Anya Achtenberg is an award-winning poet and novelist. Her latest novel, History Artist, grapples with recent Cambodian history. FPIF’s E. Ethelbert Miller talks to her about fighting against social amnesia and the challenge of inhabiting the lives of others in writing fiction.
E. Ethelbert Miller: Is it possible for a novel to change memory? What might your novel tell us about Cambodia that a non-fiction book or even a memoir might not?
Anya Achtenberg: A novel can assist in opening up memory, and with that, opening up questions of accountability, of our responsibility to work for the full recovery of the story, our responsibility for what is done in our name.
As journalist and filmmaker John Pilger says, the bombing of Cambodia by American forces in 1970, equivalent to five Hiroshimas, killed an estimated 600,000 Cambodians, and unclassified CIA files leave little doubt that it opened up the country to genocide by the forces of Pol Pot. My dear main character, with whom I have more personal affinity than I can discuss here, has opened me back up to this knowledge/this memory, and will assist me in opening up others to it.
I would hope the novel might say something about the way memory and trauma are a force, pushing the bearer to re-enact or to attempt to violently purge memory that is unbearable. I want this book to say something about the consequences of the unbearable burdens of certain experience, to push us to see how much support people require—who have survived life under Pol Pot. I would only hope that the novel might work into the deep levels of a reader’s being, into a place where confronting evil becomes a little dangerous, where acquiring facts is not enough. There are of course many nonfiction books, memoir and otherwise, that disturb us to the core of our being. So, I am not sure that this book can or will do anything a non-fiction book or a memoir might not. It may indeed tell more about the perception a non-Cambodian has of the Cambodian experience than actually about Cambodia. In a strange way, I do think this is useful.
So, the work of the novel would not be to change memory, but perhaps ignite it. It might offer something for one’s own memory to push against, and in so doing, come a bit more alive, out of silence or numbness or rage into articulation. Again, not to compete with or cover the perceptions Cambodians have of their own experience, but to offer further terrain in this society of historical amnesia.
As I write this, the BBC let me know that the Angkor Wat region was far more than scattered temples, but “a consistent, interwoven urban network, about 10 times the size of anything from the ancient world discovered so far.” It was “by far the world’s most imposing pre-industrial settlement,” larger than New York City minus its bodies of water, larger than Berlin. This new fact offers more terrain for memory. This means some people’s memories and views of Cambodia and the Khmer people must be rewritten; other people’s memories, some deep sense of the past for which they may not have words, are now opened up and affirmed. It may be that I don’t know where I am digging in my novel or exactly what I am digging for, but that language will lead me into opening terrain that will do the same thing for some readers.
E. Ethelbert Miller: In a letter to me you use the term “difficult history.” Might one conclude that all history is difficult?
Anya Achtenberg: Perhaps all histories are difficult, although I think that some groups have identified themselves with a narrative of “their history” that comforts them, gives them a sense of forward movement, of grand accomplishment, of entitlement, a narrative that might allow them to ignore the actual historical road to their current position. It may be that as we see the livable environment shrink and the tolls from war rise, we will all be forced to interrogate our histories. I think it is perhaps not that some histories are easy or uncomplicated, but that some people, some groups, seem to have a more uncomplicated relationship to their history, built on the sanctioned or even unconscious exclusion of the consequences on others of that history.
I think many of us feel in our bones the displacement and exclusion that our histories, and our current conditions, have made us aware of. The contradictions in many of us are enormous: descendants of immigrants, often not far removed, who are determined to marginalize current immigrants; descendants of settlers whose memory and emotional connection to their family’s acquired home dates only to the moment their occupation began; people who keep active stereotypes of others while nurturing outrage about, or perhaps forgetting, the stereotypes others have had of them. There are those who feel themselves to be more centrally placed in terms of historical events, while others’ experience and history stay ghostlike for them, easy to keep remote, or to summarize in a way that might let them off the hook in terms of responsibility or accountability.
Perhaps we need to develop the ability to see the full simultaneity of all histories, and, ultimately, open up to the truth that all histories are one, each story another facet of the same history. What we are coming to understand now under global capitalism, under threat of the destruction of the planet, in a world of flight and migrations, facing global terrorism of many kinds, is that we inhabit the same time and space, that our ability to see and act in interconnectedness is a necessity for survival physically, environmentally, economically, and I believe psychically.
E. Ethelbert Miller: How do you approach writing about characters that are outside your own ethnic or racial perspective? What are the challenges and risks?
Anya Achtenberg: I was vigorous in my opposition to people writing characters “outside one’s own ethnic or racial perspective,” and indeed was sick to death of how men wrote about women, how whites wrote about blacks, how the wealthy wrote about the poor, how North American tourists wrote about the cultures they “toured,” how writers often assumed a knowledge they did not have. I was sick of the limited, stereotypical, absurd portrayals the “guilty” writers made of characters “outside” their experience. It put me into a rage.
Over time I came to understand that it is not that one should not write about people “outside” their own category, but that the necessary order of the work is to first examine the relationship one has to others, as honestly and fully as one can, and that this can happen, in part, in the process of writing.
But a changing world has pushed me to further break down my old opinions. In the world we have, no sooner is a category “established” than it is broken, disappeared, transformed. No sooner does an academic investigator posit an understanding of the “cultural” or “racial” or “ethnic” perspective of someone than the reality comes to whack that understanding over the head with the experiences of actual human beings who fall quietly or adamantly out of category. The categories imposed by others — and who should own that authority? — are generally wrong or lacking, hiding enormous facts of history.
One’s ability to cross boundaries, to enter another’s experience, is the most powerful gift we have to find the road to peace, the energy to counter war and environmental destruction, to fight modern-day slavery and the sex trade, to teach people shut out of the educational system, to work as healers and build communities. Should writers in particular be considered incompetent in this work and in the human activity so many people are involved in daily, even within the life of their own families?