Entretien avec Russell Banks, romancier américain

Revue Chimères n° 74, (daté été 2010, paru en mai 2011)

1. You wrote Cloudsplitter in 1999, around the character of John Brown, a white abolitionist who was hanged in 1859 for having chosen violent action against slavery. And you wrote The Darling in 2004, around the war in Liberia at the end of the XXth century. Two different periods, one in the past, the other contemporary. Two different countries, one in America and the other in Africa. And yet, it seems to be a very strong link between those different events and those different contexts.

There are many links. And particularly historical links that I discovered in the process of writing Cloudsplitter. While researching and writing Cloudsplitter I began reading about the American Colonization Society, which was responsible for founding the country of Liberia in Africa with freed African-American slaves in the early 1820s up to 1835, when Liberia became a republic, so-called, and on to the Civil War and Emancipation.
In America, there were white abolitionists in the North and white slaveholders in the South who in a sense, in cities like Philadelphia, New York or Boston, had a common racial problem. In the early 19th century freed and escaped slaves were arriving and settling in Northern and border cities in increasing numbers. They threatened both elements.
First, their presence threatened the image of America as a white nation. It was the beginning of the tempest, a glimpse of the future : a multiracial state. Second, because free blacks were becoming educated, good Christians, founding colleges, creating successful businesses, it was becoming increasingly difficult for slaveholders to argue that blacks were sub-human. And of course these successful, thriving black communities were inspiring the dream of escape into the North.
So the idea to send them back to Africa began to look like a solution for both sides, for the abolitionists who were against slavery for various reasons but nonetheless wanted America to be a white nation and felt blacks were an inferior race anyhow, and for the slaveholders in the South who wanted to get rid of the positive examples of freed and escaped blacks living on their borders. Many distinguished white citizens signed onto this proposal, including George Washington's nephew and Francis Scott Key, a lawyer and the composer of our national anthem. Even, early in his political career, Abraham Lincoln. They were all supporters of the American Colonization Society, as they called it. In addition to freed slaves, they were also sending back a number of “difficult” slaves, mostly male and young, those considered by their holders as potentially violent or likely to escape. They were given the option of staying in slavery or essentially being banished to Africa. Naturally, many of them chose banishment.
But another motive behind the creation of Liberia was pure and simple colonialism. The same old rationalizations offered by the Europeans for their conquest of the African continent lay behind the American version, especially after the question of slavery had been resolved by the Civil War. I call them the three C’s.
- Christianity : that is, evangelizing the heathens.
- Civilization : that is, humanizing the beasts.
- Capitalism : that is, providing products like rice, timber, minerals, etc., and later rubber for the US and a consumer market for goods manufactured in the US.
Those three C's infest the whole history of American culture, particularly the colonization issue. We like to think that America never had colonies in Africa; that belief is part of our popular mythology. But Liberia was, in fact, an American colony and we used it in support of our economic system.
I was writing Cloudsplitter, doing historical research, and I wondered why even the most enlightened white people of the time, who were working against slavery, supported the colonization of Liberia. But that disparity remains true today. We have not finished with racism, nor with questions of colonization and exploitation. And I could see there were connections between that time and the present.
And then, another thing intrigued me. Even if you are well intended, you have to face the unintended consequences of your good intentions. There is a blowback. When I was writing about the anti-slavery movement in America, I came across tales of incredible brutality in Liberia, and the tribalism against the native people there by the new ruling class of African-American Liberians. That brutality was an unintended consequence of our anti-slavery movement: African-Americans went over and established domination over native Africans. They -- these African-Americans and their descendants -- established a plantation system in Liberia. This was tragically ironic. And I was very aware of the seeds of hatred this planted. So when I finished my six years' work on Cloudsplitter, I began to turn my attention to Liberia in contemporary time.

2. Is this linked to the" terrorism" issue ?

The life of John Brown is historic. But after I wrote Cloudsplitter, 9/11 happened. Looking to American history, John Brown is a dramatic internal part of it. It has connections with the Weathermen in the sixties. And also with myself struggling against the Viet-Nam war. We were not struggling against slavery. But people didn't like the idea that John Brown was a terrorist : it was similar to terrorist actions against the Viet-Nam War. All those issues were linked during the time I wrote Cloudsplitter -- violence, religion driving violent acts. And all these things began to coalesce for me.
The Darling comes on the heels of 9/11. We became involved in questions of terrorism. In any event, there is a complex connection between John Brown and the radical left in 1960-70. And John Brown was consciously and personally involved in his acts, in the same way suicide-bombers are. The two novels come together, to penetrate those mysteries of America, of violence, of terrorism.

