Last Tuesday, Nov. 29, “Writing at Wesleyan” hosted a book signing for Assistant Professor of English Deb Olin Unferth, Assistant Professor of English Sally Bachner, and Professor of English and Shapiro-Silverberg Professor of Creative Writing Elizabeth Willis. Though all members of the English department, these three authors wrote on drastically different topics.
They all took time out of their busy schedules to talk with The Argus about their books: Unferth about love and Latin American revolutions, Willis about the intersection of politics and poetry, and Bachner about the representation of violence in contemporary American literature.
Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, by Deb Olin Unferth
The Argus: Tell us about your book.
Deb Olin Unferth: It’s a memoir about when I was 18 years old and I dropped out of college with my boyfriend and went to Central America to try to join one of the socialist revolutions. We spent some time in Nicaragua with the Sandinistas, also in El Salvador, where the FMLN guerrilla army was at war with the government. We also went to Honduras and to Panama, where the Noriega dictatorship was in place. And we were also in Guatemala. This was over six months in 1987.
A: Why did you go when you were 18?
DU: We were very interested in liberation theology at the time, which is an offshoot of the Catholic Church and was popular in the eighties. I was in my first year of college, I was a freshman at the University of Colorado. A priest had come to campus and was giving a seminar on liberation theology. He held the seminar outside and we would sit in front of this house and there were hammocks. It was a very laid-back atmosphere. We learned about liberation theology and were inspired. We wanted to go and join up—so we just left.
A: Were there religious reasons behind it?
DU: I had become a Christian—my boyfriend was a Christian. I’m actually Jewish, but I became a Christian for a couple of years.
A: How do you feel about liberation theology now?
DU: I still think that, ultimately, it’s a great idea. In terms of a theology, it has plenty of biblical backing behind it. I think that the apostles were “socialists.” And I do think that it’s the responsibility of the church to take care of the poor in those countries where the church is a powerful force. I’m not a Christian anymore, but the stance that it’s our responsibility to not trod on the weak is something that I take very seriously. I’m a vegan now [gesturing to her lunch of peanut butter, rice cakes, pistachios, and a grapefruit].
A: How did your idea of liberation theology and a revolution change once you were actually experiencing these kinds of things?
DU: I learned a lot. It’s very different to read about a political situation in the newspapers or hear about it from a professor or go to a protest as opposed to actually being there and seeing soldiers with guns and tanks and talking to the people individually about what was happening and asking them questions and trying to find work—it was instructive. The idea was that we wanted “revolution jobs” to try to help out with the revolution. I’m glad that I had that experience because it changed how I viewed the world. If I hadn’t done that I would be much more narrow-minded than I actually am, though I’m probably still pretty narrow-minded. But I encourage people to do that sort of thing. Even if it’s a little silly, which it was. We were trying to help the revolution, and yet we were teenagers and we didn’t know what we were doing and they didn’t need us. But I still think it’s an incredibly valuable experience.
A: How did they react to you?
DU: Well, it depends on the country. Each of the countries in Central America is very different, even though they’re small and close: the people are different, the food is different, the political situations are different. El Salvador, at the time, was in the midst of a civil war, and U.S. citizens were mostly not allowed in the country. We had to fight to get in; we worked on the problem for months to get into El Salvador. While there, we encountered no other people like us. And it was quite scary. We were in an orphanage in a war zone. We could hear shooting outside. I think people were confused about why we were there and thought we should leave. And people were scared to talk to us because there were death squads that were torturing and killing dissidents and throwing them into fields. So that was scary. Then we went to Nicaragua, where there was a revolutionary government in place. And there were people from all over the world, wanting to “help” the revolution. The Nicaraguans, I think, thought we were funny and nice and liked us for the most part. We were bringing things and spending money and we wanted to speak Spanish with them and sing their songs and all of this stuff. There was a lot of camaraderie. In Panama, I don’t think that we saw any tourists at all, because it was during the Noriega dictatorship and no one wanted to go there. People were suspicious of us. And in Guatemala, there were insurrections, but there were a lot of tourists, still, but the military kind of herded us from place to place.
A: Did you find yourself feeling like a tourist at some points?
DU: Again, it changed from country to country. But generally, yeah, we kind of felt like tourists. In Nicaragua we were hired by an organization called “Bicicletas Si Bombas No,” or “Bikes Not Bombs.” And we didn’t know how to build bikes and we were lazy and it was kind of a catastrophe. So, I think that, yeah, we secretly knew that we were tourists, even though we thought that we were revolutionaries. What we called ourselves was “Internacionalistas” which is “Internationalists.”
A: Were some of your beliefs confirmed and others dispelled?
