January 24, 2002 - Interview: RPCV Bob Shacochis chronicles the Caribbean in novels that evoke the impact of American society and culture on the rest of the world
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January 24, 2002 - Interview: RPCV Bob Shacochis chronicles the Caribbean in novels that evoke the impact of American society and culture on the rest of the world
RPCV Bob Shacochis chronicles the Caribbean in novels that evoke the impact of American society and culture on the rest of the world
Americans have learned about the world that rpcvs know through the books they have written when they return. RPCVs are prolific - The Peace Corps Writers web site has documented over 500 Returned Volunteer Writers at:
Peace Corps Writers
In this article we are going to focus on one author whose work exemplifies the Third Goal of bringing the world back to America - Bob Shacochis. Bob Shacochis served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Caribbean and writes novels that evoke the impact of American society and culture on the rest of the world. He won the National Book Award for his collection of stories Easy in the Islands. In response to that collection, Robert Stone called him "one of the most talented young writers working in America today" and Barry Hannah said, "If there's a better writer in the States . . . I ain't found him." Among his many other honors and awards are the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rome Prize, a James Michener Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. He is also author of a novel, Swimming Under a Volcano, and a second collection of stories, The Next New World. His journalism and essays frequently appear in Harper's and other national magazines. Read an excerpt from an interview with Bob Shacochis at:
AN INTERVIEW WITH BOB SHACOCHIS *
* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.
AN INTERVIEW WITH BOB SHACOCHIS
by Trey Strecker Ball State University
©1999 Trey Strecker, all rights reserved. Photo: James Plath
The following interview took place on June 12, 1996, in New Harmony, Indiana, during the annual Rope Walk Writers' Conference.
Q: Critics have focused their attention on your Caribbean travels. What motivated you to go there in the first place?
A: Oh, my goodness. It's a very long, complicated answer. Do you want to come back to it?
Q: What is it that you find in the Caribbean that sustains your literary imagination?
A: It's a question that I should not just have an answer for, but a ready answer for. And it's something that I've articulated to myself many times. Intuitively, I know what it is about the Caribbean, but I'm worried that the things that I'm going to say are simply obvious. The Caribbean is the antithesis in many ways of the white, middle-class, suburban life that I was born into, and to travel there for the first time when I was a seventeen-year-old kid, I had been attracted by photographs in Surfer magazine of waves down there, and I had grown up in the age of the Beach Boys, I had come of age with all that music, and on the East Coast, and it was something that was a passion for me. Against my father's wishes I got my surfboard and got on a plane and left the country. I'd much rather be Henry James, telling how I was born into my father's library, because, you know, the answer is stupid. I wanted to go surf and the pictures of palm trees seduced me. And it's ultimately a shabby little answer. I wanted to have some fun.
Q: What drew you back?
A: I wanted to leave the country. It was 1973. I had just graduated from college. Watergate was about to unravel. The Vietnam War was still going on. Nixon had just been re-elected president. I was going to school in the Midwest, where every pickup truck had a bumpersticker that said, "Love It or Leave It." I found this to be good advice, and I left, and headed for South America because I wanted to surf, I wanted to smell the fires of revolution igniting and--this sounds very dramatic--I wanted to go see the world. It just seemed to me what a young lad did to further his education. So I went to Miami and tried to get a job on a sailboat, and actually did get a job on a sailboat as an organic chef for a doctor who was the anesthesiologist on the very first open-heart surgery team in England. He was crazy. He had just been arrested for smuggling drugs from Jamaica, and his pregnant wife left him and aborted the fetus. And he was looking for somebody to go off with him into the wild blue yonder. But he turned out to be a madman, and I got off the boat and got a plane ticket and headed for South America. I was flying to the closest part of South America, the cheapest, closest part, which was an island owned by Columbia called San Andreas. On the flight I sat next to a scuba diver/treasure salvager who invited me to come to where he was on an adjacent island in the archipelago and he'd teach me how to scuba dive. That was a fine offer, and I went and stayed for a year and never really made it to the mainland. I sailed back on a 32-foot sloop a year later, sick, broke, and immediately started scheming on how to get back . . . and the way that I discovered to take me back was by joining the Peace Corps as an agricultural journalist.
Q: Did you read or write much while you were living in the Caribbean?
A: I read like crazy, and I tried to write. I was twenty-one years old and I tried to do a National Geographic article on the area, and even brought down photographers. I think we did a pretty good job. We got about halfway through the project, ran out of money. I went to Washington, D.C. to the National Geographic headquarters, and they said, "My, aren't you an ambitious young man. You seem to be doing quite a good job. Carry on." I said, "Well that's fine, but we're broke." And they said, "Well certainly you don't expect us to fund you, do you? You're doing okay, and we'd love to see the finished project. We're not going to tell you to leave our door and never appear at it again. But we're not going to give you any money, don't be foolish." In the Peace Corps I was writing technical articles about artificial insemination of livestock and banana diseases and writing a column for the local newspaper. But I wasn't really doing any creative writing until I came out of the Peace Corps. I was doing it before, in college, and then after my Peace Corps experience.
Q: When and why did you decided on a career as a writer?