3. Could you explain the title of The Darling ?

In America, this means affectionate interest. Something also sexual, or romantic. Chekhov wrote a story called The Darling. It's about a woman, a narcissistic woman, who sees the world revolving around her. But she will become a different person depending on who's around her, who she marries. Hannah, the narrator and main character of The Darling, is border-line narcissist. She is telling her story as the story of a narcissistic woman.

4. But isn't this political narcissism also, most generally, a constant behaviour of white people ?

This title doesn't seem to need any translation. For publication in France for example, the title is American Darling. She is a kind of metaphor, a kind of typical American. We are "the darlings" in the world; that means we are narcissists in the world. We always think everything is about us; we never see the world from other points of view. The word "darling" is also ironic. It means somebody precious, who is not aware of his own privileges.
The tragic consequence of that attitude is our denial. What do we deny? We, white people, tend to deny colour. We say "coloured people" for others, "people of colour". But each person has a colour. The denial of our own colour is a racial privilege (as well as a racial prejudice). Racial privilege lies behind the distribution of power in society. It is very easy, as a white, to use the power of your racial privilege even while you deny it. Just as most men deny the privilege of their gender. I'm a man, I'm privileged -- financial matters, restaurant tables. As a white person, I'm also privileged. Those are very simple sociological facts. This is about the distribution of power. You can very quickly find an argument to prop up that question as it relates to the rest of the world. Look at how we denied the genocide of American Indians, or the humanity of the Vietnamese.

5. Have you ever written about the Native Americans ?

I've never written about them . In this area of upstate New York, Indians --the Mohawks -- are a significant part. There was a Federation of Indian tribes in this region and in Ohio. Also, across the US border in Ontario and Quebec, there was a large confederation of Indian tribes -- Mohawks, Mic-macs. They have land set aside for reservations now. They sell cigarettes. It's a world I don't know very well, and I need to research. A Mohawk once explained to me the meaning of my work in his experience. American history is linked to Indian-Americans, and he could see elements of my stories that applied to his experience. But it's a world I have no experience of .

6. In Cloudsplitter, you point out the major double-bind of American history, which is the origin of John Brown's fighting : America is founded on the first Human Rights Declaration, before the French one, declaring the universalism of humanity. But in the same time, it is built on Indian genocide, slavery and discrimination.

In 1787, the American Constitution was built on a violent contradiction -- defense of human rights on one hand, but, on the other hand, a premise accepting the institution of slavery. It carried the seeds of our worst bloody war. That contradiction made this country nearly fall apart in blood. We are still trying to implement a resolution. This contradiction was behind the institutionalization of racism, our Jim Crow laws, which established federal and state segregation in America after the Civil War, until 1965. And this is also the origin of our Civil Rights movement. The election of a black President helps to overcome this contradiction, but we still don't live in a "post-racial" society.
After the violence of the Civil War and the passage of the Jim Crow laws, the contradiction between the gradual integration of our society on one hand, and discrimination as legal on the other hand, was an evolving process -- legal, cultural, educational. It took different routes, generally, but slowly. During my lifetime (seventy years), I have been and I am still a witness of this process. I was very involved in the Civil Rights movement in the sixties. I can see the progress between today and 1940. I have four daughters and I have grandchildren, and I can see life in this country is different for them. I have a black grandson (two years old). On the street, in terms of racial prejudice, discrimination is greatly diminished. It's even different from two years ago. When my grandson sees the President's face on television, don't you think it's important for him ?

7. What about transmission, which seems to be a crucial issue, but in different ways in Cloudsplitter and in The Darling ?

