Interview with Anya Achtenberg
Modern History Press (2012)
Reviewed by for Reader Views (8/12)
Today, Tyler R. Tichelaar of Reader Views is pleased to interview Anya Achtenberg, who is here to talk about her new novel “Blue Earth.”
Anya Achtenberg’s publications include an autobiographical novella, “The Stories of Devil-Girl,” and two books of poetry, “The Stone of Language,”and “I Know What the Small Girl Knew.” Her short fiction has received awards from Coppola’s “Zoetrope: All-Story,” “New Letters,” the Raymond Carver Story Contest, and others; her poetry as well has won numerous awards. Anya teaches creative writing workshops, especially in fiction and memoir, and a series on “Writing for Social Change: Re-Dream a Just World.” “Blue Earth” has been previously excerpted in “Harvard Review.”
Tyler: Welcome, Anya. It’s a pleasure to talk to you again. It’s been a long time, and “Blue Earth” feels quite unlike some of your previous works that I’m familiar with, like “Devil-Girl.” Do you feel it’s a different kind of work for you and how is it different?
Anya: It’s a pleasure for me as well, Tyler, and yes, this is a very different work for me. I worked on “Blue Earth” on and off for years, learning as much as I could about the art of the novel. I’ve been a poet for a long time, but for a long time have felt the narrative impulse, and at first thought it could be satisfied by short narrative poems; then, longer ones; then, by writing short stories. “Blue Earth” actually started as a short story, but new characters kept entering that world, and their stories kept linking up, so I saw that I was not going to get out of there without fully exploring this larger story and the deep questions I had about a certain kind of evil that is a part of the fabric of United States history; and about a certain kind of loss and labor that the country laments and then steps over. I keep seeing the echoes of this story all over the world, though “Blue Earth” is deeply a story of the American Midwest.
One big difference from my earlier work is this: none of the characters are me! Although, in a sense, they all are, in the way that a writer deeply mines her own experience, psyche and soul to write; at times with no conscious sense of using the self in this way until the fully formed character looks back at you, and you see yourself. I am not any of these characters in “Blue Earth” in a specific, recognizable way, but I identify with them all.
This is my first novel, and my first work for which being possessed by the characters was an intense process that lasted for a very long time. “Blue Earth” is not where I learned to listen to characters, but where I learned to keep listening to them. It is not my first work writing characters far from my experience, but again, it is the first time I stayed long enough to find out about them in a long range way, to learn what would happen to them after some years, what they would do, and why. And none of them were me.
Tyler: I can really understand all that, Anya, since I write fiction as well. I tell my readers all the characters are me to some extent. Will you set up a little about the background of the story for us, its setting and time period?
Anya: The story takes place in Minnesota, in the period 1985-1997, both in and around Mankato on a family farm, in the Lower Sioux reservation area, and centrally in working class neighborhoods in South Minneapolis. Its immediate context is the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, but it is deeply affected by events of the 1860s: the Dakota Conflict and the mass execution of 38 Dakota in the Conflict’s aftermath. (A recent film, “Dakota 38,” is a great resource for more information: http://www.smoothfeather.org/) In a sense, the setting is a place where history denied, and history distorted, inhabit the place and affect all human interactions and relationships. Yes, I would say the setting is the history present in the land and in the body; both the larger history as well as that of families and individuals, since historical amnesia seems duplicated by individuals in the way, for instance, Carver, the most central character, both denies and acts out a personal history, as well as a larger one, he cannot face.
Tyler: Since I know you’re not a native of Minnesota, what about this story appealed to you?
Anya: I lived in Minnesota previously, and learned a lot, but was also disturbed by many things. I had a strong connection, like many did, to Meridel LeSueur, who was very important in introducing me to the radical history of Minnesota. I was also captured by the trees and the rivers, by the houses; that so many people lived in houses was a kind of magical fact for me. Coming from NY, from Brooklyn housing projects and inner city apartments throughout Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx (indeed, I couldn’t count how many places I’ve lived in within my own city), and as a daughter and granddaughter of immigrants, I couldn’t really imagine what it meant to grow up in the place your family has roots, and to live in a house, with a tree and a patch of land. I couldn’t really comprehend the long, low landscapes of the farmlands; the farmhouses and barns between the tree lines; the distance from the other human inhabitants; the work that produced something so directly from land that people understood as their own. To have things handed down through the generations—including that home itself—all that was an anxious mystery for me, and one that pulled at me and attracted me, and, I suppose, angered me, for various reasons.
Massive theft of land from the Native people living here; all the crimes against Native people, their cultures, and their environment that went along with that; the displacement of people from the land they so deeply cared for and lived from; struck me as the other side of the coin of those rows of houses on tree-lined streets in the Twin Cities, the other side of the coin of the fertile farms I passed by outside of the Cities. All this pulled me in, that story of theft, genocide, displacement, amnesia about it all, repeated all over the globe.
