Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Robert Rosenberg (page 2)
 Talking with
Robert Rosenberg
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Let’s talk about the writing of This Is Not Civilization. How did you go about “reliving” your experience? For example, did you keep notes while you were overseas?
The letters I wrote home from my Peace Corps service in Kyrgyzstan, I think, were my first real attempt at serious writing. It was essential, and therapeutic, to sit down at night over a cup of tea and attempt to make sense of that strange land on paper: the sights and sounds, the idiosyncrasies, the generosity, the pressures, the foods. I wrote by hand, a slow, deliberate, and meditative process which I still go back to when the computer keyboard fails me.
     In writing those letters I discovered a number of things — narrative techniques, humor, style — but the most valuable was the need for discipline in the writing act. Henry Miller claimed that an aspiring author must write a million words before he finds his voice. I was living in solitude, I wrote home to friends or family every day for two years, and I think those daily letters were my own million words, my apprenticeship to the craft.
     When I finally returned home after two years, my mother had collected all of my letters into two overstuffed binders. I was so grateful, and it was exciting for me just to see the sheer bulk of it. To weigh the binders in my hands. It almost seemed like a book.
     I sometimes returned to those descriptive letters for details. But it wasn’t that the letters contained anything like a plot. They were useful for details: what the food was like, how the people dressed, what the mood of the village was at that time. They were also useful for tone. Amazement. Bemusement. Confusion. Disillusionment. The standard trajectory of emotions of PCV letters home.
     In general, I’ve found I need to be away from a place to write about it. I wrote about Arizona living in Istanbul, and I wrote most of the final Istanbul sections when I was already in Iowa. I have a good memory when it comes to setting, which probably comes from a love of travel. My memory for place names is horrible, though, so guidebooks and maps were incredibly helpful.
This novel has a wide geographical sweep, from the mountains of Central Asia, to an Apache reservation in Arizona, to the urban sprawl of contemporary Istanbul. How did it occur to you to try to tie such distant places together into a single novel?
Though these places are, in fact, quite far away from each other, in our globalized world they’re not nearly as distant as they once were. A century ago the mountains of Kyrgyzstan might have been one of the most isolated places on the planet. But nowadays all it takes is money for a plane ticket, and it’s possible for a villager from Kyrgyzstan to visit the U.S. on a vacation. A number of my former students from Kyrgyzstan have studied abroad here in the States. Quite a few Apaches I know have made trips to Israel, or to the Vatican. Where I now live in Cibecue, an entire classroom of Apache children has spent the last two summers studying Tae Kwon Do in South Korea. I find this amazing: how quickly the world has become connected, how straight forward it is for even relatively impoverished people to search out a new home. It no longer requires an epic journey across the sea, or a year’s trek across a continent. I wanted to write a novel which reflected this reality, this flux and interconnectedness.
How much of the novel is autobiographical?
Very little. The settings, of course, are taken from places I know well, but the characters and their stories are completely imagined. Even the character Jeff’s experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer is vastly different from my own. Life does not play itself out in novel form, with a beginning and end, suspense, contrasts, and parallels. The writer discovers these things by getting to know his characters and by endowing them with enough life that their true stories unfold.
     Still, living in these exciting places, at important moments of change, was inspiring. I’m a teacher, and through my students I learned a great deal about the Kyrgyz, the Apaches, and the Turks. In class discussions, and in reading my students’ journals and essays, I learned so much about the way they thought, the intricacies of their languages, idioms, prejudices, jokes, and tales. Teaching like this, then, was vital in order for me to write confidently from the perspective of foreign characters.
Your characters are all searching, in their own way, for a new home and a new life. How does this differ between the character of Adam, coming from the reservation, and Anarbek, coming from Kyrgyzstan?
Having lived in both Kyrgyzstan and on an Apache reservation, I was struck by a disturbing irony. In Kyrgyzstan, as life grew harder in the years following independence, more and more the people dreamed of emigrating West, especially to America. I cannot count the number of people who asked me to help them get to America. It was truly an obsession. In the village where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer, they were convinced that I was going to marry one of the local women and bring her home with me. The teachers even co-wrote a satirical song for a school concert in which, one by one, they sang a comic chorus, each begging me to fly them back to the United States.
     A few years later, on the reservation, it was painfully obvious to me how much America — the very same America — had let the Apache people down. In the midst of poverty, alcoholism, suicide, many Apaches, like the Kyrgyz, dreamed of living elsewhere, off the reservation. But in an ideal world they would have nothing to do with the U.S. as we know it. Two indigenous peoples, with dreams of escape, but in utterly opposite directions; one to the America of riches and hope and opportunity, the other away from the American nightmare that had consumed them.
     I imagined, at first, writing a book in which a young man fleeing the Apache reservation, meets an older man fleeing Kyrgyzstan. Neither would get where they intended, but both would find themselves, as so many refugees and exiles do, in a place far different from what they could have imagined. I chose Istanbul as that mid-point, for all its resonance as a meeting place of East and West.
     Possibly because I feel so rootless myself, I have a great concern for how people understand their homelands, for their idea of their place in the world. Who are you? Where do you come from? Do you belong there? When I travel, I try to get a sense of people’s happiness, of their satisfaction with their lives. I am amazed and envious when people talk about a sense of belonging, because I don’t know if I’ve ever felt it myself. I grew up in New Jersey, my parents were from the Bronx, their parents from Eastern Europe. Each generation moves. So in a typical, suburban American way, I don’t feel rooted to one particular place in this world.
     For this reason, I’m especially interested in what is happening nowadays to people, like the Kyrgyz, who still believe in a homeland, or to those who have important ties, like the Apaches do, to the land they live on. The Turks in many ways are a homogeneous culture. They have a definite sense of what it means to be Turkish. But even that is fading. In a strange way, though I can proudly claim to be American, I also get the nagging feeling that as an American I’ve lost something — that we’re all losing something — important to the sense of who we are.
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