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Maps for Storytelling: An Interview with John Freeman

By Francesca Pellas

John Freeman, founder of the literary journal Freeman’s, discusses finding, reading, and editing literature from around the world, as well as the creation of his recent poetry collection, Maps, with journalist Francesca Pellas.


Fred McMorrow, Nora Ephron’s copy editor at the New York Post, used to say that a piece should never begin with a quote, and I try to follow that rule. In some cases—like this one—that’s very difficult: John Freeman has written and said many things that would be perfect to introduce our conversation. For instance, “Very little in the world that is interesting happens without risk, movement, and wonder.”

How do we arrive at wonder? What doors should we enter, what boundaries should we cross? How many lives can we inhabit, and how many can we touch? The first keyword (and the first door) is “mother.” The second, “map.” When we arrive in the world, we find ourselves in a story that has already begun, that was being told before us and that continues after us, and that while we exist, exists in millions of other versions. A map full of lights. We are the lights on that map; we cannot choose where our lights are illuminated, but if we are lucky, we can decide where they go.

The history of the world is made of migration and movement—people migrate and words migrate. But all great writers—no matter where they were born, what language they wrote in, what real or imaginary boundaries they crossed, or whether they moved at all—share one thing in common: on every page of their work, we find something inexplicably powerful. Something that speaks to our internal cartography: to the invisible cities that live within us, to those aspects of ourselves that we have left in other parts of the world, to pain, to fear, to wounds, to joy, to the love we have given or could have given, to what has opened us up and consumed, ruined, or saved us, to the lives we have not lived, and to the hope that there is meaning. This is what literature does: it speaks to us from the center of the earth.

John Freeman is a literary critic, editor, poet, and former president of the National Book Critics Circle and editor of Granta. Two years ago, he founded the literary journal Freeman’s (published by Grove Atlantic in collaboration with the New School). Since its creation, Freeman’s has published renowned writers such as Haruki Murakami, Herta Müller, Colum McCann, Louise Erdrich, and Patrick Modiano. It has given space to young writers like Ocean Vuong and Édouard Louis, and it has launched writers like Elaine Castillo, whose first novel, America Is Not the Heart, is forthcoming in 2018. Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions was born as a short essay commissioned for the journal and later developed into a book. The introductions that Freeman writes for each issue are now well-known, marked by his clear and beautiful prose: they are pieces of literature as much as those in the journal.

Freeman—a sort of mythological creature born from a cross between Jon Bon Jovi, a Brontë sister, and Albus Dumbledore—never stops: last month, in the span of a few days, his beautiful collection of poems, Maps (Copper Canyon Press), came out; a new anthology that he edited, Tales of Two Americas (the follow-up to Tales of Two Cities, Penguin Random House), was published; and he released the fourth issue of Freeman’s, dedicated to the future or writing, which includes twenty-nine voices from all over the world, and writers of all nationality, age, and literary genre.

I met John Freeman in October. We sat on a pier in Manhattan and spoke for a long time about books, boundaries, translation, writers and forests, ancient Irish legends, sex in literature, the time he met God in Sweden, and what it means to lose a mother and, in the grief that follows, to find a language we thought we had lost forever, and that, in fact, was there within us, waiting to save us.

—Francesca Pellas


Francesca Pellas (FP): We use the expression “mother tongue” for our native language. In your opinion, how is one’s language like a mother?

John Freeman (JF): Mothers and fathers give you life, the ability to be born, and they tell you the words for things: “This is coffee, this is the dog.” So, while you’re having this intimate and hopefully loving relationship with the people that are giving you the world, simultaneously there is this invisible mother giving you the world too: language. The difference is that this second one is a mother to many other people. And yet this second mother is also specific to your family, to where you’re born, to the stories your parents have been told, to the books you read when you’re a kid, to the signs you see on the street where you live. So even though my mother tongue is English, which is shared by over a billion people around the world, my true mother tongue comes from Ohio, from a parent from California and another parent from Pennsylvania who both grew up religious and had parents who survived living in the Great Depression: all those things filtered into the version of the mother tongue I have. As children we learn to hold the world through language, but we don’t know the names for everything, and that’s a beautiful state of present-tenseness. While as we get older we know more, and so it becomes harder to forget and imagine. There is, though, a peculiar magic that storytellers perform with the mother tongue that they grow up in: they channel it into this sort of über mother that you can read, and they make you forget what you know, so that you can imagine something else.


