Criticism & Features


In Retrospect: A Conversation with Norman Rush


The following Q&A between NBCC member Scott Esposito and Norman Rush is the first of three posts in the In Retrospect series which will look back at Rush’s 1991 ficion finalist, Mating, a novel that continues to strike readers today as a profound meditation on love. 

Scott Esposito: We’re here to talk about your first novel, Mating, which received the 1991 National Book Award and was a finalist for an NBCC award. The book revolves around a love affair between two American ex-pats living in Africa: the narrator (unnamed), who is in Africa to write about hunter-gatherers but whose dissertation is floundering, and Denoon, a man who has organized a somewhat utopian, female-dominated colony in the desert. Eventually the narrator will ditch her dissertation to be with Denoon in his colony.

The first thing I’d like to ask you about is a term you coined in Mating that I just love. The book takes place in the 1980s and you write that some of the ex-pats living in Botswana who are riding out the Reagan years there have taken to calling Ronald Reagan “brazen head,” a reference to bronze heads that “speak” to certain African tribes (in reality it is members of tribes’ the elite speaking through the head and leading people around by the nose). I think that captures the Reagan presidency rather well. Do you have any similar coinages for Bush II, and would you say that the Bush II years are engendering feelings similar to those that made the ex-pats in Mating want to be somewhere other than the U.S?

Norman Rush: Well, I’m amusing myself with some coinages for this period, but none of them is good. I thought of calling Bush’s general program Bushido, which is the less well known (than hara kiri) Japanese term for ritual suicide. And the word Heimat is German for homeland, and was prominent in Nazi domestic propaganda, and ‘Homeland’ has not been often used in American political discourse, so . . . Bush’s incessant domestic scaremongering could be called the Heimat Maneuver. As I said, nothing worth passing on. Sorry I did.  I don’t know if there’s a significant impulse among Americans to move out of the country until the Bush era comes to an end. I don’t know anyone who’s contemplated it. I know a couple of people who, to reduce stress, have stopped reading the newspapers or watching TV news.

SE: Overall, I thought the depiction of ex-pats in Mating is not that flattering. For instance, the narrator is somewhat disappointed with the quality of individual she finds in Africa, and that is part of what leads her to eventually leave Gaborone (Botswana’s capital) and seek out Denoon’s colony. Is the depiction of ex-pats in Mating true to what you saw in the many years you lived in Africa as a member of the Peace Corps?

NR: Just to be clear, we weren’t PC volunteers. We were staff, hired as a pilot project – the first couple to be appointed as co-directors of a country program. Expats run the same moral gamut as any group of people. But there is one difference: Expats are usually short-timers, so this imparts a kind of intensity for them to efficaciously and quickly do what they came to Africa to do. And I do have to say that the number of florid expat personalities that turned up on the African scene was rather high. And undoubtedly part of this is because behavior in some short-timer cases was affected by a What Happens in Africa Stays in Africa syndrome. Also, southern Africa in our time there did attract a certain number of the unusually intrepid and idealistic.

SE: What do you think the narrator is looking for that leads her to first leave the U.S. and then to leave ex-pat society in Africa?

NR: The narrator goes to Africa in the first place to do field work on a PhD in anthropology. There, she’s demoralized to discover that her thesis is incorrect. She’s more than ambivalent about going back to U.S. academic life anyway, and falls into a love-pursuit of Nelson Denoon, an expat development impresario she encounters there. Things happen.

SE: In a similar vein, what made you want to go to Africa?

NR: Africa represented something entirely other, different and compelling, to me, and to Elsa, my wife.  I was interested in development and had read a lot on the subject, and had notions about it. It was clear that the last days of white domination in Zimbabwe and RSA were coming. Botswana was a frontline state. The opportunity to be there came, and I seized it.

SE: Joseph Conrad has often been cited as is one of your influences. I think you and Conrad make for an interesting comparison because he was an outsider writing about colonial Africa whereas you’re an outsider writing about post-colonial Africa. How do you think the experience of writing about one differs from writing about the other?

NR: Post-colonial isn’t as post-colonial as one might think. I’m not saying that there have been no deep changes in Africa, of course. But continuities between the two conditions, colonial and post-colonial, exist, and constitute a significant part of what I write about. Among my characters – Denoon with his development projects, in Mating, and Boyle, Ray and Morel in Mortals, aren’t just tourists in Africa. They have projects, they have agendas. The narrator of Mating, Karen Ann Hoyt . . . when she (now named) reappears in Mortals, Karen, too, has an activist agenda. An admirable one, but a Western one.

SE: What kinds of things did you try to be sensitive to when writing about post-colonial Africa? Were there any African authors that you drew upon?

NR: I wrote frankly about what I saw in the various exotic cultures that I encountered in Africa: Tswana, U.S. Embassy, development professionals, development volunteers from everywhere, old-line Brit civil servants who’d been kicked down the African continent as British rule faded away and ended up in Botswana. If there were constraints, they were the ones who would be appropriate to the character of my narrator, and she is not an inhibited sort of person.

I’d already read the classic African authors like Soyinka and Achebe before I
went abroad. I discovered Ngugi Wa Thiong’o when I was in Africa. Petals of Blood was widely read among both expats and locals. All the great writers one reads leave their mark. But sorting out those traces with regard to a specific creation isn’t possible. No non-African could do what Achebe has done.

