In the third part of Sebastián Rojas Cabal’s interview with Charles Siebert, the pair discuss the teaching of Creative Writing at NYU Abu Dhabi.
Part III: Teaching
Teaching full-time here has been a new experience for me. I’ve only done visiting professorships in the past. I was a bit apprehensive at first about teaching Intro to Creative Writing and have to cover so many different forms, like the personal essay, fiction and poetry. I mean it’s one thing for me to have stuck my nose back into poetry, my roots. I began my writing career as a poet. But it was really exciting today. We’d been doing the personal essay before. It was unbelievable to see how excited everyone was. I’m still getting a little resistance on the writing of it. But the reading of it I think to have six students flipping over T.S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock,” you know, a poem that was written back in 1910. They were responding to it like it was a contemporary work. So that was pretty cool. That was fun.
I’m also having them read persona poems, where the poet, you know, takes on the persona of some other person, like James Dickey’s “Lifeguard,” a beautiful poem in the voice of a lifeguard who can’t save a drowning boy. And Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” imagining herself as Lazarus, coming back from the dead. Incredible.
In my feature writing and travel writing courses in which students are asked to compose a long-form narrative work of creative nonfiction I have to tell everyone, “Stop leading with your premise. This is not an academic paper. Just find the stories that add up to your premise.”
This student down in Ghana kept saying, “I wanna write about the justice system in Ghana and how it’s the antidote to the corruption and nepotism of the government.” I’m going, “Okay, but I don’t want a thesis, okay? Sit in the courtroom. Be an observer. And find the stories that add up to what you just told me. You know, ’cause if you go the other way, you’re gonna write me a term paper. And I don’t want a term paper.”
And that’s what’s been the hardest thing to get across here. And a lot of that’s a function of age. I couldn’t do what I’m doing now at the undergrad level. You know, I too was filled with my premises and my theories and the only escape I got from that was writing poetry. I understand the impulse. It’s not until you get a little older and a little more worldly and do this for awhile, where you’re out in the real world listening to people’s stories. I’m not a reporter. Not by training. I’ve never had a journalism class. But I just figured that stuff out by virtue of wanting to tell a good story. And for telling a good story you gotta ask some questions and you gotta go see things and then give the world back to readers in as compelling a way as possible. But I still miss poetry. There are so many days where I just go, “Should I just go back? You know, just throw all this away?”
Siebert and Cabal deep in conversation.
Photo by Sebastián Rojas Cabal
Q: But do you think training as a poet has somehow fits with your life as a creative nonfiction writer?
A: I was very conscious of form when I wrote poems, else why write it? And I think being highly attuned to and conscious of the form of free verse poems especially, and how it’s shaped, the beginning, middle, end, I think somehow it gave me an instinctual sense of how to structure a long-form narrative piece. We talk a lot about the structuring of a narrative piece in the feature and travel writing writing classes. So I think that’s one way.
Every time I gotta go into a science section, or weave science in, I do it through metaphor that makes you see it.
The other way that poetry helped is what we discussed earlier about the function of metaphor. That works so well for so many of the kind of pieces I write now because they deal in these unseen landscapes of science. There’s not a piece I write where at one point I’m not talking about things like the neurons that are attached to empathy or that get wounded in trauma or where I’m not talking about cells and the makeup of cells, and where viruses came from.
Every time I gotta go into a science section, or weave science in, I do it through metaphor that makes you see it. Thus, for example, my friend Francisco Goldman, who had me up at his class at Trinity College in Hartford. He asked me, “You know, where did you come up with this line?”And it was something to do with the crooked streams and blown-out bridges of an embattled psyche or something like that. And of course at the time I was thinking of the first war when we first came up with the idea of shell shock and war trauma. Well when one thinks of the First World War you think of those dreary landscapes of muddy trenches and barbed wire. And the blood and rains in crooked streams. So that’s where I came up that image. But that’s what it is, giving a physical shape to unseen inner landscapes. And that’s the challenge of writing today. It really is, that’s what we’re facing more and more. And that’s where poetry couldn’t be a better tool.
Q: What has it meant to you, to be a professor of practice?
A: I still don’t know. When I arrived here and saw that on my door, I just kind of chuckled. I had actually seen it because Judy Miller, who hired me, sent me something very early on, saying—oh, it must have been the contract—“And you’re to be known as a professor of practice.”
And I just went, “What? That’s kind of weird. It makes me sound like all I do is practice. “Yeah, he’s just in his office, practicing.” I guess it fits, in the sense that what distinguishes me from other professors here is I’ve really not lived in and worked in academia for the majority of my life.
So now that I’m teaching it, I can also say I’m doing it. I’m still out there, doing it. And I’m really proud of that. I think it makes me a better teacher. Because I don’t wanna just share my past enthusiasm for this form of writing. I wanna have people seeing me sweat over it now. Because it’s like your struggle. So it makes me a better teacher. I don’t mind talking about myself in class. I don’t wanna do it to a braggadocious sense or anything. I do it only in a utilitarian sense.
I use myself as, you know, a case in point, the guinea pig. This is what this feels like. I tend not to like to teach my writing because there’s so many good writers out there. But I was really happy about getting this parrot piece out. This was one of the few times I’ve had to write a piece like that, you know, while teaching. I wrote another one that wasn’t as complicated while at Columbia last year. Here it was really hard ’cause of the time difference. The week of closing that story I was up until 4:00 in the morning, four nights in a row,
Q: Have you had any ideas for a story based in Abu Dhabi?
