Rachel Kushner Wants to Radicalize the Novel

Rachel Kushner

Novelist Rachel Kushner, author of The Hard Crowd and The Flamethrowers, speaks to Jacobin about bourgeois novels, Italian Marxism, Palestinian resistance, the George Floyd uprising, and Bernie Sanders.

Rachel Kushner, photographed by Chloe Aftel.

Interview by
Meagan Day

Rachel Kushner’s The Hard Crowd collects twenty years of essays on topics ranging from motorcycle racing to Marguerite Duras, from the itinerant poets who populated her bohemian parents’ world to the rough-edged social scene she inhabited as a young adult in San Francisco.

While Kushner consciously avoids didacticism, her work repeatedly alights on political themes, whether it’s Italian ultraleftism in the turbulent ’70s, as in her novel The Flamethrowers; mass incarceration in California, as in her novel The Mars Room; or Palestinian life in a refugee camp in Jerusalem, as in The Hard Crowd.

Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Kushner about bourgeois writing and its discontents, the intrigue of Italian autonomism, Israel’s humiliation of the Palestinians, the successes and failures of the Bernie Sanders campaign, and the revolutionary spirit of the George Floyd uprising.

Kushner spoke to Jacobin as Israel continued its violent offensive against Palestinian civilians. As of Friday, 126 Palestinians were dead in Gaza, including 31 children, and nearly a thousand were wounded. “The logic of the military occupation, shutting down freedom of movement, and the stated military objective of making every Palestinian feel they are being hunted and chased, was totally overwhelming,” Kushner told Jacobin of her time reporting on the conditions of Palestinian refugees living in Jerusalem. “I am convinced that anyone who saw what I saw would not be able to continue to believe in Israel as the ethnostate that it is.”

Meagan Day

Let’s start with your friend the Italian novelist Nanni Balestrini. In your essay on Balestrini in The Hard Crowd, you write that his style “upends the phantom qualifier ‘bourgeois’ to the novel.” What do you mean by that?

Rachel Kushner

The novel is a nineteenth-century development in literature that’s meant to both illuminate private, individual bourgeois lives and also provide entertainment for those same sorts of lives. Its horizon line of struggle tends to be obstacles to accumulation among the petit bourgeoisie, following upon the collapse of monarchy — such as in the work of [Honoré de] Balzac, whose novels are incredibly funny and vicious and entertaining in regard to the increasingly soiled ethics of various characters trying to get ahead in the new postrevolutionary France.

Heading into the twentieth century, the bourgeois novel fractured, of course, and we got modernism. But, summarizing a whole lot here, there’s a certain conservative formal logic that has a grip on the novel form still. That probably has to do with the all-encompassing nature of capitalism at this point, where accumulation is no longer seen as something new and vulgar, as in Balzac’s time, but rather all there is. I like this quote by McKenzie Wark, that the bourgeois novel’s momentum “is about making something of this world, not transcending it in favor of another.”

The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000–2020, by Rachel Kushner, 2021.

Nanni Balestrini, who did a lot of different things — he was an artist, a poet, an organizer, published journals and magazines, engaged in activism for like seventy years — really seems to have invented his own original approach to the novel. The novels he wrote, We Want Everything, The Unseen, do illuminate private lives, not as functioning, consenting, desiring symptoms of “this world,” but as private lives symptomatic of a sudden full-scale rejection and repudiation of this world. Moreover, they aren’t individuals depicted with the tools of the genre, where particularity is the primary feature of falsified believability — in other words, that you come up with all these personalized details for your little dolls as you move them around on the page.

What Balestrini did was simply turn on his tape recorder while he was engaged in political struggle, most notably at the factories in Northern Italy during the “Hot Autumn” of 1969 and 1970. The voice in We Want Everything is a single person, speaking in first person, but it functions as an example of a type of person, one among the rabble or horde of people who came from Southern Italy to work these brutal assembly-line jobs and revolted, against their bosses and their union and against the Communist Party that had been a kind of machine part keeping the whole thing functioning.

