Approximately ten years ago, Marnie Mueller was invited as visiting faculty to Bennington College where she gave the following talk to the MFA students in the college’s prestigious graduate school writing program. — John Coyne
What Writers Write & Why
by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65)
When I returned in the mid-1960s to the United States from a two year stint in the Peace Corps in Guayaquil, Ecuador, I was in a sorry way, deeply traumatized, subject to dark silent rages, nightmares, and a terror of being in crowds. At first I drank alone to calm the turmoil, then I found a shrink, and eventually I sought solace in reading novels.
I found refuge in the books by young men of my generation who had fought in Vietnam, particularly in a work by Tim O’Brien. In Going after Cacciato I identified with his character being in such intolerable pain and fear that his only recourse was to escape into his imagination. Then, I read Nadine Gordimer for her rigorous narratives of life under Apartheid for black, colored and whites alike. And Joan Didion for her cool treatises on American political narcissism in South East Asia and Latin America, and V. S. Naipaul for his sardonic humor and his cruel takes on real life and politics in Africa and the Caribbean. But no writer satisfied and spoke to me as fundamentally and clearly as did Graham Greene. Though he was of another generation, his books more closely described what I had experienced, what I had hated and loved about my time in the Third World. I consumed his transcendent novels, The Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory. Mourning Scobie’s death for weeks like a family member, and alternately sympathizing and deploring the choices made by the Whiskey priest. I was enthralled with A Burnt Out Case and The Comedians. But it was The Quiet American that was the revelation and the book I have returned to over and over through the years, as a reader seeking comfort and edification, and later as a writer trying to figure out how to harness the confusing mess of historical and political stories that made up my own material.
Another book that proved to be a great help to me once I began writing, was Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta. At first I read it as a political novel, one dealing with Latin American culture as well as the depiction of infighting among sectarian groups, something I was woefully familiar with from my own experiences in the 1960s and ’70s in this country. On subsequent rereadings, I came to realize that it was also a novel about the process of creating a political, historical work of fiction. Indeed, Vargas Llosa prefers to think of it as such. In a postmodern conceit, Vargas Llosa, the character, is pursuing the true story of the revolutionary Mayta. Vargas Llosa interviews one eyewitness after another, each telling a different piece of the history. This is interspersed with an imaginative retelling of the episodes from Mayta’s point of view. As the narrative proceeds, as research, interviews and memory meld, there is an increasing merging of the Mayta and Vargas Llosa characters, until at one juncture, there is a fusion of point of view. Read textually, it becomes a primer in what goes into writing such a novel, how no matter how much you try to stick to the true story, the imagination will always take it elsewhere.. Even the literal translation of the Spanish title — Historia de Mayta — conveys the ultimate struggle of such a novelist. In Spanish historia means both “history” and “story,” thus setting up the conflict between documentation and fiction. In establishing this dichotomy, Vargas Llosa also makes the distinction between the fiction of ideology, that which is created by political ideologues such as his Mayta and comrades, and literary fiction which is a writers transformative take on the world, personally invigorating and providing a reason to go on with life in the face of the intolerable. Sadly, though, by Vargas Llosa’s own admission, this literary creation served as an apology for the leftist politics of his youth.
I’m often asked why I write fiction as opposed to non-fiction considering what I have to work from. I was born into an activist family and from my very first breath, which I took in a tarpaper covered barracks hospital in the Tule Lake Japanese American segregation camp, my personal memories and reference points have had political, historical overtones and implications. My earliest visual memories are of a vast barren dessert, black with lava sand and beyond the bars of my playpen which was set outside our barracks, the high chain link fence with barbed wire on top and watchtowers with armed soldiers inside which were constructed to enclose the Japanese American prisoners, 18,000 of them, including men, women, children, infants like myself, even orphans, and the elderly. I was the first Caucasian born in the camp because my father, a pacifist, and my mother, a teacher, had gone there to try to make life for the inmates as palatable as possible. My mother taught grade school and my father set about to establish a camp-wide system of consumer owned co-operative stores, operations based on principals of participatory democracy and non-racist values, ironically enough inside a prison camp incarcerating people because of their race.
