LMS: Oh, yes! He was working on his recent books at the same time I was. He is an admirer of my work. He sent me copies, even in the galley, and I opened the package and thought Oh, somebody else is doing the same thing in the same breath of vision. And then I looked and I realized he was doing it in a little different way. But of course, I work with the novel and he is a historian. Maybe both are complementary. Yes, I was aware of those books and I admire them. He also admires the Almanac.
Alt-X: A more technical thing: What about the chapter headings? I read that at first the whole Almanac was one block of text but the publisher didn't agree with that. And then you came up with the wonderful idea of a map and one could also say that the novel maps the history of the Americas.
LMS: You know Ceremony is just one piece. When I delivered Almanac, yes, it was like a mountain and my editor couldn't bear it. He said, maybe we could have three or four chapter breaks. Then I remembered almanacs, not just the Native American Mayan almanacs but also Western European almanacs or medicine almanacs in the U.S. have many little, many different sections. All of a sudden I became aware of, yes, what needed to be done was many, many chapters so that the chapter headings themselves could tell a story or express something.
Alt-X: But then, the chapter headings transcend the normal geography and history and lead us into the fourth and the fifth world. I only know the term fourth world from how the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard uses it for the disenfranchised. What is your understanding of the fourth world and the fifth world?
LMS: The fourth world now is the disenfranchised, and the fifth world is different. The world that the capitalists envision is the one-world economy, that is their fifth world. But the fifth world is a new consciousness in the hearts of all human beings, the idea that the earth is shared and finite, and that we are naturally connected to the earth and with one another. Arbitrary political boundaries will fall away, so my reference to the fifth world is totally different from the one they are attempting to bring in now, this single capitalistic system.
Alt-X: Is it a transformation of the fourth world, does it grow out of there?
LMS: Yes, a gradual transformation. My sense of it is it's inexorable, unstoppable, it's emotion. Despite what we see around us. For example, the earthquake in Kobe, Japan. Let's think about the earth, let's think about natural forces. Human beings have deluded themselves, fooled themselves to think that they can control nature. That they can control the human body which is a part of nature. They make war on the human body telling you what you can eat and not eat. They cannot control nature. They put the ports at Kobe because it was believed to be the safest area, there was not supposed to be an earthquake like that. And yet that earthquake comes and it shakes the stockmarket in Japan. Or this little capitalist who has been with some English bank in Singapore, and boom! it went down. Over time, this is my notion of things, this organic transformation is very slow and interior. It is within human beings. It is not some outside political or governmental force. This change happens from within, and it is a change that recognizes that human beings cannot and do not control nature. I still feel confident that over time I am able to feel hopeful. It was difficult writing this novel because so much of it is to confront what is now the fourth world and not to say it is better to commit suicide. That was one of the deeper messages of the old stories: The earth will humble us. It humbled us just recently and it will humble us again and again that we would have faith in the earth and that the people will correct these aberrations.
LMS: That dichotomy that separates so much in Western European thought leads to a kind of schizophrenia. As I was referring earlier to it, there is plenty of food and people are starving. How can that be; it is a kind of madness. Certainly we can have theory and abstract thinking. Let's go back to the Mayans, they possessed the zero. Only the Chinese, the Arabic and the Mayans had the zero with which to perform higher mathematics. The Arabic people introduced the zero to the Europeans so that they could begin doing higher mathematics. For the Mayans all knowledge in history, technology and religion was embedded in narrative. That does not prevent ambitious thinking. They were great astronomers, they could calculate the passage of the Venus. I read this one book that today even with computers one cannot understand the precision of the Mayans. So it is not necessary to separate the two. It is important not to let the story, the narrative, that connection wander too far away because then it becomes too separated and it is no longer any real living benefit. If you leave this kind of speculations in the narrative, it always grounds it with the people and with history. My character falls in love with Marx. In the U.S. people are not familiar with his work and I had a hard time to get all the books for my research. I had been reading in Das Kapital the stories about exploitation, and I found the beauty of his stories and their power, it is all there. It was at the time when all the totalitarian capitalists in the U.S. were celebrating. I was thinking: more than ever he is important. So I decided that I would have my character express the power of those stories, even though I understood that the most disillusioned people were the ones who had to live with Marxism. But I differentiate: I say his followers blew it, in the same perhaps Jesus Christ's followers corrupted his ideas, or perhaps Mohammad's followers too. I realized that Marx and Engels had looked at egalitarian communal societies in Native American communities, Marx read one anthropologist describing those. So I decided to make this joke that Karl Marx was on the right track when he was studying Native American communities practicing their communism. Well, he got it wrong because he missed the spiritual part. But that did not invalidate his ideas about communal living. We should never stop thinking about that. Also, I am a rebellious person and at the time when everybody said, Capitalism won, Communism lost, I was going to say: Baloney!
