Interview: Andrea Lee

Julia Brown

Andrea LeeAndrea Lee writes the kind of dazzling, lyrical prose that delights with its boldness—over three acclaimed novels, a New York Times Notable short story collection, and many essays and articles in publications like Time, The New Yorker, and Vogue, she explores matters of race, class, and culture with an erudition that is as playful as it is sophisticated. It was an honor and a pleasure to talk with her about her life and work, and collect some additional thoughts on her essay “Notes for a Speech Never Given (The Nile Swim Club),” which appears in Gulf Coast 28.2.

Julia Brown: Where in the world are you right now? What’s on your mind these days? What’s absorbing your attention?

Andrea Lee: I have just spent a month of work and play in Bangkok, Thailand, but where I am right now is in my house in Turin, Italy. It’s a 600-year-old villa in the country, and from my window I can see woods, a field with cows, the city in the distance, and the French Alps beyond that.

What is absorbing my attention right now is a book I am finishing, a novel called Red Island House set in Madagascar. I have a house in northern Madagascar, and spend part of every year there. Like everything I ever write, this book is about cultural collisions, in this case extreme: how a very particular African/Asian country with an extraordinary culture is neo-colonized on the tracks of historical colonization–and how the Europeans and Americans who come to exploit Madagascar are themselves eventually invaded by the spirits of the place. It is my favorite kind of format–a novel made up, as was Sarah Phillips, of individual stories that make up a larger narrative arc.

JB: You’ve harnessed the pool as metaphor so beautifully in this essay (“Pools were the holy wells of our time, portals through to the dimension of triumphant prosperity, to the deep waters of what it was to be American”). You capture a number of dualities and multiplicities in your recollection as the young person taking this space for granted, who is now an adult with a full understanding of the social climate at the time. The Nile Swim Club symbolizes what the adults in your neighborhood wanted to shield you from, as much as what they wanted to create for you.

AL: I thought I might say something about the Nile Swim Club piece. I originally wrote it as a presentation for Detroit high school students who attended the afternoon session of the Marygrove College Contemporary American Authors lecture series in which I was the 2015 featured writer. At the last minute I decided to read and discuss with them on of my short stories, “The Golden Chariot”, which they had already studied that year. But the unused swimming pool memoir remained close to my heart, and one day even unexpectedly gave birth to the little poem at its end. That was when I thought it should see the light of day, and had the happy thought of submitting it to Gulf Coast.

JB: Your stories are full of expats, transplants, and people who travel and settle overseas for love or money or wanderlust or curiosity. They tend to be (from “Anthropology,” a story in your 2002 story collection, Interesting Women) “always traveling, always alone, always vaguely belonging, always from somewhere else.” Even with spouses and children and careers, there’s an aura of loneliness in their (typically) solitary contemplation. I’m interested in this loneliness, the way a psyche can splinter when the place where one decides to make one’s life is so very different from the place of one’s birth.

Mavis Gallant is another favorite writer of mine who also writes a lot about expatriates; in her work, both the “Here” and the “There” tend to be complicated destinations that can, in themselves, inspire conflict. Your characters exist in a similarly liminal space, but they navigate that space with a psychosocial savvy that allows them an intriguing transgressiveness: a prostitute ordered for a husband’s birthday (“The Birthday Present”). A well-timed slap (“Brothers and Sisters Around the World”). The pivotal moments in these stories tend to induce in the characters a fascinating daring and intuitiveness that join together both the “Here” and the “There.”

AL: This business of the exotic, I realize, always been an interest of mine. The other day, when I glanced through my first novel, Sarah Phillips, for a college seminar, I read this forgotten observation of the character Sarah, in the first story, after a Paris viewing of the Sergio Leone film Once Upon a Time in the West: “…watching the shootouts in the gold and ochre mock-western landscape gave me a melancholy confused feeling: it seemed sad that I had spent years dreaming of Paris when all Paris dreamed of cowboys.”

JB: “Notes on the Exotic,” ( your November 3, 2014 essay in The New Yorker, begins:

I was in Copenhagen last week, revelling in the exoticism. Mouse-blond hair, sea-glass eyes; tall Vikings cycling along, with their fresh complexions and stubby boots. Wearing stripes and eating shrimp on black bread. Looking patient, civilized, sturdy and weathered, with a touch of glorious paganism under the surface. Privy to the great magnetic secrets of the boreal realm. Sexy: so cold and well meaning and white. Mysterious: the real reason that I devour all that generally disappointing Scandinavian noir. While they were busy looking at me and savoring the imaginary fire under my swarthy skin and kinky hair, I was busy enjoying my fantasies about them.