After the narrator resolves to live in Denoon’s colony, she crosses the Kalahari desert on foot, a very dangerous activity that almost kills her. I thought the narration here was among the book’s finest and was simply a riveting, immersive experience. What was your experience of writing this section?

NR: I’d traveled in the Kalahari, albeit not alone except for donkeys, so it was a question of recapturing my observations and experiences and applying some imagination. I especially enjoyed writing the Kalahari section, so I guess you could say it came sort of easily. Ray’s Kalahari expedition in Mortals was more fraught for me, and so was much harder to write.

SE: When the narrator reaches Denoon’s colony, she discovers that he’s built a “solar democracy” that is based on matriarchy (as opposed to patriarchy). Although the potential to improve society through female-rule is a political doctrine that has been expressed before, I wouldn’t call it mainstream. Where did you get the idea to structure Denoon’s society around female rule?

NR: Denoon is an idealist of a rather extreme sort, and a feminist, and it’s possible to be drawn to avant garde feminism out of despair at the works of men – men, the masters of all societies, pretty much, to date.  In addition, at the time the novel is set, development planners were furiously seeking to devise projects that would benefit women first and foremost, because, on analysis, many past projects had, as it turned out in reality, left the women as losers, with added burdens. An iconic example would be the project that enabled the sowers, men, to expand their planted hectares, to their natural satisfaction. The reapers, however, were women, and unfortunately they got no help from the sowers with their increased workload. As might be expected, the funders of the project were distressed. So . . . although the micro-society at Tsau is an extreme realization of Denoon’s feminism, it represents an imagined culmination of operative impulses that were in fact around then.

SE: Would you prescribe this as a way to aid progress in African nations? Nations outside of Africa?

NR: I’m not competent to prescribe experimental models for development anywhere. But it certainly seems that the more utopian the model is, i.e. the more complex and ambitious and idealistic its base, the more fragility it tends to exhibit.

SE: So far we’ve talked about ex-pats and African development, but Mating is also very much about, well, mating—the romance between Denoon and the narrator is definitely this book’s core. What kind of significance do you see in juxtaposing the story of a romance with the story of a matriarchic, African colony in the Kalahari desert?

NR: There are correspondences between the ways love relationships evolve and the way the human relationships at the heart of the ‘intentional community’ at Tsau affect its fate. Denoon clearly yearns for the devotion of this group of women, for example. And when that unconscious requisite is threatened, he does badly.

SE: In an interview shortly after the publication of Mating, you said that you wanted to “create the most fully realized female character in the English language.” Did you ever find it stifling to have an idea like that in your mind while you wrote?

NR: You have just mentioned the dumbest thing I ever said about my work. It was intended to be facetious, self-mocking, because I knew I was ambitious, in writing that character. Apparently the nuance didn’t translate.

SE: What kinds of things were important to you as you created the character of the narrator?

NR: What I wanted was a character who was irreverent, smart, adventurous, and intellectually adventurous, and who possessed a comic view of life. I wanted someone who would think, and say, almost anything. And for the plot, I wanted someone who was looking for a perfect mate. It took a while to find this voice. I tried an identified third person voice and that didn’t work. In a eureka moment, I realized that I had already discovered the voice I wanted: I stole the voice of the narrator of the short story “Bruns,” in my collection Whites.

SE: You’ve also said that you have “always felt a compulsion to write,” that you’ve “never wanted or intended to be anything but a writer.” However, you were well into your 50s before your first book (the short story collection Whites) was published. Did it bother you, wanting to be a writer for so long, but not publishing any books?

NR: Yes. A lot.

SE: The end of Mating is one of the most memorable endings I’ve read. In it, you give Denoon an inexplicable, perhaps mystical experience in the desert that changes him radically, cements the end of the relationship, and sends the narrator back to America. The book ends with the narrator getting a mysterious message that might send her back after Denoon.

For me, this worked so well because it gave a sense of closure, but also pushed the book into entirely new territory, and I liked the beauty of having the two coexist side by side in your ending, the feeling of openness and closure. However, in your following novel, Mortals (also about sub-Saharan Africa and love), you fill us in on what happened to Denoon and the narrator. We even learn the narrator’s name. Why did you subsequently include them in Mortals, and did you consider the impact that doing this might have on Mating’s ending?

NR: I see that I’ve already touched on some of the elements in the question. As to the retro-effect Karen’s reappearance in her new status, both as a wife and as a full-time activist, might have on readers of Mating who were attached to the ending, I confess that I didn’t think about it at all. Karen’s last words in Mating signaled that something was up. Karen and Denoon’s reappearance just wrote itself.

Paul Ojang, the narrator of the story “Thieving” in Whites also reappears, changed, in Mortals . . .  his reappearance is in the same scene as Karen’s and Denoon’s.

SE: Lastly, I’m sure that a lot of people who will read this are Norman Rush fans who could use another book from you. However, your books have been pretty spaced out: Whites was published in 1987, Mating in 1991, and Mortals in 2005. Are you working on anything now, and do we have any hope of getting a new novel from you anytime soon?

NR: I’m working on a new novel, tentatively titled Subtle Bodies. My editor isn’t crazy about that title. I keep saying I’ll be finished in six months. At some point, I’ll be right. It sort of goes like this: Mating is about courtship; Mortals is about marriage; Subtle Bodies is about friendship. Subtle Bodies is set in the Catskills on the eve of the invasion of Iraq.