Donna Rifkind did an excellent job introducing the books of each writer in one quick introductory swoop, so the panel could discuss their ostensible topic: Exiles and Outsiders. I’m sure it was just a coincidence that this panel had four female writers.
Gioconda Belli was literally exiled from her native Nicaragua because of an unfriendly dictator. She’s currently writing about the exiled by retelling the Garden of Eden, casting Adam and Eve under a wildly creative but careless and forgetful God.
Dylan Landis preferred the term Outsider compared to the term Exiled, though she lives by the advice from Denis Johnson: “Write naked, write from exile, write in blood.” She also praised the role of the exiled: “I don’t think you can write a novel if you don’t feel like you’re in exile, and you can’t have a protagonist who isn’t someone who’s exiled.”
Aimee Bender argued that part of the writer’s job is to try to see fresh and new, and language hinders that, because writers have conflated the terms with the thing itself: “We look at a sparrow and call it sparrow, but we don’t realize the wonder of how that word correlates to the actual bird. We don’t realize the division any longer.” So the writer’s job is to step outside, in order to get a fresh vision of language and of the world itself. Without that step outside, language impedes the new.
Mary Gaitskill dug into the meaning of the word outsider. “I used to feel like I was an outsider, when I was a child, and even now, as an adult,” she said. “But I think I was flattering myself.” She continued to say that even if you get shut out of some worlds, you can always join others. “The fact that we are here means we’re not outsiders,” she said. “We’re here at the LA Book Festival, we get our books published. If we were true outsiders, we wouldn’t get our books published.” She picked an extreme definition of the word outsider: “I think there are outsiders, but those are the people walking down the street screaming with their pants around their knees.”
About halfway through the panel, Gaitskill and Belli got into a bit of a rhetorical skirmish. They interrupted each other and complained about interruptions; they disagreed and quibbled about definitions.
Belli sought to clarify Gaitskill’s terms, arguing that we have to distinguish between outsider and alienation. After all, she said, American culture is hostile to emotions. In Latin America, intimacy comes much faster than here.
Gaitskill brusquely disagreed. She thought Americans go crazy with intimacy. She claims anyone will tell anyone anything, even something extremely personal.
Belli took issue with that, and tried to define how loneliness is intrinsic to being human.
Gaitskill punched right back: “They say that you come into the world alone and leave alone. But you don’t come into the world alone. You are with your mother.”
Aside from the bout of knocking heads, everyone agreed that the novelist must write from a position separate from the majority. Although I found Gaitskill rather acerbic, I agreed with her that writers enjoy inventing an ostracized notion of themselves. They imagine themselves on far-flung fringes while firmly wrapped within the folds of the establishment.
The surest evidence of the allure of exile and outsider status was the panel’s title. After all, what self-respecting writers would want to speak on a panel named “Residents and Insiders”?