Becoming Radicalized: An Interview with John Wray


Valeria Luiselli (left) and John Wray (right)

John Wray, who writes fiction in English and German, carries both a United States and an Austrian passport, works under a pseudonym, and often seems restless under the confines of any single identity. The Right Hand of Sleep, which won a Whiting Award, is an austere political thriller; Canaan’s Tongue, which seemed to bewilder reviewers and readers in equal measure, is a supernatural Southern gothic; and Lowboy, his 2009 breakthrough, narrates one day in the life of a schizophrenic teenager, on the loose in the subway tunnels beneath New York City. “These days, writers have brands,” wrote Carolyn Kellogg in the Los Angeles Times when Wray’s fourth novel, The Lost Time Accidents, was published in 2016. “John Wray is all over the place … What to expect from his next book? Something not much like his last.” 

To some of us, however, Wray’s shape-shifting is a source of fascination. Each new novel is so fully realized, so pitch-perfect, that questions of consistency recede to irrelevance. Though “hard to pin down”—in the words of the reviewer quoted above—Wray is anything but a cipher. The choices he makes are extreme, at times perhaps needlessly risky. But the results, when he succeeds, can be extraordinary.

Wray’s fifth novel, Godsend, is forthcoming this month from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It tells the story of eighteen-year-old Aden Sawyer’s journey from the suburban California of her childhood to a Pakistani Koran school, and from there across to the mountains into Afghanistan, a place—for a teenage American girl, ignorant of the culture’s tribal code—of dreadful, mortal danger. It is derived, to a degree, from the true story of John Walker Lindh, the young Californian who became infamous in the weeks after the attacks of the September 11 as the ‘American Taliban.’ But it owes just as much to a story Wray heard while traveling as a journalist in Afghanistan, about a girl of British background who fought there, disguised as a man, among the mujahideen. 

I visited Wray in September, at the peculiar collective house in Brooklyn that he shares with the writers Alice Sola Kim, Isaac Fitzgerald, and Akhil Sharma, and in which Nathan Englander and Marlon James have writing spaces. We sat in creaking teakwood chairs in the cluttered kitchen, and ate slightly overcooked spaghetti, for which he apologized profusely. 

INTERVIEWER

The last time we spoke, two years ago, about what we were both working on, you had just begun researching this new book, but in a very casual way. You had said you were interested in the figure of a person that becomes radicalized, especially when their social context is not one that necessarily fosters this kind of change of consciousness.

WRAY

 That’s right.

INTERVIEWER

But it seemed that you were involved in a very casual investigation. And then, maybe a year and a half later, we spoke over the phone—I remember I was walking down Broadway, and you were in Mexico City—and I asked you, after talking about myself for a long time, “How are you doing, John?” And you said, “I’ve just finished my book!”

WRAY

Yeah.

INTERVIEWER

This was a different process for you, than with your earlier novels, no? How did it go from being an idea that you had to being a finished book?

WRAY

This time around was really unlike the other books that I’ve tried to write. I didn’t have much of a plan, I think, until I actually traveled to Afghanistan—on the trail of a completely different story. There was a time when I thought I was going to write a nonfiction book about this kid, John Walker Lindh, who eventually became known across the world as the ‘American Taliban.’ His story is fascinating, of course, and deserves a great nonfiction book. Have I really never told you this story?

INTERVIEWER

I don’t think so.

WRAY

I was traveling around the country, trying to find people who had known John Walker Lindh before September 11. He was quite well known even back then, among certain groups.

INTERVIEWER

Not American groups.

WRAY

Not American groups, no. Mostly Pashtuns, in and around Kabul, but also across the country. When he became famous in the United States and Europe as the American Taliban, Lindh was also becoming very well known in Afghanistan, where there were very different sympathies and interpretations of the choices he had made.

So I was traveling around Afghanistan, trying to find people who had known this young American, barely twenty, who attracted notice wherever he went, because he was the only American involved with the army of the Taliban. Finally, in a small town north of Kabul, I met an old man, who was sitting on a sun-warmed wall on the outskirts of town. Noor , the wonderful person who was taking me around the country, keeping me safe and interpreting for me, started talking with the old man. We asked him, did you know the American boy who was involved with the army at that time? And he said, yes, I heard about him—and I also heard about the girl. And there was a long pause, and Noor said, Oh, you mean the boy, and the man said, No no no. I mean the girl.

INTERVIEWER

The girl.

WRAY

And that was a real turning point. I got chills down my back immediately. Because the idea of a girl being involved in that conflict, in any capacity—

INTERVIEWER

She was, what? Nineteen or so?

