The PEN Ten with Terese Svoboda
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series curated by Lauren Cerand. This week Lauren talks with Terese Svoboda, the author of five volumes of poetry and four novels, including Tin God; a collection of short stories, Trailer Girl and Other Stories; and a nonfiction book, Black Glasses like Clark Kent: A GI’s Secret from Postwar Japan, winner of the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
When my brother complained about lack of coverage in the family newspaper. Power!
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
Song of the Shank by Jeff Allen. Okay, so it took him ten years to write. I’ll take just a few pages.
Where is your favorite place to write?
A hole in space—really anywhere I can’t mind the house or phone or Net. An island in Greece.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
I was picked up once for hitchhiking, and the officer said they were looking for someone with a mark on their breast so I had to raise my shirt. Ahem.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
Currently the radical modernist poet Lola Ridge whose unrelenting press for freedom in every aspect of her life inspired me to write her biography. The other obsession is South Sudan. I translated the songs of the Nuer who are now embroiled in a bitter civil war for the world’s newest—and poorest—country. My coffee table edition of the songs was delivered to the vice president the week he went into hiding. Since song is so powerful in Africa, I fear that some of the more rabble-rousing translations might have sparked the rebellion. I don’t flatter myself—they aren’t my songs.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
Black Glasses Like Clark Kent, a memoir that revealed that the U.S. executed black soldiers in postwar Japan. No one in power paid much attention to it, but my uncle, who started me on the story, committed suicide, and his family has not forgiven me for writing about his part as an MP.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
Thought is only accomplished alone. A hive of thought is preferable to the drone. No drones.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. At first I thought One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, but then I thought they’re a sadistic lot, those leaders, they’d enjoy it.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
The firing line.