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Yiyun Li on the ‘Anti-memoir’

Yiyun Li, author of Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, on the sheer messiness of life, the irrelevance of ‘I’, and why brutal honesty is often the truest way to capture the people we love the most

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Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li is a Chinese American writer. Her first collection of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the 2005 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. A second collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, and a novel, The Vagrants, followed. In 2010, she became a MacArthur Fellow. She is an editor of Brooklyn-based literary magazine, A Public Space.

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Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li is a Chinese American writer. Her first collection of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the 2005 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. A second collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, and a novel, The Vagrants, followed. In 2010, she became a MacArthur Fellow. She is an editor of Brooklyn-based literary magazine, A Public Space.

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I suggested ‘anti-memoirs’ as your theme because I saw it used in connection with your new book, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. It makes me think of André Malraux’s Antimémoires, from 1967, where he begins by asking, “What is a man? A miserable little pile of secrets.’ What does anti-memoir mean to you?

There are certain things people expect from reading a memoir and those often are not the same things I expect when I read an anti-memoir. I’m making a general statement here, but I think readers – perhaps especially in America – tend to expect a narrative arc, which to me is quite a vague term for something which goes more or less smoothly from A to B. And on the way from A to B you have – and, again, I’m generalizing – to find something new. There has to be some element of change; there has to be a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ – an epiphany. But to me, all these things are artificial. Life is lived in a much messier way. Our experience of life is messier than an arc with a before and after. I hesitate to call my book a memoir because it doesn’t fit that mould.

“ If you write without questioning your own life, without questioning your ‘I’, your book is not going to be one we can trust ”

Anti-memoirs are books that – to borrow a phrase from Crabcakes by James Alan McPherson – work to ‘de-self’ the writer. Anti-memoirs, for me, are about de-selfing. You have to take yourself out of it, while still writing about things you’re concerned with and want to write about. So in the end, an anti-memoir is not really about the author – it’s more about the reader. The reader isn’t going to read these books and think to herself ‘Oh, this is a great narrative’. Rather, she’ll say ‘That’s something I’ve thought, too’, or ‘That’s how I feel’. That’s what I find in the books I’ve chosen.

Marco Roth has a good definition for the anti-memoir: ‘Is it possible to write a memoir about how you mistook your own life,’ he asks, ‘about what you didn’t yet know or failed to see, and when you didn’t know it? About how your character and judgments were formed and how you came to unlearn that first and not always painful formation?’ It seems similar to McPherson’s ‘de-selfing.’

That’s a very good way of putting it.

There’s a constant refrain in your own book: ‘Why write autobiographically?’ ‘The moment that I enters my narrative my confidence crumbles’, you say at one point.

A memoirist is always trying to connect with the reader and to make sure that the reader reads the memoir – reads the subject of the memoir, that is, the author – in the right way, on the writer’s terms. That’s what makes me hesitate to want to write a memoir or to call what I have written a memoir. I think if a writer does not set out to challenge herself in her work, her foundation is a little off.

Is that what you mean when you say, ‘One cannot be an adept writer of one’s life’? Because you’d have to start by admitting that there is no such thing as a consistent and stable ‘I’?

That’s a crucial point – if you write without questioning your own life, without questioning your ‘I’, the book that you write is not going to be one we can trust. But if you write while questioning yourself – constantly questioning that ‘I’ – that book will reflect many of the conflicts you experience. That makes it a very messy tale, much messier than a memoir with a neat arc. But, you see, you can’t pretend your life is a ‘neat’ story or even a ‘good’ story – life isn’t a good story. If you try to make it into one, you are simplifying too many things.

Let’s start with Sakhalin Island by Anton Chekhov. It’s the only work of non-fiction from a writer best known for his short stories and plays, and is more often described as a work of investigative journalism or medical anthropology. How do you see the text? In what way is it an anti-memoir?

First, I have to say that I’m a big fan of Chekhov and his short stories. But to me this book – which has been called so many things: journalism, travel-writing et cetera… – is about Chekhov going out into the world and looking at it. We see everything through Chekhov’s eyes. And there’s a lot of good storytelling in the book, and he was not hesitant to use ‘I’, but that ‘I’ is absent. The ‘I’ isn’t the point of the book – the ‘I’ doesn’t matter to Chekhov at this point. What matters to him here are the people he writes about.

