By Rachael Jennings
On Saturday, October 8, we ducked in from the rain into the SVA Theatre in midtown Manhattan, where, only two hours later, we would be standing by the stage of the emptying auditorium, chatting with Keegan-Michael Key, an actor, writer, and comedian who is interested in spinning jokes in a way that challenges but doesn’t degrade, bringing humor to politics and politics to humor, rethinking and re-investigating Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies—he would love to play Hamlet, he admits. He’s a fascinating, poised, incisive speaker, hilarious beyond belief, and asking us about our school: where it is, what brings us here.
Key is co-creator and co-star of Comedy Central’s “Key and Peele,” who, most recently, starred in Mike Birbiglia’s film “Don’t Think Twice.” We are in the presence of a comedic mastermind, and for his words, we utter grinning, star-struck “thank yous.”
Every experience we have had on this trip to The New Yorker Festival has been opening us to new experience, new ways to thrive on imperfections, and new shades of gratitude.
Key did ask us what brought us here. We came to New York with writers’ questions: what will we gain? What will we carry? What will we hear that might stir something in us, clarify something, complicate something? What stories will become a part of our own?
Caroline Robbins and Owen Mortner, the winners of this year’s The New Yorker Festival Writer’s Retreat Contest—with their stories “Rooftops and Regret” and “The Missionary,” respectively—were looking forward to learning from panels of world-renowned writers, including Mr. Key. They were eager to gain advice and perspective from the sagacious writers like Tessa Hadley and Jhumpa Lahiri and Gary Shteyngart who have been in the game for so long. We each brought questions and curiosities, and, with notebooks in tow, set out to synthesize some answers.
But what we learned, largely and deeply, from our literary expedition into New York’s puddle-trenched streets, was that some of our work needs to flow without questions, particularly without questions of purpose.
Caroline notes that one of her favorite moments was when a panelist from the session on “Home Truths” noted that “art fails in front of the question, ‘What are you here for?’”
Hisham Matar, a Libyan-American writer and the author of In the Country of Men, The Anatomy of a Disappearance, and The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between, noted that writing is also, for him, not about closure.
“I’m interested,” Matar said, “in openings. There is something pleasurable and consoling about work, though. Sometimes, instead of feeling like you’re drowning, you feel like you’re emerging. That’s why when you read tragic literature, you feel almost cheered up. It’s an opening.”
Jhumpa Lahiri, author of several books, including The Interpreter of Maladies, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000, and The Lowland, which was a finalist for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award in 2013, spoke about her most recent work, which was published in February of this year: In Other Words. As she described the process of writing this book, she also spoke of a form of artistic and intraspective opening.
One of Lahiri’s most recent and challenging ventures has been, amid a lifetime of writing and publishing in English, to learn Italian in what many might consider an immersive but isolating way. She moved to Italy, where she tried and and tried to write only in Italian. When her tutor would show her his corrections to her work, she found that she was “so struck by [her] mistakes” and “wanted to understand them.”
Then, one day, she started writing furiously and found herself with a real, complete story.
“I was stunned that I had produced this. It even had a beginning, middle, and end,” she said. “[The experience] forced me to think more and more about my medium, which is language.”
Lahiri started keeping a notebook: it held pages on grammar, syntax, and meditations about the experience of “being an adult learning a new language for no apparent reason.”
“Why was I learning Italian?” she asked. “I didn’t know, but I wanted to explore it.”
Her whole journey has, in her words, “opened [her] to the answer to: what has been pursuing me? Chasing me?”
“It’s identity,” she said. “In art, you free yourself from who you are, from the question ‘who are you?’ I’m somebody. I’m concrete. I’m limited. I am who I am. But, in writing, I’m pretending to be something else. It creates a tension, then, when people read and tell you ‘This is who you are.’”
But Lahiri said that she’s not looking to be in control.
Her journey in learning and writing in Italian was all about surrendering that control for the sake of experimentation and vulnerability.
The journey, living in that tension, giving up that control, fascinated in understanding her own mistakes, is one that other writers shared.
Gary Shteyngart spoke about the turbulence of writing about living family members, and he said that the process of writing memoirs involves more than looking at the hard truths of your loved ones. What his experiments with writing have taught him is that “sometimes when you reveal the whole truth—which includes the unpleasant truth—you have to look hard at the reality that you aren’t as good a person or [exactly] the person you thought you were.”
The resonant and difficult example that Shteyngart’s co-panelist gave was something he has included in his writing.
Owen said that the way that panelists opened up to and played off of each other was one of his favorite aspects of hearing these writers speak; “they’ve come from such different backgrounds, and they are all writing about home,” he said.
Akhil Sharma, a fiction writer and an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark, whose first novel, An Obedient Father, won the 2001 PEN/Hemingway Award for début fiction, and whose second, Family Life, received the 2015 Folio Prize and the 2016 International Dublin Literary Award, played off of Shteyngart as he spoke to the challenge of full, courageous truthfulness.
Sharma brought some of his personal stories to his writing, one story being that of his brother’s tragic, accidental death.
“The guilt [in my work and in my life] is not that I lived and he died,” he said. “It was because I was a kid, and I so desperately wanted to live. And if I had to choose, I would have chosen me.”
“What I’m interested in,” said Jhumpa Lahiri, “is saying the truth. Knowing it and saying it.” Even—as all writers across all panels agreed—or, better, especially the difficult truths.
And, in saying the truth, Lahiri spoke about the difficult necessity of experimentation, vulnerability, and failure.
“Italian gives you the freedom to be imperfect. You have to be able to fail and fall down. You have to fail, then fail better. You don’t strive to succeed—you have to be in a complicated relationship with what you’re doing. It shouldn’t be easy, and it shouldn’t be safe. If it is easy and safe, you shouldn’t be doing it.”
Tessa Hadley said in our first session of the day: “For every writer, their secret prayer is ‘may my book be better than me.”
And, perhaps, as Jhumpa Lahiri so eloquently said, a necessary part of that betterment, of that aspirational betterment, is imperfection. It is imperfection, vulnerability, failure, and the opening of the self to not merely a string of thoughtful questions and enlightened answers, but to a landscape rich with mistakes that make us better, clearer, more ready to find the words—the truth—we need.