Interview: Arna Bontemps Hemenway
Every now and then a debut comes along that simply stuns its reader. We felt this way about Arna Bontemps Hemenway’s collection, Elegy on Kinderklavier, from Sarabande Books. Editor Andrew Wetzel discusses the collection with Hemenway, which is described by his publisher as a disquieting exploration of loss in wartime. What’s clear from our interview is how taken Andrew was with Hemenway’s stories, which should be an indicator to you, dear readers, that this debut is something special, and is a story collection that should not be missed.
This interview originally appeared in The Masters Review.
Although the stories in your debut collection Elegy on Kinderklavier focus on war and the shadow it casts on the individuals involved and their families, you certainly don’t stick to one writing style or category. “The IED,” my favorite piece in the book, manages to subtly combine a handful of angles and writing styles without feeling gimmicky. Another outstanding story, the Tartar Steppe-esque “The Territory of Grief,” leaves the present reality and veers into, I don’t know how one might categorize it, PoliSciFi? Is varying your style important to your writing approach, or was it a necessity in writing a themed collection?
Well, basically, I think when I started writing these stories, I was really tired of a certain kind of short fiction—both reading it and trying to write it. A great deal of what I was seeing (in magazines, in anthologies, in workshop) seemed to have been bled of its imagination (meant here as a kind of appetite), more or less. I began to notice that the fiction that really interested me as a reader was in some way alive to the modern possibilities of style and form. I wanted to write stories that were responsive to that potential, if that makes sense.
But also, I had developed a strong belief that in order to write meaningful, realistic fiction about something as definitively modern as a twenty-first century war, you really had to try to escape the way people had been writing short stories for the last fifty years. It started that way: Iraq as a subject struck me as fundamentally different than anything that had ever come before, so it required at least the attempt to form one’s stories differently.
I think this idea sort of expanded in my head to include all modern trauma. I’ve heard that The Tartar Steppe was important for Coetzee in writing Waiting for the Barbarians; one thing those books are about, for me, is questioning the reader’s narrative expectation, or maybe highlighting the discrepancy between a reader’s narrative expectation and an honest fiction about the current age. That they are also, in many ways, very strange books is not incidental. For my own stories, I wanted to try and get out into that territory that is maybe not dictated by what has become traditional narrative expectation. One of my teachers at the time, Kevin Brockmeier, helped a lot, as did reading the work of a couple of my classmates who seemed interested in something similar and were doing it a lot better than I was.
But, to be honest, a lot of my varying of style or approach probably just comes from how quickly I get sick of myself.
Your bio mentions your large family and somewhat nomadic upbringing. But it doesn’t explicitly mention your connection to the military world. Were you in the armed forces? Was one of your family members? Or was it just a fascination that spurred this incredible collection?
Fascination is a good word for it. I don’t really have a close connection to the military world. But I do write mostly research-based fiction, and I think it was mostly that which fed the fascination. DARPA is basically the closest real world correlative of a writer’s imaginative energy, for instance. And you had a situation with the war in Iraq where that kind of experiential possibility was creating this historical supernova made up of so many different individual human narratives collapsing into one another. And it seemed like nobody was talking about it! Or you’d get people writing fiction about it, but in these very traditional ways that seemed to me closer to nonfiction than the possibilities of fiction. So I tried (and mostly failed) to do something different with it, a bit. I don’t really think I particularly succeeded. But I think it’s important to at least try.
As you might imagine, I get this question a lot. Lately I’ve been wondering if the natural expectation we’ve developed of war fiction to emanate most meaningfully from personal experience isn’t a problem. I mean, clearly, for the twentieth century this has been a great guide—Vonnegut, O’Brien, etcetera—but I wonder if even that by itself isn’t reason enough why it’s maybe not the right lodestar now. War isn’t war anymore. But who knows. This is not exactly a popular thing to say out loud. And I know that most writers—veterans or not—are just trying to find their way through.
War fiction obviously occupies an important corner of the American Literature canon, and with the recent accolades for Kevin Powers (The Yellow Birds), Phil Klay (Redeployment), and Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn), it maintains a presence on shop shelves and bestseller lists as well. But beyond the Dalton Trumbos, Ernest Hemingways, and Tim O’Briens that populate many required HS/college reading lists, are there any war novels or stories that feel particularly under-read to you, anything you’d put on your dream syllabus?
One thing my writer friends usually laugh at me about is my insistence that Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien is actually better than The Things They Carried. I mean, they’re both good and The Things They Carried is the better crafted book, but I think Cacciato’s messy writing and form is more honest in portraying war than The Things They Carried’s cool narrative calculation. For me, the continuing popularity of The Things They Carried is proof of this. That’s just me though.
Europe Central by William T. Vollman is fantastic and won the National Book Award, but nobody reads it because it’s really long and somewhat insane. To me that’s kind of an indicator as to how true it is. I remember reading it all one summer and finally finishing it and being really excited to talk to someone about it, but then not being able to find a single other person who’d read it. And that was in super-literate Iowa City. Now, most people I meet haven’t even heard of it.
I think The Quiet American by Graham Greene is also a great war novel, though I’d say the parts of it that are most about war are the parts that purport to be about everything else. Beaufort by Ron Leshem is good for its earnestness. There are a handful of novels that I think are pretty good war novels in disguise—Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, for instance, or Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee.
But if I could only choose one novel for an Alien visitor or curious person to read, it’d be To the End of the Land by David Grossman, a universe of war and humanity unto itself. That should be required reading for anyone who wants to live on this earth, in my opinion.
Interviewed by Andrew Wetzel