Rachel Kushner talks about her latest book, The Mars Room at BorderKitchen in the Hague.
Rachel Kushner spoke last night about her most recent novel, now available in Dutch with the title Club Mars, and set in the largest women’s prison in the world. Closely based on the Central California Women’s Facility, this 300+ page novel book is testimony to years of research and a genuine concern for the lives of those who are affected by the prison system in the United States. Kushner is a natural story teller and a great humanist. She spoke with passion and eloquence about her work with ‘Justice Now’, her visits to Skid Row (home to thousands of homeless in LA) and her friendships with a number of life sentence prisoners. When asked if she had ever felt afraid in such situations, her response was indicative, ‘No, I was too overwhelmed by the suffering around me to feel afraid for myself.’
Kushner’s previous novels have taken New York in the 1970’s (Flamethrowers,2013) and pre-revolutionary Cuba (Telex from Cuba, 2008)as their settings but she describes The Mars Room as her first truly contemporary novel. Explaining her decision to focus on the Californian prison system, she argues that an interest in the criminal justice system and all that it entails underpins a strong interest in contemporary society. Taking this as her starting point, Kushner delves into the many and varied webs of circumstance and history that have led to the current situation in California. ‘I became curious to understand how this system works’ – however Kushner also describes the novel as one about the state of California. With the fifth largest economy in the world, the political and economic history of the Golden State, formed an important part of Kushner’s research. She discussed California’s decision to embark on a great prison building project in the late 1970’s – its links with the dry desert conditions of the interior and the water restrictions that are so much a part of life there.
‘Prison is a living example of what condemnation is’.
The author’s personal connection to California is reinforced by her own modest background. Growing up in a less affluent area of San Francisco, Kushner was one of the few in her friendship group at school who went on to college. Indeed, some of her childhood friends would later find themselves in the prison that The Mars Room takes as its central focus. Today, Kushner is in close contact with a number of prisoners who she met through her voluntary work with ‘Justice Now’. The leadership of this organisation is comprised mostly of people serving life sentences and indeed one of Kushner’s key consultants on this novel, was a transvestite prisoner of Hispanic descent who spent over twenty years in the California Women’s Facility. The book’s central narrator – Romi, a former dancer in a strip club who has a double life sentence plus six years, is in fact based on a girl who Kushner knew growing up. She describes the main character as ‘a homage to my own adolescence’ and admitted that she would not have felt comfortable using someone with whom she felt less familiar as her central character.
‘A novelist creates a more poetic sense of truth’
When asked if the novel was written to make a political statement about the prison system in the US, Kushner’s response is an unequivocal, ‘No’. ‘I don’t think Art should be polemical. I don’t think it functions well that way.’ Rather she sees herself as an explorer, an asker of ‘rudimentary questions in a clear and simple way’. For example, ‘What exactly is justice?’ and ‘What does mercy mean?’ Although she eschews moral relativism, Kushner finds that what she describes as the innocence/ guilt axis is irrelevant for most of those people affected by the prison system. And indeed she claims that the book was written largely for all those whose lives have been most affected by prison. She sees these people as her main audience and feels that it is one’s duty as a writer to explore issues like these. Kushner’s powerful sense of justice and her craft as a writer certainly places her in a position to do just that. Many of those who attended the literary evening were inspired to buy the book after hearing her speak. Souwie Buis 6th June 2018