Interview with a Luthier (i.e. Someone Who Makes Musical Instruments—in this case, for Arcade Fire, Spoon, and The National)

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The following is a digital expression of an interview from The Believers 2014 Music Issue that I conducted with Reuben Cox. Cox, who grew up in a log cabin, is a luthier who focuses on building guitars with found wood and electronics as well as refurbishing aged guitars. Before he opened Old Style Guitar Shop, in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, Cox worked as as art and editorial photographer, with credits from the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine. In 1993, Cox began making guitars as a hobby. His guitars came to the attention of the music world after the National began to perform with them. He has since sold guitars to members of Arcade Fire, Cat Power, Sufjan Stevens, and other notable musicians. Disclaimer: He has fixed my Gibson. Enjoy the following conversation as well as some videos of artists performing with Coxs guitars, and the requisite slideshow of fetishistic guitar pix.

—Adam Baer

The National playing “Fake Empire”at Old Style, which has become something of a magnet for musicians and spontaneous shows.

THE BELIEVER: Why did you transition from photography to making guitars?

REUBEN COX: Working on guitars takes a lot less brainpower than making an interesting photograph, so I guess you could say it began as my “golf.”

BLVR: What tools do you use?

RC:  I have a wood shop a few miles away. I use a table saw, jointer, planer, band saw, and the hand tools you’d expect to be lying around. I have a small tool chest and medium-sized mess here at the desk by the cash register. The feng shui is terrible.

BLVR: For some people there is a fetishistic attraction to electric guitars. What do you think that’s about?

RC: Well, the top part is shaped like a penis, and the bottom part often looks like Jayne Mansfield’s waist and tuchus, so there you go. But like a plastic surgeon who’s popped in thousands of implants, I’m numb to it. Seriously, though: I think some guitars have songs inside them and others simply don’t. It’s unexplainable.

BLVR: What skills do you need to build and repair guitars?

RC: I repair whatever comes through the shop—acoustic and electric guitars, the occasional violin, pump organ. I got a baby to feed, you know! I generally say yes to everything that comes in for repair. I build only electric guitars, though, which is a very different skill set. To build an electric guitar, basic carpentry skills will get you to the finish line.

BLVR: How did you learn woodworking?

RC: My father is an architect, and I have memories of going to job sites with him as a kid. Also, watching him build an addition on our house, or just watching him fix a screen door, was formative. I also attended art school for undergrad, and you’re expected to get a handle on materials in that sort of program.

BLVR: Did you have to read books on the subject or apprentice with a master like the violin luthiers of seventeenth-century Italy did?

RC: I didn’t read any books. I think an accomplished violin-maker would probably regard what I do as fairly entry-level. My spiritual instrument-making ancestors are blues musicians who nailed a wire—often from a screen door—to the side of a house and played with a bottleneck. Bo Diddley’s homemade guitars, too.

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BLVR: Would you accept an apprentice now?

RC: Sure, I’ll take an apprentice. I’d probably be pretty self-conscious about it, though, as I’m self-taught and am certainly doing some things pretty backward. I’d really just like someone with a trust fund and a lot of time on their hands who would like to hang out in a shop and glad-handle customers.

BLVR: How did you get your guitars into the hands of influential musicians?

RC: My first “good” guitar was finished in 1995. I sold it to Eric Bachmann of Archers of Loaf, whom I knew through my brother, Chris. Before I sold Eric a guitar, I tagged along on his south-east tour one summer taking photographs. He’s since bought a few more. My lovely wife, Miwa Okumura, fills the Lee Krasner/Martha Washington role. She’s amazingly supportive and also is the head of East Coast operations for Beggars Group. Beggars umbrellas a number of great record labels including Matador, XL, and Rough Trade. When Miwa goes to bed, I take a flashlight and copy phone numbers out of her Rolodex.

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"We don’t realize what we’re walking on half the time.”

