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Barbados RPCV Bob Shacochis: Our Man in Haiti
Barbados RPCV Bob Shacochis: Our Man in Haiti
Bob Shacochis: Our Man in Haiti
by Wendy Smith -- 2/1/99
"There are other vocations where you can work for three years and end up with nothing, but not too many."
It seems only fitting that an interview with Bob Shacochis should begin over a meal. Although he's best known for such fiction as Easy in the Islands (1985) and Swimming in the Volcano (1993), readers of his "Dining In" columns for GQ magazine (collected in Domesticity, 1994) know that Shacochis is as passionate about creative cooking as he is about creative writing. Even in his new book, The Immaculate Invasion, just out from Viking , a grim account of the anarchy he observed while covering the U.S. Army's 1994-95 operations to restore President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and democracy in Haiti, Shacochis finds time to tell us that "the embargo's impact on one's opportunity for fine dining in Pétionville was zero." For Shacochis, the irony of an isolated elite savoring rack of lamb and fine French wines while Haiti falls apart says as much about the nation's intractable social problems as d s the violence tellingly depicted elsewhere in the book.
In Shacochis's home base of Tallahassee -- "cracker country," he bluntly calls it -- he has managed to find a good French restaurant and to befriend its owner, who drops by during our lunch to say hello. Also present is "Miss F.," Shacochis's companion of 23 years, who proves as charismatic and opinionated in person as in the loving portrait of her that runs through the pages of Domesticity. (The executive director of a Florida civil-liberties foundation, she prefers to remain anonymous in coverage of her common-law husband's career.) Conversation around the table centers on Miss F.'s recent run-in with Governor Jeb Bush and the commencement of President Clinton's impeachment trial, by which the staunchly liberal couple is, unsurprisingly, appalled. It d sn't turn to literary matters until Miss F. has departed for her office and Shacochis has piloted an impressively mud-stained sports utility vehicle, complete with two beautiful Irish setters sitting quietly in the back, to their nearby house.
The mud is a relic of a three-day drive from Santa Fe, home of Outside magazine, where Shacochis is a contributing editor. He has the same title at Harper's, which published his cover story on Haiti in 1995. Shacochis finds journalism a better way to pay the bills than teaching (which he's done, too), and his knowledge of the Caribbean, where he lived for several years and where much of his fiction is set, made him an obvious choice to write about the U.S. engagement in Haiti. "I had zero plans to do a book," he says, "but Barbara Grossman [his longtime editor] asked me when she found out I was doing the article. At the time, we agreed it would be a book on Haitian culture, Haitian people, Haitian dynamics; that was something I felt I could do well, and I didn't think I would have enough access to the military to write a book about it. But when I got to Haiti, I discovered I had access unprecedented since the Vietnam War. I was fascinated by this new generation of American warriors: the level of competence, professionalism, common sense, good humor, integrity -- I liked them, and it was scary."
Scary because these generally admirable soldiers were operating in an atmosphere of political and moral confusion decidedly reminiscent of Vietnam. In Shacochis's scathing depiction, the good intentions of a particular Special Forces unit, working to help the much-abused Haitian people regain control of their lives, are stymied by higher-ups who insisted that discredited local authorities (quite probably responsible for murders as well as endemic corruption) be regarded as "the loyal opposition."
The Empire Strikes Back
Although Shacochis writes knowledgeably -- and with a definite point of view -- about the internal situation in Haiti, The Immaculate Invasion is, as he notes in his preface, "about America... about how a nation that dares to call itself indispensable g s about its business in a world it in many ways owns yet will never control."
This theme links the book to Shacochis's fiction, which frequently examines the lives of Americans in the post-colonial Caribbean. Even as his characters in Swimming in the Volcano immerse themselves in the local culture, evoked with sensuous specificity in Shacochis's pitch-perfect prose, the author reminds us that their affluence and white skin still gain them many privileges, although the new reality of black political power on occasion dramatically abrogates those privileges.
Though Shacochis sees his work as carrying out the tradition of the literature of empire that he traces from Virgil to Kipling, Orwell, Robert Stone and Paul Theroux, he also feels a kinship with such non-Caucasian writers as Derek Walcott and Chinua Achebe, who explore this subject matter from the point of view of those colonized. "There's finally a wholeness to this literature. The greatest thing that's happened in my generation of the literary village is the opening of doors to the many different voices of women and ethnic groups that have always been shut out."
As a white writer limning the complexities of non-white societies, Shacochis is sensitive to charges of literary imperialism. "I'm writing about Americans in the Caribbean," he stresses. "That distinction is very important to me. We're everywhere; everything we do influences the life of everyone else on this planet. If our literature d sn't reflect that ubiquity of the American experience in the world, our literature is failing. We do own the world, for better or worse, and I know how offensive that is to a great many people. Those people have to understand that it's offensive to me, too, and I write about it from the quasi-subversive position of the great post-colonial writers. Twain, Conrad, Orwell; those writers had everything to do with the shift away from European ownership of the world. That's an awfully hard damn thing to do, to raise the consciousness of the people. When Garry Trudeau started smacking Nike in Doonesbury about paying kids 30 cents a day to make sh s, that really had an effect. That's the power of art."
