Tragic subjects dog Fred D’Aguiar’s creative impulses. His first novel, The Longest Memory, about slavery on a Virginia plantation, won the Whitbread First Novel Award. Another novel, Feeding The Ghosts, was inspired by the 1781 Zong Massacre in which 142 enslaved Africans were thrown off a slave ship so that the ship’s owners could collect on the insurance policies they had taken out on the slaves’ lives. Bill of Rights, his book-length narrative poem about the Jonestown massacre, was short-listed for the prestigious T.S. Eliot Prize.
Since 2003, D’Aguiar has taught at Virginia Tech. He was working on another book about the Jonestown massacre—a novel this time—when another tragedy interrupted his writing: the April 16, 2007 mass shootings that claimed thirty-three lives on Virginia Tech’s campus. One of his students was among the victims. He also knew the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, through a series of creative writing tutorials.
D’Aguiar put aside his new Jonestown book to investigate, through poetry, the Virginia Tech killings. The result was “Elegies,” a seventy-two-page lyrical meditation that formed the backbone of Continental Shelf, his 2009 collection that was a finalist for the T.S. Eliot Prize.
Eventually, he returned to his Jonestown novel, Children of Paradise, which was released last month to critical acclaim.
We recently met at an Indian restaurant, where D’Aguiar spoke about his children, his love for teaching, and his early training as a psychiatric nurse. Then I clicked on my digital recording device and we talked of tragedy.
The Rumpus: When one thinks of someone who dwells on tragedies, one usually thinks of someone given to dark thoughts and dark moods, the type of person you’d want to keep them at arm’s length. You strike me as the exact opposite. You’re outgoing, eloquent, engaging, humorous, and erudite. So what brought you to focus on tragedy in your writings?
Fred D’Aguiar: At bottom, I’m a cheerful person. With kids, they force you to get out of bed. They force you to smile. They remind you of spontaneity. So I always check my bad mood and my dystopic vision at the door. I don’t want to spoil what they bring to me, which is always a kind of spontaneity and high energy. I use that quite a bit.
With the tragedy thing, once I became historically aware, I realized there are these formative moments of history tied around tragedy and disaster and sacrifice, that led people to survive and take stock and move on with some kind of notion of betterment. So whenever I went to an historical moment that was sad or where something terrible happened, it was, for me, a learning moment, a teaching moment for those who survived. And then there’s a moment to remember those who died or sacrificed for us to carry on.
So I found it instructive and highly constructive as a writer to go to a point of disaster and come out with a feel for it and then some sort of a lesson based on feeling. Because I write intuitively and image-by-image and moment-by-moment, my writing has to be powered by feelings and emotions. Otherwise I can’t do it. I can’t stay engaged for years with a book unless it has feelings. It can’t be an idea for me—it has to be a felt thing.
Rumpus: Though you were born in London, you grew up in Guyana in a post-colonial environment. Does that affect your view of history, your worldview?
D’Aguiar: Yeah. I was on the wrong side of colonization. My ancestry is mostly mired in having the colonial experience as colonized subjects, first as slaves and then as independent subjects with a post-colonial experience. Having said that, my grandfather is Portuguese. He betrayed what was expected of him and married my grandmother of African descent on my father’s side.
So I try to be even-handed and fair-minded about my view of history. I don’t romanticize one side and demonize the other, though I do think that if you’re suffering a lot, especially in the Bob Marley sense, suffering becomes a kind of university out of which you’ll learn some hard lessons. Whereas, if you’re just mired in privilege, there’s nothing to learn; learning appears to be over.
Rumpus: Learning appears to be over?
D’Aguiar: Yes. Apparently. That’s the way it seems. People seem very comfortable having a kind of Cheesecake Factory-type of life.
Rumpus: We saw that in the 1990s in this country after the end of the Cold War, when you had people coming out with books with titles like The End of History.
Rumpus: What keeps drawing you to write about Jonestown?
D’Aguiar: The poetry [Bill of Rights] was a distillation of an experience based on a kind of loyalty to music and sound. A poem is full of chants and sound. And I was paying homage to Guyana itself and its Caribbean cultural tradition, and showing how history and culture can be conveyed as song and how you can try and have musical moments, in meter and line, so that was my thinking there—the lyric.
