When Viet Thanh Nguyen visited Iowa Writers’ Workshop in May, everyone—including me—was starstruck. He talked about a prevailing belief back in his college years at Berkeley. “People say literature saves the world,” he said. “No, it doesn’t. But social movements do.”
At a time when democracies around the world keep making bad decisions and young writers feel the urge to facilitate social changes, Nguyen’s role as one of the leading public intellectuals in the literary world is both inspiring and motivating. He is aware of the underrepresentation of minority groups in literature, but he also understands that great fiction is much more than making one’s community look good. He views the customary writing adage “Show. Don’t tell.” with suspicion. As writers, we need to make great art and bring to light vital social issues, he says, rather than simply trust that readers will understand.
In the following interview, we talked about the aesthetics and politics of his brilliant novel The Sympathizer; how his literary education has nourished his writing; and how he deals with opposition and hostility from people with very different worldviews.
The Millions: I’d like to start by talking about The Sympathizer. Like everyone, I was hooked from the beginning: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” This distinctive perspective challenges the binary thinking that people often have. We cannot use words like “good” or “bad” to describe the narrator; we cannot use words like “failure” or “victory” to describe the war. How did you come up with this premise?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I had to write a novel. And I wanted to write an entertaining novel—that was also a very serious novel at the same time—and a novel that would grapple with politics, history, and obviously the Vietnam War.
The spy novel was the genre that was a perfect fit for all of these concerns. And also because I enjoyed reading spy novels, so I knew the genre very well. And as a writer, I gravitate toward both highbrow literature, like modernism, and so-called lowbrow literature, the genre literature. I don’t agree with any of these classifications, but the spy novel would allow me to bridge all these things.
Lastly, the idea of making a man of two minds and two faces was there from the very beginning, because I wanted the novel to be a cultural critique as well. I wanted the novel to deal with both cultural divisions—the so-called East-West divide—but also ideological divisions between capitalism and communism in the Cold War. So that’s where the man with two minds came from. And in order to make that seemed organic and not simply something that I was forcing onto the book, I made him a mixed race—half Vietnamese and half French—and someone who was both infatuated with capitalism but also a devoted communist. Putting all of these elements into his character made these theoretical ideas very organic as the plot unfolded.
TM: To follow up on that: In his book The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois said that this American world yields “no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.” He ever feels his “twoness”: “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts,” “two warring ideals in one dark body.” Also, the opening of The Sympathizer pays tribute to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I wonder if African-American literature has influenced your writing and the way you perceive the Vietnamese and other previously colonized Asian communicates (e.g. Korean, Filipino)? If so, how?
VTN: I have another book called Nothing Ever Dies. And the title comes from Toni Morrison’s Beloved. And in my book, the section where I talked about W.E.B. Du Bois, the quote that you just mentioned to me, and Du Bois’s notion of the inevitable twoness of the Negro that he sees himself through his own eyes and those of others, is also true in many ways for Asian immigrants and Asian Americans. You see that also in the work of someone like Chang-Rae Lee, in the thoughtful Native Speaker.
It’s no doubt that African-American literature has been very influential on me. I think that African-American writers have created, in the United States, the body of literature that is both most politically committed and yet also most aesthetically elevated. I mean, the masters, the most accomplished practitioners of African-American literature—like Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison and many more—have demonstrated that you can be both politically and artistically engaged at the same time. And that if you are, in fact, a minority in this country, you need to do both at the same time. So, their model of aesthetic and political commitment was very important for my own work.
TM: Who are some of the other writers you most admire, and what else do you feel you have learned from them?
VTN: You know, I had a very good literary education as a student when I was growing up before I went to college. So that meant that I had read some of the modernist and classical literature of the West. And then when I got to college, I also encountered African-American literature and Asian-American literature, including Maxine Hong Kingston. And so I’m trying to bring all these different strands together. So Asian-American literature in general has been very influential to me, including Kingston, but also, for example, Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, which I mentioned, and many other works, because they foreground Asian-American experiences. And among other Asian-American writers that I haven’t included, there would be the classics like John Okada, Carlos Bulosan, Frank Chin. Contemporary writers, after Kingston, like Susan Choi—her book, The Foreign Student—or Julie Otsuka, in her novels about the internment.
