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John Freeman will present the Family issue of Freeman’s Journal with Garnette Cadogan and Naomi Williams tonight at Sacramento’s Time Tested Books.
Garnette Cadogan sat down in front of John Freeman’s “How to Make a Journal,” seminar at The New School around 9:30 PM on Monday, November 14th, six days after the 2016 general election. He had arrived moments before, rolling his suitcase behind him and with fellow writer Édouard Louis in tow. I was supposed to meet with Mr. Cadogan for this Q & A earlier that evening, but he got stuck in traffic between LaGuardia and Manhattan.
I had read his essay, “On Strength and Fighting, and Finding Strength in Poetry,” and had found solace through his grace, humor, and thoughtful use of the W. H. Auden quote, “Love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart.” He wrote that it was, “The real fight, that.” I had spent days wondering how I was going to fight “the real fight, that,” struggling with how to even relate to those I knew had voted differently than I had much less love them, and was bolstered by Mr. Cadogan’s almost stubborn optimism.
As he spoke to the class that Monday night, all of the questions I had written in preparation for an interview turned, I thought, flimsy and unimportant, as he echoed those sentiments again. I saw that I had an opportunity to talk to not only a writer whom I had admired since reading the first sentence of “Black and Blue,” but to a person who could, through his willingness to fight “out of love, with love,” broaden my own understanding of and patience for the world, The United States, and the people who live and vote in it. I went home and rewrote my questions. We finally sat down together on the morning of Friday, November 18th.
Allison Moorer: Before you came in the other night I had all these questions—typical writer-to-writer questions that I wrote after having read a lot of your work. That’s great. But none of that is what I want to ask you about now. There are now some new ideas in my mind.
The first thing I want to ask you about—do you remember when Édouard Louis said the other night in John’s class that some subjects are pre-political? I find that concept compelling, and I like it because I agree with it. It made me think of subconscious or preconscious things that exist in our minds—things that just are. He said, “Why aren’t we debating the debate?” I thought, “Exactly.” I’ve always thought, “Why are we talking about what women do with their bodies? How is that subject suitable for the floor? This is none of anyone’s business.” Civil rights, human rights, all of these things that I see no need to talk about anymore. I know it’s because we haven’t achieved any sort of peace in those areas that we’re still talking about them, but why haven’t we evolved past these very basic issues yet?
I’d like to start there. Then I’d like you to tell me, post-election, how you are learning to “love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart.”
Garnette Cadogan: We haven’t all agreed on what is pre-political. Some of us think that there are things that are beyond the pale to even discuss. To raise certain questions about what is right and not—questions about basic human rights—is, for some, beyond the bounds of basic human decency. But,tough as it might be, conversation will always be necessary, even with issues we think are pre-political, because of the diverse… not merely opinions, but also frameworks out of which we operate from. For some people, religious commitments—whether Jewish or Christian or Muslim or Hindu—anchor them and the way they see the world,and it influences their ways of seeing the world and shapes their questions and issues: anything from sexuality to the sanctity of a child to when they see life beginning. These huge issues which we’ve been debating for quite some time, I think we’ll continue to debate. So, I think if we decided that some questions are pre-political, they would need to be at least laid out in conversation. A debate doesn’t always have to happen but a conversation, I think, always should. People always have to say, “Here’s where I draw the line about rights or issues that are within the realm of the debatable for me. This is so established for me that it is not something that I’m going to debate. We will have to figure out a way, given how I see the world, how we can co-exist. There is no changing my mind on this, and I don’t think I will change your mind on this—so where do we go from here?”
I’m not for shutting down conversation, and I’m quite encouraging of debate, but I’m also for saying, on both sides, “This is something I will not budge from.” To declare it, to say, “This is where I will hedge a fence around me in conversation and say “This is non-negotiable for me.””
