The PEN Ten with Ian Bassingthwaighte
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week PEN America Public Programs Coordinator Lily Philpott speaks to Ian Bassingthwaighte, author of Live from Cairo (Scribner, 2017), a Kirkus Best Book of the Year and 2018 PEN/Hemingway finalist.
1. How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as “the writer’s identity”?
Identity doesn’t just affect what or how people write, but if they are able to pursue writing as a profession. Writing, for most of us, offers few material rewards. Writers know this. Parents of writers know this, to their dismay. The question is whether one can afford to take the risk. It would be an injustice to pretend this issue isn’t inextricably linked to economic and racial inequity.
As to my own identity: I am white. I am male. I am solvent. I have always felt inspired to write, but will forever bear in mind that this is no more important than having the resources necessary to actually sit down and dedicate years of my life to the faint chance of getting published.
All the above being said, I think I can finally answer the question. Everything I write is informed by who I am. My stories start with things I know or have experienced. A seed, if you will, of autobiography. That seed is watered by things I don’t know or am mystified by. A well of curiosity from which I draw my bucket.
There is no escaping where I was born, where I’ve lived, who I’ve met, or the opinions I’ve formed over the course of my travels. There is no escaping my cynicism or, bubbling beneath that, my love of life and want for justice. I can only write what I care about and what I seek to know. I guess that means my identity and my writing are interchangeable. One so completely bleeds into the other that each keeps the other alive.
2. In an era of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” how does your writing navigate truth? And what is the relationship between truth and fiction?
I think of truth as the concept and fiction as the example. That is what makes stories so powerful. They give truth the heartbeat it needs to stand up and fight back against the powers that mean to hide it amongst its doppelgängers. To navigate truth, I inform my imagination. I read. I do research. I interview people. At this point, the writing travels toward the truth of its own accord—for that is where the story lies.
3. Writers are often influenced by the words of others, building up from the foundations others have laid. Where is the line between inspiration and appropriation?
To pilfer lines or abscond with whole ideas, intact and unchanged, is not just appropriation; it’s also plagiarism. But to incorporate these same things, notifying your audience explicitly where they came from, using them to illuminate rather than prop up your work, is, in my mind, paying due respect to one’s inspirations. It depends, though, on how much you do it. If your own work leans so heavily on others that it would fall over without that support, I think you’ve got a problem.
We might also think of this issue in terms of verbs. To appropriate is to take something that doesn’t belong to you. The better storyteller observes, engages with, and, upon parting, waves fondly at their inspirations before recommending their books. This is where I suggest adding Naguib Mahfouz, Alaa Al Aswany, and Jhumpa Lahiri to any TBR pile not yet including them.
4. “Resistance” is a long-employed term that has come to mean anything from resisting tyranny, to resisting societal norms, to resisting negative urges and bad habits, and so much more. It there anything you are resisting right now? Is your writing involved in that act of resistance?
I resist ambivalence. My privileges insulate me from—and this is just one of many examples—the terrors of the Trump Administration. I don’t personally live in fear that the visa lottery will be eliminated. Or that ICE will show up at my door and take one of my parents. But I’ll be damned if I don’t wake up every day mad as hell about it. And I’ll be damned if I don’t add all my words to the chorus of writers fighting for a more just, informed world.
5. 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?
If not Trump the man, then the beliefs that got him elected. But let’s not kid ourselves. These beliefs are imbued in our culture and have been for a long time.
6. What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
I think all writing is daring and admire anyone who is doing it. As far as career choices go, it’s on the precarious end of the spectrum. Though I have a hard time calling any of my work more daring than the rest; in part, because everything I write comes from the same pool of curiosity and anger. All of it is of vital importance to me. I feel compelled to write it. Can something be daring if it’s not really a choice?
7. Have you ever written something you wish you could take back? What was your course of action?
All the time. I think because I write to learn about the world, rather than to convey something I presume to know about it. So much of my revision process is “taking back” what I’ve written. That is, not just fixing the sentences or refining the plot; it is finding where I have failed to be generous, where I have failed to do the necessary research, where I have failed to understand or give depth to characters who are unlike me. “Do it again,” I tell myself as many times as it takes. So far, this process has served me well. Nothing has escaped into the world that I am embarrassed or ashamed by. But yes, it has been written.
8. Post, stalk, or shun: What is your relationship to social media as a writer?
Strained. I have a hard time engaging on social media in a substantial way. I find it makes me feel farther away from people. The one thing I love about it is seeing my friends or other writers sharing their lives, their successes. I love posting celebratory GIFs. There’s one of a tiny gnome knitting a heart that proceeds to float away. It’s one of my favorites.
9. You’re also a photographer for fun, according to your Twitter bio. The photographs you showcase on your website capture compelling moments and spaces, similar to the way your writing and your novel capture powerful experiences. What is it that compels you as an artist?
I am a photographer for fun, although fun isn’t the only reason. It helps me overcome some unfortunate personality traits. Impatience. Distractibility. Whereas it may take months or years for a piece of writing to become a piece of art, photography provides the instant gratification my brain craves. I can feel it happening as I press the button. A photo made; a moment captured. This keeps me alive while the longer works suffer through years of creation.
10. As a 2009 Fulbright Scholar, you worked at a legal aid nonprofit in Cairo where you took interviews and were in direct contact with refugees. How did your time in Egypt transform your understanding of the refugee experience and what elements of this newfound understanding did you incorporate in Live from Cairo?
It was the kind of experience no amount of reading or research could replace. It gave me more than knowledge. It gave me anger. It gave me sorrow. These are part burdens and part gifts. The experience is at the heart of Live from Cairo. It may well be at the heart of everything I ever write.