For this installment of Why Write?, novelist Laird Hunt goes global. Discussing his work with the UN; his summers in Hong Kong; the way the literary mind “bends” in Egypt, Nigeria, and elsewhere; Honda three-wheelers; Tycho Brahe; boilers; Rigborg Brockenhaus; Space Invaders; Laurie Anderson — well, the agility of Hunt’s cultural and artistic associations is matched only, perhaps, by that of his syntax, which here, as in his novels, manages to lubricate itself into a strangely headlong momentum, yet one that advances rather than abandons articulation. Reading Hunt is simply a blast. And this is why . . .
Why I Write
Just as I was starting to think about what I might say in answer to this question I read an interview with Laurie Anderson in the most recent issue of The Believer in which she talks about how she tends to be unsatisfied by the answers people usually give when they are asked why they do what they do. She speaks about being more interested in hearing people talk about what they do and what they know (like this friend of hers who knows a lot about boilers), that a big part of the why stuff is pretty hard to pin down, is slippery, difficult to articulate, possibly unknown to us, and maybe also kind of boring, like hearing someone read from their resume, like hearing someone go on and on about one of their dreams (that second simile is my own add to what Anderson was saying, she does talk about resumes).
So I felt immediately chastened, even before I started to set something down: I am going to write this and Laurie Anderson is never going to read it but I will know when I am finished that I’ve written something that Laurie Anderson would find as dull and unsatisfying as listening to someone drone on about his/her dreams.
There is a scene in The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles about other people’s dreams being boring. When I talk about dreams being boring I am thinking of this scene. We all know that dreams are not always boring, even if they were dreamed by someone else. The Chinese filmmaker Lu Chuan, for example, had a dream about a conquering army doing a great demonic dance. He took that dream and put it into his film, City of Life and Death, about the rape of Nanking. Not boring. What is boring is that vague, slightly spaced out way that too many people have of talking about and sussing out the meaning of their dreams. They may start out kind of excited about it, kind of on point and engaging (in their tone, in their manner: “listen to this!”), but invariably end up sort of drifty and disconnected and relying on either too much or too little eye contact.
I have no idea whether or not Laurie Anderson is interested in other people’s dreams. Probably she is. Probably her interest is a matter of public record. She is certainly into Buddhism and so forth. Maybe she too has heard Lu Chuan succinctly describe his dream of a dancing army. And seen the way he transposed it to the screen. All I know for sure is that she doesn’t want to hear about why I write.
And really, who could blame her?
Alaa Al Aswany, the Egyptian writer profiled at some length in the most recent issue of The New Yorker, which I bought at the same time as I bought The Believer and got crushed by Laurie Anderson, is very clear about why he writes. He writes to give witness to and share that witness with his people. To write about the people of Egypt, more specifically Cairo, and the trials they have faced in the many thousands of years of their history, and that they continue to face, even after the halcyon days of last Spring. Even after Mubarak’s ouster. Even after Tahrir.
I was interested, in reading the profile, to learn that Al Aswany has no time for experimental writing – for writing that writes away from life, as he sees it. He favors clarity, directness. He has apparently been criticized for this stance by the Egyptian intelligentsia (who is/are the American intelligentsia?), who feel his reliance on the standard tropes and tenets of hoary old realism are questionable to say the least. His supporters rebut this criticism with the old “they’re just jealous” thing (Al Aswany’s most famous novel has been made into a movie, he gets profiled in The New Yorker, etc.). The one that gets whipped out with great frequency all over the literary globe (like if you criticize Franzen or the media for writing 150 articles about him here you are just jealous or if you criticize Houellebecq or the French media in France for the same thing you are just jealous). Jealous Egyptian intelligentsia or not, enormously high illiteracy rates in Egypt or not, the fact remains, according to the article, that Al Aswany writes so that the man in the street can understand him. One could and should add that he does this writing, in this way, with great courage. In the context of living for years under autocratic rule, the freedoms of his youth vanished. People after all can be thrown in prison and tortured in Egypt for writing what they write. Al Aswany’s writing what he writes — about the government, among other things — is clearly a large part of why he writes it.
When I worked at the UN it was common to hear of such cases. Some of my colleagues in the press office came from countries where this was very much the situation. For a time I worked with a young Nigerian playwright. We spoke of Ken Saro-Wiwa whose prison journal I was reading at the time. Of how, in Nigeria, you could be hung for your writing.
Which isn’t to say that all writers living under tyrants and/or tyrannical regimes believe that writing straightforwardly (in the realist manner) is the only way to proceed. One thinks of Dumitru Tsepeneag’s The Vain Art of the Fugue. Or of Tsvetaeva’s poetry. Akhmatova’s for that matter. Or the interview/fiction hybrids written by Liao Yiwu. These writers and poets had/have state-sponsored support for state-flattering social realism to combat. And their minds bent/bend differently.
These are things I know. Or like to think about. Which of course is very different from knowing.
I am interested in the not knowing of thinking.