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An Interview with Blake Butler

Wherever and whatever “the line” may be, the power of transgressive fiction comes from finding and crossing it. Plenty of books get there, but Blake Butler’s immense 300,000,000 begins on the far side and only goes farther, into a zone not meant for humans but still somehow perceptible to us, or to what will be left of us once what’s going to happen happens.

Opening as a prolonged rant, we’re thrown right away into the consciousness of a maniac called Gretch Gravey who, possessed by someone or something called Darrel, musters an army of lost boys to kill everyone in America (the 300,000,000 of the title is our former population). Into the wormhole opened by this devastation plunges Flood, a detective who serves as the reader’s shaky interpreter until he’s so overcome by the terrain that all sense is drained out of him. Then, in a place devoid of life but richly haunted by emergent, bastard forms of perception, the rest of the novel plays out in a state that I’ve never before felt a text induce in me.

The America of 300,000,000 is beyond collapse, over the brink that ours feels like it’s approaching. Threading its ultraviolence through suburbs, outlet malls, and a kind of normalcy wrapped around animal terror—“Outside, in the mash surrounding the house with cash and unending television…My skin around me did a slither”—its response to the spate of shootings of recent years does more than those events ever could to expose the black heart that both animates and threatens to annihilate everyone currently alive in this country.

Butler’s books have always been minds to sync up with and wander through, rather than guided tours of pre-existing places, but never before has he deformed the shape of his reader’s consciousness to this degree.

I spoke with Blake by phone in August. I was in New York and he was in Atlanta.

—David Rice 

I. BLOW MYSELF OUT OF THE WATER

THE BELIEVER: 300,000,000 makes an extreme demand on the reader’s attention. It’s a book that says, “Fuck you, sit down, and listen.” It almost feels like bondage, another kind of violence beyond the violence of the subject matter. 

BLAKE BUTLER: I’m glad that that comes through, because it was also violent to write. When I started it, I was probably in the worst emotional state of my life. I was like, “If I’m going to do this, I just have to explode. There’s nothing to hold back this time.” I feel like books are marginalized at this point too, so if I’m going to get your attention to make you even open the book, I’m going to take you by the fucking coat collar. I’m not trying to be macabre, but I was thinking, “This is going to be the last book I ever write.” 

BLVR: A lot of your work has a pre-apocalyptic quality. Like the world’s in the process of ending. But in this book it feels like even that mindset is blowing up, like it was the terminus of some trajectory for you. 

BB: It was definitely a transition point for me. I didn’t know what else to do, and I felt like I was pacing the same places again in everything I tried to write. That, coupled with being beside my dad dying over a slow four-year period, and I was also going through a really bad breakup—everything felt like shit to me. And I write all day every day, so when I feel unproductive, it magnifies everything else. It was just this collision of factors where I was like, “I’m gonna do everything I can to make this have every trick in my mind on paper, and then I don’t give a fuck what happens after that.” My main goal was to blow myself out of the water.

