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PEN 10: An Interview With Masha Hamilton

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MASHA HAMILTON
Masha Hamilton

The PEN 10 is PEN America's new biweekly interview series curated by Lauren Cerand. First up is PEN Member Masha Hamilton, whose new novel, What Changes Everything (Unbridled Books), came out last week. She will discuss the book and "Writing Conflict" with Maud Newton at Community Bookstore on June 4.

When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
From childhood, I was one of those annoying people who never had any doubt about what I wanted to be. In elementary school, I had a poem published in a nationwide collection, and I myself "published" (handwritten, six-to-eight pages, limited editions) a family newspaper for my parents and my brother. All these years later, despite a varied career, family and writing are still the hands-down most important things in my life.

Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
Lots of pieces by many people. Choosing one feels wrong. But Bob Dylan and José Saramago come to mind. Some combination of the two.

Where is your favorite place to write?
For me, the work is shaped in part by the environment in which it is written, so I need variety; I don't have one favorite place. I've written on moving subways and in war zones, in cemeteries and in hospitals, as well as more prosaically in libraries and behind desks. When I was writing my fifth novel, What Changes Everything, I was given a few weeks on Martha's Vineyard in a house overlooking the water where the fog rose directly from the ground each morning; it was an amazing gift thanks to Turkey Land Cove Foundation. It offered a counterpoint to the emotional turmoil of writing about the impact of conflict on Americans in New York and Ohio, particularly as I was on the verge of moving to Kabul myself for an extended period. It was exactly what I needed then.

Have you ever been arrested?
I was detained in Dheisheh refugee camp outside Bethlehem in the West Bank while breaking an Israeli military curfew. I was working as a journalist for the AP and I heard that an extremist American-Israeli rabbi, Meir Kahane (later killed in Manhattan by an Arab gunman) had gone inside the camp to stir up trouble. Anticipating this would set off riots, I asked a Palestinian very familiar with the camp to accompany me. I parked my car about a mile away and we hiked up a hill and into the camp. It was about 8 p.m., already dark. As we greeted a man and his mother in a narrow, unlit street of the camp, soldiers on rooftops swooped down on us. I was questioned there and then two Palestinians and I were taken to a holding cell in Bethlehem near the Church of the Nativity. They released me in early morning after several hours, the Palestinians were held about three hours longer.

Obsessions are influences -- what are yours?
My obsessions are a moving target, of course -- I obsess about different things at different times. But reoccurring ones that appear in my novels in different ways are the unexpected ripple impacts of war, the accidental nature of betrayal and the potholes of parenting and intimate relationships.

What's the most daring thing you've ever put into words?
I love the question, but I'm struggling with the answer. I always aim to write directly to the bone, so it often feels risky. Maybe asking readers to feel empathy for a terrorist? Maybe describing the moment someone dies next to you? Or what it feels like to be kidnapped? Maybe suggesting that most of us unwittingly betray those we love? Right now, I'm trying to put something into words about the uneasy balance in national dialogue between irony and earnestness, and also about the difference between the regret we feel for saying some things versus the regret we feel for leaving things unsaid. (This question is a hard one for me. Maybe I should have left all this unsaid.)

What is the responsibility of the writer?
To be authentic above all else. To write in spite of -- and even embracing- - self-doubt.

I do. To keep asking the questions, write into the grey and, through the work, encourage comfort with ambiguous answers.

What message would you send to an imprisoned writer?
That she is neither alone nor forgotten; that her voice matters and will resonate beyond space and time.

What book would you send to the leader of his or her government?
Only one? Okay then, Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number by Jacobo Timerman. Timmerman was the publisher and editor of a leading Buenos Aires newspaper arrested in 1977 by 20 armed men and held for 30 months of imprisonment and torture. I would send his memoir because of the amazing scene in the beginning of the book when, held in solitary confinement, Timmerman silently communicates with the prisoner across the cell block from him after a guard accidentally leaves their peep holes open. Timmerman fears punishment if caught even as he and the other prisoner display through the square opening their chins, their mouths, their foreheads, their tears. They never meet; Timmerman is not sure if the other survives or, as he hears, dies under torture -- or even of the other's gender. But in those moments, he and the other prisoner win against their oppressors. To think of the terror and unexpected love of that wordless exchange still breaks my heart.