jonathan safran foer
Fiction writer Jonathan Safran Foer
turns to the prose of political activism;
the creative class demands
regime change in the USA
(interview by Timothy Schaffrick)
America has this great two party system...
Fiction writer Jonathan Safran Foer turns to the prose of political activism
the creative class demands regime change in the USA
Interview with Jonathan Safran Foer
"I`ve always had strong opinions. But aside from voting, I`ve done virtually nothing to affect the political process“... This must be changed.
Jonathan Safran Foer (27), author of the bestselling novel Everything is Illuminated, begins his speech in front of more than 1000 people from the podium at Cooper Unions Great Hall, that same podium Abraham Lincoln spoke for while fighting to abolish slavery. "It́s our country, to fight for or lose. So let́s fight.“ When Foers speech ends, the stage opens for some of the countries greatest writers, Paul Auster, Jonathan Franzen, Michael Cunningham, Wendy Wasserstein, Salman Rushdie, and many more. Some of them, like Joyce Carol Oats, Jonathańs literature professor at Princeton, have been around for decades, never taking a real political stand .... Now, it́s no longer acceptable for the culturally progressive to be politically disengaged, they are coming out, valiantly presenting texts with their common message: "Bush must go. Íll do, whatever it takes“.
"Downtown for Democracy“ (D4D, www.downtownfordemocracy.org) is the name of the political activist committee who is working for the end of Bushs presidency this november in Downtown Manhattan.
A couple of days later, I meet Jonathan close to his Brooklyn home, at "Ozzies“ in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Hés a very simpatico young man, some sort of impish, up to mischief, very polite, a little distant and diplomatic, very smart, maybe a little too smartassed... Suddenly I find myself thinking in stereotypes: Are there some terminologies that are typical Jewish? And Jonathan suits these clichés and juggles with them in his writing. In that novel that made him famous, he paints a fictitious Jewish idyll – which gets destroyed by Nazis later - a tribal description of "God́s own people“, leading us into a Jewish “Shtetl“ in the 19th century, telling the - hilarious - story of the female protagonist “Brod“, who is giving divine birth, - and his “hero“, “an ingenious Jew“, who is bearing his full funny own name, Jonathan Safran Foer.
Now, a new book on which he worked for more than three years, is finished, yet-to-be-titled and published, dealing with 9/11 and the bombing of Dresden during World War II.
Determined to fight a serious political battle, alongside with his creative companions around Dave Eggers (www.McSweeneys.net), with “an Atlantic Ocean, that seems to get bigger every day“, there was no doubt, our conversation would lead us straight into world politics.
Having breakfast with Jonathan at “Ozzies“ in Park Slope, Brooklyn, is an honouring, illuminating affair.
Your analysis of the state of the nation at this “Downtown for Democracy“ -event sounded like a state of emergency. Is the situation in Bush's America that worrying, are the USA in danger of becoming a Christian fundamentalist nation?
There is a very strong tension. It́s very dramatic. If you look at a map of how the political parties break down,the Democrats are anywhere which is near water. They basically wind up the coasts of the country – and they are in the big cities. The whole middle of the country, except for the big cities, are Republican. And the values are moving opposite direction.
Issues like indecencies, like women`s reproductive rights, gay rights, taxation, meaning how much these people are contributing to the greater good, the school system...the issues are lining up. The problem is, only one side of these values is represented.
When the world now looks at America, they see rather the negative values than the positive values. And that portrayal is gonna be hard to correct - and that́s scary.
But if you look a hundred years down the road, and look not at our lives and not even our kids lives, but our grandchildren lives, and ask yourself what decisions that Bush is making now, will affect the world that they are living in and how will history remember him and how will history remember us, when they look back at us...? We will appear to be monsters.
Are you planning further political activism?
That reading was very successful. Not only that we raised more than 100 000 Dollars, we also got a lot of energy. Thats as important as any money we raise: Trying to make noise, be more active, talk to people, compete with the Republican counterparts.
Right now, Ím putting together with Dave Eggers a book with a hundred writers.
It́s gonna be a dictionary of definitions of things America would be better with if these things existed and wéll also make a CD with 10 or twelve bands. It will be funny and weird and will make millions. All the money will go to this democratic political action committee called MoveOn. And a couple of other ideas, like these...
You said it́s "an universally accepted fact" Democrats were smarter, better looking, more creative and even better in bed than Republicans... - so, why are these Republicans so successful ?
There are definitely not enough of us. There are many people who feel strong things but dońt do anything, people who have a sense of what they think is right but dońt vote... We have to spread that word.
