Toward the end of the long process of writing my own book, I felt tired of books and words. I read less—and then I had a baby! Now I read Goodnight Moon almost every night. Fortunately, it’s very beautiful. Over the past year, when I did read, I wanted books that would nourish me, so I read books I already knew, with a few exceptions. The good thing about familiar books is that they continue to change.
I read On Chesil Beach, for its simplicity, perfection, and cadence; This Boy’s Life, for its humanity and joy; Patrimony and Housekeeping, for inspiration. There’s a scene in Patrimony in which Roth’s father asks him not to write the scene he has just written, and Roth says he won’t. I guess this speaks to the betrayal at the heart of memoir—if it’s going to be good, it must be honest, and if it’s going to be honest, it cannot always be nice. I read stories by Jhumpa Lahiri and Alice Munro for their scope and insight.
When my confidence about my own work or my life, is low, those two are the best cure. I love The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard, too, for her voice of authority, and how she contains many different perspectives in one scene. There’s a mystery at the end that’s solved in the first few pages, but this is easy to miss. I know it’s there, but it still gives me a zing. I read two new books I loved, Phillip Lopate’s exquisite A Mother’s Tale, about his own mother, in her own words, and Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro, a masterful novel about love and longing that moves with seamless grace between all forms of modern communication—email, text, letters, journals, speech—so that it seems to be both a classic and utterly modern.
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John Wray’s fifth novel Godsend is both a culmination of his magpie approach to fiction writing and a complete departure from his work thus far. The premise—a young American woman joins the Taliban in the summer of 2001—is so straightforwardly narrated, with such unerring control, that Wray’s ambition and achievement only dawned on this reader in the days after finishing it. This is partly due to novelty. Godsend is the kind of go-for-broke political novel that’s rarely attempted and almost never succeeds. A writer would have a better chance of turning a eulogy into a wedding proposal than maintaining Wray’s high-wire act. Godsend supplants traditional elements of the political novel—a large cast of characters, thesis-driven monologuing, signposted symbolism—for an intimate approach: We’re positioned just over the shoulder of 18-year-old Aden Sawyer on her journey of inexorable destruction.
The novel opens in suburban California, where Sawyer is saying goodbye to her alcoholic mother and philandering father (who happens to teach Islamic Studies). She’s off to a madrasa near Karachi—toting her Pashtun boyfriend Decker, who oscillates between ambivalence and sarcasm—to study the Koran. In Pakistan she passes as a teenage boy by shaving her head and binding her breasts; she calls herself Suleyman. Soon she is recruited into the Taliban by the charismatic, reluctant Ziar (the madrasa elders repeatedly advise against this). As James Wood pointed out in The New Yorker, Aden’s coming-of-age narrative is intertwined with greater radicalization, a cruel hyperbole of the old “loss of innocence” trope: We know Sawyer will commit greater and more terrible acts of violence. We also know we can’t stop reading.
Wray has previously received a Whiting Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists in 2007. I expect Godsend will bring a few more accolades to his CV. We conducted this interview over email as he traveled for his book tour.
The Millions: First things first: I understand the novel came out of a chance aside during interview research for a nonfiction piece on John Walker Lindh?
John Wray: That’s right. I was in Afghanistan on a journalist’s visa, looking for people who’d known Lindh during his time as a soldier in the Taliban’s infantry. At one point, in a small, half-destroyed village north of Kabul, we were delighted to find an old man who claimed to have known the boy soldier, Suleyman, which was Lindh called himself. Then, to my amazement, the old man mentioned, in passing, that he’d also known the girl. That’s how he put it: “the girl.” He couldn’t tell us her name, or much about her at all. That’s when this novel began.
TM: How did you come to Aden Sawyer’s voice? The novel places a heavy burden on her, which she wears lightly: She must be credible as an 18-year-old American, with knowledge of Islam, who is deeply rebellious but must operate within an order and religion which prizes submission (no pun intended).
