|Talking with Norm Rush
An interview by Ron Singer (Nigeria 196467)
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 havent 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.
Africa and pacifism: its 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. Theres 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 Martins 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 didnt intend any mockery of the narrator. I loved, love, her. Denoon, in his final incarnation, is another matter.
Lets talk more about the overriding theme of the first two Botswana books, the mating of Africa with the first world. Im 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. Itts worth a look. It recounts an institutional evolution much like that implied in the story of Tsau.
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. Im 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 Wilmsens 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.
What about actual development projects in Africa? What are the biggest obstacles? Corruption, obviously, and nature. But . . .
There are viable traditional structures in modern Africa through which to address the problems of development and governance, to overcome inequality. These should be fostered. Botswana has done some things very well, including (modern) social welfare programs, fairly effective drought relief, less corruption than you might think. Twenty years ago, a would-be entrepreneur approached a US embassy official in Gaborone: Who should I bribe?
What do you think of recent events in South Africa? Where is Africa on the Western radar screen since the bust of Socialism?
I went back twice to Botswana and South Africa, 1992 was the last trip. I wrote a piece for Grand Street after the first trip back that caught what I felt about RSA. I expected the transition to be far more violent than it ended up being. But South Africa has not so far distinguished itself in terms of enlightened foreign policy initiatives in the region.
What can you tell me about the new book? You mentioned in the 1993 Herskovits interview that its about a suppressed insurrection in Botswana partly modeled after actual third-world insurgencies, that the book is set in 198891, the background is the end of the Soviet empire, and that one of the main characters is a displaced Xhosa living in Botswana, and others are a CIA operative and his disaffected wife. Are all those things still true? Have recent events in Africa affected the genesis of the book?
Most of those are still true.
In your RPCV Writers & Readers 1992 interview, you told John Coyne that the prizes and fine reviews after Mating had done little to change your life. Is that still true or, like Denoon, have you since been guru-ified?
Not that I noticed. It sounds like fun, though.
Like many of your readers, I eagerly anticipate the new book and wish you the very best with it.
NOTE: A second article based on this present interview will appear in the Spring 2001 issue of Friends of Nigeria Newsletter.
After the Peace Corps, Ron Singer went to the University of Chicago, where he received his Ph.d. in English. He has taught at the University of Hawaii, Pace University, and, since 1976, at Friends Seminary, a K-12 school in New York City. Singer has published fiction, poetry, prose satire, and several articles on Africa, in the Friends of Nigeria Newsletter and African Link magazine. He is the author of two librettos and an Introduction to the Bantam Books edition of Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Married, he has one daughter.