Six Questions — July 30, 2013, 1:09 pm

A Marker to Measure Drift

Alexander Maksik on Charles Taylor’s Liberia, the oldest story in the world, and the trouble with elegant variation

Alexander Maksik. © Martina Bacigalupo

Alexander Maksik. © Martina Bacigalupo

Alexander Maksik, the author of You Deserve Nothing (Europa Editions, 2011) and A Marker to Measure Drift, out today from Alfred A. Knopf, has shown himself adept at illuminating uncertain journeys through isolating physical and psychological landscapes. In his new novel, Maksik explores the pain of adjustment for a young refugee of Libera’s second civil war as she scratches out a new existence on the Aegean coast. Haunting and sensual, Maksik’s prose deftly intertwines the tenderness and torment of memory with the hard reality of searching for sustenance and shelter. I put six questions to Maksik about his book.

1. In an earlier blog post for Harpers.org about the origins of your story “Deeper Winter,” you recall the volatile moods of an Ecuadorian friend as “remnants of an existence I couldn’t know.” A Marker to Measure Drift is about another existence you can’t know: that of a young Liberian woman who has escaped the horrors of her country’s second civil war. What attracts you to writing about lives so removed from your own experience?

For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in other people’s lives and their adventures. My parents told me stories, and read to me, from a very young age. I loved imagining myself as those characters. There was never any separation between them and myself. That’s what excited me about fiction from the very beginning — it allowed me to inhabit someone else’s life. I was Nancy Drew (with whom I had a rather intense relationship), and Scout Finch, and Lancelot, and Huck Finn. That’s why as a child I wanted to become a writer. It’s the same reason I loved to read — as a way to occupy the lives of people I found interesting, people I admired, who frightened me, who confounded me.

I’m not exclusively interested in the immigrant experience, but I certainly admire and have great respect for people who are willing to abandon their homes, their families, everything that is familiar, for places that will be hostile and foreign and dangerous bearing the hope of finding a better life. Isn’t that essentially the oldest story in the world? Isn’t that in one way or another what every story is about?

2. Jacqueline’s life of vagrancy on the Greek coast is structured only by solitary, aimless wandering. You’ve lived abroad and traveled widely: Paris, Italy, Greece, and other places. How did your own travel experiences — the solitude, spontaneity, and tedium of long-term travel — inform this part of the novel? How important is travel to your writing generally?

There’s no question that traveling so much and living abroad for so long has made me a better writer. It’s forced me to be a constant observer. I can’t help but think that because I’ve done so much of it on my own, I’ve learned to watch more carefully, to become better at paying attention. I’ve found that when I travel alone, strangers are far more inclined to start a conversation with me. And being alone, I’m less of a threat. People are more willing to tell me their stories when I’m by myself. And I’m forced to engage in ways that I might otherwise resist. Also, having so often been a foreigner I think I’ve become more sensitive to, and more interested in, the experience itself. I know what it’s like to exist for long stretches of time on the periphery of other worlds, to be outside looking in. I think all writers feel this way no matter where they live, or how much they’ve traveled. But in my case the feeling is compounded and intensified by travel and living abroad.

From A Marker to Measure Drift:

Here danger would come up the road. No band of lunatic children would rise dead-eyed from the jungle.
 
No, the danger would come in a car. It would be civilized. It would be uniformed. It would be clean.
 
What was the danger? What would her father say? He had once said that danger is not the point. What do you want? That’s the only question. Danger is only the obstacle to that thing. It must be irrelevant to your desire.
 
In this way, her mother said, turning her back on them, your father is the worst of men. 
 
And not only in this way, Jacqueline thought.
 
A long tour bus the color of dry blood turned and began to rise up the road.

3. Your writing is so rich in sensory detail, often rendered quite poetically, as in this passage where Jacqueline is finally able to eat a full meal: “Already she could feel herself returning. Or memory returning to her. Or her mind. Or whatever it was that came rushing back. Call it memory, she thought. And for a time the act of eating displaced memory.” Do you strive for a lyrical voice in your writing, and do you tend to favor that quality in other writers?

I’m not interested in lyricism for the sake of lyricism, beauty for the sake of beauty. I certainly love language and I pay close attention to the rhythms of sentences. I think prose should always be musical, but that doesn’t mean that it should necessarily be lyrical. I try to remember that language is a tool for telling stories, that it should reflect, and work in service of, narrative. I am always wary of the elegant variation. It’s a way of calling attention to myself, but I am not writing for myself. I am writing to be read. My responsibility is to tell a story and when story and character become secondary to language, I have failed. It is much easier to write beautiful sentences than it is to write beautiful stories. I want readers to be entirely unaware of me.  