Balestrini radicalized the novel as a form that’s neither about portraying the interior lives of the bourgeoisie nor serving as entertainment for the bourgeoisie but is rather a view into and report on sites of rupture and conflict among people who are attempting to reject their position within an economic and social order.

His novel The Unseen is based on the life of a guy named Sergio Bianchi, who was involved in some of the more underground armed elements of the movement of ’77, otherwise known as Autonomia. Through the voice of one character, one narrator, Balestrini demonstrates how a son of a family of the class of people whose mothers do piecework at the kitchen table for motorcycle and car factories eventually comes into political consciousness and commits himself totally to his historical moment, meaning the waves of revolts in Italy in the 1970s. The narrator experiences the heights of that movement, before ending up in prison.

What Nanni did with those novels was something new. I asked him how he did it, and about the recordings, but he never really would tell me. The point was the outcome, the art, and its impact, its “work” and not how he pulled it off.

Meagan Day

This observation reminds me of Denis Johnson, to whom you also devote an essay in The Hard Crowd. I’ve always been struck by Johnson’s tender regard for subproletarian drifters and drinkers and drug users and death row inmates, people whose lives bourgeois society considers total wastes — Johnson’s New York Times obituary headline says he “wrote of the failed and desperate.” Does Denis Johnson also de-bourgify the novel, and is that part of what attracts you to his work?

Rachel Kushner

I used to spend time in Iowa City because I had friends who were townies there, or were from Des Moines but had moved to Iowa City, where there were more punk rock shows and better bars. There was lore in Iowa City that Denis Johnson tried these stories out on people in dive bars, and refined them and wrote them down, and they finally became the stories in Jesus’ Son.

When I met Johnson, I asked him if that was true, and he said no, that he’d written the stories “the normal way, one sentence at a time.” But I think that speaks to the mythology around Johnson and people’s amazement that he was able to write about all these characters so down on their luck, and in a way that feels immediate and authentic, rather than with the removal that any writing implies.

Writing it is not living it, but Denis Johnson seems to be right there with them. They’re beautifully constructed stories with this dialogue that’s like Lenny Bruce zingers combined with pithy and bleak epitaphs etched on gravestones. Also, many of the types of details in the stories were new to me in fiction but familiar from life. When the guys in the story “Work” go into a house and strip out all the copper wiring to sell it, that had a big impact on me. The people I knew in San Francisco were so much like the people in these stories. There was an old Lucky Lager bottling plant that was the “am/pm” for copper wire in San Francisco. People I knew went in there and stripped everything. But, of course, having that kind of “material” doesn’t alone auger good writing: not at all. Johnson set a high mark.

Denis Johnson himself, like Nanni Balestrini, was from “a nice middle-class family,” as I understand it. Actually, I believe Nanni’s family was quite wealthy, though he didn’t live in a high style. But he did wear beautiful moccasins and blazers — hey, he was Italian! Johnson has a line where he says he was “saved by the beatnik category,” which I really love as a piece of syntax and locution. So, for him, it’s not so much about coming from a particular provenance and then writing about that provenance as much as it is about being somebody who sides with those who rebel against power, jobs, rules, repression, dullardry, squaresville, and boredom.

Meagan Day

You frequently write about art and artists, as well as enthusiast subcultures. I feel that sometimes there’s a division baked into the way we talk about class and culture, the idea that workers are normies who only have mass culture and that counterculture is pretentious, decadent, or bourgeois. I don’t get the feeling from The Hard Crowd that you recognize that division. Like in the first essay, you write about your parents who were countercultural but who were also working-class —

Rachel Kushner

My parents are not working-class. They are both scientists, with PhDs. My dad’s father went to City College of New York, and my grandmother went to Hunter. They were members of the Communist Party, up to and after 1956. The Communist Party in New York City was a world of intellectuals. When I mentioned to my grandparents at the age of six that I didn’t know who Paul Robeson was, they became incredulous and put on records and tried to make me appreciate Paul Robeson’s famous baritone — efforts that were, for a six-year-old, probably a failure.