When writing The Sympathizer, I wanted to write a novel that was a so-called minority novel and that was unapologetic about being a person of color in the United States, but also a novel that could contend with both the Vietnam War canon and American literature as a whole. Hopefully it will be an American novel that will also have a presence internationally. So that was why it was important to The Sympathizer to directly confront the Vietnam War, so that I could contest the narratives of American writers of the Vietnam War, like Tim O’Brien, just to name the most famous example. And in writing The Sympathizer, I had my eye directly on how this novel would fit at the canonical level of American literature. Because I had studied writers like Herman Melville and William Faulkner, I wanted this novel to gesture at these major novels and their major concerns, their major themes about American literature and culture.
And finally, in writing The Sympathizer, I was also reading European modernist literature, because I always felt that this was not going to be the great American novel; this was going to be the European modernist version of the American novel. So that would be writers like Dostoevsky, Louis-Ferdinand Celine from the 1920s in France, Antonio Lobo Antunes from the 1970s in Portugal. So I really wanted this to be a novel that was both very specific to being Asian-American and American, but also to have those global ambitions as well.
TM: You grew up in the age of “narrative scarcity.” In other words, there were not many stories told from an Asian-American point of view. Because of this, minorities cared more about their representation as a group on the big screen or in fiction. Did you consider the potential reaction of your readership while you were writing? Did you do anything to avoid being misunderstood or misinterpreted?
VTN: I was worried about those kinds of things. When I wrote my short story collection The Refugees, most of which was written before The Sympathizer, I was concerned about how my audiences would respond to my work, both Americans in general but also Vietnamese readers. And when I wrote The Sympathizer, I decided that I no longer cared what my audiences thought, that in order to write the novel that I wanted to write, I had to stop caring. Because even as conditions of narrative scarcity were true, which they are, I don’t think a writer can allow herself or himself to be shaped by those conditions. We should be aware of narrative scarcity, but we can’t let our writing be shaped by that. For example, the anxiety that because there are so few stories about us, we have to write our stories to make our own community look good, whatever that community is.
The Sympathizer is written from the perspective of a communist spy. And when I did that, I knew that my community, which is the Vietnamese-Americans, many of them would reject the novel because communism is completely antithetical to Vietnamese-Americans. But I couldn’t care about that. And then I knew many Americans would reject the novel because the novel was a very strong critique of American culture. But I couldn’t pay attention to that either, not to write the novel I wanted to write. So that can be a tricky position for writers who live in narrative scarcity, we have to be aware of that condition. We have to fight back against it, but we can’t let our work be driven by the anxieties around narrative scarcity.
TM: Have any of your family members read the novel? What was their feedback like?
VTN: I don’t know about how many members of my own family have read the book. I don’t ask. That could be an awkward question to ask. But I think they are very proud of me, as are many people in the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American community. So when The Sympathizer came out and got uniformly great reviews, it made, I think, very little difference in the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American community, because like most communities, they don’t read, not on the average, right? I’m exaggerating a little bit. I mean, certainly, some Vietnamese-Americans sought out the book, and I got some very good feedback from them. But I also knew that a lot of Vietnamese-Americans were not reading the book, because they didn’t read books or because they heard it was from the perspective of a communist spy, and they just refused to engage. But after the novel won the Pulitzer Prize, all of a sudden, all these Vietnamese-Americans that never read the book and might never read the book were suddenly proud of me. And in Vietnam, the case was similar. But I think the difference the Pulitzer made is that it made more of them read the book. So in Vietnam, for example, even though the book is not available, apparently young Vietnamese readers who can read English will seek the book out in English. Because I encounter quite a few of them, who are foreign students in the United States and who told me that the book offers them something that is completely unavailable in Vietnam, which is history that is completely antithetical to the government’s point of view.
TM: If I am not wrong, the narrator is loosely based on Pham Xuan An, the Vietnamese man most beloved by American journalists during and shortly after the war. Can you say more about how you balance historical fact with fiction? What do you expect your readers to take away from a setting that is both real and imaginative?
