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Can a white American Jew write a persuasive novel about Peru?

Ethical questions have been at the center of the Jewish faith since the religion was founded.

What is my responsibility to other human beings? Who am I to claim I have the right answers, or any answers at all?How do I contribute to repairing the world? Might my attempt to do so cause unforeseen damage? How does one ever take action at all?

Debates over these and other questions have, in many ways, kept our faith alive, through the most serious periods in our history and the most frivolous. Andrew Altschul’s fiery, probing new novel “The Gringa” continues that tradition by attacking these questions head on.

Andrew Altschul

Andrew Altschul, author of “The Gringa.” Image by Courtesy of Andrew Altschul

The book consists of two interrelated stories. One traces the radicalization of Leonora Gelb, a character based on the real life revolutionary Lori Berenson, who in the early 1990s, goes from Stanford University straight to Peru and, in hopes of making a difference in the world, entwines herself with leftist revolutionary movements there. The other follows the dissolute and fatalistic novelist Andres, who makes his own way to Peru in the 2000s hoping to disappear from his failures.

Both Leonora and Andres are secular American Jews, raised with an affluence and security that has distanced them from suffering in the world. As we watch Andres struggle to write what he imagines will be a puff piece about Leonora’s revolutionary efforts, the similarities and differences between him and Leonora create a kind of a dialectic, vividly dramatizing longstanding moral questions and demanding that the reader engage them with the seriousness they deserve. The result is a deeply humane book, one that reminds us that the best questions are those that are both urgent and impossible to answer.

I recently sat down with Altschul for a drink in San Antonio, Texas. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

Josh Furst: Andrew, what are you drinking?

Andrew Altschul: A Cuba libre, of course!

Since we’re in occupied Mexico, I’m drinking a margarita. I think it’s daring for someone like you or me to write a book about South American politics in our current moment.

It’s an ethical minefield, because you’re telling stories about people whose lives and experiences and histories and cultures and perspectives are entirely different than yours, and about whom you may not know very much beyond what you’ve read in a book or gleaned in a visit.The people you’re telling the stories about have so much more at stake than you do. To take, in the example of “The Gringa,” a 12-year conflict that claimed 70,000 lives in Peru and to turn it into the stuff of a novel, which, inevitably, one is hoping to make money off of, to get recognition for, you have to step very, very carefully, to make sure that you’re not simply using the material as a springboard for your own ambitions, and that you are not substituting your voice and your perspective for those of the people who really lived through these histories.

So how do you approach the topic of a guerrilla war with authority and integrity and respect for the seriousness of the topic that you’ve chosen?

What it comes down to is a distinction between authenticity and authority. Authenticity on the page is an artifice, it’s something that a writer can build through technique. Authority, I think, really speaks better to this question of what you know and how well you know it. And there is no question that as a white, male American writer – even one who lived in Peru for a couple of years and has spent a great deal of time there over the last 20-some years – that I know far less about the conflict in the 1980s and 1990s and its aftermath than someone who has lived their entire life in Peru.

At the same time, there are people who’ve lived their entire life in Peru who grew up with great privilege in Lima and were barely touched by the war, and they know far less about the conflict than, say, a campesino living in Ayacucho in the 1980s, or a subsistence farmer or journalist or an aid worker or any of the groups that were targeted by the government as subversives, and detained and disappeared.

It seems to me that part of your angle had to do with choosing to look at the assumptions and alienation involved in an outsider attempting to enter.

In some ways. I was writing about a character, Leonora Gelb, who was loosely inspired by Lori Berenson. But the novel wouldn’t have been interesting to me at all if it were just about her, if that didn’t also allow me to say something about the war, about the culture that gave rise to it, about the government and the history of racism and oppression in Peru, all of which fed into these vicious 12 years. I felt that I really couldn’t speak to these things with the kind of authority that I needed, and I was stuck for years.

One of the things that turned it for me was, I was in Lima, doing research, and I was talking to a friend of mine, a Canadian journalist who has lived in Peru since the early 90s and briefly covered the Lori Berenson affair when it broke in 1995. I was telling her about these problems with writing the novel and why I was having such a hard time feeling in control of the material. And she said, “Here’s what you have to think about, Andrew. Lori Berenson was an outsider. She had no idea what she was doing here. She thought she knew something about Peru. She knew nothing about Peru. She was trying to help, or she thought she was trying to help. She wasn’t helping. And she made a huge mess out of things because of that limited perspective.” And I said, “Exactly, and how do you write about a character like that without replicating those limits of perspective?” And she said, “Well, but don’t you see? You are the same person. You are also the interloper. You are also the gringo coming from the outside, thinking that you know something about this culture.” And I was taken aback and I was a little bit offended until I understood that what she was saying was there’s a direct analogy between my relationship to writing the story and Berenson’s relationship to Peru itself.

You had to both master the history and think your way through the experiences of these two very different Americans who are in different ways attempting to grapple with it. Which makes the story both about the tragedy that occurred and about the way in which America misinterprets the world, right?