FP: You’ve said you rely on other people’s advice when it comes to finding writers in other countries—that you ask scouts, booksellers, people at book festivals, “Who should I be reading?” What is the most adventurous way in which you have stumbled upon a writer’s work?

JF: That’s a good question! I wish I could answer that I was hacking through a jungle with a machete in my hand, but that boots up a lot of horrific colonial enterprises that I’m really trying to avoid. (Laughs.) What’s really important to remember, especially in the English-language world, which does a lot more projecting than listening, is that it’s actually not that hard to find good writers around the world: they’re not buried under mountains, nor living on secret islands; you simply have to ask a few questions in order to find them. There are certain writers I feel, if not sentimental about, then certainly closer to, because I guess it was improbable that I would’ve come across them. I grew up mostly in a mundane suburb of Sacramento, and growing up I spent most of my time on basketball courts and watching Clint Eastwood movies. The fact that one day I would be sitting next to Mo Yan at a restaurant in China eating duck was the furthest thing from my mind as a fifteen year old. I didn’t leave the United States until I was twenty-five. So I’ve had a lot of help getting to countries to talk to people who know a lot more than I do about the writers there.


FP: For example?

JF: I was very lucky to be sent to China by the British Council in 2010 as part of their soft diplomacy. There are lots of good writers in China, but in the West we tend to focus, for reasons both obvious and not, on writers in exile, writers who have left China, who don’t live there anymore. Writers who had to leave. So being sent on that trip, and spending ten days meeting with translators and writers, and then meeting Mo Yan and getting to publish him before he won the Nobel . . . well, that was an exceptional experience, because it made me realize that if you ask for and are lucky enough to receive help, you can get to the writers who want to be heard. It was on that same trip that I met A Yi, one of the most exciting writers I know right now, and he’s only beginning to be translated.

But as much as I love the feeling of discovery when I read a writer for the first time, I want to reiterate that I am not discovering them—they’ve existed for a long time. In Mo Yan’s case, for decades before I arrived. He had at least three books translated by that point by Arcade Press; I was simply working for Granta, which had the power to reinvigorate interest in his work. Whenever I go places to meet writers who are new to me, I’m not putting a Freeman’s flag down: they’ve existed long before my arrival; I’m simply someone with the tools to import some of what those writers have done into a different culture.

Whenever I go places to meet writers who are new to me, I’m not putting a Freeman’s flag down: they’ve existed long before my arrival; I’m simply someone with the tools to import some of what those writers have done into a different culture.

FP: In a WWB interview with four women translators who translate women, Bonnie Huie, a translator from Chinese and Japanese, says, “the Olympics-like vision of world literature, in which authors have come to be seen as representatives of nations, gives rise to literature as product-for-export and self glorifying national history." And Colum McCann, in an essay in Freeman’s, writes, “Cooking our lives down under boiling heat, the one thing we can't evaporate away is our original country.” Bonnie Huie’s and Colum McCann’s statements are both true, aren’t they? But how do these truths coexist in your mission as an editor? You hope for a literature without borders. In what ways is the place we come from something that enriches us, and in what ways might it limit us?

JF: Thinking of literature in terms of nationalism is not a function of literature: the fact is that we see the world as an assembly of nations. We live in a world in which so much of the movement of human lives is trafficked through borders controlled by nations, yet a nation is a fictional thing. There is no essential “Swedishness” before that land was something else. Nations are constantly needing to define themselves. What would happen if we ceased to believe in them? So they create myths and legends and rules and laws. They define who they are not. If you grow up in one, you share things with other people. It is not a flag, though, that is most durable. It is what your senses do. Colum put it very well, which is that writers essentially work from the sensory maps they grow up in: what the world around them smells like, what it looks like and tastes like . . . And that’s a kind of template for sensation that you cannot erase no matter how many times you migrate. It blends, too, with the stories you’re told growing up. That’s what makes a writer: writers don’t grow up in a vacuum, they have to have original DNA, and that’s what Colum is speaking about.

For all these reasons, I think it’s very hard for writers to divorce themselves from where they’re from. Simultaneously, seeing them only as being from the country where they’re from is a great limitation to what those stories are about: Japanese or Spanish writers are not writing about Japaneseness, or Spanishness, although that’s part of what is there in their stories; what they’re writing about can be shame, heartbreak, love, loss, the body. These are things that everyone can relate to. What is beautiful about looking at the world through the writers that you read, rather than the people who are right around you, is that you get a greater and more diverse sensory map for storytelling. What we need to look for is a balance between the two: the original sensory map and the fact that people are citizens of somewhere.