But what originally pulled me into the story is thinking about the opposition of beauty and ugliness, and the suffering of working people—the results of which is often judged by this society as ugliness—that again and again give birth to beauty and wholeness and worlds of possibilities.
Tyler: You mentioned “evil” earlier. Would you describe for us what you see as that evil viewpoint or perspective in regards to the novel?
Anya: I had long felt that the biblical instruction of having dominion over the earth and its creatures, profoundly damaging in itself, suicidal one might say, is something deep in the psyche of this country and used to support whatever damaging hierarchy of power there is; that it translates into having dominion over women and children, over workers, over people of color, the disabled, the poor, immigrants, over sexuality, and even over truth. Even over the powerful creative nature of others, and of the self. This having dominion over seems to me the essence of a profound evil. People who believe they are the ones who must have dominion over others, anoint themselves—or adopt an ideology that “anoints” them (though at its heart, that is still anointing oneself)—they consider themselves as being in charge, as having the correct view of things, as being better and more worthy of life, as having rightful access to others—their labor, their land, their bodies, even their minds. Such people enact evil daily, in large and “small” ways, and this is the evil I wanted to examine in this novel.
I wanted to understand further that power of ownership of the world, of having dominion over others; I already understood a great deal from the other side of it, having lived under that power. I wanted to explore the workings of power, the sanctioned behaviors, in a place—the Heartland—that seemed central, iconic, to the story, the myths, of this country. This is something that I understand as being at the heart of the evil I wanted to explore in the novel. I think it was through that desire to understand such evil on a human scale and in a contemporary way, that Carver was born (he was definitely not intellectually invented), an ordinary man who lived both with the power of having dominion, and the loss of that power. He felt to me like a true opposite, but while characters are often born to a writer through similarity, they are also born in opposition.
Tyler: This year is the 150th anniversary of the mass execution you write about. Did you consciously decide to write about it for that reason, or was that just a happy coincidence?
Anya: No conscious decision and certainly not happy. Indeed, I began the novel in 1998 as a story about Barb and her daughter Angie, a story about beauty and ugliness, as I mentioned. An excerpt was published years ago. I came to Minnesota from New Mexico to do some research in 2002, and numerous times after that. The story grew and kept pulling into itself a widening context—the historical and cultural realities of the place where it was unfolding. The conditions for one act to occur in 1985 are full of the many acts preceding it, and full of the story next to the story I was then telling. Characters appeared who would not be turned away. The book went through many rewritings, and I worked to get it published (a job in itself, often difficult to do if you already have a few other jobs!) on and off in these years. It was supposed to come out earlier and I was working too hard to attend to the things I needed to do on time. Hence, 2012.
Tyler: Do you feel that the anniversary is receiving ample attention in Minnesota, and why would you say remembering it is so important?
Anya: No, I definitely do not, though one can find articles in the “Twin Cities Daily Planet,” “The Mankato Free Press,” and elsewhere. Or, it may be receiving attention but not being grappled with in a public way. It certainly isn’t receiving the national attention it should, as a story, a crime, which is at the heart of so much of what the United States is about, and, sadly, was founded on: such crimes, and such amnesia, which says—this is mine now, so it has always been mine. Or, this is mine and I am good—so, whoever’s suffering gave me “mine,” is of no significance. This is the story of so many places, and it is a story whose silencing will never let the world rest.
Historical amnesia is a deadly disease in the U.S.! Fatalities result, as well as the dying of the heart of the amnesiacs. The deal the U.S. has often had people make to enter here, has been to forget one’s own roots, language and history, and to accept the story of this country as it is written by those with the most privilege. Clearly, as from the biannual Dakota Commemorative Marches along the trail where 1700 Dakota were forced marched 150 miles in a Minnesota winter from the Lower Sioux Agency to a concentration camp at Fort Snelling, remembering is important for the Dakota, and for all Native peoples, and people in those communities can tell you why. (A great resource on the marches and this history is “In the Footsteps of Our Ancestors: The Dakota Commemorative Marches of the 21st Century,” edited by Waziyatawin Angela Wilson (2006, http://www.livingjusticepress.org/.)
But for the rest of us, remembering is key to ever understanding the ground we stand on, live on, buy and sell. This history, even for me, daughter of immigrants, helps explain this country to me, and helps me understand the way the establishment of new “nations” has worked all over the world.
Tyler: Anya, how do we as Americans reconcile ourselves to this past. Even if we or our ancestors were not involved, or like you, your family came here long after the massacres and execution, do we hold guilt for buying into the American way, and should we beat ourselves up over it rather than be proud to be American and recognize all the great things about the U.S.?
