In his new book Voyager: Travel Writings, the literary novelist Russell Banks collects his travel pieces from the last twenty-five years and gives them a deep memoir focus. He opens the book with a thirty-three-island, two-month tour through the Caribbean in the late 1980s that he turns into an intriguing meditation on love and mortality. Banks test drives a Hummer 2 in a testosterone-fueled drive up the coast of Alaska. He explores his infatuation with progressively harder hiking and climbing trips, moving from the Andes in his fifties to the Himalayas in his seventies. In Cuba, Banks and the novelist William Kennedy find themselves in a post-Cold War standoff with Fidel Castro.
Banks dropped out of college and went down to Florida at nineteen to join the Cuban Revolution. Instead of finding a revolution, he married a local Floridian beauty, had a kid, and was separated by age twenty. Banks uses his glossy travel piece to examine his three failed marriages and how an almost accidental writing career saved his life, offers commentary on the postcolonial history, and meditates on America’s harsh legacy with slavery and racism.
Banks, seventy-six, is the acclaimed author of The Sweet Hereafter, Continental Drift, Affliction, and fifteen other works of fiction. Banks spoke with me by telephone from his home in the Adirondacks, in upstate New York.
The Rumpus: How did your long Caribbean travel piece in Voyager evolve?
Russell Banks: It was an assignment for Condé Nast Traveler, to go to thirty-three Caribbean islands, from St. Thomas to Jamaica. The original piece in the late 1980s was much shorter and nowhere near as personal or self-revealing. When I wanted to pull my travel pieces together as a book, I realized I had an opportunity to use it as a frame for a memoir. I’d never written a memoir in the past. I’d stayed away from that. It was a chance to rewrite and rethink the early Condé Nast piece and to make a much more interesting one.
Rumpus: In your memoir, you are drawn to the Caribbean from childhood, from the pirate movies of Errol Flynn, like Captain Blood. What has the Caribbean meant to you?
Banks: It is very hard to say. Looking back, I was a kid raised in New Hampshire and eastern Massachusetts. There was a northeastern, Presbyterian/Calvinist culture and so forth. There was always the other that was different than what I had been given in life and which I was not comfortable with. It was a vivid sense of chance and possibility that the Caribbean represented for me early on. As my life went on and I travelled more widely, I understood the Caribbean more deeply. It wasn’t just a fantasy that lay out there, but a became a big reality in my life. It began as an alternative to the life I was given and one that seemed very desirable to me. We are talking the 1940s and 1950s. I was in a little, white Protestant corner of the northeast.
The Caribbean was everything that where I wasn’t—it was warm year round; it was green, lush, and sensual. It was filled with black people and had a radically different history. It wasn’t far away. It was just around the corner.
There was a kind of escape pattern that had changed some of its terms as I grew older and as my life changed. There was still a pattern. I realized that as I was writing the book that this was the same pattern designed into the Voyager I space probe, that somewhere early on it was designed to keep escaping the gravitational field that surrounded it. That was where the title of the book came from.
Rumpus: Why did you go through the turbulent history of your first three marriages in the Caribbean essay?
Banks: I had to tell Chase [his future wife, who was on the trip] everything. That was the deal. Therefore the reader, too. That was the form and structure of the essay. You are locked in. That is what happens with memoirs. I didn’t set out to do that.
I’m seventy-six now. I’m at a stage in my life where I feel a lot of affection and regard for those women, and I felt the need to make this clear in some way. I don’t know how they’ll feel when they read it, but I feel okay about it.
Rumpus: When you lived in Jamaica in the 1970s, did you find it difficult to integrate into the society?
Banks: It was ultimately impossible. The point is that you cannot penetrate past a certain point. You can fantasize about it. It’s called “going native,” but you are still an object of ridicule to the natives.
Rumpus: On the island of Domenica, you stay at a run-down hotel owned by an imperious elderly American. Half the staff resembles him. What did you draw from this experience?
