Writing As A Political Act

A typewriter in Ukrainian light

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Original Air Date: 
May 07, 2022

In peaceful times, and in moments of violence, writers have used their art as protest, remembrance, and sometimes, political acts. We talk with poets and novelists about how they deeply notice the historical time we live in — through their words and voice.

yellow plains against a blue sky

From an early age, Ukrainian-American poet Ilya Kaminsky developed a deep personal understanding of the political power of poetry and language. He explains why poetry is such a powerful tool in crisis.

Bernadine Evaristo

Bernardine Evaristo became the first Black woman to win the Booker Prize in 2019 for her novel “Girl, Woman, Other.” Evaristo talked with Shannon Henry Kleiber about how her childhood and her writing energize her advocacy supporting artists and writers of color.

Kipling with illustrations from his home.
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If you want to cancel a famous writer because of his retrograde politics, Rudyard Kipling — author of "The White Man's Burden" — is an obvious choice. So should we still read Kipling? We ask novelist Salman Rushdie and literary scholar Chris Benfey.

Show Details 📻
May 07, 2022
December 17, 2022
September 23, 2023
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:15):

It's To the Best of Our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps. Sometimes writing is a political act. Okay. How are you? How are your family and friends in Ukraine?

Ilya Kaminsky (00:50):

How am I doing? I'm not doing incredibly well, no.

Anne Strainchamps (00:55):


Ilya Kaminsky (00:59):

I'm trying to do my best.

Anne Strainchamps (01:07):

Days after the Russian army invaded Ukraine, when the whole world was trying to make sense of what was happening and how to respond. These words started circulating online. "We lived happily during the war."

Ilya Kaminsky (01:22):

We're living happily during civil war.

Anne Strainchamps (01:26):

"And when they bombed other people's houses, we protested."

Ilya Kaminsky (01:32):

But not enough.

Anne Strainchamps (01:33):

"But not enough. We opposed them."

Ilya Kaminsky (01:34):

We opposed them, but not enough.

Anne Strainchamps (01:39):

"But not enough." This is the beginning of a poem, a now famous poem, by Ilya Kaminsky, the Ukrainian-American poet. His is the voice many of us turned to again and again during those first weeks of war when it was becoming clear that what was at stake in Ukraine was not only the future of one country, but a certain set of values or ideals: democracy, self-determination, freedom of expression. And Ilya Kaminsky is a writer with a deep, personal understanding of the political power of poetry.

Ilya Kaminsky (02:21):

Well, when people are powerless for so many hundreds of years, the language becomes a weapon. We have to use it as a weapon, because that's what you have. You may not have guns. In fact, Ukraine doesn't have the guns to close the sky and nobody's willing to do it, but people still have language.

Anne Strainchamps (02:46):

A few things to know. Ilya Kaminsky grew up in the city of Odesa in Ukraine. He lost most of his hearing at age four during an illness. When he was 16, his family moved to the US, and that's when he learned English and began writing poetry. So he is a very accomplished lip reader with an accent. Lean in and listen closely because his words are so worth it.

Ilya Kaminsky (03:13):

We're living happily during war. We're living happily during civil war. And when they bombing other people's houses, we protested, but not enough. We opposed them, but not enough. I was in my bed. Around my bed, America was falling. Invisible house by invisible house by invisible house. I took a chair outside and watched the sun in a six month of a disastrous rein. In a house of money, in a street of money, in a city of money, in a country of money. Our great country of money. We, forgive us, living happily during the war.

Anne Strainchamps (04:21):

That is such a scathing and beautiful poem.

Ilya Kaminsky (04:27):

Thank you.

Anne Strainchamps (04:28):

What would you like readers to take from it?

Ilya Kaminsky (04:31):

What do I want readers to take? Well, in the poem, one hopes to create an experience in the reader. In this case, the hope of the poem is to help the reader to see their own complicity. I do kind of see irony that the citizens of American empire are showing so much concern for the victims of the Russian empire while America is regularly bombing other people's houses. And all the while, it uses police brutality against its own citizens. Right this very moment. Who remembers Chechnya right now?

Anne Strainchamps (05:14):


Ilya Kaminsky (05:15):

Putin using ballistic myths to bomb the capital of Chechnya, the city of Grozny into the ground around '99, 2000. There was writing about it for about five minutes, and then we forgot. Why? Because oil and gas companies make money and they're dealing with Putin. If you follow the dollar sign, if you don't see the root of the problem, our country of money, the poem says, our great country of money.