VTN: In writing The Sympathizer, I felt that I had a fairly unique opportunity to engage with real historical events and real historical characters, because so much of what I knew about the war in Vietnam, and how it affected Vietnamese people, is fairly common knowledge in the Vietnamese refugee community but is not talked about widely or known widely to the rest of the world. It was actually relatively easy to construct the plot of the novel, because almost all the events are drawn from history. Very little in the novel in terms of major historical events are made up. And yet, for most people, this would be a completely new story. Writing this historical novel, I had an easier time probably than a lot of other historical writers would writing about events that are more widely known. And the major challenge was to put in enough historical detail so that the events would be convincing without writing a history book where there would be too much information. And so I always had to read much more than what actually appeared in the book. But the history from the book is drawn both from my fascination with the Vietnam War—over the last 30 years, I’ve read a lot of books and seen a lot of movies—but also from some very specific research I had to do for the novel. So, for example, while I knew that the Fall of Saigon had happened and I knew the general outlines of that, I still had to go and read 10 or 15 books on the Fall of Saigon in order to construct first 50 pages of the novel at a level of novelistic detail that would be compelling for the reader.
TM: Did you collect oral history?
VTN: No, that’s a completely different skill set for journalists. That’s not the book I wanted to write.
TM: Back when you visited Iowa City in May, you discussed your decision to open the novel in Saigon. You said that if the story had begun in the States and ended in the States, it would have been all about the life and death of the American dream. This inspired me to think about the prevailing immigrant narrative. Even though a lot of those stories intend to challenge the American dream, they are still built upon the assumption that the immigrants are attracted by the American dream in the first place, which, like you mentioned before, “affirms America to Americans.” But you identify as a refugee writer. Can you say more about the potential differences between a refugee narrative and an immigrant narrative?
VTN: I think that immigrant and refugee narratives overlap. We cannot completely separate them all the time. But as you were saying, immigrant narratives generally have a trajectory of moving from one country to the other country. And the immigrant narrative implies settling down in the new country. So we leave one home and we build another home. In the context of the United States, where the immigrant narrative is very strong, that idea of settling in the United States inevitably affirms this American mythology of the American dream. So that even when immigrant stories talk about how difficult life in the United States might be because of racism or economic challenges and so on, nevertheless, the very existence of the immigrant story itself—the immigrant novel that we’re reading—is evidence of the success of the immigrant story and the American dream.
The refugee story introduces other elements that can unsettle the immigrant and American dream story. These elements include, most critically, the fact that many refugees that come to the United States have come because of something the United States has done in their country of origin. The refugee writers, simply by acknowledging that history, introduce some troubling elements into the American story. So the existence of Vietnamese refugee writers talking about Vietnamese refugees, acknowledging the history of the war in Vietnam, means that the Americans who read these books or anybody who reads these books has to at least acknowledge this war took place. Now, the problem is, where the refugee and immigrant narratives overlap is that many refugee writers still, in the end, even as they acknowledge the refugee origin, including American intervention, often end with settlement in the United States. So that in the end, the refugee story looks like an immigrant story. And that’s why I think a lot of Vietnamese-American literature that deals more with refugees ends up focusing on what happened in the United States.
Writing The Sympathizer, I did not want to do that. If I look at the way that American literature has dealt with the Vietnam War, it’s bifurcated. It’s mostly Americans who get to write about the war in Vietnam, and it’s mostly the Vietnamese who write about the Vietnamese refugee experience in the United States. And when there are refugees who write about both parts, they write about their civilian experiences of the war in Vietnam and then the refugee resettlement. The Vietnamese soldiers who could write these war stories don’t write in English. So typically their story is only available in Vietnamese. What that means is that Americans still get to define the war. And so The Sympathizer is unique, I think, in this landscape by refusing the immigrant story, using the refugee narrative to demonstrate these contradictions of American intervention, and directly confronting the actual war in Vietnam, in a way that Americans are not used to. So I think that’s how the book is different, by deploying the refugee perspective.
TM: In your opinion, what is the difference between writing a novel and writing a short story? Do you have to train different muscles for different genres? If so, how?
