Engaging History in Collaborative Mythmaking: A Conversation with Russell Banks
Index thématique et géographique :culture, États-Unis, histoire, history, société, society, United States
1Russell Banks was raised in New Hampshire and eastern Massachusetts. The eldest of four children, he grew up in a working-class, hardscrabble world that has played a major role in shaping his writing. Banks (the first in his family to go to college) attended Colgate University and later graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Before he could support himself as a writer, he tried his hand at plumbing, and worked as a shoe salesman and window dresser. More recently, he has taught at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence, University of New Hampshire, New England College and New York University. A prolific writer of fiction, his titles include: Searching for Survivors, Family Life, Hamilton Stark, The New World, The Book of Jamaica, Trailerpark, The Relation of My Imprisonment, Continental Drift, Success Stories, Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter. Banks has also contributed poems,stories and essays to The Boston Globe Magazine, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Book Review, Esquire, Harper's and many other publications.
2His works have been widely translated and published in Europe and Asia. Two of his novels have been adapted for feature-length films, The Sweet Hereafter (directed by Atom Goyan, winner of the Grand Prix and International Critics Prize at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival) and Affliction (directed by Paul Schrader, starring Nick Nolte, Willem Dafoe, Sissy Spacek, and James Coburn). He is the screenwriter of a film adaptation of Continental Drift. Russell Banks has won numerous awards and prizes for his work, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships, Ingram Merrill Award, The St. Lawrence Award for Short Fiction, O. Henry and Best American Short Story Award, The John Dos Passos Award, and the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Continental Drift and Cloudsplitter were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 and 1998 respectively. Affliction was short listed for both the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Prize and the Irish International Prize. He has lived in a variety of places, from New England to Jamaica, which have contributed to the richness of his writing. He is currently living in upstate New York. The Angel On The Roof is his first collection of short stories in fifteen years. Russell Banks is married to the poet Chase Twichell, and is the father of four grown daughters.
3The following interview was drawn from a two-hour conversation between Kimberly Rae Connor (KC), a professor at the University of San Francisco, and novelist Russell Banks (RB). Kimberly Rae Connor earned a PhD in religion and literature at the University of Virginia. She is on the faculty of the University of San Francisco. She is author of two books—Conversions and Visions in the Writings of African American Women (Tennessee 1994) and Imagining Grace: Liberating Theologies in the Slave Narrative Tradition (Illinois 2000) as well as many articles on African American religion and culture and multicultural pedagogy. This interview was conducted on March 19,2004 at the Princeton Club in New York City. We began with an informal chat about Banks’ collection of short stories, Trailerpark, which he is developing as a television series. That led us to a discussion of class and race, issues that deeply inform Banks’ work and sensibility. In considering how one transgresses lines of class and race, the interviewer began with the following question:
Kimberly Rae Connor (KC): Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish philosopher and theologian said, “The secret of human life, the universal secret, the root secret from which all other secrets spring, is the longing for more life. The furious and insatiable desire to be everything else without ever ceasing to be ourselves.” His insight reminded me of a previous interview in which you distinguished between being and becoming the other. Could you elaborate on that distinction?
Russell Banks (RB): It is the difference between sympathy and empathy. Empathy tends to only recognize sameness and then appropriate difference as if it were the same. But sympathy is feeling for someone who is different.
KC: That distinction prevents one from going into smug territory, which goes back to what we were talking about in terms of class issues and writing about who you are; then you don’t stand in judgment. But I think that most people would tend to regard empathy as the superior trait.
RB: Well yes, but that is a kind of liberal prejudice, I think. Empathy sounds more substantial, but it is appropriational. As a white middle class American man, I’ve had to be very careful of that. Because I am now at the top of the ladder and it is very easy to think you understand people who are just below you on the ladder.
KC: Okay, but when you do acquire the wealth and the power, as you have now, what is your responsibility?
RB: It depends on what perspective you take, on your own identity. I have various roles in the world—as a writer, citizen, parent, spouse, teacher—and so I try to function in each of those roles as carefully as I can. Responsibly is a better way to put it. So I do a lot that my working class parents were never able to do. In terms of giving money away and taking care of other people, educating people—close to me and not so. Institutionally and personally. It is not problematic for me; it is a matter of me saying, “Okay, in this role, how do I deal with my resources and my powers in a responsible way?” You can react to all this neurotically because in some ways you are like a baseball player [offered a big contract] or a musician who suddenly had a hit record. It has nothing to do with you. Wealth is not a measure of your achievement in any way. It falls from the sky, in that sense, that kind of power and resources, and it isn’t something one sets out to acquire.