Anne Strainchamps (05:51):

Yeah. One of the things I've been thinking about a lot lately as I sit in the middle of one empire, the United States, and watch another empire, Russia, invade a small country, it seems to me that language and poetry in particular have always had something to say to push back against empire. You told a story of, it was an essay you wrote in 2017, but I read it recently about a poet and friend of yours. Boris was his first name. I'm sorry. I don't remember his last name.

Ilya Kaminsky (06:29):

Yeah, Boris Khersonsky, he's a wonderful poet. So yes, Boris and Mila Khersonsky, the husband and wife and the both poets. Very interesting thing happened in 2014 when Russia first invaded Ukraine. Boris Khersonsky at that time was the most known and beloved Russian-language poet in Ukraine. And he said in public that, "Today I am not going to speak Russian. I'm going to speak Ukrainian." And he began write poems in Ukrainian. So it's amazing that a poet would refuse his own language. The story of his wife, in some way with Mila herself, is even more interesting. Mila herself she was born in the country of Moldova. So Ukrainian was never her language. She had to learn Ukrainian in order to write poetry in it. Imagine if here in United States, when our unfortunately president, Donald Trump, began to build the wall to separate United States from our neighbors in Mexico. What if most American poets say, "I refuse to speak English. I'm going to write poems in Spanish from now on. I'm going to learn a new language as protest." Just imagine that. It's an amazing thing to imagine, right?

Anne Strainchamps (07:56):

Wow. Why is war the subject that you keep writing about or keep coming back to?

Ilya Kaminsky (08:03):

Up until I was 16, most of my childhood and adulthood has happened when Soviet Union was falling apart. Watching the country fall apart prepares one to be alert to crisis. It was a time when the door to our apartment was set on fire because we were Jewish. Ukraine is a complicated place. Ukraine is also a place that is full of hope, especially the new generation of Ukrainians. They are more democratic than Western democracies or rather they believe in democracy more than Western democracies do. They're very idealistic in a beautiful way, and they're prepared to fight for it.

Anne Strainchamps (08:50):

Well, I'm so interested to read that you've been in touch with a lot of poets throughout this war and you asked one poet what you could do to help. And he said, "Just send more poems because we're starting a literary journal." And I thought, they're starting a literary journal in the middle of a war? That's remarkable. But then when I thought about, I thought, when else would we need poetry, but during a war?

Ilya Kaminsky (09:20):

Well, the person that you're referring to, his name is Evgenii Golubovsky. He's in his eighties. He's a journalist. All the way back to the middle of [inaudible 00:09:33], he met the widow of a poet, Osip Mandelstam. Her name was Nadezhda Mandelstam. Osip Mandelstam was a legendary poet who wrote a poem against Stalin's government and was sentenced to Sibera, where he died, and his work was prohibited for decades. And so this man, Golubovsky, met Nadezhda Mandelstam, who gave him the copy of the poems written on cigarette paper. And he ended up working for a newspaper and he published the poems. And the beautiful thing is he's still here now. And he's starting a writers group for young people, because he knows that it matters, that it does change. So yeah, that's the kind of human chain that we create. Reciting Words to each other sometime. Will that stop Putin? Maybe, maybe not, but it'll help us to continue.

Anne Strainchamps (10:36):

Does poetry give us some kind of speech or can poetry say things that other forms of language can't? Is that part of what makes poetry the thing we turn to so often during times of crisis, when it feels like what we're feeling or what we're going through, we can't somehow use ordinary language to express it. Poetry becomes the language that we use to break up whatever is frozen in us, whatever we cannot adequately express, but I don't know why poetry has the ability to do that.

Ilya Kaminsky (11:14):

Oh, I think you are beautifully answering your own question. I can only add to it by saying poem is a spell. It casts a spell on us. It's a memorable speech that we remember when things get difficult and that memorable speech offers us a balm, offers us a way to go on. You can't recite the whole novel of 400 pages, no matter how wonderful it is. You can't recite it to the person sitting next to you by heart, but you can a poem. It's a kind of a moment of awe, a moment of silence that we carry from one human body to another, that we transport by means of language.

Anne Strainchamps (12:02):

And that's so beautifully phrased, Ilya. I'll just ask very simply what keeps you writing now in the dark times?

Ilya Kaminsky (12:13):

I'm afraid on this planet there are always dark times. The question is whether or not we shut our eyes to them. The dark times happen all the time. Some people unfortunately have to go through worse, but we all lose parents, right? We all see tragedy in one way or another. We all die. We don't get not to die. Right?