A: A couple have perked up. I already knew coming in there was potential with the falcon hospital. And something about displacement and a conversation actually that I had with you—very early on last semester—that I actually thought of incorporating into the opening of a book called The Anatomy of Empathy. I have started writing it from time to time. But I’ve been too busy to get too far with it.
When I first got here I also wanted to start keeping a memoir, or a diary. But I don’t keep diaries. I keep notebooks perpetually, but I don’t keep diaries per se. But I kinda thought, that probably everybody and their mother’s had this idea: “I’m gonna write about a book about teaching in Abu Dhabi or my experiences.” Who knows …
But I do love the teaching and I do like the fact that I’m forced to read a bunch of books or revisit books I haven’t visited in awhile. That’s fun. Although I’m a horribly slow reader. So it’s tough work for me. You know, just like, “Oh, don’t read the whole book. Just read chapter four and five.” And I’m doing that just to give myself a break.
Q: What do you think of teaching classes like Intro to Creative Writing or Future Writing or Travel Writing is doing to you as a writer?
A: I guess the parrot piece answered that for me a little bit. I had to write it here so maybe the classes helped. It’s not just lip service when I say writing a piece takes you back to school in writing every time. And you are a beginner every time. And you feel the same terror every time. You feel the same frustration over your stupidity. You feel the same anger at the ripped up openings, the indecision, the amount of decisions, the same doubts about it. “Am I losing it? I’m losing my edge?” I drive my wife crazy with that.
Interview with Charles Siebert (I)
Interview with Charles Siebert (II)
Siebert and Cabal deep in conversation. Photo: Sebastián Rojas Cabal.
Part II. Science
Q: Do you think we’re always looking for metaphors to write about science?
A: I’ve given talks on the bond between science and poetry. And the reason why what you just asked is really prescient is that poetry is about building a bridge via metaphor from some complex recondite, muddled mixture of emotion and thought. You’re building a bridge out of metaphor, back to sense, to understanding. Science now is defined by all these recondite, arcane, unbelievably complex and often invisible worlds. There’s microbiology, for instance, one of the new landscapes of discovery, from which we need to build a bridge of metaphors back to understanding.
So if someone goes on to me about, for example, chromosome 13 and this whole series of numbered codons on that chromosome, how do you describe that so it’s not just codons? Suddenly you’re thinking of chromosomes as a suburban culdesac with all these mailboxes lining them, the specific addresses of the residents that dwell with our cells and make us us who we are..
You come up with metaphors to give a physical shape and look to these unseen landscapes. And because the world, the visible world, has been fully discovered, and mapped, the next “as yet to be” discovered landscape is our own inner biology. We need armies of writers to build metaphors back from such largely invisible worlds. That’s my feeling.
Q: And what do you think are the biggest challenges of building those metaphors?
A: The challenge is it’s hard. It’s a challenge for the actual scientists, which, in turn, makes my job easier. Because, you know, they need idiots like me to come and ask them the questions, over and over, so even I can begin to understand it. At least enough to build the bridge of metaphor back.
That takes patience on the part of the writer. For an actual scientist—and there are some who are brilliant at doing the very thing that I do—they have the information at their disposal. But it’s hard to be a scientist and hover above your material and all that minutia and be a good writer too.
Examples of these are Oliver Sacks, the British paleontologist Richard Fortey, who writes so poetically and beautifully about science. So there are some out there. Lewis Thomas was one of the forerunners of that, a doctor who could also write very poetically. I think the challenge is just finding the right language to express the poetry. The mandate should be, if you ask me, to make people feel the poetry. Because I believe science is supplanting the old stories now, the creation myths, all the Bible stories, and all the old religions.
I think it’s telling a new story that’s just as wonderful and mysterious. And that is what people who write about this stuff need to try to do, to slowly, incrementally get people not to fear science, and to see how lovely it is. I mean, it confounds me that we live in a time where people are still staring up to the heavens and believing in nonexistent beings, when the real story is looking downward and inward, in the opposite direction, looking into the details of where all biology came from, including us.
That story is the new creation story, and it’s a story that doesn’t preclude people’s religion. It doesn’t shove anybody’s God out the door. But I don’t understand for the life of me why human beings can’t embrace that story for its coolness and its wonders.
Look in that direction: you’re gonna find everything. You’re gonna find everything that people thought they were gonna find looking up there. Eternity exists in the details, or as Blake said, in a grain of sand, right?
Q: But don’t you think scientists have been too intent in killing mystery?
A: Well, no. I think that’s a common belief about what science does. That Oh shit, love is caused and can be traced sometimes to chemical reactions. Everything is explainable. Or the moon’s not made of cheese. It was the physicist Richard Feynman who said something to the effect of “Why is the moon any less poetic because we know it is comprised of methane and ammonia and so on and not cheese” .
So it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t mean science is reductive. It means it’s reinventing mystery in explosively, excitingly new way. Take consciousness, for example. Are we ever gonna totally explain consciousness?
No, because it will be a million times harder than explaining a great Beethoven symphony. In fact, I believe that those kinds of creations so move us precisely because they open up the biggest and longest window that we can get on the true underlying complexity of our biology and of how we got here.
Four billion years of things happening, from the atomic level to the cellular level and, you know, that’s a lot of history. And people just dismiss that. don’t think there’s anything there? And that’s where it is. If you just look back at that stuff, if you find out where the first complex nucleated cell came from. It’s just ridiculous.
The other day I went to Jack Szostak lecture, Nobel Laureate, on the origins of cellular life. That’s the kind of lecture I go to. It’s crazy. I’m fascinated by that stuff because, when you know the true story of how those cells first assembled, the very beings that allowed us and every other living thing to be here at this moment, it’ll knock your socks off, how it happened.