I am not particularly interested in boilers but I am interested in thinking about people who are interested in boilers. Or people interested in breeds of dog and/or cat. People who know a lot about search algorithms. People who have a taste for feats of strength. Experts on dead bees. People who used to obsess about three wheelers in the 1980s before it became illegal to sell them because they were so dangerous, supposedly.
I was one of these latter people. As a boy. I had a thing for three-wheelers. Owned a couple of Honda ATCs. Their fat tires and thumb throttles seemed at the time an answer to certain of my problems.
Now long ago.
Even longer ago, Rigborg Brockenhaus was walled up in a room in her father’s castle in Denmark for having borne a child out of wedlock. She was fed through a hole in the wall. She was not let out for 25 years (after her parents were dead). Her erstwhile lover, one Frederick Rosencrantz, who with his cousin Guildensterne had once gone on a madcap diplomatic mission to England, which a certain playwright of note worked into one of his best known plays, was not walled up in a room for 25 years for his part in the trespass. He was supposed to be stripped of his noble rank and robbed of two of his fingers, but instead he was sent off to war. Where he died two years later trying to keep two of his fellow officers from killing each other in a duel.
I learned about this and other things in an article by Walter Murch in the most recent issue of Brick (I am writing this in January 2012, clearly a month in which I was interested in magazines, it wasn’t every month, at least not to this degree). The article also discusses Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe, he of the famous observatory and the famous prosthetic nose, but it was the tale of Rosencrantz and Rigborg that got to me. Mostly Rigborg. Walled up in a room for 25 years. Hard not to think of today’s honor killings. Happening in India and Pakistan right now. Versions of it in all cultures. Women always suffer more than men. Murch, the great film editor, reports that Rigborg was reunited with her son after her release. He does not say whether or not she had ever seen (or spoken to) him during the 25 years of her captivity. Of course as far as we know she never saw Rosencrantz again. We don’t know what he thought about that. Or what she thought. Not really.
Nor do we know what Nick Drake was thinking in late November, 1974, when he took the dose of amitriptyline that, whether he was looking for a permanent way out or not, he was never to wake up from. What we do know is that his music, especially the songs in Pink Moon, was strange and beautiful, and that if he were still alive these 38 years later he would barely be in his mid-sixties.
Frank O’Hara wrote great poetry and, like Nick Drake, died too young.
Anne and Emily Bronte.
Still, what I thought to write about before I was shot down by Laurie Anderson were the department stores I frequented in my youth. How in London, when I was 12, I would stop off at the Knightsbridge station on the way home from school and spend hours wandering around Harrod’s. Or how during the long Indiana years I would ride the escalators of department stores at Castleton, Kokomo, Lafayette. Or how in Hong Kong, during the hot summers I spent there, I would often ride the Star Ferry over to Kowloon to ghost Ocean Terminal and the other enormous shopping malls, or take a mini-bus down to Pacific Place, or make my way over to browse under the fluorescent lights at Wing On. Or how still later, when I had a free afternoon before me in Kumagaya, Japan, where I spent a year teaching English in the early 90s, I would browse in the local Day-Pah-To, often feeling obliged to buy something because I attracted (6-3 blondish gaijin) so much attention.
The department store thing pretty much stopped there in Japan. Maybe because of the being spotted thing. Breach of anonymity.
I never stole stuff. If that’s what you were thinking. Nothing like that. This is not that kind of story. I don’t mean I never stole anything when I was young. I just didn’t do it in department stores. I stole some candy once, for example, from a little grocery store in the Netherlands, where I lived in the 70s, then promptly confessed to my mother. After this confession I was required to call my father at work and tell him what I had done. At any rate. Sometimes in the department stores I had object lust. Like in Harrod’s I coveted a pair of blue New Balance running shoes. This was before there were 10 billion running shoe options. I went back to look at them over and over again and my father eventually bought them for me. My father also bought me the very early handheld Space Invaders game that was on display in Harrods. I still have it, the thing. Although it stopped working in something like 1982. Mainly though the department store thing was just about being there. About being in some kind of observant motion (I was almost never still, I wouldn’t stand in front of something to look at it, I would take multiple passes, look from afar), settling into some kind of mobile stance, a stance that has never left me: amateur of the interstices.
Thinking about it now this department store thing comes back at me as kind of weird, and sort of boring, and a little sad.
The curious thing about it though is that when I thought of writing about why I write, the first thing that came to mind was an image of this younger self of mine lost in a sea of heavy articles of clothing in Harrods.
To my knowledge, this never happened outside of a dream (I knew Harrod’s really well, I was never lost, but then maybe I had brought a more general feeling of lostness in with me, I knew my way around the store but not the way around my head, my life wasn’t easy just then, it had its challenges, moorings broken free of, I was 12, etc., maybe).
But that is what I saw. Like I was caught in some enormous, red-tinged version of the closet in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
And felt very calm.
With sincere apologies to Laurie Anderson, that is what I have to say.