Owen Brown is an interesting side-note. He went and lived in California after Harpers Ferry. He is photographed on the American cover of Cloudsplitter. He is "the son of the liberator", as black people described him on his grave, when he died. The transmission that his father gave him was an old fashioned Puritan belief system, pure uncompromising faith. John Brown was an American Puritan, settled in New England, whose ancestors had fled religious persecution in England -- Puritan motives leading to fanaticism.
Owen Brown is more of a modern man; he exhibits a kind of contemporary existential self-questioning, a worrying over identity. He is in a way a modern man, but one who is intent on transmitting a kind of religious charity to people : a sensibility which seems to us to be almost medieval.
There is a particular kind of gaze. And I thought : transmitting the vision John Brown has transmitted to his son Owen is going to be a novel. It was the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac : Abraham sacrified his son. And I identified with that son. This kind of transmission was increasingly difficult. Owen believes in his father's principles, but he doesn't share his religious vision. He is a universalist, but not in a religious way. So, he has a lot of conflicts with his father, but then he gets caught up in circumstances. This explains his flight from Harpers Ferry : he escapes in solitude. The question of transmission is part of the drama.
In the case of The Darling, what Hannah is rejecting is not so much upper class liberalism, but also bourgeois upper-middle class security and complacency. Which is the attitude of my generation: the bourgeois life was repellent, and so was the economic way of life we saw around us, so was liberalism. It was that aspect I wanted to point out, along with her hypercritical reproach of her parents. You go to the left politically because your parents are on the other side. So I have seen the children of my friends becoming Republicans. It's just a question of generations. I have friends whose children became born-again Christians, fundamentalists. This type of psychological drama between generations is very common.

8. In the particular context of The Darling, the transmission is caught also in a different way with Hannah's own sons : she doesn't really take care of them, and they become boy soldiers in Liberia.

Children of an African father and a white woman exist in the Liberian cultural context. Some Liberians are middle-class, part of the leading class in Liberia. It may not be common, but it is true for that family. Hannah has been rejected in the US; she got caught up in circumstances. She is a distant, detached, non-involved mother. Some readers found it reprehensible that she was not a good mother. She could do everything a man could handle, and she can give birth. But if she were a man, she would be seen as a kind of Graham Greene "existential character", or a hero out of Hemingway.
She is a female, but not every woman is maternal, not every man is paternal. Partly because of her experience with her parents as a young woman, partly because she is an only child, and partly by political choice, her identity is troubled with questions of gender. She has an affair with a woman, and also with men. She doesn't want a definite sexual identity. Personally, I think there are always ambiguities in our sexual identity.

9. Isn't there also a matter of slippery identity in Owen's character, something that cannot be put in boxes ?

Edmund White had a reaction to Owen's character in Cloudsplitter. He said :
"This is one of the most interesting portraits of a gay man".
Owen is from a deeply Christian, working class family. In that context,at that time, there was no vocabulary for this kind of sexuality. And so, there is sexual confusion, which leads to denial : it is impossible to make explicit what it is. He couldn't explain it, he had no language for it. He was somehow driven by homosexual desire, and maybe today he would be diagnosed as a bipolar, manic-depressive, if somebody wanted to do a clinical study of this.

10. Isn't it a kind of violence, to want absolutely to reduce people to a definite and socially unique identity, like biological "race" or "sex" ?

Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, all the great characters, you cannot categorize them. If I'm in a white social category, and if I want to define myself only as white, it's psychotic. It's a disturbed view of identity. Who am I really? For Owen or Hannah, their truths are coming from their own experience. They are honest narrators, but they are limited to their own experience of the world.
But we know that if certain things happened they would be different. For instance, in the novel, when Owen was with his father in Boston and was insulted, we knew that this was part of his homosexual searching. But he goes out there, in a blue mood. He has a lack of clarity about slavery ; but he has sexual curiosity. He is ambiguous with the men he encounters, he almost invites them to beat him up. This is self-punishing : the reader will recognize that. Owen is struggling with sexuality, he is angry with himself. And these conflicts don't permit him to rest.
Hannah is also ambiguous; she is an honest narrator, but not reliable. You can see it at the beginning of the story : her own experience is limited.

11. Don't those characters show how racial or sexual categories are cultural categories, that is one of the "biopolitic" 's meanings ?