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“IT WILL KILL YOU, AND IT NEVER KNEW YOUR NAME.”
An Interview with Karen Russell About Her Syllabus
This is part of a series of conversations with writers who teach, where we discuss how they develop an idea for a course, generate a syllabus, and conduct a class. See the full syllabus here.
Karen Russell is the author of the novel Swamplandia!, a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. She is also the author of two short story collections, Vampires in the Lemon Grove and St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and a novella, Sleep Donation. Russell is the recipient of a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship, and she has taught at Columbia University, Bard College, and Bryn Mawr College.
—Stephanie Palumbo
I. THE SPOTS ON THE LITERARY TRAM TOUR 
SP: Where did you teach this class?
KR: At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I should tell you I’m a little bit self-conscious, because I’d never taught this class before and was afraid I had the reek of fraudulence upon me. 
SP: I think most teachers feel that way.
KR: Yeah… We’ve been duped, right? [Laughs] But actually, I had a class with Bill Savage at Northwestern, on female writers of the Beat Generation like Djuna Barnes—folks that I’d never read, and he hadn’t read them either. He was upfront about it: he would teach books he wanted to read, and we’d all be co-equals. I thought of him when I was teaching at Iowa, because I’d read and loved the books on my syllabus, but I’d never taught them before. 
SP: How did you choose the theme of landscape stories for your syllabus? 
KR: It’s interesting—some writers start with character, but I almost always start with place. If I don’t have a three-dimensional sense of the story’s setting—if I can’t see it in my mind’s eye—I can’t even attempt to make the story come to life. If you ask me about books I love, like Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks or Anna Karenina, it’s the setting, and the sense memory of moving through the landscape of the book, that stays with me far longer than names of characters or details of plot. So I was thinking, what makes a world immersive? What makes a place a character? I realized you could teach any book under that rubric—even something by Beckett, that’s asserting it’s nowhere, definitely has its own atmosphere—so I tried to limit myself to stories set in places you can visit on the map. But I also taught Pedro Páramo, which takes place in the Mexican underworld, and they don’t have Delta flights there. [Laughs] 
[[MORE]]SP: You mentioned that this was a Sadie Hawkins class. What does that mean? 
KR: I thought it would be fun if, at the end of the class, the students chose the stories we discussed. I wanted to know what these crazy smart readers found gratifying. So we had a You Pick ‘Em Day. 
SP: Which stories did the students choose?
KR: “Big Two-Hearted River,” for one. In class, we take a sort of field trip of the mind together, and it’s fun to see some of the places we’ve all been to before with fresh eyes—Nathaniel Hawthorne territory, Faulkner’s county, Shirley Jackson’s terrifying “Lottery” village. The spots on the literary tram tour. I assumed Hemingway was on that itinerary, so I handed out the story without his name, but half the class wasn’t familiar with it. It reads totally differently if you remove it from the context of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories and the war, so it became an accidental experiment to learn how much context informs your experience of a place in story. The students still loved it, but what they loved about it seemed more experiential—the animal happiness of being safe in a tent, for instance.
SP: I could easily identify the landscape in that story, but I had a harder time defining the landscape in The Transit of Venus. 
KR: The Transit of Venus might be the most ambitious landscape blend we read Shirley Hazzard moves you from Australia to England to South America to America in different time periods, and it feels like the real setting for these sisters in states of dislocation is the in-between. There’s something arbitrary about the way different wars, revolutionary movements, and cultural shifts buffet these characters’ lives,and yet Hazzard seems to be building a vision of destiny.
SP: The language of the book is also quite striking.
KR: When I’m writing, I always drift into the voice of a first-person adolescent—low to the ground, with a myopic filter. It seems ambitious to take on more than that. But Hazzard writes about six different protagonists with this beautiful, symphonic omniscience. There’s an exciting dissonance between the old school aesthetics of Transit and the politics of the book. In class, we talked about the way that institutions and cultural structures shape the characters’ personalities and generate plot—what’s possible and impossible in different climates, what characters are starving for in America versus London, how ubiquitous a real person can become in her absence, that ghost sprawling across minds and continents, and how that empty space develops its own strange weather.
SP: Hazzard never exactly writes the novel’s ending—she lets the reader piece it together instead. Do you think that makes the book more engaging? 
