It's weird to start a conversation like this, as we had many face-to-face conversations before now we're back to cyber-facelessness. Before we start shooting off our keyboards, let me tell you again that I enjoyed Bee Season very much. There are numerous reasons, but here is one of the main ones: Eliza, the hero (shall we say) of Bee Season is an intelligent, sensitive child, smarter than the adults around her perceive her she is a human being with thoughts and agency, in the midst of a struggle to understand how language operates (a struggle, one might note, many a writer has lost), raising a series of crucial philosophical questions. Eliza recalls some of the Salinger child-characters, and is very much unlike the dominant cultural model that imagines children (and girls in particular) as passive, cute, helpless, innocent, half-human creatures. They are the Disney children, designed, in a vast process of cultural idiotification, to be perfect, predictable consumers, not citizens or, simply, human beings.
Here are my questions, then:
1) What is your relation to childhood as a source of literary material? And I don't mean, obviously, childhood as a source of cute anecdotes what can a child story do that an adult story can't? Is there a difference?
2) How can literature fight imposed cultural (and consequently, political) models? Should it worry about them at all? If so, why? If not, why?
3) Speaking of dominant models, in the tradition of American "realism," language is but a tool that allows the writer to convey the common, unquestionably experiential, often psychological "reality." Hence the language that points at itself and its own artifice is a big no-no in the "realist" writing, because all that matters is how "we" live (for some reason, that's a huge mystery). But the reality that Eliza experiences is connected with language in fundamentally different ways. What does language do in literature? What can it do? What should it do?
This should start us off. You can wander in any direction you wish, these are just starting questions. Looking forward to hearing from you.
Boy, I wish someone like you had been around to ask me questions like that when Bee Season came out! I'm, of course, extremely flattered that you liked my book; one of the more exciting aspects of the Fiction for the Rest of Us program Doubleday did in the spring of 2000 was that I got to encounter your work. Writing is a lonely business so it is of particular pleasure to me when I encounter another of my species with whom I seem to have things in common.
You've given me license to wander in the course of answering the questions you've put to me; I've got more in mind a hijacking. You asked my relation to childhood as a source of literary material, but I'd like to broaden the question to personal history as a source of literary material. In Bee Season the larger concepts I addressed were ones I grappled with in my early life (hence the child and the family), though almost none of the actual plot was based upon my life. I'm almost pathologically averse to using elements of my life in my fiction and I often take issue with writers who do, mostly because the result feels like poor memoir rather than fiction: in recycling their life the writer toes the line of the events so closely as to ignore the whole point of fiction, which is that you can go anywhere at all in a story, make any point, create any scene, make the world obey your whim rather than the other way around. You, however, seem to have struck a comfortable balance between personal history and fiction. I sensed in Nowhere Man circumstances and events aligned with your past, but I did not get the feeling of the tedious retelling of a life with no narrative or imaginative effort applied save for the changing of names and hair styles. Was this balance something you actively considered while you were writing? What is your philosophy on the role of personal history in fiction?
Your second question really interests me. I think literature fights imposed models by breathing life into characters who defy them. While this is personally important to me (I've got an authority complex, after all) it isn't something I think about overtly when I'm writing. Rather I trust that my perspectives and opinions will ultimately express themselves through the characters and scenarios I create as long as I allow myself to be carried in the direction my imagination wants to take me. I'm a firm believer in the role the subconscious plays in directing narrative, character development and the overall themes of a story, at least in terms of laying down the foundations; after that there's a lot of craft and conscious decision-making that occurs. I think the best literature a writer can possibly create is that which most deeply and fearlessly expresses their concerns and their perspectives. There's no "shoulds" in there; however because I think that at heart most people don't perfectly reflect the cultural and political models imposed by society I think the end result can not help but fight them. That sounds awfully idealistic, doesn't it?
I think you take on imposed models in a big way in Nowhere Man and I'd like to hear how much that figured in your head as you were writing. Americans have an extremely limited perspective of history; most have no conception of any of it outside of some basic domestic events. I think your book challenges basic American models of thought about Yugoslavia, the war and its aftermath, as well as what it means to be American, what it means to be an émigré, and the face America presents.