My mother’s parents both had college degrees also. That’s possibly unusual, to have people that are college-educated in your family that far back. My mother grew up in the South, and she and her older sister were hitchhiking to the Highlander School in Tennessee to be trained in nonviolent resistance when they were still in high school. I would call that counterculture, of a kind whose emphasis isn’t leisure and decadence, to address your question. My parents are of this generation of people who were into jazz. That and the civil rights movement was what bonded them. In many ways, culture in the twentieth-century United States was black culture — one could argue this for the twenty-first as well, at least so far — which kind of obviates the split you point to, if I understand the question. My dad and his younger brother had been going to black churches in Harlem and, from one of those churches, got on buses and went down to DC for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

But maybe the class misunderstanding about my parents derives from them being “poor,” which they were, and yet which I put in quotes, because income doesn’t really determine class, obviously. They lived in a cold water flat when my brother was a baby. They were bohemians. Then they were students when I was growing up. We lived very austerely. My mother and I collected bottles and cans on weekends. It was fun to me. This was Eugene, Oregon, where almost no one had any money. All the kids were from these dirtbag families. But I was aware, always, of what it meant that my parents came from educated backgrounds.

Classically, in the United States, if your parents have made it into the middle class, you’re much more likely to become some kind of artist. My son goes to school with kids whose parents are mostly immigrants from Korea and India. Are those kids going to be artists? They’re probably going to be engineers or doctors or lawyers, for the most part, because they’re from a lineage of people who are trying to secure a spot. If you are raised by people who have already made it into the middle class, it’s much more likely that you’ll end up making art.

Then again, “the beatnik category,” if you will, included all kinds. Like my parents’ friend Johnny Sherrill, who I write about in The Hard Crowd, in my essay “Tramping on the Byways.” Johnny was part of what you could call the old weird America. His parents lived in a trailer and sold handmade Catholic-themed crafts at fairs around Northern California. Johnny had robbed a train at the age of seventeen and gone to prison, where he learned machining, a trade that employed him when he worked and gave him the tools to make art. But everything Johnny did was artistic. He was a legendary person whose mere gesture was art. The example I give in my book is his “action poem” of pissing on someone’s Cadillac.

If that’s decadence, I’ll take it. I don’t know. I find the world still now to be kind of bursting with vernacular creativities that function outside this split you point to. Which isn’t to say that vernacular forms aren’t vampirized by so-called higher forms of art. But that’s another subject, maybe.

Meagan Day

I want to return to the world of Nanni Balestrini, who was involved in the ’70s Italian left, a phenomenon you explore also in your novel The Flamethrowers and in your essay about the quasi-documentary film Anna. This left saw no distinction between counterculture and left politics. If anything, it saw extreme bohemianism as a form of left praxis. What attracts you to Italian ’70s ultraleftism? What, if anything, repels you?

Rachel Kushner

I’m not really repelled by it in any way, because I’m not looking to it as a model for how to live, but rather as a historic phenomenon to be understood. To understand something, one is not judging it as either an ideal or a folly. It’s in the past, it already happened.

The movie Anna features a real person. She’s a teenager living on the streets of Rome. People are arguing over whether she’s eight or nine months pregnant. She’s hungry, has a fever, and would just like a place to rest. The filmmakers make this odd bargain with her, where they offer her food and lodging in exchange for being in their movie.

The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner, 2013.

An argument ensues in the first scene, a discussion about what’s to be done with Anna. Somebody says, “What about the Communist Party?” And someone else responds that, in order to be eligible for help from the Communist Party, you need not to have nihilistic tendencies. You have to be gainfully employed, or to want to be. You have to be married. Anna is a drug addict. She’s mentally unstable. She doesn’t believe in anything. No one knows who the father of this baby is. She’s full of rejections. So in this film, you can see all of the reasons and ways people are pulling away from the Communist Party, and from the entire concept of what it means to be a good proletarian.