FP: There is a famous Irish tale from the seventh century, the myth of Oisín, about a young man traveling to Tír na nÓg, a mythical island beyond the sea: a land of love, beauty, health and everlasting youth. Oisín is in love with Niamh, a princess born on the island, and spends three years there with her, but then he gets homesick and wants to see Ireland again. She gives him a horse and lets him go back for a while, but warns him never to get off it and touch the ground. As soon as he returns to Ireland, Oisín discovers that not three, but three hundred years have passed: he falls from the horse, and instantly ages. This tale bears striking similarities to the eighth-century Japanese tale of Urashima Tarō, a fisherman who rescues a sea turtle and is then brought by this turtle to a palace beneath the sea, where he meets a princess, Otohime, and falls in love with her. He spends three years there, until he gets homesick and wants to see Japan again. She lets him go home but gives him a tiny box and tells him never to open it. As soon as he touches the shores of Japan, Urashima realizes that three hundred years have passed and opens the box: a cloud comes out of it and vanishes. That cloud was his youth, and he instantly ages three hundred years. These tales from centuries ago, written in places far away from one another, are basically the same story. What do you think this says about us humans? Do you believe that there is something greater pulsing beneath the surface of nationalities, a “vibration of necessity”—to use an expression from your introduction to “The Future of New Writing” issue—a story that we all, in some way, need to tell?

JF: Here’s another story: when Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel, someone had to go to Afghanistan to get the aquamarine that he wanted to use in some of the details. This tells us one very important thing: the world has always been knit together, long before the internet, by trade. Whether it was coffee or tobacco, or spices or gold or silk, the world was dependent on people going to sea and leaving for long periods of time and then coming back; there was a global society of sailors and traders who spoke each other’s languages. And since at sea there was no radio, no iPad, no Netflix, no downloading the complete seasons of The Walking Dead, on those long journeys people also traded stories. I’m sure they played cards, too, and drank, and did other things, but stories were and have always been ways for people to pass the time, especially when they’re together with people who are not like them. So it doesn’t surprise me at all that there is a story in Japan that is almost identical to one that was told around the same time in Ireland.

We think of ourselves, as modern animals, as peculiarly oppressed by the linkage of the world. And, yes, the internet and simultaneous time means we are all kind of living in a global, perpetual present tense. But the linkages this condition suggests have been around for a long time. Stories have always been told as a way to greet people: this is why, for example, there are a huge number of stories beginning with a traveler arriving unknown in a foreign land who then begins to tell stories as a way to ingratiate himself to the people who are welcoming him (and just right there you can see one of the oldest short-story tricks in the world: the story within the story). Trading stories is a habit as old as humankind.


FP: So are maps, which are as vital to sailors and traders as stories. Why did you choose the title Maps (Copper Canyon Press, 2017) for your first collection of poems?

JF: It's a book about the ways we map experience onto places, and those places in turn ink themselves back onto us. I also wanted to write about empire, and how the so-called ends of the earth are often seen through fantasy and imagination, when in fact it is our memories of our own lives that are based on those impulses. Finally, I wanted to think a bit about what the world would look like if we acknowledged this irony. What would be its centers?


FP: As an editor, how do you select manuscripts, and how much do you read before making a decision? Among the submissions or the leads that you receive, how many end up being seriously considered for publication in Freeman’s?

JF: I read a lot that I don’t include. For example, I just got back from Sweden and I have among my notes almost twenty names, and I know that there might be one person in there that I might publish, even though right now I think there’s five possible people. So what I do now is track down everything that has been published and find out if there’s anything that has been sample-translated, which is often difficult, because sample translations are made rapidly and at the expense of the author or author’s agent, and so people don’t often have the time to produce something that feels like it’s ready to be published. But to me that’s the most important time for translation: it has to be the best possible translation of someone’s work. So I do that, and I would say, of all the recommendations, the things I end up seriously considering are well below ten percent, and of that ten, what I end up publishing is maybe a third. My approach is to try and rely on other people whom I trust: that’s why I’m starting foreign editions of Freeman’s as well: to formalize that relationship.

