Ways of Seeing

The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000-2020 BY Rachel Kushner. New York: Scribner. 272 pages. $26.
Rachel Kushner. Photo: Gabby Laurent

JULIA PAGNAMENTA: In a recent interview hosted by 192 Books, Ben Lerner observed that your essays in The Hard Crowd “resist psychological access.” You replied that any self-reflection missing from the essays was “intentional,” and that you were interested in analysis rather than in therapy. That the difference between the two models might play a role in the kind of “self-revelations” you were “willing to share.”

I thought of this exchange when reading “Popular Mechanics,” The Hard Crowd’s chapter on writer Nanni Balestrini, where you write about Alfonso Natella, the protagonist in his novel We Want Everything, which is about worker’s strikes and militancy in an Italian factory in 1969. You write, “To give Alfonso back his individuality would be to take away that very same individuality from all the nameless people to whom it came to belong.” Is this quote really about yourself, and the way in which you approach the writing process?

RACHEL KUSHNER: That conversation with Ben Lerner was fun for me, partly because he’s a friend, and partly because he has a probing and attentive manner as an interlocutor and conversationalist. He wants to know everything about people. Although I can’t say I have insight into what he meant about resistance to psychological access. But maybe I’m so resistant I can’t see this? My general orientation is that I face outward, toward the world. I’m not that interested in my psychological interior. Unless I’m writing fiction, in which case, it’s a hidden driver of the whole thing. But to brazenly write autobiography as though one can simply self-excavate and divulge, I’m distrustful of that, on account of the tendency to sift, organize, and present material to flatter oneself, or to believe that by explicitly not flattering oneself, that the person has abandoned the project of ego formation (it is never abandoned). But also, who cares about my psychological interior? I don’t desire to be “seen” by the reader. Instead, I want to see.

With fiction, it’s a bit different. I feel like I have an encounter with myself in a dark alley. Unplanned scenes and narratives emerge from the unconscious. Things just come up. Even when you can recognize in a writer’s novel aspects that might seem vaguely autobiographical, the details have taken on a new life, ideally to serve the organic logic of the story.

In terms of what Nanni Balestrini said about his hesitancy to talk about the actual biographical details of Alfonso’s life, I think what he’s saying is, the force of his artistic project, if it’s also a political project—and it’s both—is that he can borrow the granular particularity, and feel the soul of one man’s life, and let it stand for the lives of a multitude.

I interpreted that quote about Alfonso Natella as also being about the relationship between the readers and the author. Once the author writes the book, it no longer belongs to the writer. The readers project their own experiences onto the characters, and maybe there are certain omissions on the part of the writer that allow for the readers to form these connections in the first place.

That sounds right, in terms of why some books become popular, beloved, for giving a glimpse into an interior that readers feel is like their own, or lives that seem like their own. But with Alfonso it wasn’t exactly about readers, but all the nameless workers he represented, people who arrived at the idea of rejecting work. Not naming him isn’t about neutralizing specificity, but instead, lending that same specificity to every other worker of that era, who went north, worked at Fiat, lost their temper, decided they “wanted everything.” But of this book I wrote, and especially the title essay, “The Hard Crowd,” something of what you’re saying might be at play. I didn’t trot out details from my life to mark singularity and difference between me and other people. I did it in order to present some kind of structure that can be looked at and used. I invite the reader to sift and tally as I had done. I say it explicitly at the end of the essay, and it’s meant genuinely. I’m not the only one engaged in a project of thinking about how time works. We are all shaped and marked by scenes and experiences that are gone, and yet they do continue to exist somewhere—if only inside us.

In The Flamethrowers, Reno is so young and impressionable, and Sandro Valera, her boyfriend, has so much power and sway over her because of his age, appeal, money, and access. But when they travel to Lake Como in northern Italy to spend time with Sandro’s wealthy industrialist family, Gianni, the family estate’s groundskeeper, is introduced, and the power dynamic shifts. Reno is aware of Gianni’s gaze, and strips her of all her illusions of Sandro, in a way giving her character an agency she was previously lacking.

Well I think it’s that he is not simply a groundskeeper. Not to say that any groundskeeper can be reduced. He’s got a whole different story, and he’s on that property for reasons that she can’t access. While working on that novel, I was in Rome and Milan talking to Italian friends about the Autonomist movement and the 1970s, people who are all connected to that movement, and while everyone understood that I wanted to write a novel, and they were sympathetic to that, and thought the novel of Autonomia needed to be written, there were times in asking them questions that a silence or a refusal to answer a question, or an inability to answer a question, was itself a kind of answer. You know, was that person part of an armed movement or were they just involved in open demonstrations in the street?

