Tracy Kidder, Anne Fadiman, Joyce Carol Oates, and “the enemies of chaos”


Fadiman, Oates, Kidder ... demonstrating a high tolerance for noise (Photo: Rachel Altmaier)

Goodness, what a sourpuss I sounded yesterday!  Chalk it up to my low threshold for cacophony. The article on yesterday’s event with Tracy Kidder, Anne Fadiman, Joyce Carol Oates is online here.

Highlights included New Yorker gossip from Fadiman about the genesis of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down:

In the late 1980s, she had prepared a list of four proposals for her New Yorker editor when an old college friend from Merced called to tell her the story of “the tragic conflicts between Hmong patients and their doctors.”

“I thought I’d add that one as number five,” she said. The editor picked it.

Her work took her into a human catastrophe involving an epileptic Hmong girl. Well-meaning Western medical professionals and a loving family with longstanding tribal traditions clashed about the meaning of her condition and what a cure might be.

“Each side underestimated the other. It made me wonder whether we all underestimate each other most of the time.”

Her New Yorker editor left, and the new editor wanted more of a celebrity focus in the magazine’s features.

“The interest in an epileptic toddler was – to put it charitably – modest.” The letter formally killing the story “managed to misspell my first and last name.”

“I could not let the story go,” she said. In the end, she found that writing 300 pages was “so much easier” than disappointing the people who had shared their anguished stories with her.

Pulitzer prizewinning Kidder was modest, self-deprecating, often seemingly at a loss for words, as he described Strength in What Remains, featuring the story of “Deogratias,” who fled the Burundi and Rwanda massacres in 1994 for the streets of New York City, where he was homeless. He eventually dropped out of Dartmouth Medical School to open a medical clinic in Burundi. Kidder said that Deogratias is now pursuing medical studies at Columbia University:

“I’m surprised in general when I come across people like this,” said Kidder. Reading the newspaper every day, he said, “Sometimes I think chaos and violence run the world.”

People like Deogratias provide him with hope: “The fact that they’re there, as enemies of chaos, I find extremely reassuring – every morning,” he said.

Describing his book, he said, “It’s a story about courage, it’s a story about the kindness of strangers, a story about war and genocide.”

“What I wanted to do is to make you experience those things again, not as truisms, but as parts of our lives,” he said. “This is what all the writers I most admire do. They make the world new. They make it new again.”

Satz, author and moderator (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The person most shortchanged by my story was Joyce Carol Oates.  Alone of the three (four, counting Debra Satz, the moderator and author of Why Some Things Should Not Be for Sale (discussed here)  “The Undesirable Table” was a work of fiction, and also a short story, rather than a full-length novel.  As I was quickly putting together a story on deadline, she seemed a little the odd man out.  I’ve never much cared for her work — and can’t claim to have really given it a fair hearing — but I was moved by her discussion of her family origins that were “working class, perhaps below that.”  I was also moved by her generosity towards the other authors — at times it felt as if she were acting as the moderator:

Oates spoke of the role of writers to “bear witness,” and the need to tell the stories of those who are otherwise voiceless.

“It’s up to you to provide the language and allow their stories to be told” … She urged the audience to grab such stories like a rope: “They pull you someplace you never thought you would go.”

Here are a few quotes that didn’t make it into the article:

“I’m more drawn to tragedy, because I think it mirrors the human predicament … and there’s not that much we can do about it, ultimately.  Even if you love your family, you will lose them, one by one.”

“That is what art does, brings formal structural hope to tragic situations … you rise to an occasion of personal courage and selflessness if there’s an emergency … those are the special, selective areas that bring hope to tragic world.”

Postscript: Something else Oates said that fascinated me.  When asked how she could write something like 80 books she said she lives “conventional life of moderation, regular hours.  There’s no need even to organize my time.”  So how does she manage to do that?

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