WRAY

Well, that’s just it. I spent the rest of my time in Afghanistan trying to find out further details about her—whether she was real, or whether this was simply some kind of legend that had sprung up. I started to piece together a clumsy tapestry of facts and hearsay, but it was one of those times when I’ve been grateful to be a novelist—

INTERVIEWER

And not a reporter!

WRAY

And not a reporter. Because at some point I realized that the gaps in what I knew were actually an advantage.

INTERVIEWER

Absolutely.

WRAY

And that this is where a novel could begin. From then on, it went very quickly. That’s why so much happened between those two conversations that you mentioned. It took me about a year and a half to write.

INTERVIEWER

At what point, exactly, did you decide that this would be fiction and not non-fiction?

WRAY

I decided this would be a novel at precisely the point at which I couldn’t make any further progress—

INTERVIEWER

In your investigation.

WRAY

Right. The girl appeared, and I was able to follow that trail for a certain amount of time, like a detective. Until I realized I was a terrible detective.

INTERVIEWER

We’re just lazy. Fiction writers are just fucking lazy. We’re not going to do our homework! We’re just going to make it up.

WRAY

Right.

INTERVIEWER

I’m not going to research what chlorophyll is, or how photosynthesis works. I’m just going to make it up.

WRAY

But that’s such a liberating moment, when you decide to make it up.

INTERVIEWER

It’s a reckoning with your fucking personality.

WRAY

That’s the moment when you stop asking yourself whether what you’re doing as a fiction writer is central to the culture, whether it’s been rendered passé by video games—

INTERVIEWER

Will Self is right. We’re easel painters.

WRAY

But what could be more beautiful than painting on an easel?

INTERVIEWER

I also think it’s valuable! But I don’t know how we justify it.

WRAY

But seriously for a moment, to answer your question. Afghanistan is a very difficult place to play detective. It’s a dangerous place to play detective. And I had very little confidence that—even with the invaluable help of Noor —it was quite possible that we were never going to get to the true story. I also began to wonder, the more people we spoke to, whether it might not in fact be a legend that had sprung up to address some way that people were feeling about the conflict.

INTERVIEWER

That’s such a fiction writer’s point of view! But I understand the speculation.What was it in the figure of that young man, or, later, that young woman, that ultimately interested you? What were you getting to, with this investigation of their motives, or their American soul? That’s one thing I know well about you: that when you write, you’re asking questions, not answering questions.

WRAY

As soon as you try answer to questions in fiction, you’re screwed.

INTERVIEWER

Exactly. That’s what dating apps are for.

WRAY

(laughing) I never thought of dating apps in that light.

INTERVIEWER

Dating apps, Instagram. All social media.

WRAY

You’re right—millions of people, providing simple answers to complex questions. Which is why social media is fascist.

INTERVIEWER

Exactly. It’s not about Hannah Arendt’s dictum of the tyranny of the many, or John Stuart Mill—it’s simple answers to everything. Anyway: I imagine you didn’t have a set of answers to give, but a set of questions, as to why these two young Americans would get in involved in something like a war in a faraway country. What were those questions?

WRAY

What particularly interested me about John Walker Lindh was the fact that he traveled from Mill Valley, California, to that part of the world to take up his jihad—which is actually just Arabic for ‘struggle,’ and can mean a spiritual quest, something very private and internal, or at the other end of the spectrum, taking up arms, specifically in defense of Muslim territory, not in aggression—

INTERVIEWER

That’s a very mistranslated word, jihad.

WRAY

It’s deeply misunderstood. In any case, many young men have left Europe and the U.S. and traveled to the Middle East to take part in various militant movements—but the vast majority of them have come from Muslim backgrounds. What interested me about Lindh was that he came from a very conventional, non-Muslim American family, Christian family—

INTERVIEWER

Protestant Christian.

WRAY

A protestant family, that’s right. In the novel, the father of my protagonist, who’s from the same part of California that Lindh was from, is an Islamic Studies professor. But Lindh himself had no such connection. He actually became interested in Islam through Spike Lee’s film about Malcolm X.

INTERVIEWER

Wow.

WRAY

And then through listening to a lot of ’90s hip hop.

INTERVIEWER

So, white American through African American culture, through Muslim American—Malcolm X, of course—

WRAY

—and then the history of Islam.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think this is an emotional and intellectual process that other white American boys can follow? What is it that makes such a path possible?

WRAY

I think Lindh’s progression from introverted California suburban waspy kid to militant is actually not that different from what a lot of American teenagers go through. It begins for a lot of kids—particularly more intelligent, more sensitive kids—in their early teens, when they start to understand that the society they’re a part of is unjust. This causes them to question a lot of things that teenagers all over the world question—their parents’ choices, the culture they come out of. I think a lot of white kids, especially boys, become interested in hip hop as a way of identifying with people who have every right to be indignant and angry: more right, in fact, than these boys themselves might have.