And it’s full of every symbolic significance that you can think of. If you really know how a cell first came together, and what the first cell was, you go, “Oh, that’s the blueprint for the first city. That’s the first cooperative. Those early cells were the first cooperatives. I had a biologist say to me once, during an interview, he said, “You know the best way I can describe what the inside of a cell looks to you like?” And I said, “What?” And he said, “You know the opening to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the movie, where those cars and trains are going by and little airplanes are flying and everything’s doing this little mission on monorails?.That’s what the inside of a cell looks like. All the parts in our cells are all, like, ‘Oh, I gotta deliver this message,’ ‘I gotta take the trash out. I gotta do this.'”
But originally on Earth there wasn’t any of that. There were just vast slime mats of singlecelled bacteria burping oxygen into the air, giving us the oxygen we now breathe. But because they lacked a cell nucleus, they kept making one version of themselves over and over and over and over and over again, for billions of years. For billions of years it was a onenote planet. And then something happened where one bacteria got inside the cell wall of another and got gobbled up by it, but didn’t get fully digested. So the history of life forming on earth is really a story of indigestion Which ins kind of cool. The life-form that got inside the other one, you know, persisted there and started to perform a function for its new host. And symbiosis developed. And then another thing got inside. And it started contributing its particular functions to the workings of the host, it started to cooperate. And that’s how cells got more complicated. In fact, some scientists now think that the cell nucleus, which contains DNA and RNA and controls cell division and the emergence of complex multicellular lifeforms was originally a virus that insinuated itself into an early cell and began to direct its functions. And so that one one cell went over to two and then to three and then to four, and from a onenote planet, a symphony began to emerge, one that would build over the next 3billion years. And that’s why I went back to Beethoven and Mozart and Bach and others. I always think what geniuses like them do is lay bare some of the true fabric of that massively complex original composition called life. That’s my theory.
Q: In many of your pieces about animals, the message always seems to be something along the lines of ‘hey, we should care about these guys too, right?’ But there are many stories out there about human beings that also need empathy, right? And that’s when the choice to write about animals, as opposed to writing about people, strikes me as a little odd. Is there something about that choice that actually makes it easier to care for our own?
A: Absolutely it does. Absolutely. See, because the conceit behind that oft asked question is, “Well, fine to write about animals, but there are bigger problems in the world.” And one of the things that I’m proud of about my animal writing is that this dignifies human beings as well as animals. Because it can only help us to know our bond with the nonus. It extends our understanding. And it especially extends our empathic reach. How could it hurt for us to be more understanding of the commonality, the common bonds we have with all these animals? How could that hurt human beings, even if I’m also getting you to care about the plight of the animal?
I mean, let’s face it. Most of these animals I write about are doomed if not for a fence that we put around them and that means that they’re doomed anyway, because they won’t have any genetic diversity. But most of my pieces stress how there but for the grace or accident of a few neurons go we. That we are them and they are us. And especially with pieces like the one about elephants, the whole dynamic of the piece was you see what’s happening here to them, wilding bands of young elephants raised without the usual parental care because we destroyed the complex social fabric of traditional elephant herds? That’s exactly what happens to war orphans when they’re not raised correctly. Elephants not raised correctly, children who are disconnected from correct parental and societal upbringing, they become wilding bands. Now, that’s not just some bleeding heart animal tights story about save the elephants. That’s a piece about stretching the definition of humanity and the embrace of that.
There are pieces that bring that out more clearly, our commonality with nonhuman animals. I think that’s why this recent parrot piece touched so many people. Because there are cocharacters here. There are wounded war veterans. These guys who go off to war and are just shunted in America afterwards. I mean, they get it twice. They get the trauma of the war and then they come home and they’re just forgotten. And then you have these parrots who are twice traumatized. Traumatized first by being deprived of their flock and their flocking instinct. And then again by being abandoned by the humans who kept them. And now these two entirely different and yet mutually offended beings are helping one another.
So I think that’s why that story helps to dissolve the phony human/animal divide. I’ve learned to not even regard it anymore. I’m not saying we’re elephants. We’re not as good as elephants in a lotta ways. They’re more devout than we are about things. And we’re not whales. But, you know, we sure share a lot with each other. We sure have common motives and makeups. We do.
[Part I] [Part III]
Siebert keeps his precious animal figurines on the windowsill of his office at NYU Abu Dhabi. Photo: Sebastián Cabral.
As a kid who grew up in the city, Charles Siebert spent a good deal of time staring at animals in the zoo. Nonhumans made a lasting impression on him. To confirm this, it suffices to look at his office. A string of animal figurines parade on the windowsill, as if they were preparing to flank the towers of books and opened notepads that clutter his desk and encircle his keyboard. He has seen and written about most of these animals in their natural habitats–everything from elephants to beluga whales and seals. Joining this menagerie is a group of meerkats; plastic transplants from the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn, just blocks from his longtime apartment. Those, Charles tells me, are there for whenever he feels homesick.
Part I: Animals
ES: What is it about animals that makes for such great stories?
CS: They’re easy interviews; they don’t talk back [laughing]. I think I know what it is. Part of it is rooted in the childhood fascination with the non-us. Being able to stare into a chimp’s eyes and wonder what’s going on there, knowing that there’s a “there” there. Like someone who’s not human but is definitely cognizant. So, as a little kid, in my own dim way, I kind of intuited that. And I think it’s a fortunate happenstance of history that the science on animal intelligence has developed to an extent where it’s freed up storytellers to be more imaginative and even anthropomorphic in our conjecturing, but without the sin of anthropomorphism. Science of all things—which is supposed to be the enemy of mystery and storytelling—has allowed us to be better storytellers. That’s why I write a lot about science, because I see the poetry in science now. I couldn’t when I was younger.