A: I don't know. I've got a joke answer, because you get asked that at these writers' conferences quite a bit, and oftentimes my colleagues on the panel, like Jill McCorkle, will say, "Well, when I was a young girl growing up in Lumberton, North Carolina, me and my sister, we used to write short stories when we were eight and nine years old. And we would go around the neighborhood and sell them." And I'd say, "Ah, what an awful child you must have been. Why weren't you selling lemonade?" But, you know, once I teased Jill about this, I realized that when I was in first and second grade I was writing and performing one act plays in my elementary school. I had completely repressed that for thirty years or more. Something happened and I became very introverted and just read a lot of books as a kid. I was one of those kids who read with the flashlight under the covers when I was supposed to be asleep. But, I went to a high school that actually was one of the first high schools in the United States to offer a course in creative writing, and so as a senior I took a course in it. And I was working on the high school newspaper, starting off as a sports editor, and then the feature editor, then co-editor-in-chief my last year. It was just like Joseph Heller--Joseph Heller is the very first writer I met. I met him as a freshman at the University of Missouri and I asked him this question: "How did you become a writer?" and he said, "Well, I always got A's in English class when I was in school." And that's true for me as well, I was just encouraged. When I wrote, I was encouraged.
Q: You have expressed your admiration for the New Journalists. What about their writing interests you?
A: Well, except for the black humorists in the late fifties and early sixties, there seemed to coincide with the counterculture in America this frenzy of experimentation and innovation and just all-out weirdness in American fiction that held very little appeal to me. And I thought that the people who were doing New Journalism were doing much more interesting things with language and character and narration than most of the fiction writers were doing at that time, except for people like [Thomas] Pynchon. And I was attracted to them because I thought that I was going to be a journalist all of my life. I had no idea how one became a fiction writer or a poet or anything like that, I had no idea what the shape of those lives were. And my parents still don't have any idea what the shape of those lives are. They can't imagine my life, whatsoever.
Q: After you studied journalism at the University of Missouri, what made you turn to fiction writing, or had you been writing fiction all along?
A: I was taking creative writing classes as an undergraduate with a man named William Peden, and, in fact, my freshman and sophomore year there was actually a student literary magazine. I think maybe my sophomore year I got something published in it, and then, because of funding or something, in my junior year the magazine died. My senior year I volunteered to start it up again, and it used to be a paid graduate position to be editor of it, and I said, "This is terrible to not have a student literary magazine, how about if I do the work for free?" So it started up again and has been in operation ever since. But I was taking both [fiction and journalism] because in journalism school they loathed the New Journalists. They loathed that style. They loathed that subjective stuff, they loathed the textured writing, the adjectives. It just drove them crazy. Again and again they reminded me that I was a pretentious, self-deluded kid who had no future as a journalist, and it made a lot of sense to go over to the English department to be comforted by people who did appreciate adjective and texture and these other elements that were anathema to the style of journalism that was being taught in journalism school.
Q: Does writing journalism contribute to your fiction?
A: There certainly is a sense of balance and a sense of release going from one discipline to the other. When I feel overburdened by telling the truth, I can go tell lies as a fiction writer. And when I feel that for some reason my imagination has run dry or I need the freedom of the discipline--there's a paradox there--the structure of the discipline of journalism is a great relief for somebody who feels they are drowning in the freedom of creative waters where there's no guideposts and you're grasping at things that slip so easily away from you. In that case, immersing yourself into the facts of something, of an event or a personality, is great therapy. It's good medicine. Writing fiction involves you with an aesthetic landscape that is not at all a priority in writing journalism. Writing journalism allows me to engage with the world in a way that I can never do writing fiction, because I'm captive of my basement and a prisoner of my solitude in writing fiction. The Caribbean to me is an entirely imaginary landscape, and I couldn't really write about it in any effective way until I had been away from it for years and years. It allowed the reality of it to blur into my own imaginary shaping of it. That's why it's hard for me to answer what the Caribbean is to me, because I know you're talking about a real place and yet for me my Caribbean is not a real place so much. Or at least I can't afford to think of it that way, because when I do my journalistic side kicks in and that side of my writing personality tells me I don't know enough to actually be writing about it.
Q: How does your creative process work? Do you have a regular work schedule or writing rituals? A. I'm a binge writer. When my schedule regulates, which it doesn't often have the opportunity to do since I'm always coming and going, when it does regulate, it looks something like this: Wake up around nine or nine-thirty in the morning, walk the dogs, come back and have breakfast, read the newspaper, spend the rest of the day finding ways to procrastinate, telling myself that I'm ineffectual, that I'm a layabout and I'll never come to anything in my life. At four o'clock in the afternoon, walk the dogs again, begin to prepare dinner, watch the evening news, take a nap, negotiate with my wife, who goes to bed around ten in the evening, and then from about ten-thirty on until about three or four in the morning work. It's absolutely a wasteful schedule, it's a pathetic schedule, and yet I can't seem to get it under control and transform it into something that seems more mature to me and much more productive which would be to wake up in the morning and work for four hours, and then have the rest of my day and evening free and uncontaminated by this need to prove that I'm a worthy human being.
Q: Readers are always struck by a profound sense of place in your fiction. The Caribbean, Florida, the East Coast. How important is place to your writing?