So why didn’t I write a memoir or a non-fiction book about my parent’s experiences in the camp? Frankly it’s because like many of you sitting in this room, my first impulse was to write out of my imagination, to create worlds unlike the one I lived in on a daily basis.
From as far back as I can remember I’ve kept secrets and told lies about myself and my family, a fairly good prognosticator of a future fiction writer. I’d always thought that Graham Greene was simply a secretive man, but I’ve had to revise that opinion somewhat. Better said, he was a man of disguises even to himself, and duplicitous in his actions, a double dealer and a paradoxical mixture of human and writerly desire to hide and reveal at the same time. He, the great defender of the militant left, friend to Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega, enemy of Pinochet, avid critic of American right wing policies, up until the end of his life, was regularly reporting to the British Secret Service about what he saw and heard on his travels in the third world . And his love life was filled with a plethora of partners: a wife he never divorced, two long-term mistresses who remained with their husbands as they conducted their affairs with him, other more minor sexually charged relationships, and a parade of prostitutes. Suicidal from boyhood, anguished in his love affairs to the point of threatening to kill himself, using writing, by his own admission, as a form of therapy. Shirley Hazzard, a friend in his later years, asserted that his daily practice of getting five hundred words onto the page kept him alive. His perfectly structured novels of intrigue and adventure were surprisingly autobiographical and confessional in nature. The End of the Affair was treacherously close to the truth of his relationship with Catherine Walston and revealing in its depiction of her husband, a British Labor Party figure, who knew of and apparently acquiesced to the terms of their liaison. Greene even dedicated the book to Catherine. His politics were as subjective and emotional as his love affairs, more about identifying with the vulnerable on whichever side of the divide between the powerful and unpowerful, than a solidified political stance. As he said once, “The writer should always be ready to change sides at the drop of a hat. He speaks up for the victims, and the victims change.” It’s this loyalty to the victim, coupled with his mastery of disguise and his ability to dissemble, that made his fiction work so well and ultimately, as he did in his prophetic The Quiet American, to deliver a political sucker punch to both the weak and the powerful that will always be felt.
As for myself, I’ve often wondered if the origins of my secrets and lies dated back to my first years after we left Tule Lake, when my mother and I followed my father East across America in the 1940s and ’50s, settling in one farm community after another, as determined by his work organizing farmers into co-operatives. Whenever I entered a new school, I was asked, Where do you come from? Where were you born? Initially I was proud to answer, “Tule Lake Japanese American Relocation Camp in California.” But I was met with blank stares, even from the teachers, and not solely because I was white. The teachers denied that such camps existed, saying, “Dear, I don’t think you have your information right.” After a couple of such shaming episodes, I learned to answer simply, “I was born in California.”
As the years went on and the history of the camps was never referred to in any public school I attended, I began to feel that what I’d been told by my parents, that I was the first Caucasian born in Tule Lake, was either a product of my imagination or an invention of my idiosyncratic parents to make our lives seem more exotic. By the time I reached high school I’d convinced myself that I was an ordinary American kid with the blandest personal history to go along with my self-created all-American girl look of bleached blond hair and bobby socks. Along the way toward that metamorphosis, as we moved from one conservative town to the next, locales that in those post-war years were openly anti-Semitic, I’d learned to never tell that I was Jewish, concealing my Jewish identity behind my father’s surname of Elberson, and passing for Gentile. It also necessitated hiding that my parents were atheists. It was a very complicated system that I worked up, one that in hindsight was probably good preparation for being a fiction writer. I told Methodist friends that I was Lutheran and Lutherans that I was Presbyterian, living in terror of being found out. One Easter I even stole money from my mother’s purse so that I could go with my girlfriend and her mother to the main department store on Burlington, Vermont’s Church Street, to buy an Easter bonnet. But when I returned home, I had to hide the hat deep in my closet so that my mother wouldn’t find it, and then I had to lie to my friend and say we were going to attend church in another town with acquaintances of my parents. And on Easter day I remained inside for fear my friend would see me on the street, in-town, without an Easter outfit. I also couldn’t let my friends learn that my Grandmother was active in the establishment of Israel. Nor did I want anyone to know that my father was a socialist and that he’d been a pacifist during World War II, nor that my parents and grandparents were “eggheads,” as intellectuals were dubbed in the 1950s, with advanced degrees from good universities. Nor did I want anyone to know that by 1946 my hometown-birthplace no longer existed.