“ I think if a writer does not set out to challenge herself in her work, her foundation is a little off ”

When Chekhov was writing about this journey, memoir as a genre wasn’t really what it is today. In today’s market I can imagine this book being written as a memoir, and marketed as a memoir. And that would narrow its scope so much. I’m not really interested in Chekhov’s personal story here. When you read his letters from this period you realise there are lots of personal stories involved in this trip, but what comes to the surface instead is the people he meets – like the little girl being exiled with her father, hanging on to his chain. That little detail, of the five-year-old girl, is a Chekhov story in itself. And the reason it works so well is because Chekhov’s ‘I’ is quiet; there’s an absence of Chekhov, and yet he’s present on every page. You can feel him there, watching, listening, noting, feeling for the people he meets. I think that’s what makes it an anti-memoir – it’s not a narrative about himself, it’s a narrative about what he sees and how he sees it.

And yet it’s difficult to divorce the book from what we know about the personal context. Chekhov went to the island knowing that he had the tuberculosis that had recently killed his brother, and he’s choosing to surround himself with convicts, pariahs, people who exist on the very peripheries of society, ghosts – people like Miss Ulyana who buried her own baby alive and is clearly mentally ill. It’s a very personal exploration of the extreme limits of man’s degradation, and about exile and mortality, isn’t it?

Yes, and yet still the writer did not focus on himself. For generations now – and I think it’s especially true in the present generation – we’ve been told that our stories matter most. We forget that we can give centre stage to other stories without making ourselves disappear. It’s a question of focus.

The writers I respect are generally those who choose to shed light on others, even in their memoirs.

Insofar as Chekhov does portray himself, he casts himself in the shadow of shame. The work ends on a note of self-accusation; he feels guilt and a sense of failure because he is only a chronicler, not an alleviator, of the suffering on Sakhalin.

And isn’t that great? I think to acknowledge and to accept that one’s power is limited is an essential part of being a writer. Writers in whatever genre, fiction and non-fiction, can forget to acknowledge the limits of what they can do, or of what they should do. Writers tend to try to make themselves bigger – to give themselves a bigger role in the story – but Chekhov really kept himself at true life-size. He was not diminishing himself – some writers might go to the other extreme and completely diminish themselves. But he didn’t do that either. It’s so rare that a writer can get it exactly right and exist in his or her work of non-fiction at true life-size, not too big and not too small.

I wonder how significant it is that he went back to the island a few times in his fiction. The final section of his story ‘The Murder’, 

for example, is set on Sakhalin.

I think it is very significant. And so are the letters he wrote on the trip.

They’re among his finest.

 

Yes, and they’re very different to his public writing about the journey. The letters and the fiction show that he had other things that he wanted to say about what he saw, and other ways of saying it. There were many other things to show. But Chekhov couldn’t say everything, or show everything, in the same book – he had to choose which things to say and where.

If you say one thing one way, you’re choosing not to say it, or something else, another way; you’re necessarily excluding, if not denying, certain aspects of the whole. So I guess Chekhov’s work on Sakhalin could never be complete. That makes me want to talk about your next book, Family Sayings (1963) by Natalia Ginzburg. She’s often described in terms of what she doesn’t say.

There’s an essay called ‘Silence’, in The Little Virtues

a collection of essays published the year before Family Sayings, in which she says that, ‘Everyone looks in his own way for something that will cure the silence, the feeling of guilt, the feeling of panic.’ They travel, get drunk, go to the cinema, make love. ‘Usually they say they are doing these things to kill time; in fact they do them to kill the silence.’ Her way of killing the silence was to write.

Absolutely, and, you know, the words matters so much to her. I really connect with that. It’s such an interesting book and when you described it just now in terms of its silences it made me think how, really, this book is about negative space. This is a book about her family and her life and yet she so rarely appears.

It’s true. You get raucous descriptions of family members – her volatile father, her eccentric mother – and friends, but she never plays a really active role in the events she chronicles. It’s almost like she’s hiding.