Anya: This question would require a whole book for me to answer, though I do think that the novel seeks to answer it within the parameters of its characters and story. I will say that I think that for a lot of people, feeling guilty, or avoiding feeling guilty, are both ways to protect oneself from bearing any responsibility, and from the work of confronting the past in a deeper way. It is a way to keep one’s privilege, and not really do anything about current inequities, or the failure of the country as a whole to address a profoundly ugly history. Beating oneself up is a great way to get out of addressing whatever in current times continues these old currents, because then the suffering addressed is about the suffering of the one feeling guilty. Without “Americans” accepting the full history of one’s country, and the context history gives to every act in the present, a violent racist attack on someone is an “aberration.” A verbal attack is either “shocking” or of no consequence, since it is not seen in its full context. Disparities in academic testing between the races, an important fact of Minnesota, is explained as our educational system’s failure to provide enough help for those failing, but it is not put in the context of centuries of racism and discrimination, and a history of brutality, dehumanization, and exploitation. Guilt as a feeling is a fairly useless activity; being guilty of an act, or guilty of enjoying privilege constructed on theft and the suffering of others, well, that seems a real concept. Accepting responsibility and addressing the legacy of the act, a great step.
I was born here, but I am an internationalist, and I will not give that up since it is bred into my very bones and voice, and is the only way I see a decent future for this planet, one built on profound international efforts. There are many great things about this country, but it is also profoundly racist, profoundly irresponsible, profoundly violent and profoundly exploitive. There are many great and many terrible things about many countries. But in my opinion, it is necessary to hold in one’s mind the very opposite realities about one’s country, or one is playing a deadly game. You are protecting a created story whose goals you may not necessarily support, like going to war, or supporting the one percent in their obscene wealth, but you have come to understand that criticizing or changing the accepted story of this country is unpatriotic. That just doesn’t work for most of us, and it never has.
We have no time for guilt, but we need unflinching looks at the truth of this country, and actions to heal and change.
Tyler: How would you define your main character, Carver. What about him do you think makes him an interesting character?
Anya: Poor Carver. He carries such a heavy weight. He has been described as heinous, too heinous. At hearing that, I thought, heinous, sure, in that he does carry all this weight of the sickness of society, and yes, he does some awful things. But in the worlds of fiction and certainly of reality, the monstrous goes way beyond Carver, although, it sits in him. It sits in him. I find him interesting to work with because the way he is connects so profoundly to women’s issues, and his story is not separate from the very strong women (and girl!) characters with whom his life is intertwined, but indeed gives me a way to examine their lives.
Carver is interesting because we meet him at a moment of shift, and get to know him during years of the aftermath of his losing a certain sense of entitlement and privilege by losing the very ground upon which he stood, and lived. That kind of loss can mean that anything can happen. He is terrible, and he has, like many terrible people, been the site of terrible things being enacted upon him. What is interesting to me about Carver is how opposite he and his life are to mine, and how much this character, so alien to me, inhabited me and yielded up his life, his thoughts, his past. What is interesting is how dreadful a very average and ordinary man can be. Could such a person change, concretely change? Perhaps, but one very interesting thing to me, is the way that one man reveals a great deal about how a whole society functions.
Tyler: This novel, like your past works, focuses on multiculturalism and diversity. First, for those of our readers who don’t know you already, will you tell us a little about your own multicultural background?
Anya: Well, I am a daughter of immigrants, but also a person in diaspora and so I have deep roots in places that my parents never lived, nor theirs. The other thing about diaspora is that it means that there are, in the mix, cultures, and places we landed, of which I am unaware, especially when flight was from massacres and all manner of threat and violence. I lost the languages of my forebears and the languages of my parents, who would not speak Russian because of what they had experienced at the hands of those who spoke that language; who would not speak Yiddish to their children, so that we would be fully “Americanized”; who could not speak Ladino, the language of the Jews of Spain and Portugal, though sometimes people address me in Ladino when I travel; and who never knew the Mongolian or indigenous [Siberian?] languages of the race[s]/culture[s] so clearly present in my grandmother and her sisters. The short answer then is that I am an eastern European Jew, with my immediate family coming from Russia and the Ukraine, with Mongolian or indigenous roots on my maternal grandmother’s side, and my maternal grandfather being descended from Sephardic Jews in Spain, who clearly mixed with, or already were, North African from the long years of Moorish/Islamic rule of Spain. Being part Sephardic gives me my African hair and my bone structure, and it apparently gives lots of people in the US a headache trying to figure me out, though not people from North Africa, Turkey, etc. My Sephardic roots were kept from me for a long time, or perhaps simply ignored, since, in the hierarchy, they were considered even lower by Western European Jews than were the Eastern European Jews.
Tyler: And how would you describe the multicultural or multiracial aspects of “Blue Earth”? How do they make the story richer or more dramatic?
