Event Recap: Why Rachel Kushner Charts the Pains and Promise of California

The author of The Mars Room wanted to depict “the texture of the present and what it feels like.”

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Rachel Kushner’s third novel, The Mars Room, is somewhat of a grand departure from the scope and breadth of her first two novels, Telex from Cuba and The Flamethrowers, which map the finer contours of revolution, upheaval, and transformation during the mid-to-late 20th century. The Mars Room follows Romy Leslie Hall, a woman in her late 20s who must serve two consecutive life terms, plus an additional six years, at a maximum-security California women’s prison for murdering her stalker, whom she met at a strip club where she worked as a dancer. It is no surprise, then, that this observation is where our host, John Freeman, began during yesterday’s eighth installment of Alta Journal’s California Book Club.

“I was interested in the challenge of writing about the contemporary, specifically because we live in history. It’s simply that it’s taking place as we’re living and so we don’t have this kind of hindsight on it like, What does it mean? And I thought California is a future-facing place for good and for bad,” Kushner said of her impetus to write about the Golden State. “It has a lot of utopian promise in it that trickles back down to how life functions here, but it also gives us glimpses of the near brutality for everyone. So in a way, I thought the contemporary is California in the way that California is forward-facing.”

Over the course of The Mars Room, we come to learn of Romy’s life before her incarceration—of her childhood neglect, which propelled her into a world of drinking, stealing, and addiction as a teenager in San Francisco. Her imprisonment is made tragically complicated by the fact that she has a young son, who becomes a ward of the state after the death of his caretaker, Romy’s mother, who also grappled with addiction.

Freeman was eager to point out that though Romy is the central protagonist of the novel, The Mars Room is populated with many people. “This is a book of many characters, although Romy is one of the most central ones, as well as Gordon Hauser, who is an educator in the prison,” Freeman said. “I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the methodology of building this book. It begins with this amazing bus ride at night—a night transfer into prison—which is described with such luminescence and specific detail that I thought, Rachel Kushner must have been on one of these buses.

“I’ve been in a lot of carceral environments, visiting people or doing human rights documentation work, et cetera. And living in L.A., those buses are a part of my daily visual reality. They are by design meant not to be noticed so much: the windows are darkened so that you cannot see in. People can see out, and I wouldn’t have necessarily known that except that I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve spent time on those buses,” answered Kushner. “I do that drive a lot, from L.A. up to Chowchilla, which is the big women’s prison—technically, it’s actually the largest women’s prison in the world. It’s a bit north of Fresno. Because I do that drive, I guess it entered my mind that the creative challenge was to think about how I would feel and what I would see among the scenes beyond the windows. And then also what kinds of conversations people would be having on that bus.”

Our special guest, Myriam Gurba, who is the author of the memoir Mean (the CBC’s April selection), joined the discussion and launched us into a consideration of the relationship between The Mars Room and Kushner’s latest book, The Hard Crowd, an essay collection that gathers Kushner’s creative and critical essays from the past two decades of her career. “You’ve got this fantastic profile of Ruth Wilson Gilmore in that collection, and she makes her case for prison abolition,” Gurba said. “And I was wondering if you think about The Mars Room as an abolitionist novel of sorts.”

“That’s an amazing question, and it has come up a bit,” Kushner replied. “In terms of building characters and trying to think about some morally complex issues and also think about humor—like, my book wasn’t going to be true for me unless it was funny. And I was trying to pay homage to people from my own life in the way that the bravest people usually have the most killer sense of humor.”

“I shy away from the idea of an abolitionist novel. I think one can exist, but maybe mine isn’t it because abolition is a vision for the future, of how life maybe could be. And this novel is, for better or worse, a vision of the present. But maybe to have a vision of the future, you need to understand the present,” Kushner continued. “And I could guess that abolitionists would be interested in reading my novel because they tend to be people who are already thinking about the texture of the present and what it feels like. And by that I also mean there are aspects of the carceral world—jails, prisons, courts, et cetera—that aren’t just in those places but are a whole vast net that some people see and other people don’t see by design because it’s invisible to them.”

The event neared its end with Freeman asking an audience question about Kushner’s negotiation of love and humor in The Mars Room. “This is a book built from the landscape of trauma to some degree, but there’s also a lot of love and humor in it. Within the prison, people remember loves. Some of the inmates are making dildos in the shop class and are having contests to see who would make the best dildo. And I guess I wonder—one of the audience members, BJ Dodge, sees this as a story of limitless love and I wonder if you could speak to that. This is a system that is deeply inhumane and terrible for the people in it, and yet they are surviving it because some of them can remember limitless love,” Freeman said.

“When you’ve spent time among people who have spent a lot of time in prison or when you’ve spent a lot of time in prisons yourself and talking to people about their experience in prison, it becomes quickly apparent that it’s a different universe in so many ways because people have lost control over their lives. But then in another sense, people in prison are just like people outside of prison,” Kushner replied. “So it’s not like you go there and it’s a different kind of human that you have to encounter or deal with. I mean, in men’s prison there’s more violence, but in the women’s prison—they are violent in their own way and there’s a lot of dysfunction—but what I guess what I’m saying is people still have their dignity. They still have their humor. They especially still have, what I would call, their sociality—which is to say, they have very heightened and refined social skills.”

“I really wanted to reproduce that feel in the book, of people. And there is sometimes riotous conviviality in prison that—I don’t think about that detail much, but people really do make dildos in machine shop. There is a lot of creativity that’s delimited by the set of tools that people have available to them. And so many people have told me amazing stories about this kind of resourcefulness, and a lot of it is collective resourcefulness and collective intelligence,” Kushner continued. “So to me, that’s part of my love for them, was to try to reproduce those kinds of more positive aspects of people’s resourcefulness inside of that space.”•

voyage of the sable venus, robin coste lewis

Alta Journal’s California Book Club will return on June 17 in conversation with Robin Coste Lewis. We’ll be talking about her stunning poetry collection Voyage of the Sable Venus, which interrogates the obscured, effaced, and elusive figure of Black women in Western art. For more information, click here.

Rasheeda Saka is a graduate student in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
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