KR: I do. She sets the ending up in advance, so you want to go back to the beginning and admire what she built. Something’s conjugated in the beginning, but you’re still shocked when it happens. It’s sly, but not gimmicky. And the book is still amazingly suspenseful. There’s a kind of glorious doom in the air that feels almost Grecian, this old school prophecy that will be fulfilled. It’s funny—I think part of the reason it resonates is that it’s everyone’s situation, you know? Everyone is learning to acknowledge that it’s unbelievable yet true that their story’s going to end. 
II. DARK FAIRY TALES 
SP: Speaking of doomed creatures, you teach Paul Bowles’ stories.
KR: I was attracted to Bowles’ stories because he’s working on a cultural periphery, writing landscapes analogous to madness and disillusion. When he was a child, he had abusive parents and terrible illnesses, and he described his fevers like some kind of psychic refuge. He wrote that he could retreat into these feverish states, where his parents couldn’t hurt him and he felt most defended. We talked about that in class—madness as a physical refuge, as a strange sanctuary or private stronghold. So he described illness and fever in his landscapes, using natural terms. He was so good at using a shaky silhouette of a man walking out into the desert to reveal how fragile identity is, how contingent it is on things like weather. He writes about social climbers trying to firm up their egos, but by the end, men are evaporating into the sky. Whatever made them idiosyncratic doesn’t last for long. They wind up emaciated in the Sahara, less and less coherent, the sun eating them in bites. 
SP: His tone is pretty matter of fact.
KR: Absolutely. Doesn’t it feel like these stories are as close to human ventriloquy of the voice of the Sahara as we’re going to get? We want to anthropomorphize mother nature, and Bowles exposes the fallacy of that very human desire in these stories—it becomes immediately clear that the Sahara isn’t any kind of mother. Bowles also includes humor and compassion in his work, so it’s not just like, the chilly gaze of the golden serpent’s eye, revealing man’s weakness, or whatever. But his humor is pretty dark.
SP: I feel like there’s an implicit condemnation of colonialism in his stories. Another author might have written racist characterizations of Middle Eastern people, but Bowles makes the Westerners responsible for their own undoing.
KR: That surprised me, because if you paraphrase the descriptions, it sounds like he fetishizes these cultures, like the worst kind of Orientalist, with lyric descriptions of hashish smoke and camels and sunsets. But it really is the opposite—you just see Western hubris. You feel a sense of schadenfreude watching the professor, who thinks he has a strong friendship with a shopkeeper and feels confident in his Arabic language skills, wind up enslaved several paragraphs later. 
SP: And tongueless! 
KR: You couldn’t accuse him of being melodramatic, even though if someone told me they were writing a story about a linguist whose tongue was cut out by the Reguibat tribe in the desert, I’d feel apprehension on their behalf. It feels like a dark fairy tale, and Bowles uses tone to control our expectations. He gives the protagonist a sketchy, archetypal feel by calling him “The Professor,” with no name or history appended to make him any more distinct to the reader. He’s just a floating skin. 
SP: The Italo Calvino story “The Argentine Ant” also feels like a fable.
KR: It’s another story that’s both absurd and horrifying. There’s this unstoppable multiplication of ants, and humans have different theories and explanations that arise like mist in the ants’ wake. It reminds me of the Steven Millhauser story “Invasion from Outer Space,” where pollen starts falling from the sky and doesn’t stop. You cycle through the actions of people—denial, grief, rage. Everyone’s saying, This isn’t dignified, just some goddamn pollen. It’s smart way to wake us up to something horrifying that we’re mostly inured to: that time is multiplying like cancer in a body. What do you do with the foreknowledge of death, and the outrage, the helplessness that follow?That’s such a good question to leave the reader with. 
SP: At the end of the story, the landscape changes when the characters leave the ant hellscape and go down to the sea. What does that shift in setting produce? 
KR: It’s nice to have that breath to appreciate the horror of the ants, and it’s scary to understand that the ant-ridden village has become the characters’ home now. It gives us a sense of place, of “home” versus “away.”Sometimes I think about it like Kansas and Oz—the way that utopias have to exist in relation to the real world. In class, we all had wildly different interpretations of that ending, which ultimately probably revealed more about our own anxious hopes than about the Calvino story itself. Some students thought the beautiful white shells at the bottom of the sea were a Christian allegory or arrow to the divine. I guess I was a more literal-minded reader. It’s bones! (Laughs) Yup, we’re gonna have to deal with a lot of crawling sensations, a plague of ants, and we’ll only be relieved when we die. It’s a terrible privilege to be attacked by ants for the duration of your life on this planet.

