INTERVIEW WITH RUSSELL BANKS
VL: African-American culture has been an essential part of your writing, but in your latest two novels, Cloudsplitter and The Darling you seem to focus more particularly on the theme of slavery; why is that?
RB: That's sort of the central drama in the history of race in the United States, and in the entire hemisphere really. It'd be unavoidable, you couldn't step around it, not dealing with it some way or another. What I'm really interested in, in the long haul, is trying to enter that history of race from different points of views, from different periods, and in a sense write different chapters in it. The Book of Jamaica deals with it in the Caribbean, Continental Drift in some ways deals with it as it collides in Florida and in the Southern part of the United States in contemporary time, and The Rule of Bone deals with it from the point of view of an American boy in the 1990s. I'm dealing with it in different ways, it's just unavoidable, you can't get away from the issue of, and the history of, and the effects of, slavery in the United States. It's the residue of racism we still struggle with.
VL: In those two novels, you offer a view of white guilt towards slavery, but at two different periods of time; how does the theme of slavery evolve between the two periods?
RB: With Cloudsplitter , what white anti-slavery Americans were dealing with was the profound frustration, even the desperation, that they experienced in the pre-Civil War era. They sensed that there was no way for them to eliminate slavery except through violence. It's something very difficult for us to grasp today, because Americans see the history of the pre-Civil War era looking back through the lens of the Civil War, so it's very difficult for us to imagine what it must have been like when you didn't know the Civil War was coming, anymore than today we think there's a civil war around the corner. We deal with our present realities as best as we can, and as we perceive them. That point of view, going to that era - the 1840s and 1850s - through the eyes of Owen Brown, John Brown, and others in the radical wing of the anti-slavery movement, was very important for me. I wanted to see what it looked like to them and why they behaved the way they behaved, and they seemed intimately linked. Whereas for The Darling of course we're looking at a post-colonial world, and a formal denial of responsibility here in the United States for any events that take place in West Africa particularly, and Liberia even more particularly. That's another kind of blindness we have sitting here today. I suppose both of them are historical fictions in that they are about events, in the case of The Darling, in the near past, and, in the case of Cloudsplitter in the distant past. In both cases there is a kind of denial first of all of the scarifying historical experience preceding the Civil War, and then in the second case the denial of any colonial relationship to Africa.
VL: How present is the theme of slavery in contemporary American culture? In fiction?
RB: It doesn't seem to engage the imagination of contemporary writers, or should I say of contemporary white writers. It does obviously engage the imagination of contemporary black writers. Witness Toni Morrison or any black writer you may want to list. It's a central theme of their work one way or the other, either slavery itself in the case of Toni Morrison's Beloved , or the repercussions, and the aftermath of slavery in the case of so many others down from Ishmael Reed, to John Edgar Wideman, to Gloria Naylor. It's central to their writing, and it's central to mine of course and a few other white writers perhaps. Generally the issue of slavery, and its history, and its aftermath does not engage the imagination of American artists and intellectuals, other than African-Americans, because there's a kind of denial operating in the society generally with regard to that history. We like to think that was then and this is now, it's over now, let's get beyond it, let's get on with our white lives. That's why I guess I'm engaged in it, I'm not engaged in it because, obviously, I'm not African-American, but I'm not engaged in it either because I bear some kind of obsessive fix on it. It's really because I think it is the central story in the United States. It's what distinguishes us from so many other countries in the world, and I'm engaged with it because of the degree to which we deny that. This is where a novelist tends to work anyhow it's in that part of our experience that we're in denial of.
VL: Hannah Musgrave, your Darling, has emerged from the turbulent 1960s, where she was very much involved in radical groups, and she seems to need to make amends, as far as the slavery heritage is concerned. However, when she goes to Liberia, and marries an African politician, she eventually finds herself unable to embrace his culture and that of his ancestors. Is she just realizing that there are cultural differences we cannot overcome?
RB: I'm not so sure she realizes that at first, because she's experiencing it not on an ideological or intellectual level, but she's experiencing it in an entirely personal, subjective way, a very particularized way, which is how we generally experience these things anyhow if we're going to do it authentically. I don't think she is that conscious of it at the time, I was conscious of it in the process of writing it of course. There's that one episode where she goes into the bush with Woodrow, before she's married him, to meet his people as he calls them. She's locked out figuratively and almost literally, first she circles the compound, she can't get in until someone finally escorts her underneath the palisade and into the compound. Then she's repelled by their dietary habits, if you will, and flees. That's a kind of figurative representation of her being left out, and that's how she experiences it. Of course this is not unusual, and she could have turned into, as she says it, an "anthropologist of my own family." She doesn't do that partly I suppose because of its difficulty, and she senses the inauthenticity that that would impose upon her. It's an intriguing question really, because the character of Hannah is a complex and mixed figure. She's like any of us I suppose in that she's conflicted, and self- contradictory in many ways. It makes some readers a little anxious about the book and her character, because they can't easily like her or easily dislike her. Whenever that question comes up I always say, what about Madame Bovary? She's a little difficult at times too!
