Mary Gaitskill and the Life Unseen

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Magazine, Nov. 2, 2015

WHEN THE WRITER Mary Gaitskill was a child in the 1950s, she was once taken to a roller-skating rink. She looked around and burst into tears. She didn’t understand why everybody was wearing the same thing, those poodle skirts and poodle hairdos.

‘‘It meant something, and I didn’t know what it was — it felt frightening to me,’’ she told me recently. ‘‘I thought, My God, this is too complicated.’’ It was a feeling that lasted until adulthood — a sense that people were speaking to one another in a code she couldn’t decipher. Out of this elemental confusion, Gaitskill has produced a body of work so acutely observant of human behavior that it’s frequently described in the language of violation: a vivisection, a dental drill, a flogging. There is very rough sex in her books, and characters who binge eat and rip out their hair. But the real danger is elsewhere: It’s in glances and gestures and sudden silences, in craving contact and being rebuffed. ‘‘I wanted to communicate and connect,’’ Gaitskill said when I asked why she became a writer. ‘‘I simply didn’t seem able to do it.’’

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Drawing Words From the Well of Art: On Ben Lerner and ’10:04′

Credit Jake Naughton/The New York Times

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times, Aug. 22, 2014

At the Met, Mr. Lerner stood before “Joan of Arc” so long and talked about it with such intensity that, in the peculiar way of museums, other people became gradually persuaded of its importance. A small crowd gathered. A nun pulled out an expensive-looking camera.

“That’s one of the things I really love about painting,” Mr. Lerner said, “the implied history of other people’s looking. I imagine all these very different people who have stood before a painting, people who, of course, I don’t know. Generations I don’t know. Which is in the novel a lot, that what’s interesting about a picture or a book is the community of viewers.”

An Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri

By Parul Sehgal, photograph: Liana Miuccio, ELLE India, September 2013

I meet Jhumpa Lahiri in Brooklyn on a hot, blue morning in August. Such is her reputation for reserve that I’m expecting a Bengali Garbo—or at least the woman from her author photo, with hair pulled back severely; wary, light eyes; arms shielding her body. Standing at the doorstep of her brownstone, I feel briefly ashamed in my mission, like I’ve been deployed to divest a turtle of its shell.

But she greets me in a sundress and sandals, her hair loose on her shoulders. At 46, she has a tense, tawny beauty, with a formality that falls away almost immediately.

Her home is warm and bright, and we chat in a busy room full of books about Italian architecture and children’s toys that look vaguely medieval in function. Her 11-year-old son, Octavio, finishes breakfast at the table and her daughter, nine-year-old Noor, lolls on the sofa next to me, playing a game on her iPad. We’ve barely been talking for 20 minutes when the doorbell rings. Her publisher has sent over a package (addressed to “JHUNPA LAHIN”) containing the first proof copies of The Lowland. The jacket is white, the title a chocolate slant, almost the color of dried blood.

“What do you think?” she asks her daughter. Turning the book over in her hands, Lahiri catches sight of the praise, the blurbs, the bio on the back. “Let’s not look at that,” she says, and I’m not sure if she’s talking to me or to herself. She puts the book down on the coffee table, face up, and doesn’t touch it again.

In that same modest, measured way, she discusses the attention her work has received. Since she made her debut in 1999 with Interpreter of Maladies, she’s produced a book every five years or so, each one a critical and popular success. Her first book won the Pulitzer Prize; her second, The Namesake (2003), was made into film directed by Mira Nair. Her third, Unaccustomed Earth (2008), hit number one on The New York Times Bestseller list and was awarded the Frank O’Connor Prize. And The Lowland, out this month, has already been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

She was happy to hear about the nomination, she says, for the freedom that recognition affords her. “My writing has always come from a place where I feel—and need to feel—completely alone and anonymous,” she tells me. “I’m very grateful for the attention because it allows me to keep working, which is what I love. But I have to seal myself off from it, absolutely negate it, because the writing won’t come otherwise. It’s such an intimate thing; I can’t do it in front of other people. It’s a rich dimension in one’s head – to access it, the noise has to be shut off. And there is a lot of noise in the world.”

