is offering us but instead to what restricted progress in other countries in the past and could restrict it in the United States if the commanding attitude prevailed.

Thus, he is a voice of the past in this crucial intersection of history: politically because he is for the arbitrary government of one person that the Founding Fathers rejected to establish a liberal democratic government almost 250 years ago, and economically because he wants to go back to the mercantilism that they discarded in those times—a system in which economic success is obtained not by producing more efficiently but by having good contacts with the government, which decides who will be protected and who will not. Characters like him appeared at the height of the industrial revolution, people like Huey Long and Father Coughlin, only to disappear as the country overcame its transformation and integrated industry within a free and efficient society.

The damage that he, and many others that will appear, can cause should not be underestimated. If any of them attains new power, they can turn the clock back and deviate the country from the path of freedom and progress it has walked since its creation.

TM: Looking at our current divisions, partisan politics, and brush with an authoritarian leader, do you see parallels between the United States of 2020/2021 and other nations during the 20th century? You write about Lenin’s Communist Russia and Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Are we headed down a similar path?

MH: We are far away from those destructive regimes. But we have to understand why. The distance is not in terms of circumstances. Many people would be scandalized by this assertion because we cannot compare what we see as chaos today with the true chaos that destroyed Tsarist Russia in 1917, or with the chaos that overtook Germany one year later, leading it to the brink of a Bolshevik regime, or with the chaos that preceded the escalation of Adolf Hitler to power 15 years later.

Yet, circumstances may change very rapidly during technological revolutions. Germany, for example, was seen as one of the most stable and powerful countries in the world in 1913, just five years away from its Bolshevik revolution. The same was true of 1929 Germany, which was divisive but stable, just before the Great Depression. Within the next three years Germans turned divisiveness into chaos and then tyranny. That is, even if our circumstances seem to be much calmer than in those times, they may worsen very rapidly. Any external factor, like a serious prolongation of the Covid-19 pandemic, or incontrollable violence in the United States, could lead to a sudden chaos.

Thus, the real security is given by the existing liberal democratic institutions, the reason why I said that we are far away from the destructiveness of those regimes. They would never allow disasters like those of communist Russia or Nazi Germany. But institutions have power only because people give it to them. People could give it to an authoritarian leader. Thus, the strength of the United States is within its individual citizens—their values and their courage. History will say if we are right in trusting that they still keep in place the values of the Founding Fathers.

TM: In the book, you write, “Today we are faced with our 1776 moment. Our challenge is to create the pillars that will structure social life during the twenty-first century without knowing what challenges this century will pose.” Can you talk about that parallel with 1776 and what we can learn from the founding of our country.

MH: In their 1776 moment, the Founding Fathers understood that their task was not just founding a nation but also giving it a social order that would sustain it through times they could not foresee and through crises they could not predict. Their raw material was a population full of contradictions and divisions, which were seriously considering going, each of them, their own way.

Their great achievement was discovering that the only way to manage a reality that is both contradictory and uncertain is to design a system that can correct its course, finding the right response by trial and error. This is precisely what liberal democracy does. The advantage of democracy is not that it produces the best policies from the start but that it has the ability to correct itself. British liberals, the Founding Fathers of the United States, and the shapers of the most developed societies did not produce a plan, or a program, or a theory to attain the results they eventually attained. To manage the contradictions, they created not one unified framework, but instead a superposition of frameworks that checked and balanced one another, and gave the nation, through their own example, values that would lead to compromise and respect of the rights of each other. They didn’t know what policy decisions would come from this system when confronted with problems, centuries later, they could not even envision. They only trusted that their construct, based on democracy and individual rights, would tend to produce the right solutions. The history of the country proved they had been right.

The Founding Fathers reached their 1776 moment because they were willing and able to rise over their short-term interests and compromise. This is what we need to do in this moment: rise to the occasion and compromise with one another to recreate the nation with renovated institutions and based on the same principles established by the Founding Fathers. This is what the generations of Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt did when they renovated the institutions that give life to the country, based on the principles of democracy and individual rights. Now it is our turn.

TM: In the midst of a political crisis, we faced another crisis: a global pandemic. How did those two things play out together? Did they influence one another? In what ways?

