From the Atlantic Monthly: Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 1975-76) Should Literature Be Personal or Political?

[By Heart is a series on the Atlantic Blog edited by Joe Fassler in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. Here is the last by Fassler and Shacochis.

Joe Fassler: Is a writer obligated to address the way that powerful institutions affect how we live and what we feel? Or is it enough to conjure life on the scale of garden, bed, and kitchen table?

Bob Shacochis, author of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, is more qualified than most to answer these questions, to sort out the relationship between what he calls “the literature of political experience” versus “the literature of domestic experience.” For years, he wrote the “Dining In” column for GQ-short, wistful celebrations of the meals prepared and shared with a beloved woman. (He collected these essays, which include recipes, in a book aptly titled Domesticity.) But Shacochis’s fiction, and his globe-trotting work as a New Journalism-influenced reporter and war correspondent, focus on the way large political, economic, and social forces can shape human relationships. In a recent interview with NPR, Shacochis said that his primary goal as a novelist-besides writing good sentences-was to “to try to make Americans have a more visceral feeling about how America impacts everybody in the world.”

The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, Shacochis’s latest novel, does exactly this. Opening in 1990s Haiti-a period he chronicled in The Immaculate Invasion, about the seventh-month American intervention, “Operation Uphold Democracy”-the book traces U.S. operations abroad in the decades leading up to the War on Terror. The novel’s titular (and fallen) heroine is an American spy whose history, a tale of great promise and compromised ideals, reflects the troubled legacy of our country’s operations abroad. Shacochis also authored Easy in the Islands, which won the National Book Award for first fiction, and other books; he teaches in the MFA program at Florida State University.

Shacochis: Except for a few indelible memories, my influences are not on the tip of my tongue-rather,bob1 I’m rediscovering them as I move through the process of my own writing and reading. My boyhood fascination with John Le Carré happens to be one of those buried influences. Sometimes the recognition of what inspires us awaits us, an unanticipated gift, a serendipity that resonates backwards and tells us we had once boarded the same train with a mentor, and ridden to the same destination, and roomed at the same lodging, without ever knowing it to be so. Often my influences are recovered, not conscious, attachments, and I nourish only a sensation that they exist, spirits in the room, until they spring forth out of the blue.

Like, for instance, my favorite le Carréism, an aphorism I had forgotten for 20 years, until I found myself half-way through the writing of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, and suddenly recalling the passage held such significance for me that I pasted it into an exchange between two of my own characters:

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