Robert Rosenberg interview: our man in Kyrgyzstan

Robert Rosenberg is the author of This Is Not Civilization, a novel that takes place in Kyrgyzstan, an Apache reservation in Arizona, and Istanbul during the 1999 earthquake. The book begins with the best opening line in recent memory: "The idea of using porn films to encourage the dairy cows to breed was a poor one." In his NYTBR piece, Christopher Buckley called the novel "journalistic, humane, and heart-wrenching." He forgot to mention very funny. A paperback edition has just been released by Mariner.

Earth Goat: You were a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan. What was your role there?

Robert Rosenberg: I served in Kyrgyzstan from 1994-96. I was with ‘K2’ – the second group of volunteers to be sent to the country. The Peace Corps placed me in the TEFL program, Teaching English as a Foreign Language, basically ESL style classes. After three months of training in the capital, they sent me to a village in the northwestern part of the country, in the Talas Valley. I was the first American to serve there, the first English teacher in the school; and there were only three other volunteers (including my future wife) in the region. We basically had our own private corner of the country. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we were really the first Americans most of the people in the region had ever met. So in many respects, the responsibilities as cultural ambassador were as important as the teaching.

Landing in Kyrgyzstan just after Independence felt like stepping onto the moon. It was really a thrilling time to be there – both for us, and I imagine for the Kyrgyz people we came in touch with, whose lives were changing so rapidly. I worked hard at the teaching, and had some success. Many of my Kyrgyz students have gone on to study here in the U.S.

But I often wonder how well I did, in other respects. It was hard being so young, and so far away from home, in a completely foreign culture, speaking unfamiliar languages. There were long periods of loneliness and deprivation, and much complaining. The irony of the Peace Corps Volunteer is that, as difficult as it might be, you know it will be over for you in two years. On the other hand, the troubles I faced – periods without running water, failure of heat and electricity in the winter, those kinds of things – have become permanent problems for the people in my village. As volunteers, you’re dropped into the difficulties, do your best to help, and then you leave. But the difficulties remain.

EG: What do you make of this blink-of-an-eye revolution in Kyrgyzstan? Did you ever think something like this would happen?

RR: I’m honestly surprised. I’ve known about the general discontent with Akayev over the last few years, the corruption, the fraudulent elections, the suppression of dissent. But these things seemed to me a permanent fact of life in the former Soviet Union, both in larger countries like Russia, and in the smaller states. Plus, after 9/11 the U.S. seemed to be willing to accept, and turn a blind eye to, the frustrating political situation in places like Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, in order to guarantee support for the war on terror. They needed friendly relations with Kyrgyzstan and its government, for example, in order to set up a military base there. So I knew it would not be through any U.S. pressure that Akayev would eventually go.

Even after what happened in Georgia and the Ukraine, I could not imagine similar events unfolding, this quickly, in Kyrgyzstan. I underestimated the frustration of the Kyrgyz people, and their propensity to act. When I lived in Kyrgyzstan, the people always struck me as rather passive, willing to accepting a great deal of hardship in their lives, but not willing to do much about it, politically. Peace Corps volunteers always marveled at the amount of ‘silent suffering’ that went on there. Well, the Kyrgyz people are silent no more! They were obviously inspired by the Georgian elections being overturned, and the massive street movements in the Ukraine and in Beirut. My impression is that many, many people felt, Why not us? Life is so hard, and we have nothing to lose. What started off as small movements in smaller cities in the south (and in Talas, where I served) kept gaining momentum, and moved very quickly up north to the capital. I’m not sure Akayev even saw it coming.

It’s pretty exciting, and the emails I’ve gotten from students and friends are uplifting. One former student I’m still in touch with called it a “very special day for the Kyrgyz people.” And then she only wanted to know if we in the States had seen it on CNN. The revolution wouldn’t be good enough unless the U.S. was paying attention, on television, it seemed.