I was like a frightened, paranoid refugee whose past had been expunged when she crossed over into America, except that in my case, as with 120,000 people of Japanese heritage, I’d gone from one America into another, an alien in my own land. My question to myself in later years was, “Did my secrets and the companion terror of being found out and the determination with which I set about to create another life for myself have anything to do with the silence and disbelief I met when I first tried to tell the story of my origins. Did the silence of my nation about this essential and personal detail of my history and my own identity combine to establish a pattern of lying that became so deeply ingrained that after a while I barely knew who I really was?”
For me, writing fiction has been a gradual journey toward myself, each book revealing a new secret, each book making possible the dissection and revelation of the next nest of lies. But these secrets were particularly hard to get to in my case, as the inner life of my family was played out on a political and historical stage, all needs, desires, intimacies were subsumed in their good works and politics rather than being addressed in the privacy of the home. As a child and later as a writer, I felt myself to be a spy in the house of Elberson, the same Elbersons who were respected and sometimes revered in the outside world, but who were decidedly not doing as well in the bosom of the home.
But as my parents were, I was more comfortable with the life outside the house. I began writing at 40 years old, a late starter after a long activist and public career—for example, as a community organizer in El Barrio and the South Bronx, as the Program Director of New York’s Free Speech Pacifica Radio during the height of ’70s activism, and doing solidarity work against US intervention in Central America in the 1980s. Even so, my first impulse as a writer was to reveal my relationship with my mother. I recall a short piece I scribbled on a scrap of paper about my fear of her, of how when I was four years old I thought she was putting poison into my orange juice. A few more revelations found their way to the page, but I couldn’t stay with it. It was too icky, even these cramped prose poems of closely held emotion felt too self indulgent and revelatory, certainly not meaningful work. Babyish and creepy, I said to myself. I then began to write a novel about an organizer and his wife, set in a farm community in Ohio with flashbacks to his time of working in a Japanese America Camp. The man was revered by the people he worked with. He made wonderful speeches about democracy and injustice. I put in didactic history of the camp, of the co-operative movement in America, of agrarian reform, usually in dialogue, though sometimes in an authorial narrative voice. I thought the speechifying sounded great, like a real writer, doing serious work. And every once in a while I dared to have a scene between the husband and wife, in bed, with just a touch of intimacy, of them arguing about how she never saw him because he was always out working and he would answer her contritely, but then he would begin to talk, or rather declaim about his work and how guilty he felt about not getting the job done, the job essentially being to eradicate racism and economic inequality off the face of the earth.
Let’s take a minute to examine what Graham Greene would do in such a situation. In the first place no one would declaim if it were his manuscript, rather subtlety would rule. You wouldn’t know who was in the right and who was in the wrong. The brilliance of The Quiet American is that for the longest time the reader is lead to believe that Pyle is an innocent abroad, simply a naive American wanting to make the world a better place. Of course if you know Greene, know his utter antipathy to this aspect of Americanism epitomized in Pyle, your suspicions are aroused. But then who do you turn to? Fowler? A burned-out cynical shell of a man who’s able to keep the young woman only because he can pay her way. But then you think, what future does Phoung have with Fowler? He can’t marry her. A self-described “wasting asset,” he probably has increasing difficulty getting it up and certainly won’t be able to much longer if he keeps on smoking opium at the rate he’s been doing. He could leave her at any moment and go back to his wife in England. With Pyle there is a possibility that she can emigrate to America, see the sights and then settle down with him and become an American wife. Though the signs are there that this may not happen. Subtle signs that Pyle may be using her for the moment, just as the indications begin to emerge that he may be using Vietnam to prove his own undigested theories, to create a world as a reflection of his own political narcissism, an American democracy transplanted onto an ancient land. Greene does a masterful job of juxtaposing the metaphor of the fight over Vietnam with the fight over ownership of Phoung. In The Quiet American Greene plants us on the cusp of the cynical Europeans, the French, giving up on their colony, and the energetic, enthusiastic, idealistic Americans stepping gallantly in to take over. Throughout, Greene rarely shows his authorial hand, doesn’t let us know what side he’s on. But Fowler finally is Greene, Fowler is the writer trying to decide whether