A: Of course place is important. But it's inescapable unless you are creating fiction that wants to compose a world that's nothing but talking heads. But thematically you have to always wonder is geography destiny or isn't it. And certainly, if you're born into the slums of Port-au-Prince you're going to begin thinking geography is destiny, because you know America is up there and you know, or you think you know, that if you were born into an American slum your life would be a lot better. And, politically, you can't explore in your fiction or in your journalism the geopolitical shape of the world unless you're talking about place. It's integral to this discourse, but in fiction it's integral also to the aesthetics. To create an imaginary world, you want people to have a sense of the landscape, and how the landscape smells, and what in the landscape might bite you, what in the landscape might refresh your soul, and all those things. To ignore it would be tantamount to ignoring a person's arms or legs. Leaving out something that's so connected and so integral, that you just simply made a mistake.
Q: St. Catherine seems like such an "imaginary" landscape. Is it modelled on a specific island or is it an amalgamation or a composite?
A: Yeah, actually, it is. Well, it's an amalgamation to some extent. It's really St. Vincent. The landscape itself is most definitely St. Vincent, and the political events that take place are most definitely Grenada. Or actually a hypothetical situation that if there were, in fact, elections, and there was a coalition between two opposition parties opposing Sir Eric Gairy, who was a madman dictator running Grenada forever. But there were never those elections, and as a result, there was a revolution led by Maurice Bishop. But supposing there were elections and those elections were won because the opposition factions coalesced and defeated him in a free and fair election, what would have happened? Well, of course, those opposition parties would have split apart and then there would have been the environment that would have led to a civil war or somebody preempting a civil war by more or less declaring themself this Marxist strongman, as the rather decent Mr. Banks in my novel is on his way to becoming.
Q: It took ten years for you to complete Swimming in the Volcano. Did your conception of the book change significantly as you were writing it? As the political situation changed, did you feel that you needed to keep up with it?
A: No. The political situation was entirely insular to the book, and whatever was happening in the world had no impact on it whatsoever. The book itself. Figuring out what sort of political laboratory I wanted to create in the book, that took me forever. And I really didn't understand it, and I'm not sure that Iíve really done it effectively. But I didn't understand it for nine years of those ten years that I was writing. It took me nine years to write the first half of the book and one year to write the last half of the book. Nine years to finally feel some sense of comfort that I knew what the book was about and knew how to manage it.
Q: What clicked into place?
A: I can't quite remember. I think it all rotates around the prime minister, Edison Banks-- to understand what pressures were forming that he would have to respond to. And I wanted to track, and it's a very oblique track, but I wanted to track his evolution from a good and decent man, well intentioned, as I think most revolutionary leaders are, into this person who has no choice but to become a despot if he is to manage the forces unleashed in his society.
Q: Do you see Swimming in the Volcano as primarily Mitchell Wilson's story or St. Catherine's story, or maybe Edison Banks'?
A: It would have to be Mitchell Wilson's story. And it will continue to be Mitchell Wilson's story in the next installment of the trilogy, and then it will no longer be Mitchell Wilson's story, but it will be a story about drugs--how drugs have influenced American culture.
Q: Swimming in the Volcano is part of a trilogy?
A. Yeah. The second one--I'm about two hundred pages into it--is called The Magnificence of Everything That Burns. It's set eleven years later in the spring, summer, and fall of 1989. In the fall of 1989 there was an enormous event that took place in the world and that was the demise of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The book was not originally meant to be a trilogy. Swimming in the Volcano was meant to be a sort of metaphor for thirty years of American foreign policy from the midsixties to the midnineties. And I tried to write it that way. Now I know the answer to what changed in how I saw the problem that I was never able to solve with that book. I just was trying to get everything in there in that thirty-year time span and it wasn't working, it was much too ambitious, much too heavy of a weight to lift, and in that eighth or ninth year I despaired and said the only way I'm going to be able to do this is to chop it into three books. And so I went to New York and asked my editor, not knowing at all what she would say, if I could, in fact, remove the middle section from the book and make that another book unto itself, then make a third book out of another section that I envisioned to be in Swimming in the Volcano but I had not yet written. I was afraid that she would say, "Yeah, okay, but we contracted you for one book, and just because you're pulling the other book babies out of it doesn't mean that you get new contracts," or "All will fall under the umbrella of the same contract." But she's not an unreasonable person, and she said, "That's fine, and we'll write you up a new contract for three separate books."
Q: What's the title of the third book?
A: Liberty. And it takes place in Cuba in the last days--whether they're imagined or not--of Castro's regime.
Q: Do you have a title for the whole project?
A: I guess just The Soufriére Trilogy.
Q: After publishing two well-received collections of short stories, what possessed you to produce a novel of such prodigious scale as Swimming in the Volcano, which, it turns out, is part of this trilogy?
A: Well, I hate to be so honest, because honesty in this particularly instance traps me in banality. The book is so big and it expanded into a trilogy, I think, because I am too ambitious and my level of competency can't match my level of ambition. And so it's an accident. I would imagine that if I had more control of the elements that I'm working with, then Swimming in the Volcano wouldn't be so big, and there wouldn't be a trilogy. The other part of the answer is just as mundane. I got trapped into writing a novel with a two-book contract. My first collection of stories was sold with the stipulation that I deliver a novel, and I wasn't ready to write a novel--I kicked and screamed about it--and I know that's why it took me so long. I just simply wasn't ready, and I should have been writing short stories at that time in my life instead of a novel. But I got trapped into it and I bit off more than I could chew. That seems to me why it's so big. It's really pulling the curtain away from the Wizard of Oz and seeing there's really no magic there. There's really no great intellectual conceptualization to some of these things; the answers sometimes are entirely pedestrian.
