Radical Empathy: An Interview with Aaron Hamburger by Ruut DeMeo

Aaron Hamburger is the author of the story collection The View from Stalin’s Head (Rome Prize, the American Academy of Arts and Letters), the novel Faith for Beginners (a Lambda Literary Award nominee), and the novel Nirvana Is Here. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Crazyhorse, Tin House, Subtropics, Poets & Writers, Boulevard, and O, the Oprah Magazine. He has taught writing at Columbia University, the George Washington University, The Writer’s Center, and the Stonecoast MFA Program.

Ruut DeMeo:  After I finished Nirvana Is Here and wiped away my tears, I went to your website and clicked on some other interviews and pieces you wrote around the release of this novel. It’s definitely stirring up further conversations about sexual assault, the #metoo movement, political correctness as well as other issues, and I can see why. It’s impossible to read Ari’s story and not be moved by it. Since the publication of Nirvana is Here, how has your “author platform” evolved? Do you find yourself talking more about social activism than before? How does being an influencer in this movement effect your life as a writer?

Aaron Hamburger: So I started writing this book long before the #metoo movement emerged in the media and our culture the way it has, and was actually taking the book to market as this was beginning to take shape. At this same time, I was becoming increasingly politically active, as many of us were after the election of 2016. So I don’t know that these events necessarily influenced the writing of this book, but they definitely had an effect on the way I brought it out into the world.

As I began knocking on the doors of strangers, going canvassing in the Virginia state elections of 2017 and the midterm federal congressional elections of 2018, I thought to myself, if I’m willing to put my neck out there for some politician I’ve never met, I should be at least as vocal in talking about my personal values and my writing. I think before this political moment, I was a little more willing to let my writing speak for itself. Now I feel like I have to raise my voice too to draw people to the writing, to build a bridge to it, and after that, then the writing can speak for itself.

RD: In one essay you wrote that you’ve have been happily surprised by the reception of your novel and by how the story is touching readers. You describe how this connection with readers has been sort of like the unexpected payoff of writing about personal trauma. What encouragement would you give to a writer who is contemplating telling their story?

AH: The decision to tell one’s story is a highly personal one and I don’t encourage or discourage anyone from deciding to do it or not do it. I can only speak from my own experience as a writer.

Before I wrote this book, I feel that my writing was succeeding on a lot of levels, and yet there was this sense of withholding, a kind of protective defensive crouch which not coincidentally is related to the way that many survivors of these experiences live their lives for a long time afterward (as does the protagonist Ari in the book). In my case, I found that by letting down the defenses and letting people in, I drew my readers closer, if not in life, then definitely on the page.

RD: On that note, what are some key tactics for fictionalizing your own experiences? Can you share about the process that led to you saying, “I’m finally ready to write this experience into a novel”?

AH: The most important thing is to be willing to let go of the literal truth of one’s experience and memorializing every detail of it as if making a documentary. Fiction’s relationship to experience is inherently and necessarily abstract. You just can’t include every detail. And sometimes including every detail is actually false to the experience, because details on the page reverberate more loudly than they do in life.

I often say that when I walk down the street and I see someone smoking a cigarette, I think, oh, there’s someone smoking a cigarette. When I see a bad Hollywood movie and see someone smoking a cigarette, I think, oh, there’s the serial killer. That’s because as readers and audiences of stories we’ve become conditioned to thinking of details being there as a kind of narrative shorthand, meant to communicate larger themes or personality traits or plot movements.

Conversely, when we include details that don’t serve that function, it’s confusing to a reader who’s trying to read significance that isn’t there. This can be an especially challenging lesson to learn for a writer who’s telling a story based on a traumatic or emotionally charged personal experience. There are these conflicting desires between the aim of memorializing versus the aim of constructing a story.

In my own case, what led me to say, ok, I have to write this story now is that my writing demanded it. I could either keep spinning my wheels and tell the same kind of story over and over, with that sense of hiding, something being withheld, from that defensive crouch I mentioned earlier, or I could face head-on what I didn’t want to do for so many years.

In many ways, I wasn’t ready to tell this story, but I had to or else accept that my career and artistic practice would remain at a certain stagnant level that I was finding stifling and unsatisfying. By setting for myself the task of telling the story, I ultimately made myself ready to tell it when I’d finished it.

RD: Ari’s relationship to his art is a powerful and symbolic part of him as a protagonist. His drawings of Justin represent his most prolific work, just as that relationship was the most intense one of his life. And when Parson’s critic tells him “I’ve looked at all this work of yours and I don’t know who you are,” that was the beginning of him seriously considering coming out. I think by letting his relationship with art have such realistic ups and downs, you were showing us how layered that process of self-discovery is. When you are creating a character, do you let these traits evolve organically on the page as the scenes evolve, or do you fully develop them before you start writing? How was it with Ari – did you know everything about him before you wrote his story?