SP: Annie Proulx is on your syllabus, and she also writes about landscapes that seem uninhabitable or unrelenting.

KR: Most people think of her as a realist even though she writes with hallucinatory detail and makes things vibrate so intensely that they feel surreal and magical. She’s faithful to jargon— cowboy slang, names of tractors, the brand of cattle—and getting those details right gives her permission for her flights, like a talking tractor or half-skinned steer. The talking tractor story, “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World,” opens with the line, “The country appeared…” The country is the character. Humans wander onto the scene for a little while, their dramas are foregrounded, and then they fall away again, and we’re back to cycling through the seasons. It’s an Alice in Wonderland resizing of priority. I don’t know many stories that are able to represent and take seriously human drama while also underscoring how fleeting and ultimately insignificant human life looks against a backdrop of the geological time that dwarfs us.  It’s poignant to try to tell a family story underneath the terrifyingly vast Wyoming sky.

It’s weird—we think of nature as fragile, something we’ve destroyed, that we’re these parasites on the planet and have all but obliterated certain ecosystems, but reading her stories, you also feel that, nope, nature is resilient, sublime. It will kill you, and it never knew your name. The annihilating blue of the sky, the fatal snows. If you think you can plead your special case against that blue, good luck. It’s unsettling to read Annie, in a good way—you’re forced to contend with your own fragility.
III. BRADBURY’S BASTARD CHILDREN
SP: The humans in The Martian Chronicles are facing their own limitations as well—except they’re doing so in an alien landscape. 
KR: Like the desert, Mars is hostile to human life. So to set a story there is automatically suspenseful—the landscape transforms the humans into aliens, and there’s this sense that every footstep is a violation of some primordial taboo. It’s clear that they don’t belong there. The book feels subversive to me as an adult reader.I know most people encountered the book in middle school, but the language is beautiful, shot through with this unique imagination. Ray Bradbury is part of the reading history of every writer I know. Really, we’re all Bradbury’s bastard children—he clearly sired everybody’s imagination. 
SP: How does Bradbury use human activity on Mars as a metaphor? 
KR: He’s writing against patriotism during the Cold War. Humans land on Mars and then destroy it. Not much time elapses between landfall on Mars and the annihilation of all Martians.
SP: There’s a haunting image in one story, where a little boy is playing with a white xylophone that turns out to be a Martian ribcage.
KR: The planet is basically wiped clean of its indigenous people. I was shocked by the descriptions of these ancient, bone-white cities on Mars, and it took me an embarrassing length of time to recollect that people can visit ruins anywhere on our planet, too. It’s a case where sci-fi holds up a funhouse mirror to our own history. In case we have amnesia about the horror of the frontier, here we see another frontier and xenophobia, paranoia, aggression, madness. But we see people be really good to each other too. Bradbury seemed to be such a humanist at the same time that he is calling us out on our most despicable qualities.
SP: One of the best stories in the collection, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” isn’t set on Mars. It takes place on earth, in this automated robot house that continues to function after the family who lives in it dies.
KR: Oh, I love that one so much. It’s a haunted house story, really. Haunted by the absence of people. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, the sprinklers come on. Even in its death throes, the house is still obeying its old programming. Without the house’s occupants to block our view, we can see how they once lived, and those formerly banal rhythms—the things you’re inured to on an average Tuesday—seem precious all of a sudden, and totally weird, too.What comes to light if you evacuate a space of people? I had the class write a ventriloquy of an empty space—students wrote about movie theatres, a sunken galleon, an ice skating rink. They’re all ghost stories in some way.
