By Leah Dieterich
Garth Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You, which won the British Book Award for Debut Book of the Year, was longlisted for the National Book Award, and was a finalist for six other awards. His new book, Cleanness, picks up where What Belongs to You left off. We follow the same narrator, a gay American ex-pat teaching high school in Bulgaria, through a variety of anonymous sexual experiences as well as a reckoning with love lost. While the book is at times brutal and explicit, it is also unspeakably tender. Many of the interviews Greenwell has done begin with questions about writing sex, an act which he calls “one of our most charged forms of communication,” so I wanted to break new ground and ask first about his love of language, particularly foreign language.
The Coachella Review: I’ve heard you mention the importance of reading outside the English language, but I’m particularly interested in the experience of speaking in another language. In the second story in Cleanness, “Gospodar,” you write, “There were things I could say in his language, because I spoke it poorly … as if there were something in me unreachable in my own language ….” I’d love to hear you talk about your attraction to foreign languages and how it relates to your becoming a writer.
Bulgaria was my first experience of living in another language and I loved that. I love what my consciousness feels like when I’m living in another language. I love the way that other language seeps into my English. I think there are formulations and rhythms in What Belongs to You and Cleanness that I owe to Bulgarian.
Garth Greenwell: The first foreign language I learned was French. I learned French in high school when I went to the Interlochen Arts Academy. It was the very brilliant and very demanding drill sergeant of a teacher who made me fall in love with French, made me fall in love with the experience of slowly acquiring a language. In university I was studying voice, so I studied Italian and French. German I learned fairly well, although I’ve forgotten it, but I didn’t learn another language until I went to Bulgaria. Bulgaria was my first experience of living in another language and I loved that. I love what my consciousness feels like when I’m living in another language. I love the way that other language seeps into my English. I think there are formulations and rhythms in What Belongs to You and Cleanness that I owe to Bulgarian.
TCR: What languages do you speak on a regular basis?
GG: My partner is Spanish, so the language of our household is Spanish. It’s crucial to me—and this is something my partner and I have spoken about—I have to have a life in a language that’s not English. I feel really sad if I don’t, and if we were not bound to Iowa City, I would be elsewhere. I also learned Portuguese once upon a time, so if I had my druthers, I would be living in Lisbon or Latin America or something, but at least our social life in Iowa City is mostly Spanish because of my partner’s colleagues. I read in Spanish and French. My Bulgarian is getting very rusty. When I go back, it takes me a week before I can really function in the language, which is funny because I’ve learned more Bulgarian than any of the other languages, but because I learned it in my thirties, it goes too fast. I can go months without speaking French and it’s still right there because I learned it when I was sixteen.
My first real experience of foreign languages was listening to opera. I was so desperate for the anti-Kentucky when I was a kid. That’s what opera was for me, and that’s what French was for me.
TCR: I’ve often wondered if language learning is akin to having “a good ear” in music, which seems like an innate thing. On the other hand, maybe it’s bred from the desire to have access to more forms of communication.
GG: I think there’s a connection to being able to pronounce other languages. I can’t imagine learning a language if I couldn’t hear it. I think that often, when people say they can’t learn languages, I think that means they have no access to the music of the language. My first real experience of foreign languages was listening to opera. I was so desperate for the anti-Kentucky when I was a kid. That’s what opera was for me, and that’s what French was for me.
TCR: What about writing in another language? Beckett said that he wrote in French out of a “need to be ill equipped,” and Jhumpa Lahiri wrote In Other Words in Italian, a language she learned in college, saying it was the first time she felt the freedom to express herself as she wanted to. “I can demolish myself,” she said in an interview. “I can reconstruct myself.”
GG: Oh, that’s great.
TCR: Have you ever considered writing in another language?
GG: I haven’t ever written in another language seriously, but that experience of what Lahiri said about being demolished, I think that’s something that the narrator of both of my books wants pretty explicitly.