I don't know the term, but it is useful to raise, even regarding gender. Gender is a long horizontal plane. Anatomically, we are identified as either a woman or a man. There are some people in my family who seem to be more "male" than the others : that was for example the case of my father, or my brothers. There are women also differently placed. We tend to let society divide us up : sex, like race, is a socially constructed aspect of humanity and identity. But making a rigid distinction between genders, between species, signals that there is a deep ambiguity here. When you are part of the culture, it is so difficult to see that, to allow yourself to see degrees of gender.

12. It seems to be here another double-bind in that naturalization : the more we are asked to be culturated, the more we are valued by what is supposed to be our "nature".

If everybody is on the same plane, then you have no natural reason to distribute power. Back to the history of race, the reason for creating a distinction between black and white people and then imputing racial inferiority to blacks was that it permitted white domination and power. And at that period, slavery was necessary to the development of the new world. That was the reason to decree blacks were inferior.

I like to point to Shakespeare and to mark the difference between The Tempest, written in 1611, and Othello, written in 1603. Othello is black, but he is a prince, a warrior. Shakespeare plays with it. He is a powerful figure, deeply involved and independent. Eight years later, in The Tempest, we have Caliban, the human-like monster. In this short period, we go from Othello who is a prince, to Caliban who is a monster. In my imagination, The Tempest could be set in the present. We're still dealing with prejudice and claims of racial inferiority.
Underlying this need to differentiate between human beings is a desire to distribute power unequally. So, a patriarchal, racist and homophobic society distributes power to heterosexual white men. Those eight years between Othello and Caliban reflect, from the best-known English author of the sixteenth century, the rapid colonization of America through the demonization of its "exotic" people. They began to cede their lands, and they thus became defined as inferior. The demonization of Africa started when it became economically useful to do so. It goes on.
By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the exploration of the New World commences in earnest. By Shakespeare's time, you can see it by comparing those two characters, Othello and Caliban. Othello is a real Shakespearean hero, as much as Hamlet or Macbeth, a tragic hero, while Caliban is somewhere between a grotesque and a beast. This sudden shift of consciousness in western Europe is a consequence of the economic exploitation and demonization of human beings in the New World -- Indians, Africans -- human beings who are not European. And are therefore not human.

13. How was it possible to link economic power to facial features ?

When the first ships, the first Europeans, came ashore in the Caribbean, Mexico, North America, they saw the native people as potentially economically exploitable. This is the beginning of our history. And so the exploitation of those people had to be made morally acceptable. And to do that, the explorers, who were Christian people, Europeans, who didn't make slaves of French or English or other European people, used the fact that these native people looked different to create a distinction between people on the basis of those appearances, and then equated appearance with superiority and inferiority. If you could classify people in terms of race or appearance, and define the entire race as inferior, then you could define those people as exploitable. The explorers had to demonize them in order to justify their power over them.
There's a kind of slavery called chattel slavery, with a very specific meaning. It means a slave is owned beyond his lifetime. An American slaveholder owned slaves not only for the duration of their life, but the children of his slaves were also his slaves, and all their descendants as well. For a system of chattel slavery to work, you had to be able to make a distinction between people on the basis of physiognomy or anatomy. Basically, that physiognomical aspect was crucial in order to view the children of slaves as slaves. This is why the facial features, the physiognomical aspects, become important for claiming superiority and inferiority.
Historically, European people also practiced slavery, and Africans enslaved each other, but that was a result of military conquest, and it wasn't chattel slavery. It wasn't hereditary. But we, as Americans and Europeans, turned it into a business; American slavery was a very different thing. Some of the women slaves had children with their master, and, in that case, the women might be treated rather well. Still, the children they had, even when the father was the white slaveholder, were slaves. Thomas Jefferson himself, our third President, the hero of Independence, had a relationship with a slave, a love affair. Her name was Sally Hemmings and she was well-treated. She was privileged. She was an exception, but her children were still slaves.
This long tradition of slavery had consequences even after the the Civil War. If you are one-quarter black, you are considered to be black. Until recently in the South, one drop of black blood meant you're black. That is a form of insanity, it's out of touch with reality. Such biological conventions remain powerful, but they're quite insane.

Owen Brown was John Brown's third son. His character is the narrator of Russell Banks's novel Cloudsplitter.
Harpers Ferry is the arsenal attacked by John Brown in 1859 to fight against slavery. He failed, most of his fellows (including some of his sons) were killed, and he was therefore condemned and hanged.

© Christiane Vollaire