Award-winning American author Russell Banks is back with a new novel about Africa, The Darling. Our literary critic had a chance to sit down with the author of such well-known novels as The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction while he was in town last week on a promotional tour for the new book.
CHRIS McKINNON: You’ve got a lot of stuff in this book: The plight of the chimpanzees, the unravelling of Liberian society in the post-Cold War era, and the history of radical politics in the United States in the late ’60s and the ’70s and what happened to it. Where did this book come from, and how did you manage to tie it together?
RUSSELL BANKS: Hannah, the narrator, is the common field for each of those. She is the one for whom all three of those stories have meaning and [her life] ties them all together.
I got interested in Liberia a number of years ago, when I was writing Cloudsplitter, a historical novel based on the life and times of John Brown, the abolitionist. The history of Liberia was intimitely tied to the history of race in the United States. The dark irony of it was that Liberia was a creation of people who, in the interest of removing freed slaves, removing African-Americans, from the streets of the United States, essentially sent them back to Africa. You know, African-Americans, 200 years-
four, five, ten generations later-because of their skin pigmentation, were sent to Africa.
And when they got there, they were like the surrogate colonizers. They set up a system of government very much like the one they had endured in the United States, only they imposed it on the native peoples that were there, the sixteen tribes, and they basically took over and oppressed them in very much the same way that they themselves had been oppressed for hundreds of years. When Liberia blew up in the ’80s, erupted in civil war in the ’90s, I had a pretty good idea of where that came from. It didn’t just come out of nowhere. It wasn’t just a bunch of Africans killing each other. It had a history to it and the history was intimately connected to the history of the United States, and in particular the racial history of the United States.
I was also drawing from my own personal experience as a political activist in the ’60s and the ’70s. Although I was never a member of the Weathermen, I was the founder of the chapter of [Students for a Democratic Society] at my university, and I was involved in the civil rights movement, and the anti-war movement. And I knew a lot of people like Hannah in that era. I never went as far [as Hannah] but I started where she started, as an activist registering voters in the South. She moves on to increasingly radical politics and she keeps going where I didn’t, into violence against property, and also she became an organizer. She ends up committing her life to it. I didn’t, most people didn’t, but enough people did to make a movement out of it.
Russell Banks reads Friday, Oct. 22 at 8 pm at the Premiere Dance Theatre. He will also take part in an interview session Oct. 23 at 4 pm at the same venue.