Banks: We are not buried in history, but surrounded by it. You can’t avoid our behavior being shaped by it, to a considerable degree. We have this fantasy that we are free of history. This allows us not to see the circumstances, the historical circumstances of other people. Some of the characters in this section don’t see their own circumstances, like the guy running the guest house in Domenica, the leftover colonial. He just sees himself as superior.
Seeing the waitstaff really was a “Thomas Jefferson” moment. It was endlessly fascinating. It was right out of the 19th century.
Rumpus: You go to Goree Island, off the coast of Senegal, where kidnapped Africans were chained and sent across the ocean for the Middle Passage, going to North America, the Caribbean, and South America for a brutal life on enslavement. You bring up James Baldwin’s devastating line on race in America, “…but one cannot claim the birthright without accepting the inheritance.” What does that mean to you?
Banks: Essentially, the idea of living in a post-racial society and living in America at the same time are in radical conflict. If we’ve learned anything in the past eight years, is that we do not live in a post-racial society. It is still with us, the racial divide and all the fears, dreams, fantasies, and horrors, as well as the history is still very much with us today. The terms change. If you are born black, it is better to be born now than in any other time in United States history. My grandson is black. His life is a different life than if he had been born when I was born.
I am aware of the changes, but in no sense am I believer that we live in a post-racial society. That’s a description of our inheritance and that is theirs, which is inescapable. It is doesn’t matter if you are from New England or Mississippi. You’re an American. It doesn’t matter if you are white, black, brown, or Asian. It is part of American society. You’d have to be blind, deaf, or dumb not to know it. The emphasis on color or the fear of it, is all part of the same dark flower. I am trying to point to that and to bring it all the way back from Senegal.
Rumpus: You first refuse to go to the House of Slaves, out of respect for the African-American tourists there. Why did you change your mind?
Banks: I was acting as if it was not part of my history and that it was somebody else’s. I was respecting the African-American pilgrimage, their hajj, like I would pass by a synagogue because I’m not Jewish. I thought, “This not about me,” then I realized that it was about me, as well. The story of Goree Island directly impinges on my history as a white American.
I live in the northeastern corner of the United States, where the biggest employer is the prison system, and the vast majority of the prisoners are from downstate, and they are mostly black and Latino. Almost all the prison guards and the people who depend on the prisons are white. There is this racial divide. From the point of view of the whites, it is all about the money. The prisons are the only employers that offer pensions and health benefits. The locals want the prisons to thrive and flourish. It is a gulag.
Rumpus: In 2003, you test drove a red Hummer 2 up the coast of Alaska in a testosterone-fueled trip up to a friend’s rustic shack. The piece turned into a satirical meditation on humans’ assault on nature. What was the troubled response to your article?
Banks: I originally wrote it for GQ. They really like it and it was going to run in October 2003. They called me and said that they had an editorial meeting and decided not to run it. I learned confidentially from the office that GQ had just taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising from Hummer, that was coming out that October. They turned it back to me and gave me a kill fee.
I said, I don’t care, I’ll try Esquire. The same story—they loved the essay, but had Hummer advertising. I tried Men’s Journal. Same story. I wanted to put it out because it was an early article on climate change and the relationship to our consumption. We sent it to Outside, but Hummer had bought four-color ads, so they weren’t going to do anything satirical about the Hummer. It was never published and sat around in my files for a decade. Finally, the literary a magazine Conjunctions said they’d love to share it. It was published and became quite successful, being anthologized in a number of places.
Rumpus: You went to the Seychelles Islands to go birdwatching. The islands were crawling with oilmen, with the islands on the cusp of an oil boom. What was the serpent in the garden for you?
Banks: The Seychelles was as close to paradise as you could find on this planet, and in the end, I realized that it was just about to be as developed for oil. That’s the serpent. The whole planet is the garden, and we know now that the destruction of the garden is attributable to the carbon that is buried in the planet. It is exemplified by the oil prospectors coming at the end of the piece, the gigantic multinationals on the horizon and the tankers moving in on the islands.