Anne Strainchamps (12:36):


Ilya Kaminsky (12:36):

The answer to this question was given by Bertolt Brecht, a great poet of German language, who protested Nazis and was living an exile when he wrote a little poem that went the following: "And in dark times, will there be singing? Yes, there will be singing about the dark times."

Anne Strainchamps (13:17):

"And in dark times, will there be singing? Yes, there will be singing about the dark times." That is so beautiful. Ilya, thank you so much for talking today.

Ilya Kaminsky (13:27):

Thank you. And thank you again for having me today. I'm grateful.

Anne Strainchamps (13:28):

It's been such a joy. Thank you. Ilya Kaminsky is a hard-of-hearing USSR-born Ukrainian-Russian-Jewish-American poet, critic, translator, and professor. He's best known for his poetry collections "Dancing in Odesa" and "Deaf Republic." In 2019, the BBC named him one of 12 artists who changed the world. Coming up, writer Bernardine Evaristo remembers growing up as a young black girl in Britain.

Bernardine Evaristo (14:06):

It was a very white area that I grew up in. Britain was much whiter than it is now. It didn't make me feel that I belonged.

Anne Strainchamps (14:13):

Finding her voice and winning the Booker Prize.

Bernardine Evaristo (14:16):

All writing is political.

Anne Strainchamps (14:19):

That's next on To the Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio And PRX.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (14:25):

So be I was hoping you could start with reading the Manifesto. I would love to hear it in your own words.

Bernardine Evaristo (14:42):

Works for me. There is a manifesto in each one of us emerging over the course of our lives, changing and reconfiguring through our experiences. This is mine.

Anne Strainchamps (15:03):

For Bernardine Evaristo, the personal is always political. In 2019, she became the first black woman to win the Booker Prize for her novel "Girl, Woman, Other." And since then, she has been tireless in using that fame to support other artists and writers of color, in particular, by publishing undiscovered black, British writers, who might otherwise never be known. Her new memoir is called "Manifesto: On Never Giving Up." So that's where Shannon Henry Kleiber asked her to begin.

Bernardine Evaristo (15:40):

Be wild, disobedient, and daring with your creativity. Take risks instead of following predictable roots. Those who play it safe do not advance our culture or civilization. A wise person chooses partners who will support their creativity and gets rid of those who will undermine, sabotage, or even destroy it. Personal success is most meaningful when used to uplift communities otherwise left behind. We are all interconnected and must look after each other. Society operates by a powerful and often impenetrable networks that uphold its tribal hierarchies. So we must establish our own systems as countermeasure. We must pass on what we know to the next generation and express gratitude to those who help us. Nobody gets anywhere on their own. The ancestors are swaying silently behind us, the dead souls of the once dearly departed, who are the reason why we came into being. We must remember them.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (17:20):

I love your confidence in your memoir and your life. And I was just struck by how so many artists second guess themselves and just take rejection and sock it away. And I just loved your joyful tenacity. Where does that come from?

Bernardine Evaristo (17:37):

Yeah, because the subtitle of the book is "On Never Giving Up." I think it has multiple sources, really, that tenacity. I was born into a tenacious family. I come from a mixed marriage. My father was Nigerian, my mother English, and they married in the 1950s in the face of huge social and family disapproval, especially on my mother's side of the family. And yet they loved each other and that was it. So they were going to get married and they did and they had eight children in 10 years. And so my mother's mother really objected to the marriage between my parents, but she also objected to the number of children that my parents had. So they were people who followed their hearts and led the life that they wanted to lead. And that was also the story of my childhood, that my parents had married in spite of the pressures against them. And perhaps that then is the source of my own tenacity.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (18:36):

In your childhood, you write about this period of time where bricks were being thrown through your window on a regular basis and your father kept a hammer on the side of his bed. And I just think that must have been so frightening. Can you tell me about how you felt at that time? How old were you when that was happening?

Bernardine Evaristo (18:54):

It was happening in the sixties. Obviously, it's a very long time ago, but it is something that definitely marked my childhood. It made me feel that I was not accepted in the community in which I grew up. It was a very white area that I grew up in. Britain was much white than it is now, but also the area I grew up in was a particularly white area. It didn't make me feel that I belonged, and it made me feel that people were hostile towards me. And I think when you're a little child, that's very disturbing and very sad, because you are just a child, you're innocent, you haven't done anything. And yet people are expressing this violent anger about your very existence.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (19:37):

And your parents became activists. Did that influence you in your activism?