he should take a stand, and only when he sees the destruction Pyle is wreaking on the people of Vietnam through his vile and dangerous harebrained schemes, does he let go of the objectivity, the passive stance and take action. Though the reader in the end remains somewhat unsure whether his real motivation is overly human, fueled by an aging man’s sexual jealousy of virile youth. Then why is this book so powerful politically and morally, if it is so ambiguous? Why when after September 11, was the studio that produced the remake of the film of The Quiet American, directed to delay release? And, why, when it did finally come out, shortly after the beginning of the war against Iraq did it stir additional anger in some of us against our own illegal war? I think it’s powerful precisely because it is ambiguous. Greene gives us room to project our own feelings and political affiliations onto the characters and events. He portrays people whose manifest actions camouflage their underlying intent, and whom he allows to commit unspeakable acts in the name of freedom, liberty, compassion and even love. In a way it explains the unexplainable to us. When I read The Quiet American, I recognize myself in both the opposing characters. I see my old cynicism and bitterness of my last days in the slum where I lived in Guayaquil, Ecuador. How I loved and hated the Ecuadorians I’d been sent to help. How I despaired of any good coming from my work. And Pyle was the younger me, arriving in country two years earlier, actually thinking I could make life better for the people there. And Pyle was the CIA operatives in Ecuador hiding behind their AID jobs carrying out their cold war intrigues. Pyle was also my Peace Corps Director whose overzealousness caused an incident in my neighborhood resulting in rocks being thrown at me by the people whose trust I’d worked for two years to gain. Both characters are the continuum of the innocents abroad, those who become resigned to passive acceptance and the ones who carry on, energetically bringing their brand of freedom to the unsuspecting world. So that today, on reading the book, Pyle is our Paul Wolfowitz and Pyle’s Third Way becomes our neo-cons’ dream of bringing democracy to the Mid East. What Greene does is humanize evil, spread it around, show its many disguises, show how we each are implicated or could be, fool us and then strike a subtle blow on the side of righteousness, but so very subtle that we’re still not sure. What I’m saying is, Greene has no problem going to the personal: those sticky, nasty and need-filled impulses underlying all political acts.
As for me, I kept writing that book about the organizer and his wife, and gradually the flashbacks to the Japanese American camp ballooned to become the basis of the novel. The couple’s arguments became more intimate, more juicy, no longer so much about how good he was, but rather about how he was failing her sexually and companionably. He also was changing, becoming more human, and finally one day during my writing of him, he began to be not so perfect. The fissures showed in his righteous politics. He made mistakes. He failed the people he was supposed to be helping. And he lusted after a woman who was not his wife. The book continued to be about politics in the camp, but even the Japanese American characters became less sentimentalized as they began to turn against each other in a factional dispute. After a while in my writing no one was thoroughly good, and many were quite flawed, particularly the man who had been perfect, the character modeled on my father.
But it was working. Finally the character came off the page, ceased being my father, and turned into his own man. Some guilt lingered in me as I wrote. Though before he died, my father had urged me to write the whole story, warts and all. But I adored my father and felt a loyalty to him and the work he had done. Even so I soldiered on. Then one day I was doing research for the book and I found my father in the footnote of another author’s study of the camps. I called the author immediately and he directed me to the National Archives in Washington, DC and to the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. At the National Archives the librarian rolled out eighteen cartons filled with my father’s passionate narratives — letters and memos written in his distinctive syntax, in which he spoke of racism, of the need to rectify the egregious harm done to Japanese Americans by the incarceration. My father had been dead for ten years when I found this material. Because my time was limited in the library, I had to reprimand myself, to tell myself to stop weeping, that I would find time for that later.
For months after this discovery I was blocked from working on my novel. I was humbled in the face of his accomplishment, convinced that the life he lived was far more heroic and profound than what I’d written. But when I tried to reverse course in the novel and recreate the gallant, politically committed man I’d found in the files, the character emerged flat and boring, too good to be true. Gradually, as his words on those pieces of paper receded into the background of my consciousness and the man I’d rediscovered in the library no longer invaded my brain so completely, I could return to the novel and to wrestling with my difficult, all too human creation.