MH: The pandemic is having many interactions with the processes that were already weakening the social order when it started. Initially, many people thought that it would mark the end of globalization because the global supply chains broke as people panicked and lockdowns multiplied all over the world. They thought that this showed the vulnerability of a globalized economy. Yet, with time, the economic collapse actually showed what could be expected from a world economy comprising countries isolated from each other. This changed the attitude toward one of embracing the new technologies rather than rejecting their most visible economic result, globalization. Thus, the pandemic accelerated the transformation to a more connected world.

Enterprises discovered that these technologies were useful not just to coordinate complex tasks on the other side of the planet but also within the same city. Many enterprises changed radically their business model as they learned to work more efficiently without being together physically, thus reducing, for example, their need for office space. These developments, in turn, have affected in a very asymmetric way different groups of the population, adding reasons of divisiveness.

At the same time, the pandemic showed that national and international coordination is needed to deal with global problems in a pragmatical rather than ideological way. The United States paid a high price for trying to avoid involving the federal government in the approach to the problem for what seemed to be ideological reasons. Contrarywise, the European Union is paying a high price in terms of vaccination supplies for trying to coordinate everything under a rigid central government. Other countries, like Israel, have obtained excellent results by combining government and private interventions in a pragmatic way.

TM: How hopeful are you about the future? And what would you tell readers who feel overwhelmed and powerless when faced with our current political and cultural divides?

MH: I am quite hopeful because Americans have done it before. The United States is one of the few countries in the world in which political power has flowed from the people to the government, from the local to the national, from the individual to society. Democracy was not given to its population, much less imposed on it. The people impressed it on the government.

Many people may think that the identity of the origin of this creative movement is immaterial, that what is important is that the link between the individual and all the levels of government was created. Yet, the direction of this movement is crucial. It shows where the creative power is located, and, comparing such power with the momentous creation, it shows how effective the grass roots and the individuals can be. This is why I ended the book saying that this is our 1776 moment.
Sponsored by Charlesbridge

Finding Hope at 18,000 Feet: The Millions Interviews Jeff Belanger

-

Jeff Belanger’s latest book, The Call of Kilimanjaro, chronicles the author’s journey to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, a mid-life adventure that honored the memory of his late brother-in-law and allowed him to test his grit and step outside the routine of everyday life.

Belanger, who is the author of 16 books and has written for The Boston Globe and USA Today, sat down with The Millions talk about his trek to the top of Kilimanjaro, how the journey changed his life, and his next adventure.

The Millions: After the death of your brother-in-law, you set out to climb Kilimanjaro as a way to honor him. How did that decision come about and why did a trip to the top of Kilimanjaro seem like the perfect tribute?

Jeff Belanger: Kilimanjaro had been steeping in my teacup since childhood when I heard Toto’s song “Africa” as a kid. In college I started hiking. I loved getting to the tops of New England mountains. The views, the workouts, and getting away from civilization for a short while became a hobby. The more mountains I conquered, the desire for more altitude only increased. Also in college, I flunked French. I barely passed Spanish (because I often confused the two languages). I was lamenting to a friend that I still had to fulfill my language requirement, but needed a language different from French and Spanish. She suggested Swahili because the professor was amazing. She was right. I took Swahili I and II—the language of east Africa. Kilimanjaro has bobbed up to the surface of my psyche again and again throughout my life.

About seven months after I lost my brother-in-law Chris to cancer, I found myself hosting a fundraiser event at a local historic home when I ran into my friend Amy who worked for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS). A year earlier, my family raised some money for them participating in their “Light the Night” walk. Amy told me LLS had a new fundraising program coming up. Just as I started making excuses about how busy I was, and how I’ll help if I can, she said, “We’re climbing Kilimanjaro.” I stopped in my tracks.

I’m in my mid-life, just a few years younger than Chris was. I felt my own mid-life rut all around me. I’d already been reminded of my own mortality when he passed, so when the universe sets a bucket list item out for you on a platter, there’s nothing to do but accept. I get the opportunity to go to Mt. Kilimanjaro and raise money to fight cancer in memory of Chris? I looked at Amy and said, “I’m in.”

TM: The trip was also about your pursuit of clarity about your own life and goals. What was unclear at the time? Did the climb bring clarity? What did you come to realize and how has it changed your life?

