Immigrants Behaving Badly: Maria Kuznetsova and Sanjena Sathian in Conversation

On the surface, Maria Kuznetsova’s second novel Something Unbelievable (Random House, April 13) and Sanjena Sathian’s debut Gold Diggers (Penguin Press, April 6) might not have much in common. Kuznetsova’s is a story about a Ukrainian-American actress living in Brooklyn who puts on a play based on her grandmother’s experiences during World War II. Sathian’s is about a slacker-stoner Indian American teenager struggling his way through an American high school (and later graduate school), until he finds relief in a magical potion made from stolen gold.

But these two novels— and their authors, who became friends at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—share some sensibilities: an interest in the American immigrant story, an aesthetic sensibility that involves a mix of comedy and seriousness, and a tendency to write about slightly badly behaved immigrants.

They discussed their two books, comedy, and the challenges of writing the “Old World” vs. the “New World” earlier this year.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Sanjena Sathian: Your book alternates between the story of Natasha, the actress, and Larissa, her grandmother, as Natasha wheedles Larissa into recounting her experiences of the war.

As a second-generation immigrant, I always struggled with feeling a need to write “the Old World” because I don’t know 20th-century India all that well. But you manage to pull off a sensitive, funny, precise, and warm rendering of Larissa’s life that feels so lived in, while also giving us a contemporary story to relate to with Natasha. How did you strike that balance between writing about the motherland versus the new country, in your career, and in this book?

Maria Kuznetsova: I came to America from Kiev, Ukraine, when I was six and spoke Russian at home, so the “Old World” was very much a part of my daily life. When I was younger, I wrote either coming-of-age stories or stories about my family’s life in Soviet Russia, and I was convinced that their history was much more important—and worthy of fiction—than my own, which was colorful, but felt pretty low stakes compared to the things my family went through—struggling in ESL wasn’t exactly starving in the Ural Mountains during the war. But as I kept writing and living, I saw that I did have my own story to tell, and that these Soviet ancestors hovering in the background were part of my story.

Something Unbelievable started with just Larissa’s point of view—it came from a story I wrote for Ethan Canin’s workshop at Iowa—with a frame of Natasha, Larissa’s granddaughter, receiving her story. But as I kept going, I saw there wasn’t enough book there. When I put the piece up for workshop, my classmates said I either ditch the modern frame or develop it. A second point of view would add meaning to the first and give people a modern character to care about, and would also give the book a sense of continuity and history.

How about you? The prologue of your book opens in 1980s Bombay with a scene of one of the characters brewing a magical potion, but most of it takes place in 21st-century Georgia and California, where the golden potion is still being made but is a little different. That prologue closes with the line, “the old recipes are never quite the same on this side of the world.” How did you find that balance between old and new?

SS: You’re about half a generation closer to that old world than I am, because I was born here, and I didn’t grow up speaking an Indian language. My book is mostly new world, as you say. Gold Diggers is half-set in a suburban American high school in 2006, where the kids are dancing to Usher songs and obsessed with SAT prep, and half in 2016 Silicon Valley during the tech boom. And the main conceit is contemporary—Neil, the narrator, and neighbor-slash-crush Anita become addicted to a potion made of stolen gold that helps them steal the ambition of other Indian Americans.

But once I had the new world laid out, I did a ton of research into old world alchemical traditions, following alchemy from China to India to Europe, just to have more material to work with around gold’s mythology and history. And then I found passages from Vedic and Hindu texts about rituals that involved ingesting or consuming gold in some form. I thought I’d made this thing up, and it turned out to be real!

MK: And then you also had an American angle, too. Your narrator, Neil, becomes obsessed with the California gold rush. Why did you decide to weave that in?

SS: It seemed too obvious not to include. Gold has an incredibly powerful history everywhere in the world, but especially in my two cultures—Indian and American. So I had the Hindu history down, and now I wanted to braid in an American history, too.

I met with a similar coincidence there, too—my characters were already gold thieves when I found a story in a 19th-century German travelogue of an Indian man accused of being a gold thief during the California gold rush. Neil then writes about this story. If I weren’t so cynical and secular, I would say it’s synchronicity. But I’ll settle for calling it a cool coincidence.

It’s funny we both found ways to slip in history this way. I had my narrator be a historian and you had yours be writing a play.

It’s also interesting—Natasha, the actress in Something Unbelievable, is a new mother, which is what inspires her to insist on her grandmother telling her story. You were a relatively new mother when you wrote this, and I know you said some of these anecdotes are inspired by your own grandmother’s WWII stories. Did you get more interested in her family history because of being a new mom?

MK: Definitely—after becoming a mom, I thought a lot more about how I would pass these stories down to my daughter instead of how they affected me. Natasha is at a desperate point in her life—she felt like all her life revolves around this creature, and she’s so used to being an artist, so this was her way of bringing the story to life, and feeling like she was contributing something. So maybe it was my way of doing the same thing, honoring my grandmother in a convoluted way.

I was thinking of autobiographical writing when I was reading your novel, which feels autobiographical in some ways—the narrator’s parents immigrated to America from India; like you, he grew up in a competitive Georgia suburb and lived in the Bay Area for a while, and so on. A lot of debut novels, like mine, tend to cover autobiographical territory, but I can’t think of one that does so from the perspective of another gender. How did telling the story from Neil’s perspective come to you?

SS: I wrote from Anita’s perspective at first. She’s closest to the gold thefts, since her mother is the one initiating them. But everything was so somber and serious and un-fun when I wrote her. In fact, I workshopped a short story in which she was the narrator, and it didn’t land. But there was a male character in her periphery who intrigued me.

Then I started thinking about one of my best friends in high school, though, my male debate partner, and the side of me that came out when I hung out with him and my guy friends. I was funnier, lighter, goofier, and more bumbling. So I hopped heads, out of Anita and into her neighbor, Neil, and then, suddenly, I had a voice that I knew I could live in for hundreds of pages. Neil is both me and not me.

Voice is so tough, though! I grew up with books like The God of Small Things, which I love and is set in Kerala, where half my family comes from. And I always though that’s what my work was supposed to look like, as a brown writer—lush and serious and Indian. I didn’t have much of a voice until I started being comfortable writing contemporary America. Like you, I had to realize that my contemporary experience was as legitimate to write as, say, a serious post-Partition novel.

Did you feel any of this, as someone also tagged a “funny female writer?”

MK: I hear what you’re saying. I didn’t know many Soviet immigrant writers growing up, so I read writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, Edwidge Danticat, Chang-Rae Lee, who I love, but they—understandably—leaned more on how hard immigration was, how challenging the nostalgia and attempt to understand American culture could be, so I sensed that there was no room for the immigration narrative that I experienced–sure, my family struggled a lot, but one of my family’s favorite activities was telling hilarious early immigration stories—like how my grandmother threw the trash out in the mail for our first month in America, for example. I didn’t think there was a place for stories like that in fiction.

SS: Yeah, it’s hard to see comedy as a legitimate aesthetic for what it means to tell an immigrant story. I got that from White Teeth and The Buddha of Suburbia. I do think there’s this burden to tell a noble story of sacrifice, but I was just a kid dicking around in the suburbs, on AIM all the time.

MK: Same! I feel like a lot of immigrant lit was serious, but especially lit by women. Men like Gary Shteyngart, they can have more fun. I think some women—not all women, obviously—have this pressure to be more serious.

SS: How did you find your sense of humor? You’ve told me before you’d written a novel about Chernobyl that wasn’t very funny.

MK: I worked on it for five, six years. I wrote, like, 50 drafts of that book, and had an agent who couldn’t sell it, and thank God, because it was really bad. It’s hard to make Chernobyl jokes—I mean, there are a lot of them in the Soviet Union—but I wasn’t yet able to write in a way that sounded like me. It felt super mournful and nostalgic, and I’m just not as interested in that as much anymore.

But also, Oksana, Behave!, my first book, to me, is a profoundly sad book—it just has a comic tone. And your book, too, goes both ways. The ending has a melancholy feeling, in a really good way, even though there’s a hilarious jewelry heist leading up to that. 

SS: One of the challenges of being irreverent in telling a story about a minority community, though, is knowing that your world might be underrepresented, and knowing people might get upset.

You do something really cool with representation in Something Unbelievable, though: Natasha belongs to the Borsch Babies, a group of other Soviet American actresses who compete for the same roles, like a lot of Russian prostitutes.

This is why I thought the contemporary frame was so rich in terms of commenting on the rest of the story. In workshop, people say a story teaches you how to read it, and your novel, I think, also teaches someone who’s completely unfamiliar with Soviet or Russian American history why it’s important to have this kind of story—almost like the prologue of There There. Natasha tells us all the jobs she can get are talking in Russian in the background of the show The Americans. And now The Americans isn’t on TV anymore, so all the jobs are gone. And I’m curious how conscious that was to include commentary on the state of how Americans see, like a Soviet story.

MK: I came to America in 1991 as a Jewish refugee, and my dad was a Cold War physicist for the other side. I didn’t get that this was why people called me a Commie. I was like, I thought we left the Soviet Union to escape the communists?

I went through a phase of watching a lot of action movies where the Soviets were the evil bad guys, like Air Force One. But you know, my friend who’s a Jewish actress and immigrant from Ukraine like me, told me there were way more Russian parts in the Trump era, because we became the enemy again. That made me think about whether I have an obligation to tell a certain story about Russians, or if I should just create human characters who happen to be Russian. Natasha isn’t the typical Soviet immigrant because she didn’t go to college. She pursued the arts.

SS: It’s really interesting that you didn’t even grow up knowing about the fact that Russians were always the villains in American pop culture.

I grew up brown in the south in the post 9/11 era, like my characters, so I was there in the heat of history, whereas when you got here like Cold War stuff was technically abating but it was just this lingering hangover.

MK: Speaking of where your characters grew up, it sounds like we went to the same high school. Large, public, lots of immigrants, competitive.

SS: Neil in Gold Diggers goes to that kind of high school, set in this fictionalized Georgia ur-suburb—an amalgam of the ones that flipped the state blue this year!—but his crush and neighbor, Anita, goes to a very white, conservative Christian high school, which is actually where I went. I lived this double life—I spent all this time in the suburbs, hanging out with competitive Asian nerds from high school debate, and then attending this school full of white Republicans.

But, yeah, Gold Diggers is about those competitive immigrant bubbles, which Natasha in your book sort of rejects, becoming an actress and dropping out of college.

MK: You and I both did some traditionally “correct” things as immigrant children—we went to good colleges. But then we didn’t totally emulate our parents and pursue “practical” careers. What do you think made you not follow the more expected path of having a socially acceptable career?

SS: I don’t know if you feel like this. It just didn’t ever feel like that was totally a choice. I always think of this sort of pretentious Bukowski quote about how no one should be a writer “unless being still would / drive you to madness or / suicide or murder,” which I heard in college. It’s a good message: don’t be a writer if you literally can’t function in any other corners of society.

I think both of us can passively function in other corners of society. We had these Silicon Valley gigs—me at a media startup, and you at WikiHow—but we couldn’t keep going in those jobs. Neil, in Gold Diggers, flails in a similar way when he moves to Silicon Valley in adulthood. He just can’t handle it there, which is sometimes how I felt. That work took something too great out of me. It didn’t leave space for art.

