The PEN Ten: An Interview with Nathaniel Popkin
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, Jared Jackson speaks with Nathaniel Popkin, author of To Reach the Spring: From Complicity to Consciousness in the Age of Eco-Crisis (New Door Books, 2020).
1. How does your writing navigate truth? What is the relationship between truth and fiction?
We are of two apparently conflicting minds in regard to fiction: that it’s “made-up” (and this is what separates it from something “real” like nonfiction) and that, conversely, it’s a search for a deeper “truth” (as all art is). Both of these conceptions are trope, a little overweening, and silly. The best fiction transforms ineffable reality, which hides so much and mutes so much, into a window on the human experience—a clear window, a foggy window, a broken window; it all depends on the writer’s intent. The work of fiction then becomes a medium for understanding, for thinking and feeling, for turning inward or outward, for an expansion of consciousness. Perhaps the reader then becomes more open to truths. I’ll talk at more length on this in answering your question about the last thing I read, the novel Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor.
I write nonfiction, essay, history, and criticism (in addition to novels). These various modes of thinking and writing converge for me in fiction, probably because as a format it’s the most open, flexible, and expandable. My second novel, Everything is Borrowed, for example, is an essay on time and memory. It contains the specific history of an immigrant who really lived in my neighborhood (even including the information from his death certificate); it’s an exploration of self and the creative process, the lines we draw and erase across time and space. Thus, it’s an urge toward some particular truths and universal experiences even as it presents other characters, including the contemporary protagonist, who are invented.
Imagination is an ally of consciousness, which is a pathway to truth, I suppose I want to say—not its opposite. César Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter—gosh, another New Directions title!—is about the keenest example of this I can think of. An essay on experience, authenticity, and art in the form of a conceptual novel that is also historical fiction. A transformation of known reality into something to think with and interrogate toward greater consciousness. A vessel for dazzling imagery.
“The best fiction transforms ineffable reality, which hides so much and mutes so much, into a window on the human experience—a clear window, a foggy window, a broken window; it all depends on the writer’s intent. The work of fiction then becomes a medium for understanding, for thinking and feeling, for turning inward or outward, for an expansion of consciousness.”
2. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
I am kind of dogged and rarely blocked. That’s at the mechanical level: I write from top to bottom, beginning to end, harassing the first paragraph until it relents. Until the fist unclenches into an open hand. I work from pages of haphazard and ugly notes, relying on my capacity to remember what something looked like on the page in order to find it when needed. I write from dazzling earliest waking sentences, or last ones before sleep, unreliably transcribed, scribbled. I write from reading, thinking, steeping, pushing ideas and images away, suppressing them further until they can’t take it anymore. I write from signs and symbols, footsteps, from then and now—the past to me is a dazzling sea, if only I can fit my scuba mask and see it clearer—from now to then, to be more precise. The now is why I call out to then, I mean to say. Why I need the past is because the present is only at the surface.
I write, plain and simple, because I read and I can’t just sit and listen. I guess the momentum comes from just trying to keep up. And if I’m not working on my next book, which might be the one—you can’t escape this kind of thinking, you know—I should just stop now. Because I am working toward something. What is it? Transcendence? (For me, it’s never perfection.) OK, I write against death.
3. What is one book or piece of writing you love that readers might now know?
One book? Can I offer four (please?). We should celebrate possibility. But I’ll be brief. Oldest to newest: Hill by Jean Giono, translated by Paul Eprile. The 20th century proto-environmentalist’s debut is a work of raw, bitter, and wily prose, as Giono takes human beings out of their skins. Time of the Doves by Mercè Rodoreda, translated by David Rosenthal. The great Catalan fabulist’s masterful novel of the Spanish Civil War, of innocence and famine, is about how a person marks and is marked by her city. This is one of the great European works of the 20th century, yet is overlooked—but a Rodoreda revival is on, thanks to Open Letter Books (in an essay on Clarice Lispector’s The Besieged City, I trace what must be a connection between the two writers’ works).
A Time for Everything by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated by James Anderson. I never have gotten into his Struggle—I just don’t care, sorry—but this completely overlooked novel is a magical, time-and-literature-transporting vision, and though rendered in the most distilled prose, it demands everything of the reader. (It’s even listed under “spiritual fiction.”) Andrés Neuman’s Traveler of the Century, translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia. Neuman’s unreal world emits an unrelenting bittersweetness that produces in the reader a total sense of yearning—and yearning perhaps is what we need right now as we just escaped 2020.
