Bookforum talks with Peter Hessler

Peter Hessler recently relocated to Cairo with his wife, journalist Leslie T. Chang, and their twin daughters. Their move Egypt came after a stint in southwestern Colorado, and before that, Hessler spent years based in and observing China. During his China period, Hessler produced books that met great success—River Town, Oracle Bones, and Country Driving—marking him as one of the US’s leading long-form journalists in the region. In 2011, he won a MacArthur “Genius” grant for his keen observation of “such rapidly changing societies as Reform Era China.” But Hessler had little desire to become a writer associated with only one place—an “expert”—so over the past decade he has continued to roam. To follow his travels across the world, readers can pick up his most recent essay collection, Strange Stones.

Almost all written under the aegis of the The New Yorker, that book’s pieces find Hessler bushwhacking along the Great Wall, patronizing the dueling rat restaurants of Luogang, keeping up with a hard-drinking Tokyo crime reporter, seeking out Yao Ming’s Houston barber, and assessing the legacy of uranium mining and role of the independent pharmacist in Colorado’s small towns. Hessler’s latest residence has afforded him a close-up view of another story: political unrest in Egypt. Bookforum spoke with Hessler over the phone shortly after the unseating of Egypt’s first democratically elected head of state, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohammed Morsi.

“It takes a long time to break cycles,” Hessler remarked, noting the strong pull of history. “There’s always a lot of hope, and people make the same mistakes again and again.” As always, he has been approaching the situation not as an expert but as someone who is in the process of figuring things out: “This recent incident I’m not sure how to evaluate yet, but the government run by the Muslim Brotherhood was incompetent—unusually so,” Hessler pointed out. “They showed so many signs of being incredibly insular and incapable of dealing with anybody else; a weak group that had alienated all the security forces, the police, the army. You could see it on the street. It wasn’t a big shock. It’s a lesson in realpolitik.” According to Hessler, it’s far worse than the Chinese government under which he lived, which had shortcomings but was never incompetent. “Some things, they handle poorly,” Hessler said. “Because they’re not in a competitive political environment, they don’t understand how to present a good face, especially overseas, but it’s a minor issue compared to stuff we’ve seen here.”

“Being here makes me realize how relatively stable China is; the Community Revolution actually changed Chinese society” Hessler continued. “I’ve been spending time in villages in Upper Egypt, and none of these political cycles—the Mubarak regime or the Morsi regime or whatever’s going to come next—have changed the structures there. Life is still based on clans, on families. Things just continue the same way they always have. People talk casually about the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in China, about the overthrow of the Communist Party, but it’s a deeply entrenched political system, and it’s functional in a way that’s not even related to what goes on in Egypt.”

Hessler, who doesn’t believe in using translators and has learned to speak Arabic, has been praised as someone who can write about politics through tackling subjects that are not explicitly political, and the situation in Egypt has allowed him to practice this craft. “I finished a long piece right before this latest round of events looking at the politics, but it’s actually more to do with archaeology in rural Egypt.” He operates on the premise that politics are best understood through the people on the ground. “Politics is not a black box. If you talked to all these people, you could see what was going on in the last six months. You could feel people being unhappy with this government. I wouldn’t have predicted a coup by any means, but I did send a note to my editor five days before: ‘There’s going to be a lot of protests. It could turn into something big. We need to be ready.’”

In comparison to China, Egypt is a “much less intense” place to be a foreigner. “In China I was more conscious of my identity as a foreigner. I stood out more. Egypt is a pretty mixed place: there are people who look blonde, who look black, who look like me. It’s not like China, where people will yell at you and follow you, totally freaking out if you look different. It makes me realize that being closed for so many decades traumatized China and its relationship to the outside world. When I went to protests, people were often antagonistic toward me, even if the protest had nothing to do with America. Here, the protests are incredibly violent — I’ve been to so many where people die in large numbers, which does not happen in China — but I don’t feel hostility directed at me, even if the protests are anti-American. Egypt has always been a crossroads: people have always come in and out. They’ve had a lot of contact with foreigners; they’re just more comfortable with it.”

“It’s like America,” he continued, which is “also a place that isn’t very comfortable with the outside world.” This he learned during his time in Colorado, which came between China and Egypt. Over the years he spent there, he found it “amazing how little people wanted to hear from me. We told people we lived in China for eleven years, and they said, ‘Oh, were you in the military?’ That was always the first question. They had this vision of, I don’t know, a big Marine base in the Forbidden City. They didn’t have a lot of curiosity about it; it was kind of beyond the pale.” He added, “Americans are storytellers. I guess ‘self-centered’ and ‘egotistical’ is one way you could say it, but there’s also something neat about people intensely connected to their own stories, trying to figure out their place in the world. In China, it could be frustrating. Chinese people don’t like to put themselves in the center of things; it has something to do with a strong tradition of group culture, family culture, which is great, but which can make it hard for people to articulate their feelings, where they see themselves, what they really want. I had to observe people over years before I would learn key details about them. Going back to America, you sit down with somebody at a bar, and they’re telling you within five minutes: I just got out of prison, my wife did this or that, just incredibly personal, detailed things. I do like that storytelling tradition; I grew up in Missouri reading Mark Twain. That is a deep part of what America is and what, as a writer, I connect to.”

Hessler first dedicated himself to writing in high school, and found his way to the essay form while taking a class under New Yorker contributor John McPhee in college. “The main thing is the research,” Hessler said. “Nonfiction forces me to get out, to talk to people, to be attentive, to read, to try to understand history, to take notes, and to organize things. That keeps me grounded.” In Egypt, he’s found one way to stay grounded through conversations with his garbageman, Said. “I spend a lot of time with him. He’s interesting and funny. I’ll probably write a piece about him. He seems instinctively to understand what you’re doing as a language-learner. Sometimes a very educated person who speaks other languages is an absolute terrible person to speak with in Arabic, because they don’t adjust. For some reason, this guy who can’t even read gets it. Both my wife and I talk to him a lot. He comes by and has dinner.”

Said is one of the many people Hessler seems naturally drawn to—as both friends and sources. “Strange Stones has an essay about my former student Emily, one of tens of millions of migrants who has moved to a factory town. There’s another essay about a six-foot-seven American who spends all his time obsessively researching the Great Wall in a totally idiosyncratic way. I’m fascinated by people who are out of place but have created worlds of their own.” As a writer and traveler, Hessler has built up not just a robust body of international work, but a robust group of international friends who he stays in contact long after their stories are in print. “It’s part of the job, part of my responsibility as a writer. I’m not comfortable with becoming intensely involved in somebody’s life for a few months, writing the story, and never having contact with them again. Emily was sometimes concerned I was too much the foreigner analyzing the interesting Chinese person. You never have the right to do this. Even if you’re a good writer, good at talking, good at analyzing, it still doesn’t give you the right to take somebody’s life and put it on the page. When someone talks to you, it’s an act of generosity.”