JW: That’s always a slow and mysterious process, arriving at the voice of a book’s central character. In this case, it could be argued that Aden’s voice is the book’s voice—we’re always with her, always seeing the strange world she moves through with her eyes. I think I found the voice of the story—how it would sound, how it would feel, the somewhat stark, ominous mood it should have—and Aden’s voice came out of that.
TM: I would say it’s a departure from your previous work, but every one of your novels is quite different from the others. The Lost Time Accidents was a 500-page, century-spanning novel on metaphysics written in a kind of comic high-European register. Godsend reminded me of a line from Philip Roth: After he wrote a long book, the next one was inevitably an act of rebellion. Was that true for you? I gather there may be more an element of chance to how you begin each project.
JW: I couldn’t agree more with that quotation from Roth. In my case, every new book is an act of rebellion against the last. It takes so damn long to write a novel—for me, anywhere from two to seven years—and I couldn’t imagine sitting down afterward and beginning something similar, either in tone or subject matter. I’d jump off the nearest bridge.
TM: That’s a risky way to write though, isn’t it? No temptation to pen a Lowboy sequel? (Kidding. Kind of.)
JW: It is a risky way to write. But not as risky as jumping off a bridge!
TM: There’s also risk in tackling the subject. A cursory glance at the acclaimed books of the past few years shows an interest in autofictional inwardness (Sheila Heti, Karl Ove Knausgaard), historical settings (Colson Whitehead, Jennifer Egan), or multigenerational portraits (Jesmyn Ward, Min Jin Lee)—though in truth that last group is a perennial for writers. Terrorism and Muslim extremists are such third-rail subjects; did you approach the writing differently because of this? Related, are you nervous about being misread along these lines?
JW: You can’t court acclaim. The third rail has always been the one with juice in it, at least for me, at least so far. The best writing is the most urgent writing, I think. By which I mean the writing that matters most to the writer. I suppose that’s common knowledge, but it’s important to remind myself of it from time to time. Because of course the pressures to write acclaimed (not to mention marketable) books is considerable. And it only gets heavier with every book you publish.
As far as being misread—well, that’s another thing altogether. I did have that fear, and to some degree I still do. But it’s that fear that keeps me honest. It makes me work harder.
TM: The book’s surety and evenness of tone is a great strength here: It’s apparent on close inspection how much work went into its seeming effortlessness.
Sawyer’s early line, “Not a girl, not a boy. Just a ghost in a body” signals her growing desire for self-effacement, which called to mind Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Were there texts in the Godsend constellation you read as research or saw as touchstones?
JW: I read Hunger in my early 20s—luckily, or unluckily, before I’d found out what a Nazi its author was—and it impressed me, though I can’t remember why. It wasn’t a touchstone for Godsend, though of course many other books were. A Farewell to Arms comes to mind, and Shirley Hazzard’s novels, and All the Pretty Horses, and The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick by Peter Handke. I’m not exactly sure why those are the books that I’m mentioning—others were maybe more important. But there you go. My memory is terrible.
TM: I’ve heard you enthuse for Shirley Hazzard before, and lament she’s not better known or read widely. I haven’t read her work yet—tell me what I’ve been missing.
JW: Finally an easy question to answer! Shirley Hazzard is one of the masters. No one writing now has her eloquence, it often seems to me, or her intelligence, or her judgment. In an era in which the writer’s identity and persona are the industry’s main marketing tools, it’s no wonder that she isn’t better known—she had no interest in inserting herself between her readers and her books. The idea of letting one’s work stand for itself seems almost quaint these days, and Shirley’s “profile” no doubt suffered as a result; the fact she often took a decade, or more, to write her deceptively slender novels most likely didn’t help, either. But The Transit of Venus is one of the great novels in English of the 20th century.
TM: This is your fifth novel. Taking a step back: Are there ideas or concerns you see across your work?
JW: It’s so hard to take stock of one’s own work in this way—it’s like trying to study the back of your head without a mirror. A perceptive reader told me recently that my books tend to feature protagonists who carry belief to extremes—political radicals, religious fanatics, the mentally ill, lovers in way, way over their heads. I’m not sure if that’s accurate, but I do like the sound of it.
TM: It sounds accurate to me. There are often protagonists of great conviction, and of course a strong narrative voice.
