Photo courtesy of the Overlook Press
Last month, Brooklyn’s powerHouse Books hosted Norman Rush, Marco Roth, and Christina Nichol to discuss Nichol’s debut novel, Waiting for the Electricity. Set in a post-Soviet Georgia, rife with power shortages, the book stars Slims Achmed Makashvili, a maritime lawyer navigating the perplexing, often hilarious vagaries of life in a corrupt republic. Slims yearns to visit America—he writes letters to Hillary Clinton and applies to a business program she sponsors—where he hopes to discover a land of stupefying efficiency. But when at last he arrives in the U.S., the vision of progress is not what he’d hoped.
Nichol has taught English in India, South Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, and, of course, Georgia; her experiences abroad inform much of Waiting for the Electricity’s observant wit. With Rush and Roth, she discussed the direction of the comic novel, fiction’s bearing on foreign policy, and a State Department official with a ukulele.
Christina, how did you end up in Georgia? How did you join the great English-teaching enterprise that is this new American century?
As a kid I went to the Soviet Union with my grandfather, who braved a hundred Americans and a hundred Russians on a boat down the Volga River. This was during the eighties, and I sort of fell in love with Russia—I continued to go back to witness the transformation of communism into capitalism, which I saw as an amazing and tragic story of the twentieth century. I’d been to Kyrgyzstan, too, and as an adult I was trying to get back. I applied through this foundation, and they said, Well, we have Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia available. I’d once seen some Georgian folk dancers, and they were really amazing, so I decided on Georgia, knowing nothing about it.
And Norman, you spent some time in the Peace Corps.
Not technically. [Elsa and I] were co-country directors in the Peace Corps in Botswana from ’78 to ’83. But the formative effect of being outside the country for a long period of time is certainly the same—having that be a catalyst to a kind of uncheckable literary impulse, looking at a different part of the great evolution that’s taken place. But Christina, you said something intriguing—that you thought the conversion or the evolution of communism to capitalism was a great tragedy. That’s certainly not the State Department opinion. Are you a Bolshevik?
I suppose I’m thinking of how it was done to hold up America as an example. In communist nations, they’d heard all these terrible things about how capitalism works—someone gets money and then doesn’t provide the service he’s been paid for—and they’d say, Well, that’s the free market economy for you! Then, under capitalism, they began to live the kind of ideology of the propaganda they’d been brought up with. It was actually an even worse form of capitalism than ours.
Yours is a glorious comic narrative, and there’s something slightly odd in talking about it in the midst of terrible political tragedy, the murder and carnage taking place around the world—a kind of carnage in which, as humans and as Americans, we’re all to some degree implicated. But it isn’t strange, actually, when you think about it. Comic narrative, especially high comic, in textual form, is very important for two reasons. One, it relaxes us and returns us. It disengages us from the essential tragedy, the base tragedy, and the unnecessary tragedy that we encounter as human beings. And it teaches a kind of distance. It has a way of recharging, of remaking our willingness to be open, to have strength in the world, and to work within it. This novel is a remarkable entry into the world of comic fiction. If you look at the history of what’s considered funny in terms of narrative fiction, it’s been pretty much a male reserve. Examining, say, English Anglophone writers—novelists, not short-story writers or nonfiction writers—there’s Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, but suddenly now there’s Lydia Davis, Rivka Galchen, and an explosion of the comic subject.
I was in Kosovo last year, and they love Facebook. They’re constantly posting aphorisms. One that I read recently was by a man. He wrote, “Humor requires intelligence and honesty. That is why women love men who are funny.” And I wanted to write back, Well, what about women? They didn’t know how to deal with me in Kosovo. They didn’t understand that women can be funny.
Were you worried at a certain point that your reader would only be laughing at the malapropisms and the funny folk ways of this dorky character? The short way of referring to this is the Borat problem. Did you ever have this moment of crisis when you feared you were betraying your Georgian friends? Or did you feel like they’d understand, because what you saw there led you to believe that comedy could work in the ways that Norman suggested?
I’d started to have some crisis if I’d been away from Georgia for too long. I’d think, How is this possible? This country actually exists like this. They actually do hang their paintings upside down. For me, comedy is about the disruption of power. It’s about taking the formal and informalizing it, taking the informal and formalizing it. That’s the power that Georgia understands, and that’s the way they’ve been able to live, to stay sane—by turning their suffering upside down, turning what they have no control over upside down. I always felt that I was laughing with them. When I’d show parts of the book to them, they would always feel so honored. They’d say, You’ve captured our spirit.
