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Resurrecting Literature: Sustenance for the Progressive Soul

I once again see the potential and power of literature, and hope to tell new and necessary stories. As activists, we must not lose sight of art. Here are some questions I posed to Aleksandar Hemon.
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I was living in Torino, Italy, when Bush's war on Iraq broke out, trying rather desperately to finish a collection of short stories I'd started years before. Each day, though, as the U.S. moved closer to attacking a nation that had nothing to do with 9/11, I realized that my fictional stories' relevance was draining away. They were stories started when I was a depressed reporter at Variety, or feeling frustrated as a new wife in a landscape not of my choosing, or, in the wake of my father's death. These stories were work-shopped beyond recognition at an overpriced mountain retreat for wanna-be writers, though deemed somewhat promising by a few charitable scribes at the literati's conference of choice, Bread Loaf. The problem was, however, that I no longer believed these stories had any value, so how could I expect anyone else to care?

Wanting to more immediately apply my talents and experience to some effort aimed at ridding America of its despot-in-chief, I returned to the States and a job with the activist progressive publisher, Chelsea Green. Quickly thereafter I met George Lakoff and a small band of us put out a tiny but powerful book that was said to galvanize the new progressive movement. That book led to a four-year journey through progressive circles, a fellowship at the New Politics Institute, another bestseller, and all manner of political and media reform projects.

I was just one of many of novices who turned to activism in response to Bush's war. I look back with not a small amount of awe at what's been accomplished, and am beyond happy each time I see a progressive activist or journalist on television, or see their books hitting the bestseller lists. Think of where we were four years ago, friends, with a neo-con stranglehold on all mainstream media, and progressives and Democrats assailed daily for being weak and having no ideas. Today, while there are still battles to be fought, our societal pendulum certainly seems to be swinging back toward some kind of equilibrium.

But even with these victories, I realized recently that my soul was running on empty. There was nothing left in the well, no inspiration upon which to draw. Since I was a child and until 2004, I'd always read fiction voraciously, and those stories had helped me to form and feed my individual and social conscience. Books like The Grapes of Wrath and To Kill a Mockingbird were every bit as elemental in forming my world view and sense of self and duty, as anything my parents or teachers ever taught me. But, when I'd abandoned my own fiction, I abandoned the world of literature almost entirely, except for the odd short story I might read on a plane.

In becoming an activist, I'd lost sight of art.

From an informal poll I've taken over the last couple of weeks, it seems the same has happened to many of my fellow progressive activists. Our TV screens play endless loops of talking heads, and our desks and bedsides are piled high with non-fiction profferings on the presidential horserace, the urgent policies and laws we need Congress to enact, the corporate media we must reform, the uprisings we hope to alchemize into social movements, and all manner of journalistic accounts of the tragic legacy Dubya leaves behind. But no literature.

Rather than reaching for the Xanax, I want to share with you news of a book that has resurrected my love of literature, one I hope can provide sustenance for your progressive soul as well. The book is called The Lazarus Project (Riverhead).

Lazarus was written by Aleksandar Hemon, who came to this country in 1992 from Sarajevo, intending to stay for only a few months. While he was visiting Chicago, Sarajevo came under siege --which lasted four years--and he was unable to return home. Much of his fiction deals with displacement, and being an accidental immigrant to America, cut off from what happened to his homeland.

In this latest novel, Hemon magically weaves the story of Lazarus Averbuch (a real person), who survived the pogroms against the Jews of Eastern Europe and came to America full of hope and promise in 1908, only to be killed by Chicago's Chief of Police ("because he looked to me like an anarchist"), with the present day tale of a fictional man, Vladimir Brik, who is in some ways, much like Hemon himself. Brik is an immigrant writer, with an American wife, living in Chicago and setting out to write a book about Lazarus Averbuch.

The book will sear into your mind the similar ways in which immigrants to America have been treated, then and now, in the wake of 9/11, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Hemon quotes at several points from journalistic accounts of Averbuch's death in 1908, on which the police and media collude to create a cover-up: Averbuch's supposed botched assassination attempt against the police chief. "The March 3 morning edition of the Chicago Tribune is led by William P. Miller's story. The terrible deed of yesterday morning was planned and carried out to death by a dreamlike Jewish boy whose mind was distorted with the inflammatory ideas of remedying social conditions to so-called injustices, promulgated by Emma Goldman and other leaders of 'liberal thought' in America."

Change a few words, and it could be just about any day on Fox News Channel.

Or, how about this choice bit from the assistant chief of police: "It is almost pick up a man and determine whether or not he is an anarchist. We know, however, that such men are generally half-crazy individuals of foreign descent and of considerable degeneracy. We must follow them and learn their habits form the moment they reach this country so as to preempt their atrocities." Swap "terrorist" or "illegal alien" for "anarchist" and you've got today's cable-news-fed hysteria toward any Muslim, Mexican or other dark-skinned immigrant--or citizen--in America today.

