What Would Lynne Tillman Do? (10 page)

EA:
As a child, I had a strong sense of the presence of the sun. In the summer, the sun is very vivid in Beirut. I was fascinated by the shadow my own body made, when going for an afternoon swim. In my 20s, I heard the French say that Arabs were the children of the sun,
les enfants du soleil
. It was said with disdain: Arabs were irresponsible, grown-up children. And I remember walking into the mountains of my village, never wearing a hat, being very aware it was hot, feeling surrounded by the sun like a thief by the police. As I said we didn’t have many books, and not having brothers and sisters, I was more involved with noticing what was around me.

LT:
In all of your work there’s a strong emphasis on nature and relationship to a sense of place. It’s as if to lose one’s place, to feel in exile or be in exile, focused you.

EA:
You’re absolutely right. My relation to place is also a desire to know where I am. When I arrive somewhere, I want to know, where’s south? My partner, Simone, asks, “Why do you bother?” I like to be oriented. I grew up as an anguished child, partly because of not having brothers and sisters in a society where I was marginal. My father, an Arab from Damascus, living in Lebanon, I was born and raised in Lebanon, my mother was Greek. The French were ruling Lebanon, so we were also marginal in relation to a colonial power. And my parents were a mixed marriage, there were few. I think I compensated by trying to know always where I was.

LT: The Arab Apocalypse
takes a unique approach to writing on the page, you use signs, lines, curves, symbols.

EA:
The signs are there as an excess of emotion. The signs are the unsaid. More can be said, but you are stopped by your emotion.

LT:
The word “stop” is in capital letters throughout. As in, “Stop This War.”

EA:
I wrote
The Arab Apocalypse
when Tel al-Zaatar was under siege. Tel al-Zaatar is a neighborhood in Beirut, where 20,000 people, not all Palestinian but mostly Palestinian, lived basically underground. The Phalangists and their allies attacked in ’76. Maybe
the fighters in the camp had some advance notice and left. But the women, children, and old people who remained were slaughtered. It was worse than Sabra and Shatila.

LT:
Worse than Sabra and Shatila?

EA:
It was as bad and worse. There was only one well, so women would go there for water. Maybe 20, to make sure one got back; they were surrounded by snipers.
The Arab Apocalypse
is about Tel al-Zaatar—the hill of thyme—but its subject is beyond this siege, which was the beginning of the undoing of the Arabs. This war was the sign of disaster coming, that by mismanagement and mistakes, the Arabs would undo themselves.

LT:
The form and content of
The Arab Apocalypse are
imaginatively fused.

A sun and a belly full of vegetables, a system of fat tuberoses. A sun which is SOFT. The eucalyptus. The Arabs are under the ground. The Americans are on the moon. The sun has eaten its children. I myself was a morning blessed with bliss
.

What’s produced is a sense of survival, even in the midst of atrocious conditions and behavior.

EA:
I started this book when I lived in Beirut. It’s 59 poems, the same number as the days of the siege. I could hear the bombs from my balcony. For 59 days they didn’t let any food in, water, nothing.
I saw a manifestation of pure evil. In metaphysics there is no word for that. I saw evil.

LT:
In
Paris When It’s Naked
, you quote Delacroix, who said he had to satisfy “something black” in him. It relates to your saying that violence or evil has no one country.

EA:
We have institutions, we try to control it. Or, we decide to unleash it. But there is evil in every person to different degrees; evil is part of being.

LT:
I think of it as cruelty to other people, to life.

EA:
And oneself. Power creates a temptation to be abusive. Nations who feel immune, or superior, sure to win, are not wise. Like the Bush administration, a folly of arrogance. In nature, there is danger too. Because the sun is dangerous. It can kill you, burn you. But the sun is also life.

LT: The Arab Apocalypse
is a superb example of a poem that pays attention to poetics, and place, war, politics—literally, what happens in the city.

