Talking with Norm Rush

An interview by Ron Singer (Nigeria 1964–67)

    Note: This is our second interview with Norman Rush. The first, by John Coyne, appeared in the January, 1992 of our newsletter, RPCV Writers & Readers.

BORN AND RAISED IN THE SAN FRANCISCO AREA, Norman Rush went to prison as a conscientious objector during the Korean War. After graduating from Swarthmore College in 1956, Rush worked as an antiquarian book dealer and college teacher. During those years, he published poetry (Chelsea) and fiction (Massachusetts Review, Paris Review, New Yorker). From 1979 to 1983, Rush and his wife, Elsa, were the Peace Corps’ first co-directors, serving in Botswana. During those years and on two subsequent trips, Rush traveled widely in Africa, visiting Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, Togo, and the Ivory Coast. From those experiences came Whites (1986), a story collection, and Mating, the 1991 National Book Award winner for fiction. Since 1991, Rush has published magazine essays, including “Norman Rush Contemplates the Bust of Socialism” (The Nation), and, following a 1985 visit to South Africa, “The Unrest” (Grand Street). He has also been the subject of reviews and interviews, among which is Jean Herskovits’ “Culture Maker: Norman Rush” (Culturefront). For the last several years, Rush has been working on the third book in his Botswana trilogy, a novel, which is soon to appear. This interview was conducted via telephone and e-mail.

How have your politics evolved since the early pacifist days? Do you think pacifism is relevant to third-world politics?

    In a way, my politics haven’t changed since I was eighteen and a conscientious objector. What I thought then was that it was ethically responsible to be part of the creation of bodies of resistance that would operate as obstacles — I hoped of increasing importance — that would make it harder for governments to opt for war making. But life is strange. The State is cannier than I could have imagined then. War making, in many countries including our own, has somehow eluded the public deliberative process to a degree that shows me how dumb I was. I would say, as a general characterization, that I am a social democrat with no particular attraction to any existing political formation in the United States and with a full appreciation of the poor prospects that the social democratic aspiration faces in the present.
         Actually, I thought of myself, in my youth, in my heart, as an anarchist. But functionally, I was a social democrat, in terms of voting, supporting lesser evilism, civil rights activism, etc. I thought my tenure as a social democrat was going to be an interim thing as the prospects for a radically changed society improved. Well, they never did, and it seems I have completely occupied my default position! The narrator’s lecture when she starts on the lecture circuit [Mating, 471 ff] mirrors my take on things political.

         Africa and pacifism: it’s morally right to try to moderate the violence of governments — anywhere. But sanctions as an alternative to violence against repressive regimes have not worked well, nor has the pacifist program of creating a snowballing of possible social strategies other than war. There’s a new book on this question: Guns and Gandhi in Africa, by Bill Sutherland and Matt Myer (Africa World Press, Inc., 2000)

It seems to me that Martin, the revolutionary who appears early in Mating, comes in for some serious ribbing. He winds up in England doing something vague with a choir, which the ANC is said to operate there. And what about that compulsive ratiocinator, the narrator of Mating? No satire? Denoon, her guru [and the creator of the utopian community, Tsau], sort of crashes by the end, too. Are you a misandrist?

    There is sadness and irony in Martin’s fate, but no ridicule of him at all. White revolutionaries, the ones I knew directly or indirectly, occupied places all over the spectrum of amiability, as in any group of people. I didn’t intend any mockery of the narrator. I loved, love, her. Denoon, in his final incarnation, is another matter.

Let’s talk more about the overriding theme of the first two Botswana books, the “mating” of Africa with the first world. I’m particularly interested in your ideas about utopianism.

    Many utopias go horribly bad, and all turn into something diverging from the ideals of the founders. Just read a new book by a guy named Gavron summing up the state of the kibbutz sector in Israel. It’ts worth a look. It recounts an institutional evolution much like that implied in the story of Tsau.

Just around the time you were creating Tsau, a school of anthropology was rising which debunked ideas of a pre-colonial Eden in Africa, especially with regard to the Kung. I’m thinking of Edmund Wilmsen, in particular [Land Filled with Flies: A Political Economy of the Kalahari (University of Chicago Press, 1989)]

    I agree with the anti-Arcadian realists. Wilmsen is really hated, I guess you know, by people attached to the earlier romantic view of the Kung. (I wrote a blurb for Wilmsen’s last book.) My own romantic notions about the three-house system in Botswana imploded once I saw cattle-post life up close. Obviously, all scrutiny of the contributions of colonialism, and indigenous kleptocracy, to the lack of economic development of post-independence Africa takes place with an awareness that they have been imposed on societies existing in environments that have been, it is being argued persuasively, inhospitable to human prosperity.