She is hardly ever there, on any page. There are only really two moments where, all of a sudden, she’s there, she mentions herself. One is where she says simply: ‘I got married’ to Leone Ginzburg, after courting for a while. And that’s, really, the first time we realise that there must have been a girlhood for her, a time when she was a student, growing up, learning things. But for her, the story is always about all these other people – brothers, sisters, parents, aunts and uncles. Another example comes later, when her husband is executed in prison, and she gives us just one sentence about it.

People always comment on how little she says about her husband’s torture and murder by Fascists.

And it’s not that she didn’t think about it, obviously. But I think for Ginzburg it’s about negative space – for her, withholding information is a way of communicating feelings.

This is a work of discipline, it’s all about restraint and rhythm and repetition – the family repeats certain key phrases throughout the book, for example – and these things all give a sense of continuation, of the passage of time. You don’t need the author to say ‘And I experienced it like this… and I was changed by this event and then that event’, because you feel it yourself in the way she writes. The absence of ‘I’ is clearly one of the things I find so attractive, and in the case of Ginzburg it is truly astounding.

Elsewhere, in a number of the essays in The Little Virtues, she uses the first person plural, which reminds me of a line in your book when you lament how writing in English forced you to write an ‘I’ into the work – you point out how, in Chinese, ‘one can construct a sentence with an implied subject pronoun and skip the embarrassing I, or else replace it with we.’

‘We’ is a comforting thing. And there is a history to it, too – I was talking to one of my students the other day who grew up in Iran. She said they use ‘we’ too, rather than talking in the first person. In China it’s the same – even if it’s something that only you did, you would often say ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ – partly just to have a shared responsibility, to not be singled out for anything.

Is that a political affectation?

It’s a cultural thing – in China you’re not expected to brag about what you have and haven’t done – but also, yes, from my experience it’s a political thing. People are more politically tuned, so you’re not likely to say ‘I do this’, it’s more a case of ‘We all do this’, which carries the implication that it is the correct thing to do.

“ for Ginzburg it’s about negative space – for her, withholding information is a way of communicating feelings  ”

It’s such an interesting thing to come from Chinese to English, a language in which ‘I’ is probably the most important word; it feels like people always want to use ‘I’ and stress the ‘I’ in every situation. It’s a jump for me. I don’t miss the ‘we’ because that ‘we’ is, while comforting, also a kind of dehumanising gesture, a way of hiding the self; but I don’t feel comfortable with the ‘I’ either.

You find yourself falling between two stools?

Yes, and it’s funny that you talked about Little Virtues because I was re-reading those essays and I was thinking how she probably used that ‘we’ a little differently to how I would use ‘we’. I find her ‘we’ very comforting, and you can tell she is comfortable, too; but if I used it, it would sound and feel different – the word carries so much cultural and political weight.

It’s interesting how negative she can be about the ‘we’ that is her family and friends in Family Sayings; there’s a constant note of complaint about them and their behaviour. But it has the curious effect of making her love for them all the more clear.

It’s so true, and, you know, the other day someone said to me, ‘In your book, you’ve created such an unsympathetic picture of your mother.’ That took me by surprise – it probably shouldn’t have done but it did. Often if we write about the flaws of a character – especially in memoirs, where you might have a flawed mother figure, or a whole flawed family – it’s to suggest that you, the ‘I’, are the victim of these flawed circumstances. But as I see it, the reason we can write with sometimes brutal honesty is because these people matter. For Ginzburg, too, she is so full of affection for the people around her even when, or especially when, they are in conflict. For example, when Ginzburg’s mother complains about her bad parenting, about how the children don’t have shoes on, you know that this is a true relationship between a mother and daughter; between two mothers, in fact. This is a relationship with a lot of complications and the relationship can’t be simplified into ‘good mother-daughter relationship’ and ‘bad mother-daughter relationship’. I worry sometimes that therapy language can sneak into literature, and here Ginzburg really works hard against that – there’s none of that language in Family Sayings.

Let’s move on to Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life by C.S. Lewis. Of all the anti-memoirs on your list, this one comes closest yet to Marco Roth’s definition of the genre as being about ‘how you mistook your own life, about what you didn’t yet know or failed to see.’ Roth describes the genre in terms of ‘writ[ing] your way out of’ early impressions by chronicling them. That’s very much what Lewis is doing in this book.

