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The Redemptive Imagination
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Interactive Timeline, 1876 - 1999 interview Transcript Webography

Page 12345

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Roundtable Discussion

[picture of the discussion group]

Miller: One of the great works of modern history is Shelby Foote's three-volume history of the Civil War. Now Shelby's a novelist, and he feels he's got to explain that a little bit. And so in an after-word he writes this: "The point I would like to make is that the novelist and the historian are seeking the same thing: truth. Not a different truth. The same truth. Only they reach it, or try to reach it, by different routes. Whether the event took place in a world now gone to dust, or in the imagination, they both want to tell us how it was, to recreate it by their separate methods, and make it live again in the world around us."

Arthur, you wrote a novel that is amazingly detailed about a geisha girl. You remind me so much of an historian at work, you put the details together into historical patterns and generalizations; you're trying to enter into the culture. You're using history, but you're writing fiction. You're performing a kind of high-wire act there, though, aren't you? You're a white, American male writing about a completely different culture, and trying to get inside that culture.

[picture of Arthur Golden]

Golden: Well, the way I finally gave myself permission was by saying, you know, I'm not trying to write about every Japanese woman; I'm not trying to write about what happened to a particular living person; I'm trying to write about what might have happened. And people do different kinds of things. There are all sorts of possibilities.

It was a character with a very, very different background and sensibility from mine, of course. And I came to think of writing as being like a war, really like a war. And what I mean is that there were times when you're the general looking down the battlefield. And that is to say that you're making big decisions about large issues like who's going to be in the book, where's it going to go.

Then there are these sort of tactical moments, where you're the troop commander trying to take a hill. But then there are those moments where you are the guy in the trenches with the rifle. And those are the moments when something affects your character, and you have to say how it feels. And, you know, it really is a matter of just sitting there, closing your eyes, I think, and experiencing it. And that's the thing that I think fiction can do so powerfully.

[picture of Charles Johnson]

Johnson: Well I think the key is that, as a writer, you have to have tremendous empathy. You have to project yourself into the circumstances, and the world of your character. But, you know, an issue came up earlier in our conversation that you raised, that I thought was kind of interesting. Because you're doing this outside of your culture, into another, projecting yourself into another culture. The idea that comes up is can you write outside of your race, you know what I'm saying?

For the Africans in America stories, I got a chance. I could write about Frederick Douglass, but I could also write about Martha Washington, in first person. I actually don't think it's a problem. I think that with great empathy and imagination, and taking, this is what art does anyway. It takes us from over here and puts us behind his eyes, or behind her eyes. So we get to see the world from a different angle, with a different meaning, a different perspective, and finally a different truth. A truth of the world, not the truth.

Golden: And yet, we're all wedded to our own perspectives. And as Charles says, the issue for art is, can you bring in a different perspective.

Johnson: It's always a fact that what you're going to have is provisional and tentative. It is not going to be absolute, whether it's history or it's art.

Miller: A truth of the world; not the truth...

Santiago: It isn't just a bunch of data and statistics. It's real people.

Miller: Esmeralda, you said that you felt compelled to write your own story...

[picture of Esmeralda Santiago]

Santiago: Yeah, I did, because I felt like I was doing a lot of work by being in the United States. I had to learn English, I had to learn how to live in a city, I had to learn how to be in American culture. And yet, I didn't exist in its literature.

And I was a big reader, and I read a lot of books! And I wasn't there! And there was this sense I had that, if I didn't exist in the literature, I didn't exist in the society. And when I speak about "I," I'm talking about myself, and my 10 sisters and brothers, and my mother, and my children, and my nieces and nephews.

And this sense of, this invisibility is really what drove me to begin to write about my experience, because I thought it was really important for people to know that this happens in the United States. People come from other countries; people live the way we live; they struggle with these kinds of issues. And it isn't just a bunch of data and statistics. It's real people. And I wanted to become real to the rest of the United States. That sense of not existing was what drove me through that...

Miller: That's what Charles was talking about, yeah.

Johnson: Or if you do exist, you exist as a caricature or a stereotype, or something produced by the plantation school; you know, at the end of the 19th century or early 20th. You don't see the full diversity and range of a people and their lives. Because again, you know, you're talking about writing about another group, of course a group has many kinds of individuals in it, you know? And so you want that same range, as well as depth, of portrayals.

And that's one of the reasons I think novelists do in fact turn to history, because it's all there; it just hasn't been brought forward to center stage yet. You know, I find myself drifting to history repeatedly...

Miller: To know yourself?

Johnson: To know myself, and also, it isn't a personal task. This is like a covenant that I have with my ancestors. It's a covenant that I have with my children. And it's the transmission of culture, and understanding, and the lives of people who shaped this nation from 1619.

You see what I'm saying? So it's a duty in many, many ways. But it isn't an onerous duty. It's a duty that I love.

Miller: It's all here; it just hasn't been brought forward...

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