Member Spotlight: Benjamin Anastas

John Henrik Clarke wrote that “Stories are the way we make sense of our lives: by telling them we tell ourselves who we are, why we’re here, how we come to be what we are, what we value most, and how we see the world.”

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Meet Benjamin Anastas. Novelist, journalist, educator, and Camp David member. Anastas is also the facilitator of Camp David’s 4-month “Writers in Residence” program, where local authors, illustrators, and journalists worked on their projects from our Work Lounge last Summer.

Most recently, he penned a 7,000 word essay from Camp David, profiling his high-school english teacher, Mr. Myers. Every Friday, Mr. Myers would read him and his classmates folktales in Gullah, the indigenous African-American language spoken on the Sea Islands off the Georgia and Carolina coasts.

We caught up with Ben about being a writer, an educator, and the influence Mr. Myers continues to have on him. Read Buh Black Snake in New England in Oxford American here.

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Mr. Myers was undoubtedly a progressive southerner for his time. His obituary read he “instilled in him a life-long commitment to civil rights.” 

As a writer who is also an educator, what do you carry through of his teaching style? Looking back, what were his blindspots?

I’ve thought a lot about this during the months that I was working on the essay at Camp David, and elsewhere. I mean, I’ve had a lot of great teachers in my life, so why is it that I’m writing about Mr. Myers? And why am I writing about him now? I think he did wind up being influential in the way I view my role when I am teaching literature–from the start of my teaching life, which really didn’t start until about ten years ago, I went out of my way to make sure that I was teaching work by writers of color, and African American writers in particular. I’ve taught Richard Wright and James Baldwin together a couple of times now, and I was so surprised by student responses to the work that I ended up writing about it for The New Republic.

In part thanks to Mr. Myers and in part thanks to the fact that I grew up going to very integrated public schools in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I always just assumed that literature was supposed to speak for everyone and reflect multiple experiences. Why should the literature I teach leave anyone out, regardless of my subject position? Of course the irony is that when I went to prep school and took the class called “The Hero as Rebel-Victim” with Mr. Myers, it was the first time in my life that I’d been in almost all white classrooms.

As for Mr. Myers’s blind spots, I’m sure they were as wide as a barn door. Starting with women. And he was a creature of his time, so there were ways he talked about race and lots of other things in his letters from WWII that made me cringe. But when you’re doing archival research like that you can’t expect people to share your sensibilities. He lived in a different world.

Mr. Myers in class.

You write that “the year 2020, [a number that] neatly embodies the hardness of our times and the lack of mercy we extend to everything we read, either in print or online. If “The Hero as Rebel-Victim.” was your class now, what would you assign? 

In some ways I’d enjoy the challenge of trying to teach Walker Percy’s novel The Second Coming in some version of the class–it’s so strange and so beautiful in places, as I describe in the essay, that it almost makes up for the book’s real shortcomings. Almost. But in truth I think the entire premise of the class is faulty, and it reflects outmoded thinking about the ‘hero’ and the monolith and what it means to be a ‘rebel’ in the first place. It’s not that we live in a world without victims of systematized injustice or abuse or monolithic states or environmental apocalypse. Far from it. Maybe it’s because we have an abusive President and capitalism has become so rapacious … But I’m more interested in conscious acts of criticism than I am in reading stories about invented characters who are victimized in a world that I recognize. I think Lars Von Trier’s movie Breaking the Waves probably cured me of any tolerance I have for that story. I hate that movie. It’s actually evil, I think.

One recent book that I would love to teach at some point is Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. What it does to form, how it handles narrative, the way it drips with desire, the kinds of thinking the novel’s narrator does on the page. Maybe the class you mention would have to be about characters who think. Because thinking is the real rebellion now, isn’t it?

You note that the dialogue in The Second Coming is “airing out [of the collective unconscious] and being true to the casual cruelties of the world these characters live in, etc”. What kind of moral code do you think Mr. Myers was trying to instill in his students?

I think he was trying to inspire us to think for ourselves, first and foremost. To open our eyes to the world around us–starting with our school, even–and to see the systems that were working against the interest of our souls. If there’s anything problematic in the way that Mr. Myers used the Gullah folktales that he read to us sometimes, it’s probably that he fell into the same trap that even great white Southern writers (Faulkner, Walker Percy, etc.) so often fell into when they wrote about blacks–they open a kind of magic portal to authenticity.

The Gullah folktales are a different kind of narrative, starting with the fact that they were originally transmitted in the telling–orally–and not in writing. But I think the power of the Gullah tales comes from the fact that they contained a buried message for their black listeners that was hidden from whites. They were about animals and their comic follies, so whites could fool themselves into thinking there were harmless.

Benjamin Anastas’ novel An Underachiever’s Diary has been called “the funniest, most underappreciated novel of the ’90s.”

Your memoir Too Good to Be True written in 2012 made The New York Times wonder where your version of the american dream went devastatingly wrong. Do you think through The Second Coming Mr. Myers was foreshadowing what could go devastatingly wrong for his students and what had gone wrong in his life? Was the Gullah Folktale supposed to be a warning?

From what I’ve learned about Mr. Myers from speaking to his daughter Sally, his life wasn’t always as decorous as it seemed–he was immaculate in his J. Press tweed jacket and Princeton repp tie, but he was married five times and he really loathed the American love of filthy lucre.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, he spent his summers teaching at a small, traditionally black college in the south– basically, he taught professional development classes for English teachers from what we would now call underfunded public schools. And yet having gone to Lawrenceville and Princeton before serving as a supply officer in the Marines in WWII, he spent the rest of his life in that world–teaching at private schools that were essentially feeders for the Ivy League.

The Gullah stories, to me, were his way of telling us that high culture isn’t always what it seems to be–that we should tune our ears to what Ralph Ellison calls in Invisible Man “the lower frequencies.”

When you were in school did you ever make a connection between Br’er Rabbit and the Gullah Folktales?

I didn’t know the Br’er Rabbit tales and the Disney’s Song of the South before I heard the Gullah tales in Mr. Myers’s class. I had very liberal parents and they tried their best to shield us from anything Disney–and I certainly wouldn’t have known about Joel Chandler Harris’s kind of spurious collection of folktales. Anything with the slightest hint of racism would have been carefully curated out of my field of vision. I did know about the Master Rabbit stories from the Native American tradition, and I think it’s interesting how these stories likely share some kind of root.

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Three books that made Anastas want to be a writer

How many hours of sleep do you get a night?

Jesus, not enough. I have three children, two under the age of five, so sleep is a precious resource. Maybe five hours? Six?

Do you dream every night?

I can’t even remember the last time I remembered a dream. Once I fall asleep, I’m out. 

What was the best advice you ever received?

Actually, the best advice I ever received as a writer was to find something else to obsess about that wasn’t writing. At the time I was in my 20s and writing all the time and trying to publish as if my life depended on it. I took every rejection way too hard. I needed to take the pressure off.

Something you always do before 10AM?

It used to be eating breakfast. But now I don’t eat breakfast. So I guess my answer is: ‘say no to breakfast.’

Three books that made you want to be a writer
  1. Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  2. Memories that Smell Like Gasoline, David Wojnarowicz
  3. Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin

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Benjamin Anastas is the author of the novels An Underachiever’s Diary (Dial Press) and The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor’s Disappearance (FSG). His memoir Too Good to Be True (Little A) was a national bestseller, and his essays, reviews, journalism, and short fiction have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, The New Republic, The Paris Review, Bookforum, and The Best American Essays. He teaches literature and writing at Bennington College and is fiction editor of Bennington Review.


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