VTN: I spent 20 years writing that short story collection The Refugees, and I think I exercised a lot of muscles, but maybe very different muscles and I never really coordinated everything together. So even now I could not explain to you what I’m doing in each of those stories and why I made the decisions that I did. It was, for the most part, a very intuitive process of trial and error in writing each story, which is very frustrating to me. Because I’m not a natural short story writer and I don’t have very good understanding of the short story form, it took a very long time to write that book. But I was exercising muscles.
So when it came time to write the novel, all of a sudden, it felt that I could put all these muscles together and work much more quickly, much more powerfully. And in the context of the novel, it felt much more natural. So it wasn’t as though there was no connection between short stories and novels; it was that they exercise different physical/mental capacities that I had. And with the novel, I feel like I can explain almost every single decision that goes into the book, and I can explain almost anything about the book that you could ask me about. It took two and a half years to write that novel versus 20 years for The Refugees, even though The Sympathizer is more than twice as long. So I don’t think I could have written The Sympathizer without having first written The Refugees. That being said, I would never want to go back to writing short stories and try to exercise those muscles again.
TM: Do you read to exercise your muscles?
VTN: Yeah. I tried to read books that personally move me both in terms of their story and concerns, but also how they move me at the level of a sentence. So unfortunately, I often pick up a book, I’ll read the first sentence or first paragraph, and I will decide immediately if I’m going to continue reading. I have so little time; I cannot afford to waste time on a book that doesn’t move me in every respect, but especially at the level of a sentence. Unfortunately, you know, in my life now, I have to read a lot of books that I would not necessarily pick up except that I’m reading books because I’m doing favors for other people and writing blurbs and things like that.
But in terms of reading for my own work, I tried to find books that I think are going to teach me something about some kind of literary technique or political concern that I need to know. So with The Sympathizer, it was very important for me to have discovered, again, Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night or Antonio Lobo Antunes’s The Land at the End of the World, because both of those books were doing things at the level of the sentence and at the level of politics. And the whole novelistic forms were not typical. They were very inspiring for me. And then finally when I’m actually writing, I try to read poetry, because the rhythm, the use of images, the use of sound, and these kinds of things are very important for me, in terms of trying to construct sentences and deploying images that are almost as concentrated as what you would find in poetry.
TM: I really enjoyed the introduction you wrote for The Displaced. You said something beautiful about memory. Your personal memory of displacement cultivates sympathy and empathy in you; remembering the best of humanity allows us to form an ideal that we can hope and work for. But others may go in the exact opposite direction for the same reason. Their past trauma teaches them to be self-centered to protect themselves; their recollections of the worst of humanity become the reason why we must close off our borders. Currently, the two groups cannot even have a conversation with each other. What’s your suggestion for a writer who aspires to speak to the latter group?
VTN: To the ones whose minds and hearts are closed? I think it’s very difficult because writers live and work oftentimes in environments and an entire marketplace that are different from the environments and marketplaces of people who are opposed to immigration and to refugees, for example. As writers, we like to believe that if we write an important story, the story will move people and change hearts and minds, because that’s our background; we’ve been moved by stories. But the people who really need to have the hearts and minds moved are oftentimes the people who are not going to be reading what we write, either because they don’t read literature or because they’re reading different kinds of books. And I can tell, based on my own personal experience; because I can go on amazon.com and see on my author page where my books are being sold, they are sold mostly in the so-called blue parts of the country, the coasts and big cities. But there are huge swaths of America where the books are not sold, and that is oftentimes a rural or red America. So that means that authors—especially literary authors who are writing fiction and poetry and so on—we have to be realistic about what our writing can actually do.
And we have to recognize that if we have a message that is not just an aesthetic message but also a political message, oftentimes we have to do different things to get that message out there, which is why I write op-eds. And I go give lectures in different parts of the country, because people who read my op-eds oftentimes are not people who are reading my books. And even in the context of the publications I write for, like The New York Times, Washington Post, or Time, they’re certainly not leftist, and sometimes they’re not even liberal. And so it is actually gratifying to see sometimes that people, like even childhood friends of mine who would not read my books, get Time. Or when I go give lectures, I have to go sometimes to very red parts of the country. And even if I’m giving these lectures in the blue parts of a red area, like a university, sometimes there will still be people who show up who are hostile to what it is I have to say. So they have to listen. And I have to acknowledge their presence. Sometimes I get some very difficult questions from people who come from a completely different perspective. So the work of changing hearts and minds is oftentimes not just at the level a book, but also at the level of personal interaction and going out there and having these kinds of conversations, trying to meet people where they’re coming from.