And now a new question for you: I particularly enjoyed the formal experimentation that went on in Question of Bruno; you used a bunch of neat structures to hang your stories on. Nowhere Man also uses some innovative concepts, namely the staggered time periods and settings and the myriad first-person perspectives. Was the structure an organic one or did it take you a while to find it? Also, what about all those "I"s? I really enjoyed the idea of Pronek observed so diversely, filtered through so many different perspectives, but in a few cases I couldn't help but feel that plain old third-person perspective was really what you were doing, dressed up in an "I"s clothing. Why the "I" in Yesterday? Why the "I" in The Soldiers Coming?
Enough already. This is fun. Though it'd be better in a smoky bar and with beer.
So nice talking to you about these funny things. When you next book comes out, I'll be on alert, ready to barrage you with questions.
I'm completely on the same page with you with "autobiographical fiction," or even "biographical fiction" (both of these are ultimately contradictions in terms). In fact, there is no genre that I hate more than biography, particularly biographies of writers. I'm lying: there is a genre I hate more than biography: the confessional memoir, the non-fiction dealing with the author's life. I was about to start ranting about the hated genres, but let them rest at the top of bestseller lists. Still, I must say that I generally think them to be a consequence of extraordinary imaginative/cultural laziness on the one hand, and, on the other, the common craving for "reality," as "America" as it appears to us in the media and different representations is largely an illusion. Much like TV reality (another contradiction in terms) shows, they create a voyeuristic indeed, pornographic situation of witnessing someone's life, while being completely devoid of responsibility or involvement.
In straight-up fiction, the pornographic situation is even more despicable, as fiction is supposed to be a provenance of imagination it has the capability of providing alternative to "reality" as imposed on us; it opens up opportunities to question the spurious naturalness of that "reality." To squander that on reproducing the same models that "reality" provides, except even more reductive and abstract, is not only, to my mind, foolish, but is also the capitalist equivalent of the writing the Soviet-state writers produced in order to create the "socialist" model of human being. Nevertheless, the official party line in the US is that every truth is the truth of the self, and a true self grows out of feelings, not thoughts. (Which is why it is apparently acceptable in this great country to have a perfectly thoughtless president he feels and believes instead of thinking and speaking intelligibly). Consequently, fiction in order to be "true" has to (re)produce the self behind it.
In practically every single Q & A session after my readings, there was a member of the audience who asked: "How much of your book is autobiographical?" (Normally, I respond: "63.5 %.") Now, that's a legitimate question, both because my book(s) open themselves up for such questions, and because it is the way in which the reader/audience member engages itself with my book. But the fact of the matter is that it doesn't matter how much of it is autobiographical, assuming that you can sort out the autobiographical from the non-autobiographical part. Could the word, say, fig be called autobiographical. I think not. Yet, the fig I imagine is fantastically specific, and unimaginable beyond the space of my "personal" memory. This is because the language we use, the language we have acquired in the practice of our lives, is inextricable from those lives in a certain sense, every word I use is "autobiographical" and inevitably so. The experience of my life is deposited in the language I use (Bosnian or English), and even if I wanted to purge it, I couldn't, at least not without a major ontological crisis.
On the other hand, what the question might be about is the extent to which the sequence of events in my books resembles the sequence of events in my life. And to this I say: no sequence of events in my book exactly replicates any sequence of events in my life. But in some ways, that's cheating: because there are single events, heavily embellished though they may be, very much akin to the events in my life. Nonetheless, the sequence is what matters, because what makes narrative a narrative is sequential organization. In other words, even if the particles of my narrative (story, novel) might be "autobiographical" the sequence is most definitely not. What I like to do, in other words, is dismantle the "reality" of my life (which is not really particularly interesting, nor would I ever want it to be) and assemble it as something else, a "reality" of different order. From a personal point of view, this is liberating and revelatory, as I get to reassemble myself into someone else, temporarily discarding the hard, cagey shelf of the self. From the reader's point of view, they get to read and think about something much more than mere myself. My books, I like to think, are about the world, not about me and my dominating, solid-self presence would distract the reader from engaging with the world.
