Conversation with Sasha Hemon

Colum McCann > Interview > Conversation with Sasha Hemon

Sasha: The beginning of Dancer is astonishing. You begin with a narrative that conveys the Soviet Army experience of World War 2, the subject of which is “they” and the section ends with zooming in on a six-year old boy who’s waiting for his father, one of “them”–who could be any one of them– to come from the war. This suggests that the boy’s destiny (and the boy is, of course Rudolf Nureyev, the future dancer) is related to the collective experience you talk about. In a few pages, you gracefully move from a collective, historic(al) experience to individual experience and the connection is not theoretical but emotional. What it is the relation, in your mind, between the collective and the individual, between the historical and the private? And while we’re at it, where do you think literature stands in relation to those categories? Is that relation a matter of research (as you’d obviously done a lot of research) or imagination or experience?

Colum: The question of whether we write our own history, or whether history writes our story for us, is such profound, prickly, confounding and even amusing one for the contemporary writer, isn’t it? The job of “fiction” (if such a word is apt and I’m not sure it is, I’d rather say “story” or “story-teller”) is to imaginatively probe the small, anonymous corners of the human experience, where the untold has been relegated to darkness. But then there’s the inescapable force of public events and history. The writer desires to see inside the dark corners in order to make sense of the room that has already been swept clean or clean-ish by historians, critics, and journalists. Poets do this too of course. A story-writer must be just as rooted as a poet in the way words sound, look, and bump up against one another. I don’t see too much difference between the job of a poet and the job of the story-writer. Never have. Have you?

Sasha: No, I never have—for one thing, the poet and story-writer have no jobs, or they ought to have no jobs. (Have you ever read the transcripts of the trial of Joseph Brodsky in the Soviet Union? The main charge was “parasitism.”) But more importantly, poetry and “fiction” (I’d rather say prose) are about language—they are language–as language is the main means of human interaction with the world and with one human being another. Literature makes language reflect upon itself, which is not a matter of self-referential postmodern acrobatics, but the only means available to everybody to access the collective human experience. Of course, one can squander that incredible possibility—literature contains the history of human life from the times immemorial, one just has to read it (or listen to it)—and divorce literature from language, transform it into a marketable commodity, and sell it as a set of expert skills, while foregrounding “the writer” as someone so exceptionally skillful and so attuned to his/her “times” as to be a sort of a market-validated prophet.

Colum: I’m not quite sure what a collective historical experience is. Who would recognize such an experience? Would it recognize itself? I of course agree with you that everything is about language and that language itself is the collective human experience. The very fact of choosing a word (or preferably the right word) forces us into a place of privilege.

Sasha: Well, the collective Irish historic experience is what makes you Irish, for example—a history legible to an Irish person, something that defines someone as Irish, as opposed to English, let alone Bosnian. At the same time, at a certain level, there’s a collective historic experience shared, not always kindly, by the Irish and the English—an experience that connects them, even if in conflict, and defines them against one another. And language is, of course, instrumental in defining, creating and recording that experience.

Colum: Patrick Kavanagh, the Irish poet, said that it seemed to him that the only valid violence is that which absolutely cannot be avoided. In the first half of the 20th century, I’d think it’s fair to say that the Irish were consciously using language as a tool against the violence of the English. That language shifted and changed, of course. In recent years it’s pretty clear that the more significant poets have come from the north. At the same time the position of the writer in the contemporary republic (the south), while more public and acclaimed, is nowhere near as important as it used to be. It used to matter much more. Now very few people fear our bite. Much of what we do, I hate to say, is hidden and dampened, certainly when placed up against the great Irish writers of the past. In the present market it seems we drive ourselves further and further away from the language.

I think Kavanagh might have said the same thing about language as he said about violence: the valid word is that which cannot be avoided. Yet still we have to write from a mysterious, reckless place.

Sasha: On a (seemingly) different note: it occurred to me that our insistence on language as the thing in literature logically leads to non-representational, or transformational, possibilities of creating literature, as opposed to the representational, pseudo-realistically psychological modes of writing, dominating, alas, the contemporary Anglo-American literary production. So here’s another reason why I admire Dancer so much: you chose a subject: dance—the body in space and time—which is perhaps the human activity least representable and reproducible in language. You forced yourself to find transformational possibilities of rendering dance in language. You forced yourself to write poetry. Was that a harder or an easier choice?