Q: Still, the scale of the novel must be deliberate. The amount of detail you include in your fiction, even in your short stories, is amazing. In another interview, you said that your stories often develop "latitudinally and longitudinally." I think the spatial metaphor is appropriate to the encyclopedic scope of Swimming in the Volcano, except there I feel you are delving inward, into the map, to continue with the geologic metaphor from the novel. Swimming is a combination of several, sometimes conflicting stories, with the refrain, "Start here." Are you consciously packing in so much information?
A: The device of "starting here" is meant to convey the complexity of assigning blame. It's true that I want to wrap my arms around thirty years of American foreign policy and deliver an aesthetic treatment of that. And that is an insane ambition, yet the insanity of it doesn't bother me. I also have a way of complicating. I take something that can be elemental in a rather clear, linear dynamic and I start pulling the threads out so that at the end it's a rat's nest. Some people have a tendency to simplify things--certainly politicians do, and for the right reasons, sometimes--and I have a tendency to do exactly the opposite, and sort of be overwhelmed by the complex nature of political decisions and human dynamics and how we solve poverty and how we make the world a better place to live. And you're a bad person, but should I forgive you? All these things are so complex to me. And this device of starting the book over again, or asking the reader to stop what they were doing, forget about that, and start here again. The intent was to try to convey how difficult it is to assign blame for the things that are wrong in the world. Where do you begin? And I know thereís a passage in the book that asks how far back do you want to take it, and when you get there then where do you go next? Do you want to take it to God? And if you are going to assign the blame to God, are you in trouble for doing that? Do you now have a spiritual crisis? If you have this spiritual crisis, what is going to be the inevitable outcome of it? Are you going to abandon God or are you going to make the Kierkegaardean leap of faith deeper into it? All these things just start a tangle in my little mind, and it takes a long time for me to work them out in a narrative form. And as I do that I really am conscious of the aesthetic world that Iím operating in and try to contribute, if not contribute to it at least do what Iím supposed to do there.
Q: Was that your intention in the Collymore scene, because it does seem to come . . .
A: From out of the blue? Well, it is another point where the novel starts over again in its search to resolve the issue of how do you assign blame. And it's meant as a metaphor for the middle passage, what happened to the Africans in that middle passage. You can't have sympathy for Collymore, because in the end he is an evil man. But, in the end, I want you to forgive him, and the only way I could possibly persuade you to forgive him is to show you his beginnings, where he came from. He was a marvelous little child, who was absolutely traumatized, abused, treated like a subhuman, and had things happen to him that should happen to no little child. And if you can track him from that point on to his act of evil as an adult, I think you can forgive him.
Q: Forgiveness is essential to the novel.
A: Well, I still play with this idea in my own head that's not entirely resolved, but certainly the book wants to put forth the proposition that forgiveness is the highest state of human spirituality. It's not cleanliness that's next to godliness, it's forgiveness. And ultimately the most profound act of forgiveness is to forgive God. All the chips fall into the theological bucket.
Q: Do you deliberately place yourself inside the "political laboratory" of your fiction to help your reader understand the complexities of the political world?
A: I'm not sure I do that to help a reader, but I do it as a laboratory for myself. To some extent, Mitchell Wilson is an alter ego. My experiences are not his experiences, there's no doubt about it. Things happen to him that never happen to me, but I think he's not a bad representative of my interior. Where he comes from in the world is a little bit different from me, and where he's going I hope is a little bit different from me. But his interior landscape, his political interior, his spiritual interior, probably is pretty close to mine.
Q: Could you say something about the insertions of the newspaper columns into the text of Swimming in the Volcano?
A: Frankly, it was out of desperation that I did that, because I did not know how to effectively integrate the politics into the stream of the narrative. I kept trying and trying and trying and it didn't work. And I can tell you, editorially, they wanted those things out of there. I liked the challenge of writing a little column like that. That was a lot of fun. That's an indulgence that I admit. The greater truth is I didn't weave in the political explanations. The politics on the island are so complex, I didn't know how to simplify them in a better way. I couldn't find the right way to integrate them into the narrative flow, other than to come up with a device. I remember a book that Anthony Burgess wrote. He starts each chapter with a newspaper column, it's a novel set in the nineteenth century. He recreates these nineteenth century news styles, and I just loved it. So I didn't feel that I was being innovative, but I felt I had permission to go ahead a play a little. It's not an innovation. The thing you have to ask yourself is, is it too much of a disruption? Ultimately, I had to decide well if it's a disruption, then I don't care because I don't know how to solve the particular problem this is meant to solve other than this way.
Q: Would you talk about the geological metaphor?
A: When I began the novel I thought, somewhat sophomorically, that I would structure the novel in an analogue to the way this geologic event happens that's called a volcanic eruption. What happens is you have a landscape that's placid there, it jars and sort of snaps people alert for a second, but then it goes away. You remember that underfoot there was some jarring motion, but nothing so significant. And then life goes on at its normal pace, normal routines, for a bit more and then there's a second and a third jar, and the vibrations are both a little bit stronger. Then in the distance between the first jar and the second jar there is quite a significant shaking. This is how I thought the book should be structured, and then finally it leads to an explosion. And I thought, isn't this interesting? For a year, I thought, isn't this interesting? And then, for the next eight years, I thought, isn't that trite? But then in the last year of writing the book, with a sense of its fullness and its movements, you know, a more comprehensive sense of what was happening in the book, I saw that even though I rejected this notion, that in fact it was there, and maybe itís there in most books--I don't know. I understood that it wasn't that interesting of a concept, and yet there it was.
