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Gina Ochsner and Paula Huston

How to Catch an Eel

A conversation between novelists.

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Huston: Clichés tend to block genuine intellectual engagement on the part of the reader, who, lulled into complacency by the overly familiar, especially when it sounds "Christian," can fall into a pious coma. They also offer false assurance to the writer that she really does see, grasp, and is conveying the truth of what is in front of her instead of simply repeating a comfortable truism. Finally, they make it impossible for fiction to do what it does best: invite a reader into an actual experience. The very thing that makes clichés feel so "right"—their generic nature, their familiarity—means they can no longer trigger genuine wonder, awe, shock, or grief, but only the ersatz version of these, which is sentimentality. Yet Christian writers, wanting to reassure their readers that they are of the same "tribe," are tempted to speak the lingo: they talk about their "brokenness," "the scandal of the Cross," of being in a particular "season," of "having a heart for the poor," or if they are Catholic, of "offering it up." This is all code for "I am a not only a Christian but culturally speaking, a certain kind of Christian—one safe for you to read."

But I can't imagine ever finding one of these in an Ochsner novel, Gina. You are seemingly fearless when it comes to writing about cultures not your own. In The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight, you adopt the perspective of post-Soviet Russians. In Pleased to be Otherwise, you give us the interior life of Timi, a young Uzbek on the Central Asian steppes. In your most recent novel, The Hidden Letters of Velta B., you enter the private mental and emotional space of Latvian villagers, some of whom are Roma. You live with these people as they go about their daily round—you even show them hunting and cooking eels, which I'm pretty sure is not done in your part of Oregon. How can you, an American writer from the Pacific Northwest, a professor at a small evangelical college, know anything real about people so different from yourself? Don't you worry about opportunistic appropriation here?

Ochsner: Guilty but unrepentant. Unbounded curiosity compelled me to visit as much of Latvia as possible and talk to as many different kinds of people as possible: university lecturers, gulag camp survivors, elementary school teachers, janitors, famous poets. In the process, some of my preconceived notions have been challenged and exposed. In Latvia I quickly learned not to assume that, just because I heard Russian being spoken, the speaker was in fact Russian. I learned that language itself was a sore point in certain parts of the country. History, too, was a point of contention. What I thought I knew, what I had read in books, I sometimes had to jettison. Near Talsi, a university student led me on a tour of the village. I commented on the pretty marsh and the ducks gliding regally in the dark water. "Oh. That's the slough where all the Jews in our town were drowned." I hadn't read that in any of the history books. "Well. There are two histories in Latvia. There's the history taught in school and then there's the history of events we all know happened but nobody talks about. We don't talk about what happened to those Jews. But we all know it happened."

But now that we're on the subject, Paula, I must accuse you of the same tendency to stray far from your own culture. You once told me that one of your goals, both as a Christian and as a writer, has been to "plunge into the unknown." Does this sit behind your solo travels to Israel, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, India, Nepal? Do you feel like you've made discoveries you couldn't have made if you followed a scripted plan?

Huston: I read Kierkegaard's Training in Christianity when I was coming back to the church in my early forties, and ever since, I've been downright skittish about the possibility of spiritual complacency—for example, falling into the trap of assuming I'm good because I admire good things. When Jesus is someone to be admired rather than imitated, Christianity loses its power to transform. The antidote to a comfortable, socially approved faith is the embrace of a mystery that draws us into the "oscura," as John of the Cross would put it, and strips us of illusion. But venturing on the narrow way can be frightening. We don't know where Jesus is headed, where he might lead us next. My travels in the Middle East and Central Asia forced me to let go of my reassuring sense that I was in charge of my own life, and that was profoundly destabilizing. But only then could I find what I was looking for without even knowing I was looking. The spiritual life and the artist's life are in so many ways parallel that I'm convinced I've also got to let go of the creative script if I'm ever going to write anything true.

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