In terms of structure, Godsend has an accumulating momentum, a kind of awful, inexorable feeling of doom (in a good way). It’s so rare to read something for 230 pages without a moment of friction. How does that come about for you? Are you drafting with an outline in mind? Or rearranging and cutting in the revision stages? Or—and I would believe this—is the muse just dictating into your ear while you exclaim, “Yes, yes! Bingo!”
JW: I never use an outline, strange to say. Outlines feel too much like school. I’ve always operated under the assumption, rightly or wrongly, that if I’m excited by what I’m working on, the reader will be too. An advance plan would certainly speed things up a bit. But whoever claimed that the easiest books to write are the most gratifying books to read? Not this cowboy.
TM: The New York article about your place in Park Slope looks like a midwestern undergraduate’s fantasy of life as a Brooklyn writer. Do you debate autofiction while playing ping pong? Read Proust to each other over corn flakes? And more seriously, how’s NYC for novelists these days? Gary Shteyngart said in an interview all his friends have left for Berlin or the Hudson Valley.
JW: Life for novelists—or for any kind of artist—in New York these days is bitter. I had the great good luck to have been tipped off to something affordable almost 18 years ago, an apartment with low maintenance the down payment of which I could afford with my very first advance, and to have been pushed into taking that terrifying leap by someone who had a clearer sense of what the future held. It was dumb luck, basically. So it’s given me real pleasure, possibly the greatest satisfaction of my adult life, to be able to open up the place I now live in to people doing good work. What the fuck is this city going to be without its artists? The prospect makes me sick.
TM: Your books operate within sets of constraints, as if each was a challenge you’d set yourself (apart from the natural challenges of writing novels). What does your cutting room floor look like? Are there half-completed projects? Abandoned epics set in the German countryside?
JW: I actually cut very little from my manuscripts. That fact surprises me as much as anybody. I’m a firm believer in the dangers of regarding one’s own writing, especially at the early stages, as some kind of precious and finite commodity; so I’m very willing, and even excited, to trim the fat whenever I can—but writing is also like pulling teeth to me, so I tend not to over-write. I’m not as loose as some—I’d like to be, but I’m not. I guess you might say I value economy. I don’t like to waste stuff.
TM: Reviews have noted Godsend’s straightforward, nuanced treatment of religious belief (another third rail in contemporary fiction). I wonder if you could speak to how you approached it, and your thoughts on religious belief in novels in general.
JW: I’d say that some kind of passionate belief is crucial to the central character of any novel—without a degree of fanaticism, or at the very least fiercely held and defended points of view, it’s hard to generate enough conflict for a book, or even a conversation, to be genuinely suspenseful. I’m not a religious person myself, in any conventional sense, so diving head-first into the intricacies of fundamentalist Islam was pretty daunting. But Aden, my protagonist, arrives in Afghanistan knowing next to nothing about the life she’s chosen. Her ignorance helped me to feel more at peace with mine.
TM: Last question! Forgive me for beating a dead horse, but it should be noted how unique this novel is in the current landscape, at least with respect to a gigantic leap of empathy and artistic imagination across gender, faith, geography, etc. What’s your impression of books being published these days? Do you wish more writers would take leaps like this? I swear I’m not trying to set you up for a clickbait response—I’m curious about your read of the scene and if you had advice for emerging writers…
JW: There are always worthwhile novels being published, if you search hard enough. I’m looking forward to Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive at the moment, and to Marlon James’s experiment in speculative fiction, Black Leopard, Red Wolf. The appeal of fiction—both for the writer and for the reader, it seems to me—lies in escaping one’s socially-dictated point of view. Fiction is about looking out at the world through someone else’s eyeballs. It’s about getting strange, in every available sense of that word. That’s how a novel should feel: It should make you, however fleetingly, a stranger to yourself. Everything else is just memoir with fictional frosting. I’ve had quite enough of that.