A year later, I had cause to be in Berkeley, on tour actually for the novel I’d written concurrently, the one that turned into my first published book, the one that exorcised my Peace Corps experience. I took a week off from my tour and spent it in the beautiful, airy Bancroft Library. I was ready to return to work on the Tule Lake novel and felt fortified by the success of my first book. I thought, this time it’ll be a piece of cake. I can deal with whatever emerges. On my first day I discovered journals secretly written by Nisei intellectuals and sociologists interned in the camps, documenting daily life, their personal experiences, their every day social interchanges with family and friends, as well as the political goings-on within the camp, all composed at the behest of a Berkeley anthropologist. There were three such journals penned by men in Tule Lake. I requested one of them and a few minutes later a tall stack of loose pages was set before me; overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, I read at random. Two pages later I came upon this sentence by the Nisei correspondent, “Don Elberson is the one Caucasian in the camp that we can trust.”
From the moment the doors of the library opened in the morning to the warning call for closing, day after day, I read on through scenes in which my father figured prominently, even excessively, in which his work on behalf of Japanese Americans was praised and his friendship with the internees documented. Even my birth is noted in these journals — “the first Caucasian was born in camp today, little Margaret Grace Elberson” — as well as an astonishing entry, at least for me; sitting in the library among scholars, I read a scene in which the journal writer went to our barracks in search of my father, and instead came upon my mother. He writes, “Mrs. Elberson answered the door and exclaimed excitedly, ‘The baby finally did it in the potty.’” How haunting it felt to find these intimate details of my earliest life, filed away for future scholars. My place of birth had existed. I had indeed been born in Tule Lake.
In page after page I saw my father grappling with monumental issues. One day I realized with shock that he was only 30 years old when he was doing this complex and sensitive work. In the face of the journal writer’s laudatory descriptions of my father, my own sense of competence and belief in my ability to write the novel again began to crumble. Though delighted to find him recognized as a hero by the Japanese Americans, I was once again troubled by the discrepancy between him and the character I’d created. I was the bad daughter, impugning his legacy with my own fictional interpretation. Also, I had begun to conflate my betrayal of my father with my political betrayal of Japanese Americans. I was telling another tale out of house, dramatizing the darkest period of their imprisonment when, because of the oppression from the top, they had turned against each other, spying on one another, doing violence to their neighbors, even carrying out political killings. What right had I, a white woman, to write of this sordid time? What distinguished me from any other interloping white person? Many of the Japanese Americans who had lived in Tule Lake and worked with my father were still alive. I hadn’t dared to get in touch with them for fear that they would discourage me from writing the book. What would they say to my views of camp life? Would they say I didn’t know what I was talking about? Would they be angry at me for defaming my father? By then my mother had died, so at least I didn’t have to worry about her. But I despaired of ever being able to finish the novel. Then I came across a notation about a meeting where my father is frustrated and angry at the lack of progress the co-op was making and furious at the in-fighting. The narrator says, “Elberson is shaking with emotion.” My father stands and speaks: “You have to pass this resolution. Fumi Sakamoto and I have been working our butts off for months on this. Do it for us. Do it for me. I’ve worked so hard on this to the detriment of my family life.” I turned back to the date of the meeting. August 12, 1942. I had been born less than a week before. With a shock of recognition I remembered my mother’s litany over the years, of how my father hadn’t been there for her after she’d given birth in the sweltering Quonset hut, how he’d been too busy with his meetings and tending to others’ needs to praise her and celebrate my birth with his presence, or to help with the extra burden of caring for an infant. A little further along I read a chilling quote in my mother’s familiar mocking voice. At a party in our barracks, the Nisei writer relates, “Mrs. Elberson smiled sweetly and said, “Baby plays with rattle while daddy plays with co-op.” As the days and weeks of the journal proceed, more cracks show in the armor of my mother’s public façade as her anger unconsciously spills out and I am again the child in their home — the girl who is to become the novelist telling tales out-of-house — reliving the tragic tensions of their marriage.