[And then when considering submissions,] I try to read like a reader: for enjoyment. The things you look for as a reader are joy and energy. You can come across those things in many different ways: through the use of vernacular, the metaphors, the rhythm and sound of the prose; through humor, which is another way of saying joy . . . It’s shocking to me how many books are written in a joyless way. I have two goddaughters, and two nieces and a nephew, so I’ve read a little bit to children. I don’t think that every writer should have children, but I do think that every writer should read their own work to children, because that’s one of the greatest editors outside of time: to try and imagine how it would be to read that thing to a child. I really want enchantment, and I want it now! That doesn’t mean you have to begin with explosion, it just means that with the very good writers you often have it right away.

When I read a book I usually read the beginning for a couple of pages, and if I’m not immediately drawn in, I skip ahead to page ninety-nine and read that page . . .


FP: Why page ninety-nine?

JF: It feels like a good marker, and if it has a cliché, or lazy phrasing, or if it doesn’t have that snap in the prose there, I just put the book down. Because that’s the point at which an author usually assumes they have you, and you will not find on page ninety-nine of Anne Tyler or Haruki Murakami or Virginia Woolf a lazy sentence: you’re going to find sentences just as good as you would find on page one. That helps me weed out a lot. Maybe I’m missing things because of that, but most of what I miss is worth missing, I think.

What is beautiful about looking at the world through the writers that you read . . . is that you get a greater and more diverse sensory map for storytelling.

FP: What really strikes you in a piece of writing?

JF: It comes down to aesthetics—intensity and coherence. When I was going to Sweden I read Beauty is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan, and within two sentences I forgot I was reading. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t aware of the prose and its beauty, but the world around me fell away. And I was tired, I was on a plane, I hadn’t slept much, I didn’t get my salty peanuts . . . I had many reasons to put the book down, and yet I looked up and an hour and twenty minutes had passed. The book had completely transported me. To me that is the most powerful thing that writing can do; because once it does that, it can do all the other things: it can make you think, challenge you, make you laugh. But in order to do all that it has to have that original thing: the ability to transport and enchant.


FP: If it's work written in another language, how do you choose the translator?

JF: In some cases the translator is the person who brings the text to me, and if they’re not available to translate it themselves, they often have very good recommendations. The translator is often crucial in the discovery of a writer’s work, not only for me but in general. Annie Tucker, for example, who translated Kurniawan: she was obsessed with him after discovering his books in Indonesia, and it would have been a shame if someone had taken it out of her hands and chosen another translator. So I also try to give the translator who has discovered something an obvious role in the process.


FP: And that’s beautiful, and right. But if someone says “You should absolutely read this phenomenal Norwegian writer!” but you don’t have a person to translate that text, how do you pick a translator?

JF: I usually talk to that person’s editor, and ask who should do the translation, relying upon the fact that he or she will know who has the best feel for the sound of their language. Again: the advice of others is always important. In the case of Norway, I write for a newspaper there so I can always ask my editor. She has very good taste, and works with the country’s best critics. It was through her gang of writers that I was convinced to translate some of Johan Harstad’s work, for instance, for the latest Freeman’s.


FP: Ilide Carmignani—the Italian translator of writers such as Bolaño, Borges, Cortázar, and Neruda, as well as a new edition of Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude—said of her translation of Bolaño’s 2666: “Months of work, hours and hours in the company of one voice. When I finished translating it, I longed for it, and sometimes, at the oddest moments, certain scenes from the book suddenly opened up before me, as if instead of my holding the novel, the novel contained me.” You’re not a translator, but as an editor, as a literary critic, you, too, spend a lot of time with certain texts. Do some of those texts contain you and open up wide in front of you in the most unexpected moments?

JF: Tomas Tranströmer’s. I read his work sporadically, then he won the Nobel prize and, of course, like all people I read a bit more of it, and I was stunned by his capacity for existing in the liminal spaces between dreams and reality. He was a psychologist for much of his adult life, so he had an appreciation for the unconscious mind and how it operates, the symbols it speaks in. In his work he managed to create poetry that felt open to these mysteries, not reduced to them. To read his work is to feel these invisible ripples, sometimes weeks after reading a poem. It has colored my thinking so much it is as vivid as reality. Even in a very vivid reality like New York City. So sitting here in the falling dark in Chelsea Piers, with the kind of techno-dream of Wall Street rising in front of us, we have a sense of the sublime at work before us. These buildings, that smear of light: what we’re looking at. And simultaneously a Tranströmer poem can produce the same voltage of sentiment, even when he’s just writing about a drive home.