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Continuation of the Interview with Bob Shacochis
Q: What is the relationship between the economy and the ecology in the Caribbean and how does it carry over into your fiction?
A: You can't separate arms and legs and a nose from a body and still have that person. These are parts of the whole package, the entity of experience. The economy and ecology are oftentimes the same thing throughout the Caribbean. And in Haiti the economy has been a locust economy that has entirely chewed up the landscape. Haiti looks like Nevada. That's how the economy devoured its own life support. Eighty-five percent of Haiti's energy needs are met by charcoal, and most of that land is just bedrock--all the soil has washed into the sea, all the reefs are dead.
Q: Wilson's friend and fellow American, Sally, is a do-gooder who appears as a nurturing Earth Mother associated with Jim Lovelock's Gaia theory. Does her death toward the end of the novel foreshadow the death of Mother Earth from global pillage? The novel seems skeptical about Sally's foreign aid mission.
A: Well, certainly, you follow your intuition through these things and you know in an environment like this somebody's got to die. And then you have to chose who should die and why they should die. Sally's death devastated me, I have to tell you. I finished writing that scene at four o'clock in the morning. I was working then in a shed behind the house that we lived in then, and I came into the house and into the bedroom, and there was a bathroom attached to the bedroom, and I was crying so loudly I woke up my wife. I was absolutely devastated. Certainly she represented friends I had lost in similar situations, and so there was that emotional resonance. But Sally herself . . . I don't know. When you cry for Sally, you cry for all the decent people who have tried to make the world a better place and have been defeated. And certainly I think that that's a truism. She represents something axiomatic in human life: That you are going to be defeated, that people are not going to make the world a better place. It's not going to happen. She carries that burden, and her loss to me is cataclysmic. It is apocalyptic. Once you lose the Sallys, once you know you can't preserve them, once you know you can't protect them, you have understood that there's no possibility of making the world a better place. There's only a possibility of trying to keep the world afloat. That's what the good people in the world do. They keep it from spinning down the drain. It's like Aristide's aspirations for his people. He wanted to take them out of misery into poverty with dignity, and he felt if he could achieve that he would have done all that was possible to save his country. I really admire that, because it's so realistic. And for the do-gooders of the world, if they understand what the ceiling is, what they can achieve, it's important to me, because resources get assigned more effectively, because the backlash isn't so severe, and because there is nobody who walks the world with a more embittered heart bent on vengeance than a do-gooder who feels they've been betrayed or not wanted.
Q: In "The Politics of Imagination," you wrote, "I write about America, and about Americans--expatriates--living in the Caribbean, mostly. My literature is the literature of empire; it attempts to evoke and understand the impact of American society and culture on the rest of the world, and on itself." Do you see Swimming in the Volcano as an American novel?
A: Oh, absolutely. Only as an American novel. If you put it on the Caribbean shelf, I think that's wrong. Caribbean writers belong on the Caribbean shelf, and they write about their world and their experiences. I'm writing about America. And the third novel in this trilogy, Liberty, which takes place entirely in Cuba and has really no Americans in it, I happen to think that will be my most American novel, because it's all about how drugs fucked up America--drugs as a revolutionary tool to bring down the empire. Although I might be overstating it to say that that will be my most American novel. Probably the next one will be, since it's set in Virginia, Argentina, and the Vatican.
A: Yeah. It's crazy, because now I have to go back to the Vatican and I have to go to Argentina, which is great, but it's like, Why don't you just sit home and write a book instead of going off to all these places?
Q: So you do quite a bit of research for your fiction?
A: Yeah, I do. I was talking to Paolo Coehlo, a Brazilian writer. John Updike's Brazil had just been published, and somebody in the audience asked him, "Can you capture the soul of a foreign place if you're an American writer?" And he said, "Well of course, absolutely, but you can't do it in two weeks. And if I'm writing about a place, I want to respect it enough to invest time in it and try to convey it accurately so that my friends in the Caribbean, or my friends in Argentina, or my friends in Rome won't say, "Look, you're bluffing."
Q: Is your concern with fairness and accuracy a part of why the original novel expanded into a trilogy, this attempt to be fair to another culture?
A: To some extent. I'd rather set my books in Argentina, because I'd rather go and see something new in the world than set my books in Detroit. Richard Ford and I were on a panel together, and he was talking about this and he said, "Well, I want to write about Detroit." And I said, "Fine, you take Detroit, but give me Zimbabwe. Give me the rest of the world." Because Detroit doesn't inspire my literary imagination. And for Richard it's the Detroits of America that do. But that's not the only place I find America. Richard doesn't have this problem, but sometimes literary critics and certainly the American public don't understand the influence of America on the rest of the planet. It is enormous. Every single individual's life on the face of the planet is affected by what we Americans do. We are really the gods walking the face of this planet. Black, white, Native American, doesn't matter--collectively, as Americans, we possess the entire planet. We're running the place.