“I write from reading, thinking, steeping, pushing ideas and images away, suppressing them further until they can’t take it anymore. I write from signs and symbols, footsteps, from then and now—the past to me is a dazzling sea, if only I can fit my scuba mask and see it clearer—from now to then, to be more precise. The now is why I call out to then, I mean to say. Why I need the past is because the present is only at the surface.”
4. How can writers affect resistance to movements?
I take this question to mean: How can writers use their talent, skill, and awareness to build resistance movements against fascism, illiberalism, exploitation, injustice, and destruction of life? A simple answer might be to write, to dig deeper into hidden truths, to reveal the stakes and frame the questions. Given the complexity-erasing nature of social media—especially Twitter—we might add to that: Think fully and in public, demonstrate the possibility of contradiction, think against the grain. Denounce untruth. Amanda Marcotte, a writer for Salon, does this so well, by seizing on the counterintuitive while also revealing essential truths in a way that’s free of doctrine.
But we writers have even more to do because by nature, our work is public—our work is meant to move minds and hearts. And nothing is neutral. Untruth is a vicious force (see below), and we need more than attention to what we say and write. When the basis for illiberalism is untruth and conspiracy generated and amplified by massive media forces and even governments, we need to organize, as so many of us did for Writers Resist in 2016, calling upon an ancient history of protest texts, and then again with Writers Against Trump. PEN America’s role is vital, especially given the need for unity behind basic principles and ideals. As writers uniquely capable of recognizing and reaffirming pluralism of all kinds, we are also capable of clarifying our values. This was the goal of the post-Writers Resist volume I co-edited with novelist Stephanie Feldman, Who Will Speak for America? That is the implicit question we writers must always ask in a society of radical inclusion.
5. What is the last book you read? What are you reading next?
I just finished Hurricane Season, a novel by the Mexican writer Fernanda Melchor (translated into English by Sophie Hughes). This is the best work of fiction I read in 2020—a brilliant, pained, elastic unraveling of the human heart. Melchor, in Hughes’s agile translation, delivers the voices of her characters—every one of them despairing through violence and repression—and the violence of self-suppression, contemporary Mexico twisted in so many knots of fear, poverty, and anguish. There is no beauty here, hardly, and no relenting of suffering, and yet when the slender book ended, I felt abandoned.
I am a great believer in letting characters speak for themselves, a la As I Lay Dying, and have written in this form most globally in The Year of the Return. What happens in Hurricane Season—Temporada de huracanes in the original, published in 2016—because of it, is a flowering of consciousness in the reader, and that’s a thing to celebrate. Next, for the prospect of a film project, I am about to read Frederick Douglass and Ireland, a two-volume set of Douglass’s own writing from his transformative mid-century journey, edited by the scholar Christine Kinealy. “I am not only an American slave, but a man, and as such, am bound to use my powers for the welfare of the whole human brotherhood,” Douglass wrote in 1846, from Ireland. “I am not going through this land with my eyes shut, ears stopped, or heart steeled.”
“We writers have even more to do because by nature, our work is public—our work is meant to move minds and hearts. And nothing is neutral. Untruth is a vicious force, and we need more than attention to what we say and write. When the basis for illiberalism is untruth and conspiracy generated and amplified by massive media forces and even governments, we need to organize.”
6. What do you consider to be the biggest threat to free expression today? Have there been times when your right to free expression has been challenged?
Untruth and conspiracy theories are the biggest threats to free expression in the United States today because they shatter the possibility of a shared understanding of reality. The shattering, even with the defeat of Trump, means that those who speak truth cannot be universally understood—in fact, they will be deliberately misunderstood, misrepresented, and made into the target of hatred and contempt. We as a society will be increasingly vulnerable to political sabotage and fascism. And our lives, during a pandemic and beyond, made to be at stake.
The threat to free expression, thus, is in some sense the exploitation of the notion of the right to free expression by those with nefarious aims, or whose aims really have nothing to do with speech itself. This is the case with right-wing legal cases that seek to undermine democratic rules. The exploitation of the right of free expression in Citizens United, for example, is an act of cynical harm to all of us, as it amplifies the power of some interests over others—in the context of dealing with eco-crisis, the subject of my new book, this is devastating—and I would argue has the effect of limiting or chilling the freedom of expression of people without billions of dollars to spend on political speech. This is one of the great acts of repression cloaked in “rights,” and we may never be able to overcome the consequences, given the makeup of the court.