TM: How do you deal with hostility?
VTN: I think that I’m still relatively fortunate, because I know that women and women of color, especially in particular, get the criticism much worse than I do. As for me, I still get hostility, but it’s oftentimes restricted. You know, people will write me emails, they will send me letters that are very critical, but they’re still polite. The worst I heard is “Go back to where you came from,” which is bad, but not that bad compared to what people may actually have said. Social media allows people to have much more direct confrontations; people will send me messages on Twitter, or Facebook, or through my personal website. And sometimes, rarely, the conversations will be face to face. So people have said things very critical to me in an audience. But again, that doesn’t happen that often. And it’s happened less since I won the Pulitzer Prize. And so I think there are all these layers of insulation that I have that other people, particularly women and women of color, may not.
How do I deal with that? In a face-to-face moment, it’s important to have those moments, to not back away from that and to have that conversation. I don’t have a problem with that. And then with other kinds of written communication, sometimes I’ll respond. And sometimes these conversations will have an immediate dead-end, because the other person is so angry that we can’t have a conversation. But sometimes we exchange a few emails or communications, and we actually move forward a little bit in terms of understanding each other a little bit more.
TM: That brings me to my next question. How has the Pulitzer Prize changed your life as a writer? Have the changes been good, bad, or both?
VTN: Both. I mean, obviously I’m not complaining. There are negatives, challenges, but they’re completely outweighed by the positives. And the negative is that there has been a huge imposition on my time. So I’m about a year and a half behind in delivering my novel to my publisher. If I were to quantify how much time the Pulitzer cost me, that’s how much: a year and a half, because of giving lectures and responding to people and blurbing people’s books and things like that. The positives are that I’ve earned a lot more money. Because of the Pulitzer Prize, there’s no doubt about that. And that’s afforded me more time to write, my audiences have grown. I went from having no foreign edition to 30 foreign editions of The Sympathizer, because of the Pulitzer. So it’s turned me into more of an international author.
And it’s given me the prestige and the opportunity to speak to audiences I would never get to speak to before, both in terms of lectures but also in terms of op-eds. So I think the Pulitzer has, in every way, transformed my status as a writer, and it’s made me want to live up to that status, to use the Pulitzer for good and for other purposes.
The final challenge of the Pulitzer power play is what people will say about the novel that I’m writing now.
TM: I don’t want to get writers to talk about their ongoing projects. But in one of your previous interviews, you mentioned that you are working on a sequel to The Sympathizer. I only want to ask this question: What do you hope to achieve with this sequel?
VTN: Well, I think I want to write a good novel. That’s the most basic thing to do. And I want to write a novel that lives up to The Sympathizer, both in terms of its entertainment, but also its politics. And, let me set the expectations low and say, it won’t probably be better than The Sympathizer, but I hope it was at least be good and can live up to the reputation of that first novel.
But besides that, I think, going back to our earlier conversation about how I situate myself in terms of other bodies of literature and so on. Obviously, narrative scarcity, one of the problems for the so-called minority writer is that we get pigeonholed. We write a book that’s ostensibly about “our experience,” in my case, being a Vietnamese refugee in the Vietnam War. And we’re allowed by dominant culture to own that little piece of territory with the expectation that we won’t break out. That’s a trap. Because on the one hand, we want to break out; on the other hand, we don’t want to feel as if somehow we can’t write about what we just wrote about. I think about Philip Roth, arguably and possibly a minority writer, but definitely a majority writer. And no one now would ever say, “Oh, Philip Roth is only a Jewish writer, because he only wrote about Jewish experiences,” right? For me, the challenge is the same. That in the second novel, in the sequel, I’m still dealing with Vietnamese people, Vietnamese refugees and so on, which I’m not reluctant to do and I’m not apologetic about. But also, at the same time, I want to make the claim that just because I’m still writing about Vietnamese refugees and the consequences of the war, it doesn’t mean that it’s “only” about these things. In fact, we can write about these things, and yet they still are universally important. It’s up to me to prove that. But it’s also up to me to challenge readers who would not be able to see that.