MK: The dream of being a writer is as absurd as wanting to be a rock star. I don’t think it’s easier, right? I thought that if you just worked hard at it, like being a lawyer, and it would happen. I guess it took a level of bravery I don’t have at 35.

SS: Maybe more than bravery. I think it’s megalomania. Or maybe it’s just a really desperate need to prove something. What could be more immigrant than that?

We Become the Stories We Tell: The Millions Interviews Kirstin Valdez Quade

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Few debut story collections feel as accomplished as Kirstin Valdez Quade’s Night at the Fiestas from 2015. “I’m lucky to know a lot of really good, generous people, but they don’t fall into any of those standard narratives of saintly lives,” Quade has said. “They’re people who just keep on trucking and being good in the face of a lot of injustice and ingratitude.” Night at the Fiestas tells the stories of those everyday saints, whose encounters with faith, doubt, and grace feel absolutely authentic.

I’m not the only one who was thrilled to hear that Quade decided to turn one of the stories into a novel. It is a significant feat, but Quade is uniquely positioned to make the shift in genre and form. Her stories teem with a generous sensibility; a recognition that each life is deeply, mysteriously complex.

Quade won the John Leonard Prize from the National Book Critics Circle, the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a “5 Under 35” award from the National Book Foundation. She was a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Award. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and The New York Times. Quade is an assistant professor at Princeton.

We spoke about how bodies are essential to fiction, the ways myth and folklore sustain her writing, and the challenges and revelations of reimagining a short story as a novel.

The Millions: The Five Wounds begins during Holy Week—the climax of the most dramatic liturgical season of the year. What does Lent conjure for you as a storyteller?

Kirstin Valdez Quade: Lent is a season of introspection and penance and making amends, which are all themes in The Five Wounds. My novel is about healing from the wounds of the past, and part of that healing requires looking closely at oneself and one’s place in the world and the hurts we have caused.

Amadeo discovers early on that making amends for the way he’s failed the people in his life cannot happen in a single gesture—it has to happen over and over, incrementally, and it can’t be performative.

I’ve always been interested in engaging with myth and folklore in my fiction. When I started writing, Angela Carter’s feminist reimaginings of fairy tales were real inspirations. When I think about the stories from the Old and New Testaments, it’s always been the human conflicts that interest me most. In those wonderful crowded Renaissance paintings of the crucifixion, I’m always drawn to the characters in the crowd who are going about their own business, holding a falcon or chasing a dog or looking wistfully at a friend.

TM: Last year we talked about your wonderful story collection, Night at the Fiestas, which includes a story that evolved into this novel. Among the great things you said that day, I often come back to one line in particular: “You can’t write your own story without fictionalizing it.” In a related way, I believe that we become the stories we tell—even the ones that are fiction, especially ones that we live with for years. You’ve lived with Amadeo and Angel for some time now, so: in what ways do you inhabit their story yourself?

KQ: I think you’re exactly right that we become the stories we tell. The short story “The Five Wounds” was published in 2009, so these characters have been with me a very long time. I am in every single one of the characters to varying degrees. I’ve felt Angel’s impatience with the members of her family, and her hopefulness and idealism, too. I’ve felt Amadeo’s longing to be a part of something important and his delusions of grandeur. I’ve definitely been nerdy, bookish Lily in the corner, judging everybody from behind her fat novel.

TM: You write so exquisitely about bodies: bodies in pain, penance, love, longing, and in fear. There’s a great moment when Amadeo is waiting for Angel, his daughter, to have her child. You describe his body perfectly: he is “filled with an electric jangling fear that doesn’t expend itself.” He prays to Jesus, who seems inadequate to understand Amadeo’s situation. Then he prays to God, but can’t picture him “except as a wooly jovial guy.” Finally, he prays to Mary, who gets it, “having had a kid herself and having had to watch that kid go through big troubles.” In this novel, as well as your stories, there is a Marian sensibility—which is of course distinctly Catholic, but also cultural. How does Mary exist in this story, in the lives and imaginations of these characters?

KQ: Bodies are so essential to fiction; I can tell when I’m not fully immersed in the writing, because I’ve somehow forgotten that my characters have bodies—they become just these floating consciousnesses. Paying attention to the physicality of the characters anchors me in the scene and makes the fictional world more vivid.

Mary’s story is, as much as her son’s, so much about the body. I imagine her shock at finding out that, without any say in the matter, she was suddenly pregnant. And sure, even if she thought it was an honor to be impregnated by God, I’ve got to think it was a complicated moment for her. I always focus on the book in her hands in paintings of the Annunciation. Who knows what other plans she had for her life?

The focus on Mary in the Catholicism I grew up with made a lot of sense to me. My family is absolutely a matriarchy; all the women are incredibly strong-willed and competent. They are the ones who hold the family together and get things done.

Likewise, Yolanda is the head of the Padilla family, the center around whom everyone circles, the person they go to for everything they need: allowance, affirmation, comfort. And she’s also completely taken for granted by her offspring. Her illness, then, comes as a shock, and they’re forced to grow up in a way they’ve managed to avoid.

TM: “Saint Amadeo. It has a dignified, archaic ring to it.” Amadeo dismisses the droning priest at Mass and his abstractions, and instead wishes that people would appreciate Amadeo’s own visceral passion: “His performance wasn’t just a performance, but a true crucifixion.” You’re great at mining the dual ambitions and anxieties of your characters—their desires to be saints while accepting their lives as sinners, as humans. If you had to choose a character from this book to be a saint, who would it be, and why?

KQ: Oh, wow, I don’t think I’d wish sainthood on any of them! Amadeo certainly has a penchant for extremes. I suppose I’d say that Angel has the most promise, since she’s most able to consistently think about other people’s needs and experiences. I like the name Saint Angel. Plus, we could use more lesbian saints!

TM: What did you discover about yourself as a writer—and perhaps in general as a storyteller—in the shift from the structure and style of short fiction to the expanse of a novel? What can a novel accomplish that a story might struggle to achieve?

KQ: The short story ends with an epiphany: Amadeo, who longs so deeply to transform his life, is on the cross, looking down at his pregnant daughter. In that moment, he truly sees her for the first time, and he understands that any hope for transformation will depend on his showing up for the people who need him.

That kind of epiphany works for a short story, but the question kept arising for me: What next? What happens the next morning when he wakes up in the same cramped bed in his childhood bedroom? What will Amadeo do with his new understanding? And I suspected that Amadeo, like many of us, might require more than that one epiphany to actually change his life. The novel grew out of my wanting to see what happens to these characters the next day, and the day after that.

As I expanded the story, the more I cared about the characters: Amadeo, whose efforts are so misplaced; vibrant, forceful, funny Angel who is trying so hard to give her son a good life and who falls so completely in love; and Yolanda, who, after devoting herself to her family, now finds that she must to attend to her own life. I didn’t know how they’d navigate the first year of Angel’s baby’s life, and I wrote to find out.

I Always Write in the Past: The Millions Interviews André Aciman

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In his new collection of essays, Homo Irrealis, André Aciman contends with the state of mind we spend most of our lives in: the irrealis mood. Aciman defines this mood as “a category of verbal moods that indicate that certain events have not happened, may never happen, or should or must or are indeed desired to happen, but for which there is no indication that they will ever happen”—that is, “the might-be and the might-have-been.” It is a mood sometimes called fantasizing, or nostalgia, but it is really more multifaceted, informing our experience of art, desire, and even our own mortality.
The Millions spoke with Aciman about the collection and how it blends the autobiographical with artistic criticism—all while circling around this particular mood.
The Millions: Do you think that writers, in particular, contend with the irrealis mood?
André Aciman: I do think that writers can focus on it more. It doesn’t mean that they suffer from it more. I used to work on Wall Street for a while, and people on Wall Street follow those ticker tapes—they’re very much in the present. But you mention the irrealis mood to them and they will say, “Oh, yeah, of course, I live there.”
There’s no way you can avoid it, but it’s not a negative at all. It’s a way of basically adding a dimension that we don’t normally know how to speak about. We call it fantasizing, but how about, “What might happen that already did happen once, or could have happened once, but never did? But would it happen again? Would I know how to seize that opportunity once it comes back, if it ever comes back?” These are questions that we have every single day in varied guises.
For example, I was sent to write an article on a particular square in Paris. But it was only in coming back to New York that I could write about what Paris was for me. And I captured something about Paris in that piece that people say to me, “Oh yeah, that was really Paris. You captured Paris.” No, I captured my memory and my fantasy of Paris. I always write in the past.
TM: So living and writing from the irrealis mood extends our sense of time and each experience?
AA: Perhaps. But eventually, whatever you write can sometimes displace what actually happened. And that happened to me. I was writing about a scene in Egypt when I was a boy. Eventually, I went back to Egypt and wanted to walk down that street, which I describe very accurately in my book. I couldn’t remember if I actually made up that street, and I can no longer know. Writing has a way of overwriting the “document” of our lives.
Maybe that’s why we write. Life may start making sense as you write, but it’s an artificial construct. Your real life does not necessarily make sense, if you think of it. Your career makes sense. Your parents make sense. Your love life makes sense. But the life itself, as it has been organized, is just a series of fluke incidents. Plus, even if you swear to every god you know that what you’re writing is exactly as it happened, the fact that you use a particular adverb—God, you’ve already colored everything! So in writing truth, the act of writing already changes things, even if you swear the story is factually true.
TM: As you write in Homo Irrealis, “It’s a mirage of the world that artists long to hold.”
AA: Every work of art is also implying something that it cannot quite get itself to say. The critic’s job is to see what that implication is and to let it speak, even if it’s taking a risk. Even if it is very, very specific to me, good criticism has to address somebody else. In good criticism, I must make space in my sentence for somebody else to sort of slip in and find their own voice in my voice.
TM: Do you think writers fear death more? And that’s why they have to get that “organized” version of life down?
AA: I just think writers talk about it more. But nobody really believes that death is part of life. Have you ever heard that one? “Death is a part of life, you’ve got to accept that. You know, it happens.” No. That is a big, big, huge, erroneous, shameful mistake. It’s a mistake that God didn’t even foresee. Look what you did, God—we’re going to die! It’s a terrible thing.
The worst part of death, as I write in one of the essays, is that you will forget the people you love, which is the worst thing that could happen. I’m going to forget my children. That’s what happens when you die. They may remember you, but you will forget them. That’s almost like a crime in itself. And every day that passes by means that you’re closer to the rendezvous.
Art is a way of saying, “Carry this, don’t lose it. It has me in it. It’s better than me.” Writing can sometimes allow us to organize our lives and to give ourselves the kind of chronicle that our real lives cannot have. You can’t put the pieces together in real life—they just don’t fit. But on paper they can. The paper does things to life. It kind of argues for you—for a better version of your life.
TM: Yet even once you’ve done that, you might find yourself returning to revise that version of your life later on.
AA: On one hand, I like to say to people, “Don’t bother me about my adolescence and my childhood. It’s out in paperback now.” That resolved it. Guess what? A week or two later, the same themes just resurface again.
If you’ve ever suffered from obsession, such as obsessing over someone, at some point, you say, “Okay, it’s over and done with. I found out who this person really is—a disgusting human being. I have no respect for them.” Then, two weeks later, you start fantasizing about them again. What’s going on? You wrote a story about it. You put it out in paperback. And now it’s back. That’s the story of my life. The same things come back constantly.
If you look at the stuff I’ve written in my life, it’s all very much the same. Simon and Garfunkel wrote, like, one song they kept composing and recomposing every single time in a different way. But it’s the same song. That’s all great writers, I think, and all great composers. They are composing one or two ditties and that’s it. The rest is just variations—profound variations.
Bonus Links:
Writing Isn’t a Career, It’s a Mission: An Interview with André Aciman
Bridge Life: On André Aciman’s ‘Enigma Variations’
In Search of Lost Dream Time: Two New Books by André Aciman
Ivy League from the Outside: Andre Aciman’s ‘Harvard Square’
Journeys to the Past: André Aciman’s ‘Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere’

The piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Where Was God?: The Millions Interviews Véronique Tadjo

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In 2017, the French publisher Don Quichotte éditions published Véronique Tadjo’s In the Company of Men (En compagnie des hommes), a slim powerhouse of a novel telling the story of West Africa’s Ebola crisis from the perspectives of a wide variety of its survivors and victims: doctors and nurses and patients and family members, but also government officials and undertakers, bats and trees, and even the virus itself.
In late February, a little more than a year after the first case of Covid-19 in the United States was confirmed, Other Press published an English-language edition of Tadjo’s novel.
The Millions spoke with Tadjo about putting out this novel during a global pandemic, the storytelling traditions behind its structure, and more.
The Millions: This book was originally published only a year after the Ebola outbreak ended. Now, its English-language edition is out in the midst of another pandemic. Has your perspective on this book changed since its original publication? How?
Véronique Tadjo: When I first wrote the book in French in 2017, Covid-19 was not in anybody’s mind. The two situations are not comparable. However, while doing research at the time of the Ebola crisis, I came to realize that many aspects of our lives were connected: the degradation of the environment, climate change, and our health. Reading medical experts “reports,” it was easy to see that the threat of more epidemics to come was real unless structural changes were carried out in Africa and in the world in general. I am struck by how close to the bone some of the themes I develop in the book are to the situation we are in at the moment: the isolation and the loneliness; the tearing apart of family ties; the issue of trust in government; the violence and resistance at times; the heavy burden on the medical profession; the economic crisis; and so on.
The big issue today is vaccine equity. Because we are in a pandemic, a global solution needs to be found. Therefore a campaign for vaccines against Covid-19 needs to be put in place and recognized as a global public good. After a period during which vaccine nationalism took over and many governments from rich countries pre-ordered or ordered far too many vaccines for their populations, a system is gradually taking shape. The Covax international system aims to get coronavirus vaccines to low- and middle-income countries that have been cut out of the vaccine race. Let’s hope that it will be a successful attempt at redressing an imbalance that puts the whole world at risk.
TM: The novel is told from a multitude of voices. How did you come to realize that the novel required so many perspectives? Why did you choose this method of storytelling?

VT: In a way, I have always written in this style. Right from my first novel, As the Crow Flies (Heinemann, 2001), first published in French, I have adopted a non-linear approach. I find that it is closer to the way we live. We always have multiple stories in our minds. A soldier can be aiming at an enemy but at the same time wondering when he will ever go back home or if he will ever see his wife and children again. I also believe that we are what we are because of others. So you are never alone when you tell a story. Many voices interact.
TM: The novel, at times, almost reads as if it is made up of first-person, nonfiction accounts of experiencing the Ebola pandemic. What sort of research did you conduct in order to flesh out the details of each character’s experiences?
VT: I read a lot in French and in English. I also looked for testimonies of Ebola survivors and medical staff involved in the fight against the disease. I watched television documentaries. I also discussed with doctors as much as I could and went to conferences. I became more and more interested in the social dimension of the epidemic. People had been affected in many different ways and each time I researched one aspect, it led me to another one. It was important for me to get as close as possible to what had happened on the ground. But I had one restriction: it had to be done through the medium of literature.
TM: Some of your characters are not human—the Baobab tree most prominently, but also a bat and even the virus itself. Why did you choose to include these chapters? How did you need to think differently as an author when writing those sections? Were they challenging to get right?
VT: I have been raised in the oral African tradition in which the storyteller can call on many different genres, from poetry, historical narratives, songs, myths to political language. Animals and nature connect with human characters on an equal basis. In many folktales nature speaks. So you could say that it wasn’t that much out of the ordinary for me to make non humans speak. It also suited my purpose very well because I wanted to show human beings as part of nature and not above nature. This way of looking at the world has also appeared in the works of a number of Western authors who influenced me. Jean de La Fontaine, one of the most widely read French poets of the 17th century comes to my mind. I read his book of fables when I was young and I remember one in particular entitled “The Animals Stricken by the Plague” (les animaux frappés par la lèpre). I admit that in the case of the virus, it was a bit tricky because I did not want it to be the villain of the story. On the other hand, I wanted him to tell a few truths so I had to get the balance right. The bat attracted me because of its dual nature, mammal and bird. For me she is the symbol of complexity and the diversity of nature.
TM: This novel is very attentive to the intersections of human development and the natural world, and the way human encroachment on nature leads to viral outbreaks. What’s an example or two of something you learned while researching what humans can do to avoid, and be prepared for, pandemics that were particularly interesting or surprising for you?
VT: Through my research I learnt how important communication was. Science alone cannot work. People have to feel empowered to fight against diseases. They hold a big part of the solution in their hands. But for this to happen they need to have confidence in their leaders. They need to trust the system. If they feel marginalized or if they do not have a good grasp of what is happening, they may retreat in false beliefs. Without adequate communication there can be resistance and protest.
I was also surprised by the importance that traditional medicine still holds. In fact, the majority of the Africans in rural areas and in many popular areas in big cities still consult a healer. This is because conventional medicine has failed. Big dilapidated hospitals are considered as places where people die. Added to this, medicine is expensive so most of the time people can’t afford the prescriptions they are given. Once scientists observed habits, they were able to seek the collaboration of healers. They trained them so they could influence their patients. They became active actors in the fight to eradicate the disease.
TM: Which was the most difficult chapter for you to write from a technique perspective? From an emotional perspective?
VT: From a technical point of view, the difficulty was to condense information that spanned the three affected countries: Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. I wanted to create a spaceless and timeless territory because viruses know no borders. Emotionally, it was the chapter on the dying mother because it was about religious faith in the face of death. Where was God? The other difficult chapter was the one about the lovers because I had the choice of “saving” the fiancée or not. After reflection I decided that a happy ending would not be appropriate. At times love cannot make miracles. But it certainly makes us more human.
TM: Science and anthropology both inform this book significantly, but so does myth and folklore and music. What do you hope readers take away from the inclusion of oral storytelling and songs in a novel about a contemporary crisis?
VT: Oral storytelling is ancestral and common to all the cultures of the world. This form of narration has the added advantage of touching several generations. For example, most folktales can be understood at different levels of complexity. A young person may grasp only one aspect of a tale whereas a more experienced person will be able to decipher the symbolism behind the story. It is very comforting for a writer to work from the premise of a universal genre. Tales are timeless therefore it is left to the storyteller to adapt them for a new audience. Also human beings’ survival on Earth remains a contemporary theme for literature.
TM: Did any of your own lived experience influence this book? Can you share how?
VT: I was born in Paris and raised in Abidjan. I am familiar with the West African region. It was a miracle that Ebola did not spread to Côte d’Ivoire as the country shares borders with Guinea and Liberia where I have travelled to many times. All the health restrictions were in place and everybody was on high alert. I have friends who are doctors and they were following events closely. We had long discussions. The health systems are more or less in the same dire state in the region. On one of my visits to Abidjan (I was based in Johannesburg at the time), I went to one of the Ebola centers that had been quickly built in the eventuality of an epidemic. It was located within the perimeter of a hospital in a popular area. There was a huge tree casting its shade over the building. I thought to myself, if Ebola had come to this city, what would the tree have witnessed? This is how the idea of Baobab was conceived.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

A Moose in Maine: Marcia Butler in Conversation with Richard Russo

If you set your novel in interior Maine, there’s a better chance that a moose will stray into your narrative than, say, if you situated the story in Nevada. Still, it’s a rare writer who’d be so accommodating to the moose’s sudden appearance, and only a truly daring and inventive one who would allow the animal multiple point-of-view chapters. Nor, in Marcia Butler’s Oslo, Maine, is doing so a gimmick. You think there’s nothing going on in a moose’s brain? You think there’s neither love, nor pain, nor loss in her heart? Think again.

I’ve known Marcia Butler for a good decade now and my admiration for her has grown to something closer to envy. As a young man I used to play guitar and sing semi-professionally (I was paid, but not much). When I decided to become a writer, I put the guitar in the closet and never took it out again, convinced that I would only have enough creative energy for storytelling. Butler—a first chair oboist, novelist, and documentary filmmaker—proves that we needn’t make such choices, needn’t reject gifts. All we need to be is fearless and devoted to craft. That Marcia is all that and more will become evident in our conversation below.

Richard Russo: You have more than a tourist’s knowledge of Maine, where your fictional town of Oslo is set. How did you come by that?

Marcia Butler: When I was a professional oboist, and for many summers, I performed at a music festival in central Maine. We musicians were housed with local residents who graciously opened their homes to us. My host was an older widowed woman who happened to be a gifted storyteller. It was through her that I learned about the town’s doings and human dramas. Celebrations and illnesses. Who’d given birth, who’d passed away. Those who separated and then reconciled. All the profound and minor aspects of life in rural Maine. Weirdly, I never met any of these people yet found myself becoming emotionally invested—and increasingly so with each passing summer.

I also heard lots of stories about moose which I soon became obsessed with, especially because for years I didn’t see one. I’d hear about a sighting on the other side of Bridgeton and race to the location. Of course, the moose was no longer there. But I kept at it, jumping at the vaguest mention of the animal, till finally I was rewarded. A moose cow with her calf. What a day that was, and particularly sweet because it happened to be the final year of my tenure at the festival, and, in fact, my career as an oboist. I retired from music but never forgot that moose or the Mainers, one or two of whom serve as archetypes in my novel.

RR: The novel has several point-of-view characters, the most unusual of which is a moose. In the hands of another writer this device might have come across as a gimmick. How did you avoid that pitfall?

MB: Indeed, this was daunting to consider. A few author friends suggested I read other novels with animal points-of-view, but I didn’t want to be influenced in any way—sort of like not listening to another oboist’s version of the Mozart Concerto. And I felt somewhat (naively) qualified because my obsession with moose has continued past my Maine years. I’ve probably YouTubed every video of a moose in existence and spent a lot of time researching the way they manage their world—all before I ever became a writer. Moose are stunning animals: efficient, intuitive, a miracle of survival. They’re born knowing that the only place they can get a vital nutrient is at the bottom of a lake and they’ll dive twenty feet to access that plant. During the winter they eat up to seventy pounds of leafless twigs a day to survive the season. Just two of many jaw-dropping factoids. My moose, and what happens to her, is the lynchpin of Oslo, Maine because though she remains a background character, almost all human action flows from this animal’s presence. Specific to her point-of-view, I needed to convey what she observed in a manner that was both understood by the reader and still remained animal-like. I made decisions along the way that straddled those imperatives, achieving what I felt was believable anthropomorphism. She also, at times, contributes dramatic irony in that through her point-of-view the reader is clued into events that human characters have no awareness of. My moose is probably the most sympathetic character in the book because she operates purely and without guile. A thing to behold and something humans might aspire to but will never achieve.

