For John Freeman—literary critic, essayist, editor, poet—it is the rare moment when words are not enough. But in the wake of the election of 2016, words felt useless, even indulgent. Action was the only reasonable response. He took to the streets in protest, and the sense of community and collective conviction felt right. But the assaults continued—on citizens’ rights and long-held compacts, on the core principles of our culture and civilization, and on our language itself. The result is his Dictionary of the Undoing. From A to Z, “Agitate” to “Zygote,” Freeman assembled the words that felt most essential, most potent, and began to build a case for their renewed power and authority, each word building on the last. The book’s afterword is written by Valeria Luiselli, author of Lost Children Archive, and she joined Freeman in conversation.
MCD Books is hosting a fundraiser for the ACLU here, where with a $50 donation, you can get a gorgeous limited edition poster inspired by the book and a signed copy of Dictionary of the Undoing.
Valeria Luiselli: I’m very pleased be to with John here tonight to talk about this beautiful book, Dictionary of the Undoing. Let me start by asking you something, John. The other day, my daughter’s teacher asked if I could give a workshop on editing and revising at her school. I was like: what do I do with a bunch of nine year olds? So, I thought: Oulipo! The French group, Oulipo, had all these games with language and constraints. And I thought, let me try an Oulipian thing.
I asked the kids to first write a three-sentence bio of themselves, either describing their physical appearance or their being. Then I asked them, following this Oulipian exercise, to write almost exactly the same thing, but without using the letter “e.” This little boy had written, among other things, “I love nature.” And in the second version, without an “e,” he wrote: “I am fond of my world.” Constraints force us to think twice, to revise, to self-edit.
Constraints force us to think twice, to revise, to self-edit.
So, I wonder how the constraint of this book, alphabetical order, which is not only alphabetical but composed of a single word or letter, helped you to think twice about what you were choosing.
John Freeman: I think we always work within a constraint. Language is always constraining us but we are not using, in my opinion, the entirety of the words that we could possibly use. We’re both constrained and lazy—in part because, at a very high level, we are seeing language used poorly; we are seeing language misused and vandalized in plain sight. My hope, in focusing on one word at a time, was to try to show that within that constraint, there was a world of actual possibility. Iambic pentameter and many of the poetic forms are deeply constraining, yet you can read and appreciate these beautiful poems written in meter. Just like your nine-year-old student found the ability to say something better by taking away the letter “e,” so he couldn’t say “earth” or “planet.”
I’ve always loved that about your own books. The essay “Tell Me How It Ends,” in some ways, could have seemed very constraining. But by looking at the questions that we’re being asked to produce, the reality that we’re then assuming to be true, you reveal how much we were missing in plain sight. The same thing happens to us when someone vandalizes language in front of us—the response is that we try to react. There’s a big gap between our norms and our laws right now. Our laws need to be changed and no one will change the laws because the government is currently controlled by a particular group of people who don’t want to change those laws. So, we’re trying to move our norms forward in advance of changing the laws. Yet, even though the spoken and written and discussed norms are changing, the realities haven’t changed as much. A similar thing happens with language. The meanings of certain words are being reduced, we have to re-expand them. That is why I chose words like “citizen” and “environment,” which seem very basic, but are not being used for all that they can be.
Luiselli: Do you remember a particular moment when you asked the question that maybe brought you to write this book? Can you trace the origin of this book to a moment or a series of moments in which the constellation of questions appeared?
Freeman: This is going to sound slightly degraded but I was on Facebook about two years ago and I was responding a lot to news items, like everyone else. I’d post some news story with a comment about how awful it was and my friends would comment that they agreed, and we’d all feel mildly better. But that feeling would ultimately dissipate and nothing would be changed. In fact, things just seemed to get worse.
