Thanks to the students and faculty of Creative Writing at The New School for providing interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016. Below are excerpts from interviews with the nonfiction finalists. Click the links to read more.
Lauren Routt interviewed Ibram X. Kendi about his book Stamped from the Beginning (Nation Books).
Lauren Routt: The title, Stamped from the Beginning, I read, comes from Jefferson Davis’ speech on April 20th, 1860 in which he states the “inequality of the white and Black races was stamped from the beginning.” In what way or ways do you feel the symbol of the “stamp” encompasses the essence of your book?
Ibram Kendi: A number of different ways. First and foremost two kinds of racist ideas have been arguing about the stamp and whether the stamp of Blackness is permanent. One group has stated that this ugly stamp is permanent. While another group has stated that we can erase the stamp of Blackness and Black people can become white and I sort of show in the text the debate between those two ideas. And so not only, I think, does the title come from this very famous quote from Jefferson Davis I think it sort of serves as like an antidote or even a metaphor for the debate between racist ideas throughout the book.
LR: The structure of the book is what I found to be most fascinating. The first chapter we’re thrust into is entitled “Human Hierarchy,” which delves into the origins of, as you state “ethnic…religious and color prejudice of the ancient world.” Then we move to “Origins of Racist Ideas” in which we read of two figures, Richard Mather and John Cotton, who held the belief that “African Slavery was natural and normal and holy.” Then the last chapter of the first section we’re given a focus on Samuel Sewall who stated that “Originally and Naturally there is no such thing as slavery.” Why did you choose to structure it in this way?
IK: I wanted to write a chronological narrative, a history of racist ideas because it didn’t exist. There really isn’t a book that really shares the story of the origin and development of racist ideas over time and so I wanted to sort of do that. Secondly, I wanted to engage readers through having major characters and so I thought sort of showing this larger debate between racist and anti-racist ideas through the lines and ideas of major characters like Richard Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Garrison, W.E. DuBois and Angela Davis I thought would be quite engaging for readers.
Maryana Lucia Vestic interviewed Viet Thanh Nguyen about his book Nothing Ever Dies (Harvard University Press).
Maryana Lucia Vestic: Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War is such an impressive achievement. The book clearly reveals your adept love of research and critical thinking. You make it look so easy–the analysis of such all encompassing subjects such as war, memory, time, imperialism, and what makes us humane and in-humane. Yet, your voice remains connected via your personal life experience and that of your family. How did you balance the scales so well? How did you keep your humanity in the game while not wasting even one critical moment by giving into “easy” storytelling or memoir?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s been a struggle to find a balance between my critical and creative desires, and between the demands of objectivity and subjectivity. I definitely did not want to write a completely personal nonfiction account of war and memory, because I could not give up the decade of scholarly research I had done on the topic. My solution was believing that criticism could have a narrative dimension, that it could be delivered as a story. Since I had already done all of the research for the book in the form of academic articles, I didn’t have to worry, in writing the final version of the book, about coming up with arguments. I could simply begin a chapter with an idea in my head and write it without an outline, letting myself be carried along organically by telling the argument as a story, using intuition and rhythm to tell me when to drop in a personal anecdote, and trusting that the propulsion of the story would carry me to a fitting conclusion.
MLV: I was really impressed and moved by your examination of the many forms by which the culture of civilization remembers war: the monuments, the cemeteries, the films, etc. The realization that the technological “manpower” of American (Hollywood) filmmaking vs. Vietnamese filmmaking, for example, mirrors the American military manpower during the Vietnam/American war is astounding. Did you go into this cinematic examination with the idea in mind or did it slowly reveal itself after watching multiple films and/or reading various film criticism on the subject?
VTN: The connection between industrial war-making power and cinematic film-making power grew over time, as I thought about these two things on parallel tracks. The more I thought about them, the more obvious it became to me that they are part of the same industrial society, drawing from the same impulse to use capitalist technology and defend capitalist ideology. Reading film criticism about Hollywood as an industry was helpful, but this criticism wasn’t usually Marxist. It was Marxist criticism’s impulse to see how ideology was always related to production that helped to illuminate how Hollywood, if it drew from the same industrial base as the Pentagon, couldn’t help but share in a common ideology that accepts the inevitability of a military-industrial complex.
Bradley C. Bergan interviewed Jane Mayer about her book Dark Money (Doubleday).
Racism, forced emigration and ICE, healthcare, mass incarceration, big oil, climate change deniers, the evisceration of the EPA, Russian espionage, corruption, double-talk, lies, greed and “fake news” are just a few items on the seemingly endless list of antagonisms we face in contemporary US politics as the Trump administration and its alt-right populist base rip the establishment apart with infinite untruths. But there’s a maximum depth to this maelstrom; an outer limit to the madness.
Dark Money is the story of how old-fashioned values long-touted as fundamental to American identity — liberty, free trade and the right to self-determination — were brought from nouveau-riche sentiments of Gilded-Age ideologues into the arch-conservative mainstay of a new GOP, and how this paved the golden road to Trump’s surreal administration.
Jane Mayer is a thirty-year veteran of political journalism who has reported for The Wall Street Journal and is currently a staff writer for The New Yorker, where she first outed the Koch Brothers’ multifarious usurping of nearly every political stage in her 2010 essay Covert Operations. In her book she gives a panoptic account of the history, strategy and tactics of the alt-right, and tacitly suggests, despite their rotten ends, that the now-stymied left learn from the Koch Brothers’ and others of this “totalizing new generation of philanthropists,” if we desire a better future.
Bradley C. Bergan: Your book’s title, Dark Money, is clearly endemic of the dark reality contemporary politics faces today. Will you briefly describe the specific sense in which it relates to the Koch Brothers, and the evolution of the GOP in the 21st century?
Jane Mayer: The title refers to a specific term of art in politics today, describing money spent by donors who want to manipulate our democracy without the public knowing who they are, or what they are up to. As many know, that kind of spending exploded after the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case. But there was much more to the story.
Louis Augustine Herrera interviewed Matthew Desmond about his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Penguin Random House).
Matthew Desmond writes with such clarity, detail, and emotional resonance that, in truth, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, reads as a piece of fiction (if only it were). These are the real life stories of eight American families in crisis, they are heartbreaking and hard to wrap one's head around. What comes to light in this beautiful work of non-fiction is the multiple systems at work which seem to be against the poorest in our country, who need our help so desperately. The people described in Desmond’s Evicted meet disaster and personal demons head on and for most, come through it stronger; but, if depression and suicide can be linked to the act of being evicted, then, for some, heartache is just heartache and pain just pain. It is our responsibility as a nation to help those in need, no matter how they arrive, where they are. The people in Matthew Desmond’s book are all striving to make their lives better for themselves and their families. Eviction is a devastating life event that has unforeseeable and catastrophic effects on people’s lives.
Louis Augustine Herrera: As an ethnographer was it hard to get people to open up to you, trust you?
Matthew Desmond: There is a little line at the end of the book where I say that the hardest thing for any ethnographer or fieldworker isn’t getting in, its leaving. And, I think that’s really true. Getting in, you actually meet more people then you can actually spend time with and write about because you’re just so overwhelmed by just writing about one person’s life, yet alone five or eight folks. And, then, you grow attached to these folks and they really teach you a lot. What you learn is there are so many people that want to share their story, there are a lot of people that are very open about their lives and want people to listen as hard as they can and you try to get it right.