Interview with: Diane Lefer
by Jennifer Martin
What inspired you to write “How Much An Ant Can Carry”? And what are some of the key things you tell your writing students at Vermont College of The Union Institute & University when they first begin working for their MFA?
Those questions turn out to be related. As writers – that includes my students as well as myself – we have to hold onto our idealism along with a realistic view of the cultural moment we live in. Writing the best and most truthful fiction we can write has to matter to us whether the publishing industry gives a damn and whether or not we reach a wide audience. If we can’t hold onto that commitment, there’s a lot of other things we can do with our precious time on earth. Fiction writers and poets are hardly the only people negatively affected by corporate consolidation of media. I think it’s even more frustrating for journalists who have fulltime jobs where they are rarely allowed to cover issues that matter and are instead assigned to recycle trivia over and over and over. I recently heard novelist Marianne Wiggins speak and she was saying she grew up thinking that “news” told you things you didn’t know you needed to know.
Now, the marketing people look at demographics and feed us the titillating news that seems to please the most consumers. Is that what we really want? OK, I’m up on a soapbox here and should get to the point. In my frustration, I thought of the people I know from the year I spent in Oaxaca, Mexico and from several visits back. I was so inspired by these friends who, without great fanfare and with few resources, committed themselves to raising the quality of life in their own indigenous communities. I don’t want to make them sound like martyrs. My friends were (and are) human beings who had to balance their own desires for fulfillment with their social commitments, and had to do it in spite of limitations few of us in the U.S. have to face. It was especially hard, socially, on the young women. They’d leave some rural village and get an education – social, not just academic – and then they’d return home and try to make life better for people there, in a place where no one else understood or had shared their experiences. My first collection, The Circles I Move In, includes several stories set in Mexico. I was writing about Mexico all the time when I returned because life there left such a strong mark on me but also because almost every time I saw a Mexican portrayed in North American fiction, it was some awful negative stereotype. So I wanted to write about the world I had experienced. Then I stopped writing about Mexico. More Mexican and Mexican-American voices were being heard here, and they know their world better than I do. And I haven’t lived in Oaxaca in so long now, I don’t feel at all competent to tell those stories. But here I am, in Los Angeles, which is home to so many migrants from Oaxaca, and I started getting homesick for mi hogar adoptivo. At the same time, I was fretting over issues that affect me, my students, and everyone who commits time and money and energy and love to a literary journal.
Do we expect a ready-made audience, do we go looking for it, or do we take steps to create and nurture it? Will the audience ever exist if we don’t give people really good reasons to read literature and care about it? What satisfaction do we continue to find in simply doing the work? See, we live in a society that puts no value on art–unless you can make a lot of money off it. The corporate interests don’t care. Government support – the government is suspicious of art. I don’t know how it is in NY State, but here in California, most grant money–whether from government and from foundations– is so that artists can work with some underserved population. You know, get gang members to put on a play instead of being out on the street. That’s great, but there’s no recognition that art created by artists has any worth. Look, I have this friend in prison who shouldn’t be there. And I’m visiting and the other day he asks if I’ve read The Kite Runner. The novel by Khaled Hosseini.
Someone gave him a copy and he’s been passing it around to the other prisoners and Duc–who is Vietnamese– says it’s the only book that all the men, regardless of race, relate to. The themes of friendship and betrayal and violence and injustice resonate so powerfully with their own life experiences. The California prisons are notorious for racial tension and racial violence, but now, these guys meet in the yard and they’re having what amounts to a book discussion group about this novel. No one is going to tell me that has no value.
Who are some of your influences?
I grew up in New York and a lot of fiction I read about my city when I was young was about a place I didn’t recognize because it either dealt with the very rich and privileged or the utterly dispossessed. Grace Paley was a huge influence in showing it was possible to write about the world I considered “real.” And there was James Baldwin signaling me, “Hey, come over here! These are real people you can relate to!” Then I discovered the Latin American writers: Miguel Angel Asturias was probably the first. Then Gabriel García Márquez. Reading their novels also opened my eyes to episodes in U.S. foreign policy I’d known nothing about. Many North Americans read One Hundred Years of Solitude and are most affected by how magical it is.