I love what’s happening in this paragraph. Two things occur to me. One, that the exotic is ultimately the possession of the exoticizer. We deem a person, place, or thing exotic when really, we carry our personal notions of what is exotic around with us—notions that have little to do with the objects those notions allegedly define. The exotic, like love, is a capacity that one possesses.

As you state in the essay, exoticization often requires a willful blindness to dimensions, or a boring retreat into cliché. The second thing that occurred to me while reading is that “Notes on the Exotic,” the essay itself, enacts the antidote to this kind of flattening: the remedy for stale platitude is a dynamic act of language, a leap of the imagination like the one you achieve in the above paragraph—you take ownership of and declare responsibility for what is conjured in your imagination, pushing past cliché to a point of precision, vivifying the object of your attention, lifting it out of flatness and prosaism. Also, in your awareness that these Scandinavian Others are likely viewing you in a similar fashion, the picture rounds out; everyone in the scenario emerges as an actor, perhaps imperfect, but with agency—fully human, and whole.

AL: Exoticism is a theme that one might not think present in a modest memoir about a suburban swim club. Yet of course it is everywhere present when I think about the Nile, starting of course with the name, with the whole idea of a great historical African river pasted superficially atop a very small-time black American institution. This blurry superficiality is of course the beginning of romanticism, which is the root of the exotic.

As you point out, Julia, the exotic is completely in the possession of the exoticizer. It is a kind of willed myopia, a conflation of blindness and the shaping mechanism of personal fantasy, desire, even obsession. It is, I believe, a universal human tendency, something that fills a deep and mysterious need for all of us.

Things become exotic when they are distant from you: unattainable, longed-for, yet not clearly visualized–or imaginatively visualized in extreme, almost insulting, simplicity. In life, this becomes true not just of our fantasies, but of all things from our memories, our increasingly blurry and oversimplified past. So from my perspective here, living part of my life in Italy and Madagascar–places that sparked my fantasies when I was growing up in America, I have come full circle to be intrigued by the scenes of an earlier life I once thought dreary and ordinary.

JB: Your fiction and your nonfiction seem motivated by similar themes and questions. What particular itch does each of these genres satisfy for you? Is the material that morphs into fiction easily distinguishable from the nonfiction in your creative imagination?

AL: I have an equal passion for writing fiction and non-fiction. And they are always about the same concepts that inform my life and obsess me: themes of belonging and not belonging, of being rooted and uprooted, of what makes “home” and what makes “foreign” of self and other. Just yesterday at an international school here in Turin, the students asked me the interesting question of whether it feels different to write fiction or non-fiction. I said that in each one is trying to get at the truth, but in nonfiction it is the rational truth that can be chronicled and checked, that eventually becomes history. And in fiction, it is a far more subjective and deeper truth. In nonfiction one explores and mines the world, moving from the outside inward. In fiction one creates a world and in the act of creation gains more and more knowledge from a mysterious source of energy that I certainly can never identify.

JB: What are you reading right now?

AL: What I am reading these days is as usual a hodgepodge of books at the same time. I am deep in William Finnigan’s superb memoir, Barbarian Days. I have just finished Robin Coste Lewis’ Voyage of the Sable Venus. Then, for no reason at all, I’m reading an early Jack London memoir of his days as a teenage hobo: The Road, which actually helped inspire Kerouac’s On the Road. At the same time, for the book I am writing, I am going over an old favorite: Alberto Moravia’s collected Roman Tales, which are some of the best short stories ever written.

JB: What are you working on? What’s next for you?

AL: Like almost every other person on the planet, I am at work on a screenplay, co-authored with another writer, that has in it all the things I love: cultural collisions, questions of fantasy and identity, black and white, Europe and America. It is called Black Madonna and it is a comic thriller about an African American girl traveling in Europe who falls in first with international criminals and then with an insane traditional religious cult. It’s the first time I ever did anything like this, and it is great fun.

I am also pondering my trip to Madagascar this summer, when I want to take a long trip into the interior of the big island to pay my respects to the remote grave of Marie Sandokony, a Malagasy Sakalava woman who was like a sister to me. This of course is something private for Marie and for me, but it may possibly end up in a book one day.