4. The novel references some of the extreme violence, including use of child soldiers, that occurred during Liberia’s second civil war. What compelled you to write about this period of Liberia’s history in particular?

Mostly hazard. Many years ago I read a short article somewhere about the early history of Liberia, which I found interesting. Then I read Helene Cooper’s memoir, The House at Sugar Beach, and then Ellen Sirleaf Johnson’s This Child Will Be Great, and then Russell Banks’ The Darling, all of which led me to read about Charles Taylor, which led me to see a film called Liberia: An Uncivil War, which remains one of the most disturbing and moving films I’ve ever seen. And then Tim Hetherington’s extraordinary book of photographs, Long Story Bit by Bit. Most of all it was the film (Hetherington shot a lot of the footage, by the way) and the photographs. I couldn’t shake those images, those people, those various voices. And when that happens, I don’t know what else to do but write about it.

5. Simple interactions with other people require enormous effort of Jacqueline; when she feels weak and desperate, she seeks kindness from others even as she is ashamed to receive any. Do you see her failure to connect as a continuation of her trauma?

I don’t see Jacqueline as weak or desperate. She is strong and independent and determined to the point of making her life unnecessarily difficult. On the other hand, it is her determination, her pride and dignity, that allow her to survive. Everything she does, everything she thinks and feels is in some way a result of what’s happened to her, to her family. And I do think that her failure to connect with other people is a kind of continuation of that trauma, or is a symptom of it.

A Marker to Measure Drift6. In both this novel and “Deeper Winter,” you’ve written about immigrants — Jacqueline and Eduardo — who have been severed from their families and are maneuvering in landscapes vastly different from home. Yet they’re powerfully drawn to places even less familiar, more remote. Do you intend this movement to be hopeful?

I didn’t intend one thing or another, really. Neither journey begins nor ends where the story begins and ends. What’s important, I think, is not so much that their circumstances are better than before, but that they’ve each chosen to keep moving. That’s the most important evidence of their courage — that despite their respective problems they each have the strength to continue traveling through unfamiliar and treacherous landscapes. Jacqueline comes to understand that home has little to do with what is out there in the distance, on those ghost islands, but I’m not sure Eduardo has learned that yet.

Share
Single Page

More from Camille Bromley:

Conversation October 3, 2016, 11:00 am

Unofficial Stories

“The suffering cannot disappear without a trace, we need to understand how and why,” says Svetlana Alexievich, the 2015 Nobel laureate in literature and author of Secondhand Time.

Weekly Review April 12, 2016, 1:32 pm

Weekly Review

Leaked documents reveal that heads of state around the world hide money in offshore accounts, NASA researchers report that climate change has altered the Earth’s wobble, and scientists find that touching the genitals of robots arouses humans.

Weekly Review December 15, 2015, 10:51 am

Weekly Review

An Oklahoma police officer is convicted of raping women while on patrol, Chinese officials accuse the Dalai Lama of sympathizing with the Islamic State, and a burglar hiding in a lake is eaten by an alligator 

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2017

Facing the Furies

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The New Climate

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Dream Preferred

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Snowden’s Box

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

American Duce

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Prayer’s Chance

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Snowden’s Box·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Illustration (detail) by Taylor Callery
Post
The Forty-Fifth President·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Photograph (detail) by Philip Montgomery
Article
A Prayer’s Chance·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Photograph (detail) by Robin Hammond/NOOR
Article
Bee-Brained·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Illustration (detail) by Eda Akaltun. Source photograph of Jairam Hathwar at the 2016 Scripps National Spelling Bee © Pete Marovich/UPI/Newscom
Article
My First Car·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mrs. B’s Baby Village Day Care was on a frontage road between a mattress wholesaler and a knife outlet. There were six or so babies as regulars and another one or two on weekends when their parents were passing through looking for work. They wouldn’t find work, of course, all the security positions were full, the timber and ore had all been taken under the active-stewardship program, and the closest new start-up industry was the geothermal field hundreds of miles away. Mrs. B didn’t even bother to write those babies’ names down in her book. It was fifteen dollars a day and they had to be in reasonable health. Even so the occasional mischievous illness would arise and empty the place out.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Amount Greece’s ruling Syriza party believes that Germany owes Greece in war reparations:

$172,000,000,000

Americans of both sexes prefer the body odors of people with similar political beliefs.

Tens of thousands of people marched to promote science in cities across the world, and Trump issued an Earth Day statement in which he did not mention climate change.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Who Goes Nazi?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."

Subscribe Today