RR: Some of the characters in this novel do some pretty reprehensible things, but you seem remarkably non-judgmental toward them. You appear to suggest that just as the moose is going about its business of being a moose, your characters are simply human and doing what comes naturally. It’s their nature to be violent and venal, but also to be kind and generous. Can you source this non-judgmental tone in the book? It seems pretty remarkable given the age we live in, where social media judgment is swift and vicious.

MB: Big topic. Yes, my characters are messy. But life is messy—beautiful, ugly, painful, blissful, and filled with people mostly doing their best while failing miserably. This is the world I grew up in and it is the world we all continue to live in. This bandwidth of human nature is what I am interested in exploring through my novels; to draw complex, interesting, and unknown people. To place them in situations where the human stakes are high, yet their solutions may not seem ideal or even good enough. In other art forms such as music, there are certain norms that one adheres to, such as always, always make a beautiful sound. I believe that one of the reasons I was so drawn to contemporary music is because the thrust and difficulty of that type of composition demand priorities other than a pretty sound. I ended up making lots of beautiful and unusual noises on the oboe!

So as a writer, when a character shows up and he/she behaves not so pretty, I am curious as to where this person will end up and I loosen the reins in order to find out. It is a necessary process of discovery that my novel deserves. Then, if that character remains through many drafts, I keep in mind that someone loved this person despite their bad acts. Which brings me back to the source of the nonjudgmental tone in my novels. I know firsthand about bad acts and that most people don’t set out in life to commit them. I try very hard to give people, and my characters, a pass.

Regarding the current treacherous territory of writing unattractive or controversial people in fiction, I am aware that as I write these words I am also considering censoring myself. Right now. And that’s a shame. The truth is, I’m all for likable and relatable protagonists, but I don’t ever want to feel that I must tamp down (or gussy up) my characters in order to appeal to a certain readership who might be put off or to avoid a backlash on social media. I strongly believe that with any creative endeavor real art, and perhaps ultimately important art, will emerge from the freedom to defy some of the rules—and, if necessary, break every single one. As writers, we are naturally limited by the personal prism through which we see the world. We fight this every day and when we break through, this is how imagination takes flight. It is tragic that we might allow someone else’s limits to constrict what we write!

So, in this current “cancel culture” environment, defying popular talking points takes bravery. I always seem to go back to music, but when Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was premiered in 1913 it was met with near riots in the audience and was deemed nothing less than demonic: “a barbaric and puerile barbarity”. Clearly, popular culture was less than happy. Yet, there is no doubt that this one composition changed the course of music for the next century. I shudder to think what might have happened if Stravinsky censored his creativity because he was afraid of offending popular tastes. So yes, I occasionally made a strange sound on the oboe and I’ll create a father who, despite loving his child deeply, hurts him. And yes, we must break all the boxes we possibly can. Because when things fall apart, how we decide to reassemble might help people understand each other.

RR: One of my favorite characters in the novel is a boy named Pierre who, after a head injury that wrecks his ability to form short term memories, is saved by music. I know that music has been a vital presence in your own life, but did it save you? How about writing?

MB: The beauty of a prepubescent kid who’s not yet become jaded can spot irony without even knowing what it is, and notices the absurdity in the adults around him, well, that sort of kid captures my heart. Pierre, indeed, finds relief from his injury and those who fail him through his violin. I relate very much to how learning an instrument demands a focus we rarely achieve during our everyday lives. Music itself creates a space and time where the past and future are suspended—it anchors your entire being to the now. There is no doubt that if I’d not discovered music at age four my life would have played out very differently. Music served as my only friend while navigating a bad childhood. Then, throughout subsequent difficult adult years, my mantra became “as long as I can play the oboe, I’ll be okay.” Now as a writer I’ve discovered a different freedom of expression, one that feels more interior, more personal. And while writing is not performative, I do lose myself to the process every day and for many hours. I feel lucky to be able to “go there”. In many ways, the introvert in me finds making up worlds preferable to real life.

RR: Your novel shows great reverence for teachers, which suggests you must’ve had a few pretty good ones yourself?

MB: Oh, yes. I believe teachers are boots on the ground first responders – saviors, really. They are, after parents, the adults who shape children’s minds, sometimes without the child knowing the full impact until years later. When I was in seventh grade my history teacher taught the Roman Empire through the love affair between Antony and Cleopatra. Though it was embarrassing to listen to (I wasn’t even sure what a love affair was) I’ve never forgotten how absorbed I became with a subject that otherwise would surely have been dry and tedious. I couldn’t wait for class to find out what happened next; the teacher was a master storyteller.

While in music conservatory, my oboe teacher was the primary source for the musician I became. He encouraged me to step up and dedicate myself to a profession where the odds of success were slim. Most valuable was emulating his strict sense of discipline, which continues to serve me to this day. He did all these things and then went farther. During my first year, I was experiencing emotional turmoil such that it impacted my ability to progress on the oboe. He found a benefactor to pay for a shrink. I believe his insight and this pure act of kindness, in large part, cemented my future in music. He cared and he saved me. Then, years later after I sold my first book, which is non-fiction, I made my first ever stab at a novel and was accepted into a weeklong workshop with a well-known author. My pages were filled with point-of-view problems and terrible dialogue, but he gently brought me through all the mistakes and ended the session by advising me to take heart. The craft stuff was easily fixed. But the best news was that the story premise was “golden.” That word meant everything, and those nascent horrible pages turned into my first published novel. Ah, pedagogues: to lead the child of any age!

RR: What’s next? Have you started a new book? Some other project?

MB: I don’t know what I’d do with my day if I wasn’t writing, so, yes, I’m well into my third novel. As of this morning, it involves a twenty-year-old woman of Northern Irish extraction, a financier from Belarus, a washed-up British rock star. And a plumber.

Bonus Links:
A Year in Reading: Richard Russo

Resisting the Easy Impulse: Te-Ping Chen in Conversation with Brenda Peynado

Short story writers Te-Ping Chen and Brenda Peynado recently met when speaking at an author event about their books debuting this year, Land of Big Numbers and The Rock Eaters. Although both collections are set in different locales — Chen’s stories mostly take place in China, Peynado’s in the U.S. — they each share a palette of magic, violence, and themes of transnational identity and class differences.

Chen’s collection was published in early February (Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt); her stories have appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Oprah Magazine, and Granta, among others. Peynado’s collection (Penguin Books) will be released in May with stories from the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award, the O. Henry Award, and the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy.

The following conversation took place at the start of the new year.

Te-Ping Chen: One thing that strikes me is how hard it is to write in a compelling way about the current American political moment. The Rock Eater’s first story addresses gun violence. Can you talk a little bit about why you wanted to address that topic through fiction, and what that process was like?

Brenda Peynado: When I write political fiction, it’s less often that I want to write about something on the scale of national politics, but more out of a sense of bafflement of the particulars, something that seems so contradictory, so bizarre to me, it’s bordering on the magical or science fictional. My most political stories often use various techniques of the unreal because that’s the way I can communicate my bafflement, the ordinary magic of our contradictions. People who chant rhythmically at humanoid birds to be spared the world’s violence but are determined to do nothing about it, an autocrat that disappears people’s body parts for his own benefit, flying prodigals, all of these are my attempts to represent how utterly baffling — wondrous, rage-inducing, worth weeping over — I find the world.

When I started that first story, it was very recently after Hurricane Maria, and that became entangled with the near constant school shooting news. When Maria moved away from Florida, my mother said her prayers had been answered, without acknowledging that it had hit Puerto Rico devastatingly, even though we have a ton of family in Puerto Rico. I kept wondering if she thought more people in Florida had prayed than had in Puerto Rico. Did she think my siblings and I survived school without being shot simply because she was at home praying for us and the victims of the Parkland school shootings had said eight novenas instead of her nine? When people hear about school shootings and natural disasters, they’re always saying things like they’re sending over their thoughts and prayers. But those are just easy absolutions from true action. And yet, I have to remember that most people have a wholehearted conviction that their actions come from love, will make the world a better place, and they may never realize if they’ve made things worse for the very ones they’re trying to love. Out of that contradiction came the image of a family performing oblations to these bird-angels and the plot of a salvation march led by an armed Instagram prayer group.

Speaking of political writing, I am so thrilled I got to read Land of Big Numbers. Your stories capture a political frustration with bureaucracy, the Chinese political system, globalization, yet they do so through such specific and vivid characters and they resist easy answers. “Lulu,” the first story in the collection, is such a poignant example of this. The main character chronicles his status quo life versus his dissident twin sister’s radicalization. I kept hoping the narrator would come to an understanding about his sister, and yet it was more haunting that he didn’t despite his love for her. It’s too tempting to think that had we been any of those characters, we would have been the dissident, throwing our lives after a cause we believed was just. But I think most of us are the brother. How did you negotiate between your own position as a writer who perhaps wanted these characters to realize an essential truth, and resisting that easy impulse?

TC: Throughout Land of Big Numbers, though there’s a lot of playful use of the surreal and magical realism in the collection, I wanted the stories to feel true to life, and because of that I think the story had to end the way it did — with the sister, who’d spoken out, being punished by the state, and her apolitical brother, by contrast, getting feted as a professional video gamer, simply because of the political realities on the ground in China. I could — and did! — endow fruit with supernatural properties, and I could make a group of Beijing commuters get stuck underground in a subway tunnel for months, but I did not feel like I could change the fundamental rules of how politics work in China, even in fiction.

Perhaps this is a reflex I have as a journalist, but as a fiction writer, too, I also find myself instinctively recoiling from a feeling of judgement, or the idea that characters should ideally evolve or act in a certain way. Would it have been better for the brother to end up sympathizing with what his sister had done? And if so, better for whom? It might make a reader feel better, I suppose, but it would likely make his own life harder. He’d spent so much time learning to compartmentalize his understanding of the world — a skill he and so many others around him rely on.

“Lulu” actually makes me think of one of the stories in your collection, “Yaiza,” which traces the relationship between two girls from different sides of the tracks, the intense competition they have on the tennis courts and the way their lives fork. That story, along with stories like “The Whitest Girl,” are very much engaged in questions of race and class. Can you share a little about how you’ve tried to approach those themes in your writing?

BP: Authenticity was a real struggle for me until I graduated my MFA, just figuring out how my many hybrid identities could all exist on the same page in ways that felt honest. Growing up Latina and writing stories about girlhood and womanhood meant grappling with those hybrid identities, dealing with being white-passing in a culture steeped in colorism and classism, engaging with religious and political convictions that rubbed against solidarity in my communities. When I was growing up, I wasn’t aware of the ways all of that was playing out. So growing into authenticity as a writer meant trying to accurately capture the way these characters were steeped in all of these conflicts without always being able to see their way out of them.They’re not yet listening to what the world is trying to tell them. How often, really, do we hear what the world is trying to tell us, without catastrophe forcing it? I wanted the reader to see, through these surreal or exaggerated conceits, what the main characters often cannot.