This is all dandy peachy, but the reality is that everybody expects my (and yours too) writing to be autobiographical and I had to deal with it in some way. So rather than ignore it, I decided to confuse it hence the "I" of the third person narrator, who is not Pronek, but is closely related. He either imagines Pronek and the life he might have had, or completely imagines him. The third person narrative had to be ruptured, because the narrator is not disinterested, as he/she can never be truly disinterested. As for me, I think of Pronek as my double (or, better, I think of me as Pronek's double). Our lives are parallel, occasionally intersecting, but not identical. (Have you ever read Poe's story "William Wilson?" It's about doubling, and it's great). And his life is parallel to some other lives most of the lives, I believe, are parallel, or have similar trajectories To question the absolute "truth" of the self, I had to double the self, and doubling results in multiplication. It all sounds highfalutin (and probably pretentious), but it's a legitimate writing strategy. I'm interested in the world, past and present, not the souls or the selves. I'm interested in connections not the selfish isolation. I'm interested in human, historical networks, not self-containing, extemporal cells of individuality. I'm interested in transformative possibilities of fiction, not depiction or description. There's a little manifesto.
Now, another salvo of questions for you:
1) Why is Bee Season in present tense? That of course is a common narrative strategy, but in your book its more than that, because the book is, in some ways, about Eliza being intensely present in language, and the present tense implies the presence of the narrator in the world she speaks about. I mean, the narrator is more present in present tense. Talk to me about that.
2) I happen to know (my spies never sleep) that your new book is dealing with the events related to the Great Flu Epidemic of 1918 history, that is. That seems to me to be challenging the "limited perspective of history" assertion. What is your relation to "history?"
3) Most of the things I talked about above have come out of the experience and perception (and the related conversations with my readers) of The Question of Bruno. Quite simply and literally, Nowhere Man would've been impossible without The Question of Bruno. What is your experience of writing the second book?
Now you. This is fun.
Let's see, where to begin? Before I engage your questions I feel the need to point out at least one glaring exception to the general rule of the confessional memoir as anathema, and that's Nabokov's Speak Memory, which I enjoyed thoroughly.
And now the rest: It's interesting that you talk about Bee Season's use of present tense in terms of the narrator being more present. For me it was much more about the reader being more present. Because present tense removes all temporal barriers between the story and its reader I think it has a certain unique, intoxicating effect. When the events are literally unfolding right under the reader's nose I think revelations can have the potential to make a much more intense impression and I wanted to place that intensity in the service of Bee Season's narrative. I wanted the reader to be there, experiencing all the things the family experiences as they experience them.
Just as you say Nowhere Man would have been impossible without Question of Bruno, so would Wickett's Remedy (the title of my number-two-in-progress) have been impossible without Bee Season, but I suspect for very different reasons than your own. While you imply that Nowhere Man developed from Bruno, as well as from discussions about your first I would say that for me Wickett's Remedy is developing in reaction against Bee Season. Basically I'm striving to write a book as different from Bee Season as possible. I hate the idea of being limited as a writer - I never want to be considered, personally or publicly, as a writer who writes a certain type of book. It's so easy to fall into patterns and especially at this stage in my development as a writer I want to expand my boundaries and capabilities. So this one is about a city as well as a person, it spans huge periods of time, and its characters have almost nothing in common with me. As a result it's been incredibly hard to write, but I feel like I've learned a lot and have become a better writer as a result.