Born in 1951, raised in the Virginia suburbs outside of Washington, D.C., Shacochis is very much a child of the '60s who remains suspicious of received wisdoms and institutions. (He and Miss F. both have philosophical objections to legalizing their union, even though it would greatly ease their efforts to adopt a baby.)
After getting a B.A. from the University of Missouri at Columbia, Shacochis bummed around the Caribbean, halfheartedly trying to hustle magazine assignments, then served in the Peace Corps on Barbados. A stint as an agricultural reporter on St. Kitts, an M.A. from Missouri, and a dull year on the Palm Beach Evening Times prolonged his flirtation with journalism; he was nearly 30 when he decided "I had eaten my share of shit out in the world and was ready to make a total, obsessive commitment to creative writing."
Entering the University of Iowa's MFA program in 1980, he found "a structured environment, meticulously created over 60 years for you to exploit." Although he speaks cordially of teachers like James Alan McPherson and Barry Hannah, Shacochis was more enamored of the leisure time to refine his craft that the program allowed and of the wealth of connections available. "I signed up to meet all the agents and editors, who come to Iowa on shopping trips. I was one of those ambitious people with one foot in New York and one foot in Iowa, even though I loved it there."
He found most publishing professionals, however, frustratingly short-sighted about the commercial potential of his work. "A whole bunch of agents and editors looked at my stories, and they all said, in effect, 'You're a pretty good writer and you should probably get these published; when you grow up and write a novel, get in touch.' This was right at the front end of the short-story renaissance in America, and I thought, 'Wait a minute. If you think these stories are publishable, why not get them published, help me establish some sort of name recognition, then when I do write a novel it will be that much easier to sell?' "
Fortunately for Shacochis, 24-year-old Gail Hochman, then with Paul Reynolds, shared his belief in the stories. She began representing Shacochis in May 1981, and by the time the summer was over she had sold Playboy "Lord Short Sh Wants the Monkey," a darkly funny tale about a jazz singer's humiliation of a man who tries to barter for her sexual favors. Hochman then placed three more stories before the course they were written for had even concluded, "which did make my classmates hate me!" Shacochis chortles. His zestful recounting of a convoluted narrative describing how Hochman, now with Brandt &Brandt, improved his first contract, makes it obvious that he is not an author for the ivory tower.
It started, says Shacochis, as a $10,000 advance from Crown's Barbara Grossman for the short story collection Easy in the Islands and an unspecified novel. When Easy won the American Book Award for First Fiction in 1985, Hochman got the advance bumped to $25,000; when The Next New World (Crown, 1989) -- not part of the contract because it was another story collection -- won the Prix de Rome, she talked Crown up to $50,000. Then when Grossman wanted to take Shacochis with her to Scribner, Crown wanted to keep him, and Knopf's Sonny Mehta also expressed interest. Hochman took advantage of the ensuing bidding war to remove the stories from the now-venerable contract ("so they wouldn't eternally suck red ink from it") and to boost the advance to $100,000 for just Swimming in the Volcano. "I want Gail canonized," says Shacochis.
Grossman hung on to Shacochis, and her faith was justified when Volcano was nominated for a 1993 National Book Award. "It's Barbara's sensibilities that have always had the most impact on me," the author remarks. "The historical injustices she sees are the same ones I see, and she's willing to expend energy on these things; she d sn't dismiss them as tedious or not sexy or not marketable -- though most of these things are true."
The novel took an agonizing 10 years to complete -- "nine years getting the first half done, then one year on the second half after I finally figured out what was going on." The lowest moment came three years and 500 pages into the first draft, when Shacochis sent it to his friend, veteran New York Times staffer Bruce Weber. "He sent me a three-page, single-spaced letter that basically said, 'Pretty good,' and I just went into a tailspin; I couldn't bear the thought of it being 'pretty good.' I spent a weekend throwing up, and on Monday I threw it away. I guess there are other vocations where you can work for three years and end up with nothing, but not too many."
He may have reached the same point, he admits with a grim smile, in his current project, the second volume in a planned trilogy that began with Swimming in the Volcano. "I had 200 pages when the Haiti project intervened, and getting back to it now I'm appalled. So basically I'm trying to reimagine the book and especially the voice, which is stupid, silly, pathetic."
Finding that voice is key for Shacochis, who knows that any social or philosophical points he'd like to make must flow out of the right story, told in the right way. "The stories are there first," he says, "and they come from my experiences wandering around in the world. They will resonate into bigger things, forces sweeping the planet, themes and archetypes, but I'm not smart enough to have lucid integration of all that in my head as I'm writing. Trying to get the sentences right and the structure of the narration right is about as big a job as I can handle. But I also know that if you handle that job properly, everything else just clicks into place."