Wednesday, May 22, 2019

War. Prejudice. Race. And the experience of "the other." Christian Kiefer talks about his remarkable new novel PHANTOMS, and more.

Christian Kiefer is a poet, musician and the knockout author of The Animals, One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place to Hide, and now Phantoms, a blistering great novel about war, prejudice and the Japanese-American experience. I'm not the only one to love this novel with a passion. Take a look at these raves:
“Haunting.... Ray’s poignant suffering is but one example of the bigotry and fear experienced by Japanese born U.S. citizens after Pearl Harbor, the same bigotry and fear of the other that still sadly exists in America today.... YA: Ray’s story of young love and loss as well as an often omitted aspect of WWII history will resonate with teens.” — Deborah Donovan, Booklist
“Kiefer's sweeping novel (after One Day Soon Time Will Have No Place to Hide) examines the ways war shapes the lives of ordinary people.... Kiefer's story sheds light on the prejudice violence ignites and on the Japanese American experience during a fraught period of American history, and makes for engaging and memorable outing.” — Publishers Weekly
“Sweet life spills from every perfect word. It will break your heart, and in the breaking, fill you with bittersweet but luminous joy.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Set in the golden foothills of the Sierra Nevada and spanning the middle decades of the twentieth century, Phantoms tells the intertwined stories of two families, two wars, and two soldiers trying to make their way home. Exploring the brutal legacies of racism and war with unflinching honesty and incandescent prose, this novel asks: Who gets to tell their stories, and who doesn’t? What if you’re entrusted with—or thrust into—someone else’s story? Who gets to find their way home?” — Naomi J. Williams, author of Landfalls
“Christian Kiefer is a masterful writer, and this magisterial novel is aching with beauty and power. This is a great book.” — Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The House of Broken Angels
I always think that writers are haunted into writing the books they write. What was haunting you?

I think haunting is a great way to put it; the haunting here has largely to do with my community—not just in terms of where I grew up but people who look like me and, conversely, who don’t. I live in semi-rural Placer County, a place that has doubled in size since I was a child here but which is still basically a small town. Perhaps 12K population in all, and not part of any kind of urban sprawl. But you know, communities like mine are wonderful in a great many ways but they can also be inflexible, fearful, racist, insular, and so on. I love my community, but there was a story in its history that needed to be talked about, a kind of shame that we hold in our past, one common to the western states during the period of the second world war.

I  was stunned by the terrible plight of the Takahashis, whose home was taken when they went into an internment camp during WWII. This is a shameful part of American history and I imagine the research you did was harrowing. What startled you as you were researching?

I think I’m at a point in my life where I’m difficult to startle, especially when it comes to the history of race in America. Americans use a certain kind of “we” when addressing themselves and while “we” like to think it’s inclusive, it’s really just the opposite. Much of what I was trying to get to, intellectually, was a notion that Asian Americans are never thought of as simply “American,” no matter how many generations have been born and raised in this country. It’s staggeringly simple and obvious to any person of color and yet white readers may never have thought about Americanness in this way. (Which itself is strange and insular.)

I deeply admired the structure of the book, the way you could have focused solely on John, the Vietnam vet who comes home, but instead, you went deeper into the generations with his aunt, and with her former neighbor, a Takahashi, making all of these people so deeply alive, the pages practically breathe. Which brings us to the question about what kind of writer you are. Do you feel that you build on each book you’ve written, or is each book something totally new?

I think writers mostly set up new problems to solve for themselves, or at least that’s how I go about it. I’ve been really interested in the work of Peter Taylor and read a bunch of him when I was trying to figure out the tone of John Frazier’s voice in Phantoms. John’s always a kind of dodge for me; I didn’t really feel comfortable writing directly about the Japanese and Japanese American experience so John provided a way to “tell all the truth but tell it slant,” as Emily Dickinson put it.

I wish I could say otherwise, but this book seems all pointed to what is going on in our society today. Do you think we can ever change?

God how horrifying when the book—which I had finished before Trump’s election—suddenly became topical. I don’t really know how to answer the question except to look towards what’s positive right now, which is the literary community. We are in the midst of what may well be the greatest renaissance in the history of American letters, which is truly unprecedented proliferation of voices published by all kinds of presses. We’re in the era of Jesmyn Ward and Claire Vaye Watkins and Lauren Groff and Ann Beattie and Deborah Eisenberg and Danielle Evans and Christine Schutt and ZZ Packer and Valeria Luiselli—all alive and doing amazing work at the same time. It’s incredible. What a time to be a writer and a reader!

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Well I’m always obsessed with reading. I’m a fan first and, I think, a writer second. I’ve been trying to get a handle on what’s happening in science fiction a bit, although I often feel a bit at odds with the tropes. Still, I’ve been reading Gene Wolfe and Cixin Liu and others and have been enjoying it all, although the writing’s often beside the point. My biases are for language and a certain kind of ornate writing and the best of sci-fi doesn’t deal much with that kind of nonsense, Gene Wolfe and perhaps Tolkien being, perhaps, exceptions. But there are certainly other lessons to be learned about getting to the point!

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

I think the big question of Phantoms is why anyone needs another white male writer saying anything about race and my answer is that we really don’t. I’m very hesitant to take up any room in the discussion, although I think, in the end, that I do have something to say about it. It might be better to spend time, though, reading folks like Viet Thanh Nguyen, Matthew Salesses, Bich Minh Nguyen, Alexander Chee, Paul Yoon, Porochista Khakpour, Aimee Phan, and Celeste Ng. These are just of few of the real geniuses who are coming at issues of identity, humanity, and race from fresh angles and perspectives—and who are bringing a fierce emotional and intellectual energy to narrative.

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