And they wouldn’t answer?

No, and then you realize not everyone can quite be sorted that way. There were people who were involved in both. There’s this book called Memoirs of an Italian Terrorist by Giorgio (a pseudonym), about a guy who gets involved in an armed faction in the ’70s, probably Prima Linea although not made explicit—it’s not the Red Brigades, but an adjacent Leninist line—and what happens to him when he has to go underground. It’s an amazing text, very calmly and coldly narrated, about how difficult and tedious and lonely it is to be a fugitive in Italy in the 1970s. I was thinking of that kind of anonymity and secretiveness, the calculated calm of a militancy, maybe, when I wrote that character Gianni.

Reno is sensitive enough to know that she’s not getting the full story of who Gianni is, but feels the force of his presence, his secretiveness, nonetheless.

What was the reception of The Flamethrowers in Italy?

It got a lot of coverage, which was great. I did a lot of press there. There are a lot of people who work in media of that generation, the Movement of ’77, who were happy to engage and to see their political moment form the core of a novel. There was a recognition by the people who lived it that the book as a portrait seemed accurate to them, and that made me feel good. One of the papers, I can’t remember which, maybe La Repubblica, ran this strange article before the book came out in Italian, with the headline “Who Has Been Talking to Rachel Kushner?” Because I knew things that weren’t public knowledge. Later, there was someone, maybe the son of a reactionary judge who was kidnapped by the Red Brigades, who wrote an angry piece about the book giving a platform to armed insurrection or something like that. Understandable. But it wasn’t a literary critique, so it didn’t really concern me.

In “Popular Mechanics,” you write, “The concept of collecting the stories of workers, the idea that their accounts of work and of their lives would be essential to any revolutionary process, goes all the way back to Marx’s 1880 worker’s questionnaire.” In that interview with Ben Lerner, you said you catalogue stories. I thought of this in the title chapter of The Hard Crowd. There is this cataloging of the people you met and worked with in your early youth in San Francisco. Is there an association between the worker’s questionnaire and this essay?

Not at all. That essay is about my life, and the people I’ve encountered. Whereas the idea of a worker’s questionnaire is about interviewing, highlighting, and giving a platform to the workers themselves in a process of subjectivization, shall we call it, where workers can become true political subjects, and take part in this larger process of working toward a revolutionary horizon. There is this idea in Marx’s conception that there is a split between those who theorize the revolution, who are always educated people, and those who are participants in it, which would be the proletariat.

The divide that I am interested in, and that I try to tease out in that essay, is totally different. It’s between being somebody who later becomes a writer among people who didn’t become writers and would not have become writers. The writer later makes indelible the details of the scene, the moment, what people said, and to be able to do that suggests a distance of some kind—even if it isn’t obvious, when you’re in the moment, what that distance is. I love to listen to other people talk, and to pay close attention to cadence. It’s partly why I love writing dialogue. Also, so many of the people I’ve met in my life, I think of as having star quality. I let them shine on me, and have their effect, and then part of the pleasure of being a writer is to pay homage to my friends later, to people I’ve known, or even just somebody that I met in a few minutes. That essay is about the fact that I seem to continue to talk to people and be immersed in scenes and places that I will never see again. And that’s quite different than a political program, going into a factory to find out how factory workers feel about their bosses.

But there are other essays in the book that are closer to a project of inquiry, where I’m somewhat absent as a figure, and in particular for instance the one I wrote about Shuafat Refugee Camp, in East Jerusalem, and Baha Nababta, who was my host there, who showed me around and explained life in the camp, and introduced me to people, and invited me to stay with his family. I was concentrating on trying to take in and understand everything that was around me, and that was the focus of my essay: I didn’t really matter to it all, and I believe anyone who’d been in my place might have reacted to that place and those people as I did. There was nothing personal or biased in my impressions, they were more raw than that.

I guess I asked that question because I felt as I was reading “The Hard Crowd” that you were part of the world you were describing, and yet at a remove. Is that fair to say?

The remove seems only to be the fact that I wrote about it. But while living it there was no remove. What I write about in that essay is the world I lived in, in San Francisco. My neighborhood, the Sunset, whose kid-culture in the ’80s is hard to describe to people who weren’t there for it. The brutality and violence of school. The renegade bohemianism of SF in the ’90s, even if it was a provincial bohemianism. The Tenderloin, where I worked. I was fully there for all of it. But in the act of writing about it, I’m open to the notion that writing itself installs a retroactive distance. But it might be merely the distance of having thoughts and feelings that are private, interior—and that everyone secretly has those. A lot of people got in touch with me after that essay was excerpted in the New Yorker. It was kind of overwhelming. The SF I write about is common to a whole generation of people who went to public school in SF in the ’80s.