And yet of all the books on the list, Surprised by Joy is the one that on the surface seems to be the most straightforward memoir: it starts with ‘I was born here’ and says ‘My mother died on this day…’ and ‘I went to school here and it was like this’ et cetera et cetera… But I think, again, this book is more about thoughts than about straight experience.

He starts by telling us that this is a book about his conversion from atheism to Christianity – in fact, the friend who first lent me the book was very concerned that I wouldn’t like it because of that – but to me, that’s not really what the book is about. It’s more about a man tracing back his mind. And he was trying very hard, I think, not to use the negative space, but rather to stick to the line and follow the development of his mind and his thought.

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If you read his letters you realise how many strong personal feelings Lewis had – about his father, for example, who never visited him after he was injured in the First World War. This episode is only lightly touched in Surprised by Joy, but in the letters you can see clearly that he would never recover from the experience, from that extreme resentment. But the letters were written in the moment when he experienced strong emotions, whereas in Surprised by Joy he is looking back to a time 24 years earlier and choosing to capture only what is truly important to him then, at the time of writing. And I think what is most important to him is to look at the development of his mind. He says at one point – and I’m paraphrasing – ‘If you are 14 and you haven’t developed a good habit of thinking, you probably won’t become a thinking person.’ So you can see how important the idea is to him.

It’s a study of his search for ‘Joy’, something Lewis compares to the German idea of Sehnsucht (‘longing’), ‘that unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any satisfaction.’ Is that longing something you identify with?

He says something about how falling in love with an author is different to agreeing with an author. I would say, in this case, I agree with the author – he defines joy in a way that I can connect with. He makes several other definitions in the book that I find very helpful, too. For example, he makes the distinction between selfishness and self-centredness. A selfish person actually can give other people joy because he tends to find the best for himself, and can then give this to others; with a self-centred person, on the other hand, it’s all about their ego so they can’t see beyond themselves enough to be able to give anyone joy. Lewis redefined many such things, and, when reading him I mostly agree with his definitions. But I also question him and, through questioning him, start to find my own way of defining things.

He gives us another couple of concepts that seem pertinent to the notion of the anti-memoir: the ‘First Friend’ and the ‘Second Friend.’ The former is a simple alter ego, ‘the man who first reveals to you that you are not alone in the world by turning out (beyond hope) to share all your most secret delights. There is nothing to be overcome in making him your friend; he and you join like raindrops on a window’. The Second Friend, however, is a more interesting proposition: he ‘disagrees with you about everything’; he is ‘the anti-self’ with whom you engage in a ‘perpetual dogfight’.

I actually marked that precise passage in my reading. I think writers tend to think that the book they are writing is their friend, too, their closest friend. But sometimes the book is not a simple alter-ego. Sometimes, rather, the book is a place for the writer to disagree with oneself, to argue and debate things with oneself. That is the whole point of the anti-memoir – you’re not writing to agree with yourself, you’re not writing to advertise a good relationship between yourself and your memoir. I’m actually writing to show you, the reader, how much I disagree with myself.

“ Sometimes the book is a place for the writer to disagree with oneself, to argue and debate things with oneself. That is the whole point of the anti-memoir ”

There’s another passage I underlined in Lewis’s book, when he’s talking about how he once took a long walk in the misty countryside with a friend, and how he now finds himself remembering that old friend and their conversation from many years ago. It all comes back to him, he says, so that remembering the first walk is, in a way, enough to make him feel again. So he says: ‘True it was desire and not possession. But then what I had felt on the walk had also been desire, and only possession in so far as that kind of desire is itself desirable, it is the fullest possession we can know on earth; or rather, because the very nature of Joy makes nonsense of our common distinction between having and wanting. There, to have is to want and to want is to have.’

That to me is the centre of this book. To have is to want and to want is to have. It feels like an answer of some kind, to an unspecified question. But it’s not really an answer.

It’s more like a riddle.

Many memoirs seem to suggest they have answers to questions – the reader’s as well as the writer’s own – but Lewis’s is a non-answer. I said this to someone recently and they looked at me like they didn’t know what I was talking about! It’s hard to explain, but I guess what I’m saying is that anti-memoirs are not about offering answers, but that sometimes by offering us something like this idea, or non-answer, that ‘To have is to want and to want is to have’, it retroactively makes us – again, both reader and writer – pose a question.