EA:
There is the presence of war in almost everything I write. Beirut’s importance is because of war, it’s a child of WWI. In 1920 we had refugees from Armenia. WWII brought foreign armies, not bloodshed; Beirut profited, because when armies are around, there’s money. In ’58 a little civil war started. In ’67 another batch
of refugees. In ’71 the Israelis bombed the airport. In ’75, the start of 15 years of civil war. In 1982, the Israelis entered Beirut. There were other Israeli incursions, constant bombing of the south. Beirut was done and almost undone by war.

LT: The Arab Apocalypse
is like a Jeremiad.

EA:
Yes. It’s pessimistic. I sometimes think I’m an optimist because I always advise myself to go on, overcome. But my vision of the world is pretty dark. I try not to forget the good of this world—not only good people, but the sunshine, the trees. There is also happiness in this world.

LT: In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country
is written in paragraphs. You said you chose paragraphs, because the nuns gave your class a word from which to write a sentence, but you wrote a paragraph.

A person. People here to portray there is a person who loves me to death. Not to my death or hers, but to the death of the person I loved. . . . I wonder who invented the ugly word punishment. It was probably God, who established the word and the deed
.

From the word “person,” the paragraph leads to an unexpected end, to the possibility of people hurting each other.

EA:
Not the possibility. My heart had been broken. It’s full of allusions to my biography.

LT:
In the paragraph “Place,” you wrote:

I moved from city to city, traveled from person to person and then I tried to define myself through writing. But that doesn’t work. No, not at all. It adds fiction to the fiction I became. . . . I’m in a disorienting wilderness
.

I want to focus on fiction itself. I think you’re trying to make a place from writing.

EA:
There is a sense of exile in everyone. We are exiled from each other, to a point. It’s what relationships are about—to close that gap as much as possible. Writing is a dialogue with that deep feeling. Some feel they came from somewhere. They have a strong illusion of belonging. Other people, or groups, have a special restlessness and understanding, a nomadic spirit. We’re so used to it, we don’t know how to be without it. Everything has its advantages. I don’t envy a French peasant in a village—I’m happy that she’s happy, but I can’t figure out that happiness.

LT:
You’ve said history is incorporated in individuals.

EA:
We are the result of history, more than we know, we think we are free from it. Nietzsche said, “If you believe in freedom, you are stupid, but if you don’t feel freedom, you’re doomed.” You function in relation to the entire moral code that is based on responsibility and, therefore, freedom of choice.

LT:
In
Sitt Marie Rose
, your protagonist maintains her freedom by
not trading places with her Palestinian lover. She won’t let him be killed instead of her.

EA:
She chose to die, she didn’t want to die. The Phalangists offered to trade her; that would have been treason to her.

LT:
Sitt Marie Rose was an extraordinary woman. You represent women and their place in the world, not just in the Arab world, and also in terms of feminism.

EA:
I am a feminist, first because I was a rebellious child. I was not a conscious rebel, but an instinctive one. I couldn’t get along with my mother. I wanted to do what I wanted to do, like taking a taxi in Beirut when I was sixteen—girls didn’t take taxis. I took a particular pleasure in it. I wouldn’t walk in the streets, I’d always run. I didn’t want to get married; I thought marriage was a prison. I became more politically involved, when I attended Berkeley. Society is conservative, you always have to behave. I was a natural rebel.

LT:
I was intrigued by your statement that you fear Western civilization.

EA:
Conquering is always at the expense of somebody else. Western civilization behaves as if it offers redemption—the Israelis were the last example of that. They came as Westerners, Europeans, but Western civilization, like all civilizations, had invaded others, but most of the other civilizations tried to integrate the indigenous people—the Romans had emperors who were Arabs.
Alexander wanted to join East and West. The Chinese had many ethnic groups. The West is the most racist of civilizations. It eradicates the conquered people. For example, Belgium was responsible for twelve million Congolese deaths. When the West couldn’t eradicate outside its boundaries, it eradicated within, as Germany did. Western civilization speaks about itself as a model, but it has a very dark side.

LT:
You became a pacifist. What are other great changes in you?