The irony for me was when I was looking for the rare birds, I bump into this nice intelligent guy, you want to have a conversation with and it turns out he is the enemy, an oilman. That’s a kind of Graham Greene motif. It’s a classic.
Rumpus: In 2003, you and the novelist William Kennedy went down to the Havana Book Festival and were given a rare chance to interview Fidel Castro. What happened?
Banks: Bill and I had been invited to interview Castro. There was this funny part I didn’t put in the book. We were told there would be lunch, but there was only orange juice, water, and coffee. We sat across from him. He had one of those simultaneous translators, which made us think that we were speaking Spanish and Fidel was speaking English. A couple of hours passed. I knew Bill had to piss, and I certainly had to piss. We weren’t going to piss before Fidel. Fidel went on and on. After a few hours, Bill asked to go to the bathroom. I went after him. Fidel never left he table. I’m convinced he had a chauffeur’s boot (a hidden urination device) on. He seemed to be ready to go for another six hours.
Rumpus: In an old interview, you once said that if you hadn’t become a writer, you probably would have been stabbed to death in the parking lot of a Florida bar. Like your father, you were once a heavy-drinking, sharp-dressed bar fighter. Did writing save your life?
Banks: I was on that path. If I hadn’t gotten off that path, I would have ended up in deep trouble. Writing saved me. It was early enough on. It allowed me to shape my life around something that required great discipline, honesty, insight, and clarity, all those qualities of mine required by writing that really changed my life. I might have found another discipline that did the same thing, maybe a Buddhist monk, a Jesuit, or a psychiatrist, which would have required the same kind of discipline and rigor, and a devotion to honesty and truth.
Rumpus: I’ve interviewed writers for twenty years. I find some MFA novelists are like hothouse flowers, with little experience outside academia. In your early work life, you were a plumber and a window dresser before you became a novelist and teacher. Do you think working-class writers have a chance to break out into mainstream publishing today?
Banks: I don’t think it is so much a class thing. I don’t want to entertain the idea of “breaking through.” It’s a career. I’m interested in the work, not the career. I haven’t taught since 1998, but one of the things I tried to tell my students when I was still teaching was that you need to make a clear distinction between you career and your work, and focus entirely on your work. That’s the only thing you can control. You can’t control your career. Your career will take care of itself.
A problem with American models for writers’ apprenticeships today is that it is very different from the model I inherited when I started to write back in the 1960s and what my whole generation worked with. The model the writers have today is a much more of a careerist model. That’s a problem and that is what you are pointing at. The idea of a writer never studying writing is antithetical today. It almost never happens, unless a writer was in the military and he or she comes back and writes a book about Afghanistan or Iraq. Those writers are coming from the same apprenticeship model that I had, that Toni Morrison had, that Joyce Carol Oates had, that Don DeLillo had, that all the writers of my generation had.
You go out into the world, you read everything you can read, you imitate the things you love, and you learn how hard it is to do. Eventually, you learn your own vision of the world, you learn your own voice and how to hear it, and you learn to write your own work. Writers today have as many opportunities as my generation did, but they don’t see the examples as clearly as we did. I think of Nelson Algren, who hoboing down to Louisiana, then working for the Works Project Administration during the Depression. That is what writers did.
One of the things I’ve noticed in contemporary fiction by writers younger than my generation is that the question of work doesn’t appear very often. When I read fiction, I always think, “How does the guy make a living? How does this woman make a living? How do they pay the bills at the end of the month?” Those questions don’t come up very much in contemporary fiction.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
Banks: I am very involved in writing a novel. It’s set in South Florida in the late 19th century, early 20th century. It’s an incredible period. Only Peter Matthiessen has written about it. It was like the Wild West. It was a frontier.
Author photograph © Gregorio Franchetti.