September 2015

David Holmberg

features

An Interview with Leah Hager Cohen

The novelist Leah Hager Cohen sees the world with astonishingly deep empathy and thoughtfulness. Her complex vision is framed with an elegant stylishness that sets her apart from most contemporary literary novelists. The musicality of her language sustains her intricate narratives.

Two criticisms have emerged in my study of her work: her use of an "unreliable narrator" in the brilliant No Book But the World (her most recent novel), and the inauthentic adult voices of children in her ambitious The Grief of Others. Those caveats aside (and I don't necessarily subscribe to them!), Cohen is a stunningly original voice in American fiction.

You said in a New York Times interview that three writers you admire "couldn't give a fig for literature for literature's sake. I'm moved by the way they seem to understand language as nothing more than a tool for approaching that which is essentially and finally unsayable." But shouldn't your role as an exquisitely literary novelist be in part to maintain literary standards -- literature for literature's sake?

I care about making sentences. I try to attend closely to how they sound, how they feel in the mouth, to their rhythms and patterns; most of all I hope they deliver meaning clearly, without undue effort on the reader's part. But I don't consciously strive for style. I don't think about achieving a particular tonal effect, or worry about establishing belletrist credentials, or try to maintain a particular "literary standard." I like to think of language as a playmate, even sometimes an accomplice -- not as a governing board. And if the best way to help the thoughts and feeling come forward entails breaking the rules, then I'm perfectly happy to break them -- rules of grammar, of phrasing, of convention. For me literature is a means, not an end.

Related to that, and to deal with the digital revolution: Does the "democratization" of writing -- everyone thinks they're writers, and many self-publish mostly bad writing -- bother you, or give you cause for optimism about the culture? In the digital era, are qualitative distinctions between writers blurred and/or less acknowledged? Do you think your students -- and young readers in general -- have a diminished or enhanced appreciation of literary fiction?

I think anyone who feels moved to write should write -- of course! I have no truck with gatekeepers or hierarchies. Of course as individuals we're all free to decide which writers we prefer, which books we choose to read, what we consider "literary" and what we consider schmaltz. I think it's good to be conscious of what we like and to develop an understanding of why we like it. But I'm not necessarily interested in coming to consensus about this. What would be the good of consensus? What would be the harm of disagreement -- or put another way, of a vast range of appetites and an equally vast range of books to meet those appetites?

Certainly I try to persuade my students that some writing is better than other writing. But I'm interested in hearing their challenges to my perspective, especially if those challenges are thoughtful, impassioned, and robust. And I'm even more interested in tackling, together with them, the whole question of what "better" even means in this context: is it code for erudite, polysyllabic, inaccessible? Is it code for fluid, startling, lively? What makes writing work? One criterion is that it has to find an audience. It can't work if it never gets read. Whose job is it to make sure it gets read? That's a complicated question, but the answer certainly begins with the author, with the craft.

You have what I'd describe as an elevated take on the human spirit. Speaking of your "responsibility" as a major literary voice, do you see your work as a kind of antidote to writers such as Ben Marcus who has (to me) a crushingly alarmist view of a digital dystopia? In other words, do you feel that your work in some sense has a built-in resistance to digital incursions on traditional literary culture?

Man. Elevated? Elevated relative to what? I mean, okay, yes, I guess it's elevated relative to, um, cynics.

And I guess it's true that I have high hopes for the human spirit.

And while I'm surely no more than a minor literary voice, I think we all have a responsibility to try to articulate that which we feel passionate about. That's another way of saying a responsibility to participate. To actually be here while we're here.

But whether that "here" consists of traditional literary culture or new digital forms or something else... I don't think about it. It literally isn't my business. Perhaps because I don't feel territorial about conventional publishing, I don't think of digital publishing as an incursion. But all of this moves us toward discussing literature as a commodity, while I prefer thinking of it as a search, an act of quite serious play. What I love is making stuff with words. I like sharing the stuff, too -- but my pleasure and hope is not rooted in a particular model of dissemination. I'm happy enough to use the model of a lemonade-stand, small scale and personal. As I have done with my little hand-stitched pamphlet, The Fortress and the Fool.

A character in your latest novel, No Book but the World, says: "We see what we expect to see. Human nature. We fit what facts we have to the story we've been conditioned to believe." And you've said: "I look for wisdom and kindness, by which I really mean an honoring of complexity and doubt, a refusal to subscribe to preordained, reductive certainties." Doesn't this reflect a deep skepticism about the nature of truth? And if so, isn't your fiction in a sense dedicated to finding whatever emotional truth you can in each of your characters?

I'm skeptical of the idea that there's such a thing as simple truth. I think when we perceive the truth as neat and tidy it's probably a sign of exercising limited thinking. Many tools may help us deepen our understanding of the truth, among them the collection and analysis of hard data. But part of my job as a writer -- and I would suggest part of our job as human beings -- includes making use of other truth-seeking tools, too, among them empathy, imagination, and speculation. Not as a form of hubris but as a form of humility. Not to construct our own versions of truth that obfuscate, but to extend the range of what we're able to apprehend.

Speaking of complexity, No Book but the World is a remarkably subtle examination of a family's response to possibly aberrant behavior by one of their own. Please talk about how you achieved a voice that in dealing with a criminal act so effectively resists melodrama, and the manipulation of your readers' expectations. Was it an agonizing process throughout, or did it flow once you got the novel going?

I try to stay grounded in curiosity rather than drive toward certainty, which I think helps me stay out of the story's way. To raise questions more than deliver answers. To invite readers to wonder alongside me rather than shepherd them toward a preordained conclusion.

This involves not knowing where I'm going. I may have notions about the final destination at the outset, but I never fail to encounter unexpected turns along the way. In this sense, there's nothing strategic or enforced about my resisting the manipulation of readers' expectations -- we are in the same boat, the readers and I: together following the narrative in order to discover what shape it will take.

The character accused of criminality is named Freddy, and another character at one point refers to the "tragic unfairness of Freddy's lot." That's in part a reference to the unspoken assumption you plant in the reader's mind that Freddy fits somewhere on the autism spectrum, like Adam Lanza in the Newtown tragedy. This made me think that if any novelist in this country is capable of taking on the Lanza case, it would be you. Have you ever thought of writing about Newtown? Is the criminal justice system capable of moral subtlety? Does its adversarial nature preclude nuance and emotional acuity in dealing with aberrant and criminal behavior?

I've thought about this lately in relation to both the Dylann Roof murders and the sentencing of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for the Boston Marathon bombing. These events raise questions about justice and mercy, forgiveness and remorse. I don't know how much our own criminal justice system is capable of moral subtlety. But I find myself interested in the models of truth and reconciliation used in South Africa and Rwanda, and in the concept of Vergangenheitsbewältigung used in Germany and other parts of Europe, and in other forms of transitional justice, those practiced in Greece, Argentina, and Chile, especially as they incorporate storytelling as a key part of the process of coming to terms with atrocities committed in the past. I'm also interested in the creative approach taken by some nations, notably the Scandinavians, to the penal system, where the primary purpose is not retribution but reintegration.

Holistic approaches to violence and crime are quite foreign to us in the United States, where we tend to otherize criminals. I'm interested in what happens when we regard the world as a place where everyone possesses both the capacity for harming and the capacity for healing. And we don't have to restrict ourselves to the realm of criminal behavior in order to talk about otherizing. This is something we all engage in, in virtually all aspects of life: the conscious or unconscious sorting between "us" and "them." My current novel in progress deals in large part with the concept of tribalism -- the act of us-and-them-ing -- which exists and has always existed in families, in neighborhoods, in countries, in the world writ large.

One review of The Grief of Others said that "Cohen's empathy is profound and seemingly boundless." What in your mind is the source of that empathy? You wrote nonfiction before you wrote fiction, so was a journalistic perspective useful in building empathy? Do you ever see a situation that truly tests it, and makes you think, "I couldn't write about that?"

I grew up in a school for the deaf and with deaf, immigrant grandparents. With a Jewish father and a gentile mother. With a white biological sister and a black adopted brother. From a young age I probably had an usual degree of awareness -- even before it was something I consciously thought about or could articulate -- of the existence of multiple cultures, the differing degrees of privilege and status members of these cultural groups were afforded, and of the effects, subtle and otherwise, of marginalization. Perhaps this contributed to the formation of empathy; who knows?

I tend to think of the journalism I have practiced (immersion in various cultures for book-length works) as the result of a desire to empathize more deeply -- to come closer to understanding different encounters with life -- more than as the source of my empathy. But empathy is circular, I suppose. The more energy you put into trying to absorb others' perspectives, the more you feel the imperative to keep going further in this exploration. And I don't experience it as altruism but as a feeding of my own hunger to know more -- more about others, more about myself, more about all that it might mean to be a person in the world. It's about curiosity, really. Curiosity and a selfish desire for greater aliveness, greater awakeness.

Without giving away the ending of No Book But the World, you deal there with the nature of hope in a provocative way. Are you saying that hope lies in developing a theory of the world? Or that the complexity of the world doesn't allow us to theorize? And does that perhaps reinforce the notion that seeking emotional truths about individuals is the most ambitious quest we're truly capable of?

I am interested in what it means to build bridges across unbridgeable spaces. The space between two people is always ultimately unbridgeable, no? This is the great melancholia, the terminal loneliness of being. And yet isn't living a full life contingent on the effort to connect anyway, against all odds? To connect in the face of the impossibility of ever realizing total communion with another mortal? This is an instance where the flawed nature of our capability is the very thing that makes it so beautiful. The effort to connect with one another despite certain failure is precisely the movement that brings us closer to our own humanity, and to grace.