Anna, the film, is really an incredible document of the political and cultural atmosphere at the time when it was made in 1971 and ’72. Much of it is filmed on the Piazza Navona in Rome, and people are passing through the frame, and you realize that every single one of those people has a life determined by the symptoms and consequences of that time, its hopes, and the way those hopes, in many cases, were dashed. Some of those people became heroin addicts. Died prematurely. Or went to prison, often on vague charges of sedition. You can see the whole historical background of that moment in Italy in that film.

But now that I think of it, there’s a joke in the film about bourgeois art. This girl yells that she’s gonna make a painting and “sell it to Agnelli” — the head of Fiat and literally the richest man in Italy — “for one million.” Even if this girl is ridiculing art, she’s ridiculing its monetization and not creativity itself, which, as you suggest, was a major component and outlet of expression of the Movement of ’77. They called it “l’arte dell’impegno” — the art of commitment. And in terms of counterculture, the ’70s in Italy wasn’t good communists wanting to renegotiate their labor contracts so they can go home to have lunch with their wives. These are people who are rejecting the entire logic of work, the whole order of society, and the space of rejection was filled with creativity and new kinds of expressions — I mean new to that era.

I started learning about this period in 2006. My husband had been a student of Michael Hardt, and through that connection, he knew quite a lot about Autonomia and had written about it. We’ve spent a lot of time together in Italy, and just socially, hanging out, I would meet people who had been involved in that era or knew a lot about it, and they would share anecdotes. I thought, “This is totally fascinating,” and nobody had written a novel about it, even in Italy, really with the exception of Nanni Balestrini, who was not a widely read author, even there.

The Red Brigades were one small Leninist phenomenon in an atmosphere of huge mass movements that really almost tore the Italian state apart. There was a lot of mystery about who was out in the open — the mass demonstrations, the student movement, the feminist movement, etcetera — and who was in the underground armed movements. Some people were in both. And sometimes, when you ask people a clunky question about it, if they don’t answer, their silence is itself a form of an answer.

When Aldo Moro was assassinated by the Red Brigades in 1978, that seems to have marked a kind of end, opening the floodgates to this reactionary turn in Italy. When I first started asking people about Autonomia and the Italian ’70s, some people didn’t want to talk about it, or they warned me that others wouldn’t be ready to talk about it, either because of continuing state repression, or that moment’s revolutionary failures, or because they were on the other side and still mourning the kidnapping and deaths of factory CEOs and conservative judges. The Red Brigades killed, I think, fifty people.

Mario Moretti and Renato Curcio of the Brigate Rosse are people who talk like priests. The way they talk fascinated me, and I wanted to understand it and to write about it. Rossanna Rossanda, a founder of Il Manifesto, did a book-length interview with Mario Moretti of the Red Brigades, coauthored with Carla Mosca. Mosca and Rossanda asked Moretti, “If an angel came to you and offered you immediate release from prison in exchange for your memories of everything that you were engaged in as a member of the Brigate Rosse, would you choose to keep your memories or to have your freedom?” And he answered, “No angel would offer such a debased set of alternatives. However, if an angel really did offer me such a choice, I would say to him: Dear angel, give me both, my freedom and my memories. If you cannot do that, then you fly lower even than my own worst failures.”

Meagan Day

As of this morning, Friday, May 14, at least 122 Palestinians have been killed in acts of Israeli aggression, 31 of them children. Nearly a thousand have been wounded. Thousands of Gazans have had to flee their homes in search of safety. The second essay in The Hard Crowd chronicles your time in the Shuafat refugee camp in East Jerusalem. How did your experience there alter your perspective on the Palestinian struggle?

Rachel Kushner

I had an idea of where my sympathies lay in terms of that geopolitical situation — which is more of a history of settler colonial theft and subjugation than it is a conflict, because the two sides are so asymmetrical — but for a long time felt it wasn’t really my battle. When I was invited to Palestine, I was focused on things much closer to home, here in California — prison, poverty — and I was writing a contemporary novel about California and its struggles.