Q: Tillman in "Easy in the Islands" criticizes Americans because they don't allow for this world outside of themselves. Am I right in thinking that this criticism echoes what you are saying and what you have said about the insularity and inwardness of some contemporary American fiction?
A: Yeah. It's the luxury of, and a measure of the success of, our democracy. It has allowed for the first time on the face of the planet people to not have to worry about politics, not have to worry that Mexico, or the country next door, or the country across the sea, is going to come get us. 'Cause they're not. You sit there and twiddle your thumbs and consume, consume, consume, and you really don't have to worry about anything else. And that whole truth is enhanced by the fact that we turn the world's struggles into our entertainment through our media.
Q: Swimming forces us to acknowledge these intricate politics and to try to understand them. At the same time, it draws together the personal, social and political in a way Jonathan Franzen opposes to the domesticity of what DeLillo describes as the "around-the-house-and-in-the-yard" brand of American fiction. The language of Swimming expresses a fascination with the whole picture, which reminds me of the work of other young novelists who are consistently grappling with "the big picture." Richard Powers, whom you acknowledge as "one of the best novelists of my generation," comes to mind, as well as David Foster Wallace, Franzen, and William Vollmann, a group that Wallace has labelled "the school of white male novelists over six feet." How tall are you?
A: Six feet. With my boots on, I just make the cut. Richard is certainly the king, when it comes to height.
Q: Seriously, your novels share a sense of wonder at the complexities of the world. Could you discuss how your work engages the big picture, as opposed to more inward-looking domestic fiction?
A: Probably, in my heart of hearts, I'm telling myself, or I'm denying to myself, that I am writing small inward-looking, little domestic pieces. And yet I start seeing the connections that go out of the house, down the street, hop the river, and get on a boat. I can't sit in the house the way some writers seem to be able to do and think that I'm sitting in the house, that by sitting in the house I know everything that is going on is insular and contained, because to me nothing is contained. I'm too aware that weirdest the things happen. A Valujet could plunge out of the sky filled with Brazillian tourists and kill us all. To me that's part of the wonder of the world and part of the risk of the world.
Q: Some of the expository passage in your fiction often seem like "thick description."
A: Right. I can't lie about it. Those are the places I try to showboat with language. No doubt about it. If people don't like it, that's okay with me. The excesses in language are simply my inability to control my exuberance for the language and for litanizing the wonders of the world. What I'm trying to do is to find fresh ways, fresh and intriguing and compelling and perhaps startling ways, to describe what everybody else has seen but to bring it up and highlight it for them in a way that makes them appreciate it--the same way they would if they were smoking some dope, and it would change their consciousness that way. The ordinary then becomes something fresh and sparkling. That's why you throw so much language at the world, and, of course, it's risky, because you beg the reader's patience. But you hope the language us delicious enough, and if it's not, then you've got big trouble.
Q: What do you think is the function of the writer in contemporary society?
A: I wish that I had just read Jonathan Franzen's essay in Harper's ["Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, A Reason to Write Novels." Harper's (April 1996): 35-54.] yesterday, rather than two months ago, because it's not fresh in my mind. I know that Jonathan, from this point of despair and uselessness, did work his way very brilliantly, deliciously, towards this piece of solid ground where he could stand and say, "Look, I belong in the world." I think it's always going to be a temptation, especially as the world is so influenced by technology--and information technology and cinema has matured so much--to believe that the power of literature has diminished, but it's a unique human experience. You cannot reproduce it in any way. Put somebody alone in a room with symbols on a page and remove their brain and replace it with this entire 3-dimensional creation that allows them to use their mind in way that you don't use your mind from film, from music, from anything else. The impact of literature is a smoldering effect in a culture. It might look like a book like Iron John can change a culture overnight , but that's a fad, and it's bullshit. It doesn't really have that much meaning. But look at the colonial writers and look at the difference between Rudyard Kipling supporting the advancement of white civilization into what Mark Twain would later call "the people sitting in darkness," and say that in a derisive way, chastising our arrogance to think that we're bringing civilization to these people--look at that and it's thirty years between Kipling's influence on the world girded up with his literature and then at Twain and Somerset Maughm and Conrad and E.M Forester and some of the others (D.H. Lawrence is one of them too) who went out and were writing literature that ultimately led to the demise of colonialism, of that sensibility in the world. And, of course, there are a lot of other political influences and economic influences, but the literary influence is enormously important. It's a slow burn. It takes a generation, but there's no doubt in my mind it's tremendously important.
Q: Do you feel the American novel still has that kind of cultural authority beyond the academy?
A: Absolutely. Because, like it or not, I don't care what everybody's watching on t.v. There still is an aristocracy of excellence in this culture or any culture, there is an elite group of movers and shakers, and they do read, and they are influenced by it. Again, it's a generational sort of thing and yet it happens. And whether everybody on the airplane is reading John Grisham is irrelevant. What's more important is that somebody on Wall Street, somebody on Capitol Hill, somebody at the University of Chicago is reading Richard Powers. I hate to remind Americans that society is hierarchal and that there are classes in society--a very anti-American notion--and we're in huge denial about that--but there is a ruling class, and the ruling class is well read and much influenced.
Q: Do you believe that American writers should be more aware of political considerations in their work?
A: I don't care whether they are or not. I want American critics to recognize the symbiosis between the domestic literature and the political literature, and understand that these are two equal things. And I don't often feel that measure of respect, or that the evaluation is entirely sensible and useful.
Q: Almost all of your work deals with the importance of the past and a sense of history. What is the role or importance of history in your work?
A: Again it goes back to the notion of blame. Nobody has any right pointing their finger at anybody else in society until they track the historical roots of the problem that they want to assign to you. It's rather important, isn't it, to know that African chieftains made quite a pretty penny off the slave trade? Blame white people, sure, but don't forget that there are a lot of black people to blame too. And if you have some sense of the geopolitical forces sweeping the globe, don't forget that slavery is still alive and well, thriving in some parts of Africa without any white people having any fucking thing to do with it. And the Greeks enslaved people. The bearers of the torch of Western civilization were slaveowners, and so were the Romans. None of this makes any guilty party forgiven, just understand the complexity of it so that you come to the situation as enlightened as you can possibly be with an understanding of how difficult some things are to solve, with some appreciation for the devil within human nature. If you want to solve problems, those seem to be your tools.
Q: Many of your protagonists have harsh words regarding tourists, who trample over the nuances of foreign cultures as if they were "extravagant Disneylands" on the geopolitical landscape. At one point in Swimming in the Volcano, Mitchell Wilson insists that he is not a tourist. How is he different from the tourists he abhors? I wonder if you see him as an "ugly American" who objectifies the island, treating it as a learning experience?
A: It's a problem. In this next book, I have this woman bugging him about why does he go to all these places, and he feebly attempts to explain, "Oh, I'm trying to help people who need help," and, "Oh, I'm educating myself about the world so I can make better decisions about not just my life but better political decisions to participate in that part of society and political discourse that all good citizens should participate in." But ultimately he knows that these are not satisfactory answers--they don't justify anything--and ultimately he simply admits, "it's my addiction. I'm a voyeur, and it's my addiction," which I think is the truth. Tourists are grazing and he's in there gobbling, so there's a difference in degree in how he engages with a society. But ultimately they're both representative of the same dynamic in this nuclear age of tourism where we own the world. We can go anywhere we want. Especially if youíre a journalist, a border means absolutely nothing, the rules of a country mean absolutely nothing. The bad guys let you be. The good guys let you be. If you get shot, it's almost always by accident. I don't think there has ever been a class of people more free in the world, and more unaccountable in the world, than foreign correspondents. And they are shaping events in a way that I think is one of the biggest stories of human civilization here at the end of the twentieth century. I just think it's phenomenal. They have enormous power. In a way, they are another type of tourist. They're consuming, consuming, consuming. They're consuming images. They're consuming suffering.
Q: How does your work avoid exploiting the Caribbean?
A: Some people would say that it doesn't at all, that it's an example of what's wrong.
Q: Then how do you try to avoid exploiting the Caribbean?
A: The only reason that exploitation is an issue is because I'm a white American. I'm not sure that anybody would be raising this question if I was not a white American. If I was, say, a female Sri Lankan, nobody would feel their hackles go up. It's just a knee jerk reaction to white American males, that wherever they are, if they're not in their own yards, they're out exploiting somebody. And usually it's true. I don't know how to justify myself, except to fall back on this notion that I'm writing about Americans, but of course that was Conrad's apologia for Heart of Darkness--that he wasn't trying to "diss" black Africans, he was really writing about Europeans. Chinua Achebe has successfully argued that Conrad was a racist, but it would have been more shocking if he wasn't a racist, given who he was and the time in which he lived, or the experiences that he had. Ultimately, only a person whose mind has been totally rotted by some extreme revolutionary political agenda, only a person who is that foolish, could read my book and not see that it is an act of subversion against a force in the world that is very old, and that offends me as much as it offends them. It's an act of racism and sexism to limit me in any way because I happen to be a white male. I'm no more responsible for what I was born into than anybody else in the world, and it's entirely offensive to me for someone to assume, because I'm a white male that I'm not equally outraged by the injustices in the world. It's ridiculous to think that somehow those emotions are unavailable to me because of the color of my skin, or my nationality, or my gender. This has never been an issue in my heart, because politically and spiritually and morally I think I know who the bad guys are. And if somehow I have blindly crossed a line and associated with them--well, I don't think Iíve ever blindly crossed a line, and I might be deluding myself--always the goal was to be part of the force that's working to undermine that. Of course, that makes me nervous. You don't want to be part of the force that pulls out one of the fundamental pillars of civilization so that after you've done this you have a world that is anarchy, a world that is plagued by chaos. That's not what I want. But I do want capitalism with a conscience. I do want repression to end. I do want a better balance in the world as well. I'm just astounded at the fools that want to close down American borders to immigrants. Immigrants are vitamins for a society-- for this society. They were the reasons why our cities were so healthy in the thirties and forties, and why our cities started dying in the sixties and seventies because we shut down the border. They're the reason today that Miami is one of the most vibrant cities in America. You close the borders and you start to stink and stagnate.
Q: Imagination and vulnerability, which you insist are necessary components for empathy, seem to conflict with the macho, "free, white and hairy chested" stance your writing (particularly Easy in the Islands) is sometimes accused of taking.
A: Well, the particular criticism you're referring to was a set-up by The New York Times, who had their own political agenda on me for a reason that has never been at all made clear. The woman who wrote that review has gone around New York City saying "I was set up," and indeed she was. Anyone reading those stories will be exposed to macho male characters, that's absolutely true. Now, what happens to every single goddamned "macho" in my stories? They get their comeuppance, usually by women. Now what the fuck is this? Some people look at me and see what they see and think, macho asshole. That's fine. Let them think whatever they want, based on my appearance. But if you read my literature, one of the constant themes is the undermining of that male arrogance. And for anybody to suggest otherwise flabbergasts me, because there's not one piece of evidence that would lead them to believe that, except maybe my beard. I don't know. They're not looking at my work. They're looking god knows at what.
Q: Mitchell Wilson has appeared as a character throughout your work, as Bowen in Easy in the Islands, as well as in The Next New World and Swimming in the Volcano. Why return to the same character? Could you describe how he has evolved?
A: I wanted a prototypical white American male. I wanted him to be Anglo, in a way that I'm not Anglo. I did want him to represent this part of American society--really, the ruling class of the world--and I wanted to follow his evolution, and will get more into that in the second book where he's back in Virginia and there's quite a lot of family history. He's inherited a pre-Civil War farm, and he has to deal with that. I want to track his political evolution from somebody who understands what his class has wrought upon the world--what his tribe has brought to the world, both good and bad--and to be somewhat of a representative of the future of that tribe. And, of course, I don't think the future of that tribe is very bright. And maybe that's for the best and maybe it's not, I don't really know. But I know that Mitchell is, to me, a somewhat tragic figure.
Q: You chastise the ruling class of Haiti and of St. Catherine for their "unmitigated self-interest" and "lack of political self-discipline" which has traumatized the economy and ecology of the region. Could you elaborate on this "Me now" ideology, which you characterize as "the insatiable egocentrism of infants"?
A: Those people? They're just in it for themselves and history has proven that again and again and again. There has never been anybody without that ideology in a place like Haiti, until Jean Bertrand Aristide who was the first leader of his people with a vision that went beyond the self, with a vision that went beyond greed, who came into office with a love for the people as human beings, not as chattel that you milked dry.
Q: You also accuse the United States of a similar short-sightedness.
A: The United States has been exactly, in the macrocosmic way, has been exactly guilty of the same sin. Exactly. This is something that I don't want my country to be, in its relationship to these places in the world, and yet they do it all with the most smarmy paternalism. We're doing this for your own good. What are you doing exactly for their own good? Robbing them? Creating armies that will kill them? I don't understand what exactly it is that for a hundred years you've been doing for their own good, except taking their money.
Q: Currently you are working on The Immaculate Invasion, a nonfiction book about American intervention in Haiti. What inspired you to begin this book?
A: What I gave you is the second, my most recent choice, and I'm sure it will be the final choice, on how to begin the book. It used to begin with the soldiers that I just spent two years with, with them kissing their wives goodbye at Fort Bragg, getting on the plane, going to Guantanamo Bay, going through the rehearsals for the invasion, and then being airlifted into this town up in the mountains of northern Haiti. We were in this Haitian military barracks interviewing the soldiers. There was a riot in the town square. The townspeople started to storm the place where we were interviewing the soldiers. Rocks were flying through the window. The soldiers freaked out, opened fire on the crowd, and at the same moment, unbeknownst to anybody, just a coincidence, this team of Green Berets was being dropped off by a helicopter on the edge of town to take it over for the next six months. And they were the only team to come into their area of operation underfire, and they almost killed us. They came within a quarter of a second of destroying the building. And they would have if, at the last moment, the war correspondent from Time magazine hadn't seen them out of the corner of his eye, deploying through the marketplace and taking up firing positions. And he jumped out, saying, "Don't shoot, don't shoot, we're Americans in here." And that's how the book used to open. But I needed a device to create a historical context for the reader, who is about to be thrown into this military narrative, to give them that three years of the coup d'etat and the de facto regime. Richard Morse and the experiences of his band really represent well what was happening in that country then. And Richard was big news. He made the front page of The New York Times, because of the attaches coming to his band jobs at the hotel and then going out to kill people. And journalists really were following him around thinking, Well, when they murder him then the invasion will start. So I thought that might be the better way to start.
Q: What writers are important to you today?
A: Well, like anybody else I'm going to say Shakespeare, but actually mean it, because I love reading Shakespeare and studying Shakespeare and writing about Shakespeare, and still do go to Shakespeare when I need inspiration and I need to hook in to some of the myths of Western culture and some of those mythical narratives, those mythical plots--you know, the way Jane Smiley hooked in with King Lear in A Thousand Acres. And I certainly try to hook in some variation with The Tempest when I'm writing my Caribbean stuff. Caliban. Kick back to the ancients and Ovid and Aeneas, and to Virgil and Homer--I love reading that. I love reading ancient Roman history. To me it's one of the greatest things. I love reading the global writers, the Chinua Achebes, the Kunderas, the Rushdies, the Nadine Gordimers--you know, the list rolls on and on. That's just the tip of the iceberg. My contemporaries in the United States? Richard Powers, of course. David Foster Wallace, just that explosion of energy thrills me. Annie Proulx, Jane Smiley. Russell Banks. But that again is the tip of the iceberg, and I'm uncomfortable just revealing the tip because I'm leaving so much unsaid, so many people unnamed. But what's more true is that I'm a liker. Some writers can't stand almost everything, and I'm one of those who likes probably too much for my own good.
Shacochis page Interviews with Bob Shacochis