KC: It dials things up, raises the stakes. Although the recognition of the automatic entitlements is the first hurdle; but then whatever you accumulate just obliges you that much more. My problem with my white students is to get them to appreciate that they live in an entitled world, that things are happening to them because they are not happening to or for others.
RB: Yes, it is hard to make people with privilege see or realize that they have it. One of the privileges of privilege is to deny that you have privilege.
4The interview then shifted to a discussion of issues pertinent to the theme of the journal and the relationship between history and fiction. I asked Banks if he had read Richard Powers’ novel The Time of our Singing—he had not—to illustrate the ways Powers uses history and a particularhistorical moment as a backdropand as athematic focus, a more diffuse use of history than Banks employs in Cloudsplitter. I proceeded to ask him to describe his approach to the use of history in his fiction.
KC: What role does history play in the fiction writer’s life? Is there a master narrative that isn’t dominant, a middle ground between history and fiction that gets at truth?
RB: I think there is a master narrative that becomes dominant over time and controls the imagination of a people. But I think it is always historically a collective, or rather a collaborative narrative over time. Historians, filmmakers, novelists, poets all work with it, towards creating this dominant mythology that to such an enormous degree controls the imagination of a people for generations. I don’t feel as though one type or perspective dominates but collaboratively they all contribute to the mythmaking. Take for example the Civil War and pick three different players, say the novel Gone with the Wind, the film Cold Mountain, and some serious historical work of that same period and they all three are kind of working together to create a (white) mythology that the next generation of Americans will hold in their minds and perceive the world through. So that is all I feel like I am doing. I am working with historical materials, trying to not compete with historians for some kind of ultimate truth. I have a different truth and a different use for the same materials.
KC: But you are still interpreting history.
RB: I’m not. I am using the materials from history the same way I use materials from my personal life, my family life. I am using it knowing somewhere down the line some historian will come along—and they already have on John Brown—and use my work as a comment on how John Brown was perceived in the late 20th century United States. Because John Brown is an iconic figure in our national mythology, our racial mythology especially. So someone will come along and say that this novel that was popular and widely taught gives evidence that the perspective on John Brown shifted in the late 20th-early 21st centuries. There was a dialogue between the historically, conventionally African American perspective and the conventionally white perspective on John Brown going on. So that is sort of how you end up as a novelist engaging and being engaged by history. Which is somewhat different from seeing it as a dialectical relationship.
KC: In other words, you are not intending to rewrite history. But there is an interpretative posture you take, a hermeneutic that asks us to look at history a different kind of way.
RB: Perhaps, there might be. But my main relation to historical materials is simply to appropriate them and use them in storytelling. My primary allegiance is to story telling, the narrative that is necessitated by story, not history. That is a very different thing. But I think this perspective is true of most novelists who use historical materials. Not all, but most. Take Doctorow, for example. His use for it. Or Pynchon. Or DeLillo. You see a similar process there. I am using it to tell family stories. It always comes down to that for me.
KC: You have alluded to myth in your discussion of history. What is curious to me, as a historian of religion, is that I accept the notion of myth as an energizing and compelling way of telling stories. It has essential and necessary elements for the individual but also for collective identities. And yet, somehow or another, as history and fiction merge, we get this notion of myth that carries an assumption of falsehood, as a story that is steering us away from what is meaningful and true.
RB: Well, I think of myth as empowering and defining. It basically operates for every population group to serve a basic, primitive function: defining what it is to be human and identifying the limits of our power. Myth is the narrative arc of our lives in terms that are connected to the perceivable realities of our lives. That is why the Greek myths don’t work together for us anymore. We have to have nationalist myths. And religious myths are working less and less effectively. Although the film The Passionof the Christ, seems to be flying in the face of what I just said.
5A very hot topic in current social discourse, I could not resist asking Banks to elaborate his view of the film.
RB: That film is about its audience, as most slasher films are. It is a slasher movie for Christians. And there is a big component of homophobic, homoerotic S&M aspects. Mel Gibson justifies the film all the way to the bank, on religious terms. I won’t go although my family, all born-again Christians, love it. But I won’t go see the film. I am a practicing atheist.
6To get the conversation back to novels, I asked Banks to speak specifically about Cloudsplitter and inquired if it occupies its own narrative space in relation to history and testimony.