Colum: I suppose the story-writer has to follow that reckless inner need in order to go on a journey into an unreliable or perhaps undocumented area of the human experience. In the case of dance, its aim is often to describe what seems otherwise indescribable. Finding a language to put on that was a great terror for me. And part of the challenge. I don’t think anything exciting is ever achieved through predictability – it’s like the last chapter in Nowhere Man. The beauty of surprise. For Dancer I started placing words together, choreographing them on the page until it seemed to me that they sounded right. And then I went to professional dancers and said, Will you listen to this please? Does this sound like dance?

What attracted me about dance, though, was the violence of it. I mean, there’s a tremendous violence committed on the body in order to achieve the appearance of ease. It’s like writing in a way.

Early on, when researching, I read in the biographies that Rudolph Nureyev’s first public dance was at the age of six for the injured Russian soldiers who had been sent home from the front. What an image. A small blond boy dancing for men who had been through one of the century’s most horrific experiences. Surely the story of these soldiers (their history, if you will) was just as important to the young Rudolph Nureyev as the fact that it was his first public dance. How can we tell the story of that dance without telling the story of the soldier?

As it turned out this was a fiction. I just found this out in the past few days. I was flabbergasted. Nureyev himself had created a fiction about dancing for the soldiers. He lied. A biographer had taken it as fact. I took the “fact” and tried to make a fiction of it. Which makes me think of the wonderful merry-go-round that we sit on … how often we get fucked off by a wooden horse into the waiting crowds.

It’s a huge task, of course, to write outside of what we supposedly know or don’t know. Often it can make the story-writer into a megalomaniac of sorts: he has to try to distill the collective into the individual by attempting to over-ride the accepted history. That’s arrogant, I suppose. I mean, would you agree with me that writers are generally arrogant bastards? The idea that someone might want to read what you have written is a spectacular leap, isn’t it? And yet – behind that – one must believe that, out of our arrogance, something selfless might emerge?

Sasha: You know what, I don’t think that is arrogant: language belongs to me as much as anybody else. The hope that someone might want to read what you wrote is but a hope, and it is different in degree, but not in kind, to the hope that, when you speak, someone might hear you. Thinking that someone should or must read you is arrogant, and God knows that there are plenty of writers who like to complain about not being read enough.

Colum: Ah yes, you’re right. The fact of writing is not necessarily arrogant, but the expectation behind it can be. This is an important, if not the defining, difference.

Sasha: This might be a sad fact (for “the writer”), but “the reader” doesn’t owe a fucking thing to “the writer.” It’s a simple way to put it, but I write hoping that I could bear witness to history. And I don’t mean the history of big events and great men—rather, the history of human experience, from the motes of dust floating in my room to genocide. It is a consequence of a need to participate in history, from which I—as a hastily assembled individual—am always excluded by the great fucking men and the powers to be. I see it as a matter of plain survival, rather than my job as a writer (or “the writer)—I’m a writer only incidentally, because, in a way, I have no choice, it’s a means of survival. But there’s always a peril of slipping into sort of historical solipsism—one of the things I find impressive about Dancer is that you extract someone else’s life history from the history of crude facts. There’s World War Two and there are women washing the wounded men. I’ve read a mountain of books about WW2 (for one reason or another), particularly about the Eastern front, but when that woman washes those soldiers I imagine understanding what it might have been like (and still we don’t exactly know what it is). I came as close to knowing as you can without actually experiencing it. You rewrote history as life, recreated facts as experience.

Colum: I wrote that in a sort of blind haze: the idea of women washing the soldiers seemed to be “in” the war and also “away from” the war.

I think that history is often confined by the machinery of facts. But facts are mercenary things: they can be motherless, fatherless, sent to the orphanage to pack the cardboard boxes. This is where the story-writer comes in. You look at the “facts” and then try to follow an obscure urge and see where it leads you. For me it led me to this woman washing the soldiers. I don’t know where she came from. I just read and read and read – booklets about winter warfare, poems from Russian writers, accepted histories, and then, when I went to Russia to research, I interviewed old men in military hospitals – and compacted it all into an imagined story that I hoped was honest and representative.