My hope is, of course, that the situation will stabilize quickly. I was optimistic yesterday at how little violence the takeover seemed to require. Today it seems as though the country is aware of the power vacuum, and has descended into looting, and a number of people have been killed and injured. The biggest question for me is what will follow. Will the Kyrgyz people learn from their mistakes, and elect leaders with some degree of wisdom and selflessness – leaders who will be willing to step down, and share power, and allow dissent. Fair elections are the key. I’ll be watching to see who, if anyone, emerges from the disorganized opposition with enough power to calm things down, and move the country forward from here.

EG: What interest does the U.S. have in Kyrgyzstan? We and the Russians have military bases there. Is it oil?

RR: No, unlike its extremely wealthy northern neighbor Kazakhstan, tiny little Kyrgzstan has no oil. It’s one of the most mountainous countries in the world, and natural resources are extremely limited. The U.S., I think, needed a small, passive country in Central Asia for geopolitical strategy. After Independence, Kyrgyzstan was known as the most liberal, democratic, and pro-U.S. country in Central Asia. It was obvious, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, that Russia and China – as well as Iran and Turkey – would be struggling for influence in the region. Friendly Kyrgyzstan gave the U.S. a foothold – something that indeed proved valuable in the war with Afghanistan.

EG: You often talk about your students in the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona. What did they teach you while you were teaching them?

RR: As a teacher, it’s always been my feeling that I’ve taken more away from my students than I’ve ever been able to give. The students I taught on the White Mountain Apache Reservation had a way of thinking that was totally different than mine. They were extremely patient – passing a class this semester or next year made very little difference to them. Life would be long, and there was no need to rush. They didn’t understand the constant urgency behind most things “white people” did – the need for expensive houses and high SAT scores, for instance, all of which suddenly seems ridiculous when you live on the reservation. They made me look at life in America differently, to appreciate what I had even more. And to need much less, materially, to make me happy. What was important to them was family and their small, tightly knit community.

Spiritually, too, I was always inspired by their ability to appreciate both their Native ways and outside religions such as Christianity. I liked their idea that God, or the Creator, was good, and more God, and more Creator, were even better, whatever form He came in.

EG: How did it occur to you to combine the three very different locales of Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and the rez in Arizona in your novel? Or are they so different?

RR: I’ve always had two passions: travel, and the desire to be a writer. I imagined, when I first went to Kyrgyzstan, that I would like to try to write about it. I was living an isolated existence in the Peace Corps: isolated geographically, psychologically, linguistically. I need the connection to people, something all writers probably feel. So I wrote hundreds of letters home: I was inspired, entertained, and I felt my skills developing. I could describe difficult, unusual things, such as the custom of filling tea glasses only half full, or the kurban mayram – the sacrificial holiday, when there were sheep hanging off of the village trees like fruit. In writing these letters, I also learned discipline - that the labor of writing was done every day, bit by bit. Still, when I returned home, I had no book. I had a huge stack of letters. It was reportage, not literature.
I won a fellowship to teach on the White Mountain Apache Reservation, and I thought, well, I didn’t write my book about Kyrgyzstan, but here’s a fascinating, unique place. I’ll write a book about the reservation. Living there, though, I found that I wasn’t writing at all. The teaching was too difficult, and I had a telephone, and e-mail, so the urgency to make sense of things on paper wasn’t there, as it had been in Kyrgyzstan. Plus, I found I wasn’t interested in writing a book, so much as what I could do to let the students and community tell their own story.

In school we worked on a community magazine that I edited with the students. The stories came pouring in, interviews with elders, hunting tales, ceremonies…and in this way I became inspired by so many of the similarities between Kyrgyzstan and the Apache reservation – the art, the love of the land and hunting, the problems of alcoholism and suicide, the need to keep a dying culture alive.

I started to think about characters. At first I imagined a young Apache man who, like so many of my students, thought of fleeing the reservation. I imagined an older Kyrgyz man, fleeing the mountain village and the hardships of his post-Soviet existence. Somehow the two characters would meet, like the old Tibetan man and young child in Kipling’s Kim. But I didn’t yet know where or how they would meet.

I took a job and moved to Istanbul, and with distance and perspective, the connections between these two places became even clearer. I was living in this enormous city, that had just suffered, in the 1999 earthquake, this enormous disaster. I thought, what if they met here? What if these characters I was imagining saw what I had seen, and lived through it. How would it alter their views of the native lands they had fled?

