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'In Sarajevo, Sontag was able to be what she always wanted to be - an artist.'

Large moser Photo: Benjamin Moser, Bookstan.

You got to present your book at the Susan Sontag Square. What did it feel like?

It felt like Međugorje. Pilgrimage place. It felt like a ritual. It felt like almost going to a grave. I'm bringing flowers. Because this is the most important city in the world for her. This is that place where she did, where she achieved everything she dreamed of achieving when she was a little girl. And this is the country and the city that most loves her because she is not controversial here. She is very controversial everywhere else. But the Bosnians really understood her and she understood them.

And so to be there and to open the festival in that place was really special, and now, with Covid, it was hard to get here. Now, I´m the only foreign author that came cause it was really hard. It´s obviously a different situation than the war but it kind of makes you imagine what it was like for her to come here when it was really far. We´re used to being able to go anywhere, and all of a sudden it´s really far.

The way you presented it in the book, it´s almost an atonement for her, that trip or that connection to Sarajevo that happened during the war, you stress that very much. It was such a big gesture.

Well, I don´t think it's an atonement, I think it´s more of an apotheosis. It´s, strangely enough, the place where I think she was happiest. And actually, a lot of Bosnians told me this, that when life was so simple it was focused on not dying and getting water and covering your windows and these kinds of really basic things that actually people were not that unhappy. Because they felt like they had a mission. And that´s what people want in life. And I think she always wanted a mission, she wanted to mean something to people. And she felt that art and life, theatre and music, she felt that it was worth dying for from the time she was really young.

And Sarajevo gave her a place to…she meant to the people here exactly what she wanted to mean. So, in New York she´s a celebrity, and she doesn´t want to be a celebrity, she wants to be an artist and she wants art to be the highest thing that can be and she finds that here and so, I think what you mean by atonement, you tell me if I´m wrong, is that she was miserable about life, she had had a rough few years or maybe a decade.

She was miserable about herself and also she was really bitchy towards other people.

Of course, cause unhappy people are mean and they are unhappy. That´s how life is, one bad thing leads to another bad thing and one good thing leads to another good thing. As much as she was an essential part of the social life of New York and cultural life, that wasn´t enough for her. She really wanted something higher. And she was ready to die for those ideas. And she almost did. It would have been really easy for her to die here. She gave a lot to Sarajevo. But I think it also gave a lot to her. My book would have been a lot harder to write without it.

Why so?

There was a lot of unhappiness in the 80s. You know, so there‘s AIDS first of all. It kills a lot of her friends. There´s bad relationships with different women, there´s her feeling of frustration after she almost dies of cancer and she´s like trying to reinvent herself, her breast is cut off, she´s been treated in this horrible way. She was looking for something else and I think you feel the unhappiness building and building, and if she had died without this I think her life would have been
a lot more sad. Don`t you?

The one thing that you accentuate in the book is the persona that Susan Sontag presents or projects. Photography or visual metaphors were extremely important for her, she basically made her career on that and at the same time you quote somebody saying that she didn´t really see things. While reading the book and thinking about this metaphor of painting a picture, I was wondering about her being aware of that.

Well, I think she´s really aware of it. Her whole work is about the difference between the person and the photograph. The language and the object and this is a very profound vein in her work. And I think the reason it´s profound is it´s happened to her. I mean she grew up obsessed by Hollywood divas. So this is something that people don´t realize about her. She grew up in Hollywood basically. And her mother was obsessed with Joan Crawford. Which is great I think, it`s so funny. And she was obsessed with Greta Garbo and these kinds of people. And then that happened to her, she becomes this famous and she becomes more well-known for her image than for herself. Including her own work, you know, her own work people forget about. They're just interested in the woman with a white streak in her hair. I was really excited when I found a guy, the hairdresser in Honolulu, who gave her the white streak in her hear, that was a triumph for me, as a researcher, just cause it´s fun to hear that story but also because in an interview they ask what are you best known for and she replies the white streak in my black hair. And it´s true. So she was aware that that image would kinda overtake her.