But my first instinct is to try and tell a good story with as many or as few words that suggest to me that it is “right” or “realized”. So it’s facts, imagination and language all rolled into a tight but bouncing ball. And then of course we use the experience of our own lives to penetrate the gaps.

John Berger, in a quote that’s almost become a cliché because it’s so perfect and apt for writers, says: “Never again will a single story be told as if it is the only one.”

Sasha: Yes, yes, I agree with you, by and large. But for the sake of our conversation, let me play a devil’s advocate: Why probe the small, anonymous corners of human experience? Why bother with unimportant experiences? If history is a history of man’s greatness, why waste time on little things?

Colum: First of all history can’t be a history of greatness: that almost seems like a logical impossibility, doesn’t it? I mean, take one look at George Bush. Enough said. The story of the United States in 2003 would be far more poignant, intelligent, provocative and humanly useful if the writer, for example, told the story of the young migrant worker, or the dockworker, or the housewife, or any number of people whose stories are traditionally hijacked and relegated to the dumb-bin. I’m not talking (necessarily) about the working class hero. I’m talking about the stories that, just for a moment, take your breath away and make you aware of the very fact of being alive.

Sasha: Yes, but George “the Little” Bush is determining the ways in which the migrant worker experiences his/her life—they might get arrested and detained indefinitely, they might not be able to get a job, they might be killed by one of the Ashcroft patriots masked as a lawman. So even if we agree that George Bush is but a petty, provincial, patriotic idiot, he can run this world into the ground. A story can take your breath away, but Bush can take your life away. What is it, if anything, that we can protect from him and other “Great Men.”? What is worth protecting? And how can literature protect it?

Colum: I think by telling the story of the migrant worker – how he gets kicked around, not to mention how he kicks others around – you are telling the story of the larger “Great Men.” I don’t mean this in the sense that it’s diseased by self-consciousness, the oh-I have-a-great-idea factory. Books that are wrapped solely around ideas are doomed to failure. But I think that the small anonymous corner is where most of us live our lives, and those things that Faulkner talked about – courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice – are to be found in the small gesture, or the small life. These are things worth protecting. And literature can protect them by saying that they exist, they continue to exist and that they must exist.

Who legislates our lives? Who chooses to tell our story? Certainly Bush will never tell the story of the migrant worker. Bush wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire. Bush doesn’t even believe that that story exists. It’s only when the worker cuts through the barbed wire on Bush’s ranch that he recognizes that someone’s out there … and then he’ll send his henchmen out to murder the “intruder.” It’s the writer’s job to be contrary. It’s the writer’s job to cut that fence. This is one of the ways we can participate in history.

The sad part of the matter is, however, that the contemporary writer is generally not seen as part of the political or social scene at all. He or she is not muzzled. I’m not favouring censorship of course but I am favouring anger. But, then again, the question is, is this our fault? Are we the ones to blame?

Sasha: Yes, we are to blame, whoever we might be. What I think happened is that writers have been reduced (some would say promoted) to the status of expert professionals. We presumably possess the lofty skills of writing and those skills are valued by the market, for which we get rewarded by reviews praising of the skills, by academic creative-writing positions, by hefty advances. All you have to have to be a writer is those skills, which are—at least in the US of A–easily acquirable in creative-writing programs. Literature has been reduced to writing, writers have been relegated to irrelevant experts, while the price for being valued by the market is, of course, dehumanization and reification. The writer becomes a commodity, or if he or she is lucky, a franchise—can anyone remember the last time John Updike, say, wrote anything relevant? And it’s only partly his fault—he’s in a cozy position in which he cannot possibly write anything relevant. Writers congratulate one another on skillful gimmicks and advances, all in the relative obscurity of the literary market and launch parties. You would be hard pressed to find a heated, passionate polemics between writers over some aesthetical, let alone political, issue—nobody seems to care enough, and many are scared to come off as pretentious. (Didn’t Granta advertise itself a while ago as a magazine for people who hate literature. God forbid literature. Writing is far less threatening and demanding—all you need to do is recognize an expert when you read his or her work) To be heard I have to be validated as an expert professional, but the moment that happens all I can talk about is my (pseudo)expertise which is equal to all other modes of literary expertise valued by the market. Or possibly, there might be some interest in the “autobiographical” aspects of my work. I crave substance—literature is the only thing I trust in this world, I need it to live and survive as a thinking, feeling being. Without it, I’m nothing, I’m nowhere. I despise the people who reduce literature to writing.