VL: Do you consider that there are barriers that prevent people from understanding that even somebody with her background cannot break ?
RB: I'm not sure we can't break them, but we can't break them easily. We certainly can't break them by means of ideology or intellection. We can't think our way through those barriers. We have to live the life. It happens when someone wants to understand what it is to be French, and they live in France for a while, they may even marry a French person, and they still can't get there. We're talking Western Europeans here, versus North Americans. Same thing when a French person comes here. I have many friends like that, who've been living here for a while, and they still, on some level, don't get it. I suppose one can though. I lived in Jamaica for two years in the 1970s, and brought to that experience all kinds of liberal attitudes and ideologies and principles and ethics and so forth to the process. But I came away puzzled, frustrated, unable to penetrate what it was like really to be a Jamaican.
VL: You mention the Fuama incident, when Hannah visits Woodrow's people, but she is the one who refuses to endorse the culture of Woodrow's ancestors. She steps out of it when they seem to welcome her. Is this a trace of "internalized racism" on her part, of the kind of "internalized racism" that is really inherent to the 1960s ways, and that has to be dealt with somehow?
RB: I don't know if I would go so far as to say it's an internalized racism. The way I feel is--and this is a side of the novel actually--if you are raised in a culture that is itself racist or sexist, the only way you can override that cultural default is through an ongoing, constant critique, and attack, on your own consciousness, to the degree that that's formed by the culture. It has to be ongoing. It's not something that you can say "Oh, I see," and that's the end of it, because the pressure of your culture is constant and ongoing. It's not something that just hits you when you're a child and when you're raised in a particular context in family or community. It's ongoing, and steady. I don't think that's peculiar to the 1960s, or any other time, and I'm of that generation of course. It seems to me that one of the virtues of that era--and there were many despite the revisionist view of the 1960s and 1970s that's prevalent today--is the willingness of that generation, the whites in that generation, to confront their own racism, however ineptly and inadequately, and to confront their own sexism too, however ineptly and inadequately. That is to me an admirable thing given the norms of our culture. It is something that did not take deep root. It's not something that present generations are willing to do, or able to do it seems. I don't want to overcriticize, just because that particular generation of radical Americans was in many ways self-deluded, and naïve, and self-absorbed. Despite all that, there were these virtues, and I was trying to get that mix in The Darling . Yes, there was some really wonderful idealism in that era, and it has driven the people of that era. It has controlled and organized their lives as they've gotten older too. It's not for nothing that Hannah is running an organic farm with only women in upstate New York. In fact that's how many of the radicals of that era ended up in their sixties. They're living in cities like Cleveland organizing welfare-moms, or something like that, or might get an AIDS clinic set up here in Portland perhaps. You see them all across the country with a grizzled kind of gray ponytail and granny glasses. You've got to admire those people, what they have done, even though historical shifts and changes have made it impossible for them to change society in any radical way, they've kept those ideas and ideals alive. That's going to prove important down the line, to the young particularly. If we let those ideas die, those ideals die, as history shifts so fast--in this country particularly--and people forget so quickly, then there will be no way to resurrect those ideals and ideas and apply them further down the line. The Darling is a way of both acknowledging the historical and social reality on the one hand--and the change between the 1960s, 1970s and today--but also of affirming a few of the central ideals of that era as well.
VL: When Hannah/Dawn tries to learn the native language in Liberia, she explains that whenever the natives did not want her to understand what they were saying they simply spoke faster or changed tones. At that point we realize that by its very humanness language is a quality she almost totally mistrusts. The only pure communications she has during the novel are with her chimpanzees, and her father when they have a wordless conversation with eye language on his deathbed. Why has language fallen so low in her mind?