That noise has been, on occasion, critical. There is a dissenting minority when it comes to Lahiri’s work—critics who have dismissed her (along with Arundhati Roy and Zadie Smith) as just “part of the late ’90s fad for beautiful young women novelists with Commonwealth roots,” those who have called her representation of the immigrant experience inauthentic or her depictions of India naive. For all her plain prose, Lahiri is divisive—unsurprising, perhaps, when you consider how eccentric a writer she really is, and how compulsively she has been drawn to variations on a single theme: The confusion, alienation and trauma of her parents’ migration to America. But that chatter feels very far away from the bright room we’re sitting in. Here, the talk is of work, of the stealth and patience that writing requires. “It’s all in the dark, all feeling around,” she says. “For me, it’s not a rational process at all. It’s living and breathing with the characters. Working with them. And slowly, they come to life, the story comes to life. That’s how it’s always been.”

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A Conversation with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Photo: (from left) Tim Hout; © Frantzesco Kangaris/Eyevine/Redux

Photo: (from left) Tim Hout; © Frantzesco Kangaris/Eyevine/Redux

By Parul Sehgal, Tin House Summer Issue, 2013

Sinclair Lewis wrote that “every compulsion is put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient, and sterile.” Few writers have so flagrantly flouted these pressures as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the celebrated Nigerian author of Half of a Yellow Sun and The Thing Around Your Neck. Her new book, Americanah, will be published in May by Knopf and, like its predecessors, it’s a thrilling and risky piece of writing that takes on taboos, shatters pieties, and combines forthright prose, subversive humor, and a ripping good story.

The fifth of sixth children, Adichie grew up in Nsukka, a university town in Nigeria, in a house once occupied by the celebrated Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who became a great influence on her.

“It was Achebe’s fiction that made me realize my own story could be in a book,” she said in an interview with the New York Times. “When I started to write, I was writing Enid Blyton stories, even though I had never been to England. I didn’t think it was possible for people like me to be in books.”

Adichie studied medicine briefly and moved to the United States at nineteen, eventually receiving an MFA from Johns Hopkins. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), was well received; her second, Half of a Yellow Sun, was a sensation. An unflinching look at the horrors of the Biafran War of the 1960s, it earned her an Orange Prize and comparisons to Achebe. In 2008, she was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant.”

“Here is a new writer endowed with the gift of the ancient storytellers,” Achebe praised her. “She is fearless.”

In Americanah, Adichie fearlessly takes on what is so euphemistically called “American race relations.” Our heroine, Ifemelu, a Nigerian transplant to the United States, writes a blog, the tartly titled “Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black,” in which she scrutinizes Obamamania, white privilege, the politics of black hair care, interracial relationships, and the allure and savagery of America.

Adichie and I chatted over e-mail.

Parul Sehgal: I just finished the book and find myself moping and missing Ifemulu beyond all reason. She feels terribly real to me. Where did she come from? More broadly, how do your characters announce themselves? As a gesture? A voice? An argument?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: All of those, and more. Sometimes a character just forms in my head; other times a character is based on somebody real (although the character often ends up being quite different from the “real” person). Ifemelu is a more interesting version of me. Both Ifemelu and Obinze are me, really.

PS: How so?

CNA: I think I have Ifemelu’s questioning nature, Obinze’s longing. Like them, I’m always looking to learn. A bit of a romantic, but I hide it well.

PS: Ifemelu is the “Americanah” of the title, yes? Can you unpack this term a bit?

CNA: It’s a Nigerian (actually, perhaps more regional than national, it’s more often used in the southeast, where I am from) way of referring to a person who affects Americanness in speech or manner, or a person who is (genuinely) Americanized, or a person who insists on her Americanness. It’s not exactly a polite word, but it isn’t derogatory either. It’s playful.

PS: Obinze and Ifemelu are that real literary rara avis: a happy couple. With romantic happiness so difficult to render on the page, I very much admired how you made them come to life. Did you have models, literary or otherwise, for their relationship?

CNA: Well, I had the old and grand tradition of the Mills and Boon romance novels that I read as a teenager! More seriously, my vision as a writer is dark. I am more drawn to the melancholy, the sad, the nostalgic. And so I wanted to do something a little different. I wanted to write a love story, a love story that would be both unapologetic and believable.

PS: Let’s stay on love a moment more. Ifemelu writes on her blog that the solution to the problem of race in America is romantic love: “real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved. And because that real deep romantic love is so rare, and because American society is set up to make it even rarer between American Black and American White, the problem of race in America will never be solved.” Now, I find Ifemelu utterly persuasive and charming and—sometimes, I must confess—a bit of a bully. For all these reasons, I’m inclined to agree with her. Do you?

