Telling the whole story

Author Russell Banks encourages writers to explore the multi-faceted nature of humanity

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“We’re all inextricably linked to one another,” Russell Banks says. “What happens to one of us happens to all of us. You can’t just tell part of the story.”

“One-sided” is a term that simply doesn’t exist in Banks’ vocabulary, or indeed, in his body of writing, unless he is using it to admonish those who see the world in oversimplified, black and white terms. In his prose, Banks explores the darkness of humanity and its potential for despair; at the same time, however, he illuminates its beauty and its ability to hang on to hope.

“We’re all capable of terrible deeds, and we’re also capable of noble deeds,” he says. “You can’t tell the human story unless you tell both.”

For Banks, the telling of the human story is a complex task. As the keynote speaker at this year’s Great Basin Book Festival, Banks will be giving an speech titled “Toward a Creole-American Literature,” a topic that he addresses in detail in “Who Will Tell the People?” In this essay, Banks argues that American writers need to tell stories that take into account the complexity of our origins as a multi-racial, “Creole” people. Otherwise, he says, we will fail to fully understand ourselves as Americans.

Banks’ interest in rich, varied narratives and his desire to be part of what he calls a “trans-cultural” community of writers have led to his involvement with the International Parliament of Writers. Earlier this year, Banks was appointed president of the organization, following in the footsteps of Salman Rushdie and Wole Soyinka, the keynote speaker at last year’s Great Basin Book Festival.

Organized in 1993 by authors including Toni Morrison and Jacques Derrida, the parliament is well known for its City of Asylum program, which offers asylum to over 100 writers who have been persecuted in their homelands for expressing unpopular views.

“I’m attracted to [the organization] because it’s a trans-national, trans-cultural grassroots organization that is run entirely by writers themselves,” Banks explains. “And it’s hands-on. We don’t just issue statements. We make it possible [for writers] to do their work in freedom.”

Cities hosting these writers include Mexico City, Berlin, Barcelona, Venice and Las Vegas—the only U.S. city to serve as a place of asylum.

“It’s utopian, in a way,” Banks says of the organization. “It’s a community of writers who recognize no borders and no loyalties to any national organization … but rather to human identity.”

Banks’ interest in human identity is more than just an abstract one; it manifests itself time and time again in his fiction.

The Sweet Hereafter—his first novel to be adapted into a film—tells the story of a sleepy New England town thrown into turmoil after a deadly school bus crash. The novel has multiple narrators, none of whom sit squarely on either side of the victim/perpetrator dichotomy. From the bus driver, who may or may not be “responsible” for the accident, to the big-city lawyer, who comes to town to represent—or exploit—the townspeople in the wake of the crash, Banks’ characters are so complex that we simply do not know who to blame for all the turmoil.

“We never do anything for any one motive, but in fact, there are almost always a number of motives,” Banks says. “You have to portray an event as having a multitude of causes.”

Banks’ novels Cloudsplitter and Affliction explore the victim/perpetrator roles on an even deeper level. In Affliction, Banks examines a bleak, blue-collar life plagued by domestic violence, but he resists pitting good against evil in a traditional way.

“The story of domestic violence can’t be told just from the story of the victim, but also the perpetrator, who is as human as the victim,” Banks says, explaining that violence is cyclical: The victims of abuse often themselves become abusers later in life.

The issues that Banks explores in Affliction have root in his own childhood. Born in 1940, Banks was raised in a working class New England household beset by alcoholism and domestic violence. In his 20s, Banks supported himself through a number of less-than-glamorous jobs, such as selling shoes and dressing windows, before going on to teach creative writing at Princeton University—and, of course, to embark on his own writing career.

Having been shaped by a small-town, working-class environment, class struggle and community relations are central concerns in Banks’ writing. When he hears, for instance, that half the homes in America have computers, he says that his first thought isn’t along the lines of, “That’s wonderful. We’ve come so far.” Instead, he’ll be thinking of those who do not own computers, and what that means for them.

Banks says that we live in a culture that finds “delight and pleasure” in the technologically privileged. They are the ones who are given educational advantages, who are targeted by advertising, who are talked about in the media. As many small-town communities dissolve and cyber communities continue to grow, Banks believes that those who are not blessed with access to technology we be greatly disadvantaged.

“If you can’t substitute a virtual community for the lost community, you’ve got no community,” he says.

Banks is concerned about not only local communities, but on a larger scale, our collective identity as Americans. In “Who Will Tell the People?” he argues that modern American literature is missing “the great Creole-American novel.”

“We have refused to tell ourselves a single believable story of our origins that will connect the Euro-American tale directly to the African-American, the African-American to the Latino-American, and so on,” Banks writes.

Instead, we have allowed competing origin stories to stand against each other in “high-walled narrative ghettos.” Banks says that we are eager to define what the word on the left side of hyphenated phrases like “African-American” means. We are becoming comfortable with the Euro-, the African-, etc., but are unsure of how to describe the “American” part of the phrase.

“Younger, white writers [are] writing as if we live in an all-white country,” Banks says. “I’m urging my fellow writers … [not to] isolate ourselves in a colony of the saved and the privileged, but … to look out at the world that surrounds us and to look back [at our history].”

Banks says that this story, the story of our origins as an American people, is “rooted in the story of race on this continent.” In his essay, Banks writes that the one narrative that we all participate in, no matter who we are, is that of the African Diaspora (the large-scale importation and subsequent dispersal of Africans in North America and the Caribbean).

“Surely by now,” he writes, “we know that there is no town, no county, no state in America that has not been profoundly affected by the events, characters, themes and values dramatized by the story of race in America.”

Banks’ approach to race relations, and to the African Diaspora in particular, has much in common with his treatment of domestic violence issues. He believes that story of racial violence, like any story, needs to be told from the side of the oppressor, as well as the side of the oppressed.

“As James Baldwin famously observed, the story of race in America will be told, if ever, only when it’s from the point of view of a white member of a Southern lynch mob,” he writes. “Baldwin’s underlying point is that from the start, the central theme in the American drama has been race, and therefore violence, and that it shapes every American’s life—the victimizer’s as much as the victim’s, the native’s as much as the newly arrived immigrant’s.”

Banks deals with the history of racism in America in Cloudsplitter, a novel about John Brown, whose radical views as an abolitionist led him to controversial acts of guerilla warfare during the Civil War. Banks said in a 1999 interview that during the Civil Rights movement, when he was a student at the University of North Carolina, Brown was an icon for liberals.

“He’s a figure who stands astride the racial divide in America,” Banks explains. “Both in his own lifetime and today.”

Brown was certainly a complex man—a difficult figure who cannot be classified simply as "good" or "bad," but must be understood in the context of his times, his circumstances and his ideals before any truly meaningful conclusions can be drawn. And who better to arrive at those conclusions than Banks, whose willingness to confront human ugliness and violence allows him to produce, time and time again, rich tales of hope and survival.