RB: I'm not sure I have the answer to that. There's a sense that even though I wrote the book, I don't necessarily understand it any better than anybody else. It's funny you should ask because I'm looking here at this coffee cup, it has a quote from Roger Ebert. I had another one earlier this morning with a quote from Quincy Jones, the musician. I have a quote coming that's taken from The Darling . It's kind of funny that five million coffee cups will have a couple of sentences taken from The Darling , but it's very much about that, about silence. At some point Hannah says that silence is golden. She believes if we couldn't speak then we wouldn't be killing each other. She's thinking about the other species, but particularly chimpanzees. They seem so human to her, except for the inability to speak. There is, I suppose, underlying the very process of writing a book, writing that book or any book for that matter, a certain mistrust of language that any writer has. If you write long enough, you begin to realize how slippery language is, how manipulative it is. Even though you're a practitioner, you're one of those who is manipulating and utilizing language, and depending upon it for your life and for any kind of coherence. It nonetheless needs to be mistrusted. In Hannah's particular case, there's first the language of family. She does talk about how her mother talks and how her mother reverses the polarity. So when she wants to be seen as talking about someone else, she's in fact talking about herself in a narcissistic reversal of language. She uses that to reveal her mother's narcissism and failures of character. There's also her father who uses the language of an expert parent--he is a world expert on raising children--yet it is in some way always self-aggrandizing. Then there's the language of ideology, which she regularly talks about, how they used to talk about a revolution, talk about imperialism, and so forth. It's as if those terms and words are no longer functioning, yet they once believed in them. So, yes, she mistrusts language throughout. It is a theme, not a central theme, but it's certainly a theme in the novel: the ability of language to mislead and exploit us, and how language allows us to exploit others too.
VL: An interpretation of the opening sentence of the novel could be that her "human" dreams are not considered dreams anymore, and only when she dreams of the chimpanzees--her "dreamers" as she calls them--does she acknowledge it as a dream. What brings her so close to the chimpanzees?
RB: It's hard to know. Again, I have to keep falling back on saying that I don't really always understand why things end up the way they do in a novel. I can almost only revert to my own experience of chimpanzees from when I first started spending time with them, which was before I really began the book. Wanting to write the book reinforced my desire to spend time with chimpanzees, and spending time with chimpanzees reinforced my desire to write the book. When I first encountered them face to face in a chimp sanctuary just over the border in Quebec, I became friendly with the woman who runs it and visited fairly regularly. She has between fifteen and twenty chimpanzees that she has saved, mostly from medical experimentation and some from the entertainment industry. They are very powerful presences. It's very difficult to get around them, to ignore them and to objectify them. There's a profound connection that I think is unavoidable between chimpanzees and humans, if you allow yourself to be responsive to it. I had that connection very quickly and consistently. So when they appeared in the novel, it was not difficult for me to imagine--given her circumstances, and her background, and given her reasons for being, given all that, which is quite different from my own--that she would become fixated on them. They would replace her inability to connect to human beings, her sense of isolation, and her otherness. I guess that's why they're so central. I don't mean to have any large symbolic meaning, although there no doubt is. I don't have a scheme or some kind of emblematic grid that I was trying to lay down on the text; it's somewhat different from that--a looser and more intuitive process.
VL: Why have her dreams stopped belonging to the human sphere?
RB: Well I think the pain, and the shame. She says, "My story is a story of too late." It's too late to go back and redo her past. You can't redo your past. At another place she says, "My story is a story of abandonment and betrayal," which includes her sons, her husband, her husband's world, her parents, but also, as it turns out, the chimpanzees. She has a lot to be ashamed of from her point of view, not from mine because I don't judge her. With the opening of the novel I was hoping I would just open the door of the beginning of her confrontation with her past. The book is essentially one long confession. You can't do it all at once. Every now and then she pauses and says, "I can't tell you that now, but I'll tell you later, maybe I'll get to it, maybe I won't;" because it's gradual, a process, as it would be for any of us who had a complex and painful past, as she had.
VL: A consequence of the abandonment of speech is that she appears cold both as a woman and as a mother, something she keeps denying throughout the novel. Why does she have to keep denying it?
RB: I think it's because she isn't simply cold, or she wouldn't be able to tell this story. She's conflicted, she's afraid, and angry on certain psychological levels. She's removed from people like her because of her ethical and political views, and she's removed from people who are unlike her because of culture, race, and class. In a sense she is an isolated person, and I think that's why she appears cold, but she's not cold. She's unable to express that except in the course of the novel, otherwise you wouldn't have any feelings for her.
VL: Has her loss of confidence in language anything to do with it?
