Russell Banks: We don't want to think about Africa
HarperCollins, 2004; 392 pages; $25.95
FROM THE DUST JACKET: The Darling is Hannah Musgrave’s story, told emotionally and convincingly years later by Hannah herself. A political radical and member of the Weather Underground, Hannah has fled America to West Africa, where she and her Liberian husband become friends and colleagues of Charles Taylor, the notorious warlord and now ex-president of Liberia. When Taylor leaves for the United States in an effort to escape embezzlement charges, he’s immediately placed in prison. Hannah’s encounter with Taylor in America ultimately triggers a series of events whose momentum catches Hannah’s family in its grip and forces her to make a heartrending choice. Set in Liberia and the United States from 1975 through 1991, The Darling is a political-historical thriller — reminiscent of Greene and Conrad—that explodes the genre, raising serious philosophical questions about terrorism, political violence, and the clash of races and cultures.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
From Publishers Weekly. The darling of the title is narrator Hannah Musgrave, a privileged child of the 1960s and ’70s, who now at 59, reflects on her life. After participating in sexual experimentation and radical politics, Hannah is wanted by the FBI for her involvement in the Weather Underground. Under an assumed name, she flees the U.S. for Africa...where in 1976 she meets and marries Woodrow Sundiata, a government official. Taking on another identity— that of foreign wife, and eventually mother to three sons — Hannah finds herself increasingly involved with the highest members of Liberia’s government as Woodrow’s political star rises. She also finds purpose in establishing a sanctuary for endangered chimpanzees. When Liberia explodes into civil war, Hannah’s life and the lives of her family are in danger.
From Booklist: American Hannah Musgrave, a.k.a. Dawn Carrington...finds work in a shabby medical lab that houses a group of traumatized chimpanzees, and forms a deep bond with them that is more meaningful to her than relationships with humans. Even so, she is grateful enough for the protection of Liberia’s minister of public health, Woodrow Sundiata, to marry him. She and he are essentially unknowable to each other—Hannah’s visit to Woodrow’s village is a brilliant rendition of culture shock—but their marriage is mutually beneficial, and Hannah quickly produces three sons. But not even chameleon-like Hannah and Woodrow can steer clear of the bloodshed that erupts when corrupt and vicious Samuel Doe comes to power and is, in turn, challenged by the equally ruthless Charles Taylor.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Russell Banks was born in 1940, and raised in New Hampshire and eastern Massachusetts. The eldest of four children, he grew up in a working-class environment. The first in his family to go to college, Mr. Banks graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Before he could support himself as a writer, he tried his hand at plumbing and as a shoe salesman and window trimmer. More recently, he has taught at a number of colleges and universities, including Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence, University of New Hampshire, New England College, New York University, and Princeton University. A prolific writer of fiction, Mr. Banks’s titles include Searching for Survivors, Family Life, Hamilton Stark, The New World, The Book of Jamaica, Trailerpark, The Relation of My Imprisonment, Continental Drift, Success Stories, Affliction, The Sweet Hereafter, Rule of the Bone, Cloudsplitter, and The Angel on the Roof, a collection of short stories. Mr. Banks has lived in a variety of places, from New England to Jamaica. He currently lives in upstate New York with his wife, the poet Chase Twichell. He is the father of four grown daughters.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR: Mr. Banks and I talked on an early autumn afternoon. I was at home in California, and he was at home in New York. “In 1944,” he said, “I was in San Diego. I was back again in the ’60s and the ’70s, when my mother lived there. So I knew it when it was just a Navy town. And I knew it later in the ’60s and ’70s, and now it’s a wholly different kind of city again. It’s like three different kinds of cities, really.”
I asked Mr. Banks if his new novel, set in part in Liberia, was like Walter Abish’s How German Is It? Mr. Abish, when he wrote How German Is It?, had never been to Germany. Mr. Banks has been to West Africa but not Liberia.
He said, “I was trying to get in there a year ago this past summer, in July. I was in Sierra Leone, which is not that different, really; right next door, and in its history bears the same relationship to England that Liberia bears to the United States. That was when the bodies started piling up in Monrovia. The roads were blocked and no flights were going in. I got stopped in Sierra Leone. But I had spent time there and in Ghana and Senegal and also in East Africa. There’s a tremendous amount of material on Liberia in print and many Liberians living in the United States. In the ’60s and ’70s, the largest number of Peace Corps volunteers were in Liberia, and the most CIA agents as well. Perhaps not unrelated.
“So, many American men and women my age, my generation, were there, and many religious, fundamentalist churches have been working there over the years. So there’s a tremendous amount of material available. I did end up also interviewing a person who was a CIA station chief in Liberia in the ’70s. An older man, now retired. So I got an awful lot of information from various sources. And travel was one, certainly. But you’re right; it’s a little like How German Is It? insofar as I did not get into Liberia. I could get there now, but it’s too late. I’m afraid to go now because then I’d have to make changes in the book.’’ “How did you get interested in doing this book?”
“Really, it grew out of Cloudsplitter and the research that I did on the early abolitionist movement and the early antislavery movement here in the United States. I came across it back in the middle ’90s. I realized how intimately connected Liberia’s history was to the history of race in the United States and what an important chapter it was in that story.
