Interview: Aaron Hamburger
Midwestern Gothic Assistant Editor Marisa Frey talked with author Aaron Hamburger about his new novel, Nirvana Is Here; the trap of nostalgia; writing trauma; and more.
Marisa Frey: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Aaron Hamburger: I was born in Detroit and grew up there. Also, I went to the University of Michigan, which in so many ways affected my life. I studied creative writing there with wonderful writers like Eileen Pollack, Thylias Moss, and many more, and found my voice as a writer. And as a human too.
MF: Ari, the main character of your new novel, Nirvana Is Here, is a white Jewish boy from the suburbs of Detroit. He and Justin, a Black, non-Jewish boy from the inner city, develop a relationship when they are in high school together. Both are curious about the other’s culture, and the difference is a factor in their bonding and eventual dissolution. Why was it important for you to highlight and compare the Jewish American experience and the Black American experience specifically?
AH: To write about Detroit and to not write about race, in my mind, is science fiction. It is to me the key story of the city, and by extension, of our country.
Personally, I grew up in a largely Jewish suburb of Detroit, so much so that when I was young, I thought Jews were the majority in the country and Christians were the minority. I attended a Jewish school for much of my life and knew very few people who weren’t Jewish.
Then when I went to a secular high school, I experienced this wave of diversity in so many ways and it was incredibly exciting to me, and in some ways a relief. I had never really felt comfortable in this community where I was supposed to feel comfortable because everyone was alike. Now had the chance to get to know other people from other backgrounds, and I felt that I fit in better with that kind of environment, a diverse one. I wanted to capture that experience in fiction.
MF: Nirvana Is Here deals with sexual assault and harassment in the ‘90s and the present, in which the #MeToo movement factors in. Did the movement change the way you wrote about the experiences in the book, particularly how Ari thinks about the assault he experienced as a teenager?
AH: I started working on the book well before the #MeToo movement got into full swing. I was working out a lot of these issues on my own in terms of my own #MeToo experience, which I had kept hidden from most people in my life, and I was challenging myself to write about them in fiction. Then as I was finishing the book, this movement blew up in the media. It’s a strange coincidence and I wonder if there’s a connection, something brewing in the culture that made so many people ready to speak out.
One thing I will say is that I think the discussion could allow more room for male survivors of assault to also speak up. To some extent it’s been happening, but for example, recently there was a piece in the Times about how fiction has responded to the #MeToo movement and it didn’t mention even a single book with a male victim. Interestingly, a big part of the experience of being a male victim of sexual assault is this false idea that your experience doesn’t count or isn’t possible.
MF: Nirvana and its frontman, Kurt Cobain, come to be as much, if not more, of a religion for Ari as Judaism. As a teenager, he often asks himself what Kurt would do in his situation, and adopts several of Kurt’s beliefs about life as his own. Do you think the term religion can apply to the bond a person makes with something like music, or is limited to organized practices like Judaism?
AH: That’s a really interesting concept, and I like it. I was talking the other day with a writer friend who’s not into organized religion and I asked if he had any spirituality in his life. He said his daily writing practice felt to him like a religious ritual, and I immediately identified with that idea. When I write, I too often feel as if I enter a kind of meditative state that helps me center myself and focus my thoughts. So, yes, I do think that the arts, music, literature, etc. can become a kind of spiritual or religious experience for people.
By the same token, however, it’s not always that way. Think of Richard Wagner, brilliant composer, horrible anti-Semite. D.W. Griffith, great filmmaker, made The Birth of a Nation, a skillfully made yet terribly racist movie. Being a great artist did not make them better people. But then again, there are many very religious people who also treat people terribly.
In the end I’d say, many paths, same destination. Religion, art, so much more, any vehicle human beings can find to learn to be kinder to each other is fine by me.
MF: Why Nirvana?
AH: I wrote a piece about this for the Washington Post. Kurt Cobain was known for many things, but maybe not so known (and should be) for his consistent support of gay rights. (Feminism too.) He stood for people being different and finding their own voice, and while he may have been an imperfect messenger in some ways, he had the right message for the right time.
In terms of this book, the idea of “nirvana” refers not just to the band, but the idea that nirvana is here at every moment. We have what we need right here, right now, in every moment, if only we can learn to call upon that. And that’s true in every moment. This book is not meant to be about a nostalgia trip, but rather about learning to appreciate the beauty of each moment we find ourselves in. This is true for even moments that are painful, because those moments are inevitable in our lives, and they have the potential to teach us so much. Or even if they don’t, we are lucky because they always end. It’s like if someone punches me in the gut, as soon as that happens, it’s over. Isn’t that wonderful? Now I don’t have to be punched in the gut again unless I do it to myself in my own mind by reliving it and dwelling in it. Which is not to say I want to deny that it happened, but rather, to acknowledge the painful episode without having to feel the pain of it the way I did the first time.
MF: In school, Ari directs some of his frustration toward Mr. Wentworth, a teacher who is gay but not out. Mr. Wentworth is patient with him, but his fear of others finding out he’s gay fuels Ari’s frustration. Can you discuss your inspiration for Mr. Wentworth’s character and his importance to the story?