Which leads me (sort of) to your second question and to the questions I want to ask you. The spark to write Wickett's arose from learning about the 1918 epidemic for the first time and being amazed that I'd never heard of it before, seeing as it killed such massive numbers of people; the book is partially powered by an instinct to show how much history is forgotten and transformed and revised over time. I am continually appalled by how little I know. While Americans by no means have cornered the market on ignorance I think they tend to specialize in a certain brand of ignorance directly related to your observation about the "party line" of the US being that "every truth is the truth of the self, and a true self grows out of feelings, not thoughts." I think it's that exact perspective that makes possible the paucity of American knowledge of history, especially of any events that occur outside the country. American culture, on the whole, is solipsistic in the extreme, what with all that attention being paid to the self all the time. And since America as a "self" has only existed a mere 226 years, history is given awfully short shrift. Which is my segue back to the question I asked you in my last letter that you didn't answer: is Nowhere Man a conscious challenge to the Americans' generally limited personal and global perspectives or does it exist as that more because who you are as a writer tends innately to challenge those perspectives?
Which leads me to the granddaddy question of this letter: How do you view your identity as a writer? Is your personal perspective different than the public one? Bee Season made me extremely conscious of how I was perceived because many people decided in the wake of it that I was Jewish writer, which is something I'd never thought about myself before, at least not in specific. Certainly I'm Jewish and certainly that cultural/religious identity will inform my writing (I welcome it to do so) but I do not see it at the center of my writing and I found myself feeling mildly resentful of others who seemed to choose that center for me. I have similarly conflicted feelings about being a female writer. I'm still struggling with the idea that, in aggregate, male and female writers seem to tend to write about different things and/or write about things in different ways. Which is also partly where Wickett's Remedy arises from in that it is a fairly ambitious book of broad scope which, as a rule and with many notable exceptions, is not the sort of book female writers, in aggregate, tend to write. How much more qualified do you think that statement could have been? It's tricky territory for me. But perhaps that's because I'm a solipsistic American. Or maybe it's just because I'm a writer, which demands a certain level of solipsism not matter what. So. Do you consider yourself a political writer, by which I mean to you find yourself drawn to or wanting to deliberately engage in political issues? Do you feel others have attempted to pigeonhole you into an identity (Bosnian, émigré, political, etc) that you resent or feel is, at the very least, a poor or lazy fit?
Yes Speak, Memory. It is a glorious book indeed, but I disagree with your implicit description of it as a confessional memoir. It provides impressive, and beautiful, evidence that remembering is a creative, aesthetic experience, rather than psychological, truth-producing experience. Memory is a story-making tool, and conversely the best stories always seem like a memory of an experience.
As for the present tense in Bee Season, I think we are talking about the same thing: the immediate presence of the narrator conditions the immediate presence of the reader. I think the events are "literally unfolding under the reader's nose" even if the narrative is in past tense, but the difference is that the narrator might have already witnessed the events so she/he has foreknowledge inaccessible to the reader. With the present tense, the events appear to develop simultaneously for the narrator and the reader. In any case, I think it worked well in Bee Season. Perhaps it's too early to talk about it, but I'm a curious bastard is Wickett's Remedy (a great title, by the way) more narratively complicated? Or is it as sharp in its focus as Bee Season? Needless to say, I'm very much looking forward to it.
Speaking of books about cities, in his review of Joyce's Ulysses Jorge Luis Borges addresses the fact that he had not read all seven hundred pages of the book, only bits and pieces in English (the Spanish translation would not appear for another twenty years), and yet he admires it immensely, knowing, he says, "what it is with that bold and legitimate certainty with which we assert our knowledge of a city, without ever having been rewarded with the intimacy of all the many streets it includes." What a wonderful concept a book as a city: populated with a myriad human beings, not reducible to representing "us" (whoever we may be); complicated and conflictual; chaotic yet organized; approachable from any number of angles; and so much more. Reading this, I realized that what I want from books is to be cities, which is why I have such a problem with a lot of contemporary American fiction a lot of "important" American books about "us" are book-suburbs, books about suburban people in their American fantasies of self-isolation, to whom dissociation from the world appears as freedom (the hollowness of which they have to face but are helpless to change), whose minor epiphanies are represented as major events and metaphysical revelations. But let me not rant against the contemporary American bourgeois fiction I dream of books as cities.
By the way, one of the earliest of Borges's essays, written in 1922 is called "The Nothingness of Personality" and is a scathing attack on the spuriousness of the bourgeois self.