At the end of my week, after I closed the pages of the journals and walked slowly across the Berkeley campus with photocopies of my family’s life tucked under my arm, I was finally at peace with the job I had to do. I had learned what most novelists learn much earlier than I, that ultimately it is the family crucible that forms and informs the work. That was where my novel had emerged from. That was what gave me my original slant and authority, what provided the fuel for telling a quintessentially, though admittedly iconoclastic, American story. That no matter what the historical documentation might have to say about my father, his co-workers, my mother, and me, I was free to proceed with my imperfect characters, creating the story as I saw it.
But the lesson was even more broad based than that. What the experience taught me was that one can’t be beholden to any sort of material, whether it’s intensely felt, primal stories of the family, or historical facts, or your own or others political positions. In my case they are inextricably intertwined, but each of us has one or more such quandaries to deal with. I’ve learned over time that one’s fidelity can only be to fiction, to the act of the imagination over known fact. Foremost, because there is no such thing as fact in the world. Even when working from primary historical documents, I found that no one agrees. In the case of the Tule Lake novel, I used an actual incident of a Nisei man killed by dissidents within the camp. I scoured the journals and minutes of meetings to find out who he was and was startled to discover that even people writing during the same week of his death described the incident in conflicting ways, placing the killing in different sectors of the camp, and even calling the man by different names. I, the pedant, who was initially worried about shifting the time frame of his death in order to fit into my plot, suddenly realized that it didn’t matter. What mattered was: did the man’s death contribute to the narrative drive of my book, did it flesh out my theme of intra-racial destructive results of oppression, was it true to the nature of what transpired politically in the camp, and did it make my readers cry when they read that segment.
For years I’ve envied Graham Greene’s seeming ability to separate himself from feelings of loyalty to the time, place, politics, and the people he writes about. But a case has been made that perhaps in The Quiet American he didn’t distance himself as much as he purported to, and that the novel was permeated with his particular political bent. After The Quiet American was published, people assumed that Pyle was based on a CIA operative named Colonel Edward Lansdale. Greene adamantly denied the connection to his character, saying he didn’t know Lansdale, even though there were witnesses to meetings between the two of them. This could be interpreted as the refusal of any fiction writer to divulge the basis of his imaginative creations, or it could show Greene’s unwillingness to fess up to a political slant in his novel, of a text impregnated with his own avowed antipathy for American cold war positions, especially as they played out in Vietnam. In interviews Greene contended that Pyle was an innocent, idealistic character, whereas Lansdale, the model in question, was someone whose politics and methods Greene detested. Over time, people said of Greene that he doth protest too much, contending that in Vietnam, for the first time, Greene, like Fowler and Pyle, got blood on his shoes and was changed by it, and used this book to take action against what he perceived as the creeping American hegemony in the region. The feud in the press between Lansdale and Greene went on for years. At one point Lansdale got the best of Greene and in so doing flushed out what I think is Greene’s true feeling about the Pyle character. In a documented series of letters exchanged between Lansdale and the film maker, Joseph Mankiewicz who was about to direct the original The Quiet American, Lansdale insidiously guided Mankiewicz over to his own interpretation of the politics of that moment in Saigon. In the Mankiewicz film, Audie Murphy, an American war hero, played Pyle, and in Mankiewicz’s McCarthy era version, responsibility for the anti-personnel plastique bombs in Saigon is assigned to the Communists and not the CIA supported insurgent Third Force of Greene’s novel. When Greene heard of this he was in such a rage that he had to be forcibly held down. His nemesis, the CIA operative, had gotten the last word. Greene eventually calmed and issued a reasonable statement, but his emotional outburst is a clear indication of his having written an activist novel, the intent of which was to influence public opinion toward his intensely felt political position. Around the time that Greene was finishing writing The Quiet American an untypical article by him appeared in The New York Times. Regarding his relationship to Indo-China, he speaks of how necessary it was to expose the dangers of American foreign policy, saying, “sometimes a writer can make a sharper impact with his books than if he signed petitions and tracts. Writing is certainly a kind of action.”
As I elucidated earlier, Greene has his techniques for keeping his novel from reading like a political tract—the love triangle as metaphor for the political domination of Vietnam, the dramatic playing out of opposing points of view, strong evocation of place and time, and a narrative propelled by as tightly wrought a plot as you’ll find in any slick, commercial thriller. Greene has said that the work of the writer is to do the hard work and let the reader enjoy the result. I also think that Greene’s intense personal attachment to Vietnam and its politics is why The Quiet American continues to this day to be a universal work of literature, entertaining as well as pertinent, and ever dangerous to the powers that be in America.
