An Interview with Askold Melnyczuk

IMG_2888Askold Melnyczuk’s latest novel is excerpt from Smedley’s Secret Guide to World Literature (2016). His 2008 novel The House of Widows, was an Editor’s Choice selection of the American Library Association’s Booklist. His second, Ambassador of the Dead, was a Los Angeles Times Best book for 2002 and is included on Citizen Works’ Progressive Reading List. His first, What is Told, was a New York Times Notable Book. He has received a three-year fellowship in fiction from the Lila Wallace Foundation, and numerous grants from the NEA for his work as editor of Agni, which he founded in 1972 and for which, in 2001, he received the Magid Award from PEN which described the journal as “one of America’s, and the world’s, most significant literary journals.” A translator, editor, essayist, and publisher, he currently teaches at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where he also taught the founders of Hamdard. We know we will be reading his responses to our questions over and over again for many years to come! Thank you, Professor Melnyczuk!

As head of the Creative Writing department at UMass Boston what are you most concerned about teaching the new cohort of writers, especially in light of recent events, namely the travel bans, the rise in racially-motivated hate crimes, and the general sense of doom that has come to settle on us? Has this changed the atmosphere in the classroom?

Askold: We carry our individual and collective worlds into a classroom. Our art represents our effort to weave meaning out of the multiple strands of experience, into a fabric that might in some way warm, protect, and eventually transport our readers into another level of awareness.

I think it’s essential that, in a period such as this one, where a myriad forces conspire to pull us from our centers, we do not become merely reactive. To avoid simply responding to the calculatedly random stimuli, we must first root ourselves in that deep common element we share. It’s a tricky thing to talk about. I prefer to approach it via the kind of oblique poems Czeslaw Milosz, who lived through the worst of the Second World War, wrote in the middle years of the last century: “And yet the world is different from what it seems to be/ and we are other than how we see ourselves in our ravings.”

Once we plant ourselves inside our own invincibility, we can begin to see what we have to offer to the questions that most urgently need answering. To continue seeing each other as individuals rather than as somehow inextricably linked to whatever phenotype we appear to represent will help keep us grounded in the real, and prevent us from being swept up into the false empyrean where all big abstract questions go to die, often taking their adherents with them.

As has been pointed out, Trump is simply the embodiment of the kind of gangster capitalism the U.S. has supported forever. Many of us wrote about the income gap back in the nineties, when the Clintons did their best to make wealth chic for liberals. So many smart people pointed out that we were in the process of fiscalizing everything. There’s a history to things.

The current obscenities arriving as edicts from Washington, DC must be understood clearly. If we keep in mind their specific targets and weigh their goals with our own sense of justice we will be less liable to succumb to fear and anxiety, which thrive in an atmosphere of innuendo, rumor, and allegation. A thousand uncertainties (about our own circumstances, about what will happen to us or to our friends tomorrow) chafe against our desire for certainty and routine, even as we know, and as Ben Jonson put it, that security is “the common moth, that eats/at arts and wits/and destroys them both.”

But in the end, every writer has to feel her own way out into the world. Each decides individually how she might best respond to the current social climate. Walt Whitman tended the wounded during the Civil War. Holed up in Amherst, Emily Dickinson enjoyed her most prolific period, writing among other things: “It feels a shame to be Alive.” Both registered the tragedy in their own way. It’s also worth evoking that period in American history for the sensational way it revealed the deep rifts running through this country’s psyche. I’d further note that the United States hasn’t been the locus of war since then—a blessing whose unfortunate side-effect is that we appear ignorant of what it means to have your home blown off the map, a horror we’ve visited on so many others, in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Iraq, Syria.

Speaking of Syria and other such places…for those of us whose birthplace isn’t America but call the U.S. our home, we find ourselves spending an inordinate amount of time worrying over the news. O! What has befallen us now! Is this something you struggle with? Do you try to “unplug?” Or do you draw inspiration from the news?

Askold: Like too many of us, I’ve grown increasingly fidgety and check the news much too often. But, maybe because I grew up in the sixties, I can’t recall a time when I didn’t feel some version of “O what has befallen us now!” In my lifetime I watched this country contribute to slaughter of three million people in Vietnam—two thirds of them civilians! The assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Harvey Milk. The cold war. Our ruthless dealings in South and Central America. Iran/Contra. Nixon. And then the disaster of 9/11 and the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld response, which has led to the worst refugee crises since World War II, which was how my family came to be here in the first place—forced to leave their native (but occupied) land, spending five years in a refugee camp, before arriving in a country which could hardly be said to have welcomed them with open arms….