RB: Well, maybe, but my own feeling about it is that it is a very basic story. It is an Abraham and Isaac story, from Isaac’s point of view. That is its deepest stratum, I think. And the rest of it is built on top of that. My main concern was going to that part of the story and to use historical materials to tell that part of the story. It wasn’t to rewrite history in order to clarify a particular historical period or issue or to retell or even correct the dominant or received version of that period and those issues. It was simply to tell, in a way that was for me interesting and insightful, the Abraham and Isaac story from Isaac’s point of view. Because that was how I saw that story as a child. And that is the only way I can ever see it, even now—from the point of view of the child. I could never see it from Abraham’s point of view. Even though Isaac loved his father.
KC: But that posture is typical of your fiction. Rather than take the perpetrator’s point of view, you take the victim’s point of view. That is where you have the sympathetic (not empathetic) identification with the outsider, the marginalized. Which is really another version of history. I guess that is all I was trying to convey. That there are overlapping and competing narratives but some get heard and others do not.
RB: Yes, and we need all the narratives. In the end, it is interesting that historians have use for fiction that is primarily structural. They structure their work—historical narratives—after fiction, to give it a narrative dynamic. Otherwise it is just a shapeless accumulation of data. But the reverse is true for the novelist. The novelist has use for historians’ work only in terms of the materials, the details, the characters, and the texture of it. The structure doesn’t mean anything. Historical structure is all borrowed from fiction so why borrow it back? It is in the literary tradition to begin with. If I am interested in telling a story, really grappling with a powerful story, like Abraham and Isaac—a powerful father willing to sacrifice his son on principles—when I look around there is no better story than the story of John Brown and his sons, and in particular this one son, Owen Brown. So I could use the historical realities of John Brown’s life and the issues there. There is no greater issue for me than to deal with that sacrifice, and race. John Brown is emblematic on these issues and these quandaries. So it was very easy to go and use those materials to tell this story. But there is a lot in it I made up, as you know. I tried to keep to the outline and the known conventions and historical realities, not in the interest of history but in the interest of plausibility. That is all that mattered to me. I couldn’t violate what was conventionally known about the time or the biographies of the characters without blowing plausibility. But you do that in all fiction. I couldn’t set a novel in New York City and have Broadway going from the Upper East Side to the Lower West Side. If I did that I would lose all plausibility, suspension of disbelief would break down.
KC: So it is a question of how far you can carry your reader?
RB: Exactly. The same thing with history. I had to get the presidents right. I had to get the years in Kansas right. But I could also have John Brown listen to Ralph Waldo Emerson deliver his talk on heroism in a Charles Street meeting house, even though I know it never took place. I wanted those two characters there at the same time. You could see so much of John Brown’s view of himself through his response to Emerson. But it was a fictional character’s view of himself. So you can see what I am trying to get to here. This is a very different use of history that applies to a storyteller than is generally presumed. Historians and novelists are not colleagues, but we are collaborators in the larger sense, in the creation of mythology. Moviemakers, too, even most pop novels and movies participate in this process. It is a big, wide stream, this myth making process.
KC: Is that why you let your books be made into movies?
RB: Yes, that is part of it. I feel like I am involved with a big, wide cultural process. I have my little stream over here. But I don’t mind swimming over to the left or right and trying it there, as long as I can have some measure of control and engagement with it.
KC: It becomes an interesting metaphor for how your ideas can become part of a collaborative vision, in the way Gramsci describes creating a culture which is not just about one’s own individual or original discoveries but how truth is diffused in a critical form, how ideas are socialized.
RB: Yes, that is good. And I am fairly conscious of that process and intentionally engaged in it, for better or worse. Cloudsplitter should be shooting next winter and spring. I didn’t want to do it as a feature film. You cram it into two hours, have a big opening weekend and that is the end of it and it dribbles out over the years and you still have the same, racially divided audience that we are dealing with and that I am trying to overcome with this adaptation. I really wanted the film to overcome the divide, to reach a trans-racial audience. I didn’t want it to be another story about race for white people or another story about race for black people that is shown during Black History Month. So I wanted to do it on TV (HBO) so it would get into people’s homes. And you don’t have to put them together in the same theatre. It will get in all homes—white, black, upper and working class. TV takes place in a more intimate space than the movies. Something really interesting to me, and I am not exactly sure what it implies, but people almost never dream about characters they have seen in a film, but they always dream about characters they know only through TV. Now that means to me that TV is a more intimate medium. As if a member of your household, a member of your family, were in your home. The characters on TV, we live with them. Going to the movies is really like going to a high church service.
