2008 National Book Award Fiction Finalist Rachel Kushner Interview

Rachel Kushner

Telex from Cuba


Photo © Jason Smith

Interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.

Bret Anthony Johnston: First, congratulations on being a finalist for the National Book Award! How did the news reach you? What was your reaction?

Rachel Kushner: Thank you. It was a huge surprise, and obviously quite an honor. My editor, Nan Graham, telephoned. I live on the West Coast so it was 9 am when the news was announced. I hadn’t had coffee yet. I was excited but disoriented, like, Huh? Are you sure?

BAJ: How long did you work on Telex From Cuba before it was published? What is your writing process?

RK: Six years, all told. I started in 2000, when I first went to Cuba and saw the residue of this strange colonial world where my mother and aunts had lived when they were children, and recognized it as my first subject. For the first couple of years I read a lot about Cuban and Latin American history. I took trips to the old colonies in Cuba and talked to people there about the years before the revolution. I made graphs and timelines, and tried to synthesize the hundreds of books I’d read into categories, until I was able to think clearly about what, among all I’d learned, served my story, at which point I started writing. The process involved a lot of trial and error and tears. Which isn’t to claim any extra credit for the pain that went into it. Sometimes pain gets you nowhere. In my case, it wasn’t until the writing became actually quite pleasurable that I knew I would be able to keep much of it.

BAJ: In the novel, you’ve mined your own family history as well as the history of Cuba before Castro’s revolution. How did working within the confines of personal and political history affect your writing?

RK: “Freedom is in the law” is a refrain around our house—maybe because I live with a Hegelian. For writing, restrictions can be helpful. The confines of political history were a great pleasure and challenge, because I was able to work backward from inevitability, and knew that momentum would have to be teased out of subtle tensions among the characters. The personal history was more problematic, even as it was key to writing the book. This insular American colony had a significant role in the revolution, and my access to the archives of those Americans, via my fanatical grandparents, who saved every last United Fruit commissary receipt, was invaluable. But it was unwieldy. And beyond that, an impossible proposition. I was not able to tell the story of the real people, my actual grandparents. I was only able to get anywhere once I’d metabolized the real-life details and then decathected, so that the writing had its own internal logic, an aesthetic logic, and incorporated only what served that logic.

BAJ: One of the riveting aspects of Telex From Cuba is how the reader knows how the story ends while the characters don’t. The discrepancy creates an immediate and lasting tension, and it also allows readers to empathize with characters whose political views may be very different from their own. Was this your intention, to write a political novel?

RK: Oh, thank you. Yes, it was my intention. My hope was to move the characters through a fictional landscape and through historical processes simultaneously, and hopefully do so in a way that might reveal something about national liberation movements — to my mind perhaps the great theme of the 20th century, or at least the '50s and '60s. That said, the goal was certainly not a fiction that has some underlying “lesson.” The challenge was to make real and believable characters and yet open them to their surroundings so that history could flow through them. They are politicized in that they are people living in a moment, affected by and constructed of that moment: so there’s a story not just about husbands and wives but about larger themes like social class and race, and our dominance of Latin America for much of the 20th century.

BAJ: What was the most difficult aspect of writing the novel?

RK: The periodic breakdowns I suffered, involving the question of what kind of writer I was and am, and how much import to give to story, plot. I would read a work like Francis Ponge’s book-length poem Soap and feel awed but crushed by its slender effectiveness at getting to the root of what it means to be a human being in war, and then disgusted with myself, in contrast, for reeking of the stench of fiction. It’s embarrassing to divulge that this most basic question of form plagued me, but it’s the honest truth. I struggled with the idea that a more conventional novel form was retrograde, even a cheap use of my talents, a betrayal of my particular relationship to language to try to tell a big, plotted, sweeping story, even as part of me was committed to doing that. I learned the hard way that the story’s coherence and structure would derive from the aesthetic dictates of the book itself, if I could only just pursue them and stop worrying about where I was on the battle lines of vanguard literature. Focus, eventually, obviated these questions, but it was hard won. I’d like to think that what I ended up with encompasses various forms and models of literature, but also bends rather willingly, and hopefully in surprising ways, to a reader’s desire to step into the current of a fully formed story, like a river that isn’t something else, called river, or somewhat like river, but a thing that can take you all the way to the ocean.

BAJ: An interesting similarity among the fiction finalists this year is how all of the novels focus on the past. What is it about the past that so captivates readers and writers?

RK: That’s true, and yet each deals with history rather differently. What captivates readers about the past is the same thing that captivates them generally: some resonance of truth. You can read Proust and feel him so acutely in the sentences, his pleasures and disappointments and crises, and it matters not at all that they’re occurring in early twentieth century France. But then you arrive at the long section on the Dreyfus Affair—which some people skip—and you start to sense a deeper encoding. What’s going on? Are ring-wing politics and French anti-Semitism just Gourmantes cocktail twitter or is this going to inform, in some meaningful way, the arc of the volumes?