I went back to make a program for BBC radio [in 2004]. I went to Jonestown and saw the place and spoke to people who were in the area. For example, a guy who was living in Port Kaituma, which is the nearest town to Jonestown, and he talked about it as if it were a fresh event, even though [it happened] years and years ago. He spoke of it in a way that made me think, Oh, the narrative led by a character, driven by a character—there was still room for that that wasn’t properly dealt with in an expansive way.
That visit drove me to write the novel and make a break with the poem being over with and done.
Rumpus: Was it chilling to go back and see the old Jonestown structures, the old huts and houses?
D’Aguiar: It’s totally leveled. Everything is gone. It’s now overgrown and reclaimed by the jungle. You can see mounds where bulldozers had covered things. When the Americans came in, they bulldozed some things, and the rest was taken away. The buildings were dismantled, taken away by locals. So it was one of those failed spaces where something terrible had happened and there was no way to rehabilitate the space, and so it was abandoned. It is now a cauterized space of trauma, where something bad has happened and the ground has taken some time to be cleared by nature and be reclaimed by nature.
So the place is overgrown, and I was shocked by that. When I was there ten or twelve years ago, there was no memorial to the place. It means that the memory of it is only in living testimony, basically: those who will remember, those who talk about it, or write about it, or think about it.
I felt, wow—I had to go away and write about it. It was absolutely shocking. I couldn’t get over how many people had died and how they’d been forgotten. And then the more I looked into them and heard how their kids died and how they had been killed, I just felt more and more outraged. I thought, You know, I have to write about this properly in a longer meditation, more of a sermon than a song.
Rumpus: You were writing a draft of Children of Paradise when the 4/16 Virginia Tech tragedies occurred. Did you put your draft away instantaneously? Were you so struck by 4/16 that you had to stop writing this?
D’Aguiar: I stopped immediately because when something comes to your front door, you have to pay attention. They’re knocking your door down. You just can’t carry on whistling as Rome burns. I had to stop.
I was stunned for days after the shootings happened. For days. For days, trying to catch up with people and my shock… Literature was out of the question. It was just a question of soaking up what happened. It had taken my breath away. I was astonished by it, and then I tried to understand it as a logically thinking person: is [the shooter] mentally ill? Is it because of the preponderance of weapons? What if he had a slingshot—how much damage could he do?
The scenarios are endless, then I got angry. I think of the stages of grief. I went through those as an intellectual proposition. Out of that came this compulsion to make sense of it. Once I did the poem [“Elegies”], which took a while, I then was able to go back to the novel, with what I felt was even more wisdom than before, even more energy than before.
Rumpus: Were you reluctant to go back to writing the novel?
D’Aguiar: For a blip of a moment. For like one week. Actually, what I felt more was a kind of energy for the project, oddly enough. I felt, I need to get this written because look what’s happening. People were asking the same questions [of 4/16 and Jonestown]—how? Why? Exactly the same questions were being asked that were being asked of every disaster I’ve seen that happens every few months. So I realized examination was absent, reflections were absent. What was happening was a kind of general puzzlement and befuddlement, and then people would carry on. There was no policy that came out of it. I want policy out of pain. After pain, I want policy, not just, “we’re puzzled” and then walk away after a moment of silence.
I want a theory to come out to guide policy. I think poetry can lead to policy, and I can hear the laughter when I say that…but I think Shelley was right. We are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. When I say “we,” I mean writers as well—fiction as well.
Rumpus: Bill of Rights was a realistic, long narrative poem. It explicitly mentioned Jonestown, whereas Children of Paradise never mentions that “J” word. The novel contains obviously non-Jonestown-ian elements. I’m thinking, for example, of Adam [the Jones-like character’s pet gorilla] and some of the other magical elements and moments. The difference in approaches—what do you chalk that up to? Was it to help you get into the material? Was it to help readers better access the material?
D’Aguiar: The different approaches—I blame postmodernism! I love the fact that I can go to a museum now that tells me I’m in the postmodern age. And that has to mean something in terms of the practice of arts. So when I read a Jane Austen novel, it should look very different from a Márquez novel, for lots of good reasons. And in what ways did it change our artistic practice?
One of them is a kind of license with narrative, changing points of view, with the idea of magic as a way of invigorating the dead with a kind of a new presence. After Márquez, if there’s a magical moment in a text, it’s usually because someone else is speaking who is unable to speak.