In Michelangelo Pistoletto’s 1975 conceptual piece La Conferenza, the artist writes about his own piece, A speaker stands in front of an audience made up of twenty people. Everyone is given a camera. The audience photographs the lecturer and at the same time the lecturer photographs the audience. At the end we have the image of the lecturer reproduced twenty times, while the whole audience has been reproduced in a single image, the one taken by the lecturer. This is a photograph of authoritarian power: the whole of the public is concentrated in the person of the speaker, while the person of the speaker is multiplied by the number of people in the audience.”

Pistoletto’s piece is about totalitarian power, so the analogy might not fit in this context, but it made me think about the ways in which a writer’s wider readership will always remain, to some extent, an abstract amorphous entity to them, while instead each one of the author’s readers has a distinct and individual relationship with the writer. There is a power dynamic at play.

I would have to think about this more. I mostly know Pistoletto’s mirror works because Beatrice Monti, who runs a writers residency outside of Florence, had a big Pistoletto in her living room—she is the figure in the frame in the mirror, if I recall—but whoever was in the living room was also captured in the frame in the mirror. A lot of Pistoletto’s work is about whether or not there is an intersubjective asymmetry between viewer and viewed.

Maybe the logic of this piece that you’ve just described—and that I have not seen, am not familiar with—relies on the idea of a visual field like the panorama of an audience as one block? It’s one single image. But when you write a book eventually it goes into the hands of individual readers who don’t form one field. And yet it seems like your question suggests, do they form one field in the mind of the writer when she’s writing?


I don’t think about readers, especially when I’m writing novels. It just doesn’t occur to me because I am already the audience. The reader, so abstract as to be useless, can’t tell me how to activate my sensibility in order to make something artful and true. Only I can figure that out.

The wider readership is abstract, but do you write for a reader you know? Is there an attachment to someone else’s gaze as you write?

I don’t think so, no. I try to have this engagement, an experience, using my writing as my filter onto the world to try to understand it, and that’s the only objective. It’s almost like a closed system, it does not include any reader, individual, group, crowd, mob. But in terms of gaze, I was struck, while putting this book together, by a line from a Clarice Lispector novel, and ended up using it as an epigraph, because of the way it suggests that an audience does shape a person. Lispector says, “What others get from me is then reflected back onto me, and forms the atmosphere called: ‘I.’” The line to me was less about writing and more about persona. Putting yourself on the cover of your book, etc. And maybe how some fantasy of the effect of one’s persona on others comes back, and inflects essay writing, narrative autobiography, tone generally. As in, “I’m aware that you’re aware of the impression I’m making on you, and also, the one I’m attempting to make on you.”

In The Hard Crowd’s essay “Lipstick Traces,” you write that you discovered the writer Clarice Lispector through Hélène Cixous’s essays, and you admit you almost wish you had not been introduced to Lispector through this intermediary. And yet readers discover new authors and texts via the interpretation and critique of other writers all the time, a role you yourself take on when you write about, say, Denis Johnson or even Lispector.

Hélène Cixous wrote about Clarice Lispector early on, and so there were some of us who came to Lispector’s work through Cixous, and it was at a time when French theory had hit the United States. I remember reading Cixous, and I thought, How am I going to understand this deconstructionist literary criticism without knowing the authors she’s writing about? I started reading Lispector, but I think what I meant—maybe—in mentioning that in my essay on Lispector, is that Lispector was, at first, connected, for me, to this Derridean world. And no shade on Derrida—he was my husband’s dissertation adviser—but Lispector herself doesn’t come from that world. She’s kind of a mystic-philosopher who is untrained, a seer who knows things. And to read her directly is an experience outside of those intellectual Parisian circles that Hélène Cixous, who apparently sat in the front row of Lacan’s lectures, was part of.

But beyond Cixous, what I think I was trying to say is that you’ve introduced authors, like Italian writer Nanni Balestrini, to an English-speaking audience who might not have heard of him. So you are introducing new writers and ideas to your readers.

It is a privilege to be able to do that. If my minor interventions result in more people reading Balestrini, or seeing the movie Anna, which just screened on the Metrograph’s site, that is amazing.

But it’s a little different than Cixous in that I am not an intellectual and don’t come out of an intellectual school of ideas. It’s just me and my taste and interests, and if my taste also appeals to other people, and I can direct other people to their work, great.

You are using your platform to introduce people to a larger audience.

I think about that a lot. Whether it’s smaller presses, struggling writers, important topics, etc., I try to use my platform strategically.