TCR: There are many instances in Cleanness of the desire to “be nothing” or to be made an object, particularly in “Gospodar” and “The Little Saint,” but also at the end of the title section when the narrator tells R, “I love you, anything I am you have use for is yours.” I’m curious to hear your thoughts about how the desire for obliteration of the self relates to writing, particularly writing in an autobiographical way.
GG: I think artmaking on the one hand is an assertion of the self and an attempt to kind of cement the self and make something that will outlast the self, but I think that in general, the art that I care about, which is art that I feel is made out of the fullness of someone’s personhood, has to be in constant correspondence with the abyss. There’s something quite narcissistic about artmaking, but it also seems to me that there’s also this desire to obliterate the self or court obliteration in the kind of writing I do. I was not super conscious of it until the last year or so when I returned to the writings of the mystics. They had been really important to me twenty years ago. I was working on a conversation with a theologian about St. Augustine, and returning to all that reading made me experience again just how deeply negative theology is rooted in me. A technology for the dissolution of the self. The idea being that, if one dissolves the self, one becomes a vessel for something beyond the self. That is pretty deep in my idea of art, that one of the things art can accommodate is a kind of technology for ecstasy, and ecstasy is, in my understanding of it, a temporary obliteration of the self, like orgasm is a temporary obliteration of the self. One of the things the mystic writers did was develop these syntactical tools so that the sentences themselves could become like an attempt to create a launch pad into infinity. They kind of rev up the self. An image the narrator of Cleanness uses in “The Frog King” is the idea of “tuning the self,” which I think I first got from John Donne. There’s a poem where he talks about trying to tune himself to the pitch of angels. It’s funny because that’s at once art as a technology of self-making, and also in a sort of mystical paradox, self-making as self-obliteration, because the self one wants to be made into requires an evacuation of the self one is.
TCR: One of the identities your narrator has is that of Teacher. In “Mentor,” you write that the worst thing about teaching is that “our actions either have no force at all or have force beyond all intention.” Tell me about your path toward becoming a teacher. Did it feel like a calling or a necessity?
That first year, I did not feel called to be a teacher, but I did feel that I had stumbled upon a vocation, like something in me did answer to some demand for hope my students had of what they would find in me. … There was a way that the relationships I had with students, the conversations I would have, were supercharged with significance in a way that nothing else in my life was, and that was intoxicating. I rediscovered literature through them.
GG: My path to high school teaching was that I became desperately unhappy in my Ph.D. program and wanted to leave and was investigating possibilities for at least taking a year off. There was a placement agency for independent schools that recruited in my Ph.D. program, and I signed up in this very half-hearted way, and then I got a call from this school in Ann Arbor. It was very late in the season. I think they had lost a teacher somehow, and they were desperate. I was hugely unqualified, but they gave me a job. That first year, I did not feel called to be a teacher, but I did feel that I had stumbled upon a vocation, like something in me did answer to some demand for hope my students had of what they would find in me. That first year was a radical reorientation of my life towards other people. I had always been very solitary and very disconnected from other people, and all of a sudden, I discovered resources for love in me that I had never known I could have, and that felt so meaningful to me. There was a way that the relationships I had with students, the conversations I would have, were supercharged with significance in a way that nothing else in my life was, and that was intoxicating. I rediscovered literature through them. They thought Paradise Lost was “so cool” and that was fabulous. I was teaching a British literature survey, and all we read were The Miller’s Tale in Middle English, Othello, and part of Paradise Lost. And then they memorized eight of Shakespeare’s sonnets over the course of the year. That was it! Like, no novels. No works by women ….
TCR: Was that a curriculum you wrote?
GG: Yeah. We had the Norton Anthology and we could do whatever we wanted, but that first year, it was so much fun to sort of go line by line through Othello with them, and that’s what we did. We just did that! So obviously that was disastrous, but also really powerful. I feel so close to these kids I had that first year because all I did was teach them. That was all I did. I didn’t write a word that whole year.