“So I kept it in the back of my mind while I was working on that other novel. And then Liberia erupted in violence again in the late ’90s, after having gone through a civil war earlier in the decade. Most American newspapers started describing our relationship to Liberia as if it were a benign and kindly, avuncular one. I was dismayed and said, ‘No, that’s not the case. It’s a much more complex relationship than that. It’s been our surrogate colony for 150 years.’ ”
“Since before the Civil War.”
“Exactly. And right up through the Cold War. And this is happening because of the nature of that history. It isn’t just a bunch of crazy Africans out there killing each other. It’s much more complex, and we are implicated in it. That particular aspect of the novel [the revolution] grew out of all that.”
“People,” I said, “tend to forget; about Africa, that it is a continent populated by many tribes.”
“I know. It’s kind of American myopia and denial too. We don’t want to think about it. It’s too complicated.”
“What do you make of Hannah? The ‘darling’ of your title?” “She’s a complex person in a country frill of contradictions and ambiguities and conflicts. But then, I assume we all are.” “She’s an innocent, in a way, a kind of Jamesian ‘innocent abroad.’ ”
“I hadn’t thought of her in a Jamesian sense. But you’re quite right. The title is meant to be somewhat ironic, of course. But I think you’re quite right, and that is a dimension of hers—an innocence that James Baldwin pointed out among white, privileged people. An innocence that is a guilty innocence. I’ve thought about that for years, and I guess I’ve written about it over the years. But she really does have that kind of guilty innocence. And unacknowledged until the very end. It’s partly due to her class privilege and her education and partly due to her historical moment. And the fact that she’s an American. A white American. The most powerful people on the planet right now.”
“She’s about your age.”
“And she lives in the same town I live in. I imagined myself, you know, listening to her as a trusted and intimate friend. That was how her voice evolved for me, was to imagine myself first as a listener.”
“I think Hannah was always crying out to the reader, ‘Help me.’ ”
“True, it’s a direct address. But really, that comes from my having imagined myself sitting on her porch or at a table at a bar, just listening to her story and listening to her tell me what was true so far as she knew it. There are a lot of things she doesn’t tell me, of course, because I’m a man, and I don’t share all her experiences.
“It’s real interesting for me as the book is now beginning to circulate, and I’ve had a chance to talk about it with other people and listen to other people’s responses, that readers are having an intense and anxiety-producing engagement with Hannah. They don’t know whether they should admire her or not admire her. She’s like all people that you finally know deeply and well enough; she’s a little bit of everything.”
“She’s even somewhat omnisexual.”
“I think so. She floats pretty freely. But I think of her in a basic way as heterosexual. What her real problem is, insofar as her sexual life, is that she cannot be intimate with anybody and can’t give herself up to anybody.”
“Except to the chimps. Whom, interestingly, she calls ‘The dreamers.’ ”
“Right, exactly, ‘The dreamers.’ ”
“Why do you call them ‘The dreamers’?”
“Beats hell out of me. It just came while I was writing. I, too, like Hannah, have a problem with the word ‘chimpanzee.’ The word itself has always been slightly ridiculous to me and uncomfortable. I was writing from Hannah’s point of view and trying to say, ‘What are they like; what are they really like?’ And, ‘What would I call them if I had a chance to name them myself?’ ‘The dreamers’ seemed to be a good one. I was trying to think what it must be like for a chimpanzee in the world. And I was watching; I happen to own two border collies.”
I interrupted to ask, “Doesn’t Hannah own border collies?”
“Yes, she has two border collies too. They’re the only characters based on real people. But I notice with my border collies, everything is important to them. There is no foreground or background. A leash twitches, it’s very important. Small sounds, everything is important. The way it is in a dream. I didn’t mean that they’re half-asleep. I just meant in a way, as in a dream, where everything is important, every detail is significant and bears interpretation.”
I asked Mr. Banks how it felt to “inhabit” Hannah.
“It wasn’t a huge stretch. I’ve written from the point of view of a woman before, but this is intense and 400 pages too, so it’s a long haul. And you do, of course, end up embodying or inhabiting the character. But I didn’t feel any particular restraint or any greater difficulty than I did with a 14-year-old drug-addled kid in The Rule of the Bone, or Owen Brown, John Brown’s son in Cloudsplitter. It wasn’t any greater stretch for me because of the gender difference. When I was able to declare for myself who she was talking to, then I was fine. I did not imagine her speaking to a woman because I know a
woman would speak differently to a woman than to a man. That’s the person I’ve never been and have a hard time imagining.
“A woman who’s listening. A woman who speaks only to women. That would be very, very difficult for me. Or a black person speaking only to black people. I can easily imagine because I know it from personal experience, what women say to men. And what black people say to white people. But I don’t know what it’s like to be in a room in which there was no white person present or in which there was no man present.”
“What didn’t I ask you that you wish I had asked?”
“Let’s see. You didn’t ask me about the fact that the book opens and closes around 9/11.”
“Tell me about that.”
“One of the themes of the novel is that this is a historical story in the sense that it’s a historical novel. And her story, as she says at the end, could never be told, her life could never be lived now. It was very much of that moment I wanted to rethink the late ’60s and early ’70s, especially the radical political movement of the time, because we really are, in this election even, still fighting the Vietnam War.”
“And still fighting FDR in 1932.”
“Exactly. The culture wars and the class and economic wars of the ’30s. Here we are. I wanted to try to imagine how that looked in the context of 9/11.1 didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. I just wanted to locate it in time so that we could see we were looking at it through a prism. But not until we got to the end.”