Peace Corps Writers
Talking with . . .
Norm Rush
 

Norm Rush

Mating

Whites

An interview by Rod Singer
Note: This is our second interview with Norman Rush. The first, by John Coyne, appeared in the January, 1992 of our newsletter, RPCV Writers & Readers.

BORN AND RAISED IN THE SAN FRANCISCO AREA, Norman Rush went to prison as a conscientious objector during the Korean War. After graduating from Swarthmore College in 1956, Rush worked as an antiquarian book dealer and college teacher. During those years, he published poetry (Chelsea) and fiction (Massachusetts Review, Paris Review, New Yorker). From 1979 to 1983, Rush and his wife, Elsa, were the Peace Corps’ first co-directors, serving in Botswana. During those years and on two subsequent trips, Rush traveled widely in Africa, visiting Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, Togo, and the Ivory Coast. From those experiences came Whites (1986), a story collection, and Mating, the 1991 National Book Award winner for fiction. Since 1991, Rush has published magazine essays, including “Norman Rush Contemplates the Bust of Socialism” (The Nation), and, following a 1985 visit to South Africa, “The Unrest” (Grand Street). He has also been the subject of reviews and interviews, among which is Jean Herskovits’ “Culture Maker: Norman Rush” (Culturefront). For the last several years, Rush has been working on the third book in his Botswana trilogy, a novel, which is soon to appear. This interview was conducted via telephone and e-mail.

   
  How have your politics evolved since the early pacifist days? Do you think pacifism is relevant to third-world politics?
    In a way, my politics haven’t changed since I was eighteen and a conscientious objector. What I thought then was that it was ethically responsible to be part of the creation of bodies of resistance that would operate as obstacles — I hoped of increasing importance — that would make it harder for governments to opt for war making. But life is strange. The State is cannier than I could have imagined then. War making, in many countries including our own, has somehow eluded the public deliberative process to a degree that shows me how dumb I was. I would say, as a general characterization, that I am a social democrat with no particular attraction to any existing political formation in the United States and with a full appreciation of the poor prospects that the social democratic aspiration faces in the present.
     Actually, I thought of myself, in my youth, in my heart, as an anarchist. But functionally, I was a social democrat, in terms of voting, supporting lesser evilism, civil rights activism, etc. I thought my tenure as a social democrat was going to be an interim thing as the prospects for a radically changed society improved. Well, they never did, and it seems I have completely occupied my default position! The narrator’s lecture when she starts on the lecture circuit [Mating, 471 ff] mirrors my take on things political.
Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation (Buy this book)      Africa and pacifism: it’s morally right to try to moderate the violence of governments — anywhere. But sanctions as an alternative to violence against repressive regimes have not worked well, nor has the pacifist program of creating a snowballing of possible social strategies other than war. There’s a new book on this question: Guns and Gandhi in Africa, by Bill Sutherland and Matt Myer (Africa World Press, Inc., 2000)
 
It seems to me that Martin, the revolutionary who appears early in Mating, comes in for some serious ribbing. He winds up in England doing something vague with a choir, which the ANC is said to operate there. And what about that compulsive ratiocinator, the narrator of Mating? No satire? Denoon, her guru [and the creator of the utopian community, Tsau], sort of crashes by the end, too. Are you a misandrist?
  There is sadness and irony in Martin’s fate, but no ridicule of him at all. White revolutionaries, the ones I knew directly or indirectly, occupied places all over the spectrum of amiability, as in any group of people. I didn’t intend any mockery of the narrator. I loved, love, her. Denoon, in his final incarnation, is another matter.
 The Kibbutz 
The Kibutz: Awakening from Utopia by Daniel Gavron
Let’s talk more about the overriding theme of the first two Botswana books, the “mating” of Africa with the first world. I’m particularly interested in your ideas about utopianism.
Many utopias go horribly bad, and all turn into something diverging from the ideals of the founders. Just read a new book by a guy named Gavron summing up the state of the kibbutz sector in Israel. It’ts worth a look. It recounts an institutional evolution much like that implied in the story of Tsau.
Land Filled with Flies: A Political Economy of the Kalahari by Edmund Wilmsen Just around the time you were creating Tsau, a school of anthropology was rising which debunked ideas of a pre-colonial Eden in Africa, especially with regard to the Kung. I’m thinking of Edmund Wilmsen, in particular [Land Filled with Flies: A Political Economy of the Kalahari (University of Chicago Press, 1989)]
  I agree with the anti-Arcadian realists. Wilmsen is really hated, I guess you know, by people attached to the earlier romantic view of the Kung. (I wrote a blurb for Wilmsen’s last book.) My own romantic notions about the three-house system in Botswana imploded once I saw cattle-post life up close. Obviously, all scrutiny of the contributions of colonialism, and indigenous kleptocracy, to the lack of economic development of post-independence Africa takes place with an awareness that they have been imposed on societies existing in environments that have been, it is being argued persuasively, inhospitable to human prosperity.
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