Hemon's work draws haunting parallels between the anti-anarchy hysteria and racism in 1908 Chicago, and the violent nationalism and wars of the 1990s in the Balkans, along with Bush's Iraq fiasco and America's post-9/11 xenophobia and fear. More importantly, it reaches beyond any lessons we might draw from such parallels, to make people come alive on the page, to touch our hearts and minds and help us see "others" as "us." Their hopes and desires, their emotional and intellectual complexities mirror our own.

With Lazarus dead, his sister Olga struggles to find out what really happened, to get her brother a decent burial, to save his friend--and to somehow explain the horrible events to her mother. "I am running out of life, Olga thinks. What am I going to do? What is there without life?" In the present-day vein, Brik is aching to close the chasm in understanding between himself and his wife, but cannot. "The baggage I dragged around the eastern lands contained the tortured corpses of our good intentions." As Chicago nearly erupts in media-induced, anti-anarchist hysteria, and Brik follows Lazarus's tragic path a century later through war-torn Eastern Europe (his former homeland as well), he realizes that he loved his American wife because there was no place else to go. "We were married because we did not know what else to do with each other. You never knew me, nothing about me, what died inside me, what lived invisibly."

This storytelling creates empathy on a level that no polemic or journalism can, and it helped to make me feel whole and inspired again. That's the power of literature. It fills up the well.

We've been fighting a long battle, to beat back corruption and the politics of fear in this country. It's necessary to acknowledge that the fight continues. It's also vital that we feed our individual and collective social consciences. It's time to bring some art into our mix, to help us see beyond the details of the day, to appreciate context and the big picture. To think outside our very specific boxes and agendas, to see past our differences and continue to fight the good fight together.

Let's start with The Lazarus Project. Buy it, read it, and share your thoughts with friends and family. Then, let's start telling each other about other works of literature that rock our worlds. Perhaps progressive blogs could start featuring some short stories and discussing more novels--old and new--to better remember our past, and to nurture and cherish existing and emerging artistic talent. Let's resurrect, and grow the audience for serious literature again, the way progressives have opened up the discourse and engagement with the political process in this country.

I once again see the potential and power of literature, and hope to tell new and necessary stories. As activists, we must not lose sight of art. Let's reach out to artists and publishers, and find ways to connect, cross-pollinate and collaborate. Let's all tell some new stories.

In the meantime, here are some questions I posed to Aleksandar Hemon. Take another moment...I promise you'll enjoy his sense of humor. And, if you make it to the end, I just have this to say: Page 150.

JN: How did you discover Lazarus Averbuch, and did you set out on this project with all of the political themes in mind?

AH: A friend of mine gave me the book called An Accidental Anarchist by Walter Roth and Joe Krauss. It was a straight, smart historical recounting of the Lazarus Averbuch affair, including the political fallout--the persecution of anarchists and foreigners, changes in immigration laws etc. I have deep interest in immigration and displacement, for obvious reasons, so the book was very fascinating to me. I am a history buff, because it interests me how people lived in the past and how we got to this point, whatever the point.

And history is always political, both in its form and in its content. On the one hand, what people look for and see in history is necessarily related to their politics. On the other hand, history to some extent always records the human consequences of political decisions and catastrophes, as well as the decisions and catastrophes themselves. Which is to say that I did not need to set out to do a political book. I simply knew that neither the politics of that time (and our time) nor the fallout of human suffering could be kept out of the book.

The historic photographs, and those taken for the book by Velibor Bozovic, which can all be seen on your web site, help to blur the storytelling techniques--the fiction, the history, the autobiography, and journalistic accounts. What made you realize that photographs should play prominently in The Lazarus Project?

Well, the photographs themselves. An Accidental Anarchist contained two photos of the dead Averbuch sitting in a chair--a ragged suit thrown on him, his socks torn--and, behind him, a police captain in a bowler hat, with a neatly trimmed beard, beaming with life. These are extraordinary photos and the moment I saw them I realized not only that I would have to write on Lazarus but that I would have to find a way to include these photos in the book. Then I looked for other photos related to the Averbuch affair (there is a wonderful website that contains thousands of photos from the archives of the Chicago Daily News) and found a few beautiful portraits of Lazarus's sister Olga and then I wanted her in the book too. And so it went on: I decided I would have a contemporary story line in which one of the characters would be a photographer and that also required contemporary photos. Writing is all about making successive decisions--one leads to another--and then you realize that all of them could be wrong, yet you have to keep going.

