Jessica Hagedorn and Russell Banks don’t seem to have much in common other than being award-winning writers. The two authors, who are also old friends, hail from wildly different worlds: born in Manila to a family with Filipino, Scots-Irish, French and Irish roots, Hagedorn migrated with her family to the U.S. as a teen and has been writing and performing in independent theater, film and music since the 1970s. Banks had a rough working-class upbringing in New England and dabbled in plumbing and shoe selling before earning his stripes as a novelist. But the two share a singular fascination with the craft of border-crossing and with exploring other worlds that are isolated, ignored, or forbidden.
Both authors are known for their incisive renderings of cultural conflict and alienation. Banks’s novel Continental Drift (1985) examines the intersection of two sojourning lives—a New England repairman and a Haitian immigrant who reach a dead-end in Miami’s Little Haiti—against a backdrop of social dislocation, racial barriers, and class divisions. As the first in a series of works about the tangled journeys of trans-Pacific creoles, Hagedorn’s Dogeaters (1990) explores a fantastic political underworld in 1950s Manila, where the ambivalent bond between Filipino and American cultures wavers between resistance and romance.
In this edited transcript of a conversation with CultureStrike editor Michelle Chen, Hagedorn begins with another moment of cultural dissonance: her experience on the 2011 CultureStrike delegation to Tucson, Arizona, during which she bore witness to a border landscape riven with checkpoints, fences, and desert graves of lost border-crossers. She observed a courtroom scene in which, under the program “Operation Streamline,” migrants apprehended at the border were tried in an assembly-line-style hearing. Banks, in turn, reflects on the role of the writer in political activism, and the challenges of writing across divides of race and class. They conclude that fiction itself is an act of transcendence: “You have to approach your border crossing, as it were, with an individual, a single human being. And from there… you’re led to the whole world.” –Ed.
Jessica Hagedorn: I was intrigued by the invitation to be part of the CultureStrike delegation to Arizona. The opportunity to witness what was happening in cities like Tucson and Phoenix, and to have dialogue with human rights activists and agents on both sides of the border was a profound, eye-opening experience. Not to mention the absurd reality of the border itself – that man-made, slatted wall that is all that separates us from Mexico. You and I often bring messy moral dilemmas and political struggles into our work, Russell. Do you think that anything has intensified in terms of our responsibility and identities as artists and citizens of the U.S.?
Russell Banks: Yeah, but it’s a perennial problem, or issue, I should say, for artists. Because you in a way have a dual identity, one is as an artist and the other is as a citizen and sometimes you’re overvalued as one or the other. Sometimes your work as a citizen becomes important to people’s perception of your art and then vice versa, and I think it’s legitimately so, and vice versa, your fame or accomplishment or visibility as an artist sometimes -– overvalues your work as a citizen. So it’s difficult to keep the two functionally separate. Yet that is what I think we have to do, [what] an artist has to do…. As an artist, I feel I’m a member of an international community and I’m a citizen of the world.
But the fact is that I’m also a citizen of the United States, and I’m responsible for the behavior of this country to the degree that it’s a democracy. And therefore I’m politically active in various ways as a citizen, and I would be as active if I were an accountant or a dentist, but I probably wouldn’t be invited to sign as many petitions, or I wouldn’t be listed in the paper in the article about the issue, the demonstration, or whatever.
It’s because of my public identity as a writer that that happens. So there’s this smearing over, I think, of the two that we have to be careful to avoid, or to every now and then clarify. And this is one of those occasions, I guess, when we’re trying to do that. And then, you look at your work and you think, “Well, my work is different. And it happens to include some of the issues that I end up politically standing by… as a citizen, to defend. But that isn’t the point of my work at all as a writer.”
JH: I’ve never thought of separating them, though.
RB: It gets tricky.
JH: Yeah, it does get tricky.
RB: But I do take positions publicly. I don’t take positions in my work. Work will express inevitably–I’m sure as yours does too–your most subjective and humane values. But some of those you’re not even aware of when you begin a novel. It takes the writing of the novel for you to discover sometimes your own values, whereas when I step forward across a line, or pick up a sign, or whatever, that’s a political act. I know where I stand on that issue to begin with. So I guess I do, yeah, I do separate them–and worry about their getting mixed up together.
