Newsletter #13: Engines of Essays

Photo: Valerie Schmidt

Recently, an essay of mine was the subject of discussion by a group of writers at Land Conflict Watch, a research and advocacy group in India. I have admired Land Conflict Watch since I began the research for my book-in-progress, which concerns itself with the relationship between marginalized and indigenous communities on the one hand and state schemes of development and control on the other. It was an honor to have them read “The Useful Village,” a long essay I wrote years ago about rural life in Germany and the relationships that entangle states, citizens, and asylum seekers.

The group sent me two thoughtful questions following their discussion. With their permission, I am publishing the questions and my answers below.

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1. Some people felt that they didn't get to know the people/hosts of town better. There were some glimpses of them and what they were probably thinking about refugees. We were wondering, was it a reporting challenge to get them to speak to you? Like were they reluctant to talk? If so, how did you navigate that?

This was a mixture of a deliberate choice on my part, an aesthetic or narrative choice you might call it, and a limitation of the reporting. So good call on both counts. The logistic limitation was indeed that many people in the town were hostile to reporters, as you might imagine after they were the subject of such misrepresentations and bombastic reports in German newspapers. I felt for them. It was difficult to convince people that I was there to do something different and more thoughtful. But in some cases I did manage, especially with the help of the (native German) photographer I traveled with. I did have some good luck. At the same time, I didn’t want to present only friendly faces. There were some public figures, like the mayor or church pastor, and some friendly farmers, as well as some not so friendly ones, and I wanted to reflect that reality. I could have focused on one or two more welcoming figures, and visited them each season, talking about their experiences with the asylum camp. But I chose not to. With the exception of Jens, who runs the camp, I did not give any of them more than one scene in the piece. Jens was sort of my personal hero, so I wanted to give his voice more room as a sort of compass for everyone else--his morality points due north, in my opinion. Otherwise, the characters just come and go.

Speaking structurally, this choice to give “glimpses” of the town is also because I wanted to develop a broad panorama of voices, which meant I couldn't spend too much time with any one figure. That's why they go in and out of focus. My editor and I agreed that we wanted to give a kind of "Spoon River Anthology" feel to the piece (you may have to look up this now-obscure book, as I did when my editor first mentioned it), where a town is built out of many voices coming and going. I wanted to try something different than the conventional profile, instead making the village itself the primary character, not just the humans but the animals and plant life and particularly the changing seasons. In particular, I wanted to contrast the way cyclical change happens in a rural village every year with the way this kind of sudden, immense political change can come along and upend everything. (I also hoped to reflect the experience of strangeness of the environment for someone arriving from the Middle East or North Africa!) So the natural world, which informs the life of the villagers, and which would appear very exotic and strange to the newcomers, was really my starting point, followed by an attempt to build the idea of this village on top of it, eventually evolving to describe its history and political powerlessness, once I felt I had established many of its characters and natural setting.

For me, this essay was an opportunity to experiment with structures you don't often see in reporting on refugees, to write something slower and more pastoral than I’d attempted before. I would not want for all reporting on asylum, or on rural life, to look like this. And I can't say whether my experiment was a success or not--it's for the reader to judge. But there is a lot of writing out there that follows a very familiar formula, using one or two protagonists as the driving narrative force. I wanted to write a panoramic portrait of a town that was deliberately muted and distant, with a wide spectrum of characters and stories but no central protagonist, using the changing seasons and the evolving political conditions of the refugee crises as the twin "engines" that power the story and move it forward.

2. There was a lot of discussion on how the story ends, which is sort of you, as a writer, talking to the reader, somewhat about what you are thinking, how you view this whole thing. In India we generally don't see that kind of ending in the stories that journalists write here. What was your thought process in thinking about that ending? Also, one of the journalists in our discussion group said that she liked (accepted and enjoyed) that kind of ending because the writer (you) had earned her trust through the meticulous and thoughtful reporting/writing, and that she wouldn't have taken that kind of ending from anybody else!

A very good question, and thank you. Here is I think a kind of genre difference between journalism, especially news style journalism, and another form of nonfiction, sometimes called essay or creative nonfiction, especially in the U.S. This piece is decidedly working in an essayistic mode, which is usually defined by an author's visible, public attempt to understand or interpret some event or phenomenon. It will often show the author "thinking in public," working through ideas and coming to conclusions--or failing to, even coming to contradictory, mutually exclusive ideas.

Such approaches are rare, or even forbidden, in "straight" journalism, but it is an integral part of the essay tradition, which in the European mold is often seen as emerging out of Montaigne and Bacon. (There are other antecedents of course, especially non-Western.) In today's publishing climate, you may find essays most often in literary magazines, but also in general-interest magazines, including VQR and most other places I write for. A lot of magazine feature writing operates somewhere between journalism and essay, taking elements from the two. In pieces like this, I am held to journalistic standards concerning factualness and relevance, but permitted to do more "thinking" in my writing than a reporter would be.

I'm very happy one reader thought I had earned her trust. I think developing trust between writer and reader is one of the signature tasks of the essay writer. In order for the reader to follow you to a conclusion, you must make the reader believe in the reality you are building on the page--convince them that your observations are true to life and your ideas meaningfully reflect that observed reality. Your writing must therefore be good, your descriptions free of cliché. You must help them see the world anew. They will then follow you anywhere.

Here is a book review by William Deresiewicz I enjoyed. It is a negative review of a trilogy of anthologies that, in the estimation of the reviewer, misunderstands the history of the essay and what the essay does. I find it convincing. (Not everyone, even among my friends, agrees.) I am attaching it not because I think the anthologies under discussion are especially good or bad. The review itself makes reference to a debate about nonfiction that might seem abstract or irrelevant to you and your colleagues. (It may be quite parochial, relevant only to an American university/MFA audience--I'm not sure!) But there is a paragraph that touches precisely on the point I’m making. I’ll quote it here:

There are genres whose principal business is fact—journalism, history, popular science—but the essay has never been one of them. If the form possesses a defining characteristic, it is that the essay makes an argument (and does so, unlike academic writing and other forms, for a general rather than a specialized audience). That argument can rest on fact, but it can also rest on anecdote, or introspection, or cultural interpretation, or some combination of all these and more. There are “public essays” and “personal essays” and essays that are both or neither; the form is broad and various and limitlessly flexible. Yet what distinguishes an op‑ed, for instance, from a news report is that the former seeks to persuade, not simply inform. And what makes a personal essay an essay and not just an autobiographical narrative is precisely that it uses personal material to develop, however speculatively or intuitively, a larger conclusion. Near the end of the title essay in Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, to take the most celebrated recent example, we read the following: “Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us … It’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves.” The movement that culminates in that passage—from instance to precept, from observation to idea—is the hallmark of the essay.

I’ve italicized the last sentence, which for me is the point. An essay, unlike a news piece, must move--it must develop, accrue, or evolve over the course of its length.

It is by no means required that an essay arrive at a conclusive point or argument, and I would hope my own conclusion reflects one way to think about the year that has just been described over 10,000 words, not the definitive way. However, this movement from observation to idea is at least one hallmark of the essay form. In a majority of cases, not only with personal essays, but with essays of all kind, there is a movement from observation toward idea. You build up many concrete observations and descriptions, gaining the reader's trust, proving the sharpness of your eye and mind, and then you are "permitted" by the reader to move into a thinner, more abstract atmosphere. 

In other news, I was interviewed recently by Asia Art Tours about my reporting on Xinjiang. Check it out here. I know it’s been a long time between letters. I have spent this year working on a few projects I’m looking forward to sharing soon.

xo,

Ben