JB: The “pursuit of clarity” is something my publisher put in the press release. I’m not sure anyone does anything in “pursuit of clarity,” but if you’re lucky enough, you just might trip over clarity on your journey someplace. As a 42-year-old dad, husband, and employee, my life was in a rut. I recognize it’s a rut of my own design, but still a treadmill of waking up, getting my daughter off to school, working, taking care of my home, getting maybe an hour to myself at night, and then repeat the next day.

Hiking anywhere is a break from that treadmill. A moment of clearing one’s head. We took the Lemosho Route up Kili. It’s six days to the top, and two days to get back down over 42 miles. The first day on the mountain, my mind was scattered worrying about the work I was missing, emails, phone calls, wondering how my family was doing. Sometime around the third day, that endless buzzing of wonder in my brain started to fade. I was finally unplugging and just doing what humans do: walking, eating, sleeping, and adventuring on to the next camp.

The experience changed my life because I know I’m a person capable of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. I get to keep that forever. When it was summit night, three o’clock in the morning, 18,000 feet in elevation, subzero temperatures, and I’m fighting for every molecule of oxygen, I had the temptation to give up and turn back, but I didn’t. I love knowing here in my mid-life, I still have that grit when I need it.

TM: At what point did you know the trip to the top of Kilimanjaro was going to be a book?

JB: Throughout my training I was taking pictures and keeping a journal. That continued on Kilimanjaro. As the pages filled, and I felt myself changing, I knew this was a story worth telling. The question was: what medium? I had given several talks on my experience, and the audiences showed a lot of interest in wanting more. So I started combining the words with some of the hundreds of photos I took in Tanzania. Pretty soon, a book began to take shape.

TM: What was harder: climbing the mountain or writing the book?

JB: Writing the book! Kilimanjaro only took eight days. Writing this book took me a year and a half and many drafts.

TM: The subtitle of the book is Finding Hope Above the Clouds. Can you talk a little about the hope you found—and how the book might give readers a similar sense of hope?

JB: I can do better than tell you about the hope I found. I can show you. On summit night we started around midnight from Barafu Base camp at 15,000 feet to head 3.1 miles to the summit at 19,341 feet. It will take about 8 hours. It was about 3 a.m., and I was the coldest and most exhausted I’ve ever been in my life. I could hardly breathe no matter how slowly I moved my body, and I was almost out of hope. But just as we reached the volcanic rim of Kili, at a place called Stella Point, I turned around to see the sunrise. The world had warmed significantly with the sun now shining, and in that singular moment I felt judged and deemed worthy by God, the spirit of the mountain, the universe, or whatever term you wish to use. I felt the presence of Chris by my side. I raised my camera and clicked this picture. I call it “Hope.” Something as simple as a sunrise changed everything.

TM: From when you were making the climb, what is the most enduring memory and why? Also: did you feel like your brother-in-law was with you as you made the trip?

JB: The sunrise at the rim of the volcano was the most enduring memory. Though we still had another 500 vertical feet to go and half-a-mile of distance to the summit, I knew in that moment that I would make it. Any doubts I had been carrying for days and weeks, vanished. Chris was with me every step of my journey. I carried photos of him in my backpack, I thought about him each day, and I felt him there at Stella Point.

TM: There are a good number of books about trips to the tops of great mountains. What sets yours apart from the rest?

JB: I’m no one special. I’m not a mountaineer, not a star athlete, not some guru. I’m just a dad, a husband, and a guy from New England who wanted to do something story-worthy in the middle of my life. When you travel well, you let it change your very DNA. My goal with telling this story is to sing the praises of a mountain that gave me so much and changed me for the better, and maybe inspire others who want to face their own Kilimanjaro.

TM: The act of climbing the mountain brought with it realizations, fresh perspectives, insights, lessons, and spiritual transformation. Did the writing of the book also deliver those things in a different way?

JB: When I was on the summit, I feel like the entire moment was like a black-and-white line drawing. An event like Kilimanjaro takes weeks and months to fully sink in, for that line drawing to fill in with colors and textures.

Writing down every detail of my journey was part of filling in that picture for me. On paper, I can analyze the experience from multiple angles. I’ve written books about other people’s experiences, but this is the first time where I was the subject. Part of the reason the writing process took me so long was that I needed to walk away from the drafts for a while to gain some objectivity. Writing a memoir means you have to strip naked and stand in front of an audience showing all of your own flaws and shortcomings. You learn a lot about yourself when you can step outside of your body and study yourself from a distance.