So, more than just the connections, suddenly I saw the shape and pattern of the novel, which is a vital step, I realize now, in the process. The novel had a structure: the two characters would leave their native lands, encounter something completely life-altering, and eventually return to where they had come, somehow changed. It was the typical hero’s journey, though mirrored in two characters. It only took me seven years to come up with it.

Much of this initial idea changed, of course, in the actual writing. But once I had the characters, and the basic structure, the writing started to happen.

EG: Anarbek is my favorite character in your book. How did you come up with him? Is he based on someone you know in Kyrgyzstan?

RR: Thanks. A lot of people seem to like Anarbek. As I told you, the initial idea was to have an older Kyrgyz character hoping to flee his life in Kyrgyzstan. Older because I was imagining a character who had lived through, and understood, much of what happened in Kyrgyzstan under the Soviet Union. I was wondering how he would interpret events after the collapse of the empire. How attracted would he be to the West, and to America in particular? How would he continue to support himself and his family in an economy that had crumbled? All of these questions interested me.

I try never to base characters on any single person. In the village where I worked in Kyrgyzstan there was a cheese factory, and I knew the manager. But I like to think that Anarbek is an amalgamation of many of the Kyrgyz men I knew – men who were always on the lookout for a new way to make money, men with a great deal of pride in their masculinity, men who could drink heavily (as all Kyrgyz men in the village did), men who were protective of their family at all costs, men who both wanted to experience life in the West, but were also devoted to preserving, and excelling in, their ancient traditions.

To anyone who has lived in Kyrgyzstan, Anarbek is probably a familiar figure, then. There was something extremely noble, and extremely comic, about nearly all the Kyrgyz men I knew there.

EG: Your novel has been praised for its dead-pan humor. How did you develop that?

RR: The humor, I think, comes simply out of my written voice. It was probably developed through those years of writing letters home from faraway places. The events and clash of cultures were often so weird, and comic, that I never felt they needed any embellishment. I just put them on the page, and let people make of them what they wanted. An attentive reader, I realized, would find them as hilarious as I had found them, living them.

So when I made up events in my fiction, I treated them in the very same way. One of the reviewers said something like “Rosenberg lets the reality speak for itself”, and I like to think I let the comedy speak for itself too.

EG: What do you suppose lies at the heart of your passion for travel and other cultures?

RR: I think I’ve never really known where I belong. I’ve never felt that any place was home. Was it Basho, a Zen master, who said something like “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home?” That’s how I’ve always felt. I’m happier with a backpack on my back, a paperback novel in my hand, floating through some unfamiliar landscape in a train or a bus, than I could ever be sitting at home. That to me is pure pleasure. I’m extremely restless, and extremely curious about how other people live. What would it be like to BE them? Have they found some kind of happiness that I don’t know?

My characters, then, in this first novel probably all exhibit much of the restlessness that I am cursed with myself. They’re constantly traveling, constantly wondering how other people live, and if they might be happier in some other place.

I should say, though, that I haven’t traveled much since 9/11. I’m terribly upset by the way the rest of the world perceives us, and it’s my firm belief that this misadventure in Iraq has done more to harm America’s standing in the world, and our ability to understand other cultures, than any foreign policy blunder in the country’s history.

EG: Was it hard to write from the point of view of characters from other cultures? Did you anticipate criticism for trying that and has it materialized? I'm sure you recall that evening in Elizabeth McCracken's workshop at her house when you were kind of cornered by a fellow student's tirade that questioned your qualifications to be writing such material.

RR: You know, I might never have attempted to write from the point of view of foreign characters had I attended Iowa before I began the novel. Luckily, I had no idea what I was doing when I first started writing the book, and so I did what came naturally: I tried to imagine what it was like to be a young Kyrgyz woman or an Apache teenager, and just kept putting it down on paper. I was amazed at how much it was possible to imagine, if I put my mind to it.

I was aware, many times, of NOT knowing things I needed to know – details, say, that a Kyrgyz woman would of course know. But I also realized how much I DID know, from having lived in these places, from having taught these people and befriended them, from having read four years of English class essays and journals. I put in what I knew, I avoided what I didn’t.