But what about all the rest of us, or rather, I should say, what about me? What techniques have I learned in the course of writing highly personalized political and historical fiction? Let me use my first published novel which was set in the rainforest of Ecuador to illustrate a few of them. Green Fires began with a honeymoon couple journeying down Ecuador’s Rio Napo. As it progressed it turned into a political tale of the early incursions of the oil companies into that region played out against the backdrop of the Vietnam war and the Holocaust. Where did this material come from? As I’ve said, I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador from 1963 to 1965. You’ll remember that I was traumatized by the experience. I returned to Ecuador for my honeymoon in 1969 and traveled down the Napo river with my new husband, a German national whose father had been a member of the Nazi party. You’ll remember that I’m Jewish. Third, we heard rumors as we made our way down river in a small motorized canoe that Texaco was carrying out bombing raids against the local Indians. It was some twenty years after that trip when I began to write about the experience, thinking I was writing a short story. When I reached page 200 and the narrative continued to build dramatically, and what I had written had little to do with what had really happened to my husband and me, I thought, This is no short story. In fact it had become an ecological adventure novel, slightly didactic, but it moved along pretty well. I got scared. I didn’t know anything about oil, or napalm bombings of the sort that I had visited upon the protagonists and the indigenous tribes. But I kept going, finished the manuscript, packaged it up, and began the many-years-long search for a publisher. A number of the editors and agents who read that original draft, said that it was very interesting, even exciting, but that they felt as though there was something I was holding back on. For a long time I resisted their push, until one editor wrote me a five page single-spaced critique which included a number of questions that struck home. Why is your main character so angry? What has made her so unpleasant and neurotic? Was there some sort of trauma in her life? It was then that I realized that I’d left out all the wrenching Peace Corps material, as well as my own ambivalence as a Jewish woman married to an Aryan German. I had developed a compelling structure and a protagonist who demanded attention, but I’d avoided the red meat of the story. I returned to the manuscript then and worked with a fury and passion I’ve rarely experienced since; many days I pounded my smith corona electric typewriter with such ferocity that the tips of the keys flew off. When that happened I would race to the typewriter repair store around the corner and the owner, taking pity on the mad writer I’d become, would drop everything, solder the keys back on and, send me home. Once I had fleshed out the back story—the very reason for writing the novel — a new problem cropped up. The adventure tale that surrounded the personal sections now paled by comparison, indeed reading more like a young adult adventure book. There was no denying now the need for credible information about oil, as well as indigenous culture, and of course, accurate depictions of the weapons of war. I did the research and began inserting the factual details into the text: the difference between sweet oil and the impure variety, the fact that white phosphorous can burn for days beneath the skin. At the same time I also developed the philosophical, political themes more deeply. This is when I taught myself the techniques and learned the benefits of splicing in research and ideas well after I’d allowed the plot to spin freely from my imagination. The text of the novel thickened with this new material, but it caused the dramatic flow to slow down. Now what was I to do? I needed to establish credibility and wanted to impart information, but I didn’t want to lose or bore the reader. I had recently read Daniel Deronda by George Eliot, which was at times ponderous in the Deronda sections, packed as they were with erudite details of Jewish life and Zionist ideas. But Eliot used a Victorian device — the cliff hanger — to keep us reading eagerly from one Gwendolyn section to the next, propelling us through the more torpid Deronda chapters. So I tucked in cliffhangers at the end of some chapters and used another technique I picked up from studying mysteries—the whodunit question. In my novel I applied this to the theme of evil, as in: Where does evil reside? Who is really at fault? Who is culpable within their innocence? Who is innocent within their guilt? and so forth. I lay blame on one character and then the other, hoping to keep the reader wondering, and as they wondered, turning the pages. I also developed erotic tension between an Indian man and the narrator in order to play out some of the cross-cultural conflicts in a lustier manner. Sex and its repercussions can be a great explicator of character, class, and culture, and it certainly holds the reader’s attention.