Colum: “Without literature we’re nothing, we’re nowhere.” What matters is that it matters. This is not just some coy little roundelay. Of course some might say this reeks of self-importance. Fine, fair enough. I don’t have time to waste arguing that. It is important. Full stop.

Sasha: But what about the story-writer’s reckless need to obey and reinforce the dominant power structures? There was a large number of writers in the USSR who followed their inner need for power or, at least, sheer survival? What about Western writers who mindlessly reproduce the bourgeois self and the spurious reality organized around it, which, needless to say, has direct political consequences? Who in other words is the story-writer you’re talking about?

Colum: I’m thinking about people like John Berger who has known from the very beginning that freedom begins between the ears. I suppose the problem is that there are fewer and fewer writers like Berger. I’m not one to bitch and moan about the creative writing programs – I think they have their place – but increasingly what’s happening is that we have all these mini MFA novels that are mannered and housebroken. You go to university to learn the X, Y and Z of being a “writer”, and then you graduate, and your parents say, “Well you’re a writer now, son, go write”. And of course there are severe political and social consequences to this: we end up reinforcing the dominant structures. We have seen nothing and have had little time for rage. Kerouac said that a writer should get out and chop boards and raise hell and never give a shit for all that dumb white machinery in the kitchen. I think most of us would admit that we’d rather read Kerouac than someone who sits on his ass moaning about publicity departments and advances all day long. And this chopping of boards and raising of hell is not necessarily a function of action – it can also be a function of the imagination. In other words we can achieve an altered consciousness within the language: we can do it within four small walls.

And I suppose the story-writer I’m talking about is the idealized version of self. The writer is you. The writer is John Berger, Anne Michaels, Michael Ondaatje, Edna O’Brien, Jim Harrison, Don DeLillo, Ciaran Carson, Donald Hays, Garcia Marquez, Frank McCourt, Peter Carey, Michael Cunningham … need I go on? You were talking of Ford. I like Ford’s work. But I suppose the story-writer I’m talking about is the one who actually is aware that, although the stories have been told before, there is a deep need to tell them again.

Sasha: Yeah, but who does the writer function for? I like all those writers (and Vladimir Nabokov, Bruno Schulz, Danilo Kis, Franz Kafka, W.G. Sebald, Nathan Englander, etc), but they’re all preaching to the choir, as it were. We all appreciate one another, inflate one another’s importance, while the Bushmen of the world run the show. Why bother to write? Besides history competing with literature and the powers to be ignoring it, there’s television (and its propaganda), there’s film, complete with omnipotent special effects. There’s the internet, something as close to the Borgesian superlibrary as we ever got. Not to mention that in the USA alone about 50,000 literary titles are published every year, which is to say that a large number of books simply vanish. Why write stories? Why read books? Tell me.

Colum: I read books because people like John Berger create stories that call the world into silence. I read his words with the sort of pleasure that I can’t get from anything else and though it may sound sentimental, the world had changed as a result of having read them. So that, I’d say, is at least one good reason to read books – it can tilt the world in some tiny political, social or moral way, and, god knows, we certainly need some tilting. It’s also the reason to write stories, wouldn’t you say? Television and the internet don’t compete. They don’t call for difficulty (and all things excellent are generally as difficult as they are rare). Certainly on a personal level the television set doesn’t have the power to tilt my own moral universe: except by the horrific reality of the news. Of course television reaches a far wider audience and that’s a dilemma for the writer.

A lot of writing, I must agree, is done by this factory line of sick refrigerators: everyone working far too hard to be cool. The idea of the tortured writer speaking for the people? Come on. What about writers speaking with people? And yes there are too many books being published. But so what? Every now and then a book will come along that will change us.