With animals specifically it has freed us up from the old dictate that held us back from writing about animals—the B.F. Skinner behaviorist thing of we can’t even know what each other are thinking, so how could we write about an animal? My point, that I make ad nauseam, is, well, science has now shown us that while we will never know what it is to have a whale day or an elephant day or chimp day, we do know that they have days and that we can ruin them. Science has shown us that [animals] have minds enough to lose—a phrase that I use a lot in my writings—and that’s why it’s so exciting to write about animals.
And the more we find out about them, like with the parrots and with the elephants and with the whales and the chimps, the more we understand how like them we are, and the more like us they are. So we’re learning about these structural homologies, as they say in science; the analogies, the parallels. All those things make it I think the richest time in the history to write about animals. Richer even than in Darwin’s day. It’s almost like we’re back to the mythological age, but armed with science rather than fantasy.
The animals on Siebert’s windowsill include a parrot, the subject species of his most recent article for the New York Times Magazine. Photo: Sebastián Cabral.
ES: What’s the first close encounter with an animal that makes you think, “I’m gonna write about these guys”?
CS: I usually know why I want to write about them before going out to the field. I went into the parrot story because I had read that traumatized parrots and veterans were healing one another. I went into the whale story because I heard the gray whales off the coast of Baja came out of the water to look at you. I went into the chimps story because I just wanted to see what a chimp retirement home looked like. With chimps, it was originally the editor’s dictate that I write about human consciousness. I had written a bunch about the heart for The New York Times,and the editor told me said, “I’d like you to do for the brain what you did for the heart.”
I’m like, “Time out. Slightly different organ there.” I mean, yes, they’re both organs. They’re physical. But, the heart’s a little more … approachable. The brain’s a little intimidating. I chickened out, essentially. And I said, “Look, rather than write about the brain, and the whole complex issue of consciousness”—which really is one of the great avenues of exploration going on right now—I told him, “I just read this piece about chimpanzees and retirement at this new retirement home in Louisiana.”
It was the last law that Bill Clinton enacted before leaving office, called the Chimp Act. And it was a way of finding nice homes for all these chimps we’d abused in research labs for many years. My editor went, “That sounds so cool.”
So I went down to Louisiana, and I saw this still uninhabited retirement facility that was in the final stages of construction. And it was hysterical. Because I thought, “I wanna retire here. This is gonna be nicer than my retirement.” You know, they had nice little rooms, showers, and their own little backyards with a swing set. And then they had their own little fenced off section of woods to play in.
I went back there when the first chimp arrived. And that was a very moving moment, you know, a chimp being freed from a cage and padding along on the ground for the first time. That was incredibly moving.
Once you’re there on the ground, involved in researching a story, you have encounters that you didn’t expect, and you’re just madly writing down in your notebook. And one day you hear a story and you go, “That’s gonna be my ending,” or “it’s gonna be very near the end.”
And in every story there’s a moment when I go, “Oh, either some event or something someone said is going to be the ending.” With the elephants, for example, that moment came after weeks of being out there in the jungle in Uganda. I was back in the lodge one night. And this this my ritual: I get home, I shower, and I get my notebook and rove over in my mind the things I heard that day. I went out on a veranda and I order a drink. And I was out on the lodge balcony at that lodge, overlooking the Kazinga Channel in Uganda. And hippos are out there with the moonlight on their backs. And I went, “Oh my God, that story. That story today about the elephants that killed this man in Murchison Falls, and the other elephants got together and got the body and buried it with all the devotion and care with which they bury their own kind.”
The idea that elephants—who we are torturing—are tending to the body of one of us in the way they would do to an elephant. I’m going, “I think that’s my ending. My piece has got to arrive at that ending.”
Same thing happened with the parrot story. One of the first days I’m there, a caique parrot from the Amazon just got on my head and on my shoulder and walked around and then dove into my shirt pocket and took a nap, and then came up again, and started to clean my teeth. That was just so funny. And she plucked out one of her feathers and put it on my shoulder. And I went, “Okay, that’s gonna be my ending.” Actually, I had a two-part ending because I was reading—and this is why I tell students to read whatever and as much as they can when writing a story—The Book of Beasts by T.H. White, and I looked up a section on parrots [which is] only a page and a half. And at the very end there’s a footnote about Alexander von Humboldt, the German naturalist, and how, when he went into the jungle, he came upon this parrot that was the only remaining vessel of this lost tribe’s language. The parrot was repeating the words of that lost tribe.
And in my head I went, “Oh my God, that’s my ending.” A world without us, where we and all of our traumas are done and the only thing left of us is the parrots flying around, repeating random shards of our language. And when I said that to my wife, who is an instant bullshit barometer, she said, “You got it. End it there.”
Interview with Frederick Ahl
TRANSLATION STUDIES AND WORLD LITERATURE
Frederick M. Ahl is a professor of classics and comparative literature at Cornell University. He recently visited NYU Abu Dhabi to visit classes and deliver a talk entitled “Lost in Translation,” Electra Street sat down afterwards with Professor Ahl to talk further about the difficulties that arise during the process of translation and to explore some of the problems that beset the teaching of literature in universities today.
ES: How did you first get involved in translation studies?
FA: I think, first of all, if you’re brought up in a culture with more than one language spoken, you end up being involved in the process of translation, because you’re inhabiting parallel universes.
