Ni­cola Stur­geon and Rachel Kush­ner

on the power of fic­tion, US pol­i­tics and pris­ons

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents - Por­traits by Barry J Holmes and Murdo MacLeod

One might imag­ine that the du­ties and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of the of­fice of first minister of Scot­land would pre­clude much time for hin­ter­land. But any­one who fol­lows Ni­cola Stur­geon’s Satur­day night Twit­ter feed, de­tail­ing her weekly read­ing, will be aware that this is a woman who de­vours books. Her rec­om­men­da­tions may range from crime to re­dis­cov­ered fem­i­nist clas­sics, but her pas­sion is clear and un­con­fected.

Read­ing, she ex­plains, and fic­tion in par­tic­u­lar, of­fers an es­cape from what­ever anx­i­eties are con­sum­ing her work­ing days – as well as de­liv­er­ing a unique in­sight into other lives and cir­cum­stances that in­forms her po­lit­i­cal un­der­stand­ing in a way that no dry civil ser­vice briefing could.

So it should come as no sur­prise that Stur­geon was ea­ger to have a con­ver­sa­tion with the nov­el­ist Rachel Kush­ner, whose third novel, The Mars Room, the Scot­tish Na­tional party leader had read ear­lier this year. An im­mer­sive and of­ten bleak por­trayal of women’s in­car­cer­a­tion in con­tem­po­rary Cal­i­for­nia,

The Mars Room was short­listed for this year’s Man Booker prize, fol­low­ing her much-praised sec­ond novel, The Flamethrow­ers, set in the 1970s Man­hat­tan art scene.

Stur­geon and Kush­ner have been vo­ra­cious read­ers since child­hood, and both are acutely aware of the im­pact the habit of read­ing has on their pro­fes­sional and pri­vate lives. They first met this Au­gust, when Stur­geon hosted a PEN In­ter­na­tional event for the Ed­in­burgh book fes­ti­val at her of­fi­cial res­i­dence, Bute House; a pho­to­graph of the two women, which Stur­geon posted on Twit­ter, showed the first minister grin­ning with de­light next to the nov­el­ist. To­day, they meet again via Skype and, de­spite the dis­tance and time dif­fer­ence – it is a bright morn­ing in Los An­ge­les, a dark­en­ing win­ter af­ter­noon in Glas­gow – fall eas­ily into con­ver­sa­tion. Kush­ner sips a cup of tea while Stur­geon fid­dles with a pa­per­clip. Libby Brooks

Ni­cola Stur­geon I know a lot of writ­ers like to be anony­mous and want their sto­ries to be cen­tre stage, but I’m al­ways fas­ci­nated by what in­spires you. I love lit­er­a­ture that con­fronts chal­leng­ing, im­por­tant is­sues.

Rachel Kush­ner I wouldn’t ex­actly say it sur­prised me that a politi­cian was in­ter­ested in lit­er­a­ture, be­cause I’m half a cen­tury old and aware of world his­tory – and tra­di­tions in coun­tries un­like my own, where there have been lead­ers who were quite lit­er­ate. But I was taken aback by it when we met; it seemed like a Val­halla to be there in your res­i­dence talk­ing about books. The day be­fore I’d been to visit a women’s prison, a place where I as­sume mainly work­ing-class Scot­tish peo­ple end up. Then I was there talk­ing to the first minister and she was as in­ter­ested in the peo­ple in my book as I was in­ter­ested in the women I’d met the day be­fore. →

Read­ing your book had such an im­pact on me. All lead­ers should be made to read fic­tion, to see things from a very dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive

NS Well, I hope so! My job, fun­da­men­tally, is all about peo­ple and it’s the in­di­vid­ual sto­ries that give me a sense of the is­sues I need to use my po­si­tion to in­flu­ence or change. That’s why I see read­ing fic­tion as an in­dis­pens­able part of the job. I think all lead­ers in all po­si­tions of re­spon­si­bil­ity should be made to read fic­tion, be­cause it uses per­sonal sto­ries to bring is­sues to life, and gives you a win­dow that all of the aca­demic read­ing or gov­ern­ment civil ser­vice pa­pers in the world doesn’t al­low you.