I want to shake the book at them and say, “Güevón, this is history!” The scene in the novel where townspeople get massacred while protesting against the North American banana company? That really happened, in 1928 in a town called Ciénaga. And what’s amazing is that a U.S. company, Drummond, has built a port right there to ship out the coal they mine, and Drummond is being sued in U.S. District Court right now for having hired the paramilitaries who assassinated three union leaders in 2001. You know what Ursula says in the novel? “It’s as if the world were repeating itself.” The main difference between the senseless civil war in the novel and the senseless civil war that continues in Colombia today is that the military is being trained in the U.S. and helicopters, chemicals, weapons and ammo are being supplied by U.S. corporations paid for with U.S. tax dollars. Carlos Fuentes and Juan Rulfo probably had a lot to do with my dropping out of school and running away to Mexico. I tell you something else that’s sad.
Thirty years ago, ordinary people read Grace Paley’s stories and the Fuentes novel, The Death of Artemio Cruz, and enjoyed them and had no trouble understanding them. Now some of my students – in graduate school! – find these works too experimental and difficult to read. How did this happen? Anyway, all those writers are fine stylists, but somehow I didn’t notice. I still thought writing was just a matter of getting the story down on paper. Oscar Hijuelos and Sharon Sheehe Stark taught me to take each word and each sentence seriously.
Are there any recurring themes that you find yourself writing about a lot, and if so, what are these some of these themes?
When Russell Banks visited Vermont College, he said something to the effect that for many writers, something happens to us when we’re 17 years old that marks us and we return to it again and again. For me, it was getting caught up in the fabrications of a pathological liar. That comes back in my work–the betrayal of trust, when everything you thought solid under foot just disintegrates.
How did you feel the first time you saw one of your plays on stage? What was it like to see your words come to life?
Sometimes it’s awful! There are some directors who enforce this notion that the playwright must never ever speak to an actor. You can only speak privately to the director who then chooses (or not) to pass the thought along. So you’re silenced and you see your work entirely misinterpreted or even basic vocabulary words mispronounced night after night. On the other hand, sometimes you are simply blessed. Directors ask really good questions and bring the best out of the actors–who often on their own find these brilliant interpretations I didn’t even dream of. Actors get badmouthed a lot, so narcissistic and all that, and I can’t stand hearing that.
To me, they are among the most selfless beings, because they relinquish their own selves on stage to become vessels for someone else’s vision and words. Yeah, they get applause, but that seems small recompense for such total surrender. But I guess that’s what we do as writers–when we’re lucky enough–when we surrender to our characters and have the timeless experience of being taken out of our own egos into something big and mysterious we can’t control.
Right now I’m collaborating with an exiled Colombian theatre artist who is developing a solo show about his life. He was arrested and tortured by the military there and his younger brother was abducted, tortured, and killed. And that’s just a small part of the story. But anyway, I’ve never done anything like this before. Hector improvises scenes based on his memories and his imagination. He just throws all kinds of stuff out there. Sometimes it comes out in English, sometimes in Spanish.
Then I synthesize weeks of material, translate as necessary, and try to create a coherent script.
He reads the script and then gets back on stage and suddenly I’m watching him create something completely different and utterly amazing. He says without a text he can break, he can’t break himself open, he can’t find the breakthrough he needs. And I realized, that’s kind of what happens sometimes with my students. They have this incredible story inside that needs to come out, and I look at a draft and ask questions or make suggestions and what I love is when they don’t follow my suggestions but react to them and create something new that is completely their own. I think I’m happiest as a teacher when my part in the process becomes invisible because I’ve pushed but I haven’t imposed.
Diane Lefer’s WEBSITE