SP: I love that the theme of your syllabus isn’t really landscape stories. They’re all stories about death. 
KR: Oh yeah, let’s talk about what we’re really talking about. There’s a section in To the Lighthouse called “Time Passes” where there are no human characters. Things fall of shelves, teacups detonate, shadows move around. It’s a novel way to talk about the monstrous loss of World War I, a slow violence that can’t be dramatized on the news. How are you going to make the erosion caused by time passing interesting and dramatic to a reader? 
SP: The film Boyhood addresses time in a similar way. The most mundane details of your life are elevated to this almost sacred place when you see how quickly time passes. Except there are people in the film, unlike Juan Rulfo’s novel Pedro Páramo, which takes place in a literal ghost town. 
KR: I was surprised to learn Rulfo revised the book for ten years, because it feels like it must have emerged from him as a seamless bubble, written in a trance-like state.
SP: How do you help the students through it?
KR: The prose generates momentum and just sort of rolls you under, so you can surrender to the spell of the book. When you’re descending into this valley in the story, Rulfo gives you permission to be strait-jacketed into the strange logic of the story, along with the protagonist. 
SP: How does he evoke that feeling?
KR: I think through the absence of objections. You might expect someone following a corpse into a valley to be like, Hey! You’re dead! How can you explain that one to me, pal? I’d prefer not to follow you into this underworld! But in fact, at no point do these characters object to even the most harrowing and illogical events in Comala, and their surrender makes the book all the more terrifying. They are prisoners, trapped in a true nightmare. And reading along, I often felt that I was similarly powerless to object to anything that might happen in Rulfo’s netherworld. Do you know that feeling from dreams? You’re aware of danger breathing down your neck, but it doesn’t seem like you have the right muscles to flee. You’re volitionless.
SP: Like Bowles and Bradbury, Rulfo addresses political and social injustice. How did you cover that in class?
KR: We talked about the feudal system he described—the way the power was structured, the way the women had zero autonomy in that economy, the way everyone was under the thumb of their don—and how that passive kind of violence felt congruous with the stupefaction that pervades every page of this book, the futility of trying to alter the horror in progress, the dream-paralysis. And we talked about the structural repetition of some scenes, the way these sleepwalkers couldn’t free themselves from the cycles of violence. Several students suggested that Páramo functions as a geopolitical critique of the way certain power structures can roll people under and hold them hostage, apparently for all time. 
SP: You could apply that to other places haunted by economic inequality, like Detroit.
KR: Absolutely. There are many cities in America that feel moated by poverty, where time seems to have looped back in on itself.
SP: This book must have generated such interesting discussions. I wish I could have been a student in your class!
KR: I miss being a student so much too. That was part of the pleasure of teaching a course like this, especially at Iowa. It’s rare to go on voyages with other readers. I loved knowing that, over the weekend, everyone was tandem hang-gliding through Australia or the underworld, and we were going to group back up on Monday to discuss it. 
Illustration by Josephine Demme.
Stephanie Palumbo is a documentary film and television producer, and a former assistant editor at O, the Oprah Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn with her boyfriend and cat. You can follow her @onetoughnun.