Alt-X: Maybe we can put it this way: His stories about the exploitation in 19th century England were the groundwork, but then he came up with the wrong conclusions which were another variety of the great rationalization process, another form of the rationalization of the economy. Morris Berman's The Disenchantment of the World comes to my mind here. This concept of rationalization within Marxism is not explicitly discussed by your character, yet she sees herself in conflict with the orthodox communists from Cuba. Another interesting point in Almanac is that you always associate economic greed and its political forces with sexual perversity. Do you have a specific theory about this?
LMS: I did not realize that myself until the writing, then it emerged for me too. Before I wrote this novel I would not have connected them. I cannot rationally explain this but I do believe it comes from living in the United States. There was a famous cannibal who lived on Long Island, Mr. Fish, a descendant of one of the Mayflower families, these distinguished founding families. And here is the connection with Marx: He talks about "the devouring of children" in 19th century exploitation. There was something about Mr. Fish eating children on Long Island for 19 years before they caught him. This is what you hear more and more these days: dismemberments of bodies...
Alt-X: The serial killer phenomenon of the 1980s...
LMS: Yes, it was weird. More and more appeared as I was writing my novel. After I had written this part of the novel, Jeffrey Dahmer was discovered: He was eating his victims and I was writing my novel. My God! I don't know whether it is true but again, I think it has something to do with that the body is nature, and they try to control rivers and now it is about the body. Is this the final thing when you have the selling of organs? Capitalism is about the bottom line. Right now we have a discussion about health care in the U.S. They are talking about cutting costs and somebody pointed out that it is cheaper if someone dies than if he lives. That's a fact. The irony is that the best thing for us is to all die. This is the quickest thing to do when we get sick: let us die. The purpose of the worker in the U.S. after they have been replaced with machines is to provide a new frontier. Now - they want people to be sick because they make money out of their sickness and if it comes down to the bottom line they better die. Also, we have about one million people in prisons, it is an industry now. Poor unemployed people take drugs and end up in prison. They make laws to enforce these on them, a new industry. Drugs and prisons - we pull apart the body and break it down-- for profit. Then the organ transplants...
Alt-X: In 19th century machinery one arm was needed, now it may be a liver or a kidney. There is only a part that is needed not the whole.
LMS: Not the whole. Isn't that interesting?
Alt-X: How was the reception of Almanac in the U.S.? I haven't read a contemporary anti-capitalist novel like that. The apparently white reviewer in TIME magazine felt so threatened that he charged you of self-righteousness. How do you deal with this?
LMS: (Laughs.) There was even a worse review in USA Today by a political science professor at Yale. He starts out, Oh she wrote Ceremony, that's a great novel. You know he wants to start out like he is rational. When he started to talk about Almanac he completely lost control. The TIME magazine and Newsweek reviewers kept their emotions under control but he just exploded and said: She needs psychiatric help because of her preoccupation with the male organ. It was outrageous. So the review was beautiful because it would make people read my book. Honestly, I was very nervous and expected worse in TIME magazine, worse in Newsweek, I was afraid. For ten years I was locked in my room and not only was I sensing things like Jeffrey Dahmer but also the feelings of other Americans. So there is a whole stack of reviews which show that they understand, they got it. We Americans are very ignorant of Marxism, of our own history, and actually I was amazed and gratified that it was as well received. I expected the hysteria of all of these old Anglo-American males. In the Native American community people love this book, it gives them hope. When I started out in 1981 I had no idea it would be a statement against capitalism. You know, when I sold Almanac to Simon & Schuster, a very conservative publisher, I sold them the first 600 pages of the manuscript when it still was a dope novel. I tricked them. If they had seen the whole thing they never would have bought it, they got tricked. The publication in the U.S. is probably by accident, they didn't understand what it was.