JH: That’s so interesting.
RB: One is public, and the other is extremely private. It’s even secretive, my writing, until it’s made public. But in the process I don’t concern myself with political issues. It happens that the work turns out to have political dimension, that’s inescapable. But like any public act, writing is a public act, it’s speaking out, somehow. But it’s important to do that, I think, to keep them separate. At least to me it is, I can’t recommend it to anybody else.
JH: I always feel that my private life as an artist, my private imagination… allows me to conjure up dark scenarios and create fucked-up, morally repugnant characters without judgment. My job is to find the humanity in all of it. I think you were exploring similar terrain in your latest novel [Lost Memory of Skin] with the Professor and the Kid. Am I misreading you?
RB: No, no you’re quite right.
JH: The work took you there without having an agenda.
RB: I think I know where you’re going on that. One of the things that neither of us have said, but I think we both have experienced, is the degree to which, and the depths at which, your work changes you politically, so that you end up behaving differently in the world, politically and socially.
And this kind of relates to the theme or the subject here… immigration and what role our work plays in regards to that theme. And in my case, I’m in a sense a first-generation American because my father’s Canadian and three of my grandparents are Canadian, but I’m the Anglo-Canadian that slid down over the border during the Depression [but] so I don’t think of myself as an immigrant in the classic American sense, the hyphenated American sense. And so my own personal experience did not inform me with regard to the politics of immigration, or the cultural or linguistic or racial dilemmas implied by immigration, and so forth. But my work has brought me there, and in particular I can point to… a book called Continental Drift, which deals with Haitian immigrants into south Florida and the desperation that drives them out of Haiti and to take the chances that they take in order to try to get to the States… My imagination got enlarged, this Anglo-Canadian-American who never thought of himself or his family as immigrants ended up looking at the world from the point of view of Haitian immigrants because of the process of writing a novel that ended up there. And then that changed my view.
Michelle Chen: You’re both fiction writers. And I was wondering if you might be able to comment on how your engagement with some of these issues, whether they’re social issues or perhaps more abstract political issues, helps you work through your own thoughts about these topics. Does it help you maybe concretize them for your readers in a way that, perhaps, a journalist or a documentary filmmaker wouldn’t? And maybe this also relates to this idea of the border and what that means in our collective imaginations. Maybe you could reflect on that a bit.
JH: Well, for me, I don’t start writing with an issue in mind. I often begin with a character or scenario I’m passionate and curious about. Like, for example, in Dogeaters, I knew that I wanted to write about the marginalized and impoverished people of Manila. So I came up with this outcast street kid named Joey Sands. Joey was inspired by a real-life street kid I encountered in the town of Angeles, Pampanga, in the Philippines. Back in the Seventies, Angeles was the town closest to Clark Air Base. A lot of kids like Joey were children of prostitutes who worked at the raunchy go-go bars that catered exclusively to American servicemen. My curiosity led me into imagining what the kid’s life might be like, and that imagining led me to Joey, a fictional character hustling in the raunchy bars of Manila. He’s a junkie, a thief, a liar and a whore. The ultimate survivor. Fast forward to the afternoon of September 12, 2011. Another encounter with another memorable kid. This time the setting is a federal courthouse in downtown Tucson.
As Roberto Lovato says, “The border is a performance. The border is not real.”
The Culturestrikers’ unexpected entrance into the courtroom had caused quite a little stir amongst the lawyers and detainees awaiting their turn in front of the no-nonsense, female judge with blonde hair. We stood out as this exotic, motley crew of many beautiful cultures – Chicano, Navajo/Dine, Filipino, Chinese, Nigerian, just to name a few – who came to bear witness. The detainees were mostly gaunt, brown-skinned men in shackles. Several of them looked to be fifteen or sixteen years old. Maybe it was because they were so small and thin. There were [about] seventy detainees [being tried at the same time, represented by court-appointed lawyers and interpreters]. The majority of detainees spoke only Spanish, or -– in some cases -– a variety of the Nahuatl language spoken by the indigenous people of Mexico. The detainees pretended to understand the judge every time she asked them a question. How do you plead? The youngest-looking of the detainees kept turning his head to glance at the row behind him, where poet Sherwin Bitsui and I were seated. I am going to call him Lobo. At one point Lobo dared to smile. The detainees had been prepped to plead guilty, and to say that they understood what was going on. Ninety-nine percent of them did as they were told. But when his turn came up, Lobo was the only one reckless and bold enough to say, “Not guilty.” I remember thinking, “Oh no, have we given him some false sense of confidence and hope just by being here? Does he believe he can actually win this case?” I’ll never forget that moment. The judge looking up from whatever document or file she was reading, staring at Lobo in surprise. “Are you sure you understand these charges?” She asked him. “Not guilty,” Lobo repeated, with more vigor. And I’m still waiting to write about that astonishing moment almost a year later, wondering when and how Lobo’s going to show up in some future novel. But he will.