One day it occurred to me that all these self-enforcing algorithms of the internet were creating apathy rather than creating engagement. Not solely because it was just showing people who agreed with us, but because it created a kind of loop that you never left. So, I put up a post about apathy and was like “I’m out!” I deleted my Facebook account and thought: What if I write a book about a series of words that are in plain sight but are not being used to their full capacity? The other word that I kept thinking about was “body.” We’re witnessing a spectacle of abuses of the body, of particular bodies, and I thought: What if a body wasn’t just defined by how you abused it? By the pain you could pour into it, that you could extract from it, and from the empathy that you could supposedly feel as a viewer witnessing its pain? What if a body was defined differently? So, I wrote that and I sent it to my agent. She wasn’t convinced that apathy was a good way to start a political book. But I kept going, and at the time I felt really demoralized. I don’t know how you feel, but there were days when I would wake up and think: This is truly infernal, this world. Because every day there was something new and awful. And for all the books like Tell Me How It Ends that opened up possibilities by showing me things I hadn’t been seeing, there were more stories that seemed to shut those possibilities down. And I was reading Carl Phillips, this wonderful poet who has really baroque syntax, who puts a lot of restrictions on himself when he’s writing poems, and I thought, “God, if he can wrench that kind of feeling of love from that kind of mind with a clause every four words, then I can maybe do something with language.”
What if I write a book about a series of words that are in plain sight but are not being used to their full capacity?
Luiselli: You’re talking now as a reader as well and I’m interested in you as a full-time reader. Over the last three years, have you seen a change in discourse, in the texts that you receive? Are there words coming into circulation that were not present a few years ago? And what kind of discourses do you think are now present and valuable in the writing that you read? And what are the words that circulate more than before that may be changing, little by little, the narrative that we live?
Freeman: God, that’s such a good question. I feel like it’s a very exciting time to be a reader, because there are so many new forms: Ocean Vuong’s novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, written in the form of a letter to his mother; the autofiction that Rachel Cusk and Tomas Espedal and others are writing; the way that you constructed that essay on the backbone of questions that were kind of broken in advance. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen . . . I feel like there’s just a blizzard of new forms, or forms that are being updated. I feel like it has less to do with actual words. I think form is driving some of the expansions right now, and in some way made it possible for me to write a book like this, which is, in some ways—as a form—an abecedarian. Every letter is an essay, every letter is a word, and then each word is used in the coming essay, so by the end, the chapter “Zygote” uses all twenty-five words before it.
I don’t think I would have written this book without having lived in this time with you writing your essays, with Ocean writing his novels, with Aleksandar Hemon writing memoir, and with the kind of blurring of fiction and nonfiction that’s happening now. Hemon’s latest memoir, My Parents / This Does Not Belong to You, is so ingenious because it shows an official, adult version of history, then it shows a child living in that world with no concept of history, just their body. In this hard a time we’re living through, the pressure that’s coming down on writers is being pushed back up, and not just on Twitter, it’s coming up in the multiplicity and inventiveness of forms.
Luiselli: I agree. Something that I like about the form of this book is that it appears to be this relatively linear ABC structure, but as you read onward it reveals itself as much more of a web, or a constellation of concepts, where “C” goes back to “A” and where “R” and “M” and “L” are intricately intertwined. You create a constellation that is very much a testimony to our time, about the words that are either absent and should be present or those that are absently misused or those that perhaps need to circulate in another way.
I know that you can see into the future, as with the people you edit, you often see their book or essay before they do, so I know you can see into the future. So, I wonder, looking, I don’t know, five years into the future, when Trump is no longer in the panorama, what constellation of words might be present in our narrative that isn’t here right now?
Freeman: The words “love” and “teacher” are important to me. It’s hard to watch Trump stand in front of the CIA and say “I love you all” and talk about his giant victory. But I do think love is a much underestimated force. That’s why I’m here—my parents fell in love with each other. Their love for each other has made every single wonderful thing in my life possible. I fell in love with books, and people who I love gave me books and language, and people I love introduced me to their friends who also love books. That’s how I met you, through mutual friends of ours. And I think teachers are under a lot of duress right now because children know that something is wrong. I certainly feel it with my students—and my students are adults. Imagine what it’s like to deal with the enormous recording devices that are attached to the hearts of children, what they’re feeling and what they’re interpreting. Teachers stand between us and the apocalypse, because every generation can make better possibilities. I think that if we do beat back what’s happening right now and we get a new government and a Green New Deal, I think one of the most important things we should do is reach out to children, into education at the most basic level, and breathe a little more love into them. Of course, that means funding and training teachers and making classrooms smaller and not trying to privatize schools and all those things. Did you read the other day that Rick Perry went to Ukraine and gave a list of his campaign donors to the government of Ukraine and that one of those campaign donors got a fifty-year contract for oil and gas drilling in Ukraine? That donor is an oil man in Colorado whose pet project is privatizing public schools. So, he’s more than happy to take handouts from Rick Perry, the Secretary of the Interior or whatever Rick Perry’s title is. It basically comes to funding schools.