Speaking of hybrid identities, we both went back on Fulbright grants to live in the countries that our families emigrated. I’d love to hear about how you navigated that hybrid psychology of feeling like you’re both inside and outside the culture you’re writing about.

TC: I’d grown up in Oakland, Calif. as an American of ethnic Chinese descent, in a family whose traditions were more particular to southern China, and whose forebearers had largely left the country before the Communist takeover. From the first time I arrived in Beijing as a student in 2006, and later as a Fulbright fellow, many of my early experiences in the country were about learning all the ways it was different and in many ways unrecognizable from the time my grandparents had lived there. It was dislocating, but also really spurred me as a reporter and a writer to try and understand and learn as much about the country and how it worked as I possibly could.

And eventually, working as a reporter there, the fact that I was Chinese honestly felt nearly beside the point. It made it easier at times to blend in and do the work, but for me I mostly felt occupied with trying to capture this world around me, and wanting to share it.

I was also conscious of the ways my being foreign was useful in China — as one of my Chinese colleagues once observed, it meant that I was often curious and interested in details of life that locals might take more for granted, but to an outsider seemed so vital, surprising, and significant.

What about you? You mentioned feeling like you had many hybrid identities — what were they exactly, and how were they in conflict? And what you mentioned about how your MFA helped you deal with questions of authenticity is so fascinating! Could you share more?

BP: That’s great that being an outsider gave you that distance to find things striking. I had to go both directions. I had a similar experience of being dislocated from contemporary Dominican culture because of stories from my parents that in many ways were outdated. But I also spent so many summers there, being shocked and fascinated by the difference between my summer life and my school year life, often longing for one or the other. In order to write the stories in The Rock Eaters, I had to both forget whatever “insider knowledge” I thought I had, but also normalize what felt strange to me about both my American and Dominican experiences while calling attention to what I really wanted to investigate. That’s probably where a lot of the magical realism comes in, as a way of magnifying psychology or particular issues while normalizing other things that would have otherwise been surprising.

I don’t think I could have done this as a younger writer, which goes back to what you were asking about authenticity. As a younger writer, I was sucked into other people’s sense of what kinds of things I should write about, what should have been shocking based on previous media representations — what Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie calls “the danger of a single story”. I loved Junot Diaz’s stories, and he was a mentor of mine in my undergrad. I unsuccessfully spent much of my MFA years trying to pull myself away from his experience of being Dominican American. My suburban, Floridian, Catholic school experience was just so wildly different from the lives of his stories. In trying to understand my own experience, I forced my stories to represent that confusion. I wrote long, sprawling, very unfocused stories. But I had to flounder through all of that before I was able to handle my own perspective. It wasn’t until after my MFA that I was able to piece together that my stories weren’t about being Dominican American, they were about girlhood and love and death and grief and privilege. They were about Latinidad insofar as we can’t escape ourselves and the histories that surround us, and I had to thread that line between the individual and the history. I had to understand how to contain all of that bigness in a small space without making the stories themselves small.

Your stories pack a tremendous wallop in small spaces, taking on large time scales, whole towns, whole relationships, weighty topics — basically, whole novels. Can you talk about how you handle the bigness of your stories and compression? How do you make stories feel important enough to spend time with?

TC: I sometimes think about the Tralfamadorian sense of time (from Slaughterhouse Five), and the idea that the universe is just so vast, with all events happening simultaneously or having happened, and the lack of linearity of it all. In some ways when you’re faced with such a sense of bigness, you don’t have any choice but to narrow in on one moment, or one gesture or person or scene to try and find meaning and make sense of it. That was absolutely how I felt about China, and in writing these stories — trying to identify those moments and scenes for readers that could unfold a whole world.

And I also really loved getting to play with different styles and genres in one book, almost like making a mixtape. When writing about a country as sprawling and diverse as China, it made sense to me to write a collection of shorter pieces, and also was really fun.

What about you? How did you arrive at short stories? What was the genesis for The Rock Eaters, and why short stories?

BP: I love reading short stories, the swiftness with which they wallop you with a whole life, a swift punch. I also love the way that surreality and exaggeration can work in short stories in ways that they don’t often in novels. The wilder the conceit, the harder it is to sustain, like it’s rocket fuel. Surreal novels tend to be on the shorter side too, like Laurie Foos’ Ex Utero, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo, and Jeannette Winterson’s The Passion. Even longer magical realist novels function, in some ways, like connected short stories, or have such long time scales because they’re running through so many generations of myths and stories, like One Hundred Years of Solitude or The House of the Spirits. So, because I love exaggeration, wonder, and the absurd, I often write explosions rather than slow burns, and each of the stories in The Rock Eaters started with an image so vibrant to me that only a wild ride would honor them — ghosts, angels falling from the sky, alien arrivals, virtual reality pregnancies, a tennis rivalry between two girls, the greatest recluse in Santo Domingo. Right now I’m writing a novel about a girl who can see all possible futures in the 1965 Dominican civil war and American invasion, and each of those futures allows me to write like I’m handling rocket fuel, with conceits like a housewife who can bring people back to life, the strongest man in the world, and a marine who can trade places with his shadow. But my first love will always be short stories. And especially during Covid quarantine, I have more attention span for quick bursts of reading than long hours, something to break up each day.

Your stories have so many electric pops of image that feel like rocket fuel. I will never forget the house on stilts in the middle of a landfill sending a bucket down for food in “Field Notes on a Marriage”. I want to ask you about what that image represented, a gulf that seems inexorable between even people who love each other in many of your stories. Do you feel like literature can bring people closer together—whether characters or readers—or only illuminate a gulf?

TC: It’s one of the most striking images you’ll see in China—so-called dingzihu, homes where people have refused to move, even when a developer has come in and torn up everything around them, and there’s road being poured on either side of their house and rubble everywhere but they still won’t go. They’re cinematic scenes of resistance and love and stubbornness and attachment, which is so much of what Land of Big Numbers is dealing with, those human passions taking place against a much grander backdrop of power and control and plans with a capital P.

I do think literature can change how we relate to each other, enlarging our sense of the world and identity, almost in the way that travel can, the ability to sit in a busy plaza in a city in another country and look around and be reminded, all these people, all these stories, a million lives happening at any given time, always. Or just the chance to engage with a mind that’s not yours, characters who aren’t your family or coworkers, who speak in their own tongues and have their own histories and experiences. That ability to pick up a book and get lost in its pages is something I’ve been especially grateful for of late, in a time when so many of us are feeling so relentlessly stuck in place. If we can find refuge in each other’s stories, I think we can be reminded of our commonalities, yes — but also, importantly, be struck by our differences. To me that’s part of a book’s promise, too, that it will remind us that our perspective is not the only one that exists (and what a relief that is).

Complicating Consent: The Millions Interviews Katherine Angel

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When I read Katherine Angel’s first book, Unmastered, I badly craved the experience she described: A feminist enamored with a dominant man, analyzing the power dynamic and its eroticism from multiple angles. I was astounded by Angel’s brain and how clearly she articulated nuances of desire I understood so acutely, but hadn’t yet experienced outside my own fantasies. Years later, I find myself on the other end of a similarly gendered relationship, having also written a book about the experience
So clearly, Angel’s work has had a big influence on me. And that impact continues with her new and very important book, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again (Mar., Verso). This nonfiction tour-de-force is a must-read for anyone interested in exploring themes of consent, power, sex, and the Me Too movement.. This is the kind of book that seeks not to create dichotomous binaries, but to complicate the narrative.
Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again certainly merits further conversation, and I was lucky to be able to have one with the author herself. 

The Millions: Why do you think the current discourse around consent is shortchanging many of us, perhaps especially women? 
Katherine Angel: Well, first of all, let me just say I’m a supporter of consent education. It’s obviously completely crucial that consent is respected and is taught as part of education starting from a young age. But I feel very disturbed by the way in which in some of that consent rhetoric, the onus is placed yet again on women to embody a certain kind of behavior, and a certain kind of personality —somebody who’s explored their sexuality and found out what they want, and is able then to communicate that without fail to sexual partners. But it can be very difficult to speak confidently and clearly about your sexual desire. Expression of sexual desire gets used against women, especially women of color, in courts of law. 
The implication of some of the consent rhetoric is that we can only be safe from violence if we know what we want. And the truth is, we don’t always know what we want — not least because a misogynistic culture makes that difficult. Self-knowledge is something we like to insist we have in our culture. But the fact is, we don’t. And my worry is that in insisting on it, we make women’s safety a condition of their own states. And I think that’s a sort of a strategy for risk management — but I think we should name it for what it is. It’s risk management. It’s not sexual violence prevention. 
TM: The way we’re thinking about consent mostly in these very legalistic terms of, “You either gave it or you didn’t” also reinforces, I think you’re saying, this very contractual idea of sex. That it’s a scarce resource women are withholding, and men are asking for, right? 
KA: Yeah, exactly. And I mean, contractual sexual relationships can be very important. For sex workers or for BDSM sex— there are all kinds of contexts in which the idea of a contract is actually what protects people. However, my worry is with the way in which a legal concept has come to sort of stand-in for what I think is a much wider kind of ethical conversation about not just sexual interactions between people, but interactions in general, where we have to contend with power dynamics. We have to contend with the “otherness” of the other person who might want something different from us and we have to negotiate our own desire in relation to another person’s desire. 
There is sex that is bad and not strictly assault, but that’s not a reason to handwave that away, as I think some critics do. On the contrary, it’s a reason to say, “Okay. What is it that makes sex bad? Why do so many, women especially, experience depressing, painful sex? And why is that something that the culture seems so resigned to? So, I want to acknowledge the importance of the legal conversations, but to say that conversation must not take the place of something much wider and deeper in terms of our cultural preoccupations. 
TM: As you say, any sexual relationship is really about power. And any power relationship is really about sex. 
KA: Right. There’s no sexual relationship in which individuals aren’t dealing in the excitement of feeling one’s own power, and the power of the other — feeling one’s self vulnerable. And that is also true for men. I think a lot of the harm that’s done in the world is done through men’s denial of their vulnerability — and also women’s collusion with that denial. I mean, women can hurt men during sex too, if we want to. Genitals are very hypersensitive parts of their bodies, and it’s also very easy to hurt men psychologically and emotionally. Men undeniably commit the majority of violence. But we all sometimes collude in this kind of denial of men’s own vulnerability. And I think that denial is often at the heart of men’s own sadistic feelings towards women. 
My utopian ideal is if we could live in a society where everybody could feel their vulnerability and try to ride it with excitement. That we wouldn’t have to harden ourselves against that vulnerability, whether in the form of very inflexible notions of our own desires or very inflexible contracts, or in the form of insisting, as in the consent rhetoric, that we know exactly what we want. Because not always knowing is part of the pleasure of life and sex, and unfortunately, it’s also what makes it very risky. 
TM: I love your utopian vision. Of course, I can see the critique that is a privileged one, right? 
KA: Yes. It’s obviously really important to acknowledge that very, very few people have the luck and the privilege to be able to kind of experience that vulnerability, even fleetingly. Because the reality is that women, especially women of color, are disproportionately subject to sexual violence. Men worldwide are punished for not being masculine enough, and that’s not even to mention the violence and discrimination trans people face. 
So, all those things are in the mix, such that for most people, touching that vulnerability is just not an option. But I suppose the thrust of my book is that I really want us not to give up on that hope anyway, and I want our feminist rhetoric not to collude with resignation. And that’s why writing about this kind of stuff is really frightening, because you’re unleashing something very subtle into a really unsteady terrain, where there’s a lot of trauma.
TM: And there’s sort of this pressure when you experience bad sex or sex you’re not sure is assault, to then categorize it. But that pressure is furthering a certain kind of patriarchal, either/or mentality of, “things can’t be subtle and fluid, and you have to decide who’s bad and who’s good.” It’s interesting that the danger I feel in writing down my own story is coming at me from both sides. I’m afraid of the trolls and the misogynists, and I’m also afraid of the Twitter court of public opinion and upsetting those who feel I’m somehow betraying the cause by expressing my ambivalence about whether I was assaulted or abused or consented. 
KA: Yes. And, I mean, on the one hand, consent is the bare minimum for good sex. But it doesn’t guarantee good sex. Consent is just consent. It’s dangerous to inflate it into enthusiasm and ecstasy. These things are different. Agreement to sex is just agreement to sex. So, that’s the kind of the legal side of it. But beyond that, we should really be listening to what makes so much bad sex possible. And that these very constrained horizons for women about how much pleasure they can expect, how much joy they are entitled to? How much sexual exploration they’re invited to play with. 
The world really caters to male heterosexual desire. It doesn’t cater to women’s sexuality. When it addresses women’s sexuality, it tends to do so in ways that kind of re-inscribe this sense of punishment and guilt and responsibility. And the flipside of that is that male desire is represented overwhelmingly in terms of kind of conquest, and sort of joyless satisfaction. And that’s also why sex is often bad for the women who sleep with them, because I don’t think men are well-served by that. I don’t think men are encouraged to explore the unknown in themselves and the vast kind of breadth of sensations they might be capable of. And that kind of narrowness leads to unpleasant sex for women, because it’s so often so focused on such narrow kind of physical parameters. 
So, I really think it’s about on the one hand, like, really taking seriously that very basic kind of consent education. But on the other hand, really trying to think imaginatively about what ideas we might try to loosen and what kind of unknown sort of experiments and pleasures we might allow ourselves if we weren’t so intent on closing sex down.

