Interview with Michelle Orange: The Search for Home

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Michelle Orange and I grew up a few neighborhoods apart in the woodsy, conservative university town of London, Ontario and, after high school, we both studied English Lit and Film in Toronto. Yet it wasn’t until 2009, in New York, that we got to know each other. Canadians have a knack for finding each other in that city—even those who, like Michelle, consider it home.

Michelle has published an epistolary travelogue, The Sicily Papers (2006), conceived and edited an issue of McSweeney’s inspired by F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s notebooks, and has written for The New York Times, The Nation and The Village Voice, among other publications. Last week, FSG published This is Running for Your Life, Michelle’s first collection of essays, which has been described as “whip-smart,” “intriguingly different” and “probing,” and has earned her comparisons to Susan Sontag and John Berger.

The book’s diverse subject matter (the aging Ethan Hawke, Hezbollah, digital photography, etc.), is unified by her keen critical eye, acerbic sense of humor and a writing style that crackles with wit and insight. On any page one is liable to stumble onto cheeky imagery (in a photo of the 2009 inauguration, Barack and Michelle “embrace like lacquered wedding toppers”) and acute cultural diagnoses: “The new American dream is to build a really bitching personal brand, and the result of all that tap dancing on all those individual platforms is a pervasive kind of narrative decadence.”

Yet these essays aren’t hand-wringing missives about the state of things. Each piece braids multiple narrative and thematic threads to create almost an impressionistic interpretation of how we experience, negotiate and document the times in which we live. This is careful, considered writing that demands commensurate thought from its reader. About halfway through the book, I started to appreciate why it had taken us so long to become friends.

Our interview was conducted, to Michelle’s dismay, over Gmail. - Pasha Malla

I. NOSTALGIA

THE BELIEVER: When I asked to interview you by IM and email, you said, “I feel like one of my few innate skills has been made obsolete.” Why do you prefer the telephone? What’s wrong with computers?

MICHELLE ORANGE: I’m partial to the phone. Probably because at 14, pre-email, I attempted a very dramatic, Wharton-esque jump in social stature, and the telephone was key to its execution. On the phone I could relax and feel and sound like the person I had more trouble being in a group. With boys especially, obviously. You could sidestep the horror of being looked at and try at being liked in a way that felt earned. Plus I am very big on voices. I would always make a note of the people––Glenn Gould, Stanley Kubrick, Marlon Brando, and Michael Jackson come to mind––who were obsessed with the telephone. Maybe they got trapped, by fame or their personalities, in teenage limbo. The thing about email interviews is I worry that they contribute to the decline of the well-spoken word. Mostly I worry about that with regard to myself. Add to that a real aversion to talking about writing or my own work and I have no idea why I chided you about insisting we do this over email. Probably to hide my own relief.

BLVR: Is This is Running for Your Life a book about nostalgia?

MO: I think I had some ideas surrounding what became the first essay, and I concentrated them there. But nostalgia is a loaded word; it could mean a number of things. I don’t think, for instance, it’s a book about longing for the past.

BLVR: No, and I think you’re in fact very much writing against that sort of cosmetic nostalgia—the empty, sentimental pop culture reference, the whimsical sigh of a Ghostbusters t-shirt.

MO: Right. Well, I wasn’t at all interested in saying: here’s why Ghostbusters was awesome and how come we don’t have movies like that anymore, guess I’ll have to settle for the T-shirt. I wanted to avoid those kinds of oppositions and binaries and, yeah, write against them. But thinking through certain subjects and experiences in terms of home and homesickness really interested me. And I thought it might be a way to get at something shared in modern life. The fact that more cosmetic versions of nostalgia have cast such a pervasive spell complicates things nicely.

BLVR: You write, “The question is what we are leaving to be found.” Is the book also a lament for what might become this generation’s future nostalgia?

MO: No. I didn’t want to send anything as straightforward as a lament into the world. That’s what I mean about nostalgia—I just don’t feel that way. I wanted to think more about new ways of engaging with the world, what’s different—not good or bad—and what it means. I wanted to think about the role that plays in the way we mark time and organize and identify ourselves—generationally, culturally, nationally. I wondered how those associations will be made going forward. You can already see it on something like Twitter. My memories of the Osama bin Laden news, for instance, are all tied up with Twitter. Same with Hurricane Sandy. I had a few people over on election night and although we had the television on there were some who preferred to experience the night through their Twitter feed. The Superbowl the other night, same thing. So you could argue that the collective has found a way to resurface and assert itself. That has its own implications, like how certain things will find their rightful place in memory when we’re so busy shaping and “remembering” them in real-time and moving on to the next. There’s an equalizing effect. But the point is it’s all very interesting to think about, there’s nothing to lament in that regard.

BLVR: Is that a necessary for you, in order to write about something—to be open and curious, rather than coming at a subject with hard opinions or biases?