TCR: How has teaching changed for you over time?
GG: I had a really wonderful three years in Ann Arbor, and then I went to Bulgaria and those years were different. It was a much more regimented curriculum so I couldn’t design my own classes and teach my passions. There’s more distance between teachers and students in Bulgaria. But there was also the fact that I was openly queer, and no other adults were. The demands placed on me felt more intense. In Ann Arbor, I was totally blindsided by the fact that students would come and tell me the heaviest shit, you know? And expect me to help them.
TCR: How old were you?
GG: I was 26. I was like, Oh my god, what do I do with this? But my classroom was right next door to the school therapist, and she and I became really dear friends. And it was the most amazing thing, because I knew when something got too heavy, I could just say to a student, “Let’s go next door.” And she was grateful because students were often reluctant to talk to her, but if I said to a student, “I will go with you, I will sit with you,” I knew that no matter what they brought, she knew how to handle it. In Bulgaria there was nothing like that. When students came to me with heavy stuff, I felt like there was nowhere I could turn for support. Bulgaria was amazing, and I had very close and meaningful relationships with students, but by the fourth year I was so exhausted. It was my seventh year of high school teaching, and I knew that I could not continue to be a good teacher. I also knew that I had to try to be an artist. I’d written What Belongs to You, I had this manuscript, and I thought, I’ll never find out what I can do as an artist if I keep teaching high school full time.
TCR: So you wrote What Belongs to You in Bulgaria, and then you went to the Iowa Writers Workshop for fiction, right? How did you come to that decision?
GG: I was desperate to reset my life with writing at the center and was thinking about what that might mean. I also had this manuscript that I had written, and I wanted it to have a life in the world, and I had no idea how you went about publishing fiction. I had no idea what an agent was. And I thought, Okay, how could I accomplish both of those things? The obvious thing was to do an MFA program. I didn’t want to do an MFA program. I already had an MFA in poetry. I didn’t want to go back to graduate school. I didn’t want to go back to the United States. But I applied to Iowa, it was the only program I applied to, and I thought, well this is the place that will give me those things. It styles itself as half academic program, half artist’s residency. I knew it was a place where agents and editors came all the time, so I went pretty cynically. I remember getting the call from Sam Chang. They offered me a fellowship, which meant I could have a break from teaching for the first time in a decade, and I leapt! My cynicism fell away quickly because my first workshop was extraordinary. I mean, my cohort was Jamel Brinkley and Novuyo Rosa Tshuma and Fatima Farheen Mirza. I was like, Holy shit, these are real writers. I left with a handful of friends I will carry with me through my whole life. My backup plan [if I hadn’t gotten into Iowa] was to teach one more year, at which point I could qualify for a long-term visa which would free me from the need for an employer sponsor. I planned to take the money that I’d saved, which was not very much money, and go to the Black Sea coast and just write as long as I could. That is a parallel life.
TCR: Speaking of parallel lives, in other interviews you’ve mentioned how your opera training informed the structure of Cleanness, but I’d love to hear more about the training itself. Did you perform? And if so, how does that experience inform your writing?
GG: I did perform, quite a bit, but I never loved it. I was always scared. And it was a kind of stage fright that did not feel energizing. I loved making music with my friends. My favorite thing was to work with composers and help make new music. But getting in front of an audience and singing, I didn’t love that. It’s funny, I almost never feel nervous at a reading. Occasionally, if I’m reading difficult material, I will feel nervous, and I’ll tell myself, This is nothing like singing. It can’t go as wrong as singing Don Giovanni can go wrong. I think I have a pretty good sense of what drama is, and that doesn’t just come from performing, that comes from studying music. My sense of how you build intensity and what it means for a work of art to structure an emotional journey, all of that for me comes from opera and art song. That is the structure that makes sense for me for Cleanness. That was my whole life for many years.