FP: In your career you have interviewed almost every great writer there is, and yet you told me that the interview you did with Tranströmer is the one you hold most dear.

JF: Absolutely. It was like meeting God and discovering he was a beatific Swedish poet felled by a stroke but very much alive. The trees around the little house in Runmarö where we did the interview shushed in the wind and it was like the whole island was constantly singing his poems.


FP: In an interview on Coda Quarterly, you said that your father pushed you to study by being a “purveyor of fears,” by coming up “with all sorts of non-terrible fantasies for my life.” You said that you grew up “afraid that I was one or two bad decisions away from a life in suburbia with a Subaru," but that he also pushed you to always do better. Of all the things that have happened since then, what’s the most unexpected one, the thing that would leave speechless the kid that used to deliver the Sacramento Bee by bike at five thirty in the morning?

JF: Probably that I smoked cigarettes! (Laughs.) I think that the fact that I ever smoked a cigarette would shock the eleven-year-old me. But, more to the point, I have a really hard time remembering what I thought I would be back then, because everything I thought I would be was attached to activities: I thought that I was going to be a professional basketball player because I was really tall when I was a kid . . . so I spent a lot of time playing basketball, much more time than I spent reading. Then when I stopped growing, I started looking into other activities because my dad was bearing down on me with the various fears of what ex-athletes become when they don’t study. If you could imagine Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro smooshed together into Larry David’s body and with his sense of bizarre humor, that is my dad. So he chased me around with these non-terrible visions, and it prompted me to do all sorts of things, like take the architecture merit badge, which I found really arduous because I couldn’t keep all the pencils straight! And then I thought I wanted to be a doctor, so I volunteered at a hospital. But I realized that I would have to spend a lot of time around people in a very fragile state, with no ability to answer or help them or give them reassurance that everything would be okay, and even at age fourteen, I thought that was terrifying. Then I thought about being a lobbyist, because I liked politics but I found politicians slightly untrustworthy.

Anyway, I proceeded through a lot of different things, and I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer and an editor. I had thirty-eight different jobs before this job, the one I am doing now: everything from working as a museum guard to working in the development department of a nonprofit, from scooping ice cream to working at a traffic-planning and design firm, to being a nude model for life drawing classes . . . And I’m glad I did all those things, because it gave me some experience outside of my laptop and outside of books, but it also helped me collapse the thing I wonder if everyone else has, which is this kind of multiple layers of self: there’s a me that kept growing, and became 6’ 6” and ended up playing for the Sacramento Kings, and then there’s the me who became an engineer and got married and had three kids and lives in Ohio and goes to soccer matches on the weekends.


FP: I have a name for that! I realized that in my language, Italian, “la mia vita” (my life) is just one letter away from “la mai vita” (the “never life”): you change the position of one letter and “my life” becomes a “never life.” That’s the expression I needed for those lives that I could have had but ended up not having, because my path brought me somewhere else; for all the possibilities that could have developed but didn’t, and that somehow keep living inside of us.

JF: Oh yes, they do: those possibilities keep living inside of us. And then there’s an even more powerful thing: the lives that books make possible, and that sometimes feel as intimate as the lives based on decisions you made. I’ve been rereading Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West recently because I taught it in class, and he has this device in the novel where characters walk through mysterious doors and wind up in another country, and I think that one of the things he was trying to do by collapsing migration into that simple device was to highlight the fact that we are born into a lottery. So the fact that I was born white in Ohio in 1974 means that many, many, many more things were possible for me than if I was born somewhere else in that same year. And I think that once you come of age as a reader there’s a sort of moral component to what you choose to read: you stop taking into consideration only the lives that could have been yours for real—the “I could have been an engineer, I could have been a doctor,” all people that look like you and act like you to some degree, and have minor differences, like whether or not they have kids, whether or not they live in Ohio versus New York. And you start including the other lives: “What if I never left the refugee camp in Palestine?” What about that version of me? What if I had to work in a gravel pit in China to support my crippled father and my family? What if I was a woman in Argentina and my uncle had been disappeared and my aunt who lived with us still cried at night? I think that not until we incorporate those not-lived lives into our invisible basement of not-lived will the world function in an even remotely just way. That’s precisely why I’m trying to publish an issue like this: hopefully putting writers together from around the world highlights the fact that our other possible lives could have been elsewhere. And when I say “elsewhere,” I don’t mean just “not America”—I mean not Sweden, not China, not Brazil, or not Colombia. Elsewhere.