MO: It’s very necessary. Working as a critic that’s one of the biggest parts of the job–you have to be open to each new thing you’re considering. With the book figuring out my own experience of some of the things I describe was part of the challenge. In certain cases it seemed important to stay true to my own ambivalence, that that would be my best shot at getting somewhere. I wanted to be open and curious but I also didn’t want to shy away from my own confusions and contradictions. I thought they might be the source of understanding.

II. HOME

BLVR: You break down nostalgia to its Greek root (homesickness, basically) in the first essay and, in the last essay, claim that, for you, running used to be a “pathetically physical solution to a metaphysical problem of homesickness.” I wondered if writing might have become the metaphysical solution?

MO: Yes, in that sense I think you are right. And with the first and last essay I did want to create a frame that had to do with the search for home and the problem of time.

BLVR: Where is home to you?

MO: The biggest scare I’ve had at the border followed my having casually told the customs officer, in response to her question about why I was heading to New York, that I was “going home.” Her back hit the ceiling. “If New York’s your home where’s your green card? Show me a green card if that’s your home!” I had said it without thinking, and here this agent was threatening to keep me in Canada because I was a lowly visa-holder pretending I had a home. She wasn’t happy until I put it correctly: “I’m returning to the place where I currently live and work.” I thought, Wow, it’s like I’m fighting with my metaphor. I had been living in New York for eight years at that point; it’s almost ten now. I was approved for a green card last summer and that triggered a real shift for me. I bought furniture for the first time in my life. I am settling down a bit and that feels good. 

BLVR: A decade in New York despite the fact that your first visit, in high school, filled you with melancholy. Though maybe it was melancholy that made you want to go back?

MO: I think my response at sixteen had to do with the fact that New York is an exciting but not a very welcoming city. It’s very easy, especially if you are sensitive to that stuff, to feel excluded from the idea of an elusive, “real” New York. Discovering that you desperately want or need the city to accept you and give your sorry ass some context can be painful. I just remember feeling lovesick and frustrated. But determined. The city is a source of joy and (mostly joyful) depletion for me now. I’m comfortable and I have a great life here but I’m not a die-hard, it’s not New York or death for me anymore. If anything I think the city helped me realize and accept that writing is and should be my true home.

BLVR: What about London, Ontario, where you grew up, but which exists in the book mostly in shadow?

MO: I don’t go back very often, but I dream myself back there—specifically the house that I grew up in and where my father still lives––on a pathological basis. Story-wise, very few of them are about the house, but they’re all set there somehow. Most annoying is when the perspective of some pleasingly arcane scenario pulls back to reveal the old kitchen tiles or the outline of the garage door––yep, our London house. And I’ll go, dammit!

III. SYNCHRONICITY & TIME

BLVR: Has your relationship to time changed having produced a book about your relationship to time?

MO: I’m still working on slowing it down, I’ll let you know how that goes. I remember my grandmother telling me, when I was a teenager, that the days seemed to go so slowly at my age, but that this would change. She was trying to comfort me, but looking back from a point where the years have begun to taken on a stretchy, accordion-like quality, it sounds more like a warning. (Isn’t it strange the way the gap between your age and your parents’ age closes over time? Like how when I turned 30 my mother was exactly twice my age, after having been three, four, five, twenty times my age. Now she gets less older than me every year.) Writing the book helped draw out and shape my relationship to my own memory, and set a couple of periods in my life into deeper relief. It helped connect me to the past–my past, other pasts–and that made a certain sense of the present and the future. Partly it’s getting older – your perspective opens up and you can either turn away or assume the position and find a way through. It was really in writing this book that I began to feel like there could be a life spent this way. I hadn’t quite felt that way before. It’s very comforting.

BLVR: Each essay weaves together a lot of seemingly disparate ideas and experiences; “War and Well-Being at 21° 19’ N., 157° 52’ W.,” for example, touches on modern psychiatry, celebrity, death, Hawaiian tourism and tribal coming of age rituals, among other things.  Did the material create natural connections or were you selecting and arranging parts into a whole?

MO: The current revision of the DSM had such a vast range of implications that it was hard not to see all of the connections and hear the cross-talking. Much of what happened and what I observed and thought about seemed to nest together of its own accord, such that I began to take closer notice. You can’t spend your life that way, it would probably take a week or two to go bananas. But it seems to me that experience of the world is available the moment the protective shields that help a person through the day come down–you know, breathe deep, turn your sensors on high and take a good look around. All writing does this on some level; maybe the vague sense that there is or must be order in what feels like chaos is part of the drive to tell any story. It tends to be the way I try and make sense of things.

BLVR: By organizing?

MO: By seeking form, and some context. A story, basically.

 

Pasha Malla is the author of the story collection, The Withdrawal Method, and, most recently, People Park, a novel.