At the same time, I’ve also witnessed and, I hope, participated, in a resistance to the cult and culture of violence so many regard as the human norm. The civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the peace movement, the LGBTQ movement: each can claim substantial victories over the last decades. None has ever folded, or retreated so much as an inch. Newspapers like The New York Times are better than ever. Neither Amy Goodman nor Glenn Greenwald have thrown in the towel. And look at how you’ve been galvanized into action! The Trump presidency represents what I believe is a temporary setback. This doesn’t make the moment any less grave. The glibness with which so many of our “representatives” have abandoned any pretense of concern for human rights over profits, the retreat into atavistic nationalism: these are profoundly unsettling, yes, but, they are, or so I believe, temporary losses.

I’ve unplugged for a couple of days at a time and I encourage everyone to do so regularly, as your work allows. Certainly the public dramas of the day are finding their way into my work. This new novel begins with the Russian Revolution, which strikes me as one of those axial moments in which another fundamental and universal struggle asserted its terms. To look closely at the ideas and motivations of the participants is to see how convoluted is the relationship between ideas and deeds, how mixed the motives of all the players. It’s very tempting to simplify things to “the class struggle.” What I see animating world history—if I may be so presumptuous—is rather a struggle among competing values, themselves based on differing perceptions, insights, and understandings of our very nature—even of nature itself.

Please say more…especially about how your own writing gives you hope?

Askold: The act of it. The satisfaction that the work of others gives me. The insight, consolation, and delight I get from reading writers like Fanny Howe or Tom Sleigh or George Scialabba or Thomas Sayers Ellis or Derek Walcott. These writers find ways to get under, around, behind phenomena, representing experience in a way that illuminates it while quickening the reader. Knowing what others have done and are doing inspires me to keep trying to do likewise.

Don DeLillo said it so beautifully: “Every sentence has a truth waiting at the end of it and the writer learns how to know it when he finally gets there. On one level this truth is the swing of the sentence, the beat and poise, but down deeper it’s the integrity of the writer as he matches with the language. I’ve always seen myself in sentences. I begin to recognize myself, word by word, as I work through a sentence. The language of my books has shaped me as a man. There’s a moral force in a sentence when it comes out right. It speaks the writer’s will to live.”

Indeed, that is beautiful! Thank you for that! Back to your work. You tend to focus on the interconnected histories of various places across the globe. A case in point, your 2008 novel, The House of Widows. History can provide answers to certain questions that are plaguing us today. However, history can also be contentious and divisive. So much of history is lost, misremembered, misrepresented. We keep hearing, no one even reads books anymore! How do you then get readers (few as they might be) interested in history? A writer has to keep inventing new ways of slipping history through somehow. How do you contend with this?

Askold: I love the idea of “inventing new ways of slipping history through somehow.” My old friend, the great St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott, used to say that a writer’s proper companions are philosophers and historians.

Of course, what you say is sadly accurate, at least in terms of the numbers of people who read and care about history. But I think we dare not play the numbers game. I know “high culture” – at least the term – is in disfavor as somehow undemocratic. I would assert, however, that for me there’s a distinct difference between the mission of popular culture and what I’d simply call art. The first can successfully, wittily, gracefully, and tunefully reflect aspects of our world back to us. But the effect of its reflection is to lull us into acceptance. Art, for me, is work that creates in me a sense of heightening, a punching up of the moment, a change in atmosphere. When I reach the end of a fine novel (say Khaled Khalifa’s In Praise of Hatred) or a great poem (say Walcott’s Season of Phantasmal Peace) I want to feel stimulated, clarified, as well as intellectually and spiritually fortified and emboldened. The work itself may seem to be “depressing”—as Khalifa’s portrait of Syria’s earlier stab at self-immolation in the nineteen eighties most definitely is—yet the final effect is to leave me with a better understanding of the complex forces at play at an intimate level, not in the language of geopolitics, but in the private vocabulary of family, in the way others speak to themselves in their most secret moments when they are alone with the alone. Such encounters leave me feeling less lost, less lonely, and, I hope, a little braver.

That was a very packed response! You not only made the case for literature and the high arts, but also gave us a little insight as to how history could be slipped into art, and even the less contentious aspects of history… “Not in the language of geopolitics,” as you say, “but in the private vocabulary of family.” A writer has to go there with her characters…where they are “alone with the alone.” Beautiful!

Relatedly, and you’ve already hinted at this in your previous response, what is the role of literature at times like these? I ask this because, both reading and writing can be a source of angst, making us question where our loyalties lie, where our subjects are, who our audience is. You especially tend to ask these questions if in your adopted homeland, you suddenly feel unwelcomed, targeted, threatened. What words of wisdom can you offer to those of us who feel this way? Is there hope in literature? Can there be a miraculous universalism that literature can offer us? Or are we plagued to take sides because we are forever defined and confined by our passports?