I think that once you come of age as a reader there’s a sort of moral component to what you choose to read . . . That’s precisely why I’m trying to publish an issue like this: hopefully putting writers together from around the world highlights the fact that our other possible lives could have been elsewhere.

FP: You edited two anthologies on inequality, Tales of Two Cities and Tales of Two Americas. And you said that writing is always a political act in some way. What is the role of a writer in a democracy?

JF: The notion that writing is not political is a farce. It takes power to pretend power doesn't exist. As for what this means about writing, I'll say this: a democracy is useless if people are not informed. Otherwise it's just a mob. So writers inform. They inform the spirit, the mind, the body. Ever notice how really good writing produces a physical reaction? Writers cause this effect by entertaining, by asking questions, by telling stories and abstracting our fears and desires into imagined specifics. In performing this act of magic, they ask us as readers to perform a trick ourselves: to be another person. All acts of writing ask us to become another, and the best writing makes this an easy transformation. A sentence unfolds and it just happens. You are a woman on a plane to a funeral, you are a dragon, you are inside another person's mind as they form an argument. In this moment, writers show us the power and beauty of language, which is another way of saying that they remind us of how to use our minds and when to use our voices. These are important things in governments that are supposedly of and for the people.


FP: The Italian writer Daria Bignardi came up with the phrase “adult orphan” for herself when her mother died and she was in her forties and had to find a description for her pain. Your mother died in 2010, and your condition of “adult orphan” inspired you to map this grief through poems. You then wrote many of the poems that are now in your book, Maps. How did your mother’s death shape your writing?

JF: It made it necessary. And somehow it made me a poet. Even though I would trade all of those poems in a second to have her back, and I would happily never publish anything if I could have her back in my life. I think that this is to some degree what writers do: there’s something about the world that’s broken and they’re trying to describe it . . . My loss made me far more attuned to other absences, and it also made me, after a period of grieving, far more grateful and less anxious about the world. I began traveling a lot. I came from a family that put travel off until they retired. My mother never left the country, and I know it was a regret for her: she would have loved it. So whenever I’m on a plane I think about her. And I’m not religious, I don’t believe that she’s sitting in a chair in the sky looking down and watching my passport get stamped. But the way we describe what happens to a person as they are reverse-engineered from a personality to a body, to a heartbeat, to a corpse, to dust, to memories, to floating sensations . . . That erasure is really painful. One of the ways we slow it down and also preserve what that person was is through stories about them. When I get together with my brothers or my dad, we inevitably end up talking about her. I now have a feeling that there’s a part of her living inside of me that wasn’t there before, because that is all I have now. And because stories are based on imagination, and so is grief, there’s a part of my imagination that is always working. It never shuts down: the lights are always on, the door is always open, because it has to keep the generators running all the time, otherwise I have none of her in my life.

. . . Pain is a tasting menu grief serves you and you don’t get to skip any of its courses. But there were three things I did that were the most useful. One was talking to my family, my brothers, my dad, my partner. Then going for walks and runs, because I think there’s a kind of trance-state that you can enter through prolonged motion. And then, of course, writing. I wasn’t doing it in a logical fashion, I wasn’t thinking, “I must eulogize this moment.” I just did it when the pressure was too much. In retrospect, I see the moments when I wrote poems were when some form of pressure was getting so great that the only thing I could do to relieve it was writing.


FP: What is the process of writing a poem like for you? Where does that spark that will eventually become that specific poem originate from, how long does it take to put it on paper?

JF: It varies from poem to poem. Some of them, like ”Saudade” or “Blackout,” were written in a rush at a café when a sense prompted a memory, and then were later typed down in a state of bewilderment. Who wrote this? I often wonder when transcribing that kind of poem. Others take time, it's like assembling something that looks delicate—like “The Money” or “The Last”—but since the poem has to support the weight of an unbearable experience, it has to have a core of steel. The form is essential.

Image: John Freeman. Photo by Nicolò Filippo Rosso.

FP: What do writing and love have in common?

JF: Love! They have love in common. You have to love the world to write about it. And you have to love the world to hate it, to make fun of it, to write satire.


FP: What obstacles could prevent someone from writing? And how does one protect and take care of their talent?