It was only at Iowa, halfway through the finished book, that I began to question myself. Believe it or not, it had little to do with that particular workshop you mention. It came from my own guilt. What right did I have, a young Jewish man from New Jersey, to attempt a scene from a Muslim woman’s point of view? The world would see me as a fake. The writing would be inaccurate. Kyrgyz women should tell their own stories, shouldn’t they?

And of course they should. But I also realized, they weren’t. Nobody on the reservation was writing a novel. Nobody in my Kyrgyz village in Talas was writing an account of contemporary Kyrgyzstan. So I argued with myself that, at the very least, even if I wasn’t capturing 100 percent of the essence of life in these out of the way places, at least I was capturing SOME of it. I was giving voices to people I cared deeply about, and doing it with as much empathy as possible. Even if the book sucked, this was a valuable exercise.

I expressed these misgivings once in a conference with Jim MacPherson, one of my workshop teachers. I asked him what right I had to be attempting this book, and he told me, sternly, that one should never place any limits on the power of the imagination. No one would ever be able to write novels, if we did that – only memoirs. Would Tolstoy have been able to write sections of War and Peace from Napoleon’s point of view if he doubted his imagination, or Hadji Murad from the Tsar’s? When you write a novel, you always inhabit a foreign consciousness – be it the man next door or a woman in Kyrgyzstan. The trick is to do it as honestly as possible.

And there hasn’t been any criticism from this angle. In fact, the Kyrgyz people who have read the book and contacted me have been extremely honored, and thankful. They believed I understood their difficulties, and presented them honestly. It’s been a joy and a relief to hear that.

I haven’t heard much from the Native American point of view. There are certainly amazing Native American writers out there, dealing with similar material (Alexie, Erdrich), but none of them have written a book that compares the plight of Native Americans to other indigenous people. In that, I feel it was justified.

EG: What have you learned from writing and publishing your first novel that the rest of us might like to know?

RR: It’s a long, punishing process. I was simply so thrilled to be having the book published, I did not foresee the issues that I would have to deal with, on the business and promotion end of things. It’s good to be informed, more informed than I was, so one will know what to expect.

I would tell everyone at Earth Goat, many of whom will be publishing first books soon, that the FIRST novel is an enormous opportunity that does not come again. I had always thought of myself as a writer in terms of a CAREER, that the first book was just getting things started. Unfortunately, under the current publishing atmosphere, the first novel can be the start and end of a career, if it doesn’t do well enough. Publishers are looking for the big new thing. When you’re no longer new (ie. no longer publishing your first book) interest in the work is significantly lowered. So don’t be in a rush to get a first novel published. Take your time, if possible, and make it as wonderful as possible.

That said, publishers seem to want to get new writers out there with a bang, and I wish I had supported this more, in the months before the book came out, by writing articles for magazines, creating web pages, getting my name out there on these blogs, all in an effort to create pre-publication buzz. In retrospect, I feel like I could have done so much more of this, but didn’t know how important it was at the time. Take advantage of every publishing opportunity, no matter how small, before your book comes out. The goal, I think, is really to get your name out there. Thisbe Nissen’s amazing self-promotion odyssey, published on Earth Goat a few weeks back, is a great example of how determined and ambitious you have to be, and what good things can happen as a result.

EG: Your lovely wife Michelle now teaches the talented and gifted at the White Mountain reservation. What was it like going back?

RR: It’s actually been a very quiet existence since we moved back. Michelle loves her job, and is working with the brightest kids in town, the kids she feels she can most help. She’s able to organize a lot of projects and events that she couldn’t when she taught the large regular classes, often filled with very needy students.

It was funny. When we first came back, the Apaches all asked, “Where’ve you been?” As if we were gone for a few days, not five years. Time has a different meaning here. Life happens at a much slower pace. They’re very friendly with us – more open this time around than the first time we lived here. I think they were quite happy we returned. So many teachers come for a short time and leave forever, that the Apaches are pretty hardened and don’t try to establish a relationship. Because we came back, we sort of validated our respect for the reservation and the culture, I think, and many in town seem to appreciate that.

