May 2012

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A Conversation Between Daisy Rockwell and Lorraine Adams

Bookslut columnist Daisy Rockwell's The Little Book of Terror, a new book of paintings and essays, was published in February by Foxhead Books. Rockwell, a frequent contributor (under the name Lapata) to the blog Chapati Mystery, regularly posts her paintings to Flickr. She also Tweets under the name @shreedaisy.

The novels of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lorraine Adams, Harbor and The Room and the Chair, embrace parallel themes to those illustrated by The Little Book of Terror. Both Adams and Rockwell seek to explore subjective realities and ambiguous truths in the prosecution of the Global War on Terror, in a climate of public discourse that demands black and white rhetoric and trades in absolute certitudes. What follows is a conversation between Adams and Rockwell who recently discussed over email The Little Book of Terror, Rockwell's paintings, and GWOT.

Adams: When did you start the earliest painting in The Little Book of Terror? Which one was it, and, what prompted that painting?

Rockwell: I had painted bin Laden and Bush and other bigwigs in GWOT before, but none of those are in the book. The first painting I did was of Manan Ahmed, titled Bhayanak, which means "frightening" in Hindi. Manan was in a bad mood, and had grown a beard. He sent me a photo of himself, taken with the camera on his computer, to show me his beard, and also to demonstrate how lousy he felt. The first thing I thought when I saw it was, "Oh, he looks like a terrorist."

That fascinated me. I wondered why I had thought that, beyond the obvious answer that he was a Pakistani male with a beard. I know many people answering to that description and I don't think they look terrorists. I decided it was his expression. His face was hard; he wasn't smiling. He stared stonily at the camera. This made me think about the photos that are regularly released by the FBI to the news media of alleged terrorists. They all have this expression on their faces. The reason for this is, of course, that these photos are all mug shots or passport and visa photos, in which you are not supposed to smile. This made me realize how important it is to those prosecuting GWOT to make sure we feel that there is some reason to be fearful. The War on Terror is not just a war on terrorist organizations; it's a war against those who have the audacity to make us (Americans) feel fearful for our safety. The citizens of empire should not have to feel that way.

I decided to set about deconstructing that fear that was being fed to us. I used as my first lens ancient Indian rasa theory. Sanskrit aestheticians prescribed eight or nine possible macro-emotions that might appear in the arts. These rasas continue to this day to be part of the repertoire of classically trained Indian dancers, and traces of them can even be found in the Bombay cinema. I asked Manan to send me eight more photos in the same pose, in front of his computer. I let him interpret the rasas as he chose. I labeled each one in Hindi, with the name of the rasa. In the midst of this, he shaved off his beard, so I had to paint the beard into the remaining eight. The results can be seen in this set of paintings. As you can see, except for in Frightening and Angry, he looks like a very pleasant fellow.

Adams: Have you left academia permanently? Was there a connection between the paintings and the decision to leave?

Rockwell: Semi-permanently. I have taught a couple of classes since I left in 2006, but it no longer feels like the right place for me. I left academia generally, and more specifically my job at UC Berkeley, where I ran the Center for South Asia Studies in a kind of hybrid academic-administrator position because I was one, terribly unhappy; two, disillusioned by academic politics; and three, unable to happily write and research in the academic mode. I was never offered that holy grail, the tenure-track job, and my position had no opportunity for advancement or change. I knew I was not cut out for administration, and I didn't any longer have the energy to be a non-tenure track teacher (which means a very high teaching load for very little pay -- something I had already done for five years previously). I didn't know what I would do. I thought I would write fiction, and I did, but very few people have seen it. What I didn't intend to do was start painting again. I was brought up by artists, and I made art, drew, painted, my whole life until I entered graduate school in 1992. I didn't do anything again until I left my job in 2006. After I left, I took an etching class and weirdly began to make numerous etchings of Jinnah, and later began to paint portraits of him. After that I have not looked back. I had a backlog of visual representation inside of me from those fourteen years of doing nothing.

Adams: You mention in your author's bio on The Little Book of Terror's book flap that you emerged from academia with a mild case of depression. Why did you feel it was important to include that piece of information?

Rockwell: That's a good question. I think that my struggle to be a good academic scarred me. It is not a field in which creativity is prized or rewarded. And I tried very hard not to be creative, probably because I wanted to forge my own path away from my family. I did in fact forge my own path, but the effort definitely damaged me emotionally. On the other hand, it should be said that my artwork lacked focus when I turned away from it, and I was unclear about what I wanted to do artistically in my early twenties. Being an academic helped me develop intellectually and when I returned to art, I brought that with me. My painting is pretty intellectual, and I think in the end it has benefited from the years I spent in the salt mines. So the depression I mention out of resentment at the field of academia at large, and to draw attention to that scar, informs the direction my artwork has taken.