My parallel universes, when I was very young, came from being in a family in which my mother was not a native speaker of English and my father was, and from living in a country whose language neither my mother nor my father spoke. So I went to school speaking and learning to speak a third language [Welsh].
ES: Was it ever confusing?
FA: Well, for example, when I was talking to my father, he would call an equine a “horse.” But my mother called it a capall, and in school it was called a ceffyl. And I remember being in school one day. My teacher said to me, “It’s not a capall. It’s a ceffyl.” And I said, “But my mother said it’s a capall, and my father said it’s a horse.” But the teacher insisted, and I was just very, very confused about what the animal was at that moment.
So, really, the process of translation was one that I was engaged in at a very early age, but the experience for me was not continued once we left the alien language environment and moved to England and were all speaking English.
When I’d tried to speak [Welsh] to my parents, they just looked at me very blankly. And I don’t remember at all the process of learning. Nowadays, you could use a computer analogy: we were on one computer program, and we were also on another computer program.
So what we are doing in the humanities through translation is often teaching doctrine in the same way that the church teaches doctrine.
ES: How have you learned to deal with this duality, and what does this duality mean for reading and teaching texts in translation? Do you have any advice to offer to those who are undertaking the challenge of designing frameworks to teach this kind of material?
FA: Maybe one out of every thousand teachers is going to give you access to what is actually happening in a Greek text like Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, because the way we approach that kind of text is as much an item of belief as a life after death is for an orthodox Christian. So what we are doing in the humanities through translation is often teaching doctrine in the same way that the church teaches doctrine. You end up being programmed by a system that you’re not conscious of being programmed by. It’s scary: very Orwellian in a way.
ES: So what should one do with this awareness?
FA: If you’re wise, you pretend you haven’t noticed it. Then you can have a career.
ES: And if you aren’t wise?
FA: No one wants to notice. Because entire scholarly careers have been built by using that little cataclysm as an assumption. We’ve gotten ourselves into this whole binary way of thinking.
ES: How do you think that the problems identified by translation studies affect the teaching of “world literature”?
FA: I think “world literature” is problematic because you have at some point or another to be able to use translations. But you also have to be able to use translations knowing that they actually are going to get you to the author.
Personally, when teaching comparative literature at Cornell, I have refused teach texts that I have not read in the original, because I just don’t consider I can speak with authority about them.
It’s almost as if we try to spread everything very wide when we don’t have anything very deep. But, on the other hand, if you take people like classicists, who believe in depth, then you don’t get width at all. And you get a very sort of naïve reading.
Either way, in America the liberal arts education is—well, it’s dying.
ES: Can you teach world literature without having breadth?
FA: No. So you’re caught between a rock and a hard place.
But we need to ask, “To what extent is this high literature and poetry even part of our culture anymore? Are we in a sense trying to keep alive something that’s trying to die?” You can compare it in many ways to classical music, because it takes a huge effort to keep classical music alive. You need to have an orchestra, and unless you have people in very high places with very large billfolds, it’s going to die. But where classical music has the advantage over great works of literature is that they don’t have to be translated.
So should we just let “literature” die? Or should we let it survive in the handful of a few people until we pass into an age when someone has a really active will to revive it? Right now the people who run universities don’t care about literature. You do have students who love literature. I find this all the time at Cornell. Students come to classes and say, “Professor, I actually like poetry.” But they want courses on authors, not on the theory of literature. They say, “We want to learn literature, but it’s not what you want to teach us. You want to teach us about Derrida; you want to teach about Bakthin. And we want to read Shakespeare.” At the same time, though, you also get others who are the merchandisers of the modern culture, who want to learn a system, which they then apply like a cookie cutter to everything they read.
Either way, in America the liberal arts education is—well, it’s dying.
[A longer version of this article will appear in print in ELECTRA STREET 03.]
Interview with Charles Siebert (I)
Interview with Charles Siebert (II)
Miguel Syjuco (center) with NYUAD students (L-R) Patrick Wee, Gabrielle Flores, , Seongyoon Kim, Miraflor Santos
Photo Credit: Bryan Waterman
CONVERSATIONS WITH AUTHORS
Miguel Syjuco won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008 for his first novel, Ilustrado. Born in the Philippines, Syjuco earned an MFA from Columbia University in New York, and subsequently a Ph.D. from the University of Adelaide, Australia. He gave a talk and a workshop at NYUAD in February 2015, which is when Gabrielle Flores, a second-year NYUAD student, conducted this interview. “Ilustrado,” which means “erudite” or “learned” in Spanish, was a term used to describe the educated, middle-class Filipinos who had been educated in Spanish and exposed to European nationalist ideals during the late nineteenth century.
Gabrielle Flores: What was the writing process like for Ilustrado?
Miguel Syjuco: Ilustrado was a book that had many distinct goals. I wanted to write a book that found inventive ways to address some of the issues that I have with writing Philippine writing specifically in English. And while I was doing my master’s Columbia in New York, one of the things I did to make extra money was be a fact checker for the Paris Review. So one day I found myself in the Butler Library stacks there in Columbia, surrounded by all these books. As I was reading all of this material, I was thinking, “Wow, this is a very interesting way to look at the life of a character, through all of these things written about them, all of these different texts.”
And so this idea that I wanted to write this book about looking at Philippine history, especially from the point of view of the role of the elite– and the failure that they had ever since the Ilustrados– this kind of came together, that, “Okay, I’m gonna write this book about this author named Crispin Salvador, and I’m going to address all of these issues. I’m going to look at Philippine history all through his work and he will be the window into that world.”