AM: So is it about some kind of order then, when it gets down to it? Is it about everyone keeping his or her ideas in the boxes they think they need to be in? Is it too much chaos for anyone to think outside of what they believe? If we are to see the elements of ourselves in others, then how do we get there? By this conversation that most people refuse to have in a meaningful, open way?
GC: It’s more than order. There’s a danger in our longings for order. We’ve seen many times what the desire for order gets us. Sometimes it’s too close a cousin of the desire to purge, to exclude, to oppress. So it’s not just order. Order is something to desire, but there are higher ideals.
AM: But do you think that’s what we’re seeing now? Do we see Trump winning the election because a certain portion of the population thinks things are supposed to be a certain way and that certain way is the way they want them and in their order?
GC: I think one of the things—and this is the writer in me, partially—we have to recognize is that, even between breakfast and dinner, so many people’s designs and intentions and ambitions change on a given day. So, regarding Trump supporters, we have to try to imagine millions of people, and with them an innumerable mix of motives and desires and fears—everything from “I don’t like people who are black or immigrant” to “Women are third-class citizens for me,” to ”Gays are fifth-class citizens for me,” to “My factory is going to close and the jobs are going to go to Mexico and this man is promising to keep the jobs here, and I held my nose and voted for him,” to “Oh, I can’t stand Hilary Clinton, I would never vote for her; terrible things happened to me during the first Clinton administration, so I would never have another Clinton,” to somebody thinking, if not voicing, “Oh I don’t think a woman can be president.”
There are any number of reasons. And it’s not to say that we can’t then pin down a few dominant reasons. There are a couple of strong impulses there—a certain xenophobia, a certain fear of the other, a certain resentment toward the political and financial elite, a certain intoxicating view of what the free market is and what the role of the individual should be (in the sense that Democrats will create a more fettered way of life). For others, it was the Supreme Court and their beliefs about abortion and about gay marriage. They wanted someone on the court who they thought would align more closely with their view of the world on these things. In an election, one of the things that makes it tougher to have a conversation is that, on both sides, we’ve reduced the reasons that people supported the candidate they supported.
The other thing that makes conversation tough is that—and I think I’ve been guilty of this too—we’ve been too quick to talk about unity. I’ve been stepping back and asking myself of late, in talking about unity, if maybe what we need first is for our wounds to heal. For people to grieve, for scabs to dry up, and then to start thinking of ways to have conversations. This means acknowledging, too, that there is a political spectrum, and a pendulum with ends that moves away from us as we’re ready to talk, or are too distant from us for conversation to be productive. That there may be people on ends that are so far from each other that maybe conversation between them isn’t possible. But there are people that you have to have Thanksgiving dinner with, or those—spouse, in-law—whom you’ve married into a relationship with, or those whom you’ve been hired into a relationship with, or people you’re leased into a relationship with—that is,you have to live next door to this person, or live in the same house with this person. And so those conversations are more crucial and are made more possible because you’re able to see each other in the full texture of life, you’re able to not see them as angel or devil only. But there is also . . . for people who have throughout their lives been been harassed, excluded, terrorized, and oppressed, to have someone say “We should support someone who is reinforcing these beliefs and behaviors and will enact these policies”—These people rightly ask, “How can I have a conversation with you? How can I have a conversation with someone who has denied my very humanity and dignity?” I don’t have an answer for that, except to say that I think that there is a danger in hasty and thin conversations.
At the very least, some conversations need to happen in your immediate circle where there is the opportunity for sharing and trust. But it’s important, too, not to have a conversation, and instead listen and say, “So this is what this person believes; I’m going to go and fight.”It’s just as important not to say,“Oh we need to sit down and talk so I can try to get this other person over to my side.” That’s fool-hearted. Foremost, we need to say, “Let me try to understand what this person believes about me, about the world, and then I can decide.”
