If you ask David Rocklin, he’ll tell you how seeing Enter the Dragon, that classic Bruce Lee vehicle, taught him one of his most valued writing lessons: context is everything. He snuck into a downtown Chicago grindhouse theater when he was a kid, and was transfixed with Lee’s abilities and presence. Afterward, two men in the row behind him, laughing, told him that Lee was dead. So David sat through it again, then and there, and this time, as he watched Lee’s choreographed ballet of violence and prowess, he told himself He can’t do that anymore. That’s the last time he’ll ever do that. Context had reshaped his experience of a story.
Something else happened in that theater, and it’s been happening to and in David’s writing since. David is the author of two novels, The Luminist (2011) and last November’s The Night Language. In both books, David steps into the skin of those quite unlike himself. Black. Gay. Female. Royalty. Orphan.
The Night Language tells the story of a young man, Prince Alamayou of Abyssinia (present day Ethiopia), who is taken from his home to the court of Queen Victoria. With him is Philip Layard, a young apprentice to one of the doctors on the battlefield in Abyssinia, who becomes Alamayou’s guardian, only friend, and eventually, the love of his life.
We spoke via Facebook Messenger about the larger landscape of appropriation and empathy, immigration and power structures, and intimacy and representation.
The Rumpus: What’s your fascination with history and its relationship to fiction?
David Rocklin: Now that I’m three novels in, including the one I’m writing now, The Electric Love Song of Fleischl Berger, I guess I really ought to sit down and figure that out, right? I certainly never planned on writing stories that were set in pre-me times, but again and again I’m drawn to moments that are lost to us now. I love the idea of unearthing these bits of life that meant everything to someone and nothing to everyone else. They’re moments of beauty and truth, and I just want to hold them again, and arrest them at their peak light, so others can see them, and maybe see themselves in them.
I do believe that history is the product of the erosive and evolving effects of consciousness, experience, and collective thought, all filtered through memory. And isn’t memory threaded through with fictive tissue? Isn’t that what every memoirist works with, her memories and interpretation of what happened? You and I can meet for coffee and, a year or more from now, we can try to write about that moment. They’ll read pretty differently, don’t you think? We’ll each bring our experience before and after that conversation, and I’m pretty sure neither of us will have been in the company of a court stenographer. Our recollections of what we said, what we looked like when we said it, how it all felt, will be imperfect, elaborated upon, interpreted by what we’ve gone on to do since. It won’t be exact, and the filter we each use is fiction. Fiction doesn’t mean a lie. It means an understanding, informed by time, experience and the difficult work of exploration.
Rumpus: Queen Victoria forms a unique relationship to Alamayou, the son of the Abyssinian emperor, Tewedros. In what sense is this a story about a new way to understand one another in terms of immigration, power, otherness?
Rocklin: The characters in The Night Language are all, to a greater or lesser extent, marooned from each other when they meet, and Queen Victoria is no different. England is a colonizing power, and atop it sits this widowed woman with a hostile Parliament, a populace increasingly resentful of her station and privilege, children she barely interacts with, and daily demands on her to be all things to people who don’t even know her. Then Alamayou and Philip come. Dark-skinned young men she never wanted, from places she’ll never know, with interior lives that appall her Christianity, and yet. That was what I was most intent on depicting—“and yet.” She begins to listen to the voices of immigrants, of “the other,” and to her own astonishment, they’re human. They love. They fear. They need and desire, and they demand that place be found for them, in her heart and mind, and in the world. When we first encounter her at the beginning of the novel—time-wise, it takes place near the end of her life and the dawn of the twentieth century—her great regret in life is inextricably tied to these two men, for whom she should have felt nothing. I think the feelings she expresses when the name Alamayou is evoked by what she sees at the opening of the novel (first a painting, then the Human Zoo, which was horrific and real, a traveling slave captivity and fetishization of human beings based on the color of their skin and the language they spoke, for the benefit of colonizing nations), no one is more shocked than she to be experiencing raw, crippling regret and shame that she let them down. Such feelings would never have happened had she not allowed the othered into her life and come to know them as people.
If readers see our current crisis in that, I’m eternally grateful. I may be naive, but the notion that we’re at our worst when we’re removed from each other, and at our best when we actually experience each other and see all the bridges that lie between us, is a source of hope for me.
Rumpus: In all of your work, intimacy and representation seem to make a nexus—desire and language. Passion or desire, between people or the passionate drive to make art, has dangerous edges, dangerous consequences, and the characters plunge ever eros-forward even as they disrupt lines of history, identity, and social contracts that would otherwise keep them locked into a position that keeps the world ordered. What’s your interest in these characters that live at cultural edges?
Rocklin: This is what I always thought intimacy was, whenever I tried to define it (a pointless thing to do, perhaps, but writers like to sit around and come up with ways of saying things that capture what was never meant to be held or named): intimacy isn’t only sex, or love, or the sort of familiarity that comes with the years. It’s showing someone the knife drawer.