I suppose that’s the reason we tend to go back again and again to books like Lewis’s – each time we feel like we’ve learnt something, or captured a nugget of wisdom, no sooner do we stop looking straight at it than it becomes lost in the mist again, and we need to start the search all over again.

Exactly– this is a book that I often return to. Every time I read it again I feel something new but it’s a feeling I can’t articulate. I cannot find the right words to respond to it.

He makes so many observations that one can absorb into one’s own experience, too: for example, that ‘The truest and most horrible claim made for modern transport is that it “annihilates space.” It does. It annihilates one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation and pilgrimage and adventure than his grandfather got from travelling ten. Of course if a man hates space and wants it to be annihilated, that is another matter. Why not creep into his coffin at once? There is little enough space there.’

That’s very funny – and also very true.

Your next two books are by writers whom you knew personally – James Alan McPherson and William Trevor – and who both died last year. It must be strange to read the autobiographical work, be it memoir or anti-memoir, of someone whose life has overlapped with yours, perhaps especially in the light of their death. How do these things change your experience of reading them?

These two writers were my mentors. It was a year of great loss. Both of them are in my own book in an essential way. They’re not on every page but they are a presence throughout. Knowing their lives a little, I read their books and I have a kind of understanding of why they’ve made certain decisions about how to approach their writing.

Both their books are labelled as ‘memoirs’, and with William Trevor’s Excursions in the Real World, the one who is taking the excursions that are ostensibly the subject of the book is the author himself. And yet if you read the book from beginning to end, you get only a few glimpses of him. A lot of the essays in the memoir are about others. It’s a little like Chekhov for me: it’s the writer watching the world, listening to the world and to the people, with sympathetic eyes and ears.

“ It’s like two worlds are colliding – the one world that is the ‘real’ world and the other that is the woman’s imagination ”

For instance, the essay about Ted Hughes’s lover, Assia Wevill – it’s almost a little gossipy, but Trevor had a good relationship with her before she died. The essay is a really fine portrait of the woman, and at no point does Trevor say ‘I had a really close friendship with this woman, and I experienced the loss of her’; many other writers would have done that, they would have made that – themselves – part of the story. But for Trevor, the person he is writing about is much more important that the person who is writing.

It’s interesting that you draw a link between Trevor and Chekhov. Both writers are best known for their short stories. Even Trevor’s title suggests that he is more at home in the fictional than in the ‘real’ – he’s only dipping into the ‘real’ world for a brief excursion. Each chapter – especially the earlier ones about his boarding school and university days in Ireland – is presented as though it were a self-contained short story in one of his collections. There seems to be little difference between the way Trevor writes about fictional and factual characters.

It’s true that in the early chapters he writes a lot about real people as though they are fictional characters – the school warden’s wife is a good example. I think he accepted that he would never know any characters – real or fictional – enough and so he felt freer. Often writers think they know, or need to know, everything about a person before they can write about him or her, but with Trevor it’s different. That chapter about the warden’s wife, a woman who on the surface is leading a tedious life but who has this secret passion for horse racing, is incredible – how it ends with this extreme thundering of hooves. It’s like two worlds are colliding – the one world that is the ‘real’ world and the other that is the woman’s imagination.

The conflict between the external world and the internal landscape of the person’s mind is exactly what Trevor does so well in his short stories. His characters are often more complex than they are seen as being by secondary characters in their own narratives – and that is exactly the same for real people with complex internal lives.

And, again, like Chekhov, at the end of Trevor’s book, even though you haven’t got a clear story of the author’s own life – we hardly know anything about the facts of it – you still come away with a good sense of who the man is. You know how he looks at the world, how he functions in it. I think that’s the closest I can come to defining ‘anti-memoir’.

Trevor described the books as the ‘bits and pieces of experience’ that were left over from his real life after he has repurposed all the ‘useful’ elements for his fiction. Most, if not all the chapters, were originally written as essays for the Daily Telegraph, the New Yorker, and elsewhere. His own description of the work makes one think of it as a collection of things swept up from the cutting floor – it’s as though he’s doing his damnedest to devalue the book, to make sure that we don’t treat the work with any of the reverence we would normally pay to the autobiographical writings of a well-respected writer.