Adams: When in the process of making portraits did you first realize that you wanted to collect them in a book, and what prompted you to take it in that direction? 

Rockwell: It actually would not have occurred to me if the publisher, Stephen Marlowe at Foxhead Books, had not approached me and asked if I wanted to do a book with them. They are a new publishing house with very small overhead, and they were open to any project I might bring to them. I thought, "This is my opportunity to do a book exactly the way I want to do it, that would probably not be published by anyone else." I came up with this idea because I had been working on the project for so long, it had a coherence to it that I thought might work in a book.

Adams: In response to my very first question, you said, "I decided to set about deconstructing that fear that was being fed to us." If you could take one painting of a terrorist as an example, say that of bin Laden or Faisal Shahzad, could you explain how the painting deconstructs the fear that the government feeds to us?

Rockwell: Let's take Faisal Shahzad, because you have written so eloquently about him yourself. When I first read about "The Times Square Bomber," the story was being presented as incredibly alarming. The police or the FBI had just narrowly managed to avert a catastrophic terrorist attack in Times Square in the middle of the day. Then, as is often the case with these FBI stings, the story started to unravel a bit. This terrifying character they apprehended had done an inadequate job rigging the bomb, and then had made an extremely na´ve and incompetent getaway. He was not difficult to find. When he was finally in custody, supposedly the one question he kept asking was, "How did my bomb go wrong?" Hearing more about his story, I was reminded of my students when I taught for five years at Loyola. I had many students like him who came from India or Pakistan to the US at college age or a bit before, who were both excited to be here, but bewildered by their marginal status as both foreigners and Muslims. I saw the photographs of him in custody, and he seemed so bewildered and alone. Of all the paintings, this one is the most subdued in terms of colors. I wanted to paint what I saw: a lonely, sad human who had failed at this single act of bravado. The Patriot Act, and the bizarre spying on the part of the NYPD must be constantly justified by arrests such as these. If such enemies walk among us, we must be ever vigilant (and even vigilantes). I sought in this painting to question the notion that characters such as Shahzad represented what it is that we are meant to fear.

Adams: I just spent a great deal of time paging through the images of your portraits on the links you have in your answers. I come away from them with a wider understanding for the context of The Little Book of Terror. Your portraits of writers and public figures, not just terrorist, seem to me to both mystify and demystify simultaneously. The mystification comes from the super-saturating palate of the sub-continent, in particular the skin of the individuals. Very few of them have realistic skin color; instead they're violet, emerald, fuchsia, bubble gum pink, aquamarine, etc. So almost instantly this mystifying exultant color makes me understand that these images are not representative, but super-interpretative. Then, I notice that there is an effort to show these subjects in moments of privacy that are often unthreatening -- the Underpants bomber is putting on a Nike hat on a school trip, Mohamed Mahmood Alessa with his cat Tuna Princess, Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad in custody in a simple white shirt, Saddam Hussein having a dental exam, Charles Granier and Lynndie England in an affectionate closeness as if they are on holiday. It's almost as if you're saying the public iconic images of GWOT are actually hiding the more complicated realities below, realities that are both mysterious and prosaic. 

Rockwell: I like that interpretation very much! It's hard to be a critic of one's own work, so I'm very interested in the interpretation.

Adams: These works seem to me to embody the dominant contradictory nature of GWOT. So many of the terrorists arrested with great media fanfare in the last eleven years have turned out to be humdrum goofs. So the sly questions of your images are: Do we need tanks to kill mosquitos? Do we need tanks all over the world to find these wannabes? Rather than being sympathetic to terrorists, you seem to be dynamically neutral, so neutral, that their multivalent existences are suddenly obvious. Does any of what I'm saying feel right to you?