RB: You just described an interesting part of the process that I think we all depend upon… This is regarding borders. You are basically crossing a border, a border between you and another human being, this kid that is in the courtroom. And you are essentially ignoring the border between the two of you. You’re going over into his world and inhabiting him for a minute or two without disinhabiting yourself, so you’re connected. And I think that it’s kind of a metaphor but it’s also a description of the whole process of being a writer. And when you’ve done it as long as I have and as long as you have, over decades, you begin to realize that you’ve spent all that time crossing borders and ignoring borders, I should say. And it begins with the people like yourself. You don’t recognize a border between yourself and individuals that are like yourself. Like in my case, white males from New England, English-speaking, etc. Pretty soon you’re starting to cross the borders of gender, and then the borders of race, and age…
JH: … class…
RB: And then before you know it you entitle yourself to cross borders that are national, as well. I can track that in my own personal evolution over the last forty years or more of writing. And I can see how with each passing decade I’ve come to think of myself and my work in a broader and broader and more borderless sense. So that I’ve reached a point in recent years, really the last decade or so, where I think, I feel as close to a Chinese poet as I do to a white male -– Chinese female poet, let’s say -– as I do to a white male poet living in eastern New England, about my same age. Because I don’t recognize any borders between us, now. Any national borders or any linguistic or cultural or ethnic or racial borders between us. And I think that the process of writing and the main activity of an artist in a way is to first violate borders and then obliterate them. And that, to me, has been the course of my whole working life as a writer. But it starts right where you described, your being in the courtroom with that kid. You crossed over to that kid in a very specific way and didn’t recognize a border between the two of you that the legal system, the room, the setup, the legal apparatus that surrounded that kid was designed to insist upon.
JH: You know, they had deputy marshals in the courtroom, who I guess were responsible for bringing the prisoners to the mass trial and back to jail. The marshals -– who were all young white men in their twenties and thirties -– were wearing these creepy black latex gloves. As if the detainees were infected with some deadly, contagious disease.
RB: …Yeah, well that’s what those orange jumpsuits are designed to do, too, is to create borders.
JH: And chains. And the heavy chains. And these kids were so thin. We talked to several people afterwards about what’s gonna happen to the kids and a lot of them, they’ll be deported, not even back to their village, but then they’ll come back. They’re gonna cross again. Nothing will stop them. And that to me is breathtaking. Knowing what awaits them, what is that urge besides the obvious “I have to feed my family. I’m gonna come back and do this”?… That is something to write about.
RB: Right. But you inevitably end up writing about an individual and the subjective experience of an individual. And I think… that’s built into the process. It’s built into the genre really that you and I both work in, which is primarily the novel. And it’s in the history of the novel. It begins with Cervantes, dignifying and making meaningful the subjective experience of an individual human being, who otherwise wouldn’t be recognized as meaningful or dignified. It begins there. And in the whole history of the novel leading up to this moment… basically that’s what it does better than any other art form, I believe. And so you have to begin there as a writer, as an artist. You have to approach your border crossing, as it were, with an individual, a single human being. And from there, of course, you’re led to -–
JH: -– the whole world -–
RB: -– The whole world is there, yeah. You’re led to the all those other guys, who are standing there in chains and in jumpsuits, and then from them you’re led to their families -–
JH: -– mothers -–
RB: -– and from them, you’re led to their communities in Mexico, and on, and on, and on.
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