DU: Well, I learned not to trust the newspapers. The press about these countries at that time in the United States was bizarre. All of the stuff about the death squads in El Salvador hadn’t come out. Not very much in Guatemala either. El Salvador was being pitched as this democratic stronghold in communist Central America. And Nicaragua was being pitched as this terrible dark place where communism had taken hold. The reality was opposite. In El Salvador everyone was afraid—there was martial law in effect, so citizens had to be inside their houses by dark. Military patrolled the streets making sure that you weren’t outside. It was madness. And then in Nicaragua, it was like a big party. It was the same thing when I went to Cuba. And I think now people sort of know what’s going on in Cuba—
A: This was a different trip?
DU: Yeah. Before I went, I was kind of scared because you’d hear how “this crazy Castro is in charge” and it must be this dark, horrible place. But it is the most delightful country I’ve ever been to. There are problems, of course. But the picture that I had painted for myself and what I actually experienced—there’s no comparison. So that’s one thing that I learned—not to trust the newspapers.
A: How did the experience itself change you as a writer? How did writing the actual memoir change your writing?
DU: I hadn’t been writing at that time. I was a philosophy major and didn’t start writing until I was 25. So it was quite a few years later. But I always wanted to write about it. I kept writing pieces of it over the years and didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t think of myself as a memoirist. I thought of myself as a fiction writer, and I had a negative attitude about memoirs. So I published two books of fiction and I kept writing pieces of the memoir and not doing anything with it. And then I started reading a lot of memoirs and I realized that it’s a very intellectual form, with a lot of potential.
A: When did you start writing the book?
DU: As I said, I’d been writing pieces of it for years. And I had my old journals from traveling. I had a lot of photographs. But I didn’t start putting the book together until 2008. It only took me about a year and a half, start to finish, once I decided to do it.
A: Are you still with the boyfriend?
DU: No! [laughs] In fact, I had to find a private investigator to find him.
A: So, does he know about the book?
A: Is his real name used?
A: Can you tell us a little about what he’s doing now?
DU: I probably shouldn’t, because it’s in the book. But suffice it to say that if in this day and age you have to hire a private investigator to find someone, that’s a pretty big deal. These days, everyone is easy to find. Even people who are off the map, you can still find them. So if I had to hire a private investigator to find him—that is impressive.
A: So we’ll find out what happens to the boyfriend in the book?
DU: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a big part of the end of the book. I wouldn’t want to ruin it for you.
A: How did being in love affect the story? How did it influence the way you perceived the revolutions?
DU: Well, he was a little older than me. He was 20 when we met and I was 17, and I was 18 when we left and he was 21. So that seemed older to me, at the time. He was in charge. It was kind of all his idea and I followed along. The book is about falling in love and following them and then thinking, “Wow, this is not at all what I thought it would be.” I think that what happened in those countries, there’s a parallel there. The Sandinistas were full of idealism and hope and promise and then, by the time we arrived, things were already falling apart. And a few years later all of the Central American revolutions were over, squashed by the fall of the U.S.S.R. I think that there are parallels with that and I tried to bring that out. So it’s about falling in love for the first time. Your first real love.
A: Right, in a couple of senses—with these ideals and with a person.
A: Is there anything that you think a college-aged reader should think about when reading the book? Especially because we’re at this age that you discuss in the book.
DU: One of the reasons that the book was so fun to write was because my students are that age. I like to think of the book as a recommendation or a suggestion. It’s important to go out and have a look at the world, no matter what kind of questions of authenticity come up (and they will come up). I see the book as a sort of flawed “how-to.”
Address, by Elizabeth Willis
The Argus: What’s the subject of your book?
Elizabeth Willis: The book is about how we speak as political subjects and how we function as objects within a political economy. I’m really interested in the lyric and the foregrounding of sound. So I like the way that “address” suggests both public and intimate speech in public and private locations. Should I tell you the way the book started?
EW: I was at a writers’ colony in southern New Hampshire in fall 2004—and it was election season in New Hampshire. So…
A: So, fun times?
EW: Yeah. So I was beginning work on the earliest poems in this book and I became acutely conscious of the fact that the time I was spending working on poems was time that I was not spending out on the sidewalk, canvassing people to vote. Also, at the writers’ colony at that time there were a number of other people who had deep political concerns about what was happening and about the outcome of the election. We got involved in canvassing in our off-hours, and that meant that when I was writing poetry I was also thinking about using language in very different ways. When you think about the trade-offs you make in how you divide your time and how you make commitments, it becomes a profoundly ethical choice. I became interested in integrating those two interests as much as possible. So “Address” might be a more politically inflected book—or it might be that its political inflection is more obvious than in other books of mine.