TCR: Did you think opera would be your profession?
TCR: How did you decide that it wasn’t going to be your profession?
GG: That was a slow, difficult thing. I came to accept what felt like limitations in my instrument, which frustrated me. I was confronted with it, especially when I went to the Eastman School and when I met the person who is my best friend still, a conductor named Alan Pierson. He was my primary relationship for a long time. He conducts an ensemble called Alarm Will Sound in New York and is a genius. Music is really his first language. I remember going on a long car ride with him when he was studying Ligeti’s First Piano Concerto. It is burned into my brain because of the way he was studying it and the realization that the music conveyed much more information to him than it ever would to me. There were things that I knew I would never hear and ways that music would never speak to me. I knew that singers didn’t have to engage with music in that way, but it made me so sad, to feel like my life was centered on this thing that I couldn’t engage with the fullness of my being. I was lucky at Eastman. My teacher, John Maloy, was a very fine lieder singer and took poetry seriously, and that led me to try writing my own poetry. And then fortuitously, just as I was becoming frustrated with the distance I felt from a kind of intellectual engagement with music, I took this poetry class at the University of Rochester, and I found very quickly that I could engage in that deep way with poems. For whatever reason, the architecture of a poem was visible to me. I found it so intoxicating, making something out of nothing. It still feels like utter magic to me. That allowed me to leave music without too much grief because I was launching myself into this other art form, but it was a big deal. I had to leave the school because I lost all my scholarships. My father wasn’t going to pay for my schooling, so I got a full scholarship at SUNY Purchase, and that’s where I finished.
It is a mystery to me, what my writing life is going to look like when I’m able to recommit myself to fiction. My hope is constantly that somehow I will be able to live more on my own terms. I dream of having the kind of discipline I had when I was teaching high school, but in a situation of greater freedom and more time. Obviously, I’m so lucky in so many ways, but I don’t have a routine, and for me routine is necessary for writing—it’s the crucial thing.
TCR: I want to hear about your writing practice, and especially how you wrote Cleanness.
GG: When I was in graduate school, during my Ph.D. and my MFA in poetry, I would go weeks without writing and then lock myself up and write a poem and not shower for five days and just work, and that felt fine. When I started teaching high school, I went that first year without writing a word, and I thought, Oh shit! If I’m gonna write, I’ve got to make it a priority, and so for the next six years, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. every day, and I wrote for two hours before classes. That was the most disciplined I’ve ever been and probably the most productive I’ve ever been. When I came to Iowa, that all fell apart because I didn’t have to do it. It has been a struggle to have a writing practice. I was lucky—I probably had about half of Cleanness written, although I don’t know that I had the title, and I don’t know how far along I was in understanding what the book would be or the structure of it. But I had about four or five of the chapters written when What Belongs to You was published. The next two years were basically a lot of travel and events, figuring out what it means to be a writer in the world and a writer getting some attention after twenty years of no attention. It took me a long time to write the rest of Cleanness even after I had a sense of what the book would be. And it’s been a year and a half since I’ve written fiction. Part of that is financial. My partner and I bought a house and it had a lot of surprises, and we’ve had a couple of financially difficult years, so I’ve been teaching a lot and writing a lot of nonfiction and doing a lot of gigs and all of that. It is a mystery to me, what my writing life is going to look like when I’m able to recommit myself to fiction. My hope is constantly that somehow I will be able to live more on my own terms. I dream of having the kind of discipline I had when I was teaching high school, but in a situation of greater freedom and more time. Obviously, I’m so lucky in so many ways, but I don’t have a routine, and for me routine is necessary for writing—it’s the crucial thing. I hope that a routine will come back. I’ve taken a full-time teaching job for next year and maybe that will be a kind of routine. I don’t know what my writing life is going to look like. I hope I find out sometime soon.
TCR: This might be a bit of an inane question, but you name your characters by their first initial. What draws you to do that? Is there a precedent or a tradition for that?
