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Powell's Q&A | September 3, 2014 0 comments
Describe your latest book. My new novel is called Station Eleven. It's about a traveling Shakespearean theatre company in a post-apocalyptic North... Continue »
Rachel KushnerDescribe your latest project.
My novel, Telex from Cuba, is mostly about the Americans who lived in Cuba in the 1950s, and the various roles they played in the 1959 revolution. Most of the book is centered in a region called Nipe Bay, 650 miles from Havana, on the northeastern coast of what used to be called Oriente Province, where the United Fruit Company had a vast sugar operation headquartered in an American town called Preston, and nearby, the United States government owned nickel mines. The nickel mining town, Nicaro, was next to Preston, and together, the two towns formed a kind of colonial enclave, and also form two threads of my novel. The third thread takes place in Havana and centers upon a French arms dealer and a Cuban cabaret dancer who each get involved with the revolution, and with each other. I suppose you could say the book is about a lost world. And depending upon who you are and what you're looking for, you could read it and say, "They had it coming." But not everyone has read it this way, particularly those who know and loved this lost world and are grateful to be able to revisit it in the pages of a book. Regardless, whoever reads Telex from Cuba will see what's coming, even if my characters don't. And whether it's a just or deserved ending to an old order, that old order, not just in Cuba but the world over, is gone now.
Perhaps the paper route I had at the age of 10, in Eugene, Oregon, where I spent the early part of my childhood. I took over another kid's route for a summer. Delivering papers was arduous, and required great faith that I could manage to find every last delivery address. By 8:30 a.m. when I was done, I was exhausted. But as the summer progressed, the paper route transformed slowly into a wonderful, even profound experience. I roamed neighborhoods that were empty, but not deserted, because no one was awake yet, and every house, yard, and garage, each detail of my route, began to feel as if it were, in some sense, my own private world. I would notice, for instance, if someone moved the Schwinn bicycle that was usually leaning against the tool shed next to the brown house on Kincaid Street. (The shed, I eventually discovered, held several years' worth of water-stained Oui magazines.) I would sample the apples from peoples' yards, a single variety I thought of as "paper route apples." I looked at peoples' mail. I made notes in my diary when the smut magazines in the brown shed disappeared. When a dead cat was moved from the center of the road to the grate over a storm drain next to the curb. When I found a stick and turned the (surprisingly stiff) dead cat over. I felt a certain entitlement to roam and observe and even meddle, touch, and move things. I didn't just catalogue the apples; after all, I ate them. Because they were mine, part of the world I monitored every morning while others slept. It was a valuable entitlement, the right to tread through space, and I believe that that right helped me later to tread through fictional space and leave my muddy footprints.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
Who are your favorite characters in history? Have any of them influenced your writing?
Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
Make a question of your own, then answer it.
A: I really did. What seduced me into this world was not just that it was "exotic" and forgotten (or even erased by the subsequent system to which it gave way), or because of the unusual access I had to it because my family had lived there in the American colony. What excited me most were the possibilities it posed in terms of moving characters through a fictional landscape and through historical processes simultaneously, and doing 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. I'm not so interested in the pure domestic drama. But, neither am I interested in 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: a lot of them "deigned" to move to Cuba to pursue the Latin variant of the American dream, having failed to achieve it at home, which implies that there's a story not just about husbands and wives but about social mobility and mid-century class anxiety, xenophobia, and "adventure," and most importantly, about our cultural and political dominance of much of Latin America in the 20th century.
Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Five French Books that Influenced the Writing of My Novel
1. The new Penguin Proust translations, and as accompaniment, Gilles Deleuze's Proust and Signs, which is a very clear Deleuze that anyone can understand, and which somehow breaks my heart.
2. Love in the Western World by Denis de Rougemont: An amazing theoretical book on courtly love by this Swiss gentleman-philosopher whose surname sounds deliciously like "lipsticked," apparently a friend of Lacan's. It was written in 1939, but has been reprinted pretty much every year since. O, Troubadors! O, Duke of Aquitaine, singing the great heresies of the church of love! The middle ages, as de Rougemont describes them, were sophisticated, sexy, and gallant, with a mystery at their core, ahem, a jewel under layers of tissue: not the sun, but sexual desire. Which could only be sustained by tantalizing promise and perpetual denial.
3. Collected Poems of Saint-John Perse: Perse grew up in Guadaloupe and represents a more innocent (and problematic) nostalgia for colonial life.
4. Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline: The passages in which he narrates his adventures in the tropics impressed upon me the strength and magic of hyperbole. One could only dream to be so killingly funny as Céline.
5. Man's Hope by André Malraux
Over the smooth asphalt of the wide boulevard around the square, bullets were capering like crickets….So many windows! Counting those of the hotel over a hundred he saw, or seemed to see, a machine-gun peering through each big "O" of the huge neon sign, COLONY.
"He," in this novel by Malraux, is witnessing the Spanish Civil War, fighting for the thrill of machine guns poking through hotel windows, and not for any belief of his own. Malraux reminds us that these types "adventurers," like my La Mazière show up in times of upheaval.
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Rachel Kushner was an editor at Grand Street and Bomb and now coedits Soft Targets. A frequent contributor to Artforum, she has a BA from the University of California at Berkeley and an MFA from Columbia University. She lives in Los Angeles.