What about actual development projects in Africa? What are the biggest obstacles? Corruption, obviously, and nature. But . . .

    There are viable traditional structures in modern Africa through which to address the problems of development and governance, to overcome inequality. These should be fostered. Botswana has done some things very well, including (modern) social welfare programs, fairly effective drought relief, less corruption than you might think. Twenty years ago, a would-be entrepreneur approached a US embassy official in Gaborone: “Who should I bribe?”
         “No, not here.”
         He tried, anyway, and twenty-four hours later he was out of the country. As to development, the [Botswana] Village District Councils, by the ’80s, were performing feebly. A National Service Scheme was set up, in part to re-energize the VDCs by providing trenches of free labor, but that has been mostly ineffective, although I haven’t seen a recent evaluation. Getting the balance right between bottom-up top-down is one of the stress lines in these projects. Donors, their contacts and representatives among the local leaderships, locals, the government, and the basic memberships of the projects often have different and conflicting interests and agendas. Donors need to impress their funders by demonstrating measurable progress according to listed criteria . . . the liaison group among the local leadership has an interest in contriving an appearance of meeting donor criteria, with which they are intimately familiar . . . the government wants to see benefits flowing particularly to its supporters in and around the projects . . . the base membership in the project is at work individualizing benefits rather than collectivizing the fruits of their efforts in the way the donors expect.

What do you think of recent events in South Africa? Where is Africa on the Western radar screen since “the bust of Socialism”?

    I went back twice to Botswana and South Africa, 1992 was the last trip. I wrote a piece for Grand Street after the first trip back that caught what I felt about RSA. I expected the transition to be far more violent than it ended up being. But South Africa has not so far distinguished itself in terms of enlightened foreign policy initiatives in the region.
         This [“radar screen”] is a profound question. It asks what self-interest-based arguments for an expanded response to the miserable African situation can be made. I didn’t have a satisfactory answer for this when I began writing about Africa, and I still don’t. I knew that Cold War-driven attentions to Africa were destined to wane when the Zweikampf ended, but I was astonished both at the suddenness of the collapse of the Russian empire and the rapidity of the decline in interest in Africa that accompanied it. Africa is a tough sell these days. Pan Africanism as a movement has become a bitter joke.
         A reformulation of your question would be, in what ways might we show the first world that its own ox will be gored by the worsening plight of the third world? The unoriginal thoughts I have on this revolve around African poverty as an incubator for dread diseases that pass across oceans, as a generator of massive flows of illegal immigrants, and so on. First-world self-interest might also perceive the intensification of the identification in many parts of Africa with Islam as a threatening development.

What can you tell me about the new book? You mentioned in the 1993 Herskovits interview that it’s about a suppressed insurrection in Botswana partly modeled after actual third-world insurgencies, that the book is set in 1988–91, the background is the end of the Soviet empire, and that one of the main characters is a displaced Xhosa living in Botswana, and others are a CIA operative and his disaffected wife. Are all those things still true? Have recent events in Africa affected the genesis of the book?

    Most of those are still true.
         I’ve just finished the book. (I’m typing the final draft now.) The original working title was “Kerekang the Incendiary,” new working title “Mortals.” (It, too, will change, I think.) This book is all I’ve been working on for the last couple of years. One of the protagonists is a proselytizing atheist, a Black American doctor living in Gaborone, furious at what he understands to be the foundational dysfunctions introduced into Africa by Christian belief. The principal model for the insurrection in the novel is the Kwilu Rebellion of 1963 to ’65, in Zaire. I was also thinking of the Alice Lakwena insurgency in Uganda, in a later period. The book is based on a love triangle (as Mating was a spin on “boy meets girl”): the doctor, the CIA man and his wife. Set in 1991–92, the story is not affected by recent African events, but it is mightily affected by the failed socialist experiment in the East — the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In your RPCV Writers & Readers 1992 interview, you told John Coyne that the prizes and fine reviews after Mating had done little to change your life. Is that still true or, like Denoon, have you since been guru-ified?

    Not that I noticed. It sounds like fun, though.

Like many of your readers, I eagerly anticipate the new book and wish you the very best with it.

NOTE: A second article based on this present interview will appear in the Spring 2001 issue of Friends of Nigeria Newsletter.

After the Peace Corps, Ron Singer went to the University of Chicago, where he received his Ph.d. in English. He has taught at the University of Hawaii, Pace University, and, since 1976, at Friends Seminary, a K-12 school in New York City. Singer has published fiction, poetry, prose satire, and several articles on Africa, in the Friends of Nigeria Newsletter and African Link magazine. He is the author of two librettos and an Introduction to the Bantam Books edition of Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Married, he has one daughter.