Bernardine Evaristo (19:43):

I think, yes, definitely. They were left-wing, socialist, and very active in the trade unions where they worked. My father was a local political figure in the area I grew up in, the borough of Greenwich. Political conversations were had around our table when we had meals and so on. And also, as I said, I think when you're growing up in a racist society and you're a person of color, I think you do have a choice as to whether you're going to be somebody who fights against that, or whether you're going to be somebody who just gets on with your life and tries to keep your head above water, but not put your head above the parapet. And my parents were people who put their heads above the parapet. And as soon as I was able to, when I went to drama school, which was a very political drama school, I too did that. I became somebody who was prepared to stand up for what I believed in, which at that time was around race and feminism.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (20:35):

And what you were doing though, in the theater was activism. The stories are so interesting about how there were no roles for black women, and instead of giving up, you created them. You created a theater company. You created the roles. You made it happen.

Bernardine Evaristo (20:52):

That's right. And at a time when nobody was interested in us as black women, we were in our early twenties, we were theater school, drama school graduates. We realized there was no work for us out there. And so it made absolute sense for us to create our own theater company, and we called it Theater of Black Women. We were forging a theatrical identity for ourselves in a very racist society. I was quite a hothead myself and my friend, Patricia, who was one of the co-founders of the theater company, we used to go to theater a lot. And as I said, the theater was very white, and when it wasn't white, it was very male. And so if we objected to something on political grounds, we would heckle very loudly and disrupt shows basically. And we would position ourselves at the back of the theater so that we could make an easy escape. I grew out of that quite quickly. But when I do think about it, I am slightly outraged, because I would never do that now. But if we found something offensive on political grounds, that was all we had at our disposal. You must remember, especially for younger audiences, that there was no social media, there was no Twitter, there was no internet. We had our voices and that was it.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (22:10):

Your novel "Girl, Woman, Other" is so innovative in form and art and punctuation and groundbreaking in so many ways. It's 12 characters, 11 women, and one non-binary character. How do you describe the book?

Bernardine Evaristo (22:24):

I call it a fusion fiction in terms of the form of it, because it fuses different stories together. And also the way I've used the language on the page, it is a book that is in a way and ode to black British women. And it's a book that travels well over a hundred years, so that it's like a tapestry.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (22:46):

And then it won the Booker Prize in 2019, which is the pinnacle, of course, and something you'd hoped for as you write in your memoir. But it's hard to say it out loud, but something that you had actually really said out loud to yourself, at least, you have said it wasn't an overnight success, obviously, but that everything changed overnight. So what changed?

Bernardine Evaristo (23:08):

Everything. So "Girl, Woman, Other" has sold well over a million copies in the English language alone, and compared to the sales of my previous books that were often critical successes, but they simply did not sell beyond a few thousand. The reach of my work has just exploded. And then how everybody saw me changed. The image of me as a writer literally changed overnight, and suddenly I was considered a heavyweight. And it's not that anybody thought I was a lightweight before, but I was often not included in the way that I wanted to be in terms of the literary culture here. And also I have a huge platform now that I didn't have before as an activist.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (23:56):

Well, there's a long tradition of political writers from Aristotle to Ray Bradbury to Margaret Atwood, and their work is a form of activism and social conscience. And it's a part of history. How do you see your place in this part of ongoing history?

Bernardine Evaristo (24:15):

Yeah, I'm very aware that as I'm one of the very few black British women novelists out there, I am writing our stories into history. I am redressing our absence, the absence of our stories in literature in Britain. And if it's not going to be in Britain, it's not going to be anywhere else either. So I'm very aware that I'm making history, not in the egoistical sense of I'm so famous, I'm going to make history, but that I am rewriting history and re-imagining history through my work. But also as a writer doing what I do, I am also counteracting invisibility.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (25:00):

Do you remember the first time you thought of writing as a political act?

Bernardine Evaristo (25:05):

Probably the first poem I ever wrote was about the suffragettes. It was in a school magazine. I lost the school magazine. I went back to my old school last year and they dug it out of the archives and gave me a copy, and it was just wonderful to see it. And I thought, my God, Bernardine, you thought you became a feminist when you went to drama school. But this is such a feminist poem back then when I was 14.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (25:28):


Bernardine Evaristo (25:28):


Shannon Henry Kleiber (25:30):

Is being a political writer different now than being one in previous generations?