And now to your question whether Nowhere Man is "a conscious challenge to the Americans' generally limited personal and global perspectives." The answer is simply no. And to me as a writer the need to challenge those perspectives is largely secondary, as I prefer to repress it. There is any number of reasons for this, but here is the most important one: it would be hard indeed impossible and counterproductive to imagine my readers as having seriously "limited perspectives." In other words, I cannot think of my readers as "dumb Americans," partly because not all my readers are Americans, partly because a large number of people I love and respect are Americans (including yourself), partly because I am now (partly) American, but chiefly because there would be no point in writing, of communicating with anybody. Moreover, every individual, isolated perspective is limited to go beyond the limits of that, we readers and writers (both as reader and as text-producing professional) need a consensus organized around the book (and therefore temporary). Presuming limited perspectives would be an insufferably arrogant attitude, which, apart from being insulting, would make it difficult for me to live here. The reason why some people in Nowhere Man have "limited perspectives" is because I wanted to create a context in which Jozef Pronek can become the many things/people he is. Besides, not all the characters with "limited perspectives" in the book are American.
I recently gave an interview for a Brazilian paper and the interviewer asked me: "How do you see Americans today?" And I said: "This is how I see Americans: I wake up in the morning, look to the left, and there's my wife beautiful face that's how I see Americans."
I do not presume to change or challenge "America," let alone the world, with my books (perhaps my delusion of grandeur, common among writers, is its nascent stage). But I do like to argue and get involved in conflicts, as it were, as I am one of those Balkan boys and girls who despite all the misery that follows them like a shadow, do not wish to wallow in the joy of living in "freedom," pursuing "the American dream" and all that sappy crap. This is a great, complicated country, with a lot of great things and people, yet rife with injustice, greed and stupidity much like any country any place in the world. The American trouble begins when an illusion takes root that America is beyond injustice, greed and stupidity, because it is somehow better than the rest of the world.
Now to answer your other question: I am a political writer, to the extent that any writer is political as a person who lives in a human community and whose actions, even the smallest ones, have political causes and effects, and as a person who produces public discourse. Public space is always political, and even the writers who consciously avoid anything "political" are political I would go as far as to say that such are the most political of all. I'd also say that literature is inherently utopian and any utopian project is a political project inasmuch as it has an implicit ambition to show that there's more to the world than these appearances of reality. Even the worst of suburban literature cannot concede that this is it, this is as good as it will ever get. That inherent necessity not to settle for the simple reality of what appears to be the world goes directly if often inadvertently against the political propaganda perpetuated by the government in power and the consumerist propaganda (which always claims that a perfect world is just a purchase away) perpetuated by the corporations whose happy, profitable existence is assured by the government. So yes, I'm a political writer, and so are you, and so are the loonies who write the Left Behind series, and so was Shakespeare.
I view my identity as a writer as hopelessly and joyfully multiplied. That's one of the reasons I write, in fact I can be the people I can't be. I am not concerned with being pigeonholed (or pidginholed) as a writer, because however I might be perceived as a public person, that can never completely control the perception of my books. The readers have (limited?) freedom in perception of my books because a) a relative minority of readers reads the reviews and interviews that might be doing the pigeonholing, and even if they do, reviews and interviews are evanescent they might prompt the reader to buy a book, but not necessarily to read it, let alone to think about it; and b) I assume that the readers are imagining the world/ cities in the book, and not me, and even if they're imagining me (though I don't know why anybody would do that), they imagine me based on their imaginings of the book, so I'm an extension of my book, rather than my book being an extension of me.
I guess I might have the (dis)advantage over you in that my "Bosnian" identity is moot not only to Americans (for many of whom it's really just a differential identity I'm Bosnian, because I'm not American, Hispanic, African-American, African etc) but to many Bosnians too, as the main identity in Bosnia, alas, is the ethnic identity and my "identity" involves about a dozen different ethnic identities. My heritages would make any person invested in such things multiply schizoid
My agent met people who didn't believe that the person who wrote The Question of Bruno existed. That's one of the greatest compliments I've ever received whoever doesn't believe I exist is a friend of mine. My fantasy is to meet the people who have doubts about my existence and convince them beyond reasonable doubt that I don't exist, that I am but a community of people who get together inside my head, sit around the campfire of my brain, and tell stories to each other.