KC: So theatres provide the illusion of a communal experience without really providing it. Or, to extend the high church metaphor, it is sitting passively at mass rather than being taken over by the Holy Spirit!
RB: Yes, so I wanted to get this on TV for those reasons. And HBO let me put together a team of producers and writers, like Martin Scorcese, and Raoul Peck, who made the film on Lumumba. Peck is a close friend and partner. Getting him was great. A black director who is not American. He sees it from a whole different perspective. His parents fled Duvalier’s Haiti and he was raised in Africa and educated in France. Now he lives in Brooklyn. He has enough historical and personal and intellectual distance on it to really see the whole story.
7At this point the conversation partners discussed the situations in Haiti and Iraq, especially as they pertain to US global responsibilities. Banks is an acutely informed and active citizen. I asked him to consider if the world today is ruled more by heat than light, a dichotomy I had drawn in my reading of John Brown as portrayed in Cloudsplitter, where heat is passion and light is reflection and insight and Brown possesses more heat than light. Banks had previously described Brown as the first modern terrorist, a man of heat, so we continued to discuss the tension between heat and light as represented in world culture. When I asked if people were passionate today without the knowledge or the vision to know how to use it, Banks agreed.
RB: Yes, that is right. We are in a post-ideological age and there isn’t any governing or coherent ideology that we can all gather around. We have ended up with a dominant ideology that is made up of sound-bites like “free market democracy” that link capitalism and democracy together as if they were the same word or two sides of the same object. And that started back in the Reagan years and it was just repeated and repeated as a rationale and justification for every aspect of American governmentally driven and corporately driven policy.
KC: It seems to me that when the conversation really got opened, with Johnson’s vision of a Great Society, when we wanted to allow all these voices in and create a more complicated and rich and diverse image of America, was also when we started losing a shared voice or a unifying voice.
RB: Well, I am not so sure a unifying voice is such a great thing. We had one there from 9/11 until about 3 or 4 months ago.
KC: Yes, but it was kind of tenuous don’t you think? Perhaps a bit phony and insubstantial?
RB: Oh yes, thank goodness! But unifying voices always scare me anyhow. Crowd noise, I don’t like all that chanting.
KC: I agree, but doesn’t there have to be something that motivates people to accomplish something together, especially in redressing issues of social injustice?
RB: Well, I think it goes back to our discussion of mythology—the shape of it and the meaning of it. You know I was in Cuba twice in the last year and a half. I had never been before although I had been all over the Caribbean and Africa, and when I got there one of the things that fascinated me was it was the first, the only, postcolonial slavery society I had ever been in where the dominant national mythology was not defined against colonialism and against slavery. Instead they were defining themselves in terms of the revolution. They had taken the revolution and turned it into a narrative with characters like Che and Fidel, with a sequence of events that begin when they are at the university and are arrested for protests against the Batista regime, to their going to Mexico, to their getting to the boat, the Granma, to landing in the Sierra Maestra and going into the mountains and coming down like Robin Hood, and so on. The whole history and narrative of the revolution and then of course the history as it falls out and these signal events like the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis, and the immigration and the enemy outside, but it is all the revolution. This is not Marxist ideology. This is simple narrative mythology. It is totally empowering in a way. In a way that no postcolonial, post-slavery society has been empowered. And I said to myself, “Where the hell does this come from?” I went to the museum of the revolution there in Havana, this fantastic museum—they’ve got everything there, all the artifacts from the revolution. But then they have rooms and rooms of photographs, black and white, going back to the fifties, mostly guys. They are scruffy with beards, little neckties, but they are all posed with great historical self-consciousness, with their arms around each other, very intense and clear that they have taken this picture for the record even though they were only in their late teens and early twenties.
KC: So they were conscious of building the narrative or myth all along?
RB: Yes, they were conscious of making history, of themselves in history. And I said, “What the hell do these pictures remind me of?” They totally reminded me of something. And then I realized what it was, because I had just spent a lot of time working on a film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s Onthe Road[The script was commissioned by Francis Ford Coppola who owns the rights to the novel. The author and I discussed the process of preparing the script and speculated on the eventual film. Banks agreed that trying to adapt this celebrated novel was an audacious act. We also shared our mutual obsession with all things Kerouac, including the objects that recently came up for auction]. They looked like the pictures of the Beats. I know that generation of American writers really well. I have been close enough to see the mythology of the Beats unfold, how and why it did. And it was a self-conscious creation of themselves as part of myth, right from the start.