TM: What’s next for you? In terms of new books and new adventures?

JB: There are still mountains to climb. Thankfully, I’ll never run out of those. Covid-19 sidetracked a lot of my planned adventures this past year, but I’m optimistic that the world will open up again in the coming year and we get back to doing what humans do: explore, wonder, and share stories. I have no doubt I’ll find the next great adventure (or it will find me). Until then, I’m still producing my weekly New England Legends podcast and giving many virtual programs about my experience for libraries and other organizations until I can get back in front of live audiences.

How’s that for a non-committal answer?

Diversifying the Workplace, One Company at a Time: The Millions Interviews Jodi Ecker Detjen

-

In their new book, The Next Smart Step, co-authors Jodi Ecker Detjen and Kelly Watson offer tangible ways to root out workplace gender bias and inequity and implement successful strategies for building inclusive organizations. The book argues that equality is not just a moral or ethical imperative but a sound business decision as well. Companies are ultimately more successful when there’s diversity—of gender, culture, and experience.

Detjen recently spoke to The Millions about the barriers to workplace gender equality, what we stand to gain from achieving it, how the pandemic has affected working women, and much more.

The Millions: The Next Smart Step isn’t just another statistic-laden book about gender equity in the workplace; it’s also a guide and toolkit for addressing our unconscious bias and making positive, enduring changes. Can you speak to the method outlined in the book?

Jodi Ecker Detjen: Our previous book focused on women—women’s careers, what interrupts them and what women can do. This book we wanted to go further—what men and organizations can do to help.

Our next smart steps are all about taking a strategic approach to the challenges that face organizations as they work towards inclusion. When we move beyond the fear around this, actually most organizations know how to tackle this problem—like any other business challenge:

Create a vision or strategic goal for what inclusion means to your organization and the impact it will have. Be sure to bring in voices from across the organization so that the process itself is inclusive.
Measure where you are today—for example, what are the demographic numbers in terms of hiring, promotion, performance evaluation? Where do the barriers exist within the processes? How is the culture experienced and how does it differ by group?
Create a plan for reaching the vision. Just like we do every time we create a strategy. It’s really just that—creating a strategy on inclusion. Whether that’s changing the promotion process so that all the preparatory support is shared across employees to changing the hiring process across each step to remove bias.
Ask people to speak up who aren’t. Give people a minute to think before they speak. Sit on decisions. Go back and evaluate decisions. It’s really not that different pre- or post-Covid
Pilot. For us, piloting these changes in particular area gives the organization an opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t. To try it out.
Roll out—systemize and then measure, measure measure. Rinse and repeat.

TM: There are so many positives—for employees, workplaces, and the economy—that come with achieving gender equity in the workplace. Why do you think there’s still resistance (either passive or active) in trying to achieve that?

JED: I think in large part this resistance is because people are afraid of losing something. People look at inclusiveness as a fixed pie—if we get more women in leadership, there will be less men in leadership. But what we know from a lot of research and financial modeling is that the more we open up roles to more people, it actually grows the pie.

Here’s an example: If a woman becomes a senior leader, she will make more money. That means she has more money to spend. She might eat out more (more restaurants), need more help at home (more cleaning companies), pay more for clothes (more clothing companies), need more technology to manage (more tech companies), etc. This all creates more demand to which there will be more supply, thus creating more businesses. Result: A bigger pie.

TM: The pandemic has forced so many women—especially women of color—out of the workforce. Do you think this is a temporary setback, or something with more far-reaching implications?

JED: It’s both. Temporarily because many of the jobs lost will come back once the pandemic ends. More jobs because the industries that lost so many like restaurants and events—both women-dominated—will return.

But there are many far-reaching implications. Why is it that so many women have had to leave with children under six? Why is it that childcare was such a secondary concern? And why is it that women are the ones that are shouldering this? Where are the fathers?

This she-cession is showcasing the gendered roles both at work and home we have in this country. It’s time for these to be reframed. Time for us to face the assumption that women are the ones who are solely or mostly responsible for raising kids and realize this is something we are all responsible for. It can’t be an individual problem anymore. But it’s also something that companies really need to consider. Why is it that childcare isn’t a standard benefit? As companies start to think about how to return to work, will they consider the implications for families? Will they consider how to help moms not shoulder the main burden? To help daughters not to shoulder the majority of eldercare? Or will companies design the new way of working that benefits just a few?

TM: What makes you most hopeful about the direction of the gender equity movement?

JED: Women’s voices. I’m hopeful because the costs of the way things work is incredibly high. Just think about the women who were involved in the landing of Perseverance on Mars. Or building the Covid vaccine. If these women’s voices had been lost, imagine the cost! We can no longer rely on the ideas of the few who happen to be demographically similar.

I’m hopeful because as more voices are included into the system, more ideas will come. More solutions. More positive impact on the world. No one—not even the most biased person—would want another person to not realize their potential as long as they got to realize theirs too. We have been living in a fixed-pie view of the world, where as more women get power, say, less men do. It’s time to reframe this and start to imagine a world where so many more get to have a say in their and others’ lives. Wow. Can you imagine?
Sponsored by Charlesbridge

Listening to the Voices in His Head: The Millions Interviews Jim Gauer

- | 1

Jim Gauer’s Novel Explosives, an experimental novel set in Los Angeles, Ciudad Juárez, and Guanajuato, received a starred review from Kirkus, which praised the book for its “verbal and postmodern high jinks.” Originally published in 2016, a new edition, with an afterword by Chris Via, publishes in February.

The Millions caught up with poet and mathematician Gauer to discuss his novel, its enduring appeal, his writing process, literary influences, and much more.

The Millions: Your novel has also been featured in starred reviews, radio shows, and various platforms online, and is immensely popular on social media. To what do you attribute its long-lasting connection with readers?

Jim Gauer: Boy, that’s a tough one, a bit like asking a father to explain why his child has so many friends. Am I allowed to say it’s a great novel, and that anyone who loves it is an exceptional human being? No, I suppose not. Seriously, while I think the book is a lot of fun to read and may have what the novelist Joseph McElroy called “an indelible richness,” the truth is that the book is so different from most contemporary novels that those who enjoy it tend to be loyal to the book. Among other things, the book uses long, intricate sentences, long paragraphs, and an extravagant lexicon, none of which would endear it to corporate publishers, but I think there’s a kind of hunger for novels that aim high, and if they fail, at least fail spectacularly. It’s not the sort of book that anyone could feel indifferent about, so readers who believe in the book seem to be tenacious in their belief. In any case, however I explain it, I’m truly grateful for the book’s loyal readers, as without them, the book would have vanished without a trace.  

TM: Novel Explosives is over 700 pages long – certainly a feat for busy readers and those searching for space on their bookshelves. What would you share with readers about your book who might be daunted by the manuscript length? Can you tell us a bit about your writing process for spinning this many-paged tale?

JG: Indeed, the book is far too long, though it does have a thriller-like intensity and a good deal of narrative propulsive force, and I don’t think it’s quite so long as the page-count would indicate. As for process, the book began when I had just finished another novel, currently in a drawer, and woke up the next morning with a voice and a first sentence in my head. I wrote the first hundred pages or so in one long blast, during which I discovered two more voices. I then spent the next seven years of seven-day weeks following those voices wherever they led, and where they led turned out to be Novel Explosives.

TM: One of the most intriguing and unique elements of your novel is the fact that it’s a three-stranded narrative. When you’re writing, how do you best keep track of timelines, character arcs, etc. to make sure the narratives converge at all the right moments?

 JG: I of course had an outline that took up the entire side of a three-by-five index card, but then I only referred to it a few thousand times. One of the reasons I didn’t take a day off in seven years of writing was that I had the structure of the entire book in my head, and I was afraid that if I took a day off, the book would fall apart or simply vanish. Part of this may have been my training as a mathematician, but I didn’t want to know too much about the writing up ahead, as I wanted the writing to feel as surprising to me as it hopefully feels to the reader. The index card was used to keep the timeline straight, and to make sure that all the narrative ingenuity didn’t turn into sheer incompetence.

TM: What was the inspiration behind setting the story in this particular year (2009) in this particular region of Mexico (Guanajuato)?

JG: For some reason, that voice I woke up with on the first morning was a character preparing to tell the story of how he came to live in Guanajuato, Mexico. He finds that all of his knowledge is intact, but since he has no idea who he is or how came to live in Guanajuato in the first place, he isn’t exactly prepared to tell the story of how he came to live there. In essence, the voice selected the place, as Guanajuato was little more than a word to me, and I’d never been anywhere near there. The book, in retrospect, seems a matter of “presiding over accidents,” as Orson Welles put it. One of the accidents is that the character, Alvaro, was positioned part way up a hill in a small hotel overlooking the Plaza de la Paz, in a very precise location that might easily have been a glue factory. When it came time to visit Guanajuato, my wife and I walked to the Plaza de la Paz, went up the hill to the street that Alvaro lives on, and discovered that his building was not only a small hotel, but that the hotel was called El Meson de las Poetas, The Inn of the Poets. If I had any doubts about completing the writing, the name of the hotel seemed so improbable to me that I knew I would have to finish the book.

TM: There’s been a lot of comparison of your style to that of Thomas Pynchon or even David Foster Wallace. Who do you count among your literary and visionary inspirations, and why?

JG: At bottom, the book is a kind of absurdist quest, so it may have been Cervantes presiding over many of the accidents. The tradition the book is written in includes Laurence Sterne, George Eliot, William Gass, William Gaddis, Pynchon, and the greatest unread novelist of the late 20th century, Alexander Theroux. Out of some sort of anticipatory anxiety of influence, I didn’t read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest until the book was finished, but he certainly would have been an inspiration had I read the book beforehand. While I can’t possibly compare my writing to any of these great writers, they’re all masters of the sentence, and Novel Explosives at least aspires to the same sort of mastery of the sentence.

TM: You’re a self-described “mathematician, published poet, and possibly the world’s only Marxist venture capitalist.” How do these multi-faceted perspectives contribute to your voice as an author, and to this particular plot? 

JG: One of my favorite quotes about writing is from Walter Bagehot. “The reason why so few good books are written is that so few people who can write know anything.” Would Gaddis have been able to write J R if he hadn’t been forced to work in PR and learn about the business and legal worlds? As a poet, I too was forced to work for a living, and much of what I know, beyond novels, math, and philosophy, was the result of having to work for a living.

TM: What’s next for you in terms of writing?

JG: My first rule is don’t write unless you have to. My second rule is to wait until you wake up one morning with a voice in your head, and then follow the voice wherever it leads.
This piece was sponsored by Zerogram Press.

The Wild Has More Meaning Than We Do: The Millions Interviews Deborah Fleming

-

Deborah Fleming’s essay collection, Resurrection of the Wild: Meditations on Ohio’s Natural Landscape was nominated for the 2020 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award in the Art of the Essay category. The only finalist published by a small press, Fleming’s book is devoted to exploring natural, agricultural, and wild regions of her native Ohio.

Fleming spoke with The Millions recently about wildness and cultivation, the relationship between humans and animals, and much more.

The Millions: As I was reading Resurrection of the Wild, I thought about a quote from Annie Dillard in response to a question asked by Life magazine in 1988: “What is the meaning of life?” Part of her response was: “We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed.” I’m wondering if you might agree with Dillard, or what your response would be to the question.

Deborah Fleming: I couldn’t honestly say what the meaning of life is. I think the wild has more meaning than we do. We have to find our own meaning, but we mean nothing outside of the natural world.

TM: Your fellow nominees for the 2020 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award are all books published by big houses. How does it feel to be recognized as a small press author?

DF: I feel quite honored, overwhelmed, and humbled to be recognized among such distinguished authors from such well-known presses.

TM: An area like rural Ohio is sometimes dismissed as “flyover country.” What are people missing?

DF: They are missing rolling blue hills, deep valleys, lakes, diversity of the eastern deciduous forests, and beautiful farmland in counties like Tuscarawas and Knox. Every place has its own ecosystem and wildlife. The connection to one’s own place restores our connection to the Earth.

Deborah Fleming

TM: You write about John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed. Beyond the mythos, who really was Chapman?

DF: Johnny Appleseed, the man, was much more interesting than the cartoon character he has been turned into. He lived during a very tumultuous and bloody time in history, when settlers sometimes clashed with native people and sometimes got along. He was close to settlers but also native people because he understood them and found a connection to the land. He came from Massachusetts and wandered across Pennsylvania, entering Ohio in what is now Jefferson County. He owned land in Licking County, and stayed with native people at Greentown, about five miles from where I live. He was a horticulturalist and Swedenborgian, a person who believed that everything in the natural world had an analog in heaven.

TM: Domesticated animals are clearly central to the lives of American families, but it seems there is often a fundamental tension between people and wild animals. How can we find more harmony? Or is this conflict inevitable and perhaps necessary?

DF: I feel that, more than ever, we need to do what we can to preserve wildlife, from insects to megafauna. Each one has its place in the ecosystem and when we harm one part, many other parts are affected. We can designate large tracts of land like national parks for wildlife, but we can also allow habitat on farms so that wildlife can thrive. We can, for example, fence off gardens to discourage deer but allow the deer to live in thickets and woods. Some farms can be more productive when tracts of land nearby are left uncultivated and wildflowers and trees are allowed to grow because beneficial insects and birds will move closer. Another example is to attract birds such as sparrows and swallows because they eat insects that feed on cultivated plants.

TM: You speak about returning to your home state after some years away. Can one truly go home again?

DF: I think in some ways people can “go home again,” perhaps with a new attitude widened by experience. Actually I think that “home” never really leaves us even if we leave it.

TM: I grew up on a farm and while I hated cleaning out chicken coops and bucking hay as a kid, now I miss it. In your essay “The Garden,” you speak about the difference between “necessary work versus drudgery.” Can you elaborate?

DF: It seems to me that necessary work means doing those tasks that must be done in order to sustain life. Work becomes drudgery when the worker feels no investment of the self in his or her work and someone else gains all the benefit. There is a certain satisfaction from cleaning chicken coops or horse stalls because the manure can become fertilizer. Putting up hay bales is very hard work, but when it’s done I feel satisfaction in that I will have enough hay for the winter.

TM: In your essay “Inhabitants,” you talk about the nature of “ownership.” The idea of “owning” something can feel so central to Americans. Is the urge to possess and dominate our surroundings a sickness?

DF: I think the urge to own vastly more than we need, especially in order to impress others, is a sickness. To possess something one loves and cares for, such as land, is not sickness but health. To possess something truly is to take care of it and be possessed by it.

TM: In our era of rising sea levels, burning forests, and the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, it’s easy to feel discouraged and deflated. Many of your essays are hopeful, though. Are there reasons to be optimistic about the future of the wild?

DF: Everyone’s life is diminished by loss of natural areas and wildlife, but we have to be hopeful even if we cannot feel optimistic. When people realized how destructive DDT was, its use was banned. In the 1970s, environmental laws were created that helped to clean up lakes and rivers. Strip-mined land was reclaimed with fertilizer and hardy plants. Forests like those in southern Ohio returned when settlers moved on. After replanting by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Mohican Forest was restored. If people had the political will, they could help bring the forests back and solve the problem of pollution instead of fighting with each other and denying the reality that human beings are killing themselves along with the natural world.

This piece was sponsored by The Kent State University Press.

Love Your Bookstore: Greenlight Bookstore

-

This piece is the fourth in a series of posts supporting the 2019 Love Your Bookstore Challenge, which is sponsored, in part, by The Millions.

For this year’s Love Your Bookstore Challenge—a campaign that promotes physical bookstores and runs from November 8 through November 17—we asked the staff at Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstore for their must-read titles.

The Alley of Fireflies and Other Stories by Raymond Roussel

Roussel was an aristocratic dandy convinced of his own literary genius who looked like Hercule Poirot and wrote like Jules Verne on LSD. His work is deliciously strange, reading like schematics for dream architectures, often crafted by employing elaborate self-devised constraints and methods. This collection of his shorter works may be the best place of all to jump into Roussel’s bizarre oeuvre. It’s an absolute treat, making perfectly evident why Surrealists, Oulipians, and the New York School poets had such a lit-crush on him. (Jarrod)

6:41 to Paris by Jean-Phileppe Blondel

If you are a fan of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy films like I am, you will have an emotional calling to this novel. (Dante)

The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt

Sometimes I call Hunt’s style “magical realism,” but that doesn’t quite underline the absurdity of the situations she describes, which can feel either funny or unsettling, depending on how you approach reading them. Here you’ll briefly meet a group of high school girls in a pregnancy pact that demoralizes their town, a young wife who turns into a deer at night and can’t tell her husband, and an FBI-created robot that looks like a model and is stuffed with explosives, among others who will guide you on a full tour of emotions and haunting unforgettable imagery. (Emily)

