It is not the object described that matters, but the light that falls on it, like that from a lamp in a distant room.
- Guernica: I’ve found there’s often a sense among writers or creative types that, “If I go into therapy, I’ll be giving it away. It needs to be filtered through my own work.” It sounds like you’ve had the opposite experience.
- Gary Shteyngart: Right, and I think that just is ridiculous. The way I’ve experienced it, there’s been none of that. When I entered psychoanalysis, I was drunk out of my mind. I couldn’t do basic things. I was dating a woman who ended up in prison a year later for bashing this guy’s head in with a hammer. So the answer is no. I spent five years spinning my wheels on my first book because I didn’t have the wherewithal to bring it together. Now, yeah, some of those experiences formed my fiction and my nonfiction. I’m glad those things happened. But was I better able to process those experiences once I entered analysis and my life stopped derailing? Of course. Without that I’d probably have one book at most and be living in a hut in Albania somewhere.
- Guernica: Did you interview the ex that attacked her boyfriend with a hammer?
- Gary Shteyngart: No, no. I couldn’t get in touch with her. <i>The New Yorker</i> ran an excerpt about that and <i>they</i> couldn’t track her down. Or they could and she wouldn’t respond to their questions. So she’s out of my life.
- Guernica: Probably for the best.
- Gary Shteyngart: I think so. I don’t want to wear a Kevlar helmet anymore. I feel more secure.
- Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: “Dirge” is an interesting word. I come from a culture that has refined the art of the dirge to a sublime level, so it’s an interesting idea. Perhaps a dirge to a dream, a broken dream, that as a nation we never quite acknowledged, and we’re longing for some form of resurrection within that.
- Guernica: Is that something the characters are hoping for in <i>Dust</i>, some form of resurrection?
- Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: I feel they are. It may not seem that way, but I am an absolute optimist, an unrepentant optimist.
- Guernica: I read this as an optimistic novel, ultimately. The characters, for the most part, find the answers they’ve been seeking, and there is an astonishing resilience among them.
- Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: Good! I’ve been surprised by the Kenyan reaction: it’s largely been warm and receptive. But I think what strikes me most are the conversations I’ve been having with a lot of the younger readers who are either very poignantly saying, “We didn’t know at all,” or, very reflectively, “We need to talk.” That was something unexpected.
He said to himself: No, I’ll go on foot, I’ll control the situation better. The situation, what situation?, well, the situation he was used to controlling at other times. Back then, yes, it was rewarding: your Target was walking ahead of you, unaware, calm, going about his business. You too, apparently, were going about your business, but not at all unaware, quite the opposite: of your Target you knew each and every feature from the photos they’d made you study, you could’ve recognized him even in the audience of a theater, whereas he knew nothing of you, to him you were an anonymous face like millions of other anonymous faces in the world, he went his way and going his own way he guided you, since you had to follow him. He was the compass for your route, you merely had to follow him.
In the rescue project’s early days, conditions at the archives were precarious at best. Lacking chairs, workers sat hunched over for eight hours daily on concrete blocks; they inhaled clouds of dust and assorted molds, which lay heavy and bright across the rotting pages like strokes of paint; and they were exposed to the waste of rats, bats, and other vermin. Riskiest of all, in light of the retribution faced by other activists who sought to plumb the depths of the state’s wartime abuses, they affiliated themselves with a potentially dangerous initiative whose future was uncertain.
In a country with fewer than ten trained archivists, previous archival experience was impossible to demand; no available training, whether in criminology or history or forensic science, would have been adequate preparation for the unprecedented task of rescuing 80 million documents under such dramatic constraints. Instead, the original volunteers and workers were evaluated by one measure: confianza. In this setting, confianza’s literal translation as “trust” was a thin description; its deeper connotation was a certain level of dedication to human rights work and memory politics. Confianza, explained the project’s assistant director, was not easily quantified, but it essentially meant “that the people are referred to us by people or organizations we trust; that we know their trajectory, their level of commitment; that they’ve been linked to the causes that are worth fighting for in this country.”
As such, the initial volunteers and workers at the archives—who later became a minority as the team grew—were no average citizens plucked off the streets.
- Guernica: What’s your writing process like?
- Gary Shteyngart: I work in bed. I wake up around 11:00 a.m., do a little writing, maybe some breakfast. Go to sleep. See my shrink, cry a little, have dinner with some friends, couple of drinks, go right back to sleep.
- It’s important to brush one’s teeth, that’s my only advice. That wakes you up a lot, and even if you’re just writing, your breath should be better than it was when you woke up. Sometimes the shower can wait a little bit. Depends on how fast you want to get to work.
I get to a reading and the first question is: “Do you think there’ll ever be peace in the Middle East?” How the fuck would I know? No one asked Updike.
And I remember this, too, though I know it can’t have been real: Daddy standing up, stepping over the edge of the boat, and walking across the water to the shore, with me and Scotty in his arms, walking across the top of the ocean, taking me home to Momma, Rena, and Carly. I remember the way he cradled me, like I was still a baby, even with Scotty in my arms, and I remember that there was part of me that wanted to close my eyes and let it be a dream. Instead of closing my eyes, however, I looked down at Daddy’s feet leaving ripples on the surface of the ocean, and then out to the rocks and the shore of Loosewood Island, as he carried me across the water.
Skin paled as a peeled winter
onion, it reveals as any mirror making the top
of a toy lake does—black under her chin, the lost
eyes lanced with light. She has forgotten how to live
according to our hours. Love is only taking
its sweet time / to come back to us, the cold-
country women said when asked how many
seasons until she would return home to us