INTERVIEWER

But where do you draw the line? I was in Stockholm three weeks ago, and I was super jet-lagged, and so I went up to see what the hotel bar was like—I was expecting to find a nice, quiet place where I could read my book and have a glass of wine. What I found was this horrid, Dante-esque limbo, or something between limbo and hell, of Swedish eighteen-year-olds twerking to American hiphop in a very—well, in Spanish, there’s a very good word for it: tronco. Like if you’re the trunk of a tree, and you don’t have hips, so you don’t really—

WRAY

You’re not doing much bending.

INTERVIEWER

I’m being a little cruel now. But I arrived at this terraza, full of Swedish teenagers twerking, or mock-twerking, and I was like, what is happening here, culturally? Is it about trying to understand a distant culture? No. It seemed to me that it was just what was in fashion. Where do we draw the line between some unconscious appropriation of trends, causes, motifs, and—I don’t know. Where do you, as a writer, take some sort of critical distance there?

WRAY

When you’re writing about kids of that age, you can’t take a critical distance. You have to try to get as close to that point of view as possible. And what’s fascinating to me about that kind of scene—a bunch of California teens, let’s say, who drive around and do all the usual teenage things, white American Anglo-Saxon Protestants, but who are passionately immersed in hiphop, black American culture and music—

INTERVIEWER

By the way, Latin American kids too, no? That meeting of white coming toward black, and Latin coming toward black. There’s something there. What is it?

WRAY

Well, I think one thing hip hop has, that earlier forms of black music appropriated by white people—say, swing—didn’t have to the same degree, is this very direct and open articulation of righteous anger—

INTERVIEWER

Which salsa and merengue don’t have, either.

WRAY

That’s good time music. It’s party music. Which rock and roll was, too, when it began.

INTERVIEWER

We’ve totally strayed from our topic.

WRAY

True. So, you can have a group of kids—they can be your Swedish eighteen-year-olds on the hotel terrace, they could be John Walker Lindh’s friends in high school—who live their lives to the soundtrack of hip hop. Most of them don’t think twice about it; most of them don’t pay any attention to the lyrics. But some of those kids, very few of them, will become more profoundly interested in the music they’re listening to. They’ll become students of that music. And John Walker Lindh was one of those kids. He really tried decode what he was listening to. And he became particularly interested in songs and groups that were more ideological.

INTERVIEWER

What groups? What songs?

WRAY

Well—

INTERVIEWER

I actually don’t want to ask you too many more of these types of questions—these what-happens-backstage kind of questions. They get in the way.

WRAY

These are questions that, while I’m writing a novel, I try not to ask myself too much. But I think they’re interesting to talk about now. When you’re writing a book—and I don’t know how you feel about this—all you need is the awareness that something is really fascinating you: that you’re engaged by it, and that you want to keep going. You don’t want to accidentally create any interference in that beautifully functioning connection.

INTERVIEWER

That’s when you’re running on intuition. People talk about inspiration, which is bullshit. “I got up today, and I was so inspired.” You have an intuition, which is basically a way of saying that you’re trusting in your curiosity, and that it’s sincere. You know that you feel it, because you wake up and you talk about it with your friend, and you bore them with it for three hours—then you know that you’re completely submerged in something, and who cares if anybody else cares about it, but it’s something that you’ve connected to deeply, and that sits you down for five or six or ten hours a day, for two or three or five years—

WRAY

Or four hours a day, for some of us. Ten hours a day, for five years?

INTERVIEWER

For me, yeah. But that’s because I’m slow.

WRAY

That really is standard procedure for you? Where do you find even five hours in a day, with all that you do?

INTERVIEWER

You know, I was younger then. I was younger until about three months ago.

WRAY

You were actually younger until today.

INTERVIEWER

I was younger until I came to this house! I suddenly got so old!

WRAY

I have that effect on people.

INTERVIEWER

It’s your old German entomologist vibe.

WRAY

Old Austrian entomologist vibe.

INTERVIEWER

Right! I always make that mistake.

WRAY

I think this conversation is over.

 

 

Valeria Luiselli is the author of the essay collection Sidewalks; the novels Faces in the Crowd and The Story of My Teeth; and, most recently, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions. She is the winner of two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes and an American Book Award, and has twice been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kirkus Prize. She has been a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree and the recipient of a Bearing Witness Fellowship from the Art for Justice Fund. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Granta, and McSweeney’s, among other publications, and has been translated into more than twenty languages. Knopf will publish Lost Children Archive in February 2019.

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