That’s quite a Trevor-like thing to do. If you know his short stories and essays well you do see echoes between them. For instance, in the Assia Wevill essay, there’s a bit about an advertisement for a table, or a really minor detail like that, and that detail appeared in a short story Trevor published around the same time. My point is that, even if we didn’t have this book, we would still have various components of the man, and be able to guess at the sort of things he noticed and that meant something to him.

You get a real sense of the author from reading his fiction, but in Excursions – and this is why I’m so happy we do have the book – he gives us just a little bit more of himself. And I think that’s why he’s so quick to say, ‘Oh, don’t treat it so seriously.’

In Crabcakes: A memoir (1998) James Alan McPherson seems to take a similarly irreverent approach to life-writing. His is a book – indeed, he is a writer – that still doesn’t get discussed all that often.

McPherson’s story is a very interesting one – it’s a very American one. He grew up in the segregated South, in Savannah, Georgia, and I remember him telling me how, when he came to the North to work as a train porter, he sat on the bus and a white woman came on and sat down next to him. And he stood up right away and she asked him ‘What are you doing? You can sit!’ And he pointed out to me that although she thought it was that he was self-segregating, really it was just that he didn’t know how to act – he had never sat next to a white woman before and he didn’t know what to do with himself. So that’s the kind of background he came from. He faced extreme poverty, too.

Eventually, he went to Harvard to study Law but decided that he didn’t want to pursue it – I don’t think he liked the idea of litigation – and so he decided to become a writer instead. He wrote two collections of short stories, Hue and Cry (1969) and Elbow Room (1977), and then won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction – it was the first time the prize went to an African-American writer. So, historically he has been an important voice in this country. He hasn’t been forgotten but – by the general public at least – he is definitely less read and less appreciated than he should be.

It probably doesn’t help that he wasn’t particularly prolific; throughout his career, he found it difficult to reconcile writing and living. There’s a sense of that in Crabcakes, especially in the early stages, where you get an image of a man in retreat from life. ‘Life itself’, he said, had become a hostile force. ‘I sought to control its every effort at intrusion into my personal space’. He stopped straying far from his bed, where he ‘perfected my escape from life into an art.’ 

I think he struggled with things because he refused to simplify his situation and his thinking. He was not prolific, that’s true, and he sort of became a writers’ writer and a teacher of writing. He kept to himself but he was not a recluse – he was never a recluse. He was always in the community. He had all these generations of students who really respected him.

The reason I chose Crabcakes is because it really is a picture – although ‘picture’ is too light a word – of this man. It is a deeply felt book about being a writer. At one point he writes that words are insufficient – he says something like ‘I will never have the right words’. It’s so clear that he had this deep feeling – he felt something higher, something stronger than himself – and he acknowledges that he can’t express himself sufficiently to convey that. I think the book was written with all of these limitations in mind – in his career, his life, his personal situation, and the racial tensions he experienced. I think a lot of things made his life difficult and yet this book is not a book about a difficult life – it’s a book about a man, a writer, questioning himself and his own writing.

The book has more in common with C.S. Lewis’s that one might expect from two men with such different backgrounds, and writing in such different contexts. But they could almost be in conversation with each other. McPherson’s statement that, ‘If one does not have sufficient imagination to imagine something beyond the closing borders of the now . . . one will surely begin to die’, seems very much like something Lewis could have written. And McPherson undertakes a similar pilgrimage through books. What is he looking for? What is McPherson’s ‘Joy’?

 

The book’s two parts are so different but I think he finds something in the second part. There’s a moment where he’s on a train, dripping with sweat, and a Japanese women comes up to him and sits next to him and wipes his sweat with her handkerchief. That human touch was what he had spent the whole of the first part of the book running away from. He couldn’t trust human beings. A central episode in the book is how he offered a house to an old African-American couple. When he did that there was still no human touch involved; the human touch came much later, when the old lady died.

I keep thinking back to this thing he used to say: ‘I was an arrogant young man’. If you knew him, you’d know that he was the least arrogant person in the world, but I think I know why he said what he said. I think when he was a young man he had all these dreams and those dreams were dashed by reality.

