How much racism is there in Cardiff

Joyce Carol Oates "We continue the experiment America"


Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most prolific US authors today. A literary soul explorer - and a close observer of politics. In an interview, she tells us where she sees her country and what drives her writing.

From: Cornelia Zetzsche

Status: 10.03.2021 | archive

Joyce Carol Oates lives four miles outside of Princeton in a remote house by the woods - with her cats. One of them sits next to the microphone during the interview. From her study, Oates looks out over a peaceful landscape, which by no means means that her books are ephemeral. On the contrary: the author has a special feeling for the state of mind of the time, its hopes and injuries. This is also proven by her new collection of stories "Cardiff by the Sea". Cornelia Zetzsche spoke to Joyce Carol Oates about writing, the USA and her new book.

Cornelia Zetzsche: Since 1964, since your first novel "With Shuddering Fall", you have published almost 50 novels, plus stories, essays and plays, as Joyce Carol Oates, Rosamond Smith, and Lauren Kelly. What is your drive?

Joyce Carol Oates: I love writing, especially revising. Musicians love their instruments, painters love the smell of paint, and I love working with language, even on the computer. And I like to write a lot by hand, especially poetry. The motivation is probably like dreams at night. Why do we dream It is a need, to a certain extent also a pleasure, dreaming; it is puzzling and tells stories.

In those nearly six decades you wrote about 120 books on a variety of subjects, from racism to sexism to bigotry. What is the beginning of a new book?

Every project is like a journey. Maybe I'll walk alone through the forest or cross a river, walk through a city that is new to me, or along a railway line or on a quay I've never been to. It's very exciting for me, I love these trips. Writing is like a research trip.

What interests you most on this journey: the psychological, the political or the literary aesthetic, the experiment?

It's like a movie, very much alive. I step into a scene and see where I am with the characters, what they look like, where they are sitting, maybe at the table, in a bar, a restaurant. Maybe they're walking around town. Maybe they are alone in the bedroom. Maybe they go through the night. It gives me great pleasure to recreate this visual scene with a language as sharp as possible. I want to hear people talk, so I work a lot on the dialogues, make sure they are saying interesting, intelligent things, and push the action. Many scenes in our own lives are dramatic. Literature is about evoking these dramatic experiences.

In novels like "Bellefleur" or "What I Lived For", "Black Water" or "The Cursed", you tell personal stories in a political setting. The books show the relationship between man and woman, rich and poor, black and white - and how the American dream becomes a nightmare. What is your intention, do you see yourself correctly described as a portraitist from the USA?

I think so. And America is an outline of the world. We are in a universal frame of mind - in family life, in love, in marriage, and in the relationship between children and parents. Right now it is very difficult to speak consistently about "the American Dream". It is a fragmented society, as if broken with regard to what America means: does America mean something new, fresh, that welcomes immigrants to our shores and integrates people? Or is America an old-fashioned white nationalism that is turning back the clock and closing the borders? We had a retrograde America for four years that left the American dream shattered and tainted. Now let's look ahead and continue the America experiment. Abraham Lincoln and other founders of the state felt America was unfinished, we must move forward, perfect it. We have the challenge of the pandemic, we have to open schools, we need a new, more generous immigration policy. President Biden is making sure that more people have access to colleges. If we hadn't chosen him, it would be a disaster, really tragic for America.

Her new book, "Cardiff by the Sea", brings together four stories. The heroine of the first is a young art historian who is confronted with her trauma as an adopted child. The second story tells of a 12-year-old girl who is harassed by her stepfather and who seeks refuge with wild cats. In the third, a brilliant college student is exploited by two academics, it's about abortion, the last story is about Stefan, whose mother took her own life and haunted the father's second wife as a ghost. Four disturbing stories about women. What was the decisive factor for the stories?

I'm interested in human identity. I always explore the riddle of who we are. I imagined the phone could ring - and we can pick up the phone or not. My character, Clare, decides to take the conversation, crazy enough, and she learns that she, who always saw herself as an adopted child, has a biological family. Now her grandmother has passed away in Cardiff, Maine and inherited something, and suddenly, within five minutes, Clare is on an adventure.

There is an ominous undertone in all four crime stories. A sharp piece of glass is a motif that recurs again and again, it stands for this threat, the vulnerability. What is the source of this permanent threat?

Are you asking me to explain the world? It happens so often, men exploit women - in the world, and certainly in the United States. This is completely normal. I reflect the reality. And I'm not the only writer who writes about men who are dangerous to women. I had a wonderful husband, I cannot imagine my life, including my writing, without Ray. He supported me, he was kind and gentle. And some of that happiness is pure coincidence. Many people get married and are happy in the beginning, but it does not end well and it will not be a good marriage for the woman. I have friends who thought they were marrying nice men, but they were not supportive and hostile towards them as writers.

Do you see yourself as a feminist?

I am certainly a mainstream feminist, which means that men and women should be paid the same for the same work with the same qualifications. That is the basis of feminism.

"Cardiff am Meer" by Joyce Carol Oates has been published by Osburg Verlag in a translation from the English by Ilka Schlüchtermann. You can read from the book and talk to the author in three episodes in the radio texts Listen.