Askold: You are asking essential questions. I’d say a couple of things. First, I would caution against presuming that “natives” feel any less lost or unwelcomed, even if they, or rather their families, have been here for centuries. Indeed, I’d say that one of the things we see in the melodramatic ravings of hyper-muscled, well-armed white men who may or may not spout racist ideas is, first of all, fear. It’s been said many times before that the civil war isn’t over yet, any more so than the class war. Remember that regularly misunderstood quip by the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai who, when asked what he thought about the French Revolution, said it was “too early” to judge? And what’s more pathetic than the population that hides inside a “gated community?”

I don’t for a minute think we’re defined by our passports—do you? I bet not. We are so much larger than we have language for. It’s the writer’s job to keep reminding us of this. The vocabulary of politics can easily become a trap. Its structure is by nature full of false dichotomies, simplistic definitions, and distorted oppositions.

When Walt Whitman asked us to “Look at the grass,” he was trying to remind us that we not only dwell among mysteries, but that we ourselves are possibly the chiefest of those mysteries. I like to approach our being here as an open question to which art offers a provisional and partial answer. Remember that bold passage from the end of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile and cunning.”

I think there’s great hope in literature. It offers companionship, insight, and immersion in otherness. These are among the deepest pleasures in life. The experience of art is itself a pleasure, and it reminds us of the way in which a certain kind of pleasure can begin to feel like meaning. And that is why real artists almost always seem to feel a kinship with each other no matter where they start from. By devoting yourself to that “third thing,” your art, you commune with all who have ever tried to do likewise, everywhere in the world.

Tell your story, the one you alone can tell, and the world will immediately grow larger and richer. And it needn’t be about you. Dwight Garner wrote a wonderful review of what sounds like an amazing book of poetry in The New York Times which my wife pointed out to me. Written by a woman named Molly McCully, who herself has cerebral palsy, the book’s poems focus on the lives of the inmates of a “hospital” for the “feeble minded” which was “a house of horrors.” The doctors sterilized patients and conducted experiments on them and, these were people who had no voice in the world and no place in society until McCully arrived to channel their lives so that they might help us grow more human.

Speaking of people who have no voice, we are facing the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. Yet, the president of the United States, the country that was most welcoming to refugees after World War II, has made it clear that opening doors to refugees is tantamount to stupidity. What would you say to those who support this rhetoric?

Askold: Shame on you. Shame on you. History will record this as a turn toward the dark ages. But we will not go back. Few things get me going more quickly than the cruel and stupid rhetoric and behavior of those thugs in Washington whose abstract pronouncements have such real consequences in the lives of the most vulnerable denizens of this country. Shame on those creeps and bastards, imprisoned by their fear, hatred, and ignorance. Beyond that, if you have any opportunity to help these beleaguered populations, seize it. Your actions now will serve you well in the years to come.

Indeed! You know, in such times it is easy for some of us to question our loyalties, to feel uncomfortable with the idea of belonging to a place like America, whatever it might mean. Do you have any clarity on this? What does America mean to you?

Askold: As may have become clear from the above, I think the fiction of “America” is potentially pernicious. There are values which some of us associate with America—the very ones enshrined in the opening of the Constitution, in fact: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” Anyone who sincerely holds these values is my fellow-citizen in the republic of the Imagination. You can call it what you wish. The irony of these words being signed by slave-owning white men is one reason I am not an “originalist.”

I also take heart from this observation by Jonathan Swift: “I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is toward individuals.”

Can we take this back to literature? What kind of writing should we be reading, and as writers aspiring toward?

Askold: If the prose or poetry don’t carry more than a response to current political issues they’re not likely to be more than journalism. Probing and revealing the private motivations and intuitions concealed behind or beneath our public actions are that added dimension I look for in art. For some reason, I think of these lines from a poem Bertolt Brecht:

“And I always thought: the very simplest words
Must be enough. When I say what things are like
Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds.
That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself
Surely you see that.”

You don’t need to know much about Brecht to feel the truth and force of the sentiment.

A word about the future…a lament perhaps for liberal democracy? There’s a beautiful line in your novel, The House of Widows: “Youth is a desert. We enter singing, but we crawl out hoarse.” Would you say, liberal democracy has perhaps arrived at a moment of hoarseness?

Askold: I would say liberal democracy is on the verge of being born. The advances in civil liberties over the last century—the setbacks of this last year notwithstanding—will not be lost. The struggle is engaged. You are part of it, and I would say you are a large part of the reason I am certain the forces of good, of light, and of hope—to use three beleaguered words which are nevertheless so much more than mere metaphors—will ultimately prevail.


The questions and answers have been modified slightly from the original to conform to the format of the site.


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