So, that´s what On Photography is about, that´s what all of her polemics are about but another thing that is interesting about Bosnia is that she really does not like photographs. She pretends that she sort of likes them but she doesn´t like them. And she realizes here that a photograph is actually not a way of staying away from something but it´s actually the way you can create real change in the world.

In this biography, you paint a picture. And it´s extremely difficult: which angle to take, how to present and how to be true. And you are extremely aware of that so I´d like to hear your thoughts about the process in itself, because you were not a huge Sontag scholar before you started writing the book.  So, how did you go about that?

Well, so when you have a subject like her, who is a very polemical subject….people hate her, don´t forget, but also really love her…and it´s not just like her, they love her, they are obsessed with her. And even the people who hate her are obsessed with her. I interviewed hundreds of people and they all have these stories and they all have this theory and they have this, like, trauma and they have this love affair, she was emotionally very compelling to them. So for me, as somebody who´s caught in between this, there´s actually sort of a Sarajevo metaphor, you know, it´s like the Serbs and the Muslims and the Croats, I mean it´s all like…there´s war around Susan… she was always a polemical figure.

And I am not really a polemical figure, that’s not how I write. I’m trying to get at something that’s more in between but that’s not neutral. Cause I’m not a neutral person. I don’t try to be. You’ve seen this in the book. I have opinions. Sometimes people pretend they don’t have opinions. I think this is ridiculous, of course you have an opinion, just be honest about it. So, constructing something out of something that’s a construction, does make sense, it’s like a collage. Cause you have little pieces here and there. And you’re trying to create a narrative so a narrative is like a photograph, you know, it’s a metaphor, it´s not the real person, it’s a story, you want people to read it, you want people to be interested in her, you want that people then go read her work, but you just have pieces. You know it’s not the full thing so I try to be as honest about that as I can and just say that.

She’s almost a character, because the book is read like a novel. I was wondering whether you constructed the book purposefully in that manner?

Well no, because, I mean, I have a lot of flexibility, as a writer obviously I can write…so I write a lot about gay rights because I am very interested in gay rights. I am very interested in metaphor, my last book is all about metaphor, for example. So that’s me. Yesterday Boro Kontić asked me about Danilo Kiš. I was in Germany and they asked about Thomas Mann, in England they ask about her friends in London. I could have put more in there about Danilo Kiš, I didn’t, because there is not enough room. So it is a construction in that sense that it is a narrative but I didn’t send her to Sarajevo, she came.

Two-three things that she would stress throughout the book: one is her own Jewishness which is ambivalent, in a way. Homosexuality and her relationship to that, which is ambivalent. And the third is the maternal figure both of her mother and of her being a mother. So I would like you to tell me about these three elements of her.

She’s not ambivalent about Judaism. This is something Europeans always think she’s ambivalent about Judaism. It’s fascinating actually to me. Because, I mean, she’s Jewish in a culture that’s totally Jewish. The culture of New York, culture, ie. New York money, journalism, academia, it’s Jews. It’s strange if you’re not Jewish. It would be really interesting to be protestant, you know, so this is something that she’s not really ambivalent about. It’s not a problem for her. It’s a class thing, this is what’s so hard to understand about America is that class works very differently in America than in Europe. Her husband was of a low-class immigrant background with no education. She was of a completely normal middle-class American background which was rare for Jews of that time because most Jews were the children of immigrants then. Her grandparents were immigrants, not her parents. She’s the only major Jewish writer in America that didn’t have parents from Europe. So it’s a very different sensibility. They spoke English and her grandparents spoke English.

I think the real ambivalence is an ambivalence about being a woman which is more interesting I think and more problematic. But the real drama is being gay. Because, you know this is something that in a lot of countries, including this one, is still very taboo. Even though everybody knows who’s gay. She grew up in a culture that is very similar to Bosnia now, in which first of all gay people were invisible. It’s not even that there was hatred of gay people, as gay people just didn’t exist. Nobody, and this is amazing, this is really true when you interview people. And secondly, I mean the drama of being gay for many people is internalized homophobia. Which is what you get when religions and school and the family and the state tells you you’re a pervert. I mean, you get a different psychology and a lot of people suffer their whole lives from that.