Alt-X: A cultural terrorist act?
LMS: That's what it was. When I finished the novel the suitcase was already on the airplane. Simon & Schuster was embarrassed by it, and there were attempts to suppress the book. The enemies in trying to attack it created great powerful allies. It was too late. Sometimes the more you try to suppress something the more you help it.
Alt-X: Actually it is a surprise that you are here with U.S.I.A., sponsored by the U.S. government.
LMS: It makes me happy. (Laughs.) You know the U.S. government to me is an illegitimate government, it is founded on stolen land, founded on the bones and blood of the African slaves and the Native American slaves. So it is my birthright to use the U.S. and it is important. Somebody has to tell the truth. I believe that all over the world the people are better than their leaders. Maybe in our evolution we have evolved to the point where we don't need governments, these centralized, authoritarian, totalitarian institutions masquerading oligarchies. The earthquake in Japan, the great bushfires in California, when disaster comes people organize themselves, which is fine.
Alt-X: What will the future be like? In Almanac you have your characters speculate about a whole bunch of scenarios with open endings: eco-warriers, a guerilla war in southern Mexico (which is happening right now), New Age philosophy, the end of history with rich people in outer space or with total war, ecocatastrophies etc. What do you personally see is going to come?
LMS: I don't know. The reason I leave many open ending is to let the magic of the Almanac work. Me, personally? I believe we will have these complex convergences. The earthquake in Japan brings down a bank in England. I see the synergy, the interrelation that all things could coalesce in a hopeful way. The people will take care of themselves locally. Decentralization, natural catastrophies, riots, more migrations...
Alt-X: How about the electronic revolution, as with the computer specialist Awa Gee in Almanac?
LMS: Hackers like him will be part of it. If all these forces could interconnect in a way that would bring down this world capitalism... See, a few Mayan Indians in Chiapas shake North America; the Brazilian market, the Argentinian market is shaky. I went down to Chiapas and saw how powerful these 30,000 people in San Cristobal de las Casa were. It wasn't just poor Indians, it's Mexicans, white people. What is happening in Mexico is the change of consciousness. Of course, it is the middle class that has the most to lose but people start thinking about things wider and bigger, there is some spirit rising out of the land. To answer your question, I see something positive. It doesn't matter if I live to see it. The people I come from, we don't say everything has to happen in an individual lifetime, how egotistical.
Alt-X: What led to the German publication by Rogner & Bernhard with Zweitausendeins, a publisher with some renown for courageous and risky books? Were others not interested?
LMS: Possibly it was due to the length and also the subject matter that no one else picked it up. Rogner & Bernhard had published Ceremony and I am just glad that they continued with the Almanac. Only the Germans have been brave enough so far. A Spanish translation is being discussed. I sent a copy to China and I wouldn't even mind if they violate international copyright.
Alt-X: How do you see your position as a writer between different cultures? Is one right to say you are a global writer, a global novelist of an open world?
LMS: I see myself as a member of the global community. My old folks who raised me saw themselves as citizens of the world. We see no borders. When I write I am writing to the world, not to the United States alone. I do believe that the things I am talking about will finally, maybe not in my lifetime, will turn out.
Alt-X: Are you currently working on another novel?
LMS: Yes, I decided to write a novel about two women and their gardens and flowers. Absolutely no politics. But then I started to study the history of plants and where they came from. Oh my gosh! Right behind the conquistadoras came the plant collectors. So my new novel will focus on gardens and flowers but it turns out gardens are very political.
Alt-X: Evolution has become political.
LMS: Yes, I think so. It is all one. That is one of the strengths of the narrative tradition: it oversimplifies to break things apart, to fragment but the truth remains comprehensible, in beautiful patterns, in a beautiful way.
(As we are leaving the lobby, we find it, well, more friendly. All of a sudden...)