For me, it’s been a fairly isolated existence, writing full time. We live in the teacher housing, across the street from the school, so there isn’t nearly as much interaction with the rest of the community as there was, say, in the Peace Corps. Still, it’s a beautiful, quiet place to live. The rusty mountains of Eastern Arizona are topped with snow as I write to you. Tomorrow the sun will come out and probably melt it all.

EG: Any fond or grating memories of Iowa you'd like to share?

RR: The first time I put up a section of the novel, it was in Frank Conroy’s workshop my first semester. Class started. He counted out the first twelve pages of the twenty page chapter, separated them from the rest, and tore them into shreds. “This is not the way this novel begins, he told the class. He went on to say some nice and extremely useful things about the rest of the opening chapter. But of course I was crushed. “I’ll show him” I thought. “This book will be published one day, and those WILL be the opening pages.”

Do I have to even tell you that Frank was right? Over the next two years, over many revisions, those opening scenes were moved, then edited completely out of the book, as determined as I was to keep them. The man has a genius for spotting unnecessary baggage, among a host of other potential mistakes. I’m curious who will replace him as director, and saddened that he’s stepping down.

EG: What are you working on now?

RR: I’m working on a novel set exclusively in Istanbul, that deals with the small Jewish minority still living in the city. It’s the story of two estranged brothers, a take on a modern Cain and Abel legend. I’m still much in love with Istanbul as a city, and haven’t quite gotten it out of my system, in terms of the writing.

EG: Word is, you recently accepted a teaching job. Can you tell us about that?

RR: I’ve been offered a tenure-track job at Bucknell University, in Pennsylvania. We’ll be moving out there in June, and I’ll start teaching next year. As much as I’ve enjoyed the chance to write full-time, I also realize how much of this free time I waste. It’s a curse.

I miss the responsibilities of teaching, the interaction with students and other writers. Discussing great literature feeds the writing, for me at least. And having a rigid schedule and other work forces me to be more efficient, to get that page a day written before checking e-mail and reading twenty-one online newspapers and great literary blogs like Earth Goat. Those pleasures will have to wait for the evenings, once again.

We’ve also, as you know, just had our first child. I’m going to pass on the stay-at-home parenting responsibilities to Michelle, who’s excited to be able to spend more time with our daughter. So the timing of the job offer, and the move, has worked out wonderfully for us. We’ll be passing through Iowa City, no doubt, on our way out there…so we hope to catch up with as many of you as possible!


SER said...

Great interview. I'm just wondering: why doesn't EG want its nipples twisted by Robert or Curtis? Should they feel insulted, or should they simply bow down to the potent sexiness that is El Gordo?

Grendel said...

During the EGDA interview, EG accidentally snorted some amyl nitrate, thinking it was crushed Tums. EG regrets the error. However, should Robert or Curtis want a re-do, and the proper chemicals are present, EG has no preemptive compunction against nipple-twisting.

But seriously folks, isn't it funny that you can post something like, "What did you have for breakfast?" and get 17 comments, but put up these lengthy, thoughtful pieces, and it's quieter than a closed cotton-ball factory?

kclou said...

Many congrats on the success of the book and the teaching gig, too, Robert! Bucknell! I don't know if you're starting or continuing or ending a reading tour anytime soon, but I'd love to see you. I ordered the Charlottesville Public Library a copy of your book and last time I checked there was a wait.

Grendel, what do you think about setting up a regular (bi-weekly? monthly?) part of EarthGoat dedicated to alerting readers to EarthGoaters giving readings? Would such a thing be possible? Is it awful to ask you to put even more time into this site? Marilynne and Jennifer Haigh both rolled through DC, but I wonder who I've missed, and readings are such a terrific opportunity to offer solidarity.

Grendel said...

kclou, it would be a great idea, but every effort at centralizing anything here seems to fail immediately. I'm starting to believe that the essence of blogging is simply random individual contributions. If people want to email me their upcoming readings, I'll definitely post them. But it might be better and easier to just post notice of any reading you're planning to give or any reading you've seen that's coming up in your area. I do that from time to time for Iowa City - folks should do the same for their areas if they like.