But after going there, I could absolutely see how it becomes an obsession for people, because what you witness is so intolerable. The refugee camp I went to, Shuafat, has Gazans living in it, and it has Gaza-like attributes, in the sense that it’s both incredibly densely populated and also, if somebody ends up there with neither paperwork that allows them to travel in the West Bank nor paperwork that allows them to enter Israel, they are essentially stuck in a one-square-kilometer refugee camp for the foreseeable future.

The logic of the military occupation, shutting down freedom of movement, and the stated military objective of making every Palestinian feel they are being hunted and chased, was totally overwhelming. It’s a lot to absorb, as a witness, which is nothing compared to living under it, or trying to.

I mean, watching Palestinian construction workers line up at 4:00 a.m. at a checkpoint to go through what are essentially cattle chutes to get to their jobs in Jerusalem, and to see that their very survival depends upon learning to consent to conditions of subhuman treatment — it was just totally awful and unbelievable. Older people will be stuck in this line who are incontinent, or who have diabetes and cannot stand on their feet for six hours. If you have a health emergency in the line, there’s chain overhead and chain walls on both sides, and there are hundreds of people lined up in front and behind you. There’s no way to get out. Thousands of Palestinian men endure this every day to get to work.

That’s just one example of the many outrageous things I saw there of the military occupation. Going there had a real effect on me. Our government not only supports this — the United States more or less underwrites the whole thing. I am convinced that anyone who saw what I saw would not be able to continue to believe in Israel as the ethnostate that it is. It’s tragic for everyone, including the Jews, that after a war in which literally two-thirds of European Jews were erased — that’s so staggering, I mean, I’m stunned by that over and over — that after a genocide of that engulfing scale, the reparation was to become a settler colony with nukes pointed at all their neighbors. It’s agony.

Anyhow, as you mention, the essay in my new book, The Hard Crowd, is specifically about this refugee camp, called Shuafat, that is technically inside of Israel. I was interested in the idea of going to a refugee camp because a lot of them have become permanent homes for people, for better or worse. There is high-rise housing in Shuafat. The idea “refugee camp” suggests transience, but many of these refugee camps have now been there for fifty years. I wanted to know how that feels, what it looks like, how it works for those who live there.

Shuafat is a place where 85,000 people live in one square kilometer without any infrastructure or services. It is surrounded by twenty-five-foot concrete walls. Israeli authorities never enter except to storm the camp to make an arrest or arbitrarily bulldoze somebody’s house — then they fine the person whose house was bulldozed, for the cost of doing so.

There’s no garbage service in Shuafat. There’s no water system. There’s no electrical grid. Almost no schools. No fire trucks nor ambulances. There’s no land registration, no safety or building codes. There are roads, but they aren’t paved nor named, they aren’t zoned, they don’t have addresses, and they don’t have sidewalks. There are no parks. There’s no place for kids to play.

There are reasons to live in Shuafat. If you do, you can hold on to your Israeli residency, which is precious for people who need to get inside of Israel in order to work. But also, people don’t want to leave Jerusalem, because that’s where they are from, where their parents are from, even as they are stripped of citizenship, as Palestinians, and only have a provisional version of it, in the form of a Jerusalem residency status that can be revoked at any time.

My guide there and my host, I stayed with him and his family, was community organizer Baha Nababta — an amazing person I write about in the book. He was assassinated in the street fourteen days after I left.

I didn’t exactly sign up to be exposed to that kind of violence. When it happened, I was immersed in writing my novel The Mars Room, and in doing activism work with people serving life sentences. I was going to prisons all the time, and talking to people and thinking about different kinds of violence, and then Baha was killed, and I felt like I was sandwiched between worlds that were just really tough, really brutal, if in different ways.

Meagan Day

Another essay in The Hard Crowd is your profile of prison scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore. What do you make of last summer’s George Floyd uprising? Do you feel hopeful that we’re moving toward the goals of the thinkers and activists you spoke to for that piece?

Rachel Kushner

Ruthie Gilmore more or less invented carceral geography and is a true visionary who has inspired so many people, and of so many different kinds, scholars and students and activists, and regular people affected by incarceration. My essay was meant to profile her but also to be a kind of primer on prison abolition, which, in Gilmore’s mouth, is an eloquent conception of a future, a new life where we not only don’t have prisons but don’t need prisons, because people have gotten the resources that are actually needed to have a dignified life that is free of violence.