On January 1st, I wrote in my notebook that it was “time to renew my usual promises and take artificial, arbitrary steps toward bettering myself and living a different life.” I made a list of aspirations, which included things like “Return writing to its centerpiece in your life,” and “Reduce temptations for distraction.” Fortunately, aspirations always take place in the future tense. I did, however, “read widely and daily,” and came close to learning “constantly.” Despite—or perhaps because of—2017’s relentlessness, I’ve read more books this year than any previous, and I do feel changed, somewhat, because of it.
Seeing—a subject I’ve been circling for years—seemed especially important after the simplistic, stupid, and reproducible narratives that followed the 2016 presidential election, and so I read more Susan Sontag (AIDS and Its Metaphors and Where the Stress Falls, but also: David Schreiber’s Susan Sontag; Sigrid Nunez’s brilliant and comforting Sempre Susan; and Phillip Lopate’s callow, insensitive Notes on Sontag—itself an accidental defense of mediocrity). I read more John Berger (About Looking), and more Teju Cole (the diaphanous Blind Spot as well as every “On Photography” column in The New York Times Magazine). Cole’s work led me to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, which might be the most fun I’ve ever had not understanding a book, and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. I read Peter Buse’s engaging history of the Polaroid, The Camera Does the Rest. (Funny story: Polaroid Corporation specifically discouraged the use of Polaroid as a noun, i.e. “check out this Polaroid.”) I read Patricia Morrisroe’s terrifying biography of Robert Mapplethorpe and Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida; in both, the photographer is an agent of death.
In my reading and in my essays on the technologies of seeing, I’ve been looking for the places at which perception and politics intersect. The renewed popularity of fascism, which propagates and governs by aesthetics, has made these intersections much more obvious. Of course there’s Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, which, in contemporary America, has made me feel like Cassandra, whose warnings of Troy’s destruction meet nothing but derision. Even more enthrallingly pessimistic is Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia, which I’d tried to read several times in years past, but didn’t quite “connect” with until this year. But then there was Kevin Young’s The Grey Album, a history of American culture as black culture, ever renewed and reinvented and repeatedly appropriated—and one of the best books on art I’ve ever read. There was Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which really is definitive. This, more than any other book I’ve read in 2017, is the one book I would hand to everyone, that I wish the entire nation would read. I read Michael Eric Dyson’s Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America and Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How it Ends, both brilliant missives that beg the reader to understand a particular and overwhelming political pain. And then there was Nato Thompson’s Culture as Weapon and David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules, which both, in their detailed, patient ways, reveal the sinister sophistication behind structural inequality in the United States, and how fear and confusion destroy democracy in favor of profit. This is evident, too, in Peter Moskowitz’s rage-inducing study of gentrification, How to Kill a City, which led me to Sarah Schulman’s The Gentrification of the Mind—right behind Kendi’s Stamped as “that book everyone should read.”
Beauty? I’m not so sure of that, anymore. It’s hard to look for beauty in 2017 without it feeling narcotic, or even violent. But feeling? There is so much to be felt, and I feel like I felt a great deal through reading, this year. Most recently, Alexander Chee’s novel Edinburgh left me shattered and quiet for days. It may have been a mistake to read it in November, when everyone I know seemed to be reliving, after Harvey Weinstein et. al., one form of trauma or another. More Sontag: The Volcano Lover, Debriefing, and In America. Many people dismiss her fiction outright, preferring her to have been one kind of writer and not several, but her latter novels and a handful of her stories are incredible contributions to literature, especially if we’re to remember that literature rarely offers itself in familiar forms. I read Hanya Yanagihara’s first novel, The People in the Trees, which rivals Gabriel García Márquez in its creation and destruction of a separate, unique, and precious world. For the first time, I read Frank O’Hara—so I read everything he wrote. Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead; Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human; 50 years of Louise Glück; Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas; Alex Dimitrov’s Together and By Ourselves: I fell in love with so many new ways of seeing. I’d forgotten, for a while, how to read novels, but then Shirley Hazzard died and I learned, a few months later, that The Transit of Venus takes your breath away on almost every page, an incomparable masterpiece. I learned that Agota Kristof, in her triptych of novels—The Notebook, The Proof, and The Third Lie—could carry a decade in one sentence. I learned that Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française was a war novel that made Ernest Hemingway’s look like Twitter activism.
