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Powell's Q&A

Rachel Kushner

Describe 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.

  1. Telex from Cuba
    $6.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

    Telex from Cuba

    Rachel Kushner
    "Soundly researched and gorgeously written, the creative story also serves as a history lesson. An imaginative work that brings Cuban-American history to life." Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

    "Kushner has written a gripping tale of what it was like to live through a momentous time. It is a powerful, haunting look at the human side of revolution." Booklist

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
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.
Ingrid Caven: A Novel, by Jean-Jacques Schuhl, winner of the Prix Goncourt a few years back, is one of the most beautiful books I've read in the last decade. I cannot separate the feeling I get reading this book from its sumptuously pink-and-black cover. Pink and black, powder and darkness, the beautiful Dietrich-like chanteuse and actress Ingrid Caven, once upon a time wife to Fassbinder, singing on a snowy evening for Hitler's troops, in a rabbit fur jacket with silver toggles, rosy cheeked. "Silent Night, Holy Night." Who doesn't love a lullaby? This book is a complicated lullaby to La Caven, the 1970s, Yves St. Laurent, and in a way, to French letters and men of them, which Schuhl is, a lazy, latter-day Baudelaire who chose 20 years of silence and then wrote a perfect book.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
I'm traveling and don't have my books with me, and am not a memorizer of verse, though I wish I were. What comes to mind instantly, and sorry if it offends anyone, is a line by the dazzling and talented poet Ariana Reines, in her latest book, Coeur de Lion, in which she describes another woman's genitals as "a tattered flag in a puddle."

Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
Someone wrote me through my website the day the review of my book appeared in the New York Times, which also published the first chapter. This person's subject line was, "Why I won't be reading this book." The note itself was the most negative feedback I've gotten to date — most everyone has been generous — and so it didn't really bother me. Moreover, this disgruntled reader, in a sense, charmed me, though perhaps it's condescending of me to think of his criticism as "charming." He said he'd read the first paragraph of the chapter that the Times website had posted, and that he'd then "tested" my metaphors. For instance, I make the comment that the sun, as my narrator observes it behind a thick gauze of smoke from a cane fire, looks like a jewel under layers of tissue. The year I wrote this, we had ferocious fires in Los Angeles. My house was covered with ash, and the sun had looked exactly like that to me — an incredible red orb, blurred and magnified by the thick smoky air. But my reader was doubtful, and angrily described how he'd "taken a jewel and then placed layers of tissue over it," and that he couldn't see "anything at all" and felt misled. An image of him turning his Sunday morning into a kind of metaphor-testing Bunsen burner science experiment seemed hilarious to me. The note confirmed what I have periodically suspected: it's best to collapse subject and metaphor, and claim not that the sun looks like anything, a jewel under layers of tissue, but that the sun is a jewel under layers of tissue. And so, maybe I will make a formal credo right now (thank you, disgruntled Reader): Love is a rose. Not like a rose.

Who are your favorite characters in history? Have any of them influenced your writing?
A historical figure who not only influenced my book but whom I imported as a main character is a Frenchman named Christian de La Mazière. I learned about him in Marcel Ophüls's documentary about Occupied France, The Sorrow and the Pity. La Mazière joined the Charlemagne Division of the Waffen SS in August of 1944, just before the Allies rolled into Paris. He was a fascist, with very scary ideas, but the fact that he'd joined the Germans when they'd all but lost the war — essentially a choice of death, though as it turned out, he somehow escaped that — was fascinating to me. When Ophüls's film came out in France, La Mazière had already reinvented himself as a film producer and swinging socialite type. He was extremely handsome, like that cliché "devastatingly handsome" (do people mean fascists? Men you feel bad or immoral for being attracted to?). He was known around Paris, dated the French singer Dalida as well as the actress Juliette Gréco. He hung out with bohemians, and suddenly everyone discovered that he'd suited himself in a German uniform and fought against Frenchmen. It was a shock. He ended up writing a memoir, The Captive Dreamer, in an attempt to explain himself. He was an aristocrat who'd been brought up to fear socialism. But he was a very complex individual, who represented all kinds of deep ideas of what it meant to be French, a Huguenot, a royalist, an aristocrat; I immediately wanted to send him off to Cuba and make him fight with bearded Cuban teenagers in the name of a socialist vision. I guess reversals are interesting to me. But, in fact, I was not so far off from the real La Mazière: After I'd written my book, I came across a chapter in his second memoir, The Wounded Dreamer, celebrating May 1968. It seems he didn't care what their political persuasion was. He just wanted to see Molotov cocktails blazing through the air, and young people tossing them.

Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
I learn a lot from visual artists and, in particular, filmmakers, such as Chris Marker, whose grand filmic treatise on armed struggle, A Grin without a Cat, is a major inspiration. Film is a direct source for certain scenes in Telex from Cuba, like Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows, Marguerite Duras's India Song, Marcel Ophüls's The Sorrow and the Pity (as I explained above), Guy Debord's last film, In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni, and Jean-Luc Godard's work from the late '60s. There are too many artists to name, but a few who do something really haunting with historical or political material might include Yto Barrada, Harun Farocki and Alexander Kluge (all of whom, coincidentally, have been included in the journal of art and literature that I co-edit, Soft Targets.) The filmmaker who may have single-handedly most influenced me, generally speaking, is my aunt Dee-Dee Halleck, and for Telex, her film Gringo in Mañanaland.

Make a question of your own, then answer it.
Q: Did you set out to write a political novel?

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.


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