Anya: I don’t think the multicultural or multiracial aspects of “Blue Earth” make the story richer or more dramatic; I think they are the story, central to it, fully present in the environment, the characters, and the setting of the story. I grew up and lived for a long time in New York. The very air was and is made of the presence of the world. Not that everyone gets along at all times, but there are constant mixes and great crossings, more so even than when I was a child. Of course there are ghettos, there is enormous discrimination and suffering, there is gentrification, but the experience of New York is profoundly international and multi-everything. It is extraordinary for me to see people in other parts of the country who are, well, kind of having their first real experiences of really mixing with people from other cultures/races. This “newness” of entry into the multicultural speaks to the invisibility of history, the x-ing out of the source of land and great wealth, since denial of what was done to Native peoples, as to African Americans, Mexicans, so many more, is profound. So I guess trying to separate out these aspects of the story doesn’t make sense to me. It would be like having to separate my African hair from my light skin, or my bone structure and my lost, whispered languages from what makes me write the way I do. Any story of looking for justice in this country is likely to connect in some way to multicultural and multiracial issues if one follows the threads far enough into the interconnectedness of our history and the global nature of our economy, which is not in many senses a new thing.
And out in the farmlands in southern Minnesota, Carver meets someone from another country, another continent, which for him at that time was something of a shock, a strange phenomenon. Now we know that anywhere in the United States we may find an individual, or even a community, of people from anywhere in the world.
Tyler: When you write a book, how do you settle on the point of view, and how would you describe your voice or point of view in “Blue Earth?”
Anya: Narration is the thorniest aspect of the craft, I think, and it took a long time for this narrator to settle in with me. As I work, many voices come forward, and at some point, one (sometimes more than one) feels like the real storyteller. In a way, this voice in “Blue Earth” is a kind of community voice, a wise old woman voice, a voice critical of her world, and very observant, very chatty, and very aware of history, the larger and the individual, and how it affects, deeply, everything. But the narrator is also one that moves—it moves in and out of the characters; the story is filtered through the central characters, and the narration moves: it gets so close to the characters that it is within them, and it moves outside of the characters and takes a long view of them and of all the goings on. Storytellers are allowed to move; they needn’t be like the wonderful Monet as he painted the same cathedral at Rouen from the same perspective but with different light, at different times of day, and during different seasons; he, unmoving. They can be like the angels in the Wim Wenders’ film, “Wings of Desire,” moving all about us, observing us from very far away, and then listening so close that they are within us, and we are doing the telling, through the presence of angels.
Tyler: Wow, Anya. I’ve never heard the narrator’s role described so eloquently. I will have to keep that in mind and think on it some more, but will you tell us what are you currently working on or planning to publish next?
Anya: I am in the middle of writing a novel called “History Artist,” centering on a young woman in Boston, born in Cambodia of a Cambodian mother and an African American father at the moment the U.S. bombing of Cambodia began; a short excerpt was just accepted for publication in the wonderful “Gargoyle Magazine.” I am writing some poetry and very short stories, some of which will find their way into a collection tentatively called “Matadors at the Crossing.” I am looking to make time to complete various articles on craft, such as, “Trauma and Narration; Trauma and Language,” and various on Cuba, such as “Cuba Beyond the Image.” A long-range goal is to complete a book on my “Writing for Social Change: Re-Dream a Just World Workshops,” making them available to groups and individuals to work through on their own. And another novel is whispering to me, but must wait for me to complete “History Artist”!
Tyler: Thank you, Anya, for the opportunity to interview you today. Before we go, will you tell us about your website and what additional information we may find there about “Blue Earth”?
Anya: The website, “Writing Story / Finding Poetry / Freeing Voice: Swimming through the ocean of language with Anya Achtenberg,” can be found at the link below:
Archived there are a number of my short articles about the craft and issues of writing. My not far-off goal is to be posting, a few times a week, some short and useful discussions on the craft of writing, writing conundrums, and the creative process, something I think will be worth subscribing to, and checking regularly. There are full descriptions of my in-person and online classes and workshops, and my services for individual writers. You’ll find links to a number of radio and written interviews, as well as articles and reviews, testimonials about my teaching and work with writers. There will be an updated page for “Blue Earth,” as there are pages for my other books, and an events page, which will give the schedule of my national and regional appearances to read from and discuss “Blue Earth,” as well as other appearances.
Please check the website and feel free as well to contact me on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/anya.achtenberg or by email at email@example.com
It’s been a pleasure to discuss my new novel, “Blue Earth”, with you, Tyler. Many thanks.
Tyler: Thank you, Anya. I wish you much success with “Blue Earth” and all your future works.
Listen to Live interview on Inside Scoop Live
Read Review of Blue Earth
Make Comments on weblog