Bernardine Evaristo (25:36):

The first thing to say is that all writing is political. Obviously somebody like Margaret Atwood grapples with the really big issues of the day and imagines our society in ways that are really dystopian. For example, with the Handmaid's Tale and Testaments, all writing is political. I think, no, when I go back to the writers who inspired me when I was a young woman, when I go back to Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Michelle Cliff, Audre Lorde, they were very political writers in America and writing black women's stories into being. That's what they were doing. And they were the first generation to do that in great numbers, actually anywhere in the world, anywhere in the world.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (26:24):

I'd love to have our listeners learn about your black Britain writing project. So these are writers who have been overlooked, forgotten, maybe never even known, and you're bringing them back to print. So the publishing business is a very complex and difficult business for many people. But what you're doing with this is really introducing a whole new cannon of underrepresented writers into the public. It's really not an exaggeration to say some of these writers, maybe all of them, would be unknown without this project and you're giving them a voice and you're giving them a life. Can you tell us a little bit about some of them? Who are you proudest of bringing back into print?

Bernardine Evaristo (27:04):

Yeah, so the project's called Black Britain: Writing Back, and the idea is to bring back writers that were overlooked or have disappeared from view going back over a hundred years actually. I think the two books that are sort of standout books in some ways are "Growing Out: Black Hair & Black Pride In Sixties Britain" by somebody called Barbara Blake Hannah, which is an absolutely fantastic memoir about her time living in London in the 1960s. There's also "A Black Boy at Eton" by Dillibe Onyeama, who was the first African, no, take it back, the first black person to graduate from Eton College, which is the most elite school in this country. It's about 1,300 years old. And I think is probably the most famous school in the world. And he was a student there in the sixties. A couple of years after he left, he wrote a memoir about his time there.

Bernardine Evaristo (28:06):

It was published in 1972, and it is brilliantly written, but also really shocking in terms of the racism he experienced at this super elite school. The headmaster of Eton banished him from ever darkening their doors again. And the book was kind of trashed by the media. Eventually he went back to Nigeria, and we've now brought the book back. What I find so interesting about Dillibe's book is that Eton College has produced 20 British prime ministers, including our current one. So it is really the seat of the establishment in this country. It is the hot house of the elite in this country. And when you read about his treatment as a Nigerian boy at that school at that time, it really makes you reflect seriously on the nature of the people who then went on to run this country in all the kind of most important fields in the last sort of 50 years or so, because they were the boys he was at school with.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (29:10):

How do you keep going? You say you're stubborn and it totally comes through in your memoir that you are not going to give up. But you're experiencing throughout your life, racism and ageism and misogyny. Is that what keeps you going? Or what keeps you going?

Bernardine Evaristo (29:26):

Actually, what keeps me going is that I love what I do. That's a really good incentive, isn't it? I love creativity. I've led a creative life all my life. I love writing. Yeah, sometimes it's frustrating and a bit of struggling and it might not work out for a while, but essentially I love it. I don't know how I would function if I didn't have creative self expression in my life through my writing and creating other worlds and other stories. Because I'm not writing about myself most of all, I'm writing about these other imagined lives. I live in my imagination, and it's a wonderful place to be. It's very liberating and exciting and adventurous and yeah, so that's what keeps me going. Yes, there are always obstacles and definitely obstacles in my past. But if you're doing what you love and also enjoying the result of what you do, so I do enjoy my books. When I finish my books, I don't always think they're great, but when I finish my books, there is such a degree of satisfaction that they are what they are, and I hope they do well out there in the world, but I know I've put everything into them, and it's exciting. Being a writer for me is so exciting. It's a gorgeous job so that keeps me going.

Anne Strainchamps (30:49):

That was Shannon Henry Kleiber talking with Bernardine Evaristo about her new memoir, "Manifesto: On Never Giving Up."

Anne Strainchamps (31:23):

So this is like the original buffet.

Anne Strainchamps (31:27):

Writing can be a political act, but so can reading, especially in a post-colonial age.

Anne Strainchamps (31:34):

Well, this Indian teak carving.

Anne Strainchamps (31:38):

Few writers know that as well as Salman Rushdie.

Salman Rushdie (31:42):

I was born literally eight weeks before the end of the British empire. There was a joke in my family, which said that, Salman was born and eight weeks later, the British ran away.

Anne Strainchamps (32:05):

I think the Kiplings left something.

Anne Strainchamps (32:08):

Empires my crumble, but their cultural legacy lives on. As a child growing up in India, Salman Rushdie read the Jungle Books and the Just So Stories, classics by another Anglo-Indian writer, Rudyard Kipling. The two men actually had a lot in common: Bombay childhoods, horrible British boarding schools, but politically they could not be more different.

Anne Strainchamps (32:34):

Did you look at any of these books?

Anne Strainchamps (32:36):

And yet, Rushdie does still read Kipling.