But rather than write the way we normally do when we come across a word like “bibingka,” right, and italicize it even though to us it’s not foreign–where you say “he cut into that bibingka–”
GF: Where you have to explain–
MS: ” … that delicious rice cake much enjoyed by Filipinos during Christmastime,” right? [Laughs.] Instead, I thought, “Okay, well, why don’t I write using– naturally didactic forms? Essays, email– memoir so that whereas before we used to have to explain our culture and explain our history I don’t need to anymore, right? I can use things that are naturally explaining to do that.
I think the book took three, four years, constantly working on it, trying to find an agent. I was wondering if anyone would ever want this book. I had some very close friends reading it. They were saying, “It’s good,” and, “But you need to do this.” I was editing it all the while. Then in 2007 they announced that the Man Asian Literary Prize would accept manuscripts.
So I submitted, hoping that I would just get on the long list so that agents would stop rejecting me, because they were, left and right. [Laughs.] In 2007, I didn’t even make the long list. So I spent the next year revising, and then in 2008, I submitted it again, hoping to get on the long list. And in the end, it ended up winning. And everything changed for me.
GF: I see how the novel encompasses Philippine history, but also Philippine society. It’s so hard to explain, even simple questions like, “Oh, what’s Filipino food like?” because Filipino culture is such a mix of different things.
GF: Did you come across that difficulty when writing your book? How did you know which parts of society to look at specifically?
MS: I was really focusing on this coming and going that we Filipinos have, which I believe started with the Ilustrados and has continued today. I believe the OFWs of today are the new Ilustrados. Going abroad, learning all they can, working hard, and then returning with an awareness, and their savings, and sometimes children who, you know, are learning about the culture for the first time and wanting to engage.
I came from a very comfortable background. My parents were in politics and my classmates, you know, they’re good people. They love the country. But society is such that– family, and duty, and politics are just so hard to change. These well-meaning, idealistic young kids, you know, they’re not able to do as much as they would have liked to benefit the society. You know, we call them conyo. We call them whatever. They’re spoiled brats.
But not all of them are like that and I wanted to write a book that was sympathetic in that regard and fair. One of the issues that I’ve always had with Philippine writing is that it’s always– we’re always looking for a savior and the elite are always the villains.
I wanted to write a book that was a lot more nuanced than that. Not an apology for the elite; I think I definitely take people to task in Illustrado. But I wanted to write a book that was fair.
GF: When you were writing the book, did you have a target audience in mind? Were you aiming for the book to be more for the Filipinos as a Filipino text or for a foreign audience who doesn’t know anything about the Philippines? Or do those two audiences overlap for you?
MS: I think so. I’d like to think that a good writer can write a book that reaches everyone, that they can make it rich enough and in a way maybe dense enough so that some things will reach their home audience, in my case the Filipinos, and some things will reach only the foreign audience.
GF: You’re reading tonight from your new novel I Was the President’s Mistress!!! How is this book different in some ways – or maybe the same in some – as Ilustrado?
MS: There’s an old cliché that you have your entire life to write your first novel, then 18 months to write your second novel. All of the short stories, all of the anecdotes, everything went into Ilustrado. But I hope this new book will be out next year, before the Philippine election.
GF: Oh, okay. Right.
MS: President’s Mistress uses certain character from Ilustrado, Vita Nova, the starlet. She’s involved with– some scandal, where she’s kind of spilled the beans on the president who she was seeing. She’s swept up into this big political thing and wants to write a a celebrity tell-all memoir. The book is a series of transcripts, of her talking about all of her 12 lovers and the 12 lovers all talking about her and each other.
It’s sort of like a she-said, he-said type of thing. Ilustrado was a bunch of different forms that the reader had to put together, like a collage or like a puzzle, President’s Mistress is sort of like a deconstructed book where it’s only the materials that a ghostwriter would use to write a celebrity tell-all memoir.
GF: So it’s kind of like that tabloid show back home, The Buzz, except deconstructed.You said that you did a Master’s at Columbia. In your mind is there an ideal sort of creative writing curriculum? I know that when I told my parents I wanted to go into literature, they were like “Oh, why don’t you go to business?”
MS: Yeah, of course.
GF: You know, doctor, medicine, or–
MS: I’m a big believer in that if you love something, you’ll be good at it. And if you’re good at it, you’ll succeed in it. You have to pay your dues to be a lawyer or a doctor. You have to pay your dues to be a writer, too.
Being at Columbia–it was a very rigorous way of looking at making fiction. Workshopping particularly. It’s not just about beautiful writing; it’s about the form, and the structure, and everything. Now, teaching creative writing– going back to your question about what would be the ideal–I enjoyed my time at Columbia, but it was very focused on literature in the sense of style, in the sense of creativity within the craft of fiction. When I worked freelance as a journalist, I learned how to find stories. And my ideal is really a program that fuses– I guess–journalism, some people would even say activism, with storytelling. Writing journalism teaches you so much. How to write to deadline, how to write to length, how to take criticism, how to revise, how to redefine the story, how to position information or withhold information, which is a very important thing; and the distinction between news and art.
So I would want a creative program with outreach programs. I would like a mentorship, fieldwork– questioning, of course, how we write, how to write. What sustains a writer in the end or at least what has sustained me is questioning why we write.
Personally, I don’t like writing. It hurts my back. It’s lonesome. I sit at the desk all day…I don’t like writing. But I like what writing can do. I like how it can examine things, and unpack things, and share insight, and be part of a conversation, and really be of this world.
GF: You kind of answered my question already a little bit, but I’m going to ask anyway. It’s a simple question but maybe not so simple: what’s your favorite part about being a writer?