RB: Not necessarily. As a character, as a human being, she's a kind of borderline narcissist. There are very few characters in literature, at least in the West, who we could call a narcissist. Madame Bovary is one of them actually. There's a Chekhov short story called The Darling . I don't know what it's called it in French, in fact I advised my translator to find the Chekhov story The Darling , but he hasn't been able to find it in French. That woman in the Chekhov story and Madame Bovary are the only two figures I can think of in literature who are narcissists and who are also sympathetic at the same time. I was attempting to do that with Hannah. It's a kind of person that many of us find it easy to love at first and then difficult to embrace in an ongoing way; and yet it's a painful kind of narcissistic consciousness to experience. I think those two works of fiction grasp that, and I was attempting to do that as well. If you're a full-blown narcissist like Hannah's mother, it's almost impossible to feel sympathy for her except in a detached way; but Hannah's not that full-blown. She is struggling with it and under certain circumstances she could be like her mother.
VL: At the end of the book, she sadly witnesses the rewriting of American History after 9/11. She defines herself at some point as a "battered woman [...] victimized by ideology." If we relate those two events, can we say that here again language is turning against her because History is not a truth, but a matter of point of view, and it can be erased and modified, and more importantly rewritten , to suit ideologies?
RB: I don't know if I can follow quite that far with regard to the issue of mistrusting language. I think you are projecting something into the text that I had no great ambition for. It's a theme I don't argue with you there--but it's not a central theme for me. These things do end up in a book regardless of the author's intentions, so I'm not going to argue too hard with you about it. For me the central theme, and it's one I've gone back to in other books in other ways, is the unintended consequences of good intentions. She is in many ways emblematic even of American foreign policy if you want. Today in other areas of the world, especially in a post-9/11 world, we are suddenly filled with good intentions and are killing people as a result and probably radically altering our society in the process in a very dangerous way. You can look at the history of Liberia for instance: the creation of Liberia. In its conception there were good intentions lying behind it. There was a nefarious and a dark side to those good intentions as there almost inevitably are because pure motives don't exist. The bloody civil war that started in 1980 is in fact the unintended consequence of good intentions, which started in the 1820s. Let's send them back to Africa, make the world safe and pretty, make it civilized and Christianized, and at the same time solve our race problem here in the United States with all those free blacks appearing in the streets of Philadelphia or New York. That to me is the central theme running through the book. I like to think of Hannah as emblematic of that; her life is that, the good intentions of the 1960s and 1970s, and the unintended consequences of it that she experiences very directly. Her engagement with the chimpanzees, her hope to save them, leads to their death. Instead of freeing them into the jungle she puts them on an island to save them, but they can't swim, so that imprisons them as well.
VL: Why did you choose to include this massive process of historical fictionalization in the novel, as in the end it's only Hannah Musgrave's truth; The Darling is still a work of fiction and should be read as such?
RB: It does have historical figures in it, like Charles Taylor, Samuel Doe, and John Kerry who was in the text before he ran. Kerry was an interesting figure to me. I knew him in the 1970s; he was an extremely promising young man, and a very brave one back then. He was just the kind of figure that seemed to be, like Hannah in some way, emblematic of that theme. He is someone who--over the period of 25 or 30 years in between his youth and now-- had become in many ways a different person, so I thought he would be appropriate to be in this novel. Then of course he ran for president to prove my point by the kind of candidate he became. Having historical figures brings several things. I could have excluded all that, by setting the story in a fictional African country. Actually I even thought of it. I talked to a friend of mine who was raised in Congo, a man who understands and knows the history of Liberia very well. I told him I was thinking of putting this story in a fictional African country, which is generally what's done. Then I thought, "Why would I do that?" I could be afraid that someone would draw connections to this historical reality. Well I want those connections, it's part of the context. If I were writing a fiction that I would set in New York City in the 1960s or 1970s, I wouldn't exclude the historical realities or geography of that place. I wouldn't call it "Metropolis," or "Megalopolis," I would call it New York City. There's no reason not to do that. The more complicated decision comes with regard to using historical figures in a story, as I also did in Cloudsplitter . Historical figures show up all the time in that novel, like Frederick Douglass. Even Ralph Waldo Emerson shows up, he makes a brief appearance. Once again I could have excluded those historical figures, but why shouldn't I put them in? It is highly likely that they would have met each other. In fact they did; I know John Brown did meet Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I don't know that he heard Ralph Waldo Emerson read that particular lecture on heroism at Charles Street Meeting House. I know he met Frederick Douglass on several occasions, and Douglass was a big part of his plan. Same thing if you go to a small country like Liberia and you're a white American. If you marry a minor minister in the government, you're going to end up meeting everybody in the elite class at some point or other, including the president. What am I going to do? Make up a name for the president? Once you commit yourself to a certain level of realism in fiction, then your problems are primarily those of plausibility. It seems only plausible that her parents would know John Kerry and go on a whitewater rafting trip with him and William Sloane Coffin the great reverend, why not? So there they are, present mainly out of a desire for plausibility, but also out of a desire to utilize the iconic quality that certain figures bring. If you evoke Che Guevara in a story of fiction, who has such an iconic quality, just the mere mention of his name invokes a visual image. It invokes rich associations. Same thing if you evoke Charles Taylor. You see a face, well if you've been reading the newspapers, there is a figure to that--same with John Kerry. A public person has this sort of iconic figure, and there was a desire to tap into that as well.
