INTERVIEW: Two Men and a Blog about Penumbras

In the new and interesting blogs department, writers Nate Haken and Ben Drinen, longtime friends, collaborators, and wanderers, have started a blog of their work, The Names of Places—Penumbras of Indra’s Knots, described by Haken as “encounters with refugees, Rastafarians, cops, criminals, bums, doctors, pygmies, and diplomats: all living more or less between 3-47 deg. N; and between 11 deg. E-112 deg. W.” In between gigs Jen Michalski caught up with Nate to clarify a few things, including where the heck 3-47 deg. N; and between 11 deg. E-112 deg. W is on the map:

Jen Michalski: The blog title itself is pretty meaty—taken somewhat literally, “Penumbras of Indra’s Knots” seems to suggest to me “the shadow of emptiness.” Is that about right, and how you—or the reader—might approach it, a blog about the “empty shadows” of society?

Nate Haken: Ha! “Meaty” is one way of putting it. I asked Ben what penumbra meant and he said “in a partial eclipse it’s the glow around the earth’s shadow that lets you know that the moon is still there which lets you know that the sun is still burning.” He went on to say incoherently, “So I’m looking at it like the separation of people and all the fear of strangers and whatnot is the shadow of the earth and the outgrowth of karma but that the brief wonderful horrible interactions between strangers is the fucking glow. So you know that the net is still there, and you know that the Buddhanature diamond knots are still there, because every once in a while funny shit happens between two strangers with nothing and therefore everything in common. Weren’t you even listening to my sermon at your wedding?” He added that last bit because he preached at my wedding and must have said something about that in the sermon. I should go back and watch the video. Maybe I’d learn something. Anyway, does that make any sense at all? No it doesn’t, right? Indra’s web is a metaphor illustrating how everything is interpenetrated, as described in the Avatamsaka Sutra. (No I haven’t read the whole thing. Maybe Ben has. He probably has. I’ll ask him.) So putting the two images together makes for a bit of a twist on Plato’s cave. While Plato dismays us with the depressing notion that phenomenal reality is just a shadow of a deeper, colder, static Reality, we’re saying that the unexpected interactions between strangers bring forth the glow of the interconnectedness of all things. Or something like that. Geez. Maybe I’m just confusing myself. Bet you wish you didn’t ask. Ask Ben. Really we were just looking for something cool to call it, preferably something that might come up in a Google search. Maybe we should have called it Blood Libel.

JM: Hmm, I think Sarah Palin may have beaten you to it. But The Names of Places is pretty cool. It refers to a book you coauthored with blog coauthor Ben Drinen. Are those stories also here on the site, or is this a sequel?

NH: A number of those stories were published in anthologies and journals, both print and online. There are links to some of the online publications on the right hand side of the blog. The stories in the book are a bit more fleshed out than the blog posts. Really, the blog is just a place for the little anecdotes, observations, and recollections of encounters that occur to us every day. So the blog is not really a sequel, but more of a supplement to the book. In some ways, the blog format is more amenable to what we wanted to write from the beginning. Though I think over the years, we’ve both come to love what you can do with fiction, too.

JM: What inspired you to collaborate again?

NH: We’ve been collaborating for years. Ben and I disagree about how it all started. He says it started in his brother Paul’s piece of shit brown Toyota when he was driving back to Oak Park from Wheaton and we just picked up his brother from Loyola, and I was turned around playing guitar and he was bitching about something. And then I said, “Hey fucker, do you want to write a book or not?” And then he said “of course I do.” Then two weeks later he wanted to move to Hawaii with his friend, Keith. And I said “Hawaii sucks, let’s go to the Caribbean and get boat jobs to Africa.” So he blames me. But I say it was his fault. I say that one day, out of the blue, he called me up and said, let’s go to the Caribbean and try to hitch a ride on a boat to Africa. He figured I’d say okay because I was born in Nigeria. He also knew I was probably having girl problems and would be happy to hit the road. Hitting the road is what I tended to do in those sorts of situations. I said okay and used up half my savings to buy a one-way ticket to St. Thomas. We never did make it to Africa. But after a lot of miles hitching rides and doing odd jobs like working on a pig farm and on a tugboat, sleeping in vacant lots and on the sides of highways, we ended up back where we started, this time with wives and kids and jobs. Last summer, Ben and I got into a Nissan Sentra and drove all the way down to Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, and Texas revisiting all the vacant lots and pig farms and tugboats we passed through 10 years before. It was the weirdest thing, seeing those places again from this side of it all. We even ran into a homeless guy in a vacant lot outside of San Antonio who remembered us like it was yesterday. It was a weird, sentimental reunion. He showed us the pile of tires we heaved into a heap 10 years ago. We’d piled them up after they were strewn across the brush in a flood. The pile of tires is still there today. Amazing. It’s a huge pile.

