Interviewed by Sebastian Boensch
In “Infinite Village,” there is a passage toward the end of the essay where you describe a feeling of peace that has come over you. This feeling seems to originate in a momentary shedding of your own identity and the trying on of a new one. You are wearing a long coat and baggy pants—an outfit similar to the one Fitim’s sister is wearing earlier in the essay. In the passage at the end of the essay, you write that, contrary to your independent American rearing, part of you wishes to relinquish your American-ness and to become a full member of this close-knit community of people you are living among—even if that means a rejection of certain values you deem fundamental. Perhaps I’ve answered my own question, but what keeps you from actually trying it?
I think what I was trying to get at in that scene is that in a country like Kosovo, once you are accepted as a member of the group, your position is secure. You don’t have to keep proving your worth. If you look at group dynamics in the US, often a person holds court, while the rest are trying to think of things to say. Belonging to a group is often fraught with having to continually contribute something interesting. The positive result of the Kosovar group dynamic is a feeling of deep security and belonging, but the problem is that often the conversations, at least in Kosovo, can become boring. I think what draws me to these more community-focused cultures is that I come from a large extended family. For Christmas we would rent a house and thirty people would live together for a week. In this setting of absolute chaos was the only time I felt my entire self emerge, and I became somewhat dependent upon those connections to feel whole. I suppose that’s why I feel so at home in large foreign families because one’s identity is determined by a crowd of people. In some sort of experimental way I’ve been trying to explore how fundamental community is to self-identity. I recently attended a literary festival in Vancouver BC and I was struck by how the Americans on one panel described their writing process as “inhabiting the lives of others,” while the Canadian aboriginal writers described their writing process as giving voice to that crowd of people inhabiting them, acknowledging the extent we are affected by others rather than holding onto a static self. I think the main reason I couldn’t be a permanent expat is that no matter how much I loved how the fruit seller would always throw me an orange when I passed his stall, or how everyone would take care of the guy who lost his mind in the war and as he paced back and forth his hiccups became part of the natural sounds of the neighborhood, those connections, ultimately, weren’t deep emotional bonds.
In “Riding in the Car with Muslim Boys,” you write that part of the reason you teach English abroad is to help the people you teach to protect themselves against “us”—against globalization? Against American capitalism and media? To what extent do you fear that teaching English is part of what makes your students and their communities most vulnerable to “us”?
I think we have a tendency to believe that as soon as people are exposed to American culture they won’t be able to resist becoming like us, or at least this is the State Department’s hope. But what you find in these English language environments, or TOEFL conferences, is that many people don’t really care about the culture that comes with English. They are not that interested in British or American holidays except in order to be polite. If anything, they have more romantic notions of Mexican culture. And most are appropriating English into their own languages—which can actually be a little unnerving, especially to someone who cares about grammar—for the opportunities it will give them to travel and engage in a world larger than their own country, which they long for, probably more than most Americans.
What writers have you been introduced to abroad that you are surprised are not more widely read here? Or that you wish were more widely read here?
I am a fanatic fan of Fazil Iskander’s Tales of Chegem, as well as Andrei Bitov’s A Captive of the Caucasus. Those books gave me permission to tap into the comical voices of the Caucasus. The Bosnian writer Ivo Andric won a Nobel Prize in 1961 but I’m not sure if anyone reads him anymore. He writes about how the towns in the Balkans are filled with stories, but how certain villages believe that one of their stories is worth three of anyone else’s, and thus are loath to give them away to strangers. He also writes about the importance of the imagination in the face of oppression, and how essential truths, which form the core of myth and legend, must be rediscovered by succeeding generations. I find this need for rediscovery to be especially relevant today. Also, even though people tend to think of Canada as a kind of p.s. to the US, the fact that they only have 35 million people in their entire country means that even if a writer becomes a national best seller, he still can’t financially support himself, so they just write really thoughtful, smart books like Mel Hurtig’s The Vanishing Country. Is It Too Late to Save Canada? I also don’t see anyone doing these days what Rebecca West did in her enormous travelogue about the Balkans, Black Lamb, Grey Falcon. She can describe a doorknob in a way that oozes with spirituality.
To what extent do you learn the languages of the places where you work? Do you have encounters with ideas one can express in other languages but not in English? If so, does that in some way frustrate or inspire your writing?
An Albanian student of mine told me that there is no word in Albanian that means, “to giggle.”
“We don’t really have that many words,” she said. “We weren’t as lucky as you. We didn’t have a Shakespeare to make up a lot of words for us.”
Whether this is true or not, probably alternative ways of thinking are due to the grammatical structures in a language more than the words themselves, though I learned some wonderful words recently: pisanzapra is a Malay word that means the time it takes to eat a banana, and the Finnish word, poronkusema, means the distance a reindeer can travel before taking a rest. Every language only has a few of these though and I’m not sure how helpful they are in terms of writing a novel. Maybe they are more helpful when you are writing birthday cards, like, “Sending you more love than gurfa,” which is the German word for the amount of water that can be held in one hand.
To what extent is living abroad a solitary experience for you? If it is solitary, does that solitude feel necessary to your writing in some way? Or is it a hindrance to writing?
Living abroad can resemble living in a monastery. There is absolutely no easy way to relieve the anxiety of the loneliness that can come with it, and so it often works like a pressure cooker and forces you to find out what is really going on inside yourself. The brain also becomes a little like a baby’s brain because you are trying to constantly understand the rules of this confusing land, and so your powers of observation are amped up. When I come back to the US all the distractions return. I get pulled back into all the white noise rather than being able to hear some faint universal symphony.
Has teaching English to non-native speakers influenced your prose? Does it make you think about the English language differently?