TM: One last question: What are some of the habits that you think aspiring writers need to develop?
VTN: There are so many, but I think if there’s only one, that is to write a lot. Some writers would say you have to write every day. I don’t think that’s true. But I do think it’s true that you have to write a lot. No one ever became a writer by writing 100 hours. I think almost everybody has become a writer by literally thousands of hours. So however you choose to do it, you’ve got to do it. Whether it takes you five years or 10 years or 50 years. You can’t be a writer unless you do that.
And what goes along with writing a lot is enduring a lot. You have to endure rejection, obscurity, mockery, miscomprehension, apathy, that no one cares that you want to be a writer. And, in fact, life will constantly throw obstacles in your way. For me, one obstacle is I live in California, so to spend thousands of hours writing I have to sit in a room and not go outside and enjoy the sun. That may not be much of an issue in Iowa but it is here in California. So we endure and sacrifice a lot. So if you cannot write a lot, if you cannot endure, if you cannot sacrifice, then you should probably choose another passion.
The interviewer would like to thank Alyssa Asquith and Philip Kurian for their generous and thoughtful contributions to the interview.
Avi Steinberg’s memoir Running the Books: Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian is the sort of book that you attempt to put down partway, only to wander around your apartment, disoriented, picking up random objects and placing them elsewhere for no reason, before finally relenting and returning to read. The premise, like the pace, is catchy, almost irresistible: Steinberg, former yeshiva student, Harvard graduate, freelance obituary writer, and (perhaps needless to add) self-proclaimed “loner and romantic,” takes a job running a Boston prison library and serving as the resident creative writing teacher.
There is a voyeuristic thrill to peering inside a prison, not merely at the incarcerated, an isolated community of sinister and curious social outcasts, but at the entire mini-civilization – the guards, staff, rules, rituals – which all seem so foreign and exotic compared to our own. Television shows like Oz and Prison Break in particular capitalized on the dark glamour that prison holds for the outside, and did their part in shrouding it with as much urban mystique as The Sopranos did for mob life. We want to look in; we just don’t want to go in.
But it’s through the eyes of a fellow outsider that we get to observe in Running the Books. With his orthodox Jewish upbringing and witty, literary reference-laden commentary, Steinberg, like many of his readers, clearly does not belong in a prison – on either side of the law – as much as he doubts this at times. Or as one inmate remarks, “You’re an undercover playa – I like that.” But this is exactly what renders the reading experience so much more honest: the book doesn’t force its readers to adopt a false attitude of worldliness and blasé to accommodate it; we’re afforded our natural reactions because they are more often than not Steinberg’s reactions. As a narrator, he is infinitely relatable. He likewise has naive and uselessly emotional responses to what amount to commonplace injustices. He is just as prone to passing superficial (though bitingly funny) judgments, as in the case of his first five creative writing students who remind him of the famous line from Leviathan, with which Thomas Hobbes envisions life without a central sovereign as being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Writes Steinberg: “Here they were, reunited in one room, sitting in front of me: Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish, and Short.”
Prison is not short for characters, and like Steinberg, you’ll find it impossible to remained detached. There is the female inmate who sees through the prison yard window that the son she abandoned as a child is incarcerated in the same walls; the convict who dreams of hosting his own hood cooking show “Thug Sizzle”; the gang of prison guard union buddies who call themselves the “Angry Seven”; the charismatic pimp whose memoirs Steinburg edits until learning the hideous truth about his past.