There are two kinds of books, really – the good and the bad (there’s ugly too, but let’s not go there). In the end the democracy of time will leave the good ones standing. I really believe. I suppose I have to. Otherwise I’d pack it in and take that job I got offered in L.A.

Sasha: You’re right, but the assumption behind your (romantic?) hope is that the books will be read. But here you have Bush, a prime product of an alliterate culture, a hero of the fiction of benevolent capitalism, a priest of languageless, mindless system of belief (rather than thought)—Bush is the exactly opposite of poetry, the enemy of language and thought. Now, I don’t mean this to be invective against the uncurious George, but rather to point at the fact that in the America and the world as imagined by Bush (and those many he represents today), books are obsolete, not only unnecessary, but absolutely irrelevant. The Nazis hated books, but George & Co just don’t give a damn. A book might change your world, but only the way painkillers change your world when you’re in pain—they conceal the pain. And they work only for those in pain.

Colum: Heaping coals on one’s own head is a past time for saints – and then only up to a certain point. I don’t believe in giving way to despondency. I agree with what you say about books being obsolete for people like Bush, but somehow that’s all the more reason to write. I’m not going to turn around and spend my life writing shit television shows just because I feel people aren’t listening. There’s too much power in language. I believe we must have a rage and a belief that it does matter. This is romantic, yes. But romanticism is as equally valid and possible more productive than despondency. Put it like this: when the North of Ireland was being torn apart, limb by fucking limb, there were books being bought in the North, there were poems being written (Heaney, Longley, Carson, Muldoon were all writing political poems).

I don’t know if those poems went on to heal any of the wounds, but I have to believe that they helped, that the fact of their existence was a stay, even if an unrecognized one, against insanity. I advocate poets as Presidents but it’d be ridiculous – to be a poet you must engage in contradiction.

What was it like in Sarajevo? What was it like for you, being in Chicago, watching from afar? Did books matter then? I have to believe that you wrote Question of Bruno from a direct rage about what was being done to, for and around your people?

Sasha: During the siege, Sarajevo had the liveliest, most passionate literary and cultural scene—people published books and put on plays and showed movies as symbolic acts of resistance in the face of Serbian fascism. These events were not just defiant acts of resisting destruction and cultural erasure, but they were communal activities, they reinforced the bonds between the people, while one of the goals of the Serbian fascism was precisely to sever those bonds. They were also, I understand, a consequence of a perpetual adrenalin rush, mainly caused by constant fear. It’s generally agreed that the best literature in the Balkans came out of Sarajevo during and shortly after the war.

But it all fizzled out eventually—people went elsewhere, there was little money to do anything, and hopelessness, along with the sense of being abandoned by the world while the evil powers-to-be won, broke the back of many a Bosnian, writers included. Now it’s hard to get a book published, and very few people read, kids are miseducated, there’s no publishing industry, the library hasn’t been rebuilt yet, but the internet is available. Last time I was in Sarajevo, I went to a cyber café to check my e-mail (being an addict) and the guy next to me was happily surfing bestiality sites, completely undisturbed by the presence of others there. It wasn’t even the crass, pathological impropriety of being aroused by raping beasts, but the fact that he felt he was perfectly alone. Sarajevo and its culture were complicated, rich social networks, but many bonds have been severed. Literature was a matter of collective survival during the war, but it could not (logistically) sustain its relation to life, often isolated and forsaken, after the war, because there is no social infrastructure to support it.

As for me, in Chicago, during the war (and thereafter), I read compulsively. I read the books I used to like before the war to see how they hold up in the face of the calamity, or, for that matter, in the face of my favorite literature professor, who became one of the top five nationalist Serbian leaders, which would have made him a war criminal, had he not shot himself. So some books I liked even more, but some of them I started hating intensely. I became less tolerant of bad books, of idea books and of “writing.” I went to Chekhov to restore my belief in the possibility of human decency, but some books I threw against the wall and spat at them and took them to be a personal insult (Best American Short Stories 1990, edited by Richard Ford, another franchise writer, was the most battered one.) I still have a hard time reading contemporary literature, because most of it is merely writing, and often bad writing at that.