AM: You mentioned Frederick Douglas a little while ago [I sat in while Mr. Cadogan spoke to a journalism class at Baruch College that morning] and I thought about the “What to the slave is the 4th of July?” speech. That took me to Richard Wilbur’s “Go talk to those rumored to be unlike you,” which you reminded me of the other night in John’s class. What you’re saying is, go talk to them and then make your decision about whether you can “love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart?”
GC: I think there are many ways to love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart. Loving your crooked neighbor doesn’t always mean sitting and talking to them. Sometimes loving your neighbor just means, “I am not going to demonize this person.” We can’t sit down and have a drink together, unfortunately, but I’m not going to try to obliterate this person, I’m not going to try to deny this person’s humanity. I will treat this person as part of the people whose beliefs and ideas I oppose, but I will not let my disagreement devolve into dehumanization. Now, how can I disagree in a way that is civil, even if I need to be firm and vigilant?
AM: One more question about something I feel is important. I believe that art is non-negotiable—it’s air, it’s water. It’s especially important in times like these, in my opinion. It’s the artist’s job to hold up a mirror to the world. You said a little while ago, “Some people need to shout, some people need to whisper.” Can you tell me which one of those things you feel like you need to do now?
GC: I’m of mixed minds that we need art now more than ever . . .
AM: I’m romantic that way.
GC: I’m romantic that way also. I think that in times of despondency that art has a way of speaking to us with a certain resonant frequency—many times we’re in so much pain that we’ve stuffed our fingers in our ears. Art has a way of arresting our attention and bringing us to a place of contemplation and reflection. Our art is a way of saying “you’re not alone,” or “me too.” Art is a way of mourning with those who mourn. But I also think in times of peace and normalcy that art is crucial as a continual reminder of our humanity, of our dignity—a way of bringing us closer to our joys and speaking of our sorrows, and so art is always absolutely crucial and essential and necessary. It’s easy to take it for granted when the world isn’t crumbling around us. But art—good art, anyway— always calls us to be our better selves.
How will I turn to art now? One of the wonderful things about writing, for me, is the ways in which the world becomes more complicated (for the person who creates) once it starts coming together on a screen, on paper. Actually, most times I write by hand first, and then type after, for a variety of reasons. One of which is there is something very tactile about the experience: the act of holding something in hand, and moving across a page—the actual movement in which I’m more intimately bound to my content than I would be if I were just typing away— does something to me creatively, in terms of ideas coming, in terms of even the architecture of a project. It also gets me away from perfectionism and the self-loathing that too often hovers over and hinders and even smothers my work. The screen brings the constant illusion of perfection. I have notes on concert programs, napkins, restaurant menus, scraps of paper, newspapers . . . I always date them and I love looking through them. Partially it’s to protect myself, so if I stumble on a piece of writing where it’s echoing someone else’s observation, I know from whom I have taken it, I can give acknowledgment.
But, more important than process, with the act of writing, the world can sometimes become so complicated that many times I’m not sure what I believe about something. Time and again, my beliefs change or modify as I begin writing. For instance, when the election happened, I quickly said, “Oh these are the reasons for Trump’s win,” and as I began writing—just writing to friends who asked me to explain to them what happened—…as I began writing, I began to recognize that issues were a lot more complicated than I thought. And people were more complicated than I thought. Suddenly, the pen outpaces the emotions, or the mood. I feel that so often that my immediate response to something is a mood, whereas once I begin writing my response becomes more than about mood. My writing becomes more engaged, as thought intertwines with emotions and mood ceases to be my muse. So writing becomes a way to remind myself that human beings are irreducibly complex and that they’re deserving of much more than the reductionisms that are often given to them.
AM: I’m going to stop there. Because I see now, through your answer, that that’s how I can love my neighbor with my crooked heart, by not making the same generalizations that those I don’t agree with seem to. I wanted to ask you more questions about writing, but we’ll have to do that another time. These questions seemed more important right now.
GC: And let’s not let this [the partisan politics of our moment] be all that we talk about.
AM: Ah. Good advice. It won’t be. Thank you.
Photograph by Bart Babinski.