Deni Ellis Béchard is a Commonwealth Writers' Prize-winning fiction writer and an acclaimed journalist whose work has taken him around the world. His newest book is the novel Into the Sun (House of Anansi Press), an epic exploration of the lives of ex-pats living in Kabul. When a car bomb claims three lives, a Japanese-American journalist who knew the victims is left unravelling the increasingly mystery behind the explosion and the victims' connections to one another. The novel has received rave reviews, praised for its "ferocious intelligence" and called a "daring masterpiece" .
We're excited to speak with Deni today about Into the Sun. He tells us about exploring his characters' problematic attraction to war zones, his writing life moving between fiction, memoir, and non-fiction, and another Sun-centric title that had a major influence on the novel.
This book takes readers all over the world through Michiko's narrative, and you yourself travel extensively for work and research. How does movement and travel factor into this novel?
Deni Ellis Béchard:
The novel is in many ways a study of neocolonialism and Western imperialism, and the majority of travel in the novel is that of people who are drawn to war zones so they can live out colonial fantasies of exploration, discovery, and domination. Into the Sun explores Kabul as an extension of the American fantasy of the Wild West, in which boomtowns arise and draw mercenaries, missionaries, and a wide variety of people desperate to get rich quick or reinvent themselves. The narrator reflects on how this travel is an extension of an American narrative of leaving home to become one’s “true” self or to fulfill the messianic American story of conquest for civilization and salvation. She herself goes to America to write it from the outside (as Westerners do to Afghanistan), to reduce it to its most rudimentary archetypes and show their futility outside the American context.
Part of what unites all these characters is their attraction, for different reasons, to a volatile city and country. What interests you about creating characters who are drawn to war zones or those who are living there?
My interest in such characters largely arises because of the neocolonial and imperialist narratives that aren’t being explored in the larger media. One frustration I have had since the book’s release is people’s tendency to speak of it as a traditional war novel. I intended it as a portrait of Western imperialism and neocolonialism, and the kinds of people who are drawn to war zones and living in war zones are often part of that machine. They are often complicit in the creation of a colonial culture that serves Western interests. People are often fascinated with the adrenaline junky aspect of the story but neglect to consider that war zones are places where Westerners can live out the sorts of colonial fantasies I mention in my answer to the first question. Many of them curate their social media with the narcissistic fervour of Henry Morton Stanley’s writing, and others create businesses or small NGOs that they run like fiefdoms until their funding dries up and they flee home.
What was the experience of writing Michiko like for you? How would you describe her, and did she change at all as a character through the drafts?
Michiko was the most challenging character to write in the book but also the one with whom I most strongly identify. Most readers think she is a man because of the first person narrative and because she is dating a woman, though many indicators are there that she is female. Her telling of the story challenges readers’ assumptions—the sorts of assumptions and prejudices that cause Westerners to “read” Afghans a certain way or to read people who they see as “other” in reductive terms. Michiko sometimes presents as a man, sometimes as a woman, and because she is half-Japanese, half-American, she can pass as a Hazara (an Afghan ethnic group believed to be descended from the Mongols). Like the American characters in the book, she comes from an imperial country (Japan) and is struggling to reinvent herself. I chose to write from her point of view in part so that I could look in on the Western characters from the outside and have an interpretive force reducing them to their failed archetypes. Between drafts, I struggled to decide how much she would reveal of herself, since she was consciously engaged in reinvention and she knows that telling her story can limit what she can become. Some readers might be skeptical that someone can travel the world to understand who they are and who they might be, but having spent so much of my life traveling and having met others who have done so, I do not think this is unusual (though it is a particularly fraught experiment). I relate to her as a character, especially in the ways that she desires to know and experience and yet remains detached, as well as her growing awareness that by telling a story she is inevitably writing herself into it and changing the outcome.
This marks a return to fiction for you after writing a memoir and a book of non-fiction, as well as your extensive experience as a journalist. What do you enjoy about writing fiction in particular? How does your writing process change when you are writing a novel?
I have always considered myself primarily a novelist. My first book was a novel, and after its publication, I understood that I wanted to tell stories for which I lacked the experience and knowledge. In the years between my first novel and Into the Sun, I wrote several books of fiction that I didn’t publish but that allowed me to develop my ideas and vision for future novels. Journalism is much more challenging for me to write than fiction. When there are narrative gaps, the imagination cannot simply expand to fill them. Writing journalism forced me to be much more attentive to people and their motivations and experiences, to listen much better and to educate myself in areas that I previously neglected. It taught me that when I don’t have the full story, I need to go back to people and keep trying to understand rather than plug the gaps with my assumptions or intuition—a very lauded faculty in the arts but one that often furnishes us with what we believe to be true in our own small cultural framework. I try to maintain some degree of journalistic engagement because I have strong political views and I think journalists are important for maintaining healthy democracies. Journalism also broadens my understanding of people and the world so that the creative impulse in fiction has a larger canvas and far more colours with which to compose.
This novel has been compared to a variety of writers, including Conrad and Melville, for its engagement with epic themes of war and the attraction of both exploration and destruction. Are there books you've read that influenced your process here, or which address the themes you are interested in in Into the Sun?
The book does echo the works of Conrad and Melville, especially in the sense that I also, as a writer, struggle with my complicity in cultural narratives that reduce the humanity of other people and place white men as saviours. Their best writing occurs at the moment where the colonial mirage or the myth of male domination dissolves to the brutality, horror, and futility behind it. So Into the Sun is deliberately echoing those stories of colonialism and exploitation, and also references books such as Robison Crusoe and The Sun Also Rises. The latter was a particularly strong influence, especially in regards to how Westerners use foreign cultures as playgrounds in which to explore their power, flee their failures, and live without accountability.
What will you be working on next?
Both my journalism and fiction have led me to write increasingly about the ways that ethnic, class, and gender constructs are performative. I am working on both fiction and non-fiction that explore whiteness and masculinity—themes that are important in Into the Sun, especially in terms of the futility and toxicity of male power, but that I want to explore in more personal contexts. Overseas, I have repeatedly been disturbed by the powers that whiteness and masculinity confer, the ways that Westerners assume these powers as much as possible, and the abuses that ensue. I believe that artists and thinkers need to actively dismantle ethnic and gender constructs, and that while a great deal of work has been done to dismantle constructs placed on women and minorities of color, relatively little has been done by men—and white men in particular—to deconstruct whiteness and masculinity, since doing so would decrease their cultural domination. And yet, by breaking down these constructs, I believe that we can reveal the diversity that they hide—that defies categories, and that, if freely expressed, would help prevent so much of the violence in our current power structures.
Deni Ellis Béchard is the author of the novel Vandal Love, winner of the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize; Cures for Hunger, a memoir about growing up with a father who robbed banks; and The Last Bonobo: A Journey into the Congo. His work has appeared in the LA Times, Salon, and Foreign Policy, and he has reported from Afghanistan, India, the Congo, and Iraq.