MS: The hours are pretty good. [Laughs.] They’re pretty flexible. It’s a very involved work. Anybody who’s ever written a novel, be it, you know, someone as great as a Nobel Prize winner, down to or up to young writers who are doing NanNoWriMo, we’re all learning how to engage with the form and how difficult it is. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had. And I guess that’s kind of why I like it. I’m very lucky that it’s allowed me to go all over the world, and meet people, and meet other writers, and be part of this conversation: Who are we? And why are we here? And what can we learn from each other? I’m a political person and one of my tools is writing. I may not change the world through my one book, or two books, or how many books. But I’m hoping that those readers who read it will be the people who will. So it’s a long game, that the people who are questioning our society, questioning what it is to be Filipino through my work and the works of other Filipino writers, those are the future captains of industry, and politicians, and activists, and social workers, and professors, and parents.
I’m hoping that I can kind of say, “Hold on. Wait a second. Let’s stop and think. Is this right? Is this wrong? What should our country be? How do we hold our leaders accountable?” Because if they’re asking those questions, then I’m doing the job that I wanted to do.
CONVERSATIONS WITH AUTHORS
Bettina Hoerlin is the author of Steps of Courage: My Parents’ Journey from Nazi Germany to America (2011) and is currently a guest lecturer at NYUAD. While meeting in her apartment, we talk over cups of strong espresso, something I’ve come to miss while living in Abu Dhabi. She shows me copies of her book, published in both English and German, and points out black-and-white pictures of her parents taken in Germany and later in the United States. Hoerlin, who has taught courses in Public Health and health care disparities at Haverford College and the University of Pennsylvania, started the project after uncovering a collection of over 500 letters written by her parents to one another from 1934 to 1938 while they lived in two different towns in Germany. (Click here for a link to the archive.) “Here was this unfolding of a great love story,” Hoerlin tells me about the letters, “but it was in the context of the rise of fascism. I had a personal history. And through this personal lens of my parents, they were being shaped by the history that was unfolding, this horrible history in Germany.”
Brigitta Schuchert: How much had you known about your parents before reading the letters? How much of this was new information?
Bettina Hoerlin: I knew outlines. Of course I knew my parents had met. I knew they had fallen in love. I knew they had immigrated to the United States in 1938. But there was so much I didn’t know. They didn’t want to talk about their past, even though my father was sort of this Aryan poster boy. He had climbed the highest mountains, and had been celebrated in Germany. This was a golden age of mountaineering. Nobody had ever conquered an 8,000-meter peak, you know. Everest hadn’t been conquered. None of these peaks had been conquered.
He went on one of the very early expeditions, and tried to climb what they thought at the time was the second highest mountain in the world. I turned out to be only the third highest mountain. They didn’t conquer it because of extensive avalanches, but successfully climbed another nearby mountain, the highest summited to date. He had held a world record, and he was very modest about that. I didn’t realize how revered he was. And there was a movie made out of this 1930 International Expedition to the Himalaya, which was widely shown.
I certainly did not know about his protests when he was part of the executive committee of the Alpine Club. Protests about the Nazification of German mountaineering. He never told me that, so this all came out in the research.
I discovered when I was thirteen that my mother was Jewish by background. [She] had been born to a Jewish family, but fallen in love when she was nineteen with someone who was Catholic. She converted to Catholicism in 1922 and thought of herself as Catholic, as a result of that. They had three children, who were brought up Catholic. And then [her husband] was killed by the Nazis in 1934, during what was called the Night of Long Knives, which was basically the end of the rule of law in Germany, when Hitler rounded up 90-plus people who he saw as hindering him from absolute power. As it turns out, [my mother’s first husband] was killed by mistake. His name was Willi Schimd, and there were many Wili Schmids in Germany — and they confused it. So he was killed and my mother was visited by Rudolph Hess, who was a deputy to Hitler. And he apologized to her profusely for the mistake and he said, “Consider that his death was that of a martyr for a great cause.”
I was visiting my namesake in New York, a woman named Bettina Warburg. And she was talking about her own family, famous Jewish bankers, having problems getting out of Germany. I was very interested and she said, “Well your mother had problems, too.”
And I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Well, because she was Jewish.” I came home, which at that point was Los Alamos, New Mexico, and I said, “Mutti, what’s this about your being Jewish?” And she totally dismissed it. She said, “Oh, that was in the past.”
I knew there were some Jewish roots there. I had no idea how difficult this made their relationship. And how difficult, if not impossible, it made it for them to get married. Racial laws forbid marriages between Jews and Aryans. They were the exception to the Nuremberg Laws, a rare exception. I’ve talked to historians and they say it couldn’t have happened. I show them the marriage certificate, which crosses out the part that says, “These are Aryans being married to one another,” and has written, “By special permission of the Fuehrer, she can marry.” I had no idea how much of a motivating factor this was in their leaving Germany.
The other thing I didn’t know was my parents as lovers. We all see our parents as the adults. They are the people approving or disapproving of us, or supporting us. My parents were a loving couple, but in these letters there was the passion. It was just wonderful to think of your parents that way, you know? Just clearly so in love, and breaking the rules, as it were. That was a revelation.
BS: How did your parents meet?
BH: It was total serendipity. It was the early ’30s, and Germany was very depressed. [My mother’s] first husband, was a music critic, and he was offered a job as press secretary to a major German expedition to the Himalayas. This was a big deal expedition, to a mountain called Nanga Parbat. This had huge publicity, because it became politicized by Hitler, in terms of him saying, “We are going to be the first country in the world to conquer an 8,000 meter peak.” So they were press secretaries for this expedition, and my father had been invited on the expedition.
