Literature in the Face of COVID-19: Rigoberto González and Deb Olin Unferth on Writing in the Time of Crisis
In Conversation with V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell on Fiction/Non/Fiction
In this episode of Fiction/Non/Fiction, poet Rigoberto González and novelist Deb Olin Unferth talk about how literary life has changed during the coronavirus pandemic. González, director of the MFA program at Rutgers University-Newark, talks to Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about the struggles universities face in the transition to online classes, and also reads from his latest collection, The Book of Ruin; Unferth talks about her new novel, Barn 8, its disrupted book tour, and what we can learn from animals and nature as we navigate a global pandemic.
To hear the full episode, subscribe to the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast through iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app (include the forward slashes when searching). You can also listen by streaming from the player below. And this episode, for the first time, we feature video excerpts of our interviews.
Selected readings for the episode:
Part One: Rigoberto González
Whitney Terrell: I know that it was very hard to convince my mom when I was living at home right after grad school that what I was doing in my room was actually work and should not be interrupted to sweep the floor or help her move some furniture.
Rigoberto González: Exactly. Well, a number of our students, even though they do have computers, even though they do have some technology, the reason that they could not do this kind of work online is because they become de-facto babysitters for their younger brothers and sisters, for their cousins, for the neighbor’s kids. That’s what I kept hearing. They went back home and all of a sudden, the parents are like, “Well, you’re out of school, you’re not really doing anything, so just take care of the kids.” And so that’s another reason why the dorms become so pivotal and critical, because they need to step away from that role. Yes, they can support their families, but the families also need to support them by giving them the space, and going back home just reminded them of why they actually left home in the first place.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I think at Whitney’s school, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and at Rutgers-Newark, and at the University of Minnesota, this week for us would have been recruitment for MFA students. So, we were expecting to have people in town, people were trying to make big decisions about their lives. I’m curious, how did you all rearrange things for those students?
RG: Well, that has been a chore as well. We’re in the middle of recruiting students, and we were gonna have two open house events. One was on the 10th, on the day of everything collapsing. And the one after that was the 24th, which would be next Tuesday. Unfortunately, that became an impossibility. The reason that I cancelled the March 10th, though, was because I had been the conference chair at AWP, and that conference had just happened in San Antonio. Once I saw the signs, I said, “You know what, this is not going to happen, I think this is all going to shut down eventually.”
So I decided, let’s postpone the March 10th, because a lot of questions right now are about whether or not we can travel, what was going on, are we going to have to deal with this? There was still a question there, right? So I said in order to avoid people making travel plans, let’s just go ahead and pause it for a bit and think about coming back together after spring break, But clearly we cannot. So we’ve been just interacting with the students via email, and we’ve been connecting them with some of our own graduate students to give any kind of information. Some of them have actually been very honest and very forthcoming about their concerns. One of them was, is there really going to be school in the fall? Because some of these students are moving from across the country.
WT: A damn good question as far as I’m concerned.
VVG: Yeah, do you know the answer to that?
RG: Well, I’ll say this. When I talk to my faculty, I talk to my graduate student teachers, I say, look, there’s a lot of anxiety already and our students are going to have to deal with that anxiety and then also try to concentrate, which is such an impossible demand. The best we can do at this point is just perform as if things are gonna be back to normal somehow, even though we know they’re gonna be different. We don’t know. We don’t know if things are going to be changing forever, or if it’s just a temporary thing, or what. Every day we’re learning something new. Every day, we’re getting some kind of new experience to share with everybody else about what’s happening around us. So right now, to make a declaration about anything that far off would be inaccurate and would be disingenuous. All I can say is that we just have to move, the cliche, one day at a time. I hate that cliche, but suddenly here we are living it.
The best we can do at this point is just perform as if things are gonna be back to normal somehow, even though we know they’re gonna be different.