There. Now you. This is great fun, although I constantly have a sense that I talk too much.
Have you ever read Dos Passos? Specifically USA Trilogy? I have a feeling I may have asked you this before, perhaps when I was last in Chicago. I'm asking people this a lot lately. It's really brilliant and bold and sweeping and to my mind exemplifies that great Borges quote in your last letter about books as cities. Having never read Ulysses (I tried three times and was foiled three times; I felt like I was trying to make my way through brambles.), I can't use that book as an example but I think this concept is an important one that might be fun to examine more closely. Your description of "suburban" fiction in your last letter is how I tend to perceive American academic fiction, with its tidy maxims, producing a monoculture of "minor epiphanies." I think one of the most dangerous of those maxims is "write what you know," which when applied incorrectly can produce the sort of navel-gazing that we both find so tiresome. "Write what you know" should not be interpreted to mean "write about yourself," but I think that's what often happens. In my opinion, "write what you know" should actually be "write what you observe," which includes but is not at all limited to observations about the self.
In your last letter you write, "I do not presume to change or challenge 'America,' let alone the world, with my books...But I do like to argue and get involved in conflicts...." To me the latter assertion directly contradicts the former. Why bother to get involved in conflicts if you're not interested in changing anything? At the very least you're out to change the mind of the person or group you're arguing with, otherwise it would be a "conversation" (so much more polite and boring).
Ooh, an argument!
The fact that it is your "ambition to show that there's more to the world than these appearances of reality" right away means you're out to change people/America/the world since if the majority of people already thought or felt or acted that way, your writing would not be perceived as interesting and this would not need to be an ambition of yours, as it would be a fait accompli. I'll go even further and assert that since you think there's a need to "show that there's more to the world," you think that there are people/readers out there who don't see things that way, which sounds a whole lot to me like a limited perspective. Which is not the same as "dumb." As you pointed out yourself, we all have limited perspectives; we can't not have limited perspectives; we're little animals and we can only be in one place at one time. To address this fact through writing is not an inherently antagonistic or condescending drive, though there are certainly writers who are driven by antagonistic or condescending impulses. I think one of the things that characterizes literature is the desire, whether blatant or buried, to change or challenge the world, even if that change is as minute as one reader seeing things in a slightly different way than he or she did before encountering a particular book.
Why do I write? Because I feel I have something to say, something that hasn't been said before. And I think that's at least part of why you write too. Your delusions of grandeur are no more nascent than mine because to be aware of all the books that have been written and all the writers that are writing at any given minute and to still feel that one's own words will be qualitatively different than the words of someone else and therefore worth reading is an awfully big idea to have about oneself. Of course I may be projecting. I do that a lot. Perhaps this can be an argument too.
As for your question about Wickett: it is much more narratively complicated than Bee Season. There is a 1918 story and a contemporary story. The 1918 story is told in third person chunks, snatches of overheard dialogue, and newspaper articles; the contemporary story is told entirely in documents court transcripts, promotional brochures, newsletters, and other assorted ephemera. I've got this little plastic box filled with color-coded index cards that serve to organize all these different pieces and whenever I open that box and finger these cards I am filled with glee. The tangibility of that box and its cards is extremely satisfying in this age of word processing, in which the manuscript is for most of its life an ethereal creature of light. My ambition for Wickett is for it to encompass much more than the life of a person, or even several people, which is another reason why the Borges quote in your last letter was so exciting to me. That is, assuming you did write that letter and you're not some sort of literary amalgam I'm quite jealous of you with your disbelievers; and I'd like to know what consortium of writers they think conspired to write what you wrote. Have you heard of Fernando Pessoa? He was a Portuguese writer who actually was several different people he wrote under several different names and each of these names embodied a quite different perspective and writing style; he commonly had one write critique of another. In other words, a person who was a city.