If nothing else, my convalescence after last year’s psychological injuries has only been possible, bearable, through books. This is something writers say all the time, usually with an Instagram photo of #coffee or a cat. This is who I’d like to be, our shared photos often say, and it’s in books that I find it easiest to realize those aspirations. Despite everything, I won’t complain that this year’s difficulties have pushed me toward becoming that other version of myself. I don’t regret that I’ve grown closer to books, to their voices.
And they do have so much to say. In Compass, Mathias Énard reminded me that you could build an entire life—a gorgeous life—out of longing. And in his monograph of Polaroids, Fire Island Pines, Tom Bianchi assured me that queer utopias can exist, at least as long as we remember that a utopia is a moment in time—either an aspiration, out there in the future, or a snapshot we carry of the past, before things got so hard.
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“Ms. Hazzard’s fiction is dense with meaning, subtle in implication and tense in plot, often with disaster looming: A shipwreck tears away the parents of tiny children. A man who has waited a lifetime for a woman loses her at the last moment.” Novelist Shirley Hazzard, whose several books – including The Transit of Venus and the National Book Award-winning The Great Fire – received much acclaim, has died at 85, reports The New York Times. Also worth reading, her “Art of Fiction” interview with The Paris Review from 2005.
Five years ago, Joseph O’Neill, the author of Netherland, wrote an essay for The Atlantic entitled “The Relevance of Cosmopolitanism.” Reading it, I experienced the swelling relief of encountering another writer giving voice to shadowy certainties I had long harbored, but never managed to articulate. The essay’s final paragraph, in particular, hit me like a wonderful train (I quote it in full because it’s just too good not to):
“The relevance of cosmopolitanism is fast becoming more than theoretical. As a matter of daily reality and to a degree previously unknown, we are faced with the experiences of others everywhere. This imposes new demands on consciences and nationalistic categories. Literature is not immune from such demands; one might even suggest, since we writers are concerned with reality and conscientiousness, that literature should be unusually interested in these demands. This does not mean that a new artistic regime is upon us. Writers, in order to produce something truly worthwhile, must be ruled only by their deepest impulses, which can come from anywhere and lead in a million valuable directions. But it does seem that those who internalize the new world have every chance of writing something newly interesting.”
We are faced with the experiences of others everywhere. For O’Neill – who was born in Ireland and grew up in Mozambique, Turkey, Iran, and the Netherlands, with a Turkish mother and an Irish father, who spoke to him in French and English, respectively – this wide-eyed perspective was forced upon him at a young age. His life is an extreme embodiment of globalization’s steady sprawl, but his use of “we” in the paragraph above is not accidental: in the last fifty years, a dramatic shift has occurred for most writers. Rather than nailing the “manners and morals” (as Lionel Trilling would have it) of a largely homogenous, well-known local surrounding, authors in a globalized era are increasingly tasked with depicting diverse surroundings, or diverse cultures in a single setting. And to do justice to “the experiences of others everywhere” is no small task. These are precisely the “demands on consciences and nationalistic categories” that O’Neill is referring to: finding the empathy and curiosity to write outside of “your own” culture. But what happens when you lack a nationalistic category to call your own?
Although my parents are both American, and I grew up going to English-speaking schools, I share, to some extent, O’Neill’s international upbringing. I was born in Hamburg, and, as a result of my father’s career, grew up in Philadelphia, London, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Shanghai, and Singapore. Like O’Neill, who now lives in New York, I have also settled “abroad”: I have lived in Berlin for the past six years, which is the longest I’ve lived anywhere.
This six-year mark has been an interesting one for me: on the one hand, it feels like a major accomplishment, in my ability, like any good golden retriever, to “stay.” On the other hand, it’s made me think hard about why, exactly, I’ve chosen to settle in a country whose language I learned when I showed up here, whose culture, while not as foreign to me as Chinese culture, for example, is more foreign than any number of other locales I could have chosen, like England, or Canada, or, I don’t know: my passport country? Growing up all over the place makes you skilled at adapting, but it also makes you hungry to belong, something that in part motivates my writing: carving out a space I know, trying to understand what I’m witnessing around me. The experiences of others everywhere. But sometimes the ache of un-belonging feels like a stitch I’ve had in my side for as long as I can remember, and it would be nice to walk around without it.
