This month’s WOMAN WARRIOR is Gail Vida Hamburg, an award-winning American journalist and author born in 1960s post-colonial Malaysia. She spent her early years in the UK, and after studying at North East London Polytechnic worked for legal rights agencies advocating migrant, human, and civil rights. She later relocated to New York, then Chicago, working in journalism, media relations, and academia; she has an MFA from Bennington College. Hamburg’s first novel, The Edge of the World (Mirare Press, 2007) nominated for the James Fenimore Cooper Prize responds to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and is a widely taught both in the US and overseas in post-colonial studies, war studies, and creative writing programs. Her second book, Liberty Landing (Mirare Press, 2018), is a 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction finalist and inspired by John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy.
Inspired by John Dos Passos’ U.S.A.Trilogy about early 20th century Americans, Liberty Landing narrates the American Experience of the 21st century through the story of a group of denizens of Azyl Park—a town in the Heartland. Seminal moments of the American Experiment, both imagined and real come alive in this literary work about history and memory, family and loss, migration and invention, and finding new love and a new home. It is the first novel in a trilogy. Check out the Liberty Landing book trailer!
1. Describe a challenge that you face as a writer of political fiction.
I am interested in socially engaged and political fiction—the literature of ideas narrated through characters and story. My novels are about America, Americans of every pedigree, and the impact of American foreign policy on the lives of people abroad. While political fiction has a long tradition in Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe, it is a rarefied hothouse orchid in the US. This is a major challenge for me as a novelist. I’ve had major publishers say they loved my work, wished they could publish my work, but that the politics was problematic or unpalatable. I’m not alone. Look at Paul Beatty who wrote The Sellout, an important book about racial politics in America. He couldn’t get it published here, took it to a small house in the UK, and it won the 2016 Man Booker Prize. I hope that there will be a space in major American publishing for the kind of novels I write. But until then, I too, like Paul Beatty, will stay with small houses that have faith in the fearless curiosity of readers.
2. What do you see as the main focus of your work?
If you look at multicultural and immigrant American fiction, the novels focus on a single ethnic group, usually the ethnic group the author hails from. For example, Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories are about Bengalis from the upper middle class, Kirin Desai writes about Indians, Amy Tan wrote about Chinese families. My parents were from Kerala–Catholic South India, but I spent my childhood in multiracial Malaysia and England, my son’s father is Jewish, my son loves a woman from an old-line German and English family, and my life on three continents has been a polycultural life. My novels are not about any one ethnic group, but a woven fabric of people from everywhere who call America their home. I live between cultures, I am American but I live in it lightly, you could say, in a fictional way, I make family and tribe and community across cultures, and I care about the impact of American foreign policy on other lives. I write my novels with this open mind, without borders. In Liberty Landing, my characters include a Palestinian with origins in Galilee who lived in a UN refugee camp in Lebanon, a Louisiana Creole descendant of slaves with roots in the West Indies, a Vietnamese woman who was on the last US helicopter during the fall of Saigon, a Desi couple from the Midwest, and an Australian beer master from Geelong.
3. What advice would you give a writer?
America needs politically inclined and socially engaged fiction writers. If you look at South Africa, people learned about the atrocities of apartheid through the novels of Nadine Gordimer, not history books. Through a novel, you can have one character stand for a whole country. For example, Alden Pyle in The Quiet American stood for American idealism and hubris and ignorance during the Vietnam War. In The God of Small Things, Arundathi Roy was able to show the cruelty of the caste system and untouchability that rules the lives of a billion Indians, through the story of two people from different castes madly in love with each other. We live in disturbing political times in America and novels are essential to deconstruction of the times we live in.
4. Thoughts on women and money matters?
Women need to recognize their own worth, and then be shameless about asking to be compensated for it. I know average and below average men who believe themselves to be virtuosos in their field! They get paid above their pay grade because they’re so good at working their over-inflated self-belief narratives!! Women on the other hand believe that the power of their ideas will earn them recognition and rewards. Mastery and virtuosity in a craft takes a decade. You have to put in the work first, then ask to be compensated for it. Only a handful of people I know write full-time. I think it’s a bad idea to be a full-time fiction writer. Do other things so you have something to write about when you sit down to write.
5. How do you address mental, physical, and environmental health?
My novels mine psychological terrain whether that of an obsessional dictator (The Edge of the World) or a marginalized immigrant with nothing to lose (Liberty Landing). I believe in the interior life before the uttered thought. I write novels to take readers into risky territory with me. For example, the story of the Palestinian people is one that has rarely, possibly never, been narrated and told in an American novel. My main character in Liberty Landing is a Palestinian Christian, and his psychology as a refugee, as a fragment of a dispossessed people, was one that interested me.
Americans have politicized nature and the environment, it’s a right wing left wing issue first of all in America, when we ought to be looking at it from the point of quality of life in this delicate, fragile eco-system. I admire Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Bill Peet’s Farewell to Shady Glade, both books that were seminal in the environmental movement. I live on an unspoiled beach, near dunes, and wildlife, and migratory bird paths–the setting for the fictional universe in Liberty Landing, and am acutely aware of nature and the ways human mindlessness can destroy it. Liberty Landing is the first in a trilogy, something I decided after reading Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novel quartet. I may address the environment in the next book.