And still, it́s a mystery. It́s too easy to think these Republicans are a bunch of idiots. I know very smart people who are Republican.
Do you see John Kerry as a real alternative or more as a smaller evil in this scenario?
I think hés an incredible alternative . It́s not at all a case of choosing between the lesser of two evils. It́s the case of choosing the greater good!
John Kerry is a practical politician and he wants to be president. I am certainly a lot more liberal than he is. But it`s not as simple as screaming at the top of your lungs about everything you believe in.
America has this great two party system, which means, you have to find a middle.
Take Israel: that́s exactly their problem now, that they dońt have a two party system, so those fringe and more extreme elements can get to power or can have a much larger say than they should.
Kerry is a little bit more to the middle than some of us might like, but I think, he would be a wonderful president, and I think, very very quickly, a lot of the damage that has been done would be repaired, almost immediately.
Is it legitimate to make a close link between the Bush and the Sharon administrations, and oppose the politics of the Sharon administration as harsh as the politics of the Bush administration?
Sharon seems horrible – and he seems to misrepresent Israelis. But the situations are two complete different situations. Whoever is in charge of Israel, is automatically put in a virtually impossible situation.
It́s not the same as here, where Bush single-handedly screwed everything up.
There, it`s complicated. It́s been really badly exasperated by Sharon and his government, but it was so infinitely complicated in the beginning.
But there are similarities and parallels in their hawkish approach to look at, define and fight ‚Terror’. The means they use, from a position of strength, with an archaic ‚an-eye-for-an-eye’-philosophy, retaliation on people, who dońt have to do with the crime that is intended to be retaliated...
Isńt it quite obvious that the strategies of these ‚hawks’ in Iraq and the Middle East are strengthening the fundamentalism and are absolutely counter-productive to "our civilized world"?
Right. Sunni and Shiite fundamentalism is getting stronger because they have something to resist. If I were living there, I wouldńt want somebody walking to my neighbourhood without providing me with electricity or water. The whole problem is that you are creating an enemy in the form of America or in the form of the Christian world.
Bush́s great mistake was, not to say: “Make this a common investment , we all have something to lose and we all have something to gain here.“
And, what will ultimately happen in Israel is, Jerusalem will be a United Nations city. Not controlled by anyone, or better, controlled by everyone. It́s the only way out.
Would you really welcome UN troops in Israel?
Yes, absolutely. Without a doubt.
Is this ongoing “War on terror“ affecting your work?
The “War on terror“ is such a small part of the problem right now. It́s the easiest thing to talk about and it́s the easiest thing to observe, because people are dying everyday and we know how many people are dying and we know how much money is spent there. But the war on American civil liberties, on free speech, on womeńs reproductive rights, on the economy, on the environment, on biodiversity, on social security..., they are all as important and we are in as bad shape with those things as we are in Iraq.
In a way, it́s perfectly fine if, as the election approaches, people talk about the war a lot, because the more we talk about it, the more we realize what a bad job Bush has been doing.
But it́s a shame, too, because it́s drawing so much attention away from his other failures.
Does it affect your work as a writer?
(laughs) Sorry, I forgot to answer that.
Yes, it does. I find my writing moving in the direction of ... I would not say the explicitly political, but it takes up war as a major concern. The greatest thing I think that a writer can possibly do is examine something. Remove it from life, put it in a different context, in a context of a book and just observe it, and by observing it we can see it better for what it is. So, in the positive, optimistic case as we look at humans, we see how similar we are to one another.
Or how different we are from one another. We get a great appreciation for the importance of interacting sensitively. In the case of war, when you look at it, when you look at a single death, we describe how horrible it always is. And it doesńt matter if it́s an American in a uniform, an Iraqi in a uniform, or if it́s a civilian. In every case, it́s always horrible and you never want it to happen. When we stare at it, and stare at what blood looks like, what the insides of humans look like when they are on the outsides of humans, we dońt want to commit war anymore. The more we understand how gruesome and terrible it is, the less we are inclined to do it. So, that́s something Íve been thinking about a lot.
What́s that new book about you are working on ?
It́s another novel. Íve just got done.
A lot of it is about a boy, a New Yorker, whose father died on September 11, and he`s sort of moving through contemporary New York having various adventures. But his grandfather survived Dresden. He lived in Dresden when it was fire-bombed. So therés a little bit of juxtaposition in these two events, which is an really interesting juxtaposition, actually.
Both are cases of horrible havoc being wreaked on truly civilian populations. In one case, America and the allies were the aggressors and in the other case, they were in the other position as civilians. So, within one family, there are both ends of it...