7. What was one of the most surprising things you learned in writing your new book, To Reach the Spring: From Complicity to Consciousness in the Age of Eco-Crisis?
The most surprising thing is how hard it is to ascertain, with any kind of clarity, the moral dimensions of human behavior, contingent as almost all behaviors are on external forces: vast and distant churns of time and history. Yet, we desire to put everything on the shoulders of the individual, because after all we are moral beings in a society that values the concept of choice almost above all else. This is the impossible tension I wrestle with in To Reach Spring—that between complicity and contingency, we are all connected in a global human slow-motion catastrophe that will make COVID-19 look like a fun day in the park. This tension is in large part why we are paralyzed in the face of that catastrophe—in fact, since fully understanding the consequences of our collective actions, we’ve only made them much worse—and why when we do try to think about what we might do, we default to minor changes in behavior rather than organizing for radical political and societal change.
8. To Reach the Spring draws on work from the likes of Italo Calvino and Forough Farrokhzad. It quotes James Baldwin and William Faulkner. What’s a piece of art (literary or not) that moves you and mobilizes your work?
Oh gosh, the entire A Love Supreme album (1965) by John Coltrane. Sends me out of mind and out of body.
9. The book examines the global response to medieval events such as the bubonic plague and the more recent pandemic that is COVID-19. What can we learn from our responses—or lack thereof—to these devastating occurrences that can be applied to the climate crisis?
In the book, I look at the bubonic plague—which killed around 60 percent of the human population of Europe beginning in 1346—as a means to understand the dimensions and possibility of collective melancholy in the face of overpowering destruction. Melancholy can lead to the capacity to grieve for what has been lost to the ecological crisis and what will be lost—the creatures, landscapes, human cultures, etc.—and grief can lead us to see more clearly what exactly it is we’re experiencing in our time, what I call an age of loss.
“What we take the question to mean—what is a human life worth?—can be challenged and changed. For all life and lives are connected. As biologists are increasingly coming to understand, beings spawn, grow, evolve, and adapt together in complicated webs of life and not—as we like to imagine—as discrete individuals. We are at stake to one another. Let us, then, reconfigure our approach to the question, ‘What is life worth?’ For what do we mean by life?”
Our present-day experience with COVID has some other lessons, in my analysis. The first, as I discuss in the book’s preface, is that our calculus on whose life could or should be put at risk (see next question) so that the economy can function as normal—assuming the validity of an either/or, a framework devised by those opposed to public health measures—puts in sharp relief the paradigm of the global capitalist/extraction economy, which implicitly puts certain human and non-human lives at risk for the benefit other humans. So, choices we’re making during the COVID pandemic help us to see what we’re doing in terms of the environment. That is, what offends us today when someone says we should sacrifice old people or vulnerable people to keep the country open is exactly what we’re always doing, every day, under the demands of global capital.
The second is that COVID has elevated the scientist in the eyes of many (though not all); we are implored to listen to science and act accordingly. This begs the question: If this is true for COVID, why not climate? And because it’s true for COVID, now we understand how listening to science and abiding by its dictates could work for climate. Third, COVID—in large but uneven measure—has demonstrated that collective action, with each of us at stake to one another, along with political leadership, can make a meaningful impact on health and well-being. We can do it!
10. In the book, you highlight our complicity and potential for apathy, going on to write, “Not facing known and well-understood acts of destruction may be the moral failure of our time.” I turn one of your opening questions back to you. In face of the climate crisis, what is life worth?
Very clearly, we’ve allowed the market, the system of global capitalism, to establish the metrics for answering this question. But it doesn’t have to be that way, does it? And furthermore, what we take the question to mean—what is a human life worth?—can be challenged and changed. For all life and lives are connected. As biologists are increasingly coming to understand, beings spawn, grow, evolve, and adapt together in complicated webs of life and not—as we like to imagine—as discrete individuals. We are at stake to one another. Let us, then, reconfigure our approach to the question, “What is life worth?” For what do we mean by life?
Nathaniel Popkin is the author of seven books including To Reach The Spring: From Complicity to Consciousness in the Age of Eco-Crisis, and is the co-editor of the anthology Who Will Speak for America? Popkin co-founded the web magazine Hidden City Daily and helped pilot the Valley of the Possible, a research program and residency in southern Chile. His essays and works of criticism have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Kenyon Review, Literary Hub, Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts, Tablet Magazine, and Public Books.