JM: What is the driving idea behind the blog, ie, publicity for your work, or is it more of a diary, a place to chronicle the numerous strange people and places you encounter? Are you finding connections between these disparate peoples and situations? What kind?

NH: Yeah, the connections are what it’s all about. It seems like most of the anecdotes end up being about strangers desperate to bless one another or to receive blessing, which they do awkwardly and uncomfortably, whether it’s a Rastafarian gardener in a basement ranting about the differences between things, or children after a bar fight in post-war Guatemala City, a delusional Jesus in a Chicago bookstore, or bigoted, small-town cops giving a couple of hitchhikers a ride to the next town. These kinds of pathetic benedictions happen every day.

JM: Do you find yourself drawn to refugees, Rastafarians, and cops, or are they drawn to you?

NH: Ha!

JM: Your work has always navigated the danger of the unknown when an individual navigates society, ie,Paul Bowles. Obviously, this is a situation you’re familiar with as a member of a nongovernmental organization. I know you’ve traveled to South America and Africa—what is the craziest penumbras of Indra’s knots have you been tangled up in?

NH: First I should say, I love Paul Bowles. But his writing is more about the inevitability of entropy. Ben and I write about the same types of subterranean violence and conflict. But in our world, there’s a negentropic force at work whereby violence doesn’t always overwhelm the individual. In fact, miraculously, it often doesn’t. A lot of times for me, chaos not bubbling over is the crescendo of the story, because it’s so unexpected. You sense it under the surface and then it kind of recedes. I guess that doesn’t make for good literature, but it sure is interesting, to me anyway. So, to answer your question: I was once robbed by a deaf-mute with a spear-gun and duck fins on his feet in San Pedro, Guatemala. Hitchhiking in Tennessee, I rode six hundred miles with an epileptic prophet who had seizure while driving 75 mph down the highway late one night in the middle of his visions and revelations. My wife and I were mugged by a gang of thugs at the edge of a cliff in the slums of Lima, Peru. As a teenager, I once accidentally started a small riot in a remote logging town at the Cameroon/Central African Republic border, due to my cultural insensitivity on the issue of nudity. While hiking in the Cameroonian rainforest with Baka pygmy guides, I stumbled upon a family of gorillas who barked ferociously and beat their chests. I stood paralyzed with my machete while our guides chased them off with spears and hatchets. Later, in the middle of the night, our guides chased a forest buffalo away from our campsite, splashing and snorting in the swamp, the flashlight beam bobbing around in the dark. A homeless man once gave me money to buy cigarettes. Ben’s got crazier knots than me, I can tell you. You should ask him about them sometime.

JM: I will! Or, at least, I hope we can read about it on the blog! You also moonlight as a musician named Bub—who are Bub’s musical influences?

NH: Probably the normal influences. But I can tell you that my favorite right now is Manu Chao. That guy is incredible. If I could do with writing what he does with music, I’d consider myself a genius.

JM: Excuse my ignorance of geography, but what territory does 3 – 47 deg. N; and between 11 deg. E – 112 deg. W encompass? Or should I keep following the blog to find out?

NH: Keep following!

JM: If the “other” is Rastafarians, cops, diplomats, and bums, what are you and Ben?

NH: That’s the thing about penumbras and interpenetration…

Check out new posts on “The Names of Places” each week Wednesday and Saturday.

3 responses to “INTERVIEW: Two Men and a Blog about Penumbras

  1. I am an Iranian refugee in the United States and I know Nate.
    He spent a lot of time to understand me and my life story when my English was worse than now, but I wish to spend time with him in Iran.
    I am sure he will make a different picture for the people of America from Iran!
    His insights is honestly, realistic, and highly respected!


  2. I’ve really enjoyed hearing Nate’s stories over the years of his daring hitch-hiking trips back and forth across North America. Nate and another friend inspired me to learn Spanish, which I did by working and living with friends from Oaxaca, Mexico who were living in a small town in Virginia. Nate’s a great guy and I hope our paths cross many times in the future. His new blog rocks!


  3. Hey Nate,
    I’m alright with all that penumbra jumbra stuff, as long as total strangers can include wife and lover over the years, children, family, and life-long friends. Your blog is awesome.


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