Salman Rushdie (32:43):

The thing is for an Indian reader reading Kipling, you have a very double response. On the one hand, many Indian readers would agree that perhaps no Western writer knew India as deeply and as well as Rudyard Kipling did. And his writing reveals that. It reveals the depth of his knowledge. On the other hand, particularly after he went to boarding school in England and had endophilia, if you like, beaten out of him and came back as a little imperialist, those two things clash in Kipling all the time. And as you read him, you feel that conflict in yourself.

Anne Strainchamps (33:25):

My favorite was "The Elephant's Child."

Salman Rushdie (33:30):

When I was a kid, I loved the Jungle Books, reading about Mowgli's adventures. I loved them. It was only later as an adult that I realized that they contained very racist tropes. The foolish monkeys in the Jungle Books are supposed to be Kipling of Indian people. When you know that stuff, it reshapes your reading of it.

Anne Strainchamps (33:54):

Don't you want to just go through and open everything?

Anne Strainchamps (33:57):


Steve Paulson (34:01):

The imperialist Kipling is pretty daunting.

Salman Rushdie (34:04):


Steve Paulson (34:04):

He defended the British empire everywhere. Opposed home rule for Ireland. He was friends with Cecil Roads and Teddy Roosevelt, two of the most famous imperialists of the day. There's all this talk about certain writers who not only should just be read out of the cannon, but basically should be canceled, and it would seem that Kipling might be a suitable candidate for that.

Salman Rushdie (34:26):

Yeah, I would defend him against that. It's true, there is all of that. But again, it's one of these things, I want people to read Kipling's imperialist stuff in order to understand what imperialism was like. We can't erase imperialism just because we disapprove it. It happened and we need to understand it.

Anne Strainchamps (34:49):

Coming up. If you want to understand someone, there's nothing like visiting their home. So what did Steve and I find in Rudyard Kipling's house? No, I did not break it. No. Keep listening. It's To the Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio, and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (35:28):

It's not often you get to sleep in a museum, but last summer, Steve and I spent a night at the Rudyard Kipling house near Brattleboro, Vermont. It's a classic, turn of the century country estate built in 1892 with a slate roof and cedar shingles painted Kipling green. Kipling wanted it to look like one of the luxurious river boats he'd sailed in India. So the house is long and narrow with lots of mahogany fittings. He called it Naulakha. The landmark Trust USA owns the place now and they rent it out. And when you stay overnight, you can sit at the desk where Kipling wrote The Jungle Book, eat in his dining room, even sleep in his bedroom.

Anne Strainchamps (36:10):

It's so funny, you look at all the books and I look at all the pottery.

Anne Strainchamps (36:15):

While I obsessed over the history and design.

Anne Strainchamps (36:18):

Did you see the chamber pot in our bedroom?

Anne Strainchamps (36:20):

Steve was fascinated by the politics.

Steve Paulson (36:27):

There are a few things you should know about Rudyard Kipling. Just over a hundred years ago, he was the most popular writer in the world. And to this day, the youngest author ever to win the Nobel Prize for literature. The second thing, he was an unabashed imperialist. Born in the heart of the British empire in India, he wrote the notorious poem, "The White Man's Burden," which called on the US to colonized the Philippines. He also wrote the beloved children's classic, "The Jungle Book" set in the wilds of India. So what was he doing here?

Steve Paulson (37:00):

Can I just say, it seems really odd that Rudyard Kipling would choose Vermont as the place to settle down.

Christopher Benfey (37:08):

Everything about his connection to Vermont is odd and wild, and that's when I started getting obsessed with Rudyard Kipling. The idea that man wrote "The Jungle Book" right here is just too strange to believe.

Steve Paulson (37:27):

Christopher Benfey is a literary scholar at Mount Holyoke College and the author of "If: The Untold Story of Kipling's American Years."

Christopher Benfey (37:35):

So we're in the low jet.

Steve Paulson (37:37):

It's a book about how Kipling, the English imperialist, fell in love with America.

Christopher Benfey (37:42):

I love this house to death. I love everything about it. I think it's the quintessential expression of Kipling's love affair with America.

Steve Paulson (37:51):

And how Americans fell in love with him.

Christopher Benfey (37:54):

It is a spare-no-expense dream house.

Steve Paulson (37:58):

Wow. So let's move to this next room here.

Christopher Benfey (38:02):

So this is Kipling's study at the bow of the ship, at the end of the house where he could be alone, where he could look out on the beautiful rhododendron gardens. This is where the mystery happened. This is where Kipling wrote incredible books. It's here that he wrote "The Jungle Book." It's here that he wrote his American novel, "Captain's Courageous." It's here that he wrote many of his greatest poems. He even began "Kim." He wrote the first draft of "Kim" here in his Brattleboro study. So this is really it. One of the things I love in this room is a little inscription that his father left.