Another theme in your book relates to the corrupted power of elites and the media's willingness to play along. There's certainly a long tradition of that in this country and elsewhere, as I heard you discuss in this interview with Daniel Menaker. Frustration with corruption and lapdog media begat the progressive blogs. I wonder if you've had much opportunity to explore the progressive blogosphere, and to witness some of the community-building, reporting and activism that seek to hold government, corporations and the media more accountable. As an artist, what do you make of this new blogging frontier?

First, as a citizen, I think that blogs offer an alternative to the public space governed by mainstream media and the capital behind them. There used to be a lot more diverse opinions, more political positions, a lot more public oppositions in mainstream media--even I, who came here some 16 years ago, remember a slightly different picture. The consolidation of capital, the disappearance of small papers and other democratic outlets, formed a new, more uniform model of public space.

Take the rise in punditocracy--armies of various buffoons offer their opinions on just about everything. They do it from the position of unquestionable, unimpeachable authority. I realized not so long ago that--despite the fact that the invasion of Iraq was based on lies, that by and large the pundits lapped up the cooked-up crap served by the government and whipped up mindless patriotism--I realized that not one of those wise people resigned from their position or apologized for foolishly sending off other people's children to kill some Arabs and die in the process. Not one of them thought about their responsibility toward the public space, for they do not feel accountable to the public. Somehow, they cannot be wrong for as long as they keep talking.

The blogosphere then offers a public space independent of the media power hierarchies. But the blogosphere does not just offer access to more democracy, it also allows for shopping and porn blogs. The blog is a god-given tool for the self-obsessive. As an artist, I worry sometimes that digital technologies make people more isolated, that it pushes them into a loneliness from which they can only yell into a void.

W. H. Auden famously said, "Art makes nothing happen." Yet, I've read that Eleanor Roosevelt credited The Grapes of Wrath with helping FDR understand the need for the social welfare programs of the New Deal. On which side do you fall in the long-running argument over whether art should seek to do something to or for the world, or rather that it should exist simply for its own sake?

These are not the only two sides of the argument. For one thing, being an artist and being a citizen are not two mutually exclusive things. I can write a sonnet on the beauty of a lake in the morning and then go out and get arrested for demonstrating against the government in the afternoon. Auden was politically active and wrote some beautiful political poetry.

For as long as I've been writing fiction, I've been writing for radio, magazines, newspapers. Even now, I write a column for a magazine in Sarajevo in which I freely let go of my political opinions and try hard to incite some anger, at least in my readers. I think journalism--or at least speaking out in public place--is far more effective as political statement than fiction. It takes me six years to write a novel and I try to make it emotionally and philosophically complex. Activist journalism can be quick and to the point.

Another thing is that I believe in the agency of people, as individuals and as communities. The structure of this agency can be complex and unpredictable. People could be pushed to action by a work off art, or an article or a conversation or a bad hangover. But for this to happen there has to be a pre-existing moral, ethical, political framework which generates people's agency.

Each work of literature (and art), I believe, is an ethical statement made in public space, which then exerts ethical demands upon the reader. Ideally it helps the reader formulate his or her ethical, philosophical positions. But the agency is with the reader--after reading a book they could turn on TV and forget about it all, or go out and become activists, or descend into suicidal despair, or just hate the book because they think it is trying to teach them a lesson. Or they could be inspired to orchestrate genocide. People live their lives within their ethical and political framework. No work of art can turn a sociopath like Cheney into a decent human being.

The conventional wisdom of the Academy and other gatekeepers of American fiction today seems to be that the social novel is and should remain dead. Even in his otherwise glowing New Yorker review, James Wood took issue with Brik's "political anger." Why does the literary world so often have disdain for a writer's social conscience and political commentary appearing in fiction?

The diagnosis of the state of the social novel depends on how you define what the social novel is. The so-called 9/11 novels, which have become a genre unto itself, could be conceivably classified as social novels--they deal with some (bourgeois, middle class) social conscience and are making at least implicit political commentary. What I often find problematic with those novels is the tendency to internalize absolutely external conflicts or turn the chaos of history into conflictless aesthetical discourse. Of course, we all internalize external conflicts in various ways, we cannot experience history except individually. But history cannot be reduced to psychology, nor can historical conflicts be resolved through self-examination or self-help or aesthetics.

I've been waking up angry for the past 8 years--Iraq, lies, complacency, delusions, Abu Ghraib, greed, global warming, you name it. I do not know how to keep that anger out of my mind or my work, and I haven't really tried that hard. I am interested in the literature of anger and conflict. What interested me in working on The Lazarus Projects were the ways in which I could make anger a dimension of the character. Brik is endlessly examining himself, but that just intensifies his anger, it does not get any better. The world is an awful, cruel place and the only way to be rid of anger is to make it better, or at least bearable. Few, if any conflicts, can be, or should be, resolved in fiction.

I believe that both artists and activists are often the voices of conscience in times of political fanaticism. Do you see artists and activists as part of the same continuum? Is there a line between the two that you feel cannot be crossed, and, if so, have you ever felt compelled to cross over into activism?