“ The human touch was what he had spent the whole of the first part of the book running away from.  ”

It’s tough for me to talk about the book because it was written in the 1990s and I can only talk about it with the knowledge of the 20 years that would follow and what would happen to him – it feels a little unfair of me. But, in Crabcakes, he tries so hard to connect with all these different authors and people and cultures, partly I think because he had this idea of an ‘omni-American’, a more humane version of an American citizen. That idea – the ‘omni-American’ – was the centre of his existence. And that idea just did not work out.

So I guess I don’t know that he did manage to find his version of Lewis’s joy. When I think of him I think mostly of the pain that he lived through.

He called Crabcakes a memoir – what makes you add the prefix anti-? Is it something to do with your line in Dear Friend that, ‘He rebelled all his life against what others wanted to make him into’?

There’s a line in another essay, from when he was young, about 17, I think, in de-segregated Atlanta, and a white man came up to him and said ‘Get over to the other side of the street nigger’. McPherson was so angry and he wanted to report this racial attack to these two white policemen who tried so hard to dismiss him. In the end, McPherson and the white man and the two policemen where sitting in the police car, and McPherson kept saying that he wanted to press changes; but the man was drunk and he started crying. It was such a messy situation. And McPherson says something like, ‘in the end, nobody came out of this situation so pretty.’ In the end, he walked away.

I think he felt that he didn’t want to be a racial revolutionary – he felt there was something even higher than that. That he couldn’t reach that – that he couldn’t achieve omni-Americanism, I guess – is the limitation that he struggled with his whole life. That’s maybe also what makes him less read today – he was always trying not to be reduced, not to be pushed into being one kind of writer.

Roy Hoffman, in his New York Times review of McPherson’s book, says: ‘There is a shadow lurking behind Crabcakes – and that shadow is McPherson himself. In this memoir, the I who tells the story is far more elusive than the protagonists in his short fiction.’ Is that shadow the author’s way of resisting the idea of a complete and unified self? It seems like he’s perpetually casting doubt over whatever conclusions the reader might wish to draw about him.

Yes, and that self-doubt is essential – it’s a privileged and a disadvantage depending on how you look at it. It’s interesting how he tackles the issue of ‘I’. At one point in this book, when McPherson is writing about himself, he goes into a third-person narration. He calls himself ‘someone’. And I can’t be sure why he chose to do that – whether it’s a sign of discomfort about using ‘I’ – but I can say that it’s definitely one of the reasons I am so drawn to the book.

He was a philosopher-writer. Much of his later work was concerned with philosophy and culture and time, and concepts like those. And you start to see this interest in the second part of Crabcakes. I really don’t think you can call this book a ‘memoir’ in a conventional sense – this is a book that, if I’m feeling confused about something, I’ll pick it up and find a passage to read to see if it can clear my mind.

At the start of the interview we discussed why a writer might choose to write autobiographically – which leaves a connected question hanging. Why might readers seek out autobiographical writing? Or, as you put it in your book: ‘What do we gain from wanting to know a stranger’s life?’

I think readers – and I count myself among them – do feel drawn to autobiographical writing. The C.S. Lewis book has a line to the effect that ‘It is truly astounding when you find there’s another person like you in the world, someone who feels like you.’ And I feel deeply – and I don’t mean this pessimistically – that we always feel an inadequacy when we try to communicate with another person and try to get close to another person. Autobiographical books can be another way of getting to feel close to another person.

You also talk about ‘measurability’, the idea of being able to measure how you feel against how someone else has felt.

We always have to have a few stars in our map, otherwise we will get lost. These books are proof that someone has already experienced what we are experiencing.

Of course, on another level, I think perhaps we’re all just very nosey people. We want to know other people’s secrets and that’s why some people get upset if they read a memoir and find there aren’t enough secrets in it. They feel cheated.

Some reader are looking for that ‘miserable little pile of secrets’ André Malraux dismissed in his own anti-memoir, perhaps.

It seems to be an almost universal desire to uncover a dirty pile of secrets. That’s why I like these anti-memoirs – they work against that desire. They’re not about divulging miserable secrets: they are written with a frankness, a candidness, and they are open – they welcome talk, but not about personal details. They offer so much more than a good tale studded with sparkly bits of gossip.

 

Interview by Thea Lenarduzzi

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