Novels are not bound by the rules of reportage. Far from it. They’re predicated on delivering experience. Of course, they seem to abide by certain basic rules, but these are no more restrictive than the law of gravity is in constraining the variety of living things on the planet. By delivering experience, novels can alter the stance we adopt toward news—not much, I’m sure, but they can make it a little more difficult for us to consign “other people” to our tidy boxes.
- Guernica: I like that definition of what writing is to you—“a lovely labor in problem solving.” You’ve worked in investment banking and human rights. You’ve studied mathematics, among other pursuits. Have these fed into how you solve problems on the page?
- Zia Haider Rahman: The banking and human rights had a direct effect in terms of content, although of course only certain aspects of those experiences earned a space in the book. The mathematics is the odd one, odd because I’m not sure how to measure its effect. It is so fundamental to my outlook on everything and yet I’m not even sure how. It must be because in my formative years it was everything to me, the single place of beauty in my life, and of breathtaking beauty at that. I still believe that pure mathematics is the most creative thing that humanity does, though I am no longer a part of it.
- The mathematical tilt remains basic to my epistemological perspective, my howling plea in the still of night for epistemic humility. Mathematics gave me that as, also, did the difficulty I had in talking to my parents. How proofs are conceived is unfathomable. Clearly, there are certain conditions in which the revelation takes place. You have to think and think, then try some thinking or take another approach, and think. And did I tell you that you have to think again? But then zap! Suddenly a proof appears. It’s like a magic trick. Except it’s not, because in a magic trick the magician knows where the rabbit came from. It’s a magic trick in which even the magician doesn’t know how she did it.
Poetry, like the imagination itself, must be limitless. And there must be other ways of expressing the inexpressible, which is what—poetry is just that. Prose is about what can be said and what is known and so on. Poetry is about what cannot be expressed. I mean, terrible grief, or intense erotic feeling, or even unspeakable anger are all inexpressible. You can’t put them in words and that’s why you try to put them in words. Because that’s all you’ve got.
If you’re not free, then mentally and consciously, it’s very hard to write.
A novel insists that it is a work of fiction, and of course it is: full of invented situations and names and characters. But in a way, it is also profoundly non-fictional: it is a memoir of those inventions, it is a CAT-scan of the author’s brain, a State of the Union address on what your self mentally encountered during the period of writing. I am an art historian, a lover of music, a “race man,” a walker in the city, a Yoruba, a political doubter, a devotee of the Anglo-American legal tradition, an apostate.
In the epigraph to Drown, Junot Diaz uses a quote from a Cuban poet, Gustavo Pérez Firmat—“The fact that I am writing to you in English already falsifies what I wanted to tell you.” This is the dilemma of the immigrant writer. If I’d lived in Haiti my whole life, I’d be writing these things in Creole. But these stories I am writing now are coming through me as a person who, though I travel to Haiti often, has lived in the U.S. for more than three decades now.
Often when you’re an immigrant writing in English, people think it’s primarily a commercial choice. But for many of us, it’s a choice that rises out of the circumstances of our lives. These are the tools I have at my disposal, based on my experiences. It’s a constant debate, not just in my community but in other communities as well. Where do you belong? You’re kind of one of us, but you now write in a different language. You’re told you don’t belong to American literature or you’re told you don’t belong to Haitian literature. Maybe there’s a place on the hyphen, as Julia Alvarez so brilliantly wrote in one of her essays. That middle generation, the people whose parents brought them to other countries as small children, or even people who were born to immigrant parents, maybe they can have their own literature too.
- Guernica: Does this “something” presuppose a kind of confession? Is confession, in poetry, a big deal?
- Lucie Brock-Broido: Confession may well be a dirty word in poetry. I know when I was a much younger poet, in my twenties, I promised myself, having been through Plath to the point where I had to take to my room for a couple of weeks and stay under the covers with The Bell Jar and Ariel, that I would move in the other direction. Plath remains one of the masters to me. You have to fall in love, retreat and then come back. Any poet I have come back to is one who stays.
The TV was loud enough that I hadn’t heard the back door open. I looked up at a creaking sound from the stairs. Valerie was slowly rising with each step, the top of her head the first thing to come into view, then her face, her face. Her face had a look that I understood before I fully realized I was understanding it.
She was clearly still drunk, maybe stoned, her eyes even glassier than they usually were after a night out, her smile sliding from side to side. “Hey,” she said softly. It was a lovely sound, that “Hey,” a sweet sound, and I believed it, though I wasn’t sure what, exactly, I was believing. “I’ll take care of Zach,” she said. “You go back to bed.”
I followed her as she stumbled into our bedroom and pulled off her heels, then set her phone in the bottom drawer of the dresser next to her bed, where she always put it. I watched her catch herself when she leaned over; she nearly fell into the drawer.
She walked back into the library, tripping a bit over a pile of laundry and laughing lightly, the sort of laugh a person makes in private, an embarrassed laugh, though I was watching. I think she’d forgotten I was there.
She pulled another beanbag chair next to the one Zach was sitting in and dragged an afghan from the ottoman. She covered herself and Zach and leaned in close to him. As I watched from the doorway, she fell asleep.
I felt something thick in my throat. I watched her sleep, watched Zach put his hand on her cheek absently, without knowing it, his eyes still glued to the TV. I stared at his hand there, on her cheek, her face, and I knew.
I lay down in bed to try to go back to sleep, but I knew there wasn’t much chance of that. It was her face. We had a name for it in college, the “just fucked face,” the look of sex an hour after the fact, a face framed by disheveled hair, a face recovering from the physics of pleasure, a face still a little baffled by the effects of booze, a face before regret, before the random snapshots of memory begin to cohere into a picture of a long night of drinking, a night of gradually loosening resolve, the slow lubricants of beer and bourbon and pot.
The Cuckold by James Harms - Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics
Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.
As a child left by himself, he would watch television for hours, and sometimes he would reach out and try to touch the characters through the glass. At moments of particular trial or celebration, he would try to shake their tiny hands or stroke their hair or pat them on the back. He did this even when he was old enough to know that such contact was impossible, that the characters were just projected cathode rays, because he found it soothing. And from this came his first inkling of what would be his life’s discovery. Over the years, the feeling became an idea and the idea a conviction: the next step would be reciprocity, the TV that could love you back.