Writing fiction that takes place in history is a way of writing about people, about human relationships, with one more writer’s tool: hindsight. But there are many different ways of doing it. The term historical novel makes me cringe a little, because it implies a genre. I don’t think literary fiction can be divided thusly. I think novels, along a spectrum, are either more expansive and idea-driven, or driven by one or a few isolated aspects of ontology, language or love or games or what have you. If the writer is drawn to the larger scope, than the hindsight is political, it’s about historical circumstances. But sometimes history is merely a setting, and the main architecture of the book is domestic and interior. As a writer, this interests me less. When I realized I could use my whole person in fiction, and synthesize my ideas about politics, about the world, and that these thoughts would be put to service to build not just the backdrop but the characters, and how the characters felt, it was a personal epiphany.

BAJ: For some writers, the engine that powers their fiction is character. For others, it’s language. For others still, the engine might loosely be called “theme.” Do you identify with any of those?

RK: All of them, which is probably a strength, ultimately, but this caused me a lot of personal trauma as I mentioned above. Perhaps the key is managing these three integral agents via a hierarchy that allows the brain to proceed. Character first, above all else. And yet almost proleptically, character draws from the well of language. And theme keeps seeping in, from some deeper water table of the writer’s ideas about what drives people, what truly matters.

BAJ: Who is your ideal reader?

RK: Perhaps it’s cheating but I’m going to invoke former NBA finalist Lydia Davis, who said there’s a sense of companionship in writing though she isn’t sure who the companion is. I feel like I want to be my best self as I write, and somehow grasp at a version of my own thinking that’s higher quality than what I’m normally able to come up with on a given day, and yet the endeavor seems not motivated by anything like a superego, or the usually insecure me who wants people to like me and think I’m smart. It’s something very different, thank god. It really is a way of entering into a dialogue with literature, with writers one admires living and dead. I’ll embed, for instance, a reference to a make-believe musical instrument from a Nabokov text, a lover’s instrument he calls an amarondola, but it isn’t meant to be a clue that the reader notices, it’s there to hopefully amuse some . . . some Other. I think I’m finding out I’m religious as I write this. Not that I believe in writing as an activity that brings one closer to a deity, but it gathers a coherent sense of purpose, an unnamable, even pristine witness into my life in a way that nothing else does.

BAJ: What books or writers do you find yourself rereading? Do you see any of their influence in your current work?

RK: I reread Joan Didion’s novels. She deals with heavy political topics and has a strong, clean voice, but also layers in these fussy social details that please me, even if it’s a guilty pleasure. DeLillio’s Underworld came to seem one of the only books whose structure could act as a model, because my own is an ensemble construction, as is his, though his is much broader in scope. Then there’s Denis Johnson, especially Tree of Smoke, which I’ve just finished for the second time. It came out after I’d finished Telex. Still, much of what interests me as a reader and writer is in that book. Proust, and Alejo Carpentier’s novels, all of them, I have read and reread and were important guides as I wrote. Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night is to me a high watermark for humor. Finally, Walter Benjamin’s Arcades was a kind of bible that I plundered for little details, not his actual details, but his taste for a type of detail. Benjamin’s difficult conception of history and the commodity, of the twentieth century as trapped in the dream of the century prior, spurred me to try to manage the historico-fictional realm of my book more boldly. It’s through Benjamin that I invoke both Baudelaire (colonial fantasies) and Victor Hugo (revolution, exile), the two writers who respectively open and close my novel.

BAJ: We’re in an election year. The country is engaged in two wars. The economy is all but collapsing. Other wars are being waged around the world. The environment is suffering on every front. In light of all of these pressures, why does fiction matter?

RK: It depends on what you mean by fiction. For the past eight years we’ve been trapped in a number of fictions, such as the fictional pretext for the Iraq War, with all its horrifically real consequences, and the fictional wealth produced by Bush’s fiscal policies. Among competing fictions, I would choose the fiction of literature over the fiction of politics: to arrive at a truth, through adequately synthetic means, is actually the goal of the author.

But your question, with all due respect, lays out the terms of a false dichotomy: that one is engaged in reading or writing fiction in lieu of preventing catastrophe. This is not the case. It’s a logic that derives from the idea that literature is escapist. But there are certainly more seductive forms of escape in our culture than reading. And regardless, no one who subscribes to this logic would argue that people shouldn’t read. So what should they read? Is it more engagé to read the newspaper? Would it be better to read a rash of papers spanning from 1815 to 1848 in order to understand French society after the revolution, or to read Balzac? Maybe because I just spent the past several years thinking about a complex historical moment, about violence and history, revolution and exploitation, and how to empathize with all sides of the equation, and why it was important to do so, I feel emphatic that literature can and should engage politics and is one of the few places we can turn, as readers, for an orienting socio-political context.


Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of internationally acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World, both from Random House. In 2006, he received the “5 Under 35” fiction honor from the National Book Foundation. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently the Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University. For more information, please visit: www.bretanthonyjohnston.com.