JF: There are so many things that can stop you from writing. It could be bad weather, it could be a bad marriage, it could be a good marriage, it could be shingles, it could be training for a marathon, it could be rejection, it could be a single acceptance that takes the edge off, it could be reading a really great book. Writing is not a natural state. So many other things feel better, like drinking coffee and thinking about good writing for a start. I try not to think too hard about how I do what I do as a writer anymore, because in my best moments, I’m just doing it. The pressure of a thought or an expression or an experience forces me into shaping it on the page. There's no magic cure, trick, or piece of advice, I’m afraid, that I can give you. I wish there were. That’s the best piece of advice someone told me: you either do it or you don't; that’s the only thing that matters. 


FP: I once interviewed a great conductor, Gianandrea Noseda. After the interview came out, a friend of mine scolded me: “You had one of the greatest conductors in the world in front of you! You should have asked bold questions! Enough with Mozart, you should have asked him: what's the symphony of sex? What's the right one for a death? What's the best one to listen to when you're incredibly happy? And terrified? And in love?” So, since I now have in front of me a great poet, critic, editor, and, above all, reader, I won't miss the opportunity to ask the bold questions. Ready? What's the best sex scene you have ever read? The best death? And a universe you'd plunge into, if you could?

JF: Wow! I’ll just go with what comes to my mind first. The book I would like to enter immediately is probably the Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz, which is a series of novels set in Egypt before and during and after the independence: he follows several generations of a family, and he really was the Dickens of Egypt, so you see all aspects of society: weddings, funerals, political marches, family fights. It’s a very vividly created world. I’ve never been to Egypt, and I think that when I go, a large part of me will be looking for Mahfouz’s Egypt, which perhaps no longer exists. So I might go directly into his books.

Sex scene is a tough one, because there are many books in which you can almost track the character’s sex scene becoming an autoerotic device of the writer himself, and you can almost see the writer’s brain chemistry change. Let’s see . . . In Zadie Smith’s On Beauty there’s an intimate sex scene between the two main characters in the book, a black woman and her husband, who is white. Those details don’t really matter, but it’s significant in the story. Anyway, they’ve split up, which is the most important detail. And they’ve had kids, they’re not at their glamorous stage of living, but they finally get back together and they do it by making love, and it’s really intimate and unpornographic. It’s as warm and real as love feels, not when you sketch it out in a fantasy, but when you live it, across time, with a person that you share a life with, and to some degree a body with. It was one of the best and most beautiful sex scenes that I’ve ever read, because without even blinking you shut down all those other ways in which you think about sex: sex is sold to us like a commodity, to excite and titillate us. We so rarely see the way that sex feels in a marriage, or in a failing one.


FP: The best death?

JF: I can think of two great deaths. One is in The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, the novel by Louise Erdrich. The main character is a priest who has served on a reservation for fifty years, but is actually a woman who has hidden her true nature for her whole life in order to be this spiritual figure. Erdrich follows this character right up to the moment of an aneurysm, and it’s magical, beautiful, and strange, and earthy, and fantastic. Then there’s Edward P. Jones’s The Known World: someone dies and this death unfolds for just a few pages. Then suddenly it’s over. He manages this sleight of hand where you’re in the character’s head and he’s thinking and then he’s addressing someone, and then he’s alone in the room and he realizes he’s passed. It happens so suddenly that you’re startled to be looking at him from the outside in the head of another character. In my one experience being in a room with a person who’s dying, that’s exactly what it feels like: someone is there and then they’re not, and then there’s really just a thing, A body, a corpse. I read that scene several times and I still can’t quite figure out how he pulled it off.


FP: Of editing writer Garnette Cadogan, who is Jamaican, you said, “I had to learn how his sound should sound to him, and then how to edit him, so he sounds like himself.” You’ve described being an editor as being “a shape shifter in how you approach people and their writing, to best serve them.” But Garnette Cadogan writes in English. How do you do this when it’s work in translation? I’ll quote Ilide Carmignani again, who said, “The more I translate, the more the veins in my wrists tremble, because I have a better understanding of how much gets lost or can get lost in the process of translating.” How much gets lost, and how do you deal with that in your work as an editor?