Rockwell: I'm glad you have noticed the neutrality. I don't do these portraits to judge, one way or another, and even with people that I really can't stand, like George W. Bush, I tried to find what was decent. A couple of anecdotes that have encouraged me: My publisher and friend, Stephen Marlowe, has my painting of Sarah Palin with a dead moose hanging in his law office in a small town in southern Ohio. Plenty of people come into his office are fans of Palin, and people who loathe her come in as well (I'm not sure many people feel neutral on that subject), but he says they all seem to appreciate the portrait equally. Another anecdote: at an opening for my work last summer, I had a number of paintings relating to the situation in Libya. A man came up and told me that he liked the portrait of Qaddafi, but that it was "too small." I was perplexed, but chatted with him for a while, and gradually it came out that he was an adviser to the Qaddafi family and was appalled at the toppling of their regime. In other words, he was that rare thing, a Qaddafi fan, and he was very pleased by the portrait. He just wished the scale was grander (it's six inches-by-six inches, but most of my paintings are quite small).

Adams: You studied and taught South Asian literature for fourteen years, mastering some of the world's most difficult languages and certainly among the rarest for Americans to learn. You also wrote a biography of Upendranath Ashk, a Hindi novelist who authored one hundred books and was described in the Indian Express as a bully, outsider, misfit, and antagonist. Juxtaposed against this is your family heritage -- your grandfather Norman Rockwell was anything but an outsider, in fact some (perhaps erroneously) see him as the consummate mainstream illustrator. As you've fought for your own identity, how did the terrorist attacks of 2001 contribute to your understanding that you were indeed an outsider among outsiders? And how has your fight for your own identity led you to understand how much ambiguity, a value your grandfather, academia, terrorists, and warriors against terror tend to disparage, is central to your identity?

Rockwell: There's a moment I recount at the beginning of the book, when a dean at the college where I taught asked me if I had heard of celebrations in the dorms directly after the attacks. He asked me because he saw me as an informant for the Muslim student demographic. My job was already in a precarious position, as the university, in budget crisis, sought to jettison all diversity programming. But then there's the irony of it, that I, uber-WASP Rockwell was an element of the diversity programming. But ultimately that journey away from my American heritage brought me closer to my grandfather's legacy than any amount of art school could ever have done. I am the only descendent who is a painter, the only portraitist. The journey that took me so far from my roots that it brought me back again taught me to question everything and look for shades of ambiguity around issues that are expressed with vehement certitude.

Adams:  When you consider the killing of Osama bin Laden and the killing of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in the book, you ask questions, and restrain from giving any answers as to how we should see those to extra-judicial killings. I feel the killing of bin Laden was justified and that of al-Awlaki was not, simply because as a citizen he should be entitled to a trial by his peers. How do you feel?

Rockwell: I am an unreconstructed pacifist, so to me neither is justified. This is the position of the idealist, however, and I recognize that in the real world there's a lot of killing going on and some of it is unavoidable. I don't think Obama had much of a choice with bin Laden, especially given the fact that clearly some person or entity within the Pakistani army or ISI was sheltering him, but I found it profoundly disturbing that he was killed and would have preferred a trial, even though that was very likely impracticable. All of this is the reason why I don't think it's right to give answers because there are too many questions and so much none of us even know about.

Adams: I've always thought Susan Sontag's words about cowardice that you quote in the book from her short piece in The New Yorker right after the September 11, 2001 attacks were unjustly attacked at the time. Indeed her words were much on my mind when I was exploring the role of a fighter pilot in Afghanistan in my second novel The Room and the Chair. She killed "beyond the range of retaliation" and comes to a partial moral reckoning and ultimately her own death. I tried to see her in her context, just as in Harbor I tried to see accused terrorists within theirs. This endeavor to provide context where others tend to see easy moral distinctions opens one to criticism. Yet the alternative is to either avoid the subject altogether or join the righteous. As an academic you could have so easily avoided the subject altogether. Why didn't you? And why do you continue to be drawn to it?

Rockwell: One reason why I was never very successful as an academic was because I was always more interested in what the texts I studied taught me and what the authors taught me, rather than in the theories that were fashionable and current in the Academy at the time. My book on Ashk is entirely about context, the context of his writing, of criticism of his writing, and the ways in which he acted upon his context. This made for a book that would have been unmarketable at a US academic press because it wasn't theory-driven, but I would never be able to take ideology as a starting point for research or study. As I allude to in the beginning of The Little Book of Terror, I was profoundly affected by the experiences of my students after 9/11 and see some of them in the people that have been swept up in the GWOT monitoring and arrests. What appeals to me about the Sontag quotation is that she is simply telling the truth about courage, and she was attacked for not using ideology or nationalism to define courage and cowardice. This is what is powerful in your novels as well, that you start with the character and the character's individual experiences and context and move out into the world of their role within the larger drama of war. I like that you have done that both with suspected terrorists (as in Harbor), but also with a US military pilot (as in The Room and the Chair).