You're so relentlessly tenacious, you would not let me get away with things. But before I get to our "argument," let me just say that I did read Dos Pasos's Manhattan years ago (in fact, in my late teens) and I remember liking it, but I don't remember the details. And, by the way, Manhattan, with all its simultaneous lives, grew directly out of a chapter in Ulysses, which you must read, as so much came out it.
And now for changing or challenging "America." I should amend what I said and say: I do not presume to be capable of changing or challenging "America" or the world, as I don't think that literature that is even much better than my stuff is capable of doing that. There is something inherently utopian in literature, it always implies at least an alternative interpretation of "reality," if not an alternative reality. Literature is set up for a noble failure it operates under the assumption that it matters, while the history of the world repeatedly shows that it doesn't. No poem ever prevented a killing, yet people write poems, as if thinking: "Well, maybe this time..." Besides, what "America" (or the world) is often determined by a frightening propaganda machinery, fully at work now in justifying the cynical war on Iraq. No book can alter the mindset of the Bush bunch, because those people don't read books. And let's hope they don't, because if they start reading them, they might start burning them.
Anyway, back to the helplessness of literature: literature is simultaneously contingent upon the most private and the most public of acts. On the one hand, it is a private activity of a mind (whether writing it or reading it) engaging the interiority of a person, filling it up, as it were. On the other hand, it is dependent on the use of language in the form of public speech acts, available to anyone, coming from everywhere. Furthermore, on a metalinguistic level, books always refer to one another, they're never alone, on top of which there is the critical, metaliterary discourse. Literature, like language, is endless. Like language, it is a discreet combinatory system an infinite number of meaningful combinations comes out of a finite number of elements. Who can presume to be able to change that? So the utopian hope relies on the private aspect of literature: it imagines a conversation, between a writer and individual readers, eye to eye, as it were. We see the smallest things together, things that are so evanescent and small that they don't seem to matter, things and details that are discarded by the manipulative discourses of politics and consumption (the politics of consumption), because they're too minute to be profitable. We parse the world together, disassemble it and assemble it, like two kids playing together, whispering. This situation would be conducive to conversions the reader might be changed, and then the world/"America" might be changed. And if there is a critical mass of readers, of people who are (temporarily) united over a vision of the world, the readers, in a very modest way, form a political group. But this group becomes dangerous if they read only one book: The Bible, Mein Kampf, the Q'uran, whatever. (Danilo Kis wrote: "Many books are not dangerous, one book is dangerous.") So we hope they read many books, and if they do, the conversation is not private, it is communal. The change can come only in a communal form and it does not (and it should not) come via fiction.
I write because that is my way of engaging with the world (including "America") and that engagement leads to a desire to change it. But I know I can't do it alone, there has to be a community of writers and readers and a community of citizens, and these communities delimit the perspectives. I don't mean this to sound highfalutin and revolutionary, all I mean is: we read, write, learn and change the world with other people. To presume that I can do it through my occasionally mental and emotional activity leads to, among other things, the navel-gazing we both hate so much, or to God-like authors who pertain to represent us all.
I write because I don't know how to live and not write, I don't know what to do without constantly handling language. I need to tell and hear stories all the time. Many years ago, my sister said to me, as a kind of revelation, that she really divided people into those who could tell stories and those who couldn't. Of course she vastly preferred the storytellers. People who don't tell stories can't listen to stories either (thus the navel-gazing) and are, shall we say, boring. But their being boring is not just the opposite of being fun it's a symptom of disengagement with the world. The suburban/academic navel-gazing narratives are, of course, fantastically boring, but that just points at the inability to imagine oneself as being in the world, as being a part of a gigantic network of history and human experience all they can imagine is suburban America, a fantasy in its own right. And this suburban isolationism, by the way, exactly replicates the political isolationism of America today.
