Why I Write: Rachel Kushner

The atmosphere called ‘I.’

rachel kushner
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My new book, a collection of essays called The Hard Crowd, begins with a quote from Clarice Lispector: “What others get from me is then reflected back onto me, and forms the atmosphere called ‘I.’ ” As I assembled my observations about the world, the lives I’ve lived, people I’ve known, stories I’ve heard, I began to realize that much of what I’m trying to convey—“what others get from me,” as Lispector tells it—is also part of a quite private psychic economy. The atmosphere called “I” includes my sense of who I am to other people, which shapes who I am to me. What I refer to here isn’t akin, or akin merely, to an insecure glimpse in a mirror, hoping to finally see what one looks like, but something more important, a vulnerability that I cherish as part of the project of seeing everything for what it really and truly is.

There are, in contrast, people who have a very strong sense of who they are. People who do not incorporate your judgment into their glance in the mirror, and who can be downright authoritarian. The autocrats. They are among us writers, those who declare what’s what and pretend it is objective truth, but it is merely their bias, their loves, their wounds. I can admire and enjoy authoritarian writing, literature crafted by people whose “I” is a pure uncut “I.” But the “I” of me is a watcher who absorbs. What goes on inside me is to some extent what goes on around me, on account of my orientation: I face outward. There are others who face inward. We both write about what we see.

“Facing outward” is the only way I can account for the worlds of the novels I’ve created, which are large in their amplitude, the terrain they cross, full of other people, and yet are never researched, even though they might seem to be. I pick things up along the way. I believe you have to live it in some sense, in order to write about it. Put another way, I would never live it simply to put it in a book. In the case of The Mars Room, I felt it was time to write a novel about California. Not for regional thrills, for localism of a state-based type, but because as a Californian I was certain that this place glints with the brutality of the very near future for all of us, in every place. California is like an epic poem. It has a world-size economy and a world-class beauty and a mean and ugly and gallant history, and also, the largest women’s prison under the sun. The conditions of contemporary life that wound up in my novel were not studied and learned. I knew them by what I’ve seen over the course of my life. I didn’t beckon them. They unfurled around me, and early, at a tender age, as a girl from a neighborhood in San Francisco called the Sunset, which features in The Mars Room.

In The Hard Crowd, I returned to the Sunset, not having understood I would, not having understood that fiction is not the end of the story. As big as the epic poem of my state, and as expansive as a novel that incorporates a lot of voices, tones, stories, might seem, fiction—and that kind of invention where you build a universe like this one, parallel to this one—cannot, in the end, replace the whole. It can only inform and complement the whole. A novel takes in what fits and nothing more. Left out are whole rivers of memory and experience, images and events and people, real people, full of a devastating richness that asks to be explored for its own sake, and not absorbed into the dream the author is having of the world, in the form of fiction.

Some things demand attention, not absorption. And finally, some characters and scenes and events are so unlikely, but real, that if I saved them for fiction, people would think I was making them up.•

Rachel Kushner is the bestselling author of three novels: The Mars Room, short-listed for the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; The Flamethrowers, a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times top 10 book of 2013; and Telex from Cuba, a finalist for the National Book Award.
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