KC: Yes, and their sources of inspiration were mythological too.
RB: Absolutely. But so was this true in Cuba. The pictures of the Beats and the Cuban revolutionaries look alike. They are iconic. They meant them to be in a way. They have that self-consciousness, self-awareness I should say, that they were shaping literary history just as the revolutionaries were shaping Cuban history. They were really aware of making a record. It was striking. That creation of mythology is something I think most American writers have abandoned, that responsibility, that high ambition. The Beat generation of writers was the last generation of American writers who had that high ambition for themselves. It is the same ambition Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and Twain had. Now it is individualistic, not in a selfish and egoistic way, but there is no group identity or belief that you can change the world if you hang together. I don’t think we have that sense of being able to change the world. I think we have to get there. The idea of creating myth or a national or a people’s identity is a grander thing than what most writers are doing now. That sense of creating a national consciousness, what the nineteenth century American writers were up to, even the best of the twentieth century. Those phrases wouldn’t have sounded ridiculous in the past and they don’t sound ridiculous in Joyce’s mouth. You know, when Hawthorne says he wants to create an American literature that is truly American. When Melville says he wants to find a metaphor that defines everything. When Whitman sets out to create an American mythos. This is grandiose, but it is necessary.
KC: I think now you are describing what I was trying to allude to before, about a shared language or narrative that complements and includes diversity without splitting people apart.
RB: Yes, I see that now. But the Beats and their predecessors, all of them, in some respects, were writing in reaction to the oppressiveness of their eras—sexual, racial, and all that. I recently saw an old “educational” documentary from the fifties about the South and I had forgotten all the stuff I had seen in high school that described the history of the southern plantation and its beauty. I was looking at it and saying, “you do that enough times and show that to enough kids—black and white—and people start to buy that shit wholesale.” To break that down is so hard.
8We discussed further issues related to southern mythology about the Civil War, including recent novelistic and film treatments, and our own experiences living and being educated in the South, and the lack of information made available to us about slavery. Banks concluded: There is a conscious agenda across white America to rewrite the Civil War as political quarrel, to ignore the fact that African Americans and people like you and me still have to point out: that the war was really about slavery.
9After this our conversation digressed further into particulars about our shared obsession with John Brown and his iconography, and other pop culture figures, like Elvis, whom we admire for their mythological traits. This discussion led us back to the Beats, their vision, and especially to Jack Kerouac. Banks concluded by sharing his own personal experience with his literary hero.
RB: Late Kerouac was so tragic in a way. He was lost to alcohol and drugs. I had strong feelings of connection to that generation of writers and Kerouac is very touching to me. In the screenplay of On the Road, I treat the novel as a period piece. Most of us forget that it is set in 1948. It has a post-war innocence that is unavailable to us after 1968. There is a moment there where two white guys can roll up a pack of Luckys in their t-shirts and get in their cars and play music real loud and drive across the country and make love to a black woman and listen to jazz and really think they have gone to another planet. It is a kind of innocence that is really kind of wonderful and sweet and doomed. If you can show it as doomed, and not get nostalgic and sentimental about it, act as if it is something we can get back to, then it is something interesting dramatically and also relevant as well. As it happened I met Kerouac and spent a wild week with him in 1967, two years before he died. He showed up at my house in Chapel Hill [North Carolina, where Banks was attending university] with two Indians driving him. He didn’t know how to drive. He was very sick, physically and mentally. At moments you could see why he was so attractive. He was Memory Babe [his nickname] because he could recall everything he had read or listened to or seen. And he was a wonderful, radical, barbarian man. Then in the next moment he was this idiot anti-Semite. He was in a room of worshipful acolytes who were all political activists in the civil rights movement, anti-war veterans, young artists and writers, at his feet. And it was incredibly jarring to see both sides of him, and to see his visible pain. So I framed the script of On the Road through this story, the story of a young guy, me, who meets him at this point in his life. It is set in two times and places—the time of On the Road and threaded through it scenes from 1968, the year of the loss of America’s innocence, like Kerouac who is a lost soul at this point.
10At this point the conversation also became lost because the recorder ran out of tape. We took that as a cue to conclude, although Banks graciously escorted me out to 43rd street to have a smoke, and we chatted a bit longer about mutual acquaintances. Then we shook hands and went our separate ways out into the city.
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Kimberly Rae Connor, « Engaging History in Collaborative Mythmaking: A Conversation with Russell Banks », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. II - n°4 | 2004, 5-16.
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