I've enjoyed this conversation immensely, because your thoughts generate my thoughts, until I get dizzy. I also think that an important set of issues was discussed, particularly today, when a callous, ruthless political power is ignoring or brainwashing the people who constitute "America." Yet I cannot help but imagine a random reader who stumbles upon this conversation in search of clues for the psychological mystery of creative writing. This reader, who might want to know how much of Nowhere Man/Wickett's Remedy is autobiographical: or where we get our "ideas"; or, ultimately, whether we used this exchange, along with our other writing, to make covert confessions, revealing our inner selves well, such reader might be disappointed. He/ she might find this terribly pretentious and insufferably theoretical. For that reader, here is a piece of genuine, unironic emotion, a confession tidbit, a glimpse of my inner self:
I am terribly sad, because the summer is almost over.
Our epistolary conversation has given me a taste of what the world might have been like when letter-writing was the main mode of communication between people; I feel the world lost something valuable (if inevitable) with the invention of the telephone and, more intensely, with internet communication. But then again I've always been, at heart, a curmudgeon with Luddite tendencies.
I, too, can't imagine living without writing, or reading for that matter. And I disagree with your statement that people who don't tell stories can't listen to them; I think many people can't tell stories but derive great pleasure from "listening" to them. I call those people readers. As an aside, I think we live in a society that makes it increasingly difficult to acquire the skills to become a storyteller, mainstream television and cinema being such passive mediums, encouraging a culture in which people are told what and how to think rather than challenging them to think and create for themselves.
I took great pleasure and fellowship in your admission that, after all, you do want to change the world from the beginning of our friendship I have sensed this underlying feeling linking us.
You described the helplessness of literature in your last letter. Your points are well-taken, but I think you paint too bleak a picture. You wrote, "No poem ever prevented a killing." Call me crazy, call me an autistic idealist but I think you're wrong wrong wrong. While I might agree with the sentiment that no poem ever single-handedly prevented a killing, I'm a firm believer in the idea that poems and novels and stories have played a measurable role in preventing killings as well as assorted (and sordid) individual acts of violence or hate or narrow-mindedness. While I doubt the written word's ability to create or destroy ideas in a reader's mind I think literature can solidify the inchoate in a reader, tapping into underlying instincts/ thoughts/experiences/memories that may have lain dormant or muted or wordless before. Of course, we rarely hear about the positive side of this power as it doesn't make good copy. Instead we hear about Mark David Chapman carrying Catcher in the Rye in his jacket the afternoon he shot John Lennon, or about teenagers who cite A Clockwork Orange as their "inspiration" for attacking an old woman. Or the Mein Kampf wielders. (That Kis quote is oh so right.) But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; it's physics, goddamit! In America, for example, I think books like Ellison's Invisible Man and Wright's Native Son and Morrison's Song of Solomon and Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings have had a profound and positive effect on race relations in this country. Which has everything to do with your statement, "we read, write, learn and change the world with other people." You prefaced that by saying you didn't mean to sound "highfalutin and revolutionary." Why the hell not? We need to make statements that sound highfalutin, even if we feel embarrassed about it later, or if people laugh at us. A measured and rational tone will only go so far, my friend, before it gets completely swallowed up by all the other careful voices mumbling from televisions and newspapers and radios and books and magazines. Trumpets and tubas, that's what we need. Fireworks and gongs. Or, in your case, innovative, creative, and challenging books like The Question of Bruno and Nowhere Man. Let us declare from every roof of every five-story walk up: LITERATURE CAN CHANGE THE WORLD! READING IS A REVOLUTIONARY ACT! Perhaps the noise will cause someone to turn away from their television screen momentarily, asking "What was that noise?" as they walk to their window; perhaps it will start an argument or make someone think. Most importantly, let us declare these things because they are true.
So I guess I'll end here, with that bugle blast. Thank you for firing up my brain and for helping to remind me why I spend eight hours a day staring at a computer monitor. I've enjoyed attempting to parse the world with you and look forward to engaging in future efforts, no matter what form they may take.
Photograph of Aleksandar Hemon © Sa Schloff
Photograph of Myla Goldberg © Jason Little