JF: Everything is lost, but a whole new text is found. What you’re reading is a version of the original text created by another writer: the translator. And one of the reasons why editing translations is so exciting is that it’s a triple collaboration between you and the author’s text as seen through another author, the often invisible one but also the essential one, who makes it possible for you to get a version of that text into English. A book I recommend on this is William Gass’s Reading Rilke, which is a wonderful book on translation: Gass watches as Rilke’s poems transmogrify over time in the hands of other translators, and become Victorian, and Edwardian, and Modernist, and Confessionalist, and then become his version, and this makes you realize how translation styles change as related to the predominant literary styles of a specific era. We are so dependent on translators and the modes of the time. All I can do as an editor is to try to edit the text so that the rules, the patterns the translator has set up in that version in English, are obeyed. Any text has its series of patterns, and all storytellers and writers are pattern-makers: the translator finds a new set of patterns and re-patterns them in ways that hopefully convey the content of the text and then convey the style and the sound, and, if they’re really good, the syntax as well. Editing a work in translation is like square-dancing with five dates: you have to keep various forms of movement going.

Everything is lost, but a whole new text is found. What you’re reading is a version of the original text created by another writer: the translator.

FP: How many foreign versions of Freeman’s exist?

JF: There are seven editions either out or about to come out in other countries. Freeman’s is published in Sweden by Polaris, in England by Atlantic Books, in Romania by Black Button Books, in Australia by Text Publishing, and it’s about to come out in Italy with Edizioni Black Coffee and in China with Archipel Press. Then of course there’s the American one, the one that gave start to all this and that you have there in your hand, published by Grove Atlantic.


FP: In the introduction to “The Future of New Writing” issue of Freeman’s you say that when we look again at the books that have most shaped us, we realize that they are "no longer books but hanging door frames we once walked through." Going back to lives, never lives, and the different stages of self: How many different stages of “you” have you walked through in your life, and what are the books that where the doorframes for all those different Johns?

JF: I think the self is a kind of invisible handle for your existence in the world, and obviously for some people, given their skin color and background and gender and ethnicity and what they do for a living and where they live, that handle might be less invisible than others. It might be all some people see of them. When I think back on my various selves, it feels very opaque to me, because I always assumed good things would happen. When I started to read, and when I was a teenager, I changed from a largely physical self with moments of transcendent experience into someone who was simultaneously physical and intellectual. I was used to being an athlete, to living primarily in my body: my body was the instrument that felt fundamental. That was a happy existence, because there wasn’t a lot of thought involved in it, it was all instinct, and movement, and I am lucky to have lived that way as long as I did.

But once I started to read, I started to see parts of the world which were not in front of me, and I think at that point, there was a very urgent and earnest young person eager for meaning who emerged: for something existing outside of my own existence that I had to somehow go and get in a book. Reading 1984, or Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or the Brontë sisters was my way of building a moral universe, and as that came into being I think I became a different kind of physical person.

Later on, as soon as I started college at Swarthmore, I put a lot more energy into reading, into studying, into exploring things I didn’t even know existed. I had a lot to learn about the world. Wuthering Heights was probably my first doorway, and it felt like a double doorway. The second or third or fourth one was Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. I think I had a lot of catching up to do as a reader, and also with what I understood the world to be. Whiteness can be a privilege, and one of its privileges is shelter: this can provide a blissful childhood like mine, but on the other hand, too much shelter can make you ignorant. It can give you enormous cultural and ethical blindspots. I don’t blame to any degree the education I had growing up or the family I grew up in, but there was an ignorance I had to read my way out of.

It wasn’t until I began to review books—and out of sheer freelance hustle, I started to read about lives very different from my own—that I found the third doorway which probably made me most like the person I am now. I had read books in translation growing up, obviously, we all do in school, but we don’t think of them as such, partly because the things that are happening in the books are not happening right now, and everyone is dead! (Laughs.) But then I read Joe Sacco’s Palestine, and it was like someone just opened the door and turned on all the lights in a room that led to many many, many other rooms. I’m still wandering in that seemingly endless maze, those doorways keep opening . . .

It took me a lot of years of reading to get to the point where I was fully awake. This is one of the reasons why we need more editors of color in publishing, in positions like mine. I’m lucky that I had the time and space to read my way out of ignorance, but there are many others who don’t need to, because they are already awoken. Think of the literary culture they could build if they had access to readers.


Italian photojournalist Nicolò Filippo Rosso lives and works in Bogotà, Colombia. He is a regular contributor at Bloomberg and the Washington Post. His work has appeared in Der Spiegel, National Geographic, and Vice, among others. He's represented by Redux Pictures.

Introduction translated from the Italian by Jessie Chaffee.

Published Nov 15, 2017   Copyright 2017 Francesca Pellas

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