CNA: I have been told that I am a benevolent bully, so I suppose Ifemelu gets that from me. I do agree with her, very much. I completely believe in the power of love. I think that race, as it has been constructed in America, makes it almost impossible for people of different races to have a real conversation about race, let alone understand how the other person feels. Storytelling helps. Storytelling can be an entry point.

PS: But why are we at such an impasse?

CNA: Race is, I think, the subject that Americans are most uncomfortable with. (Gender, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion are not as uncomfortable.) This is an American generation raised with the mantra: DO NOT OFFEND. And often honesty about race becomes synonymous with offending someone.

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Into the Woods: PW Talks with Arundhati Roy

By Parul Sehgal, Publishers Weekly Sept. 30, 2011

In Walking with the Comrades, novelist and activist Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things) travels into the forest with India’s Maoist indigenous communities at war with the government.

How did you earn the guerrillas’ trust?

When the Indian government declared war against the Maoists, Indian liberals, for the most part, took a very safe, neutral position: “The government is bad, the Maoists are bad, the poor people are sandwiched in the middle.” I am no Maoist, but I thought that was a profoundly dishonest position. It elided the fact that the government had secretly sold lands belonging to indigenous tribes to mining and infrastructure companies. This is illegal and unconstitutional, and yet it was being done brazenly. Hundreds of thousands of paramilitary police were closing in on forest villages to clear the land for the corporations. About 600 villages had been emptied; some 300,000 people had fled their homes and had either moved to police camps or were hiding, terrified, in the forest. Many had joined the guerrilla army and were fighting back. The government and the media, campaigning for corporations, labeled them terrorists and called for them to practice Gandhian nonviolence. I wrote that Gandhian nonviolence was political theater that could be effective provided it had a sympathetic and empowered audience; how could people in remote forest villages, far from the gaze of the media or a hostile middle class be Gandhian while they were being raped and murdered? How could the starving go on hunger strike? How could those with no money boycott goods? My writings made their way into the forest, and one day a note was slipped under my door, inviting me to walk with the comrades.

What surprised you most about them?

I believed that when people take up arms, the violence would inevitably turn against the women in the community. In the forest I was disabused of this notion—45% of the Peoples Liberation Guerrilla Army is made up of women. Many of them joined after watching the brutal attacks of the police and the government sponsored vigilante groups on their villages. Others joined to escape the patriarchal practices of their own tribal society. The Maoist party has been a very patriarchal organization; the women within it still have major battles to fight (like women everywhere), but in the forest, I was in complete awe of the women I met. There was a lovely moment when I went down to a river with some women guerillas to bathe, while others kept guard. I remember thinking to myself, “Look at the women in this river—writers, guerrillas, farmers—how very wonderful.”

You write about India’s poor and disenfranchised, but you do so in English (and with a fairly sophisticated style, to boot)? Who do you write for?

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The Doors of Perception: PW Talks with Errol Morris

By Parul Sehgal, Publishers Weekly Jul 08, 2011

The celebrated director of such films as The Thin Blue Line and the Oscar-winning The Fog of War investigates some of photography’s most iconic, enduring, and mysterious images in Believing Is Seeing from Penguin Press.

Is it true you were once a private eye? Has it influenced how you look at the truth? 

It’s true I worked as a detective, but I think the desire to investigate things… either you have it or you don’t. It’s the Dupin or the Sherlock Holmes in me. Almost all of my work has been about this underlying belief that we can figure things out. And every photograph is a mystery. Photographs rip a swatch from the fabric of reality. They decontextualize. But they’re still connected to the world, and they tell two stories: one about our belief about images, but also about one moment in history, of something happening at one moment in front of one particular lens. At its heart, this is a romantic book. To try to figure out—what was that world recorded by James Fenton? Or the world of Amos Humiston and the photograph found in his hands on the battlefield at Gettysburg?

Many of these stories first appeared on your blog at the New York Times. When did you realize you had a book on your hands?

When I realized I could actually write. The first big piece I did was on the James Fenton photographs of the Crimean War. You wouldn’t imagine that it would be the kind of subject matter that would attract a lot of attention, but it did. The piece—and the book—is about photographs as a way of entering history through something very specific. If you pick up any one of the hundreds of histories of the Crimean War, invariably it will start off with a description of the historical antecedents and gradually and chronologically you will enter in the story. Same with biography; you open one and you’re reading about someone’s maternal grandparents. What a photograph allows you to do is to enter history in the middle of everything. As I imagine it, you walk into the photographs and start looking around. That’s the beginning of a mystery.