AH: Yes, I can. I had so much trouble with Wentworth at first. I just didn’t want to sympathize with him at all. I don’t even know why. And then I played a little Jedi mind trick. I renamed him after one of my favorite characters in fiction, Mr. Wentworth in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. (I wrote about this for Craft Literary, talking about how to name characters.) And it was as if a veil had lifted, and I could see how Wentworth was in pain, a different kind of pain from Ari’s, but still in pain.
I also thought of my own experience as a teacher, with students I’ve had whom I’ve wanted to reach out to and help, not because they were gay, just to help with their writing, and they were resistant to my efforts. I felt so helpless in those situations. I wanted to say to them, I’m really just trying to be of service here. Is there something else I could be doing or saying to help you? (If you are such a student and reading this now, I sincerely say I’m sorry I wasn’t more helpful to you!)
In any case, I channeled that spirit into Wentworth and I liked him a lot more.
MF: Nirvana Is Here has a braided narrative, with one storyline in the ‘90s and one in the present. Ari is a medievalist in the present narrative and tends to live in the past. How do you deal with learning from the past without letting it take over, both in writing and in life?
AH: The trap of nostalgia is that it recreates the past by distorting it, by erasing the negative parts. And then we compare that rosy distortion to the present, with all its ups and downs, and the past seems like a much better option.
As a medievalist, Ari is well aware that our view of the past is tinged with all kinds of errors, and yet his view of his own past has left him a bit stuck. It isn’t until he reconnects with a figure from his past that he sees how that old romanticism is a trick of mind. I think the key is, once again, in the title. Nirvana Is Here. Every moment has something important for us to experience, but we can only experience it if we are present in that moment as it’s happening.
I tell my creative writing students all the time, have you ever been trying to recapture some past episode in your life and you wished that you could go back in time to visit it to remember what the flowers smelled like, what color the carpet in that room was, who was there, all the details that you’re struggling to come up with now? You can’t do that. But you can be more present from this moment forward, so that when you’re in the future trying to look back, you’ll be able to call up those details because you lived them more fully as they happened. Or even if you’re not interested in using your life as fodder for fiction, you’ll still be happier because living more fully means living more happily. It’s very simple, actually, which is why it’s so damned hard to do!
MF: What were the challenges and rewards of writing Nirvana Is Here, which is semi-autobiographical, as a fictional story?
AH: I think the things people will assume are autobiographical are the things that are not and vice versa, as often happens when people write fiction. (And when we write non-fiction, readers will say, did that really happen or did you make it up?)
One thing I learned was that in terms of writing trauma, there’s a real art in how you write about it and where you place it in a story. In an early draft of the novel, I started out with a detailed rape scene. That presented a big obstacle for readers to clear before getting to the love story. (In part I was inspired by Tess of the D’Urbervilles‘s structure.)
As I rewrote, I did two things. First, I built up to that traumatic scene in small flashes, the way a trauma survivor might re-experience it in memories. Then, I waited until the climax of the book to present the scene, and I did so with a few telling details. That approach was important because first, I didn’t want to create “rape porn,” where I inadvertently titillate the reader with a scene of violence, and second, it’s often how we experience trauma as it’s happening, in flashes, not in a logically coherent way.
Personally, I found writing about this trauma could be quite challenging but ultimately liberating. I can’t imagine going back to being the person I was, who was always trying to erase this story from my life. It feels powerful to confront it. And I’ve found it’s allowed me access to a new emotional depth in my work.
MF: You’ve previously published two books, a novel, and a story collection. How did the experience of writing Nirvana Is Here compare to the experience of writing those? What did you learn?
AH: This was a book I’ve been trying to write for a while. The key to pulling it off was courage, plain and simple. And a whole lot of faith too. The thing about writing a book is that you can embark on a project for years and not know if anything will come of all that work. Which doesn’t mean that work was a waste, not at all. Going back to your question about faith and religion, if writing is a kind of religion, then we do it for the sake of the process itself, not some product and the imaginary glory we think it may bring. So that’s my advice to other writers: Be brave, be bold, write about the things that scare you.
MF: What’s next for you?
AH: Another novel, set in Cuba in the early 1920s. It’s my first foray into historical fiction of the distant past (rather than recent past, like Nirvana Is Here), and I’m absolutely loving it. I also have a few readings coming up in the Midwest:
Thursday, May 23, 6 pm
19560 Grand River Avenue Detroit, MI 48223
Tuesday, May 28, 7 pm
3251 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL 60657
Reading/Signing with Michael Carroll
Thursday, October 3, 7 pm
Ann Arbor, MI
124 E Washington, Ann Arbor, MI 48104
Aaron Hamburger is the author of the story collection The View from Stalin’s Head (Rome Prize, the American Academy of Arts and Letters), the novel Faith for Beginners (a Lambda Literary Award nominee), and the novel Nirvana is Here. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Crazyhorse, Tin House, Subtropics, Poets & Writers, Boulevard, and O, the Oprah Magazine. He has taught writing at Columbia University, the George Washington University, The Writer’s Center, and the Stonecoast MFA Program.