Last Things by Jenny Offill

Last Things is one of the most striking, impressive, haunting books I’ve ever read. Offill pulls off an incredible feat: a complex book told by an 8-year-old narrator watching the deterioration of her parents’ marriage and her mother’s mental health. The tension and beauty of the novel lie in the reader’s understanding of what the narrator sees but is too young to interpret. This is the sort of book that you can’t put down until you finish, and it will stick with you for a long time after it’s done. (Katie)

In the Next Room by Sarah Ruhl

In the Next Room has been one of my favorites for many, many years running: a poetic examination of intimacy, female friendship, and sexuality that somehow makes you laugh hysterically one moment and weep openly the next. This play will have you in pieces by the time you reach the climax. (Rose)

Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan

At the center of this thought-provoking, suspenseful novel is Judith Carrigan, a transgender woman reckoning with a tragic incident in her past. She could serve as an exonerating witness for an old friend, but to do so she’d have to annihilate the carefully drawn line between her pre- and post-transition selves. As much a meditation on identity as it is a page-turning mystery. (Sarah)

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Surviving a terrorist attack will change everything…especially the rules of living on this plane of existence. This book tells two stories: one an inter-dimensional ghost love story and the other about the rising young star who wrote the story and is now trying to make it in New York’s publishing scene. Westerfeld masterfully keeps readers guessing in a thrilling novel that gives voice to fears about everything from falling in love to surviving a mass shooting to learning how to keep friends in the adult world for the first time. (Jackie)

Safari Honeymoon by Jesse Jacobs

Cartoonist Jacobs has long been known for being a leader in the Canadian underground comics scene, and with his release of Safari Honeymoon, it’s easy to understand why. Serving as both a poetic and humorous voice within a community that’s known to break with the conventions of visual storytelling, Jacobs creates work that is well worth pouring over multiple times. His attention to detail in both dialogue and the illustrative form makes for a body work that I always look forward to recommending! (Joey)

Garments Against Women by Anne Boyer

Boyer might be the Baudelaire of the 21st century. Describing feeling and its absence in a world of shock, Boyer gives form to a kind of life that has only emerged recently, a life amid precarity, numbness, and infoxication. (Michael)

A Twist in the Tale by Jeffrey Archer

I discovered this work by (Sir) Jeffrey Archer more than 30 years ago and if you enjoy reading well written short-stories in the vein of Graham Greene and W. Somerset Maugham, stories that have both a literary and cinematic quality with a bit of a twist, you too will surely enjoy this particular offering by Mr. Archer. (Mustafa)

Ocean of Sound by David Toop

Less a linear chronology of ambient music than an excavation of sound documentation throughout the 20th century. Toop—musician, educator, contemporary and friend of Brian Eno—catalogues, in an almost diaristic manner, sonic explorations: from a never-realized collaboration between Edgard Varèse and Charlie Parker to the new-German sounds of Kraftwerk. Recordings of Amazonian frog choirs are discussed with the same reverence as a Tokyo-based radio station where programming schedules are based on tidal patterns. Ultimately, this is a book about the transcendent nature of listening with patience and care—something we should all consider in this age of elaborate distraction. (David)

People in the Room by Norah Lange

Originally published in 1950, this Argentine novel explores the life of a 17-year-old girl who spends her days ignoring her family in favor of watching the people living in the house across the street. As mesmerizing as is it haunting and dark, the narrative builds an oppressive atmosphere of domestic life. A quick read that demands every page to be examined. Perfect for fans of Clarice Lispector and Virginia Woolf. (Oswald)

Blue Self Portrait by Naomi Lefevbre

Fleeing a failed fling by flying from Berlin to Paris (linguistically, culturally, emotionally), a young French pianist recounts where she thinks she went wrong. She pays particular attention to her tryst with a male, supposedly genius, German-American composer, though the range and density of her thoughts is startling in its precision and breadth. Not quite a monologue, all anxious musicality, her all-too-relatable remembrances create a cresting voyeuristic anxiety in the reader, building to an almost unbearable finish. Did I mention it’s laugh-out-loud funny? For fans of Molly Bloom, melancholy Euro-lit, monologues, classical music, and digressions. (Abe)