Sometimes There Are No Good Choices: The Millions Interviews Robbie Arnott

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A heron made of storm. A squid culled for its ink. A society broken by coup and disintegration. Floods, droughts, hiding in caves, and offering blood to the seas. Robbie Arnott includes it all in his sophomore novel The Rain Heron, a beautifully poetic, hypnotic, barreling ride through symbiotic characters and landscapes, churning its nimble feet with environmental and existential angst. It is as delightfully brutal as it is captivating.

Born in and still residing in Tasmania, Arnott’s debut novel Flames was released to critical acclaim in 2018. The novel was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award, the Queensland Literary Award, the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, and the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize. Arnott was also a 2019 Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist and won the 2019 Margaret Scott Prize in the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prizes.

The Rain Heron is sure to garner just as much attention. It is as pitch-perfect a second novel as could have been anticipated. Bringing darkness with light, chaos tinged with resolution, and a magic and myth-encrusted world that sings and stings, Arnott displays stunning talent on every page. Connected halfway across the world, Arnott and I spoke about the influence of environment, literary inspirations, external versus internal pursuits, and the complicated notion of symbiosis between nature and society.   

The Millions: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me about this brilliant novel. The Rain Heron is a stunning blend of mythologies, grim society, and fatefully interconnected lives, and I’m curious to know, what was the origin of the book? Was it a particular line, an image, an idea?

Robbie Arnott: The writing of the book began with the first section, which details the legend of the rain heron. I was trying to invent my own myth, of a creature that was emblematic of both the beauty and savagery of nature. I tried a few different things until I realized I was trying to describe a storm, and the way a storm can be as captivating as it can be deadly. Once I figured that out, I turned a storm into the only creature that I believed could embody its grace and power: a great, wondrous bird.

TM: Landscape plays one of the largest roles in the story, particularly through weather and environmental changes, which makes me wonder how much you gravitate to the outdoors? How much does the environment around you inform your daily life, or your writing process?

RA: I’m fortunate enough to live in a beautiful, somewhat remote part of the world, where stunning landscapes and environments are all very close, so I spend a lot of time outdoors. If I’m stuck for something to write about, I start describing a landscape I’ve visited recently—a forest, a stretch of coastline, an ocean, a mountainside—and then see if a story or plot line curls off it. It’s not necessarily intentional; I’m just easily influenced by the world around me.

TM: The landscape in the novel is rendered geographically anonymous though—generalized in title as mountains, forests, rivers, seas. Is this to make the plight more universal, to drive the story forward as a more collective mythology?

RA: Absolutely—I wanted it to feel universal, and unanchored to any places in the real world. If I placed the story in my homeland of Tasmania, for example, the setting would bring along all the things that readers already associate with the island. The book would be imbued with an inherent Tasmanianness, and I wanted to avoid that. Instead, I wanted it to feel clean and new, as well as being recognizable, although not as anywhere specific.

TM: In terms of literary influences, I’d love to know what writers and artists inform and inspire your work?

RA: I’m heavily and unashamedly influenced by the descriptive prose of Annie Proulx. I think she’s a wizard. My work is also heavily in debt to Richard Flanagan, Jeanette Winterson, and Susanna Clarke, as well as many other writers. I love the clean and revelatory prose of Kazuo Ishiguro. When writing about landscapes and nature, I think I’m probably inspired by non-fiction writers as well—people like J. A. Baker and Helen Macdonald.

TM: The Rain Heron is built on minimal dialogue. Is that a style particular to this novel, or an aesthetic you cultivate across your writing?

RA: It’s probably both. I generally don’t use a lot of dialogue, probably because I’m naturally drawn more to description than conversation. For this book, I wanted to portray the characters almost entirely through their actions and reactions rather than what they said or felt. It felt right to do it that way—to flesh them out through their behavior.

TM: Does the sparse dialogue tell us something about the novel’s take on internal pursuits versus external influences?

RA: I hope so. I hope it draws out a sense of tension and conflict between motivations that can technically be justifiable, and things we inherently know to be wrong. Sometimes there are no good choices.

TM: Ren, our anchor point character throughout much of the novel, only relinquishes her solitude when the landscape around her is endangered. Is this a commentary on valuing the world itself above the individual?

RA: Yeah, I guess so, although I don’t know if I conceived of it that sharply. Human destruction of the environment is unavoidable in real life, so I thought it should be unavoidable in the book. Yet we still like forests, mountains, and rivers. I wanted Ren to experience a tension between her love for nature and her unwillingness to interact with other people. If that plays out as a commentary on valuing the natural world, then I guess I’ve done part of my job.

TM: That begs the question then: What is the other part of your job?

RA: To entertain, I think. And hopefully to enrich. I love books that both drag me in and mess about with how I see the world. If I wrote anything like that, I’d be over the moon.

TM: Throughout the book, there’s a focus on nature versus humanity, specifically society’s desire, and yet inability, to fully control or dominate nature. Do you think we’ll ever truly see a genuinely understood symbiosis between society and nature on a global scale?

RA: Many communities and groups of people have done it before, for long periods of time. It’s not hard to cast around and find examples of civilizations that existed harmoniously with their environments for hundreds of years, sometimes thousands. I don’t know if it will happen again—at the moment, it seems unlikely. But it has been done before. It’s tempting to hope lessons can still be learnt from the past.

TM: At one point Ren also says that she wishes she’d been “less cold” to other people. Beyond the influence of the environment, how much do our relationships build who we are, affect who we become?

RA: We’re just a sum of our experiences and relationships, really. And we don’t often get a say in how they affect or shape us. It’s out of our hands. I’m not a total believer in determinism, but I do think we are largely molded by forces outside of ourselves, rather than through internal machinations of the mind.

TM: Through some slick and smart perspective shifts in the novel, the notion of antagonist and protagonist is muddied. Do you see that typical dichotomy as outdated or flawed?

RA: Not necessarily—there are lots of books with typical antagonists and protagonists that I love. But I didn’t want to write a book like that. I’m interested in the messiness of people, the hesitations, the self-justifications, the swirl of kindness and selfishness. I wanted to create characters who embodied those things. I don’t think standard protagonists and antagonists need to be done away with, but I do think there’s room to write stories about people who are neither wonderful or evil, and whose singular actions don’t necessarily define who they are.

TM: Have virtual events been any sort of silver lining to releasing a book during a worldwide pandemic?

RA: I’ve met some incredible writers I wouldn’t have otherwise, and have been able to talk about my book to people who never would have been able to make a traditional bookshop or festival event. So that’s definitely been a surprising benefit. Everyone has adapted so quickly.

TM: From your first novel to this second one, what has changed in your approach, style, or intent as a writer?

RA: I still feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, but if my writing has changed, it’s probably because I can figure out what’s not working more quickly. I think my instincts have sharpened through experience. I’ve done away with a few styles I played with in my first book and focused more on what I believe are my strengths. Although my writing process is still a giant mess. It’s chaos. I don’t know any other way.

TM: Can you tell us about some remarkable Australian authors you think might be deserving of more international recognition?

RA: Oh hell yeah. I love the work of Ryan O’Neill, and can’t wait for his next book. Jane Rawson is phenomenal, too—From The Wreck is a work of tremendous skill and imagination. And I desperately hope the world doesn’t sleep on Laura Jean McKay and her remarkable novel The Animals In That Country. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years.

Celebrating What Defines Us: The Millions Interviews Joshua Bennett

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2020 was a big year for Joshua Bennett with his first nonfiction book, Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and The End of Man, out in the spring and last fall, his second collection of poetry, Owed, was published by Penguin. Originally a spoken word poet, Bennett has taken to the page in a remarkable way. His first book, The Sobbing School, was a National Poetry Series selection; his new book is a work of poetry and a work of cultural criticism and personal reflection, which seeks to reclaim what his childhood meant, and celebrate his true influences. Currently the Mellon Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College, Bennett and I spoke in October about our shared experiences; of being a scholarship student at private school; rejecting the narratives others wanted to craft for us; coming to rethink our childhoods and parents as adults; and teaching during a pandemic.

The Millions:  Joshua, I know you came up doing spoken word and poetry slams. What was your introduction to poetry?

Joshua Bennett:  My introduction to poetry was strange and multifarious: Sunday mornings indelibly marked by the rhetorical brilliance of Black Baptist and Pentecostal preachers; my sister taping Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” to the front of her bedroom door; the sounds of Motown each weekend as I did my chores begrudgingly. I grew up understanding poetry as an occasion for celebration and gathering. That has always anchored the way I encounter the page. I’m a self-taught poet. My approach to poems is rooted in love and continuous study. I had to read a bunch of books to figure out what I was doing and how to make it sing on the page the way I had always heard it sung aloud.