A: Did you come to any conclusions about where it was important to focus? You said you ended up integrating them, but you obviously can’t quite do both at the same time. Which is ultimately more effective?
EW: Well, literary and political actions have different effects but they might have similar goals. I think the great power of poetry is in its ability to expand somebody’s consciousness and their understanding of the world. Astute readers are less easily governed and are more actively involved in thinking about how they inherit meanings from the culture around them. So they are more likely to participate more actively in shaping those meanings. Does that make sense?
A: Did the process of writing itself expand your own consciousness? Did it give you new insights into the political process?
EW: It made me think a lot about rhetorical structures and how they affect our belief systems. The way that repetitive structures can really catch a reader up in what someone is saying. You know, you can look at the repetition in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream,” which is incredibly moving, and the power of that speech is not just in its content, but its content is inseparable from the expansiveness of its form, which I take to be essentially poetic.
A: Did you find yourself mimicking political rhetoric techniques in your poetry?
EW: I became more acutely aware of the extent to which poems—going way back—have rhetorical structures. Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets are essentially making an argument to the beloved. Odes are asserting, “this is what I love and this is why it’s great.” I really admire Aime Cesaire. His book, “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land,” is a tour de force of personal and political content framed by lyric structures and breaks into prose. Frank O’Hara is another poet whose writing is informed by his politics; it’s not just about the content but the structure of the address. There’s something about the way form and content become inseparable that I find fascinating. Because we have to be able to imagine new forms for our thought, for our behavior, if we’re going to evolve as a culture, as a civilization, as a species.
A: How did the results of the election and the ensuing political climate affect the book? Did that change it or is it mostly about this one tumultuous election period?
EW: No, it continued. I think when you become aware of the extent to which language is inhabited by politics, it stays with you. In the process of writing the book, there were changes in the American political landscape, but a lot doesn’t change. We still have cultural problems that we had 10 years ago and 25 years ago and 50 years ago. I think we still have to address issues of slavery and issues of free speech and even issues that might seem dull, like states’ rights. I think poetry, necessarily, makes you think about systems of relation. Because, if you read an “I” in a poem, the reader says “I” although the person who’s writing it also says “I” as another person. If there’s a “you” in a poem, you fill that space. If there’s a “we,” it makes possible a certain sense of, “oh, I’m together with somebody doing this thing.” So even the use of a pronoun can have a political effect as it makes you conscious of what you’re connected to and what you subscribe to. Do you identify with a particular group? Do you identify as an American? According to your sexual preference, or gender, or region, or ethnicity? I think poetry heightens our awareness of what we embrace and who we are and who we are speaking for.
A: Do you now read with a closer eye to the political background of language in general?
EW: I still think about all of that. What has happened in the political climate of the last decade has affected contemporary poetry in significant ways. I think that there’s a stronger drive for making sense and for trying to integrate the place of poetry in everyday life. And an ongoing suspicion of institutions that just embrace a high academic poetry.
A: Do you hope that there is some effect from your book?
EW: Of course! In certain ways, this book isn’t different from any other book that I’ve written in that my hope for the poem is that someone reads it and expands their sense of the world they’re living in—which includes expanding their sense of how language functions, of how it inhabits them. So yeah, I’m interested in the poem opening people’s minds in ways that might not be possible in other art forms. When we use language we’re using a material that everybody uses—we all have access to it in a certain way, we all own it. At the same time words have their own histories, and every time you say a word that history is attached to it. So there’s a telescoping of time that happens through language. The more you’re aware of those components, the more you can hear an almost symphonic structure within a poem, even a small poem. That interests me. Art, when it’s really working, is transformative in some way.
The Prestige of Violence: American Fiction, 1962-2007, by Sally Bachner
The Argus: What inspired you to write about violence in contemporary American literature?
Sally Bachner: I wrote a dissertation about assassination narratives in contemporary literature back in graduate school. While that was fine as a dissertation, it really didn’t work as a book. Clearly, I was and still am drawn to books about violence, and over time I started to notice this preoccupation with the idea that violence couldn’t be represented. So I became curious about that paradox—why would you build a whole work around something that you have insisted is unrepresentable? So then I started thinking more and more about the historical context for that and started to see a pattern develop.
A: What was the pattern that you found?
SB: The pattern I found was that these works want to insist that violence is this sphere of both authenticity and unspeakability, and each guarantee the other. The claim that violence is the ultimate source of the real is often backed by demonstrations that it is unspeakable. And it is precisely that unspeakablility, the fact that violence supposedly can’t be reached through language, that makes it—in these novelists’ eyes—authentic and real. These authors see language as debased and corrupted by the fact that it’s a cultural construct. And they imagine that violence is the one thing that exists outside of language, unreachable beyond it.