That’s right. You have these two different characters, both American, but Leonora is a true believer, someone who’s willing to put her body, her life, on the line to fight for a cause – notwithstanding the fact that she doesn’t know as much about that cause as she thinks she does. On the other hand, you have Andres, who’s the narrator of the novel, who has been commissioned by a really cynical website to try to write this story. And he’s a layabout, a privileged expatriate who is basically trying to reinvent himself by disappearing into another country to get away from what he sees as the nastiness of post-9/11 America, his disgust with the Bush administration. He doesn’t want to give anything to anybody. He’s in it for himself. And what these two characters have in common, that neither of them really realizes, is precisely that they’re both American, and these habits of thought are deeply ingrained. This whole idea of reinvention – that an American can go anywhere and simply become another person, insert oneself into another context and pick up seamlessly, start a new life — If you think about the long tradition of expat novels, they’re always about Americans just having a really good time, one way or another, in other cultures, or about “finding themselves,” whatever that means. What we’re basically doing is using these other cultures and these other countries as scenery for our own personal dramas. And that’s equally true for my social justice warrior who comes in trying to pick up where a guerrilla war has left off a few years prior and for my failed novelist who just wants to come down and go dancing every night and pick up the local girls. At a certain level, they’re both doing the same thing: subjugating or reducing an entire history and an entire people to their own desires, to their own idea of reinvention, and to their own goals. So that metaphor between the two of them was really what enabled me to finally figure out how to structure the book, which was as a story being told by someone who’s poorly qualified to tell it and doesn’t understand how he himself is replicating many of the complicated dynamics that he’s trying to write about.

There’s another character running around in your novel who seems to me to be based on the journalist and activist Glenn Greenwald.

There’s another gringa in the book. She is not based on Glenn Greenwald. I mean, probably they have the same politics. The other gringa is based on my Canadian journalist friend. She’s lived in Peru since 1992. All of her friends and all of her relationships are Peruvian. And she’s invested in a life there in a way that I never had. And I listen to the way that she talks about Peru and its history and its culture and politics and she knows a thousand times more than I do. And so she was always this kind of looming and chastening presence as I was writing the book because I felt like, ideally, I would write a book that a Peruvian reader would appreciate and would see as having some degree of authority. And I have many Peruvian friends – journalists, activists, people I spoke to about their experiences, who know a thousand times more than she does.

So the intellectual journey that you the writer had to go on was grafted onto the adventure that your character goes on.

That’s right. Some of the drama of the novel is removed from the story of the woman who’s living with militants and gets arrested and incarcerated, and moved over to the question of: How do you write this story?

Yeah. And in that process you inevitably and, I think, poignantly had to grapple with what it was in these two characters that drove them toward these journeys. You evoke their discomfort with their own senses of self, and with America.

One of the things that fascinates me about Lori Berenson is that, on paper, we have a lot in common. We were born in the same year. We both grew up in the New York area, in middle to upper-middle class secularized Jewish families, both went to good schools, both went to excellent universities and both clearly feel that there is and always has been something quite rotten and corrosive in American political discourse and in America’s attitudes towards the rest of the world. Andres’s relationship to Leonora Gelb is similar in that he’s simultaneously horrified by her, confused by her and by what she did or was alleged to have done, and also at some unconscious level understands that their values are the same, their analysis is the same, their background, some of the things they’re rebelling against or running away from are the same. The main difference being that she had – it’s a cliché to say “the courage of her convictions,” but she was willing to put everything on the line in order to fight what she thought was the necessary fight. And Andres, like Andrew, has never been willing to do that. Whether that’s smart or cowardly, I have no idea. But both Andres and Andrew are writing their stories because they are fascinated by this question of, “How did this person who in some ways is so much like me end up in such a different place than I did?”

The minute someone takes action,whatever that action is, whatever historical moment that action is occurring within, that person risks playing the fool, by virtue of all they can’t know about the situation.

The person risks playing the fool? Or the person risks playing the corpse or causing others to play the corpse?

Those are frequent results of playing the fool. So, what does one do?

I don’t think that there’s a good answer to the question. Andres arrives at the place which I arrived at long ago – which is to say that all the talk about the moral arc of history bending towards justice, and nonviolent protest, and reasonable liberal values, often gets us nowhere.

Or worse than nowhere, it gets us to a place where the actions that are taken actually work against solving the problem.

Andres has this moment at the end of the novel where he basically says, “What do I do now? Do I go back to the United States, which because of my privilege I can always do? I have an education. I have some work experience. I can, without batting an eye, take my rightful place in the middle class…”

There’s something interesting to me about how that question has been grappled with in terms of the evolution of Jewish thought.

Right. I don’t think it’s an accident that Jews have been prominent in every left-leaning social movement in American history. I don’t think it’s an accident that there were Jews who were murdered and arrested and beaten in the South during the Civil Rights Movement. I don’t think it’s an accident that 70 to 90 percent of Jews regularly vote Democrat, which is what we have as an excuse for a left political party in this country — I don’t want to essentialize Jews, but broadly speaking, Jewish thought, Jewish teaching, Jewish culture is concerned with issues of social justice, of racism, of equality. And there have always been Jews who have the courage of their convictions, and who will put everything on the line. The thing that I had to grapple with in writing this novel and that Andres has to grapple with in writing Leo’s story is that I’m not one of them. Unless you consider writing a novel to be putting something valuable on the line, which maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. I don’t know. It’s what I can do. Am I ever going to find myself at a barricade? Am I ever going to be sucking tear gas? It’s unlikely, and there’s part of me that feels ashamed of that. The personal tragedy for me is that, in the end, I don’t have the guts to be a radical.


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