TM:  There’s always this tension between spoken word and written word and how to capture it on the page. A handful of people—Patricia Smith comes to mind—have been able to do both well, but it’s not easy.

JB:  Spoken word was a way for me to make friends. There was something about the incredible privacy of writing my first book that instructed me in other approaches to putting language together. I had to sit by myself with my fears and my shame—my joy and my dreams, too—to remain in that quiet and try to create something beautiful that no one would ever see or hear until I put them in a meaningful sequence. The part of my mind that composes for the stage, in that sense and others, feels like it’s working in a different mode than the part that composes work that is meant to be read.

TM:  People our age grew up surrounded by hip hop and that influenced so much about the way we thought about rhythm and lyricism.

JB:  I hope that’s right. Certain kinds of secular music were banned in my household, so my introduction to hip hop was my sister having Common’s Like Water for Chocolate as a kind of contraband item I could listen to when I got home from school. My friend Vincent would use Limewire to make mixtape CD’s that he sold for five dollars. I was one of his most consistent customers. That was my introduction to Biggie, Big L, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, and any number of other MC’s I would come to love over the course of my teenage life. The Diplomats eventually became another one of those early inspirations. Not only the rhythm and tone of the work, but more this particular approach to thinking about the relationship between violence and value. The music struck me as strange, insightful, astonishing. On-wax, the personae they invented and perfected were adventurers, outlaws. These were men essentially narrating their lives at the edge of life, without the protections of civil society. I didn’t grow up with money, but I grew up protected in a certain way. My father integrated his high school in Alabama. My mother grew up in a tenement in the South Bronx. They had a relationship to danger that was quite different from my own. In part because they did so much to try to shield me from it. That wasn’t always possible. But I developed a relationship to music that became a way to tell not just my own story in some pure, autobiographical sense, but rather as a way for me to imagine myself as a character in an elaborate origin myth that I could expand whenever I turned to the page.

TM:  I don’t think this is so much true anymore but, for a long time, you wouldn’t hear much hip hop on TV or in commercials, and a lot of parents wouldn’t let you play it. Hip hop was both a public and a private art form in a way, and I feel like I can see you straddling that.

JB:  I will say this. I don’t put anything on the page that I don’t think sounds beautiful when it is read aloud. But I do think there is a distinction between exceptionally good spoken word poems and poems that sing on the page. Some of that is about pacing or diction, and a great deal of it, of course, is one’s capacities and talents as a performer. Poetry slam is its own art form. We can discuss the ways that these genres and approaches overlap, while still honoring the fact some people are undeniably gifted when they step in front of a microphone, and that their mastery in that realm deserves its own kind of attention and recognition.

TM:  As far as your new book and the double meaning of the title “Owed” and “Ode”. The cover is a picture of you and your father and I kept thinking about what we owe our parents and the frame that they provide for our lives in so many ways, which is one of the threads running through the book.

JB:  That’s a beautiful reading. It’s also, I think, a way to approach the entire collection. What do we owe the people who made us possible? The book begins with my literary ancestors—Gwendolyn Brooks and James Baldwin and Herman Melville—three of my favorite writers and the ones that really taught me how to think about the social, political, and psychic roles of literature. The cover is a photograph that my mother took in 1992. It’s an image of my father holding me. His strength, his grace and vulnerability, are what laid the groundwork for me to pursue my life as a writer. He worked in the post office for 40 years and before that fought in the Vietnam War and before that was a little boy in Alabama eating red river clay and trying to dream his way out of his social situation in the segregated South. The reason he enlisted as a teenager was that my uncle wanted to fight in the war, and the recruiter told him that they wouldn’t take two sons from the same family. And so he tried to lay down his life for his little brother. He did the same for us every day. He worked a job he did not enjoy very much so that I could go to fancy schools and read books he had never heard of. In this way, he offered me a model for what it meant to be a man, a human being, a moral actor, that was immensely instructive.

TM:  An ode is celebratory and I don’t want to say everything in the book is a celebration of your parents and growing up, but looking back you find joy and strength and celebrate that.

JB:  Joy is the through line. And it always requires work. Or at least, in the contexts in which I first earned to talk and think about joy, this was the case. Pain or terror persists in the night, but joy comes in the morning. You have to go through a gauntlet to get to joy. It’s not easily gotten or reached—or sustained. So alongside celebrating my family and my neighborhood I wanted to celebrate spaces like the barber shop, the 99-cent store. I wanted to take my time and meditate on what made these places, people, and things wonderful and worthy of praise.

TM:  They definitely resonated with me and some of my memories of childhood and finding a way to look back and reconsider what that means as an adult.

JB:  Could you say a little more about why and in what ways?

TM:  My parents were the first to go to college and I was a scholarship student in private schools, and reading your books I could feel and relate to what it felt to be in those spaces and not fitting in. The ways that as an adult you recenter what you value and what it meant.

JB:  I hear that. And what I eventually learned, at the level of craft, was how to more insistently, consistently, praise the forms of social life that made the sorts of educational spaces you’re describing here livable for me.

TM:  The Sobbing School opened with a poem about Henry Box Brown, which was a poem about the fear about being defined by trauma, and Owed is very much a refusal to think that and celebrating what helped define you.

JB:  I don’t think I knew how sad I was supposed to be until I spent real time in the sorts of places we were just talking about. Does that make sense?

TM:  It does. We knew we didn’t have money, but so many people there defined us as lacking not just money, but so much more than that.

JB:  It wasn’t until I got a scholarship to attend an elite private high school, and spent my mornings and afternoons with the other scholarship kids—and this was quite a diverse group, it bears mentioning—all taking various buses and trains to get to Rye, NY that I realized I was supposed to understand my life as a tragic story. Arriving at this place was meant to represent a narrative shift. This was the moment where everything would change for the better if I made it through. A number of the poems in The Sobbing School reflect my attempt to work through some of that, how forms of this logic persisted through my educational experiences as an adult.

In Owed, I’m elaborating upon the grounding assumptions that structured my first collection, and its opening poem in particular, which is centrally concerned with the historical figure Henry Box Brown, as well as the larger relationship between trauma and performance. I discovered, writing the second book, another set of organizing questions. Who is to say that the places which formed me were ones defined, primarily, by lack and deprivation? What if my aesthetic sense as a seven-year-old of what was valuable, what was beautiful, was much more worthy of exploration? I wanted to honor that perspective. I wanted to honor the vantage of the living, irreducibly complex human beings from my neighborhood who supported that first book and posted my poems on Instagram and sent me notes about what it meant to see the places we grew up represented in a book. I had to work through, differentially, a certain angst about not being or belonging to the old neighborhood anymore in the same way. In this second book, I wanted to kick things into another gear, and assert a set of principles about what beauty is, what poems can accomplish.

TM:  As you were learning to write poetry and thinking about what writing for the page meant, who did you read and who were you looking to?

JB:  You already mentioned one of them: Patricia Smith. And especially her collection, Teahouse of the Almighty. I carried it with me everywhere. I’ve been on tour since I was twenty years old. I started performing at colleges and universities, high schools and middle schools, when I was quite young, so this reading practice while on the train, or plane, or in the back seat of a cab, was the training ground for me to become a poet whose work could live a full life on the page. Smith was one of those people who helped me to make that leap. Lucille Clifton was another. William Matthews. Amiri Baraka. Gwendolyn Brooks. W.S. Merwin was central. Especially because at this time I was thinking so much more about nature poetry for my larger, critical theory project. This interest brought me to people like Merwin and A.R. Ammons, who was also influential. You’ll see that more in the new book project I’m working on. Those are the first people I was reading. I was also engaging more consistently with authors I first met through the national spoken word scene. People like Sonia Sanchez, who I met at a poetry slam when I was nineteen years old. Thinking about her work in the context of the Black Arts Movement was helpful to me. June Jordan. B.H. Fairchild. Robert Hayden. This constellation of writers became my base, my foundation.

TM:  Was Terrance Hayes a big influence on you? I’m thinking especially of the influence of American Sonnets For My Past and Future Assassin on Owed.

JB:  For sure. I actually just taught his American sonnets alongside Wanda Coleman’s and my students loved it. I’m teaching a literature course with about fifty of them on Zoom right now, and the experience has been absolutely surreal. I met Terrance at the Hurston/Wright Foundation summer workshop that he led maybe five or so years ago. His work was formative for me, especially Wind in a Box. After discovering that book, I read his collections out of sequential order—Hip Logic then Lighthead then Muscular Music—before reading the most recent two in rapid, chronological succession. As a poet just starting out, I was blown away. I didn’t know you could do those sorts of things with poems.

TM:  You mentioned teaching and you’re at Dartmouth and I’m curious how you’ve had to reteach thinking—sorry, rethink teaching. [laughs]

JB:  “Reteach thinking” is interesting! I want to linger with that slip for a bit, because it resonates. I have always been interested in discovering—in part through my ongoing practice as a reader and teacher—more about what thinking is or can be, how that process is honed, sharpened, beautifully complicated by collective study. There is always some of that involved during a new class. What I’ve discovered anew teaching this course is how much of the classroom teaching business simply does not work without tremendous buy-in from students. This has, of course, always been the case. And perhaps if you’re especially charismatic and can get up and be James Brown for two hours no matter who is in the audience, it doesn’t matter if students are all that interested or vocal. But for me, looking at fifty students on Zoom panels is only a productive pedagogical exercise because they do the reading, and we can have a collaborative, productive discussion where people have interesting things to say about what the work makes them feel, what it helps them to imagine. It’s clear that we’re all going through it. I have gotten any number of emails from students dealing with heightened levels of stress and anxiety. Folks whose economic situation has changed during the pandemic. And in some of these messages, they’re apologizing because they feel like they can’t participate in the class in the same way. I always want to reassure them, in the spirit of Lucille Clifton, who taught me this lesson: Your work is not your life. This class is not your life. Your life is your life.

Put another way, I have had to re-think what exactly is that we’re doing here, and why. The class is called “Modern Black American Literature: Education, Abolition, Exodus!.” In this first section, we are discussing the ways that 20th and 21st century Black writers render schooling in their works, how for so many of them—and here we’re talking about Zora Neale Hurston, David Bradley, and W.E.B. Du Bois among others—unforgettable moments of racial antagonism and alienation occur in the classroom. In Du Bois’s “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” for example, the theory of double consciousness, as he narrates it, has its roots in a moment of racist encounter with a classmate. That’s when he sees the Veil descend. Teaching this material in our current context has been instructive. So many of my students, since I have come to Dartmouth, tell me that they are taking classes in Black literary studies because they want to learn how to be more thoughtful, decent people. That’s a tall order for literature. But it’s brought me back to a series of first questions. What is the philosophical content of African American literature, of Black poetry, as such? What does it make and demand of us? How might we think together about a way to save our souls and be good to one another? How do books, songs, poems, help us get part of the way there?

TM:  It is a tall order. And it sounds like you’ve managed to find a routine this year in the midst of everything.