This person you want to achieve intimacy with? You bring them into your house. You skip over the usual tour and take them right to the drawer where the sharpest, nastiest, most dangerous things are kept, and you open it so they see exactly what you have, and where you have it. You say to them, “Now you know. I’m showing you what I don’t show anyone. I’m giving you the gift of a map to all the things I have that you could hurt me with. Kill me with. I’m doing this because I want you to have this knowledge, because I trust you, that when we fight (which we inevitably will), you won’t pull out one of these knives and use it on me.” To me, this is what it means to be intimate with someone. You let them see you, all your flaws, fears, failings, because you’re placing trust in them not to use those against you in order to win a fight, or render you subservient, damaged, othered. For me, there’s always this collision point between desire—the burning need to be seen, be heard and understood, be alive in someone else—and the way you get there. Your words. Your art. Your expression. That feeling of knowing that you live in someone else, you have a home within even one other person, is intimacy on a grand… and yet intimate, scale.
Rumpus: The story has a transgressive nature. You’ve written across a number of boundaries—gender, sexuality, race, class, ethnic origin—and you belong to none of those identities. What right did you feel you had to take up a voice that isn’t yours?
Rocklin: It’s true; I wrote about people who are different from me. I’m a straight, white, Jewish male, writing about characters who are black, gay, old, English, royal, poverty-stricken, and dead. What right do I have to step into their lives? For me, the answer is “none.” I have no right to do so. I have a desire to. A curiosity to find among our differences, similarities. I start writing from the assumption that I know nothing and am entitled to nothing other than what I earn by empathy and openness and diligence, and that it would be astonishingly stupid of me to pretend that others have no right to be upset at someone like me presuming to write about them. That goes for the characters in my novel as well as readers. Their stories, and the historical, cultural, political and personal forces that have shaped those stories, don’t belong to me. They’re gifted. Like any gift, I treat those stories with respect and awe. I do the best I can with them and hope to get as much right (whatever right means in the context of making up stories) as possible.
I didn’t barrel headlong into this novel with no fear of getting it wrong or worse, transgressing into the appropriation of someone else’s truth. Just the opposite. I went in—once I understood who and what this novel was truly trying to be about—with humility and no small amount of concern that I would depict the characters with respect, honesty, and dignity. I wanted to tell, in the end, a story about the sort of love I hope we all come to know, that sacrifices and endures despite everything that may be arrayed against it. I came to the story of Philip and Alamayou curious about their lives. They, in turn, came to the story not as pawns subject to the white straight culture surrounding them, but as two human beings fighting for a place for each other.
Ultimately, we give our permission to be someone else when we read or write a story. That’s not the same as giving permission to misrepresent or be misrepresented, or to reduce human beings to stereotypes and caricatures. It’s a bestowing of trust that the author will do their level best to move, entertain, and immerse us in their vision of the world. I hope I lived up to that.
Rumpus: Your sentences often read like lines of poetry, not unlike Michael Ondaatje’s. Your prose makes me feel hopeful, even when you are writing inside a tragic circumstance or impossible love or the cusp of a life-death question. Do you think hope and beauty still exist?
Rocklin: I will say, it’s getting more challenging to believe in hope and beauty when I see this racist-in-chief and his enablers in action, or when I see upheaval and deprivation around the world. Even in the midst of that, there’s pink pussy hats. Seas of them. There are millions of bodies marching in a gloriously powerful demand for a world better than what we have. There are people and voices rising up from the silence that was previously forced upon them, and those words carry hope and beauty by the truckload. I do see them, and I do believe in them. Perhaps most of all—and I’m not saying this because this is us talking—I still believe hope and beauty exist, and I still believe they have a chance, because I read you to find them. Artists like you have always taught me what I didn’t know. I’ve never known how to learn any other way, you know? If I need to understand what a starry night looks like from an asylum window just before sunrise, a painting showed me. If I need to hear joy in a way that makes sense to me, Coltrane and Metheny and The Damned each let me listen to what it sounds like for them. And if I need to know someone I may never meet in life, a child warrior in a future all too close and palpable, you showed me. If that ability exists in those of us who’ve chosen lives of trying to achieve some approximation of expression, then I have to believe that hope and beauty still stand a chance. I mean, it’s hard for me to imagine picking up my writing if that belief dies off. I wonder if a lot of us march, petition, and protest for that reason alongside the fact of the injustices we see: don’t do what you’re doing, and don’t kill our idea of the world. Tony Kushner said it best: “You can’t live in the world without an idea of the world.” I happen to be far more fond of our view of the world than what I see on the far right. That’s desolate to me. The absence of diversity of thought, culture, experience, voice. I truly don’t get it.
Rumpus: What’s next for you and your writing?
Rocklin: As I mentioned earlier, I’m working on a new novel, The Electric Love Song of Fleischl Berger. It’s a love story set in nineteenth and twentieth century Germany, it crosses two world wars, deals with near death experience and the possibility of psychic transmission across distance and perhaps time, and has as its factual departure point the accidental discovery of the electroencephalogram. You should have heard the silence at the other end of the phone when I told my agent what I was starting after The Night Language. But then I explained the kernel of fact that I’m jumping off from and she thought it was cool. That’s all the permission I need to go more than a little nuts on the story.