In the end I think I created a novel of passion, adventure, and one that ended up having more political credibility than I knew. As I indicated before, when we were traveling in the Amazon basin we heard rumors that Texaco was bombing the Indians, but in writing the novel, I upped the ante and used napalm for my raids on the settlements. I always felt guilty about it, thinking I’d played fast and free with the history of the region solely to advance my leftist agenda. When the book came out readers and interviewers repeatedly asked me if this detail were true. I would answer that it hadn’t really happened, but that I’d injected the napalm as a metaphor, because it was a petrol-based antipersonnel weapon with a residue much like that left by oil spills. Additionally, I’d say that I chose it to establish the connection to the Vietnam war and the fires of the Holocaust. But over the years I felt increasing discomfort about having altered the “facts.” About two years after the novel was published I received a phone call from a lawyer bringing suit against Texaco for human rights violations to the Indigenous populations living along the Rio Napo. He had read my book and he asked me how I knew about the napalming. I gave my usual defensive explanation, but he interrupted me and said, “But no, we’ve just heard that the oil companies did napalm the Indians in Ecuador and Peru back then.” I was frankly saddened by the news. It is one thing to imagine such an atrocity, quite another to learn that it was true. But what it taught me was that no rigid allegiance to what was verifiable at the time of my writing the novel, would have provided me with this information, proving again the power of the literary imagination over attainable fact. What I tell people now is that as a writer if you could imagine an event, no matter how horrid, you can be certain that someone else imagined it too and then acted upon it.
Having written two political, historical novels [The Climate of the Country, being the second one] lifted the yoke of my family’s imperative to make change in the world through whatever work I did. I was freed, too, from the vise of shame, secrecy, and ambivalence about my political origins. It took me twenty years to begin writing and twenty years to get to this place, but I was able finally to return to those little scribbled notations about my mother, to write my third novel, My Mother’s Island, set in a small community in Puerto Rico where she lived and died, a deeply personal version of my relationship with her, a novel in which history and politics recedes far into the background, but still informs the symbiotic tie that binds a daughter to her difficult mother.
In closing, I’d like to share an exchange between my publisher and me. In a panic mode, I called him recently to say I was having a terrible time with the novel I’m currently working on, telling him that I was terrified every writing moment. “Why is that? he asked in his calming-down-a-hysterical-writer voice. “This book is totally fictional,” I said. “I feel as though I’m writing about places and issues and politics I know nothing about.” He laughed and indulgently said, “But, Marnie, you know everything.” I was startled and admittedly flattered by his statement, but later I realized, that what he was wisely imparting to me was that in the kind of writing I do, I do know everything. I’m a person who has lived a life in this world. I have traveled and lived across diverse cultures. I know how people perform under stress in highly politicized situations and I also know that each event has its own particular features and variations on the rules of human action. And I’ve learned that what I don’t know I can always find someplace. But most important of all I have the entire range of human emotion and passions within myself. They inhabit my secrets and sins, my joys and generosities, those things I’ve stored in me that just keep pleading to be told. All I need is the courage each day to call them forth.
But let’s return to Graham Greene for the final word. Some people think the concluding sentence of The Quiet American is simply Fowler’s confession of evil deeds. Others contend that it is Greene apologizing for having written an activist novel. For myself I think it is both these things as well as the writers plea from the depths of that dualism of secretiveness and the desperate desire to be heard. Here is Fowler. “I thought of the first day and Pyle sitting beside me at the Continental, with his eye on the soda-fountain across the way. Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.”
Marnie Mueller was born in the Tule Lake Japanese American Segregation Camp. She is the author of three novels: Green Fires, The Climate of the Country, and My Mother’s Island — originally published by Curbstone Press and currently in-print with Northwestern University Press. Green Fires was published in German by Bertelsmann and The Climate of the Country in Italian by Corbaccio in cloth and THEA in paper.
She is a recipient of an American Book Award, the Maria Thomas Award for Outstanding Fiction, a Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award, a New York Public Library Best Books for the Teenage, a New York Times Book Review “New and Noteworthy in Paperback,” and a Barnes and Noble “Discover Great New Writers” choice.
Her short stories, poetry, and essays have been widely published in magazines and anthologies. She is currently at work on a hybrid memoir/biography about her friendship with a Nisei showgirl who was incarcerated during WWII.