My father didn’t go. He didn’t like the national tone of it, and his father had died and he felt that he needed to look after his mother, and sister, while he completed his doctoral studies in physics. This expedition, which was supposed to showcase Germany and Germans turned out to be greatest mountain climbing disaster to date. Ten people died over a week period. There were huge storms; people could hear their cries. It was grisly.
In the meantime back in Munich there’s my mother, and her husband has just been killed. She’s getting all these telegrams of Germans wandering the mountain, so-and-so’s killed, and we heard his voice yesterday, and she said, “I can’t do this,” and she said to The Alpine Club, “Please send me somebody who can help me sort out what is truth, and what is not, so we can do a press release on this.” And they sent my father, from Stuttgart to Munich. So that is how they met. And I think he fell in love with her immediately.
BS: And your mother was very involved after her first husband’s wrongful death with getting reparations.
BH: Exactly. She was insistent on reparations, and she was fierce. She went to Berlin, she met with top Nazi officials. The other part of this story is that she had a protector, who was the top aide to Hitler, Hitler’s adjutant. His name was Fritz Wiedemann.
BS: And Wiedemann ended up playing a pretty large role in the story, and helping your parents get to America. What was the process of researching him along your parents? Was there information in the letters?
BH: There are numerous references to Wiedemann in the letters. I extrapolated that at one point. I think almost 100 references to him. He first of all helped my mother get reparations. Then there was the question of how she was going to classified. When the Nuremberg Laws were passed, people were classified as full Jews, half Jews, quarter Jews, et cetera. And how was she going to be classified in terms of her life in Germany, and whether she was going to be able to vote, whether she was going to be able to own property, because the laws said if you’re Jewish you can’t do all of this. He was very helpful in that regard too.
Here’s another loop in the story, [my mother’s] birth certificate said that both her parents were Mosaish, which is of the tribe of Moses. But, it happened that her mother had a long-term affair with a Prussian count — who was not Jewish of course. There was this letter where this count said, “Yes, this my child,” and there was enough evidence that the Nazis did classify her as a mischlinge, which means of mixed race, which meant that she had a few more rights.
Wiedemann was also helpful to my father in getting him transferred to the United States. So Wiedemann became really kind of a savoir to them in that regard. The irony of this happening all under Hitler’s nose is enormous.
Wiedemann, then ends up as German Consul in San Francisco, for a couple of reasons. One, it became clear after Kristallnacht that he didn’t have a stomach for anti-Semitic terrorism. Furthermore, he was having an affair with a Jewish princess, a woman who was Jewish and had married into nobility. He had helped other Jews as well. It wasn’t just my mother. He was this fascinating character, neither black nor white, but sort of in this gray area.
BS: What was the process like of reading the letters between 1934 and 1938? There’s a point in the book where you mention the letters becoming more coded, and this increased awareness of how dangerous it was.
BH: Letters were being looked at all the time. My father was considered politically unreliable, because of his outspokenness, and then he hadn’t planted the German flag on the summits of his many first mountaineering ascents. So anyone politically unreliable at that point was under the purview of the Nazis. So, he was, and [my mother] was too. So both of them, I think, were under scrutiny. There are a few letters, “The clouds are forming in the sky here. How is the weather there?” Wiedemann in a lot of the letters is “W.”
BS: In the book you mention your first visit to Germany. I was wondering if you could talk about that experience.
BH: I’d grown up during the war, and it was not cool to be German. I didn’t really want anything to do with that. But I had never met my grandmother, so [in 1952] at the age of thirteen I went with my father to Germany. And it was like, opening up the world. You have your prejudice, you have your mindsets — and it was just a totally different kind of experience for me.
I could still see at that point the scars of war, in Germany. You had bombed-out sections, so there was always a little bit of that ghost there. I felt much more open to Germany after that.
BS: What are you working on now?
Well, when I wrote the book, it was such a huge emotional experience for me. It was totally absorbing. I was living these two lives. I had this life in Philadelphia, and then I had this life that I had just been writing about. So, when I started presenting about the book, people would say, “Oh, what’s your next book?” And I’m sort of looking at them cross-eyed.
I’ve really gotten very interested in Wiedemann, as a very checkered character. We are very quick to put people into corners, good, bad, and et cetera. But here was this man who was obviously swayed by the Nazi doctrine at some point, and yet ends up helping Jews and is ready to be part of a resistance against Hitler — then is regarded as a war criminal by the United States, although he had not been in Germany at all during the war.
The complexity of him as a character interests me. And to extrapolate that in terms of how we ourselves deal with the goods, the bads, the blacks, the whites — and boxes. That’s what I’ve been looking at.
BS: When was the point that you decided that you wanted to turn the story of your parents into a book, when did you decide that was the future for it?
BH: About eight years ago I said, “You know Bettina, you have to do something with these letters, and nobody else is going to do it. You’re going to have to do it.” It took me about a year to get through translating the letters, and I wrote them up in English and circulated them to my family. And then I said, “Wait a second. Here’s a story.” I said, “I have to write this, because this is a universal tale. It’s a universal tale of courage, it’s a universal tale of how people deal with a rising political movement that would affect their lives, and other peoples’ lives even more so, horrendously.” That’s when I knew I had to write a book, and that’s when I quit teaching. I had never written a book, but this was burning inside me.
Brigitta Schuchert graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 2014, with a B.A in Religious Studies. She is currently a Writing Fellow at NYU Abu Dhabi.
[Photo courtesy of Bettina Hoerlin]
Next in Conversations with Authors: Joey Bui talks with “uncreative” writer Kenneth Goldsmith.