RK It’s some­thing I think about a lot my­self: what is it fic­tion does that non­fic­tion and mem­oir don’t do? Maybe, in fic­tion, it’s no longer form­ing sen­tences from a de­lib­er­ate place where the ego is firmly rooted. You’re hav­ing an en­counter with your un­con­scious, and parts of life that don’t have to do with you, and you’re no longer in control of the nar­ra­tive in the way that a non­fic­tion writer is. I don’t know if you agree.

NS Yeah, I do. I think the most im­por­tant thing is to read, and I do read non­fic­tion and mem­oir. The last non­fic­tion book I read was Doris Kearns Good­win on lead­er­ship. But I think with fic­tion, it’s the char­ac­ters and the per­sonal sto­ries that come to the fore, so you’re see­ing things from a very dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. And with the best will in the world, all mem­oir has a cer­tain spin on it.

RK When I’m read­ing, I feel like a more whole­some per­son be­cause I’m tak­ing time to do some­thing that is a prac­tice. You learn to main­tain con­cen­tra­tion and have the op­por­tu­nity to see, through some­body else’s at­ten­tive­ness to de­tail in the world.

NS With fic­tion, I pay much more at­ten­tion to style and form and sen­tence struc­ture, and I think that makes you think a lot more deeply. You’ll be aware of the big de­bate in the wake of the Booker win­ner this year about dif­fi­culty in lit­er­a­ture, which I find in­cred­i­ble! There’s no other art form where we’d see peo­ple hav­ing to think and be chal­lenged by it as some­how a weak­ness. One of my own weak­nesses as a reader, be­cause I don’t have a lot of time, is that I tend to race through a book. The more I have to slow down and think about the struc­ture of a sen­tence, the more I en­joy it.

I read The Mars Room, and I’ve since read your Cuba-based novel, Telex From Cuba. Do you write be­cause there’s a sub­ject that you’re pas­sion­ate about, or do you de­velop an in­ter­est in the sub­ject be­cause you come up with a story idea first?

RK With The Mars Room, I wanted to write a con­tem­po­rary novel [Kush­ner’s first two nov­els were set in 1950s Cuba and 1970s New York and Rome]. My im­me­di­ate in­stinct for what is con­tem­po­rary was what I see around me, as a per­son from Cal­i­for­nia and a woman. This is a story that gets to the root of how my so­ci­ety is struc­tured right now, and the way it’s go­ing to in­ten­sify into pop­u­la­tions that are go­ing into the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem and re­pro­duc­ing them­selves – and pop­u­la­tions that aren’t and don’t, and can barely see that struc­ture. There’s a way that prison is in­vis­i­ble to a mid­dle-class per­son. It’s not a con­spir­acy, but it may be by de­sign in cer­tain re­gards. It’s a se­ri­ous sub­ject for a nov­el­ist.

NS Scot­land is a much smaller coun­try. We don’t have the sheer scale of the in­sti­tu­tions that you write about, but there is the same sense of marginal­i­sa­tion and not see­ing what is right there. Many of the peo­ple who end up in our pris­ons – and it will be the same in Amer­ica – are al­ready vic­tims of other forces in so­ci­ety. Our pris­ons will be dis­pro­por­tion­ately pop­u­lated by peo­ple who have suf­fered trauma and abuse in child­hood, who have grown up in care. The prison sys­tem is of­ten com­pound­ing the in­jus­tice they have suf­fered in their lives. It’s easy as a so­ci­ety to be aware of that on an in­tel­lec­tual level, but not fo­cus on it.

One of the things I’m pas­sion­ate about is try­ing as a so­ci­ety to re­duce the cir­cum­stances in which peo­ple end up in prison. Ob­vi­ously there will be some crimes where prison is the only – and the right – place to go. But we’re fo­cused in Scot­land on try­ing to look at other, more com­mu­nity-based sen­tences, where re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion is at the heart from the out­set; and, sec­ondly, when peo­ple are sen­tenced to a term in prison, that we don’t lose fo­cus on the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tive el­e­ment.

The im­pact The Mars Room had on me was that real sense of ut­ter hope­less­ness. You have some­body given two con­sec­u­tive life sen­tences with no pos­si­bil­ity of pa­role – that sense that there is no hope, no re­demp­tion that some­body can hold on to, is in­cred­i­bly bleak. I think when a prison sys­tem gets to that level, it is fail­ing.