EA:
I had no interest in politics until living in Paris in 1950. Israel was just being created, it didn’t exist in my head. In 1956, at Berkeley, I joined the Arab Students Association and met a young Palestinian woman, the first I knew. My position then was that Palestine had to be liberated, in any way; we had to win that war. Until the Oslo Accords, ten years ago, when I decided I was not against peace. Oslo was a turning point, it made me a pacifist. I still believe the Palestinians have a cause, but I believe it is natural that we live together and build anew.

Writing also changes me. I don’t lie when I write. Something happens, and I must discover it. Writing forces one to go to the bitter end of what one thinks.

There, Not There

In Michael Almereyda’s beguiling film
William Eggleston in the Real World
(2005), Eggleston said of his own work: “I am at war with the obvious.” The photographer had been filmed, in 1976, answering a question at the opening of his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Eggleston takes shots at the obvious: a misbegotten window display; cheerless interior decoration; a shuttered house. He pictures forgotten spaces, in sidelong glances at American culture’s apparent failures or throwaways. He shelters so-called ordinary life, the unremarked-upon objects. Eggleston appears to be a romantic figure from the old school: courtly, handsome, alcoholic, not going quietly into that good night. He wanders in front of the camera, there, not there. Almereyda records Eggleston elusively, letting him hide in plain sight. There are few direct questions, while inter-titles mark the date, event and location. Scenes shift slowly, nothing’s rushed, Eggleston rarely says anything. His son, a photographer himself, assists him wordlessly or in code, present when needed, otherwise invisible.

Almereyda’s portrait of an artist assembles through a wily accretion of images, with no dramatic “plot points” or “arcs.” The viewer creates his or her own narrative, senses what the story might be and, as in any compelling narrative, things don’t or can’t
add up. Almereyda’s approach to Eggleston’s art and life is subtle, and though Eggleston has declared war on the “obvious,” his work is also. Eggleston’s images quietly dismiss received ideas of beauty and importance. In his eye, ugliness is no sin, beauty no virtue; they are just cultural and social attitudes that shape perception.

In the film, Eggleston’s nights were very different from his days. Alcohol’s effects settled on him and his friends, and rattled any identifying cage I might set him in. The movie’s lack of comment clarifies the trouble with explanations: they can become heavy-handed guides or judgments. Instead, Almereyda allows encounters and moments to multiply or divide, one incident subtracts an assumption or augments another. An unexpected figure enters into the slippery sum: Eggleston’s wife of many years, mother of his children, doesn’t appear until close to the end of the movie. An elliptical interview with Eggleston by Almereyda occurs even closer to the end, reframing the artist’s image again.

Stories about artists and writers, in novels and movies, usually rely on grating stereotypes, characteristics repeatedly exaggerated in representation. My favorite example comes from a movie Hollywood never released, a life of Franz Schubert. In it, friends beseech the composer more than once: “Why don’t you finish ‘The Unfinished’?” Hollywood is also the source for the term “the reveal.” On a certain page in a script, the heart of the story—usually transplanted during multiple rewrites—should manifest itself, enough so that even on the dullest of minds something can register.

I once wrote a joke-poem to myself, and called it “Do the Obvious.” “Do the obvious / you won’t forget it / do the obvious /
you won’t regret it.” (Refrain: “Don’t be afraid to be boring.”) Living holds few subtleties. There’s birth and death, obviously. And everything in between. Teachers of writing and art tell their students, whose hopes must not be crushed—at least not completely—“It’s not what it’s about, it’s how you do it.”

It’s about expectations, everyone remarks, and desire. I heard a story about a guy from Texas, a Jimi Hendrix fanatic. He was with a friend looking at an art book. The Hendrix guy saw a picture of an Andy Warhol
Campbell’s Soup Can
work and exclaimed: “God, that’s stupid.” His friend said: “What you expect to see there is just as stupid.”

Other books

Revenge Sex by Anwar, Celeste
Spirit Mountain by J. K. Drew, Alexandra Swan
Ice by Sarah Beth Durst
Mother of Storms by Barnes, John
Hot Spot by Debbi Rawlins
The Publisher by Alan Brinkley
In Deep Waters by Melissa McClone
Lusitania by Greg King
Kill the Shogun by Dale Furutani