When faced with such existential quandaries, I’ve found an excellent method of gaining insight (and procrastinating) is to ask other writers the same questions. I sent an email to several of my writer friends who have settled, to varying degrees, away from their “home” countries. Three of them generously responded: Preeta Samarasan, a Malaysian Indian novelist and author of Evening is the Whole Day, who now lives in a village in central France; Jeremy Tiang, a Singaporean playwright, translator, and fiction writer, of Chinese and Tamil descent, who now lives in New York, where his adaptation of A Dream of Red Pavillions is being developed by Pan Asian Rep; and Madeleine Thien, a Canadian fiction writer (whose works include Simple Recipes, The Chinese Violin, Certainty, and Dogs at the Perimeter) with parents from Malaysia and Hong Kong, who largely divides her time between Canada and Germany.
My questions and their responses are below. Like O’Neill’s final paragraph, I found their responses much too compelling to cut short.
Brittani: Is foreignness an inherently fertile imaginative/observational state for you? Did any part of your decision to live overseas have to do with your writing?
Preeta: Foreignness is my natural state. I’ve never lived in any place where I was part of the ethnic majority. As a Malaysian Indian, I always, on some level, felt like an outsider. Part of this was the rhetoric of my parents’ generation, which was a direct product of Malaysia’s postcolonial trajectory/social policies/economic policies. We were always told that the country didn’t really want us; that we didn’t really belong; that “there’s nothing for us here;” that we, the younger generation, should try to leave and never move back. So my decision to live overseas didn’t directly have to do with my writing — it was, in a sense, almost preordained that I would leave, no matter what I decided to do with my life I knew from the age of 3 that my goal was to get out of Malaysia. I didn’t leave because I thought it would be good for my writing, but I do think that in the end leaving *was* good for my writing, incidentally. It’s kept my eyes wide open.
As for whether foreignness is a fertile state: if we define foreignness broadly, meaning not just being an expatriate or an ethnic minority, but having the state of mind of an outsider, then I think, in fact, that foreignness is *the only* fertile imaginative/observational state, for any creative person. Creativity comes from seeing things with an “outsider’s” eyes. Sometimes we talk about this as seeing things through a child’s eyes — I think they are related. So much of creativity is making familiar things strange and strange things familiar. You can really only do this if you keep thinking like an outsider. You don’t necessarily have to leave, but if you don’t, you have to find other ways to think like an outsider.
Jeremy: [I find foreignness to be a fertile state], but I feel like a foreigner even when I’m in Singapore. Maybe “outsider” would be more apt. [My decision to live overseas] had little to do with my writing, although I find it very hard to write when I’m in Singapore. But that’s because being in Singapore longer than a couple of weeks or so makes me profoundly depressed.
Madeleine: [Foreignness] has been [a fertile state] for me, but that’s been a slow realization. I think, being outside one’s familiar surroundings, I become more aware of what is at the core of myself and what is simply habitual. I think the habitual takes up an enormous part of our consciousness. Maybe the most important thing about being away, and for me that’s mostly been China, Cambodia, and Germany, is how humbling it is. I feel my smallness in the face of extraordinarily deep histories.
How often do you return “Home”? Do those trips feed your writing? Or does your foreign locale now feel like “Home” to you? (Note: I capitalize “Home” here as a reference to a recent James Wood article, “On Not Going Home,” in which Wood writes: “It is possible, I suppose, to miss home terribly, not know what home really is anymore, and refuse to go home, all at once…I have made a home in the United States, but it is not quite Home.”)
Preeta: I go back to Malaysia once or twice a year. Since I only write about Malaysia (this may change one day, but until now, I have no desire to write about any other place), feeding my writing is a very large part of the reason I go home often. I don’t go around explicitly looking for material or researching things, but everything in Malaysia feeds my writing. Every conversation, every car journey, every form I fill out, every queue I wait in, every newspaper article I read.
I’ve lived in France for nearly seven years, but no, it doesn’t feel like “Home,” and I don’t expect it ever to feel like home — not the outside world, anyway, beyond our front door. On another level, the inside of our house feels like my emotional/psychological home right now: this is where all my stuff is, all my books, the human beings I am closest to; this is where I become a mother, which has been such a large part of the person I am today. This is where I am comfortable expressing my emotions, making a mess (literal and figurative), doing whatever I need to do. The inside of my house.
Jeremy: [I return to] Singapore a couple of times a year. London, more often. I tend to have very localized homes now. Our apartment in Williamsburg feels like home, but New York doesn’t yet. And in some ways London has begun to feel foreign. All trips feed my writing, whether to “Home” or elsewhere. I thrive on dislocation.
Madeleine: I return to Canada for half the year usually; but home for me is the city where I was born, Vancouver, and which I left in 2002. I don’t return to Vancouver often. Actually, for 10 years, I rarely went back at all. I’m in Vancouver now, and the sense of well-being and familiarity has been incredibly powerful for me.
On the other hand, I felt extraordinarily at home in the many months I spent in Cambodia, and this is one of the reasons I kept returning there, and still do. Similarly with Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Berlin. Because my father is Malaysian and my mother from Hong Kong, I can often be taken for a foreigner in Canada (even though I’m a citizen, was born there, and have only ever held a Canadian passport), and taken for a local in Phnom Penh. The psychological feeling of “passing,” that is, being taken as someone who belongs, is profound. And it is strange when one cannot “pass” in the place one where was born.
Did you grow up moving around quite a bit?
Preeta: No. From babyhood until I left in Malaysia in my mid-teens, I lived in Ipoh.
Jeremy: No. My parents have lived in the same apartment for 38 years. I was fifteen years old when I had my first plane journey.
Madeleine: We moved every couple years, but within Vancouver and its suburbs, and for financial reasons. My parents started out with a house of their own, but the mortgage was beyond their means. We kept moving into smaller and smaller apartments. It was difficult but, at the same time, the city has so many pockets and neighborhoods in which I feel utterly at ease.
Are any of your favorite writers similarly displaced?
Preeta: These days I feel like I don’t have favorite writers, only favorite books. I would say that the writers by whom I was most influenced when I was first finding my feet (Dickens, Rushdie in his earlier years, Peter Carey) had a very strong sense of place; the way their understanding of geography and language and history and culture came through in their writing was much more important to me than whether they were expatriates or not. I didn’t think much about their biography.
Now, I’m very interested in writing in dialect, and I’m reading a lot of Caribbean and African writers who’ve worked in literary “dialect” – and I find that many of these writers were the opposite of displaced – they seem to have such a strong sense of their roots. I am drawn to that, too, to people who make the decision never to move, to know a hundred square feet of earth like the back of their hand rather than wandering all over the planet. I haven’t thought about this much until you asked this question, but it occurs to me now that the South Asian books/short stories I love best are not the ones that deal with physical displacement. I am generally bored by immigration-to-the-West stories. I tend to favor stories about identities that are fractured for reasons other than physical displacement. I can’t really say why this is the case!
Jeremy: Oh yes. Yiyun Li, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ma Jian. There is something about being in-between, and the lack of certainty that comes with that, which appeals to me.
Madeleine: Cees Nooteboom is a writer whose work has sustained me, intellectually, artistically, and emotionally. He writes overtly about his travels in Nomad’s Hotel: Travels in Time and Space, and indirectly about displacement in his great works of fiction, All Souls Day, The Foxes Come at Night, The Following Story, and others. I also feel this way about Shirley Hazzard. She’s written memoir and non-fiction about Capri and Naples, but like Nooteboom, the multiple selves that come into being in different places is very evident in her novels, The Transit of Venus, The Great Fire, and others.
Aside from these thematic connections between us, I admire them most of all because I think they are both incredibly perceptive novelists who have an astonishing facility with language and story.
Where is your creative work set?
Preeta: In Malaysia.