And it is interesting how that will be read here versus how it would be read in America. American people think oh, everybody knew she was gay, nobody cared. And it’s true, in upper-class Manhattan, cultural people do not care, that’s true. But that’s a tiny bit of society and when you grow up there it’s hard to shake that attitude you grow up with. So I like talking about it because I think it’s important. And I like minorities. I like being Jewish, like I like being gay, I like being a pain in the ass. I don’t like the majority. It’s almost never a good idea in any country, it’s almost always conformist and fogyish but it’s also very dangerous not to be in a majority. So, who are the people that created American culture? It’s black people, Jews and homosexuals. If you left it to everybody else, I’d be terrible.

She was in her own life and her own work very divided between the minority and the majority because she occupied the majority position and the power position, even though she was gay, even though she was a woman. 

Well, in a fact because she was a woman, in a way, and because she was gay she was a liberationist figure in the 60s. Everybody knew she was gay. In a world where they didn’t know that many people were gay. She grew up falling in love with Greta Garbo who was a great lesbian figure. Not one straight person knew that Greta Garbo was lesbian, not one, but all gay people knew she was gay. And they were proud of her because they just didn’t have very many people to look to. Similarly, when Susan was growing up, just like most women intellectuals, of that time, whether you’re a girl who wants to be a scientist or an artist or a professor in a world where that doesn’t exist. It’s also a hundred years ago we’re talking about, it’s a long time ago. There was only one figure the girls could look up to and that was Madame Curie. And they all read her biography that her daughter wrote. And in fact in the United States that was the only one, until 1970, I think when the first biography by Nancy Mitford of Zelda Fitzgerald was published, but there were no biographies of women writers until then on shelves. There were of queens and maybe, but another woman who is heard of, no. So, Sontag comes to be that figure for all these other girls. For two or three generations.   

She’s also very controversial because she was one of those heroes who doesn’t deliver in the end, for the gay community, with her not being open about it, with her trying to universalize that experience.

So, this is what’s so interesting. Universal usually means men. Just like in America universal means white. Well, black people don‘t appreciate that and there is something about the idea of universality that she was attaining, that she was aspiring to, something that by the nature of society and the language meant masculine and white. And she knew this but, you know, she wanted very much not to be labeled as just a woman writer. And I understand that because it’s limiting, it sounds like a minority, it sounds like oh you’re a great lesbian poet. Oh no, I’m just a poet. And I also am a lesbian. Or I’m also Jewish or I’m also black.

Occasionally I had a feeling, reading the book, that you reproached her for that.

Well, I don’t reproach her personally, I do understand it. Because I’m gay myself, I understand what gay people go through. And what happens is the analysis changes. And when AIDS happened and when feminism happened together almost, and women feminists say this universal thing is fake. You know, everybody is writing from their own experience. There are universal works that are specific to specific people’s experiences and specific bodies. Sontag couldn’t quite go there. And I think she was afraid but on the other hand, I think maybe people here can understand why she was afraid. More than people in New York understand this. They think well, what was the problem?

But there is a problem, which is that she lives in a certain society and the good thing about her, the reason I don’t really reproach her is that she was a huge role model for gay people, particularly women. Huge. Because even though she wasn’t talking about it of course they knew she was gay. And they were very proud of her, that that was a gay woman who is such a formidable intellectual, who is so powerful and who is so respected. Because people don’t respect gay people. People look down on gay people. Just like they look down on women, or they look down on blacks or they look down on whatever your minority is in your community. But you know she was absolutely respected all the way to the White House. Her opinion mattered. And how many lesbians’ opinions mattered to the White House? You know, she inspired people. She really did.

(to be continued)

Photo: Vanja Čerimagić, Bookstan; source.

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