I want to recommend a book called The House of Nire, a long Japanese novel by Morio Kita, published in the nineties. It’s based on a family that runs an insane asylum in Japan, in the period of about 1905 through the Second World War. You can see what a wonderful metaphor that is—the only sane people are the ones running the insane asylum. But I was going to ask about your influences.
I’ve discovered that Georgia, until recently, didn’t really have a strong literary tradition. They had a strong finger-puppet-theater tradition, a strong singing tradition, and theater and film. But they did have a few writers whom they were really proud of. One was this Nodar Dumbadze, and another, this Abkhazian writer, Fazil Iskander. Andrei Bitov, too. A lot of Russian Soviet writers. And what I noticed is that they can’t help but write in that comic tradition. When you get to Georgia, it just infiltrates you. You take a walk on a mountain and you feel this comic voice infusing you.
I wanted to ask both of you about writing in the voice of the opposite gender or sex. Christina, your novel is told in the voice of a male narrator. And Norman, Mating is famously narrated by a woman, and parts of Subtle Bodies are narrated in the voice of a woman. Slims is looking for the center of national Georgian identity, right? The essence of Georgia. And yet, here you are, a Georgian male impersonator. Do you think there is a Georgian national identity? Do you think this notion of national identity gets overplayed, particularly by Americans?
The male voice came to me with the phrase, My name is Slims, and I live in the twelfth century. Once I had that phrase, I had the voice. I couldn’t really escape. This person was living with me, and when I came back to America, he was constantly sitting on my shoulder, making snide comments about American culture. As for the Georgian national identity, when I was there they were recovering from living under the Russians, whom they did not like. They were trying to find an identity. As Slims’s line suggests, they thought of the twelfth century because that was when they owned the most land, and they thought, Well, that was our most noble time. I think they were trying to portray themselves to me, an American, as a noble people. For example, I went to Tbilisi with this friend of mine, and he insisted that he buy me a sword. We were walking down the street, I was holding onto this sword, everybody we passed applauded. We got to his apartment, on the twelfth floor, and starting cutting potatoes with the sword, and I noticed there was one bed and one blanket, and I start getting a little bit nervous about the sleeping arrangements. I guess he noticed, because he took the sword and threw it on the middle of the bed, and he said, If I cross that sword, kill me with it in the morning. I don’t know if he would have done that to a Georgian girl.
It’s exceeding the extended narrative fiction form for comic purposes that represents such an unusual change. I think there’s a confidential war between men and women that’s been going on for a long time. Great gains are being made incrementally along the way. Taking over contested spots in literature is part of gaining expressive property. But I think it’s only the beginning. This kind of comedy is also part of what we call the media advance of comedy. That’s been huge, too. So it’s happening not only in print, in text, it’s happening elsewhere, on YouTube for example.
In some ways, you could say that female comedy came to TV and movies first, and only latterly has gotten into the novel. But there are some examples. Ivy Compton-Burnett—
She’s actually a good example, because she’s not really funny. She’s super ironic, but she’s not funny the way Christina is. The other great American woman comic writer, it seems to me, is Flannery O’Connor. But she has written a lot that’s quite Gothic to an extent that’s it’s kind of funny. Again, though, it’s not quite the same. This is the real thing. This is humor like Twain did it, or Dickens. Different.
When I was applying for this job in Kosovo, I didn’t really know much about it. I thought it was a Slavic country. The embassy called and tried to sell me on it. They said, Oh, it’s like The Sound of Music, fruit trees and wonderful people, happy. They didn’t ask me a single question, so at the end, I thought, Well, I should probably talk about myself. So I said, Oh, I think I would really fit in there. I really understand Slavic humor—the light at the end of the tunnel is actually a train coming in your direction. And there was this silence. And the man said, No, we are not a Slavic culture. This is Albania. They are more optimistic.
You’re at the cutting edge of what could be called a form of American imperialism, in the way that in the nineteenth century, the British Empire would send missionaries to far-off lands. When you were teaching English, did you feel like you were, in a quiet way, supposed to be an evangelist for the great American way of life?