I think they might be voices of consciousness in any given historical situation. I cannot remember a moment in history when any sane person could say: "Well, this world is pretty damn good. Let's sit back and enjoy it." What many artists and activists have in common is the need to engage with the world and history.

But the problem is that both "artist" and "activist" are, at best, ethically neutral terms. There are, you know, anti-abortion activists, the Nazis were the activists before they took power, as there are racist artists and writers whose books provide blueprints for various mass crimes. So I can't speak for all writers, let alone all artists.

The literature I want to write is in some ways an inherently utopian project, because it refuses to assume that this is the only way the world could be or that this is the only possible direction of history, because it does not assume a pre-existing community of readers. I fight for one reader at a time in hope that an alternative, if temporary, community could be built, in and through language--a novel is a public space in language, and language is inherently democratic.

To my mind, literature is founded upon the belief in inviolable uniqueness of individual human life, yet it cannot exist without language, which is the most democratic human invention, accessible to everyone. But I don't have a social project that I want to promote in my fiction. I would never cross the line into propaganda, I would never tell people what to think or what they should do. The only political impact I hope to generate is a need for a re-evaluation of one's own ethical framework. I hope I can help the reader imagine lives of other human beings.

There is a scene in the book in which 19-year-old Lazarus and a friend attend a lecture on literature, and the speaker also touches on unemployment, poverty and injustice. For this, they are all deemed anarchists by the powers that be. But there is the beautiful moment when Lazarus is swept up into what he believes will be his destiny--to write a meaningful book--and he is struck by the intensity of the speech. "'We need new stories, friends, we need better storytellers. We are tired of the preponderance of lies!'" Bursting with his intention to write a book, Lazarus goes to the house of the chief of police, and is then shot and killed. Is the ultimate aim of your book to show that Lazarus's destiny is resurrected and fulfilled through Brik...and through your own writing? And are you challenging others to answer the call as well?

Another thing that I hope literature can do is unforget the forgotten. History, as told by those in power, excludes the powerless. The narratives that recast history of injustice as a story of greatness exclude those who suffered the injustice--there is the history of the United States and there is the people's history of the United States. The only possible way to restore the lives vanished in history is through literature, I believe. It is a hopeless project--therefore utopian--because we cannot get the bodies back, dead people stay dead.

I suppose not forgetting is a form of activism, not trusting the artificial, non-human memory systems with storing our memories is a way to know and retain what really happened. People, not machines, should bear witness. As you know, if we were to look at the media coverage of the Iraq fiasco as historical record the picture would be entirely different from what we remember.

With all the corporate media and publishing consolidation, less and less fiction gets published and read--in the same way that we were getting less and less news and information, before blogs opened up the debate. Do you think progressive blogs and online media outlets could feature fiction, particularly short stories, to nurture more talent and expose more people to fiction--as newspapers used to do? Could they perhaps grow the audience for serious literature again, the way they have fostered greater interest and engagement in politics?

Actually, I think that there are more readers today than ever before, but they are reading fewer books and those books are more likely to be mindless entertainment or a self-help manual or a bogus memoir. The readership has been consolidated. What is known as the mid-list--the books by writers whose books are not bestsellers but who are selling relatively respectably--has been wiped out. Somehow, somewhere along the way thinking while reading became undesirable, a lot of readers started reading for comfort, not for doubt.

To me, this is at some level definitely connected with the decrease in civic agency--people are afraid to think for themselves and then voice those thoughts in a public space. There is a loss of intellectual self-confidence all across the board, for capitalism prefers a non-thinking consumer rather to a thinking citizen. The restoration of public space in blogosphere, I think, alleviates that problem. I hope it can also provide space for a resurgence of serious literature.

Finally, I have to ask: How were you affected last week by the capture of Radovan Karadžic, the Bosnian Serb wanted for war crimes...and do you think Bush and Cheney should be indicted on war crimes?

I was happy, of course, it was way overdue. But there is something very unsatisfying in the way he had just flown into a different life, a new life that was denied to the victims of his crimes. It is also that he was arrested only because he became powerless, therefore disposable. It would have been far more satisfying if he had been arrested at the peak of his powers. I would have liked to have seen him crash from his mighty heights.

And the Bush and Cheney administration has committed so many crimes that I stopped counting. The two of them are certainly indictable for war crimes and crimes against humanity, along with many a flunkey, from Rumsfeld all the way down to many a military officer. But these people, they change laws that don't fit them, human lives and communities mean nothing to them, the world is nothing to them. What do you expect from an ex-frat boy who once said: "Books are great because they often have fantastic pictures."?

When people ask me why I put photos in The Lazarus Project, I say it is in the hope President Bush would flip through my book. Its main character is not a pet goat, but there is a picture of boobs in it.

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