A: So your book explains how this violence is represented outside of the realm of language?
SB: Right. And my argument is that the prestige that unspeakable violence gains in this period is tied to some very specific characteristics of post-war America. I argue that this prestige registers an uncomfortable awareness many Americans develop that they are relatively insulated from the violence that is going on around the globe: wars, famine, atrocity. But they also suspect, especially with the Vietnam War (which really brings this sensibility to full fruition) that the U.S. might actually be behind all of this violence. This idea that you know violence is real because you have no access to it is a kind of fanciful version of a geopolitical reality.
A: Could you describe how this operates in one particular novel, one that many Wesleyan students might know?
SB: A good example, and one that I teach frequently, is the novel “Beloved.” It is still probably one of the most widely read novels by students—or at least it was for a period. As many students will remember, the perhaps most formally complex and ambitious section of the novel is a section where Stamp Paid goes up to the house on Blue Stone Road and hears these voices coming from the house, but he can’t understand what they’re saying. And the close of that chapter says that what he’s hearing is “unspeakable thoughts unspoken.” What then follows are a series of chapters in which we hear not an inner voice, but some ostensibly supra-linguistic account by various characters of the violence they have suffered under slavery. The section culminates in a chapter in which a number of characters, including some who were born into slavery, have a memory of being on the Middle Passage, of being in the belly of the ship. The novel seems to be insisting that the reality of slavery and of the Middle Passage isn’t available through ordinary language. And yet, paradoxically, it is providing this brilliant, formally complex, emotionally wrenching representation of it. Meanwhile, it tells us that such a representation is impossible, that these stories are unspeakable and unspoken. So, that’s a good example where you have the novel insisting on the unrepresentability of that which it indeed goes ahead and represents—albeit represents in a kind of experimental vein. I think there’s an odd investment in insisting on that unspeakability, because if you just said, “Look, I represented it. I can represent slavery, I’m a good novelist,” you’d be, according the logic of these fictions, devaluing the intense realness of slavery. Because if it were really valuable, a novelist couldn’t represent it.
A: Do you think contemporary authors will continue to write about violence in this way, or are we headed towards a different kind of literary representation of violence?
SB: I think we’re heading out of this phase. 9/11 made many of these narratives become much more explicit. The logic was still present, but it became too explicit not to be noticed: everyone was constabntly talking about how unspeakable things they were speaking about were. Over time, some of the truly dangerous political consequences of this insistence on unspeakabilty became apparent, more and more people started saying, “Hey, wait a minute. We should talk about how real power operates, how violence is perpetrated around the world, and what role we as Americans play in this violence.” So I think 9/11 actually ended up spurring a greater political consciousness about the dangers of this kind of discourse, that it might actually be more productive to recognize that violence is a human phenomenon, that it is available for certain kinds of analysis. Not that there aren’t aspects of the suffering of violence that are very difficult to put into words, but there are aspects of a lot of things that are difficult to put into words. We should recognize that it is not an innocent claim, or a claim without consequences, to separate violence off as this rarified realm where you finally experience what is real.
A: How did you structure your book?
SB: I structure it by author. I have an introduction, in which I outline my methodology and my historical argument. I have a chapter on Nabokov’s “Pale Fire,” in which I try to recuperate what I think is a lost Cold War context for the novel and suggest Nabokov as a kind of precursor figure. Then I do a reading of Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49,” then a reading of Norman Mailer’s “The Armies of the Night,” and then a chapter on two feminist fictions from the 1970s: one by Marge Piercy called “Women on the Edge of Time,” and another by Margaret Atwood called “Surfacing.” In that chapter I make an argument about the abandonment of a very practical and useful feminist discourse about rape and a taking up of a model of violence as present primarily in an unspeakable trauma. These novels are very interested in the idea of a women as a traumatized Vietnam vet, one who has powerful access to forbidden knowledge because her body is susceptible to rape. Finally, the last two chapters trace the arc of these ideas in the writing of Philip Roth and that of Don DeLillo.
A: What was your favorite part about writing the book?
SB: A lot of it was really fun to write. I think the fun for me was always in the close readings, in unlocking these things that have been nagging me in these novels that I’ve loved deeply for years. So even though I was often articulating a logic whose political consequences bothered me, I didn’t feel as if I were exposing the horrible lie. It was more like I was helping myself to understand the pull that these novels had on me. I also particularly enjoyed—which I didn’t expect—reading into the history of PTSD as a diagnosis. It was a different kind of work than I’d ever done, and I found it totally fascinating.