It was your investigation into Fenton’s photographs—and your team’s attempt to establish what time they were taken by analyzing every stone and shadow—that first made the Crimean War real to me, that persuaded me that it actually happened. So as you say, photographs seem to make history not only specific but material. 

We’re connected through particulars—that’s really our experience of being alive. When I ended up in Crimea, I had a map from 1855 with me. I was standing on a hill that the map called Snail Hill. I looked down, and there were little snails all over the place. Later I read a soldier’s account of being in one of the trenches on Snail Hill, and he was surrounded by all of the little snails. I felt suddenly connected to history, and connected through particulars, through the odd details.

You’re rare in that unlike most people who have written a great deal about photography, you’ve actually worked extensively with cameras. Photography isn’t abstract to you. Has this influenced how you’d read, say, Sontag or Barthes? 

I know that Sontag’s essay on the Abu Ghraib photos in the New York Times magazine influenced me in so many ways, although I didn’t agree with her conclusions. What she didn’t do—and what I have tried to do—is accept that photographs are never a given. We may think we know what a photograph means, we may think we know what it’s of, but we don’t. To me the Abu Ghraib photos are a perfect example of a kind of mystery. What was going on? Were they all taken for the same reasons? Who were the people that took them? Whenever you look at a photograph, you’re looking at what is no longer there. The photograph is there, but what was photographed is transient, is gone. Proust had his madeleines. I have my photographs.

The Art of the Review VI: Belinda McKeon

Parul Sehgal — PWxyz, July 13th, 2011

The malingering Art of the Review is back and delighted to present Belinda McKeon, the Irish critic, curator, playwright, and novelist–her first book Solace is out now from Scribner. She’s also (full disclosure) a good friend of mine–but I’m her fan first and foremost, so I’m especially thrilled that she joined us for this long and candid chat on criticism, her debut novel, the differences between Irish and American literary culture, and the view from her window.

What drew you to criticism? How did you get your start?

I’d loved writing essays in university – really, really loved it, more than any nineteen-year-old should, and I wanted to keep doing it. Like most of my classmates, I came from a high school background where opinion meant regurgitation of something already written by somebody else, where teachers expected us to memorize the answers in the Spark Notes. And at first, my subjects – English and Philosophy – seemed so alien, the ideas being rattled out by the lecturers seemed so complicated, that I felt as though I’d wandered into a course in atomic physics instead. But somewhere along the line, everything clicked for me, and I realized the pleasure of thinking about a piece of writing, of reading it closely, of looking for the undercurrents, of finding an argument and going in deep into the work to make it hold. I started reviewing books, and interviewing authors, for the college newspaper, and when I graduated, I sent my resume to the Irish Times, and asked if I could do the same for them. I got lucky; it was a summer at the height of the boom, and opportunities were there for graduates. They sent me to plays, and they let me rummage in the books cupboard, and they sent me to interview authors, several of whom were personal heroes, so that was a tad on the intimidating side. But they also told me to get on with it, so I did.

What, if any, are the critic’s responsibilities?

To give the work the time it deserves. To put aside preconceptions, and not just preconceptions, but the stubborn initial impressions which can sometimes set in too firmly, too soon. To read carefully. To somehow bracket out other distractions. It’s not an author’s fault if you’ve been too busy checking email or twitter all day to give their book your attention. It’s not their fault if doing so has made you ratty and scattered. So don’t take it out on them, and – I know this isn’t easy – don’t take on more assignments than you can reasonably manage in a given space of time. It’s also not an author’s fault if you have three other books breathing down your neck as you try to read or review theirs.

Have you ever been wrong about a book?

I certainly hope so. In fact, I would hope I’m at least a tiny bit wrong every time. It’s not very interesting if it’s possible to get this stuff 100% right. Or are we talking about atomic physics again?

What critics – past or present – are important to you? Which contemporary reviewers do you read regularly?

James Wood is not just a critic I admire hugely, he was a teacher who made a real difference to my writing when I had him for a master class at Columbia. That was just a four-week thing, and I took it two years in a row, gatecrashing the first year, if I remember correctly. His approach is considered, intelligent, and born out of a deep love of writing and what it can do. I’m a complete fangirl, I admit it. As for critics from the past: I want to meet H.L Mencken when I die.

Tell me, how different are the American and Irish literary cultures? Or are we more similar than we’d like to believe?

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