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