Steve Paulson (38:44):

Kipling grew up in India and then was sent off to a British boarding school. Later, still a teenager, he went back to India to work as a journalist. He was young and ambitious when he came to America to launch his career.

Christopher Benfey (38:59):

As Henry James might have said, nauseatingly young. I mean, he was just incredibly precocious. This was a man who wrote "The Man Who Would Be King," one of his greatest stories, the story that John Houston made a brilliant anti-war movie of, he wrote it I think when he was 20 years old. It's just astonishing how precocious Kipling was.

Steve Paulson (39:26):

Other writers were mesmerized by Kipling who was not only a great writer, but a brilliant conversationalist. There's a story about how he tracked down Mark Twain when he first arrived in America. It took just a single conversation for Twain to say later, "I believe he knew more than any person I had met before."

Christopher Benfey (39:44):

American writers were a little intimidated by this fluency. They'd never heard anything like it. We have both Mark Twain's report that he was just astonished by the very young Kipling.

Steve Paulson (39:58):

And Henry James himself. Didn't he say that Kipling was the most complete man of genius he'd ever met?

Christopher Benfey (40:03):

Yes, exactly. The most complete man of genius, and Henry James' brother, William James, who actually came to Naulakha and stayed with the Kiplings and worshipped Kipling wrote to his brother, Henry. This was a little mean of him to tell Henry this, but he said that he, William, thought Kipling was more like Shakespeare than anyone else of his generation. Kipling was a sensation. There was no writer of his time who was such a big deal in the United States. And you can't read very far in American literature and culture of the 1890s without running into the name Kipling. From about 1889 to 1890 to 1891, Kipling suddenly is world famous. He's able to command incredible prices from magazines and book publishers. His books are selling like hot cakes. Everyone wanted to get the next book by Kipling. Well, should we wander upstairs?

Steve Paulson (41:06):

Yeah, let's.

Christopher Benfey (41:07):

I wanted to take you up to the billiard room, another sacred space.

Steve Paulson (41:16):

The billiard room, which is modeled on Mark Twain's game room.

Christopher Benfey (41:24):

This is a little world for men to retreat after dinner to the billiard room.

Steve Paulson (41:32):

I'm wondering where the bar is for the drinks.

Christopher Benfey (41:34):


Steve Paulson (41:35):

Everyone visited Kipling. Famous writers trucked up here to play golf and tennis, to stay up late talking politics. But those politics and his circle of jingoistic friends like Teddy Roosevelt are why Kipling, for all his fame a hundred years ago, has been practically written out of the literary cannon.

Christopher Benfey (41:53):

Kipling's most notorious piece of writing is called "The White Man's Burden." It is a very frank invitation to the United States to take up the burden of empire and occupy the Philippines.

Steve Paulson (42:19):

Wait, he referred to colonizing the uncivilized people as he called them half-devil and half-child.

Christopher Benfey (42:26):

So, as I said, there are lines in the poem that are unbearable, and George Orwell said it should have been called "The Black Man's Burden," that the real burden this poem describes is having white people on our backs. Kipling was an imperialist. He was a believer in empire, just as Teddy Roosevelt was, just as many, many men and women of his time were. And I think our challenge with a writer like Kipling is not to find ways to defend him, but to try to understand him, to try to understand why so many Americans were in love with the idea of having their own empire. It's been a temptation to the United States for all of its existence, and especially in this period after around 1890. But there is another side to Kipling. Kipling understood what the costs of empire were. One of the greatest anti-imperial stories is "The Man Who Would Be King."

Steve Paulson (43:36):

So he was both an ardent defender of empire, of the British empire, and yet he saw the problems with it?

Christopher Benfey (43:43):

Absolutely, yeah. Kipling had seen the workings of the empire close up. He had grown up reporting on conditions in India. He knew how things could go wrong. And I think most of Kipling's commentators have felt that this is a very complicated person with not just two sides, but nine or 10 or 30 sides.

Steve Paulson (44:07):

Benfey tells a story about an argument Kipling had with his friend, Teddy Roosevelt. Both loved animals and Roosevelt was helping to build the National Zoo, so they went to visit it together.

Christopher Benfey (44:18):

Teddy Roosevelt wanted to show Kipling the bears, the bears, the grizzly bears. And Kipling said, "I'm really interested in the beavers." So you have this wonderful contrast between Roosevelt who likes big, strong, terrifying animals and Kipling who likes business-like, well-ordered builders who are loyal to their families and so on. And there's another contrast. Kipling is very interested in Native Americans and Teddy Roosevelt despised the Indians, wanted them eradicated. And the two of them got into a shouting match at the Smithsonian where Kipling was saying, "How could you exterminate all your Aboriginal peoples?" And Teddy Roosevelt is slamming the glass cases and explaining why they had to be killed. So very interesting contrast.