For instance, writing about Ruth Wilson Gilmore and carceral geography in the New York Times Magazine, that was a very conscious effort on my part to expose a really broad readership to Gilmore’s brilliance and to the basic tenants of prison abolition.

Were you thinking of the abolitionist movement as you were writing The Mars Room?

I’d say no, because novels to me aren’t political or social proscriptions, but something else.

I had finished writing The Mars Room before I wrote that long profile of Ruth Wilson Gilmore. I had read her book Golden Gulag, which goes a long way to explain how California’s economy works and how state revenue is produced and what happens in cycles of boom and bust, cycles of drought, how prison unions work, which populations are subjected to incarceration, and why we ended up with so many prisons hidden deep in the central valley’s industrial farmland. But my own experience writing what I consider “my California novel,” included seeing the full in-person version of a world whose mechanics and complexities Gilmore explains. I was in the affective reality of it, the symptoms, unexplained. Inside prisons that are inside almond orchards, surrounded by billboards decrying the need for water subsidies. In chain motels that were built to support the economy of beleaguered family members visiting their incarcerated, in towns that got promised jobs with their new prison, but got, instead, a draw off their ground water by the prison’s wells. I live right near a huge jail, Twin Towers, and the criminal courts on Temple Street. I was—am—immersed in writing about what I notice and see. I don’t believe abolition played a role in writing The Mars Room. Abolition is a political and social (and environmental) project and a vision for a better world, and the novel isn’t a vision for a better world, but an occasion for profound doubt, and my attempt to think into morally complex topics. Art is its own category.

And actually, I believe that it’s not a coincidence that Ruthie Gilmore herself is a voracious reader of novels.

You write about institutions throughout your essays in The Hard Crowd. When you write about Gilmore you are writing about the carceral system, in Anna, the film’s title character had been hospitalized. You write about the Shuafat Refugee Camp in East Jerusalem, which is run by the city—

It is not run by the city of Jerusalem. It’s technically inside their borders, but Shuafat has no city infrastructure, no electricity, water, no garbage pickup or emergency services.

Who runs the camp?

Technically the United Nations administers one small part of it, but really no one runs it, which is why I was told by someone I met there that they are “orphans.” There is a volunteer emergency response team that was started by Baha Nababta, who I write about. He was a community organizer there, much beloved, who was murdered in the street fifteen days after I stayed with him and his family.

I don’t know if you would consider Shuafat an institution then, but there is this undercurrent of the role of institutions in your writing, and their roles as totalizing presences or inversely completely lacking in formal organization.

I was aware of various echoes in the essays of The Hard Crowd of what poor Vincenzo Mazza [the electrician in the film Anna]—who was later murdered in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome when trying to intervene to protect a woman who was being beaten by her husband in the street—Vincenzo says, “Hospitals, prison, and barracks are like this. Once you’re in, you’re screwed.” Another essay in the book is on prison abolition. So, it’s true, I am interested in institutions, partly because they are a phenomenon that says something about how people behave in groups—in prisons, monasteries, ships—which I write about in the essay “Bad Captains.” If in the ancient writ of the sea the ship captain is meant to leave his ship last, we now live in an era when the captain leaves first.

I guess institutions are mysterious because they come with a set of codes that have to be learned, that aren’t obvious, some of which are inscrutable, or even invisible until you violate them.

“Bunny,” about your friend Alex Brown, reads like your most personal essay in The Hard Crowd. You write, “Fiction is mysterious and can obscure its sources, even from its author, and I didn’t realize until recently how many details, and how much of Alex, is in that book [The Flamethrowers].” What did you mean by that?

Well you can write a character, and have the character say and do things, and only realize later where some of it came from. As I say in that essay “Bunny,” Alex had a lot to do with the direction that my life took, in terms of knowing people in the art world and thinking about artists and their personalities, and the way that sometimes part of what people make is a social performance, and they are enacting it on the people around them. Although it wasn’t just through Alex that I got this sense, but when a friend dies, you start to catalogue their impact on your life and on the world.

Alex was probably the funniest person I ever met, and some of his sense of humor was activated in the character of Ronnie Fontaine in The Flamethrowers. But then again, that character was also inspired by other people I knew. At least as I write fiction, the characters are never real people. There is no roman à clef. Characters are amalgamations, but the effect is not amalgamated, at least to my mind. Instead, the made-up person has organic unity, feels and sounds “real,” and that’s probably why some of the sourcing gets obscured. The thing you make rises up and blots out the disordered and unconscious list of ingredients that helped to make it.

Julia Pagnamenta is a fact-checker and researcher living in New York.