AH: Evolve organically, 100%.

Interestingly, that quote, “I don’t know who you are” is actually something I heard in a different form from a reader who knows my work well. When I first started writing this book, I did not know Ari very well, which may surprise people who suspect (correctly) that there is an autobiographical basis to the character. Many early readers were saying to me that they didn’t know Ari or understand him in early versions of the novel. I had to work hard to achieve that.

By the way, I think this is another argument to bolster the idea that when writing fiction based on autobiographical material, you have to let go of the subject that sparks and inspires the story initially and depart from it to make a better story.

So how did I get to know Ari better? One key thing that helped was research. For my new project, I’m writing a historical novel set in 1920s Cuba, and I did as much research for Nirvana Is Here as I’m doing for this one. It really helped, for example, to read books with interviews and psychological analyses of male survivors of sexual assault–whose stories are so fucking erased by our culture at large, I cannot even begin to tell you. For example, a recent New York Times article about fiction related to the #metoo movement did not include a single book or story about a male survivor. Not one. That’s a real failure of imagination there.

In any case, though I have shared many of Ari’s experiences, that did not automatically qualify me to understand them or write about them. By learning about others’ similar experiences, I learned quite a bit more about my own than I would have by simply going over my memories again and again.

RD: It’s so important to have these coming-of-age narratives from all perspectives, but there’s a scene where Ari’s high school dean sort of warns the kids against the evils of being too politically correct. Then, years later when his university faculty is meeting to determine M’s fate due to his sexual misconduct, we get a glimpse of Ari’s cynical view of “trendy” identity politics (when a self-identified bisexual and disabled art history professor is walking around with a cane she bought at Bed, Bath and Beyond). In one sense Ari’s frustration is understandable; his struggles with identity have been the source of actual suffering all his life. But at the same time, it’s those “trends” that are now putting queer stories before a wide audience, and will hopefully turn the tables on what perspectives are considered to be the “norm.” Can you share some insights from your own experience as a writer, about how those trends have affected your career – in good or bad ways?

AH: I think these issues are complicated. When the culture at large warps things one way, we sometimes have a tendency to overcorrect. It’s like in fiction workshop, when a writer is critiqued for not having enough setting, for example. In the next draft, that writer will then overload the setting as if to say, see, see, I know how to render a setting!

Now add politics to the mix, and things get ever more difficult and complicated. To me, the book is in large part about the messy and difficult business of trying to draw lines around something, in this case the business of sexuality and human desire, that is inherently squishy, shape-shifting, and rule-defying. That’s why I enjoyed writing about the rules of courtly love. It’s just one example of how we’ve been trying to draw these lines for a long time and not always doing such a great job of it.

The conclusion that Ari ultimately comes to in this book is that, yes, these are messy and thorny issues, but no, we should not shy away from confronting them and trying to sort them out, even if along the way we’ll get some things wrong. And I feel similarly about the issues you mention in your question. We can’t go on as we have before. And we won’t. Donald Trump and all that he represents is not the heralding of a new age but the last gasps of an old one that is fading away.

In my own career, I have seen some advantages to being a gay writer, and have enjoyed the support of gay readers, bookstores, organizations, etc. And I have also seen disadvantages, like when the publisher of my second novel, a story about a Jewish family who travels to Israel, didn’t believe my book should be marketed to the Jewish market because one of the main characters was gay. In my publisher’s view, a book that contained both Jewish and gay characters could not be marketed to both Jewish and gay readers simultaneously. Rather, it could only be marketed to those readers who were both Jewish and gay and no one else.

To me, this is a frustrating aspect of identity politics as they are currently practiced, the idea that, for example, as a man I’m not supposed to be interested in reading about women. When I was a kid, I remember my mom hosting a book group and they were talking about Barbara Pym, and I said, oh, who’s that? I love to read. Is she any good? And the response of the group was, oh, no, those are women’s books. Not for you.

As an adult, however, I got my revenge. I went out and read a couple of Pym books, and I’m a fan! In fact, if you scan my bookshelves now, you’ll see quite a few writers from identity backgrounds that are markedly different from mine.

At the same time, there are a lot of writers that guys are supposed to like, like Cormac McCarthy, that just leave me cold.

In my reading life, I don’t want to stay in my lane! I want to visit many lanes.

RD: Political correctness is a topic in this novel, and in the literary world, it’s closely related to #ownvoices. What do you think of #ownvoices, and of the idea that only authors who’ve had firsthand experience of marginalization should write about such experiences?

AH: I am old enough to remember when Tom Hanks, a straight actor, was awarded an Oscar for playing a gay character dying of AIDS in the movie “Philadelphia.” I feel like when straight artists explore gay experiences, they are lauded for their courage, while when gay artists cover this ground, it’s like, oh, you’re only writing for your own people from your own experience. It’s not universal enough. Ridiculous and frustrating.

Moreover, I remember when the novel Call Me By Your Name came out by straight-identifying Andre Aciman, and people in the NYC publishing world and gay readers were whispering, how could a straight guy write so convincingly about gay sex? Impossible! The guy must be a closet case. I also remember feeling some resentment that his book about gay romance got all this attention while gay writers who did the same thing were ignored.

At the same time, if I were to subscribe to the idea that only authors with firsthand experience of an identity should write about that identity, that would mean that I couldn’t enjoy Call Me By Your Name, which I do, or “Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx, who is not a gay man and wrote one of the most moving gay love stories I can think of. It would mean that I couldn’t enjoy Dancer by Colum McCann. It would also mean that we’d miss out on heroic female characters Margaret Schelgel and Mrs. Wilcox from Howards End by the male author E. M. Forster, and on and on.

So, I’m glad that we’re saying, hey, let’s not praise the “courage” of Tom Hanks playing gay or some straight writer writing a gay sex scene for example. Whoever can write a good story well, good for them, and you don’t get bonus points for not being gay and writing gay (as if the experience of same-sex desire is so alien and exotic that no one’s imagination could ever capture it—an idea I find really homophobic). In short, I want everyone to write about whatever they want to write about.

And I’m glad that we’re not buying into the false notion that a gay writer, for example, is more inherently qualified to write the gay experience. There’s a way in which being on the inside can blind you to certain subtleties of your own experience, as I found out in the early drafts of my novel as a sexual assault survivor writing about sexual assault. There were all these things I overlooked or forgot to mention because I took them for granted.

But I’m also glad that we’re saying this: before we praise Aciman for discovering the joys of gay sex or Proulx for writing so movingly about gay romance, let’s just double-check and be sure… maybe he didn’t actually discover them. Maybe there are other writers out there whom we’ve ignored for a whole host of reasons that we could and should also read and talk about.

RD: You once wrote this: “I used to fear that people would find out what had happened to me. Now that fear is gone. That source of vulnerability has now become a place of strength.” I connect that with a place in the book, when Ari asks his psychiatrist why things continue to be so hard for him, and the shrink tells him it’s because he hasn’t realized yet that there’s nothing wrong with him. Now that you have entered this sphere of deeply personal writing, how do you think it will affect your “selectiveness” of future projects?

AH: My hope is that it will draw me closer to my characters, whatever subject I’m writing about. That’s my number one goal and desire. George Saunders says the act of revision is asking oneself what can enable me to love my characters more. Notice he does not say like them, but love them. There’s a difference. It’s not necessary to want to have lunch with your protagonist in order to see them with radical empathy. And that’s what it takes not only to be a good fiction writer but also a good citizen of the planet.

RD: When Kurt Cobain dies, Ari says “I may not have been able to save Kurt, but Kurt perhaps had saved me.” This made me tear up because I believe so much in even the smallest  contribution that an artist can make to furthering the progress of human empathy. When an artist considers their gift as worthy of pursuing, honing and sharing, others are inevitably affected or changed by their offerings. What last words would you like to share about having made that choice of following your passion and taking yourself seriously as a writer?

AH: Actually, James Baldwin has a wonderful way of putting this:

“You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world… The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even but a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it.”

As artists, we will never know the full extent to which our work has affected others. But I would ask this, if you could change just one person’s life, wouldn’t it be worth it? And if that person is just you, the artist, aren’t you worth it?

Ruut DeMeo has studied music at CCBC, children’s literature at Johns Hopkins University, and creative writing at Goucher College in Baltimore, MD. In 2018, her short story and poetry were published in Fine Print Literary Magazine, and in the same year she contributed to a non-fiction memoir collection called Suominaiset Maailmalla, which was published by Otava in Finland. Ruut’s research into Nordic Folklore has been supported by the Mellon and Finlandia Foundations, and she recently won the Appelstein-Sweren Book Collecting Prize for her Kalevala-themed collection. Ruut is a recipient of the 2019 Kratz Writing Fellowship and is currently working on her first middle-grade fantasy novel.

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