GG: There are a lot of modernist books that do that, especially in central Europe. As an aesthetic effect, the sort of projecting of reality or of non-fictionality is interesting to me.
TCR: The effect of trying to conceal an identity.
GG: Exactly. And a sense of protectiveness toward the characters. Many of the encounters in Cleanness are people telling intimate, often painful things. The real answer is that I just feel a resistance to giving characters names. I can give them nicknames, but there’s just something in me—and I don’t understand it—there’s a way in which I feel very protective of urge in making art. Thinking analytically about other people’s art is central to my life as an artist, but I actually try to shield myself from that in my own work. I do see that kind of analytical engagement as a kind of training, building muscles and reflexes that then, when you write your own work, you hope all of that is assimilated into this really complex sense of pleasure. And so, all I feel like I’m doing when I’m making my work, and the only kind of knowledge I can have about what is right or what is not right in my work, is what gives me pleasure. It’s not even that it gives me pleasure [not to name my characters], but that giving them names would be such a violation of that principle of pleasure. I don’t know why. I really don’t. I have a better sense of other eccentricities, like why I don’t use quotation marks, or the kind of sentences I use, or why I write in forty-page paragraphs. But the names, it’s just obeying what feels to me like a kind of necessity.
TCR: In “Decent People,” you write about the narrator encountering one of his students at a protest. “I hadn’t joined in any of the chants, even though I felt moved; it wasn’t my place, but I was sorry when M. fell silent too.” I was struck by his feeling that it was “not his place” to chant at the protest even though he felt moved and wanted to demonstrate solidarity. Can you talk a little about what you think is lost or gained when people who are not directly affected by a movement excuse themselves from participation despite having the impulse to participate?
GG: I think that’s one of the deep questions of the book. I think that question is engaged in any encounter with another person. How do we gauge what is solidarity? What is imposition? I think in “Mentor” one of the things that happens is he is too constrained, and maybe this is true in “Decent People.” He fears he’s too concerned with a sense of propriety, of not wanting to cross over into someone else’s experience, and that, in fact, is morally limiting. But then there’s also “An Evening Out,” where he worries he goes too far in the other direction and imposes himself in a way that might do harm and might be a violation of values that he holds very dear. I think, interpersonally, that’s a question in the book, and then culturally, that’s really a question in everything I’ve written. What does it mean to be a foreigner in a place? What does it mean to be in a foreign place you love? What does it mean to be a foreigner in a place you love where you are intimately, ethically, intricate with young people? What does it mean to be a foreigner in a country you love, whose language you’ve learned, where you have been part of activism for a despised minority group? Those are questions that, to me, are not answerable. I think you could look page by page and make decisions about where does [the narrator] get it right, where does he get it wrong. To me, the last page of “Decent People” feels like a place where he gets it right, where he says, I am utterly useless, I can’t do anything, I can’t be the Big American. I’m just going to sit and be with these people and just wait with them. That feels right to me. He’s constantly coming up against this limitation. The thing to me that feels really tragic, though, is that I do think as a culture, we in America, in liberal America, in left-leaning America, are becoming over-attached to a sense of our own purity. This sense that engagement is always so morally compromised that it is better to disengage. I don’t think disengagement is a morally acceptable option. I think one has to struggle with the always-compromised position of trying to be mindful and thoughtful about engagement, but also finally saying, We are all neck deep in the shit together, and I have to act as best I can to try to alleviate the suffering I see, even though that engagement will never be morally pure, will never be unproblematic. That it is better to be problematic than to be passive in the face of suffering.
Leah Dieterich is the author of the memoir Vanishing Twins: A Marriage (Softskull, 2018) which was short-listed for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award and thxthxthx: thank goodness for everything (Andrews McMeel, 2011). Her essays and short fiction have been featured in Lenny Letter, Lit Hub, Bomb Magazine, Buzzfeed Reader, and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon.