A conversation with Andrew Ervin
by Maiko Nakai
This term, I am taking a workshop called Page Turners at the University of Oregon. It provides students with a wonderful opportunity to read Andrew Ervin’s Extraordinary Renditions and to work directly with him. The book consists of three linked novellas all set in post-Communist Budapest. It addresses issues of race, gender, history, and religion, and the tragedy of the Holocaust, in a provocative manner. After reading the book, I wondered why Ervin took so many risks in language usage and subject matters, and wanted to know more about him. I asked him if I could email him some questions, and he kindly agreed to answer them.
I understand that you were creating characters and seeing the world through their lenses. Honestly though—and I hope this won’t offend you—I found myself offended and disturbed by so many sexual or violent descriptions and F-bombs. I’m sure I’m being more sensitive because I’m from Japan where people generally don’t talk like that. But what’s your justification for using those words instead of finding other ways to convey the same meanings?
And I’m not at all offended by your question; please understand that in fiction I need to write in voices that aren’t my own. What I personally have to say is not all that interesting—perhaps as this interview will make all too clear. I’m far more interested in the ways other people speak. Mind you, my editor at Coffee House Press tells me that I have a potty mouth, and I suppose I’m liable to throw around the occasional F-bomb. My theory about that isn’t exactly original, but even in my introductory composition classes I teach my students that there’s no such thing as “correct” grammar. I hope that’s not too frustrating for someone who has learned English as a second language, but it’s true: what we consider “correct” grammar is just one particular dialogue of the English language. In fact it’s one rife with deep-rooted sexist and racist issues. So I like to think in terms of grammars; each dialect we speak—and we all speak many—is correct in its context. The dialogues and grammars and syntaxes of my respective characters are the ones that are correct, I think, for them—bad words and all.
I read somewhere that you, having grown up as a white American male in a rather wealthy family, have had all the benefits and privileges anyone could imagine. And this, from my understanding, inspired you to choose three characters that are oppressed, because you wanted to give them a voice. How did you try to keep yourself from showing your own voice or “power?”
To be clear, I was not and am not by any stretch of the imagination “wealthy.” My wife and I live in a small apartment in Philadelphia, where we share a car. The rent is easier to pay some months than others. But there are privileges other than financial ones in American society, particularly for white people like me. I grew up in a middle-class family in the suburbs, went to public schools, watched too much TV. My father owned a plumbing and heating company. When I failed math in ninth grade I had to go to summer school. Unfortunately, that school was just a few blocks from where my father’s company was installing the air conditioners for a new apartment complex being built. Every day after algebra class, all summer long, I had to go work for my father’s company. I was maybe fourteen or fifteen, and when you’re the boss’s kid of course you get all the difficult jobs. I broke concrete with a jackhammer, dug ditches, you name it. My father’s theory—and I still take issue with it to this day—is that if I experienced the limited kinds of manual-labor employment opportunities available to people who don’t go to college, I would study harder and do better in school. Clearly, I now know full well that a college education is by no means necessary for a happy and successful life; of my very closest friends, half of them never went to college. But, you know, I did do better in school after that summer! And now I teach college, which once seemed about as likely a career path as astrophysics. While we’re on the topic, I actually failed that summer school math class too, but the administrators of my high school never knew it, so they passed me along to the tenth grade anyway by mistake. Don’t tell them.
I’m still curious as to why you chose those three characters with their specific backgrounds—a Holocaust survivor, a black man, and a bisexual woman—and why you think you have the authority to write about them when your background is very different from theirs.
It’s not a question of if I have the right. The very notion that we’re granted rights in the first place is problematic to me. I see it as a responsibility. Being the recipient of white privilege certainly affected my writing; as I’m in a position of considerable (and disconcerting) authority, I need to speak for the voices in our society who aren’t being heard otherwise. These three characters appealed to me precisely because they’re so different outwardly from me. In spending so much time with different people I start to see even more acutely how similar we really are; it’s the similarities that intrigue me. The best thing fiction can accomplish is to grant us access to things we wouldn’t otherwise get to experience. Writing is a learning process for me. If when I’m done there’s something that other people care to read, that’s terrific. And I was very conscious about avoiding the cliché of writing the traditional, autobiographical first novel. That had no appeal to me whatsoever. So I looked for voices as different from my own as possible.
I once analyzed the speech of Oda Mae Brown (played by Whoopi Goldberg) in the movie Ghost, when I was in college in Japan. Seeing the double-negatives like “ain’t” in your book brought back the memory. Will you talk about how you studied black English?
I don’t do research in the traditional manner of going to the library and looking up information. At least I didn’t for Extraordinary Renditions. I try to get at my characters’ voices by reading the things (books, magazines, websites) and listening to the music that they would. It’s a great way of exposing myself to new things. I try to immerse myself in some imagined version of their worlds, and once I feel somewhat comfortable with a particular syntax or style, I know that the character is taking shape. I wish I could remember where I read it, but some writer once mentioned that she knew she was getting her characters right when they stopped speaking in complete sentences. That’s so true. For Brutus in particular, his influences are mentioned in that novella: Frantz Fanon, Captain Blackman, Paul Ricoeur, and so on. I listen to a great deal of hip-hop and was pleased to get permission from Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter to use some lyrics from a song by the Roots, whose work inspired Brutus in many ways. All of my characters are autobiographical, but not always in obvious ways. No matter how seemingly different my characters are from me, I can always find areas of real commonality and write from those.
You’ve mentioned that Yukio Mishima, especially his Sea of Fertility, influenced you and your book greatly. How did you first encounter Mishima’s work?
Mishima lived in a time of rapid societal change, as I’m sure you’re aware. The voice of Emperor Hirohito on the radio at the end of World War II created a kind of spiritual crisis that I don’t think those of us in the West can ever fully comprehend. He had been thought of as a kind of god. With all apologies to the amazing Kenzaburo Oe, I don’t think any other author fully captured that Götterdämmerung moment in history as well as Mishima. (There may be moments when Kurosawa came close, however.) The changes of historic systemic forces are fascinating to me, which is why I chose to set Extraordinary Renditions shortly after (or perhaps amid) Central Europe’s transition from communism to capitalism. But there’s another systemic transition at the heart of Extraordinary Renditions, one no critic has talked about. It’s set in the waning days of analog technology. It’s very difficult now to recall with any clarity a pre-digital age, but that changeover is just as important—maybe it’s even more important—than any recent political changes. The effects on whatever it is that makes us human are unfathomable. It makes me happy that my book came along when it did because it exists both on paper and as an e-book, so even its physical existence performs that thematic concern—it straddles the analog/digital divide.
Did the ideas of linking several different stories together and reincarnation come from The Sea of Fertility?
I took formal inspiration from Sea of Fertility series, in which he uses a unique literary device—specifically reincarnation—to unite four books set over a span of several decades. It’s a brilliant way to tie together several seemingly disparate stories. All of that said, it’s difficult to me to completely distinguish Mishima’s art from his politics. He killed himself, remember, in a rather dramatic fashion: as I understand it, he committed ritual seppuku in a kind of protest against Japan’s anti-imperial tendencies. (His story “Patriotism” describes that practice in gruesome detail.) My book, on the other hand, takes a more critical view of my homeland’s imperialist tendencies. The protagonist of the second novella, Brutus, is after all named in part after Caesar’s assassin.
Will you tell me about the cover of the book? To me the car, which appears half-old, half-new, represents past and present Hungary.
One of the theories behind the book is that the past isn’t actually in the past in Central Europe. Historical events affect everyday life there in a way that doesn’t happen, for example, in the United States. Coming from Japan and living in the New World, perhaps you know what I mean. The photo on the cover depicts three eras: the old-world European architecture, the East German Trabant of the communist era, and the American-style graffiti. Those elements form a captivating image that speaks in many ways to the identity of contemporary Hungary.
Why did you decide to write fiction for your debut, and what were the most fascinating and challenging parts of the process?
My favorite part is just this—getting to meet new people and discuss issues of history and race and gender with people like you. It’s enormously flattering to think that something I cooked up in the quiet of my own home is finding an audience, large or small, and that people I don’t know are spending their hard-earned money and harder-earned free time immersed in it. That’s a humbling and daunting and thrilling thing to think about.
Maiko Nakai is a first-year master’s student in communication and society at the University of Oregon. She also teaches Japanese as a graduate teaching fellow.