I concede that my disillusionment is probably due to my nearly pathological need for literature—I’m disillusioned because I believe in it so much. Add to it my “Bosnian,” indeed Eastern European, experience. For many generations, my people knew that those in power could not care less about them and their little lives. Which leads me to this question: how much is your work determined by your “Irish” experience? You wrote a book about a Russian/Tatar dancer. Did your Irishness matter either way?

Colum: Well, I’m an Irish writer. I’m also a New Yorker. I hold up these two contradictions and say that, finally, they don’t contradict themselves at all. I suppose my Irishness, the plain fact of growing up there, contributed to my language and my sense of experience. Spending summers in Northern Ireland – hearing about my cousins being hauled off and strip-searched by British squadies at the side of country roads – was an experience that outraged me, politicised me, though I didn’t say anything it for many years. I suppose it was going to London, at the age of eight, to meet my grandfather, who was a drunk, an Irish emigrant, lying half-dead in a nursing home, that made me think that writing could mean something. I walked in the door and he said: “Ah, look, another fucking McCann.” But then I gave him a bottle of whiskey and 200 cigarettes that my father had smuggled into the room. My grandfather sat by the pillow and he told me stories, about the War of Independence, the Irish Civil War. I can still, to this very day, remember the smell of him. It was awful and unforgettable – but has now become completely bearable in memory. I loved that moment. The next week, in school, in Dublin, I was given the assignment of writing about the person I most admired. Naturally I wrote about my grandfather. I was surprised there were people like him in the world. I’d grown up in the suburbs of Dublin. I’d never before gone to London. The fact that people like him were in my blood amazed me.

In addition, just the fact of learning Irish — it’s not my native tongue, but I grew up learning it in school — was instructive. Irish is an altogether different tongue, complicated, onomatopoeic rather than descriptive, and oblique almost to the point of mystery. Meld this, then, with English, and you have quite a concoction. This mixture has all sorts of political and psychological consequences for the Irish writer. A big fat guy called Mulligan didn’t just come down the stairs — rather, “stately plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather …”

We were colonized and we used language as a weapon to defeat our colonizers. Joyce and Beckett and Yeats and Wilde and Co. took the language of the English and wrote it better than the English themselves. And so I grew up in a country where language is still revered and loved – though things are changing and Dublin is twinning itself psychologically with Disneyland these days. It’s awful. But that’s another story.

So my Irishness matters yes, but I don’t want to become a professional Irishman. There could be nothing more boring. Some people say I’m in exile from Ireland, but that’s horseshit. I’m back all the time: both in reality and in my imagination. I don’t think exile can exist for a writer these days (certainly self-imposed exile) as it did for writers like Beckett. How about you? How do you describe yourself now? Is this even a fair question?

Sasha: I don’t describe myself, I write books to avoid describing myself. I think of myself as many people at the same time. I constantly have spy or actor fantasies, I love multiple personalities. When my agent was selling my first book, The Question of Bruno, way back when, she dined with some people in Europe who were convinced I didn’t exist. This was exhilarating to me. As for calling myself Bosnian, it’s a political choice, and not an ontological or metaphysical or genetic situation.

My self is a compound self and definitely unstable. I have to live out all its fantastic possibilities in literature, reading and writing it. Literature is what keeps me together. First and foremost, I’m a writer/reader, everything else is secondary. Perhaps that qualifies as some sort of psychological or psychiatric disorder: Literary Fanatic Syndrome or something.

One of the earliest Jorge Luis Borges essays, written in 1922, is called “The Nothingness of Personality.” In it, the blind poet says: “There’s no whole self. Any of life’s present situations is seamless and sufficient…I, as I write this, am only a certainty that seeks out the words that are most apt to compel your attention. That proposition and a few muscular sensations, and the sight of limp branches that the trees place outside my window, constitute my current I.” Not only true, but beautiful.

Colum: So the trees “place” the branches, and then the tree goes in search of a forest. I suppose I’d describe myself (as I have two kids) as a father first and a writer/reader second. I like when Pasternak says that, despite all appearances, it takes a lot of volume to fill a life.