JB:  My wife and I are expecting our son to arrive any day now. Before that, we moved from our old place. Finding a routine has been difficult, but it’s also been absolutely necessary. I had to finish these books. In part because I’m under contract, but also because I’m not going to have a lot of time to work on any of this stuff soon. That knowledge changed my relationship to writing. I had to wake up, feed our dog, Apollo, go for a run with him, and put in my hours with the poems and prose every single day. In that window, I wrote a new monograph, which you will all hopefully see soon, and put the final touches on Being Property Once Myself and Owed. It’s been a wonderful journey. I look forward to what the future holds.

How We Endure: The Millions Interviews M.I. Devine

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“Julia Zavacky comes down to us today as an eccentric accomplice to an eccentric artist well supplied with accomplices—a factory of them,” M.I. Devine writes, describing the mother of Andy Warhol. “But what if, instead, Julia, you signify—your journey, endurance, sacrifice—a human depth upon the surfaces of things, even the surfaces of a son.”

Warhol’s Mother’s Pantry is an inventive, playful, and rangy consideration of that human depth upon the surfaces of things—an examination of what it means to put “the mom back in pop.” It’s the type of generative book that left me with a personal syllabus of poetry and film—Devine has a way of magnetizing himself to past and present, bounding across references and texts.

M.I. Devine is, along with Ru Devine, the pop music project Famous Letter Writer. Their debut album Warhola was released on Big Deep Records, and was recently featured on NPR. Devine earned his PhD in English from UCLA. He has won the Gournay Prize for Creative Nonfiction, was a finalist for the American Studies Zuckerman Prize from the University of Pennsylvania, and has received support for his work from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is an associate professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh.

We spoke about the definition of pop, the merits of playful literary and artistic criticism, and how Warhol still haunts us.

The Millions: The first section of Warhol’s Mother’s Pantry begins with a photo of Andy Warhol and his mother, Julia. The arrangement of the photo places Julia at the forefront—which is true of the book as a whole. I feel like Warhol “haunts” this book more than he is physically or literally present in the text. What is the spirit of Warhol himself in the book?

M.I. Devine: Well, there’s maybe a double haunting, because for me Andy is Warhola, the immigrant’s son.

So, let’s start with Julia Warhola, his mother. Her infant daughter dies in her arms while her husband is in America. (I’ve called this elsewhere the Pietà of Slovakia). She came here alone when the border was closing in 1921. Year of pandemic, persecution: sounds familiar, right? Everything is haunted: now by then, 2020 by 1921, Andy by his mother, a name by its erasure. Call it a haunting, or call it the deep continuity between all things. I call it pop. Why not?  

That’s how the book starts, with a kind of prose poem about this nobody woman crossing the water, this folk artist. She’s my “reusable muse.” She cut soup cans into flowers, and taught Andy how to use scissors, how to remake, recrop, repurpose. 

To your question, then: Andy as a spirit of reproduction—in every sense of that word (as child, of course, but also as force, as strategy) is what haunts the book. To reproduce is to repeat, and pop is always a bid against death, against our own ends. It says we’re not just these woods we wander in, to quote Richard Wilbur (wildly out of context—which is a very pop thing to do!). It’s a portrait of Marilyn the day after her death. A soup can that’s maybe your mother, for sure. And it’s Kendrick Lamar singing “Promise that you’ll sing about me,” it’s Leonard Cohen’s Casio “Hallelujah.” It’s a way to live. Our equipment for living. How we endure. 

I see Andy, in other words, as endlessly affirming. Our desire to cut through. To make new. Tyehimba Jess tells you to use scissors on his poems in Olio and I see Andy there. I see him in the long takes of Cuarón’s Roma, a mother and her stillborn child.

You might say that we know so much more than Andy. Maybe so. But of course he is that which we know. 

TM: Your references to film and music are encyclopedic in this book—and both well-crafted and entertaining. How would you define “pop,” and where does poetry belong within or related to that definition?

MD: Pop means saying something deep in a stupid way.

To say something stupid in a deep way, of course, is to be an academic. (Okay, okay, maybe that’s just from a meme I just shared. Ha! If it’s not it should be.)

But I think there’s something there. Stupid is flow. Stupid is your body. It’s your stupid limits and our stupid forms and the stupid fact that we all die. Andy suffered seizures as a kid and he knew all about the body. We’re not free. So much we can’t control. Right? Right. Pop is most pop, most stupid when it leans into that, let’s say, and a little bit of light shines through, and then we feel at home. We sing along. Pop is deeper than you suspect and probably more superficial than you can take. It’s the skin and the soul. It’s Stevie Smith’s poetry. It’s waving and drowning, the body and the sign; it’s a dead man explaining it all at the end, which is an absolutely stupid and wonderful thing.

Pop is MF Doom, a rapper who wears a kind of superhero mask. It’s repeating the title of his song “Sofa King” three times fast. (Try it.) And pop is especially the opposite of pop, obviously. Doom has a line that goes, “All fake rappers, 23 skidoo.” As far as I can tell, it’s a reference to, among other things, a very early Edison film called “What happened on 23rd Street”—a stupid little bit of cinema in which a woman stands on a subway vent and, voila, you know the rest, Marilyn Monroe. “23 skidoo” means beat it, stop watching, scram. And it means Keep Moving! Which is what all pop says, right? How did that expression reach Doom? Who cares? This is pop’s archivist poetics, the thrill, remixing, flowing, telling us what’s real and, you know, what’s not—who’s just the fake rapper. 

Perhaps this sounds stupid. If so, I’ve answered your question.

TM: You write about one of the poet Philip Larkin’s selfies: “He’s thin here, alone, taking a picture of a mirror, which of course is what we all did before our phones grew smarter.” Later: “Can a form be selfish? And what’s that even mean? What are forms but rooms you put yourself in, self-portraits that keep things out, let things in?” How would you describe the “form” of this book? 

MD: Oh, God, talk about stupid, using Philip Larkin in a book about American art! What was I thinking? And of course it gets worse: while traveling in Genoa, I took a selfie with a bomb that is unexploded in this absolutely stunning cathedral. It just sits there like a statue. And a few things occurred to me: 1) The British fired it there about three months after Coventry, Larkin’s hometown, was absolutely razed in WWII. And 2) The rather Gothic bomb was shaped almost identically like the cathedral. Okay, I’m getting to the point: Later that night, I watched a Pearl Jam cover band (quite good) and took notes on all of this—Italian Eddie Vedder singing “Young girl, violence,” Larkin’s city erased, the bomb unexploded in a church. Now what part do I leave out? What part do I keep in? I began by writing about how forms repeat and endure, and somehow I ended up here! With Eddie Vedder telling me that things change by not changing at all!

The point is: this is all very Andy, who’d be a great writing teacher. He said, “When you do something exactly wrong, you always turn up something.” So, I guess I’ve tried to be a bit stupid, which is maybe what literary criticism needs.  Writing is taking a selfie and it’s knowing you can’t help but let in the chaos, the clutter, the noise. When I finished writing my book I read Amitava Kumar’s Every Day I Write the Book. It’s advice for academics, but it’s really just great about writing as every day practice—as pop, and open, and conflicted, and stupid, even, and, look!, there’s Elvis Costello! Writing is life. 

So order and chaos, pattern and chance, I wanted all of it in the pantry, footnotes that aren’t footnotes at all, distractions, startling juxtapositions. It’s all part of the journey, starting with Julia’s journey—for the reader. Into America, into the violence and beauty. Into great writers and artists I love. Into my writing.

TM: “I am not Jesus,” you write. “I can’t speak plainly. I’ve wept and fasted. Write and wait. Give you what I cross out.” There’s a great rhythm and layers to these lines, which I see reflected in the way you write of John Donne: “Donne doesn’t explicitly say whether God exists outside of language. Perhaps because Donne so loves the wor(l)d that he just doesn’t care. Like Hopkins, he reads in the Book of Creatures the unmistakable authorship of God. But undone, always undone is Donne. He has to complicate things. God is a strange king. And so hard to know.” Maybe it is because I have been reading a lot of that pun-admirer Marshall McLuhan, but it feels like punning and play are a big part of your prose. Is Warhol adjacent or present in that linguistic and intellectual play, for you? How about his mother?

MD: Well, to quote Kumar quoting Geoff Dyer quoting Albert Camus: “After all, the best way of talking about what you love is to speak of it lightly.”

Look, there’s a deep humorlessness that stains our understanding of art and creation. It took, what, about half a century for art critics to actually even read the words Picasso and Braque were cutting up in their paintings. Cubism’s a cut up! Oh, now I get it! Visual puns, verbal puns: to get it means you use more than your mind; you use your body; you let art touch your body; you laugh when you see that cutting up “Le Journal” makes some joyful nonsense. Jouer. Jouir. My book’s brilliant cover designer, Jeff Clark, ran with that idea. Collage is less about fragments and more a punning strategy about depths and surfaces. 

Am I divine? I’m not. And this feeling of epistemological play is rooted, I guess, in a broader approach to writing. Who am I to say what art should teach me? Art will not be possessed, nailed down. Andy’s mom titles his book 25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy and Andy’s like, Nailed It! One of his earliest religious works: “The Lord Gave Me My Face but I Can Pick My Own Nose.”

But the part you mention first is from “Dead Poets”: my elegy for Sam See, a poet, professor, and dear friend who tragically died. I process his death by returning to early childhood encounters with Duchamp in the Philadelphia Art Museum. Looking through peepholes at death. At life. I found it all terrifying and wonderfully out there as a kid. This sounds bleak, right, but pretty soon Andy crashes the party and the elegy, as all elegies do, turns joyous. I didn’t plan that. But it’s precisely because of this spirit of play, of affirmation and life one finds in the pantry, I guess.

Death is stupid, like I’ve said, and our only hope is to outwit it. 

Jesus said to Lazarus “Come forth.” But he came fifth so he lost the job. 

TM: There’s a fascinating bit here about film historian Tom Gunning’s observation that in early film, spectators were cued to the act of display and movement, something like “See the still image spring to life!” You mention that this “pop throwback” has “become more and more common post-9/11,” and consider it “an attempt, I think, to recover a shared experience.” Why didn’t it return after other traumatic events?” What was it about 9/11—and us then and now—that prompted this resurrection?

MD: The 21st century has seen the great early cinema revival, no doubt. Our 1890s peeps watched cat videos on a loop, and, turns out, we watch cat videos on a loop. Sure, some of our cats are more poetic (please google Louiswildlife, a German cat, immediately) but the point is what you’ve said before: a kind of haunting. And hauntings are good! That’s where the spirits are! In lots of ways our digital habits have returned us to the wild sublime of the medium. Dogface 208 skateboards and sings to Fleetwood Mac on TikTok to a trillion views and it’s like you’ve never seen the sunset before; it’s like you never seen our massified, inhuman infrastructure of roads before; it’s like you see for the first time the body in space, singing, free.  

This return, I think, began, ironically, with a brutal collective GIF: 9/11. After the Towers, and the run-away machines, artists responded in all sorts of ways, from Foer to Scorsese in all sorts of magical ways that I write about. I think we’ve been trying to heal that wound, taking new control over our machines, because that’s what pop does. Remixing, recovering, going “old school.” Back to innocence. We are like Andy the amateur not quite sure knowing how to use his camera, you know? And that’s beautiful. It’s a way of unknowing better, which is all we can ask for from art. If readers tell me that they unknow art and America and Andy and even writing better after reading my book, well, that’s all I can ask for.