“IT WILL KILL YOU, AND IT NEVER KNEW YOUR NAME.”

An Interview with Karen Russell About Her Syllabus

This is part of a series of conversations with writers who teach, where we discuss how they develop an idea for a course, generate a syllabus, and conduct a class. See the full syllabus here.

Karen Russell is the author of the novel Swamplandia!, a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. She is also the author of two short story collections, Vampires in the Lemon Grove and St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and a novella, Sleep Donation. Russell is the recipient of a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship, and she has taught at Columbia University, Bard College, and Bryn Mawr College.

—Stephanie Palumbo

I. THE SPOTS ON THE LITERARY TRAM TOUR 

SP: Where did you teach this class?

KR: At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I should tell you I’m a little bit self-conscious, because I’d never taught this class before and was afraid I had the reek of fraudulence upon me. 

SP: I think most teachers feel that way.

KR: Yeah… We’ve been duped, right? [Laughs] But actually, I had a class with Bill Savage at Northwestern, on female writers of the Beat Generation like Djuna Barnes—folks that I’d never read, and he hadn’t read them either. He was upfront about it: he would teach books he wanted to read, and we’d all be co-equals. I thought of him when I was teaching at Iowa, because I’d read and loved the books on my syllabus, but I’d never taught them before. 

SP: How did you choose the theme of landscape stories for your syllabus? 

KR: It’s interesting—some writers start with character, but I almost always start with place. If I don’t have a three-dimensional sense of the story’s setting—if I can’t see it in my mind’s eye—I can’t even attempt to make the story come to life. If you ask me about books I love, like Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks or Anna Karenina, it’s the setting, and the sense memory of moving through the landscape of the book, that stays with me far longer than names of characters or details of plot. So I was thinking, what makes a world immersive? What makes a place a character? I realized you could teach any book under that rubric—even something by Beckett, that’s asserting it’s nowhere, definitely has its own atmosphere—so I tried to limit myself to stories set in places you can visit on the map. But I also taught Pedro Páramo, which takes place in the Mexican underworld, and they don’t have Delta flights there. [Laughs

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"No one is capable of freeing oneself from society."

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An Interview with Writer and Filmmaker Abdellah Taïa

Born in Salé, Abdellah Taïa was the first Moroccan author to come out as homosexual. He moved to Paris in 1998 and published his first book, Mon Maroc, two years later. His novels depict social, economic, and sexual hierarchies by describing human relationships and emotions. A few of his books include, Lu Jour du Roi (The King’s Day),An Arab Melancholia, and the autobiographical novel Salvation Army, published in English in 2009with a preface by Edmund White, and was made into a film, directed by Taïa.

Abdellah Taïa and I spoke at his sparsely furnished apartment in the Marais, Paris, where we sat at a huge table. The writer and filmmaker poured me a cup of green tea that had, lettered onto the yellow mug, the words Miami Beach. 

—Rebecka Bülow 

I. THE CONTROL ISN’T IDEOLOGICAL BUT PHYSICAL

THE BELIEVER: What is your position today in Morocco? 

ABDELLAH TAÏA: My books are published and known—especially the second one, Le Rouge du Tarbouche [The Red of the Fez]. After I wrote that book I started to write and talk about homosexuality. And since then, rich and powerful families—and even some writers and intellectuals—won’t officially accept me, because it would mean that they’re alright with homosexuality. But their support and blessing isn’t important to me. So many people and institutions are against homosexuals that, as a homosexual, you can’t waste your time by trying to convince them that you’re a good person. I understood that by the time I was twelve or thirteen.

There are also a lot of people in Morocco who support me. I’ve lectured in bookshops and I’m tolerated, maybe because of the fact that I’m published in Paris and in French. There is a little prestige in that, which gives protection.

BLVR: How was it to grow up as a gay person in Morocco?

AT: As a homosexual in Morocco I think that you understand very early that there’s no protection and that no one will defend you. If someone takes your arm and wants to have sex with you, it’s a kind of rape, but you can’t scream or tell you parents because they’ll just say that it was your own fault. They can’t even talk about homosexuality, that would mean that they’ve already thought about it. 

Any gay person understands at some point that he or she has to disappear, to become invisible. That’s very difficult. You somehow have to kill yourself. This is asked of people who haven’t got the tools to understand that it’s all  a social construction, and that they shouldn’t inferiorize themselves. This is asked of little kids. But I still live in the same outcome, and I’ll be forty-one in two days.

Once I began to talk openly again, people told me to shut up. After I published my second book, my brother told me that it was time to write fiction. The control isn’t ideological but physical. Someone is always there to keep you in your position.

BLVR: When I was in Morocco earlier this year I was struck by the constant presence of the monarchy. I saw the king’s portrait everywhere. The prosperity was a stark contrast to the people who struggled just to eat.

AT: For me, Le jour du roi investigates the relationship between someone with power, who is both very real and something beyond real, and the people who live in submission without even giving themselves the right to question their situation. The king has all kinds of power in Morocco, he’s the biggest star, he’s everything. 

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