You vis­ited a women’s prison when you were in Scot­land. What was your im­pres­sion, in terms of the sim­i­lar­i­ties and, hope­fully, the dif­fer­ences? RK I was there for only part of a day, but just wait­ing to go through se­cu­rity, I had the op­por­tu­nity to see all the peo­ple lined up for fam­ily vis­it­ing – and that was amaz­ing, to see who was there. I thought, bour­geois so­ci­eties are re­lated the world over, be­cause it is the poor­est peo­ple who are sub­jected to this and who are bring­ing small chil­dren and new­born ba­bies here, be­cause they don’t have other care. Or maybe they are vis­it­ing peo­ple who want to see the chil­dren. In that way, it was sim­i­lar.

But the peo­ple who took us into the prison were much more in­for­mal. There was no hos­til­ity to­wards me, and the Ed­in­burgh book fes­ti­val had found a bene­fac­tor to buy copies of my book for all the women who at­tended my read­ing. This would never hap­pen in Cal­i­for­nia! In fact, the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions →

Prison should be a last re­sort – for women, and women with chil­dren, es­pe­cially

does not want any books by do­na­tion. I’ve been try­ing for a year now to get their head li­brar­ian in Sacra­mento to ac­cept a do­na­tion.

There was a warmer con­tact be­tween the women and the fe­male guard who brought me in, who was there through my read­ing. She asked if she could speak at the end of the Q&A and of­fered her own feel­ings about her ex­pe­ri­ence of women in­side. And she started to cry. It was in­cred­i­ble, be­cause that would never hap­pen in the United States.

I have much em­pa­thy for peo­ple who work in the jus­tice sys­tem. That is not an easy job. In Cal­i­for­nia, stud­ies have shown that peo­ple who work as guards in fa­cil­i­ties have al­most as high a rate of mental ill­ness and sui­cide as vet­er­ans who come back from ac­tive com­bat. In or­der to get through that, they go in with a war­like men­tal­ity. To see this di­a­logue was some­thing dif­fer­ent.

What was sim­i­lar was the trauma and the hard­ships these women had en­dured prior to what­ever act they had com­mit­ted that re­sulted in their in­car­cer­a­tion, the same grain and tex­ture. You can see it in peo­ple’s faces.

NS Read­ing your book had such an im­pact on me. I don’t think it changed my think­ing, but it reaf­firmed what I al­ready strongly be­lieved – that prison, par­tic­u­larly for women, and women with chil­dren, should be a last re­sort. Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion should be as im­por­tant in the jus­tice sys­tem as pun­ish­ment is.

That im­pacted on me as a leader all these thou­sands of miles away, but in Amer­ica, is there any sense that lit­er­a­ture can have that ef­fect, can start to push change? In Scot­land, and the UK gen­er­ally, there is an open­ness to the de­bate about the role of prison and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. Is there any sense in Amer­ica that books like yours can nudge things along?

RK I think there are a lot of peo­ple who are open to di­a­logue. Art can al­low some­one to ask ques­tions about what is jus­tice, how does the law work, what is this axis of in­no­cence ver­sus guilt? And is it re­ally rel­e­vant when you find that all the guilty are from one layer of the pop­u­la­tion, and is it re­ally guilt if all those peo­ple have been ex­posed to enor­mous amounts of trauma and vi­o­lence by the time they them­selves act like that? The novel al­lows me to ru­mi­nate on things that have real moral com­plex­ity and no sim­ple an­swers.

I think there is a wave now of peo­ple re­al­is­ing that prison isn’t the an­swer, but

I still see a rudi­men­tary fix­a­tion on guilt by peo­ple from the mid­dle class. I think it’s deeply tempt­ing for those peo­ple, who are the prod­ucts of nur­tur­ing and op­por­tu­nity and ed­u­ca­tion, to feel their suc­cesses in life are a prod­uct of their good­ness. It isn’t that those peo­ple are not good, but that they do not know how their lives would have gone if they had been born into an en­vi­ron­ment where they had to en­dure hard­ship and trauma and chaos and vi­o­lence. NS Yes. I think, as a politi­cian, that should also be one of the most im­por­tant things we fo­cus on: why peo­ple end up there. All of us like to think our suc­cesses in life are down to our own bril­liance and hard work, rather than the ad­van­tages we’ve had grow­ing up. But the flip­side is that, with peo­ple who com­mit crime, it’s eas­ier to think that’s en­tirely down to the choices they have made – be­cause then we don’t have to take our own col­lec­tive re­spon­si­bil­ity for the so­ci­etal cir­cum­stances in which they end up. I’m not try­ing to say there shouldn’t be an el­e­ment of per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity. But the rea­sons peo­ple end up in prison are com­pli­cated and of­ten have their roots way back.

For a politi­cian, this can be re­ally chal­leng­ing ter­ri­tory. Even in a rel­a­tively pro­gres­sive so­ci­ety such as Scot­land, I get chal­lenged fre­quently in par­lia­ment about poli­cies fo­cus­ing on re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and try­ing to keep peo­ple out of prison; they get char­ac­terised as be­ing soft on crime, when ac­tu­ally we all ben­e­fit as a so­ci­ety if we ad­dress the rea­sons why some peo­ple end up where they do.

RK That was all so beau­ti­fully put. I was think­ing when we started to speak, I’m so glad I’m a nov­el­ist and not a politi­cian.

NS I would love to swap places!

RK But I’m so glad you are a politi­cian be­cause you’re tal­ented at it, clearly. I said it be­cause the nov­el­ist can range deeply into the moral com­plex­ity with­out hav­ing to pro­duce pol­icy at the other end. But I’m glad they have you in Scot­land to chal­lenge peo­ple.

NS I was go­ing to chance my arm and ask what you’re writ­ing now…

RK Oh gosh, I have a new novel that I’m work­ing on.

NS That’s what I like to hear.

RK It’s such a dif­fer­ent sub­ject and it might sound a bit wild. How to ex­plain this: I’m quite taken with the new sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies about hu­man mi­gra­tion pat­terns in Europe. When they se­quenced the en­tire genome of the Ne­an­derthal, it trans­formed our un­der­stand­ing of pre­his­tory – and now ge­neti­cists think there was one homo sapi­ens walk­ing north from Africa who en­coun­tered one Ne­an­derthal in Europe. These peo­ple got to­gether and this re­sulted in be­tween 2% and 4% of Ne­an­derthal DNA in Euro­peans. To me, it’s a love story!

NS This is the sub­ject of your next novel?

I can’t wait.

My last ques­tion to you is about the US midterm elec­tion re­sults. Are you op­ti­mistic or pes­simistic?

RK Oh gosh, I just don’t know. Part of that is,

I was out of the coun­try when they oc­curred, and I came home to Los An­ge­les, where we had a mass shoot­ing and fire storms, and I think we’re try­ing to sur­vive those and then see.

But we have had some vic­to­ries as pro­gres­sives – so, care­ful op­ti­mism.

My last ques­tion is also a com­ment. It was a state­ment that you made about your big­gest in­flu­ence be­ing Margaret Thatcher? [NS laughs] I found this so won­der­ful and I read it to my mother who burst out laugh­ing, but maybe the same can al­most be said of me. When Rea­gan was elected, he was in a way our Thatcher, and when he was elected I cried. I was a child but I un­der­stood that the other side had won. Thatcher and Rea­gan had this famed con­nec­tion as ul­tra­con­ser­va­tives and there were huge protests in San Fran­cisco in 1983, when Queen Elizabeth II dined with Rea­gan in Golden Gate Park, just a few blocks from my child­hood apart­ment. They were di­rected at Rea­gan and Thatcher and their po­lit­i­cal al­liance, and all that they each, and cu­mu­la­tively, stood for.

NS I did say that. When Thatcher be­came prime minister, I was nine years old and I re­mem­ber, through the 1980s, when her poli­cies were do­ing such dam­age to the com­mu­nity I grew up in and work­ing-class com­mu­ni­ties all across Scot­land. It was my anger at that that re­ally sparked my in­ter­est and shaped the pol­i­tics I have to­day.

So I prob­a­bly owe it all to Margaret Thatcher!

But I like to think that across Amer­ica right now, there’s a younger gen­er­a­tion of fu­ture politi­cians and ac­tivists who are be­ing in­spired in the same way, by a cer­tain in­cum­bent of the White House.

RK And that should be our closing state­ment

Rachel Kush­ner Nov­el­ist and 2018 Man Booker prize nom­i­nee

Ni­cola Stur­geon First minister of Scot­land and leader of the SNP

Prison is in­vis­i­ble to a mid­dle-class per­son. It’s a se­ri­ous sub­ject for a writer

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