VL: What effect did you intend to produce when Hannah concludes that her story is irrelevant--a conclusion that also puts into question the very purpose of your novel? Why write the story at all?
RB: Of course that's her perspective, that she sees in the context of the unfolding events after September 11, 2001. She's telling the story, the story about her return to Africa, and her return to the United States from Africa takes place over that period. She's returning right on the same day in fact. Her view of it is that it redefines American history, and she sees it as one of those hinges. Her history in the way it is connected to American history is really of the past, of the preceding era. Then there was a historical shift, and she's no longer connected to that post-9/11 world. My own personal view is somewhat different from that, which perhaps answers the question "why bother to write the book?" because it does subvert the intentionality of the book. I don't feel as though I'm merely and only and solely connected to the era that precedes 9/11. I'm obviously living in a post-9/11 world, and writing in a post-9/11 world. What has happened is that I view the years leading up to 9/11 differently as a result of that event. I do think the world has changed. You could not live as she lives in a post-9/11 world, you could not travel the way she travels, as you could not engage in the forms of opposition she did as a young woman. Today the kind of terrorist acts and the profoundly engaged opposition that she engaged in couldn't take place simply because of the security apparatus put in place since 9/11, and because of the technology that exists today. She notes that in the days before computers you could slip and slide right through the net--you couldn't track people, nor was there a particular desire to track people in so many numbers. Now in this post-9/11 world her principle of opposition to the government, to its policies, and the ways in which it was expressed could not occur. I really believe that we are in a different era in that way. We are in a much more closed-down society, a much more top-down controlled society, and a much more carefully secured and enforced society. I'm trying to watch the shift. It's a tectonic shift in our culture right now. As a novelist--as a citizen really--I feel one of my responsibilities is to track those shifts. I'm 65 years old, so I have a long memory compared to kids coming up. One of the things a novelist does is preserve memory because we forget so fast. I was thinking the other day that we're now nearly four years on after 9/11. Someone coming out of high school into college today was probably 13 or 14 when 9/11 occurred. His or her idea of society is shaped by those years; they have no memory of anything before. Therefore the security apparatus you go through at an airport, the tracking of people, the profiling of people, the idea that somewhere out there there are a billion people who hate us for our freedom all seem normal. These are normal conceptions of the world because there's nothing to compare it to in their lives. In another four years, anyone entering adult life at ages 18, 19, or 20 would have been 9 or 10 years old when 9/11 occurred. Add another four years, and then they will not even have been born in 2001. That means there is no memory left for those kids. What I'm trying to do--and I think any novelist is trying to do that in some ways--is to preserve that memory. I have a very clear memory going back to the 1950s, and I don't want it lost because there was a difference. I'm not being nostalgic or sentimental about it. There is a structural difference.
VL: When did you start writing The Darling ?
RB: It was right about 9/11, but I was bringing the materials forward before that. The framing of it around 9/11 was intentional from the very beginning. I was aware that this leads right into that era when she leaves for Africa, so I set it deliberately in late August 2001 when she wakes up that morning and begins this return. I didn't know for sure how it would play into the story, but I wanted it leading to that point. I didn't want to write about 9/11 as such. I wanted it to be the context, sort of the shadow that lurks in the background. You're not even aware of it as you read the book, but the information is there if you want to find it in the opening pages.
VL: The book opens with her dream of Africa, and when it closes she says her story has no relevance in a "larger world," is that a call to keep looking at this larger world?
RB: Well, again, we must distinguish between her perspective and my own. She believes at the end of the book that her story has no meaning in a larger world today because it's a life that no one could live again. I don't believe that, or I wouldn't have written the novel. My own personal intention is obviously engaged by the larger world today. I think her story is relevant and does have meaning in a larger world. It certainly does for me personally. We have to make a distinction between the author's perspective on the world, which is represented by the book as a whole, and the narrator's perspective on the world, which is represented by her subjective experience of her own life.
PORTLAND, April 24, 05