Magical realism as a declaration in the text is usually when someone can’t speak and then they must be magically reinvigorated in some way. So, in narrative terms— I’m not giving anything away in the novel by saying—when magical realism appears in the text, you’re meant to think, How can this person speak? What state are they in? It’s meant to immediately make you question their corporeal reality in the world, their body-ness. Have they crossed? Have they passed? You’re meant to ask that question right away because of what I did to the narrative.
And also, of course, I’m messing with history. History has happened. I can’t change the dead. I’m saying I want to hold each of those children who died silently, each of those children who had a parent hold them and squirt poison into their mouths. What a massive betrayal! I want to go like a parent and say, “You will not take that poison! You have not been poisoned! Age with me! Breathe with me!” And I want to hold it for long enough and keep that disaster at bay for long enough to allow fiction to break out and make something else happen.
With storytelling, you go into a moment and you delay the inevitable for long enough for reflection and maybe something else to move into the program…on behalf of the dead. And there’s also a theory out there—I can’t remember who said it—the idea of remembering the dismembered. By saying “remember the dismembered,” it’s really reimagining their dismemberment in order to let something else happen for you as a living person. In other words, it’s about instruction at a site of disaster and grief. So you’re not just grieving. You are grieving and doing the right thing by grieving, but you also learn from the grief. The second you do that, it’s about instruction of your own self and the world, so after the book, there’s a knowledge after the book.
Emily Dickinson said that about the great feeling coming after the event [in her poem “After Great Pain, A Formal Feeling Comes”]. That’s what she meant: the feeling that comes after what makes you write, but as a reader, that feeling is to make you think and see how your life is improved by it. It invites reflection. Certainly. That’s how I viewed the horrible pain of Jonestown.
I must say, it wasn’t an easy book to write. Are you kidding? As a parent? Who wants to bury a child? It’s the last thing you want to do.
Rumpus: In your essay “Writing the Virginia Dead,” published in The Guardian on the first anniversary of the 4/16 shootings, you bemoaned that “the shooter, his makeup and psyche is of more interest to the media than his many, many victims.” This makes me realize why you spent so much time developing the “minor characters”—and I use the term not to deflate them, but to signify that they are characters we don’t normally examine.
D’Aguiar: That’s basically it. Jones gets character-shorted slightly in my book because I wanted to bring out others. Yes, I wanted to emphasize his megalomania. That kind of power [does not become evident] until you see bodies fall and then the institutions that are destroyed by it. Then you can see what it does, but as a property in the body, he’s very hard to put a finger in. And so I thought if he really dressed outlandishly and behaved in an outlandish way, it would give us an indication of his impulses and his faults on a grand scale.
Rumpus: One always wishes that things would happen differently. For example, in Chidlren of Paradise, you have this moment when one of the characters holds a gun up to the Jones-like analogue. You just wish as a reader that he’d pull the trigger.
D’Aguiar: I know.
Rumpus: But then you realize something like that is not possible. For whatever reason, the people of Jonestown let go of their active agency powers. Which is one thing you have as a writer: your power of agency.
D’Aguiar: That’s true. I took pains to show resistance to Jones before final compliance in their deaths. People were threatened with being shot and stabbed and so on if they didn’t cooperate. There was bullying on the actual final day, but to get to that point, there was a lot of mind control, starvation, beatings, and punishments to get them to erode their will. That’s what I was keen to show in the novel. Of course there was resistance, of course there was questioning, but look how he broke that down with several fake calls to death, and several rehearsals for dying. People were always hungry, bullied, afraid, paranoid—so I just thought I’d show that in the novel in a kind of suffocating way. I tried to write a text that would give a mounting sense of suffocation and dread, because that’s what happened to them. They were living that day in and day out until the end. And by the time it came to the end, some of them didn’t realize it was the end, but didn’t quite process it because, it had always been the end for a long time.
Rumpus: Let me lead into a question about the end of the novel. You write in “Elegies”:
In a decent work of fiction
There would be a twist, a turn,
Right in the middle that the most astute
Reader misses or guesses wrong.
Given how this novel ends, it’s fair to say that you accomplish that.
D’Aguiar: Thank you! You read that closely.