WT: I actually think that the university, at least our university, can function fine. My concern is going to be the economic impact here because TARP, for those of you who remember the last financial crash that happened under a Republican president—when Obama ran the TARP bailout program, that gave a lot of money to universities. It was a Democrat who decided to do that. And it was very helpful to our university and made a huge difference. And none of the packages that are being discussed now from Congress say anything about helping universities.
RG: I mean, that is true. You know, we haven’t had that conversation yet at the university. Right now, we’re just on the brink of rolling everything online and seeing how that functions. A graduate student, one of my colleagues, contacted me and said that they’re experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. And I contacted the dean on whether he reported these things, and then finally I asked him, “I just have a question. Is there a policy? Or is there a certain kind of procedure or process? Because I feel like every time I receive some kind of news like this, I have to take it case by case and I also have to operate in a crisis mode constantly.” And he said to me, “Well, that’s about right. That’s what we have.” At least I knew. I wish he had given me something like a step by step, some kind of playbook, but there isn’t one. We really are dealing with unprecedented issues. So here we are inventing the wheel.
Part Two: Deb Olin Unferth
Whitney Terrell: My first novel came out during the 9/11 attacks. I gave a reading in New York, that was really successful and my book hadn’t been expected to do well, but it had been getting good reviews. My publisher bought like a quarter page ad in the New York Times for 9/11 of 2001. I was supposed to go to do a bunch of signings at Borders that day. And I remember saying to my wife, “Oh, I think that could, everything seems to be going just as well as it possibly could,” that morning, and then literally it felt like five minutes later, because of hubris, her aunt, who we were staying with, stuck her head in the door and said, “I think something hit the World Trade Center.” And there’s the loss of life, of course, and all of the terribleness of that is much more important than your private tragedy of losing your book tour. But I worked five years on that book, and you’d worked many years on your book. And so it’s weird because you can’t talk about it. I’m saying this for you, in some ways, because I felt like I couldn’t talk about it at the time, but it was extremely painful.
Deb Olin Unferth: Whit, I cannot believe that that happened to you. That is just crazy. One thing that has really helped is that people have come out of the woodwork and told me stories like that. In fact, Elizabeth McCracken, she and I went to see the last movie that we’ll ever see in a theater together just as everything was coming down last week and she said, “I was about to embark on my first book tour on 9/11.” She was at the airport ready to go and had to turn around and come home and she said, “I never talk about it, but it hurt.” I think that honestly, for a couple days, it really did hurt.
For a couple days, I was just feeling sorry for myself. But I got over it really fast. I did spend years on this book, and I did research the hell out of it. I feel good about it, I guess because it got a lot of good reviews. It actually went into reprint within like two days of publication which, how can that not make you feel good? But now that bookstores are closed and I bet it’s not selling as well, but I don’t know, I moved on. I feel so many things about the world right now. I’m so worried about the world and about all of the people, even just people around the corner who work at my favorite restaurant, what’s going to happen to them, and I don’t know, the gravity has overwhelmed my hubris, I guess.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: So I do really want to talk about Barn 8, which is so great and lively and actually kind of the perfect novel for a moment like this. In the joy of the rendering of the characters who are, among other things, chickens, and the way that they were raised in factory farming operations. And it’s a novel about animal rights. And one of the conversations I think, that we’ve been having kind of ongoing on the podcast has been about climate change and about animals, about writing from different points of view. Your novel is also about corporate malfeasance. And novels are, as we were just discussing, long-range projects. So when did you start writing this book? And what if anything, in the political environment of that moment led you to these themes, which to me feel really correct for right now?