Jeremy: In the short story collection I am working on now, stories are set in: Singapore, Beijing, the Baltic Coast of Germany, Zurich, a Norwegian train, New York, Connecticut, Bangkok. I’ve written plays set in: Fukuoka, Scotland, Los Angeles, Middlesbrough, London, and Singapore. (A shorter answer: it’s set anywhere I’ve been, and some places I haven’t.)
Madeleine: Always, so far, between Canada and elsewhere. Cambodia, China, Malaysia. I do a lot of my work in Berlin, but processing is slow for me, and I imagine Berlin will show up in my fiction in about a decade.
Is “Home” a cloying term for you? An irrelevant/outdated notion? Or is there something throbbing and unsolved about it for you? Do you write from this place of irritation/cosmopolitanism/discomfort?
Preeta: It is a sentimental term for me, but not cloying. I am a big fan of genuine sentimentality, nostalgia, emotion — sometimes I find that contemporary writers, especially in the West, approach everything with irony, question all of these elemental states that sometimes need to be felt more and questioned less, if you know what I mean. That longing for “Home” is one of those states. I don’t think it’s something to be mocked or scorned. I don’t thinking belonging in and of itself, or the desire to belong in some way, is irrelevant or outdated, and why should it be irrelevant or outdated to feel like you belong to a place? If you can belong in a subculture, a community, a relationship, then I think you can also belong in a place. Though I said we always felt we didn’t belong in Malaysia, I also have a sharp, painful longing for the Ipoh of the 1980s. I think of it as my home, but it doesn’t exist anymore. I long for the house of my childhood and for specific material objects that were the landmarks of my small world: a pink plastic drawer pull in my brother’s closet, for example; a faux leather ottoman; a tiny Santa Claus candle. I think I write from a place of longing for home, not from a place of discomfort with the notion. But I don’t mean by this that it’s okay to romanticize home. I think you can long for something while still acknowledging its dark side, while still facing up to all that was painful or ugly or disappointing about it.
Jeremy: It’s difficult to define for me, but I think not in a problematic way. Or it means different things in different contexts. See also “family.”
Madeleine: No, [I don’t think of “home” as] cloying. I like to think of home as a verb, something we keep re-creating. A person who has lived on the same streets for 80 years can also come to moment when the streets don’t feel like home; and a person who has suddenly arrived in another place might feel suddenly, inexplicably at home. This open-endedness is in keeping with the human condition. Human beings have always migrated, have always followed resources and food, have always kept pushing into unfamiliar territory. My discomfort comes from witnessing politically motivated and divisive policies that seek to elevate certain citizens above others, based on race, religion, class, or chauvinism of any kind. I think this is when home becomes a political weapon, and the consequences are never good.
Image via slgckgc/Flickr
Lauren Groff’s fiction has appeared in journals including The Atlantic Monthly and Ploughshares and the most recent editions of the Best American Short Stories, Best New American Voices, and the Pushcart Prize anthologies. Her first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, will be out in February.This year I fell in love with the New York Review of Books Classics series, which reissues books that are either out-of-print or wildly underappreciated. Among the best were Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, John Williams’s Stoner, and Tatyana Tolstaya’s White Walls and The Slynx – a Gogol-esque dystopian tale. But the absolute sockdolager was Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories, which I read slowly and breathlessly – and when I finished I was furious that nobody had ever told me about Gallant and all her staggering talent before now.From other sources, I loved Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep – electrifying, human – as well as Junot Diaz’s The The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The Triumph of Love by Geoffrey Hill, and Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus. On a long car trip, I listened to an audiobook of Huckleberry Finn – the reader’s voice was the opposite of my internal reading voice, and it became a whole new book to me, layered atop the old book I knew so well.Also, because I moved full-time to Florida, my father-in-law lent me a copy of this strange old essay collection called Southern Ladies and Gentlemen by Florence King, which is supposed to explain/lampoon the south to northerners (the cover: a tiny blonde in a Confederate flag with a mint julep in hand). Yikes. It’s cringe-inducing, but makes me laugh, and I often find myself reading it when I should probably be reading other things.More from A Year in Reading 2007