I went on a bit of a policy rant there but I think love and teaching are deeply related. You can’t teach someone something without loving the information that you’re giving to them. And you can’t, I don’t think, be in a classroom of children, caring for them, without love. That doesn’t mean you have to love everybody, but it does mean creating an environment of safety and care.
Luiselli: I always ask my students to guess how much I paid for my undergraduate education in philosophy in Mexico City. Then I tell them the truth, which is that I paid fifty cents. And that was for a photocopy for registration. That was it. Fifty cents for a really great education in philosophy which prepared me for a PhD here. I always wonder—and when I was reading this book I kept on wondering—about the relationship between the words “agitate” and “hope.” In protest there is, in fact, hope emerging. But why are students not out in the streets demanding public free education here, with the amount of taxes that we pay? Why are they not in the streets demanding that immigration detention centers for children get closed down immediately? Where is the agitation?
In protest there is, in fact, hope emerging.
Freeman: It’s been exciting watching what’s been happening in Chile and Hong Kong and Lebanon recently. I think what my book is trying to argue is that we should step away from our devices a little bit. We have such heavy internet and smartphone use and I think that is related, to some degree, to apathy and to a lack of using public spaces to make statements. We’ve totally bought in to the idea that the escape of private internet space doesn’t come with a cost. But what would happen if ten million students came out to protest the conditions we live with? We had a million for climate change, that didn’t do anything, but ten, twenty, thirty million? In Lebanon it was a million and a half people in the streets in a country of six million. That’s more than a fourth of the country. A fourth of this country would be one hundred million people. I mean, the police have gotten very good at driving protests into further and further smaller chutes, so people can feel like they’re protests and not have just a series of encounters and clashes with police, so that they can feel like they’re fighting something and the police can push them back. But I think with a mass that big it would be different. That’s where education comes in, because you need some context to get that many people moving.
Luiselli: I think that as a Latin American, as a Mexican, that Mexicans would maybe be better off if they were a little better behaved, but Americans need to be a little bit less well behaved, at least in the context of public space. There’s a need for a more rebellious spirit.
Freeman: But that’s also enforced. I made a joke about this recently. A guy was arrested yesterday, or detained, for eating a sandwich. The police were holding on to his backpack and he was like, “Are you seriously arresting me? What am I doing?” and they go, “You’re eating.” So he asks, “I can’t eat a sandwich?” then the cop goes, “Well now you’re resisting arrest.” Part of what this book is about is the shifting set of definitions. The law is language and when the law can be changed at will by an officer of the law in front of you, that’s kind of fucked up. That power is really the power to move norms and laws closer together, and to push it apart. I think that’s what is so arresting with our moment of law enforcement in the United States.
John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, a literary annual of new writing. His books include How to Read a Novelist and The Tyranny of E-mail, as well as Tales of Two Americas, an anthology of new writing about inequality in the U.S. today. Maps, his debut collection of poems, was published in 2017. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages and has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The New York Times. The former editor of Granta and one-time president of the National Book Critics Circle, he is currently Artist-in-Residence at New York University.
Valeria Luiselli was born in Mexico City and grew up in South Korea, South Africa and India. An acclaimed writer of both fiction and nonfiction, she is the author of the essay collection Sidewalks; the novels Faces in the Crowd and The Story of My Teeth; Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, and most recently, Lost Children Archive. She is the winner of two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes and an American Book Award, and has twice been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kirkus Prize. She has been a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree and the recipient of a Bearing Witness Fellowship from the Art for Justice Fund. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Granta, and McSweeney’s, among other publications, and has been translated into more than twenty languages. She lives in New York City.