The Durst Distinguished Lecture Series: An Evening with Rachel Kushner

Rachel Kushner, courtesy of Ann Summa.

By Riley Dixon

Rachel Kushner is an American writer best known for her novels “Telex from Cuba” and “The Flamethrowers”. “The Flamethrowers” was published in 2013 to near-unanimous critical acclaim, ending up as a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award and named as a top book for the year by over a dozen major publications.

A group of students selected to meet with Kushner before the lecture waited patiently for the conference room to be unlocked and shepherded inside. The table was not much larger than a generous family dining table; it forced a sense of intimacy and camaraderie almost immediately. Anthony Domestico, assistant professor of literature and a major player in welcoming Durst Distinguished lecturers, gave a formal introduction before discussion began.

She engaged in her responses to student queries, which led to a dynamic and rewarding discussion. Kushner admitted, with a laugh, to feeling a bit academically outclassed; though she has since received an MFA and even an honorary PhD, she explained that she “went to college young” which attributes to her “mistake in major.” At 16, Kushner attended U.C. Berkeley and studied Political Economy as opposed to literature (a more natural assumption, in hindsight, she said)–she commented that, while she was able to compute the information necessary for her courses, she believes “there is a quotient of maturity necessary to read literature, to see the text and what’s underneath.”

When asked about her process during writing “Telex from Cuba,” and if it took discipline to finish the novel, she smiled and said, “Discipline or something else; faith without justification.” Having someone at the other end prepared to read her novel, an MFA professor’s agent, helped, despite the fact that she admitted to being unconcerned with readership or an audience. She said saw it as a kind of encouragement.

Both of Kushner’s novels feature Americans abroad, caught within a particular historical context. “Telex from Cuba” derived from a personal interest; Kushner’s own mother had grown up in Cuba, and the novel itself is loosely based on her experiences there. Kushner said she was deeply intrigued by the “overwhelming ‘residue’ of old masters” from the days of American colonies. “Telex from Cuba” and “The Flamethrowers,” both set in the past and in markedly different decades (the 50s and the 70s, respectively), are Kushner’s attempt to “activate [the] dynamics of time to speak historic truth.”

She did, however, admit that it was something of a coincidence that both novels took place during moments in history. She said it was not her original intention, but she took great pleasure in seeing the historical connections of colonial disruption and dismantling during her research from “Telex from Cuba,” and her interest in Italy and contemporary art discourse made “The Flamethrowers” an exercise in composites–it was a “fun way to explore this material that was part of [her] tastes.”

When asked if she frequently travels or tours, Kushner remarked upon how, despite being a private person, she remembers to practice “magical gratitude.” She described how wonderful it still is to arrive in a strange place and be greeted by strangers who are genuinely interested in her work and excited to hear her speak; laughing, however, she confessed that talking too much about herself is a “slow and sure path to cretinization.”