As the prison librarian, the “Bookie,” Steinberg’s memoir is as much about the inmates’ interactions with literature as with himself. He assembles a Sylvia Plath shelf in the library at the request of her ardent (and depressed) female fans, which causes him no small amount of concern: “Ariel would never arouse the suspicions of myopic prison censors, who reserved the right to remove books of incitement and violence. But just because Ariel was art didn’t make it less dangerous — in fact, it made it potentially far more so.” Shakespeare month for the prison film group begins badly (“I can’t say I wasn’t warned. There was plenty of Shakespearian foreshadowing,”) until Othello (the Laurence Fishburne version) and Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet are explosive hits. One inmate tells Steinberg he will refuse to speak to him until he reads The Souls of Black Folks by W.E.B. Dubois. When he argues that he’s already read it, the inmate scolds: “Read it again…Cause you missed the whole point.”
But literature is not merely interacted with in Running the Books; it is alive. In prison, as in literature, all of the flaws of our own society appear exaggerated, often even grotesque. Violence is as inescapable and inherent a mechanism of justice as it is in Icelandic blood feud literature like Njal’s Saga or Egil’s Saga. More than once Steinberg finds himself a victim of the Kafkaesque arbitrary and impenetrable bureaucracy that governs both inmates and staff alike. (Coincidentally, you might recall Steinburg’s name from Elif Batuman’s recent piece “Kafka’s Last Trial” for the New York Times Magazine, in which she and Steinberg visit the house of Eva Hoffe, longtime custodian of Kafka’s last manuscripts.)
Nonetheless, it’s the words of the inmates themselves – whether in “kites,” secret notes that prisoners hide for one another in library books, and through “skywriting,” words spelled out backwards by male prisoners in the yard toward female prisoners’ windows – that are most affecting. We know prison to be something of a “Civil Death,” that the political (and to a great extent legal) voices of inmates go unheard. But Steinberg, who retains a reverence for the written word from his years studying the Torah, is consumed by how often the words of prisoners go unread. Kites must be unearthed and confiscated: “Books are not mailboxes,” a sign fastened to the library walls grimly declares. Skywriting, where it’s never quite clear who is signaling to whom, let alone what words they are spelling, is as predestined for misinterpretation, confusion, and jealousy as the communications in a French farce. And words from the inside out are equally unfortunate: it is not easy to write letters home from prison (in fact, one inmate runs a successful freelance poetry business designed to ease this burden), and prisoners often end up shredding or abandoning letters to loved ones.
Why do people write, knowing they might ultimately be writing to no one? And what is the worth of all of these words that are doomed to go unread?
For days I kept imaging the fate of the world’s misplaced letters. I started noticing them everywhere. All the right letters sitting on desks and dressers, slipped into purses, abandoned in email Draft folders, forever sealed and unsent…And the wrong letters, placed in someone’s hands – which, once delivered, may never be taken back. Emailed and immediately regretted. When I looked around the world, I couldn’t see these letters. But I became aware of their indirect presence. They contained life’s great subtexts… bound to a person by an almost invisible string. Even the unsent ones are very much present. Especially the unsent ones.
On one level, Running the Books is effortlessly readable. The stories weave in and out of each other, and through this the narrative turns compulsive: you need only become invested in one power struggle, one absurd operation, one hopeless endeavor to become invested altogether. But there is a profound weight to the memoir, too. Steinberg is not merely relatable as a narrator; he relates – his frustration, his ego, his susceptibility – and as my endless stretches of page-turning inevitably gave way to wandering about my apartment, I realized it was Steinburg’s own disorientation that I was feeling.
In the moral ambiguities of prison, the comforting ideals of “good” and “right” are luxuries that have no place. They provide useless road maps. And yet, Steinberg must still aim for something. He must still retain some grace. Even then, his efforts often amount to nothing, or worse. You might not agree with all of his decisions, but you spare him censure because he is a far harsher critic of himself. And you cannot deny that he is trying really, desperately hard.
For all of its vivid characters, Running the Books is thus ultimately a book about character, a virtue most notable for the constant (and often wasted) effort it requires to be maintained. In literature, as in prison, all of the flaws of our own society appear exaggerated. But, however muted, the flaws here are the same. Life on the outside is just as rife with vulnerability, doomed optimism, moral ambiguity, and unsatisfactory compromise. And with this insight, when you re-enter society from the haze of a book, you orient yourself once more.