DOU: I’m vegan. I’ve been vegan for a long time. I read that chickens were the most suffering creature on the planet. I have a little bit of Buddhism in me—that life is about suffering. I just started thinking a lot about the chickens and chickens, trapped in those factory farms all squashed in there. Then if you think about us and how we also used to be nomadic, wandering creatures and now, we’re stuffed in our houses. I don’t know, I just started thinking a lot about the similarities between us and the chickens. Then I started imagining what would it be like if all the chickens left the farm. If they were able to just leave the farm, what would that look like? What would that be like? Once I had that image in my mind, then that was what it was going to be. That’s what the story was gonna be. Then while I was writing it, I had shown some early pieces of it to Clancy Martin, who you know, Whit, and and he said, “The chickens—you could do anything with the novel, like anything you want. You can have just the top of the barn come off and all of the chickens just fly out of the barn if you want, because this is fiction,” so I was like, I’ve got to get that in there somehow. So it just sort of developed.
WT: One of the really interesting relationships in the novel, moving beyond chickens, is the relationship between Janey and Cleveland, who are the two characters who end up coming up with this idea of removing a million chickens from a factory farm. I wonder if you could talk to us about Janey and Cleveland—not give away too much plot, or however much plot you feel comfortable giving away—and then read about them a little bit.
This isn’t victory that you’re talking about, or that we’re talking about when it comes to COVID-19 because there is no victory. It’s just managing disaster.
DOU: Janey and Cleveland kick off the plot. I wanted there to be someone in the book who could represent the reader, not know very much about the egg industry. I did a huge amount of research for this book. Most of the characters in the book are experts in this. There’s a lot of undercover investigators, there’s a lot of farmers, there are people who designed the cages, but you have this one character Janey, who has left New York and gone to Iowa in search of her father, against the wishes of her mother. Her mother winds up being in a horrible car crash and dying while Janey is there meeting her father. Janey winds up having to just live in Iowa, so she has to abandon her great life in New York.
So while she’s living there, she winds up getting this job for the egg industry, where she is an auditor, she goes around and to different farms and goes into barns, and looks at these and checks to make sure that everything is according to regulation. The woman who she winds up working with is someone who used to know her mother. That’s why she agrees to take the job. Her name is Cleveland. Cleveland reminds her a little bit of her mother. So what happens is that Cleveland is extremely dedicated to her job as a as an auditor for the U.S. egg industry. But she’s become disillusioned. And she thinks that she’s not being taken seriously. And so she starts, for reasons that are clear if you read the book, she starts stealing chickens out of these barns. And then Jamie catches her stealing one and says, you know, why are you doing this? And then they become this revolutionary team. So I’ll just read a part after that.
VVG: Thank you so much, Deb. That’s so great. I just think about bureaucracy. And also, you mentioned before that you’re a vegan—I’m not a vegan, but reading about the lives of chickens when I was younger, I did have a period where information about how they lived put me off for a while. In listening to this phrase, and particularly the last phrase that you said, to “lessen the lessening.” I have to admit that I thought of “flatten the curve,” because they felt eerily similar. And this isn’t victory that you’re talking about, or that we’re talking about when it comes to COVID-19 because there is no victory. It’s just managing disaster.
DOU: I think that’s really interesting. I don’t know if you’ve seen the pictures of empty Venice right now, the canals, and the dolphins are coming back in. And there’s pictures of cities that normally have a lot of smog over them. And now there’s just nothing. I mean, there’s too much of us. We’re just too much. We’ve got to just lessen ourselves. Right now the whole Earth is just breathing a sigh of relief for a moment because we all just stopped. We’ve been so partisan these last years, we’re just fighting and fighting and now I feel like we all just come to a stop and there’s something really relieving in it. I think that thing of “lessen the lessening”—Janey is thinking about how she doesn’t want to be. She doesn’t want to be very much. And now she’s having this experience where that desire not to be is lessening. She’s finding something beautiful in her surroundings, in her love of her new friend, in what she’s doing with her life. What she’s beginning to feel is really meaningful. And I feel like if we could all just slow down maybe something really beautiful will come. Not of the virus but of the slowing.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by V.V. Ganeshananthan, Kara Walters, Sophia Straight, and Jasmine Rollins.