Q) Your novel has a wide geographical sweep, from the mountains of Central Asia, to an Apache reservation in Arizona, to the urban sprawl of contemporary Istanbul. How did it occur to you to try to tie such distant places together into a single novel?
A) Though these places are, in fact, quite far away from each other, in our globalized world they are not nearly as distant as they once were. A century ago the mountains of Kyrgyzstan might have been one of the most isolated places on the planet. But nowadays all it takes is money for a plane ticket, and it is possible for a villager from Kyrgyzstan to visit the U.S. on a vacation. A number of my former students from Kyrgyzstan have studied abroad here in the States. Quite a few Apaches I know have made trips to Israel, or to the Vatican. Where I now live, an entire classroom of Apache children has spent the last two summers studying Tae Kwon Do in South Korea. I find this amazing: how quickly the world has become connected, how straight forward it is for even relatively impoverished people to search out a new home. It no longer requires an epic journey across the sea, or a year's trek across a continent.
I wanted to write a novel which reflected this reality, this flux and interconnectedness.
Q) You have lived and taught in Kyrgyzstan, Arizona, and Turkey. How much of the novel is autobiographical?
A) Very little. The settings, of course, are taken from places I know well, but the characters and their stories are completely imagined. Even the character Jeff's experience as a Peace Corps volunteer is vastly different from my own. Life does not play itself out in novel form, with a beginning and end, suspense, contrasts, and parallels. The writer discovers these things by getting to know his characters and by endowing them with enough life that their true stories unfold.
Still, living in these exciting places, at important moments of change, was inspiring. I am a teacher, and through my students I learned a great deal about the Kyrgyz, the Apaches, and the Turks. In class discussions with my students, and in reading their journals and essays, I learned so much about the way they thought, the intricacies of their languages, idioms, prejudices, jokes, and tales. Teaching like this, then, was vital in order for me to write confidently from the perspective of foreign characters.
Q) Your characters are all searching, in their own way, for a new home and a new life. How does this differ between the character of Adam, coming from the reservation, and Anarbek, coming from Kyrgyzstan?
A) Having lived in both Kyrgyzstan and on an Apache reservation, I was struck by a disturbing irony. In Kyrgyzstan, as life grew harder in the years following independence, more and more the people dreamed of emigrating West, especially to America. I cannot count the number of people who asked me to help them get to America. It was truly an obsession. In the village where I served as a Peace Corps volunteer, they were convinced that I was going to marry one of the local women and bring her home with me. The teachers even cowrote a satirical song at a school concert in which, one by one, they sang a comic chorus, each begging me to fly them back to the United States.
A few years later, on the troubled reservation, it was painfully obvious to me how much America the very same America had let the Apache people down. In the midst of poverty, alcoholism, suicide, many Apaches, like the Kyrgyz, dreamed of living elsewhere, off the reservation. But in an ideal world they would have nothing to do with the U.S. as we know it. Two indigenous peoples, with dreams of escape, but in utterly opposite directions one to the America of riches and hope and opportunity, the other away from the American nightmare that had consumed them.
I imagined, at first, writing a book in which a young man fleeing the Apache reservation, meets an older man fleeing Kyrgyzstan. Neither would get where they intended, but both would find themselves, as so many refugees and exiles do, in a place far different from what they could have imagined. I chose Istanbul as that mid-point, for all its resonance as a meeting place of East and West.
Possibly because I feel so rootless myself, I have a great concern for how people understand their homelands, for their idea of their place in the world. Who are you? Where do you come from? Do you belong there? When I travel, I try to get a sense of people's happiness, of their satisfaction with their lives. I am amazed and envious when people talk about a sense of belonging, because I don't know if I've ever felt it myself. I grew up in New Jersey, my parents were from the Bronx, their parents from Eastern Europe. Each generation moves. So in a typical, suburban American way, I don't feel rooted to one particular place in this world.
For this reason, I'm especially interested in what is happening nowadays to people, like the Kyrgyz, who still believe in a homeland, or to those who have important ties, like the Apaches do, to the land they live on. The Turks in many ways are a homogeneous culture. They have a definite sense of what it means to be Turkish. But even that is fading. In a strange way, though I can proudly claim to be American, I also get the nagging feeling that as an American I've lost something that we're all losing something important to the sense of who we are.
Q) What is the significance of the title?
A) This Is Not Civilization comes from a moment of dialogue early in the novel. A Russian man, one of the few Russians left in the Kyrgyz village, tries to forge a connection with Jeff, the American volunteer. As the other white man, a fellow intellectual, he feels they share a superiority to the Kyrgyz people, and denigrates their culture. He scoffs at their traditions: the eating of sheep eyes, the drinking of horse milk, the lack of education in the local population. "This is not civilization," he says at one point in their conversation.
I like the way the statement hangs over the novel, and colors the reader's experience with the various settings. The reader does not have to agree with Yuri Samonov's statement (certainly Jeff Hartig doesn't agree). In many respects the traditions and sense of community in the isolated villages of Red Cliff and Kyzl Adyr are more civilized than the traffic and corruption and capitalism of modern day Istanbul, or even of America.
Milan Kundera once said, "The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything." To me the title asks, "If this isn't civilization, then what is?" It's my hope the novel is provocative and raises questions of this kind.
Q) Can you talk about the 1999 Istanbul earthquake, and its role in the novel?
A) In August, 1999, I took a job teaching in Istanbul. A few nights after I arrived I was shaken out of sleep, like the rest of the city, by the magnitude 7.8 earthquake. The floors of my apartment were bucking, and I looked out the window at the city. At that instant all electricity and lights were cut off. It was a terrible moment, and it's painful still to remember. According to the government, at least 17,000 people died around me. Outside estimates put the number at something like 40,000. The neighborhood I lived in, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, withstood the shaking pretty well. But the city and country were devastated, and my experience in Turkey over the next two years was colored by the disaster.
I wondered how the characters I was beginning to envision would react, faced with a tragedy of these proportions. How would it affect their motivations to find a new life? How would seeing great numbers of people in a developing nation suddenly homeless, jobless, and without family affect their own understanding of the native lands they had left?
The earthquake came at a significant time, in my mind. The early and mid-nineties, the time of Jeff's service in the Peace Corps, were a time of great hope for the nations of the former Soviet Union. The people were convinced they had shaken off the tethers of a flawed system, and would now join the world in a fresh system of liberty and democracy that would lead to prosperity. And it was a moment of great optimism for Americans abroad as well. The Cold War was over; it was a lucky time to be a Peace Corps volunteer in the former Soviet Union. You were befriending your once arch enemies. There was a definite sense that just being there made a difference.
But so much of the change has stalled or gone wrong. A decade later former communist leaders still rule like dictators over all of Central Asia and their economies are in dire straits. In this way the earthquake reflects the political reality of the character's lives in the novel, the seismic shifts in their cultures. It was somehow an appropriate ending to the close of the century, and of the novel. Now, looking back after 9/11, the nineties seems like a brief age of innocence much like the 1920s must have seemed to someone looking back during the Great Depression.
Q) Who do you read? What writers have had an influence on your writing?
A) I was influenced by some of my own favorite writers, who include E.M. Forster, Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, V.S. Naipaul, Graham Greene, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Paul Theroux. I am drawn to these writers because of their broad world view, their exotic locations, the ways in which their characters are often displaced, geographically, in situations that illuminate the clash of cultures and values. These novelists also write about periods of tremendous historical, political, or economic change (the end of colonialism, the Cold War, African independence, etc.) and their characters are cast adrift in history, struggling to stay afloat. This Is Not Civilization follows a similar formula, in that my characters are facing the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, the desperation of saving a native culture in the midst of globalization, and the tragic consequences of the earthquake in Turkey.
Q) When did you begin writing?
A) The letters I wrote home from my Peace Corps service in Kyrgyzstan, I think, were my first real attempt at serious writing. It was essential, and therapeutic, to sit down at night over a cup of tea and attempt to make sense of that strange land on paper: the sights and sounds, the idiosyncrasies, the generosity, the pressures, the foods. I wrote by hand, a slow, deliberate, and meditative process which I still go back to when the computer keyboard fails me. In writing those letters I discovered a number of things narrative techniques, humor, style but the most valuable was the need for discipline in the writing act. Henry Miller claimed that an aspiring author must write a million words before he finds his voice. I was living in solitude, I wrote home to friends or family every day for two years, and I think those daily letters were my own million words, my apprenticeship to the craft.