Steve Paulson (45:20):

If there's one book that's often considered Kipling's masterpiece, it's the novel "Kim," the story of an orphan street kid in India who ends up spying for the British Raj. It's a book about what Kipling called "the great game," the secret power plays between the British and Russian empires. Long after Kipling died, "Kim" took on another life as a kind of manual for the US architects of the Vietnam War. Here's Chris Benfey again.

Christopher Benfey (45:48):

It's the damnedest thing. "Kim" was a kind of cult book in the CIA. One CIA director after another would sort of hand over "Kim" to his successor, and the book was required reading among new recruits and even the particular training methods in the book, memory games and ways of training people to notice clues, to pick up evidence, these were also shared. So in some bizarre way, Kipling's "Kim," which is partly about the destruction wreaked by the great game becomes a kind of handbook for operatives first in the Philippines, and then in the Vietnam War. You can't make these things up.

Steve Paulson (46:39):

What was it that people found useful or important about "Kim"?

Christopher Benfey (46:43):

Yeah, I think for John F. Kennedy's generation of, I hesitate to call it white man's burden thinkers, but essentially they were, they thought they could remake the world according to their own designs, "Kim" was about the adventure of remaking the world. It was about the sexiness of it. It was about the excitement of it. And a lot of that comes out of "Kim."

Steve Paulson (47:10):

Well, one other thing that I found surprising is the admirers of Kipling's writing. You have the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, you have Bertolt Brecht, the German radical playwright, Edward Sayid, the great theorist of postcolonialism. He thought actually very highly of "Kim."

Christopher Benfey (47:27):

These are some of the facts about Kipling that kept me going as my friends and colleagues said, "Are you out of your mind to be working on the most politically incorrect writer in the whole cannon?" Gramsci is a fascinating case. He said, "If," the great poem, "If" "If you can keep your head when all about you. Are losing theirs and blaming it on you," Kipling's most famous poem. Gramsci said, of course, the context that this poem came out of is colonialism and imperialism, but Gramsci, she said, "There are a lot of lessons here for revolutionaries." So, again, no matter what we think about Kipling, he can't be erased from our literature. He's just too big a figure.

Steve Paulson (48:21):

Rudyard Kipling ended up living in Vermont for only four years. It was paradise, but paradise has a way of crumbling. Kipling had a series of run-ins with his brother-in-law, who lived nearby, which turned into a really nasty, legal battle. Soon flocks of reporters were hounding him, so Kipling and his family ran away to England.

Christopher Benfey (48:44):

He only returned once in 1899. It was a total disaster. He got sick on the crossing over, his whole family got sick, and little Josephine who he referred to as his American daughter who had an American accent, who was the love of his life, little Josephine died at age eight. The tragedy of his life. And Kipling said, "After this, I can never be in the United States again." And that was that.

Steve Paulson (49:13):

Yeah. And there's another family tragedy that happened later. His youngest child, his son, went off to fight in World War I.

Christopher Benfey (49:23):

John was in a trench at Laos and the first day he was facing battle, he was blown to bits by a German shell, and that was the end of Kipling's jingoism. That was the end of his notion that fighting was a good thing. And he wrote another "If" poem, one of my favorite of Kipling's poems, it goes, "If any ask us why we died, tell them because our fathers lied."

Steve Paulson (49:58):

Wow. So again, very complicated.

Christopher Benfey (50:03):

Two sides, always two sides with Kipling.

Anne Strainchamps (50:12):

Christopher Benfey is the author of the book, "If: The Untold Story of Kipling's American Years." He was talking with Steve Paulson at Naulakha, the Kipling house in Dummerston, Vermont. The Landmark Trust USA owns the place and rents it out. So you too can stay there. You'll find photos and information on our website at ttbook.org. To the Best of Our Knowledge comes to you from Madison, Wisconsin in the studios of Wisconsin Public Radio. Shannon Henry Kleiber produced this hour with help from Charles Monroe Kane, Angelo Batista, and Mark Riechers. Our sound designer and technical director is Joe Hardtke. Steve Paulson is our executive producer, and I'm Anne Strainchamps. If you'd like to get a look behind the scenes, subscribe to our weekly newsletter at ttbook.org/newsletter. And as always, thanks for listening.

Last modified: 
September 22, 2023