The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner, 2018.

The summer of 2020 was devastating and thrilling in equal measure, and it was all marbled together. For those of us who went out in the streets and participated in it, there was a feeling of, “Now I finally know what it’s like to live in history.”

I live in Los Angeles, walking distance from downtown, so we were able to go be a part of things on a daily basis and see what was getting created in terms of people’s refusal to accept the status quo. I think we are in a time of real flux and hopefully real change. In 2014, with Ferguson, I used to ask rhetorically, “Who’s down with the riots?” You no longer have to ask that. People have more or less quit with the hand-wringing, the “Why so angry?” and “What about the destruction of private property?” The very real roots of the anger are coming out into the open.

And there’s a lot of really constructive activism going on. The great Mariame Kaba’s book, We Do This ’Til We Free Us, is a best seller! There are so many reasons to be hopeful. I realize not everyone believes prosecutors are part of the solution, but in Los Angeles, the most populous county in the whole United States, our new district attorney, George Gascón, has declared that no child is going to be prosecuted in adult court. This is a profound change. I have watched children be sentenced in adult court over and over. I have seen children get sentences of life without possibility of parole. I know people with that sentence, who are serving in California prisons. This change might seem procedural, but it will affect generations of people.

Then again, inequality has been so heightened by the pandemic, and life in Los Angeles has become so stark in terms of seeing who has not suffered at all economically and who has suffered greatly. I am worried about a conservative turn, about the potential for the atmosphere to change and become hostile. But this also makes me realize that we have to think long-term about ways of making structural changes to reduce the impact and footprint of the carceral system without relying on a feeling of momentary tolerance, momentary generosity, among middle-class do-gooders. In other words, a rise in crime should not close down our options. We have to think outside of that narrative, and it is a narrative, because a rise in crime is only a symptom of what must be changed.

Meagan Day

Last year, you campaigned for Bernie Sanders. What did you do to try to get him elected? What do you make of his campaign and his defeat?

Rachel Kushner

To the extent that I get involved in electoral politics at all, I liked Bernie. His campaign was really effective in California at bringing on board a dynamic Latino base. It was exciting to see the way the “Tío Bernie” phenomenon unfolded. It’s incredibly important in California to have that kind of base of support. And thinking back, when my kid’s teachers’ union, the UTLA, decided to back Bernie, and when my aunt’s union, California Nurses Association, backed him, I felt like: “I’m on board. Teachers and nurses. This is the future.”

Bernie won in California, which people seem to forget. He won in a state of 40 million people that has the fifth-largest economy in the world. But the day before the primary in California, I was canvassing with my friend, the writer Janet Sarbanes, door-to-door in South LA in a primarily black neighborhood, and Janet and I both kind of knew there was an issue. The people volunteering at the South LA Bernie regional office were almost all young and black. But there was a generational split there that was quite apparent when you knocked on doors. Older black people were simply not into Bernie. You saw this dynamic become apparent nationwide after [Jim] Clyburn’s endorsement of [Joe] Biden. There was a real failure on the part of the Sanders campaign to figure out how to reach out to black Americans across age groups and geography.

I think Bernie had and continues to have a positive effect on the Biden administration. But in retrospect, there was this idea among some of the people working for the Bernie campaign that it was “a mass movement,” when it totally wasn’t, because an electoral campaign never can be a mass movement. Now we know what making history really tastes like, because of the summer of 2020. That was an uprising.

The summer of 2020 brought everyone out in the streets, and you didn’t have to be a certain social type. You weren’t told by some senator from Vermont to do it. You didn’t have to be a registered voter or someone who pays attention to politics at all. All you had to be was someone who doesn’t want to see unarmed black people murdered by the police in this country any longer. People went outside, and in the middle of a pandemic. They did it on instinct, borne aloft, if at first by grief and outrage, eventually also by joy, because something real was finally happening.