Native speakers of English can hide their meaning behind their sophisticated use of the language. In a country where people are struggling to express themselves with a first-grade-level English there is no room for prevarication and so the way they express themselves often comes across as more genuine. And, of course, mistranslations are replete with interesting meanings. In Kosovo, I was having dinner at the house of a friend. His father worked for the electricity company so we were talking about electricity and how they hadn’t had it during the war, how they were all waiting for it, but then when they finally got it, the electricity in their hearts went out. I said the same thing happened in Georgia and something about how similar Georgian and Kosovar hospitality is. My friend translated, and the father nodded solemnly. Then the father said, “Do you think it is because both countries like big buildings?” And I said, “Well, the hospitality is great, even in small buildings.” The father nodded solemnly again. Then he said, “It is because in the old times everyone died so easily. So now they really love nurses.” I suddenly realized that my friend had translated the word hospitality as hospital. When I explained that hospitality didn’t mean hospital, they were so relieved. They said they really hadn’t known what to say about hospitals.
How long did it take you to write Waiting for the Electricity? If it took you a long time, why did it take so long? Did you learn as you went? How did you know how to do this thing?
When I first started writing Waiting for the Electricity, a decade ago, I was just trying to get over my culture shock. I was trying to figure out how a land so zany as Georgia could really exist. But it’s difficult to write a story about people who are just sitting in the dark, feeling winter nostalgia over the smell of a gas heater. So I put the novel away. But after the war between Georgia and Russia in 2007, I visited Georgia again and by this time they had electricity and I understood how the story could end. So I took it out of the drawer. But I had to re-enter the culture of the novel every time I worked on it, and had to undergo another culture shock every time I stepped away from it. Probably the most difficult part about writing that novel was that Georgia is such a fatalistic, Christian Orthodox culture that relies on God for everything, so instead of creating a central consciousness revolving around the will of the protagonist, I had to try to create a consciousness of a community that revolves around the will of God. To create a novel with an artifice of God’s will was beyond difficult, especially for an American audience that is used to reading plot as revolving around the consciousness of a central character. I had to keep asking myself again and again how true I was being to this culture, combing through it and combing through it.
Was writing Waiting for the Electricity—the actual work of writing a first novel—difficult? Did it extract an emotional or psychological toll? What changes, if any, had to occur in you in order to allow you to complete the novel? How did you know when you were done? Did you ever know? Could you have gone on writing it?
I’ve heard that writing a novel can be the equivalent of developing a mental illness. The amount of concentration required isn’t really reasonable to sustain a healthy mentality for a normal person. I was only able to continue working on it because I was so attached to the characters. I also felt like I was jumping off a cliff at times, to be spending so much time hanging out with my imaginary friends while other people were getting married and buying houses. It’s gone through so many drafts that I don’t really dare to read it now because I’ll just start noticing things I should have changed. At one point it was twice as long and included the voice of my protagonist’s sister but the voices weren’t complementary to each other. I had to cut out her voice and integrate it into Slim’s. In some ways that deepened his character because he got in touch with his inner woman. When I thought I had finished it my editor said I needed to add a love story. That was excruciating. I had wanted this to be about a guy’s love for his country. But I think it’s a better book now that it does have a romantic interest, even if it essentially meant taking the village gossip and lowering her age.
What challenges did you experience in writing a protagonist who is not yourself? What freedoms?
People who don’t know me say, “How could you write from the perspective of a Georgian man?” People who do know me say, “Oh, that guy is you.” But it’s possible that after writing about him and internalizing his voice for so long, I ended up becoming more like him. Writing from a male point of view was definitely liberating. He helped me even out my emotions.
What’s it like to transition from writing for a possible audience to writing for an actual audience? What is it like having your work recognized?
To make manifest into the physical world something you deeply care about is a wonderful feeling. To start worrying about publicity and recognition, less so. The only sane way I can deal with the marketing aspect is to just think that I made some homemade muffins that are hopefully providing people with some joy. Otherwise, worrying about book sales is just going to lead to suffering.
Do you have a favorite sentence in literature? Favorite sentences? Sentences you wish you had written? Do any immediately come to mind? To what extent do the sentences you write derive from or sound like those sentences? If they aren’t at all alike, why do you think that’s so?
I love the sentences of Lyudmila Ulitskaya. Also recently I read the first few sentences of Fazil Iskander’s book Rabbits and Boa Constrictors and was stunned. Now that I reread them I find they are not all that stunning. They are this: “All this happened long, long ago in a land quite far to the south. To be brief, Africa.
“On that hot summer day two boa constrictors lying on a large, moss-covered rock were warming themselves in the sun and peacefully digesting some rabbits they’d recently swallowed.”
I suppose the sentences I love the most are satirical, but satire from a place of kindness, since kindness in literature is so rare these days. The only way I know how to deal with the skeptical or even antagonistic culture that we currently live in is to believe and doubt simultaneously, to engage in a sort of advance and retreat of earnest revelation and comic cynicism so that even the most jaded person can be lulled into a vulnerable place to examine her relationship with meaning and belief. It comes from a recognition that we cannot go backwards to an innocent, uncomplicated belief system or faith. We have to go forward, acknowledging cynicism but asserting meaning nevertheless. We have to be able to say, “I’m not stupid, but even so… I am attempting to build something.”
Do you fear that there is a “Christina Nichol sentence” that you are doomed to repeat? Or do you work against your instincts or your comfort when writing? Is finding a voice the same thing as becoming too comfortable with your own sentences? Are there any pitfalls that you fear your own writing falling into?
I wish my sentences could burn a little more purely. But someone told me the other day that after you burn coal, besides the ash, dirt remains. In order to burn the coal you need the dirt. I guess I have to deal with that until I can figure out an alternative energy source.