I did feel conflicted about the idea of teaching English. I would secretly tell my students, I’m teaching you English so you can protect yourselves against us. They would admit it—We want the English, but we don’t really want the values that come with it. In Kosovo, tourists would think, Oh this is where the Serbs fought. That was the image they wanted to keep, a picture of the Serbs bombing a particular house. They weren’t noticing the texture of life—what about this guy who’s really upset because his boss keeps taking a picture of his bald head and putting it on Facebook? What I found in Georgia was a kind of emotional intelligence. Their depth of commitment to one another was so deep that I wanted to portray it. Teaching English in these other countries has always been a means of hearing their stories, of humanizing them, and of disrupting the pervasive mainstream image.
Is it fair to say that Americans don’t realize the extent to which we’ve saved the world from the perils of fascism and communism and bombing only to present them with ordinary humiliations? And it’s those ordinary humiliations that add up to ideologies—
When I got the job, I didn’t realize how much they wanted us to introduce American culture. They wanted us to talk about Halloween. Why a Muslim culture needed to celebrate Halloween, I’m not sure. And there was a time when the embassy invited a gay couple to the library in Kosovo to talk about gay rights. The library director said, Okay, the embassy’s coming to give us a talk about gay rights. We need to collect a lot of people. Just make sure nobody understands English. I do tend to kind of demonize our foreign policy, but I have this former boss at the State Department who would e-mail me, and really what he wanted to talk about was his accordion. I realized that they’re bureaucrats, but they’re really craving that lightness, craving some sort of meaning amid these bureaucratic jobs. As you were saying, comedy is a way in. He found out that I had published a book, and all of a sudden he wanted to sponsor me to read at all the different American embassies around the world. I was like, Great, but you haven’t actually read it yet. Just a couple days ago he got to chapter 10—the book is filled with a lot of proverbs, and he found one he really liked. It inspired him to write a little song. The proverb is, The tall one wouldn’t bend, the short one wouldn’t stretch, so the kiss was lost. Imagine this guy in Washington, in the State Department, on his ukulele, just playing this song.
I think that’s so wonderful that you do something with that. There’s nothing like it. There’s actually a kind of a developing, it’s not exactly a genre, but there are some good novels by Americans about the transition from communism to capitalism. I don’t know if you know Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors. It’s about a young gay guy teaching English in Prague after the Velvet Revolution. It’s quite good, quite sad. The common theme of all of these novels is a baffled sadness about the way things turned out—very moving. And true to feeling.
I wanted to ask about the use of folk songs in the novel.
It’s quite something to be eating dinner and then to have the entire dinner table erupt into some perfect harmony. The people get up and start to dance. They all know these songs. I can’t vouch that they’re perfectly translated in the book, because I was usually in a slightly inebriated state when I heard them—which is the way you’re supposed to hear them. Here we pair wine with cheese, there they pair wine with song. It’s a very emotional experience. I’d never lived anywhere that honored sadness as much as they do. A lot of these songs are sad, but they allow time to feel that sadness. They don’t try to run away from it. The songs are a kind of guide for the sadness.
[Nichol’s editor, Mark Krotov, interjects.]
You said something to the effect that you didn’t want to write a novel that was going to have a kind of traditional—whatever that might mean—Western teleological direction. You didn’t want a novel that would begin and end in ways that we’re used to. Could you talk a little bit about the plot and resisting it as you were writing?
I had the sense that the traditional Western narrative sustained capitalism in a way—it was all about the hero overcoming the obstacles. This individual, internal quest. I wanted to portray a character where the internal and external were in alignment, because the external was his commitment to his community. To have some sort of schism there seemed so Western to me. So what I was trying to do was to create a voice of community.
Would you object to its being called a shaggy dog story? I’m saying this with all respect, because you succeeded to achieve. Your character is not someone who sets out with a problem, solves it, and then finds a community to enjoy sweet success. He has nothing to do with the arrival of electricity, which, in the novel, changes the fate of the future. It is very brave to write a shaggy dog story. It’s something that people are going to have to get used to, because a lot of them are in print now, including a very long one, not yet finished, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. In a way, you’re part of a turn among writers against identifiable preconceived plot. More power to you.
Norman Rush is the author of Whites, a collection of stories; and the novels Mating, Mortals, and Subtle Bodies.
Marco Roth is the author of The Scientists: A Family Romance, and a founding editor of n+1.
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