Rumpus: Well, it was right on target. So I guess what you’re saying is that if you’re going to fictionalize it, you’ve got fictionalize it.
D’Aguiar: There’s an imperative to make sure you distinguish fiction from the fact, because if the fact is doing the work, why did you do fiction? And once you raise the question of why—why do fiction?—then you have to answer it in your text as a kind of enactment of the answer. And my enactment was, the kids in the fact of their dying never had a say.
Secondly, if you die without agency as a child, but you have agency in your body [in the novel], how is it to be enacted unless it is being reimagined by a writer? Because historians don’t generally do that. They say body counts, how they die, when—and they get that stuff right—but what they miss out on is the psychological pain that surviving an incident leaves you with.
Reading about Jonestown, I felt hurt by it. But the hurt wasn’t being answered by finding out the numbers. It was still left unanswered. And I think the addressing of the hurt becomes a psychological investigation for me, which led to the idea to do fiction. Once I decided that—and of course, with my psychological nursing background, I always go back to that, because it leaves a habit in your body of looking at people when they’re hurting, and addressing the pain of when they’re hurting, and then trying to find that smile once more, because you knew they smiled before they hurt. How do you recover that?
I’m interested in that, and I’m interested in someone who’s mired in grief: how do you get back to that thing that makes them warm? Because you know that’s in there. And I’m interested how we get to it. What is that route? And the root of that—R-O-O-T, not just R-O-U-T-E, as it were—out of it. So when it came to the fiction, it had to be distinguished from the factual history.
When you walk to the end of a fiction, its procedure is 1) intuitive; and 2) emotional. Its intelligence is emotional, I think. I usually feel something before I know it. Eliot said that “genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” What he meant by that is, the emotional understanding comes before you understand the argument that follows later in the text. That first hit on the nervous system is the one I’m most interested in, because I think if you hit the reader emotionally, the reader can’t guarantee the lessons they would like to learn. So to close the empathetic gap, you really want to get the person emotionally identifying [with your subject and characters], and then when you do that, then you want sneak in a lesson about history and about politics and whatever else you might think about. You arrest the person emotionally, you’ve got them. Before they know, they’re in your argument and they’re in the environment of what you created and they can’t argue back. They’re floundering with feeling. The lessons from that floundering become lessons in the body that then undermine whatever they had believed in their mind before they engaged.
Rumpus: Do you ever think of doing Jonestown as a creative nonfiction project?
D’Aguiar: Nah. Can’t do it!
Rumpus: Why’s that?
D’Aguiar: I do write nonfiction, but in writing nonfiction, I felt I’d get more out of this book as a fictional project. Also, once I elected to go with the kids [whose narratives and plight occupy Children of Paradise’s bulk], I couldn’t do nonfiction. To have a young person speak back, to hand him the microphone for his first-person utterances, you’d have to have an imagined architecture, otherwise people would say you’re putting words in their mouths. If you just hand them the microphone, then it’s obviously you [the writer] who’s talking. But if you created a place in air where they’re breathing and running around in, and then they speak in that fictional milieu, it’s perfectly authenticated because the whole world relies on you, who’ve made it possible.
Rumpus: This dovetails into something else you wrote in “Elegies”:
Though I cannot forget what you have done
I have no time for you, not until
Memory and imagination serve
Your victims—what they did or what
They planned to do, and what I imagined
Them doing with their family and friends…
So when investigating tragedies, is the role of imagination paramount?
D’Aguiar: Absolutely. That’s exactly right. You know, it’s paramount for people who are in a tragic situation, as well. People who are suffering have to visualize ways out of tragedy to actually get out of it.
It’s like a martial artist. Bruce Lee, before he fought, he would try to visualize how the fight would go, because he was visualizing a victorious path out of the combat. Trauma is a bit like that. Much of the visualizing is imaginative. And so when you think about that, you think about a way out after being immersed in that disaster. A through-line that would get you back to oxygen and the light.
That poem is exactly what I think. What I said there, I stick by it totally, because that’s what I learned from the tragedy here. It helped me go back to the novel and make it even more elliptical towards the end, even more let the victims have their say. They were silenced by history. They’re not going to be silenced in this book. In the moment of the novel, everything could happen. Spirits could talk. We could hold off that cyanide just for long enough to allow for something else to happen. A kind of imagined escape.