Life Goals: A Q&A With Elif Batuman

by
Porochista Khakpour
5.24.22

In 2016 I was asked to take part in a keynote conversation at BinderCon with whomever I wanted. “Our keynotes are conversations between two writers, so we would love to know who your dream conversation partner might be,” conference cofounder Leigh Stein wrote to me. Almost immediately I landed on Elif Batuman. By that point I’d been reading Batuman for over a decade, since she appeared in the pages of n+1 in the mid-2000s, and I had stayed her loyal fan as she became a New Yorker staff writer in 2010, the same year Farrar, Straus and Giroux published her deeply engaging first book, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them. I was in awe of her as a writer and as a human. I’d run into her at parties, where she was always a combination of kind, effusive, funny, and flustered—she had the bearing of your favorite affable old professor trapped in a very beautiful, extremely tall, Turkish New Yorker nerdy cool girl. Born in New York City, Batuman grew up in New Jersey and studied at Harvard before completing a doctorate in comparative literature at Stanford and returning to the East Coast to begin what soon blossomed into a prodigious career.

After the conference in 2016 we became friends. We were in conversation with Yiyun Li at an event, sponsored by the Asian American Writers Workshop, on my book tour for my memoir, Sick, and she joined me again for the launch of my last book, Brown Album: Essays on Exile and Identity. During that virtual event—in May 2020, when the stillness and stagnancy and horror of the pandemic was feeling chronic—we drank and toasted each other over screens in our New York City homes, hers in Brooklyn and mine in Queens. Every time I am with Elif I never want it to end, which was also my experience reading her novels, starting with her novel The Idiot (Penguin Press, 2017), which follows Selin Karadag, a Turkish New Jerseyan in her freshman year at Harvard. I could not put the book down as I followed Selin’s misadventures falling for a Hungarian grad student named Ivan. This was also my experience reading Either/Or, forthcoming in May from Penguin Press. The highly anticipated sequel to The Idiot, the novel takes us to Selin’s sophomore year, past Ivan and into all sorts of other forays with young men both at Harvard and beyond. The Idiot was the kind of masterpiece that earned all its rave reviews—including being a Pulitzer Prize finalist—but Either/Or is somehow even better, which already feels like it is breaking the unspoken rule that a sequel must never overshadow the original. Here again the narrative is awash in nineties pop culture—Fiona Apple, Lauryn Hill, Alanis Morissette—and references to canonical authors such as Proust, James, and Flaubert. The entire novel is enveloped in a highly addictive yet gentle wit and wild benevolence, a singular brand Batuman has made her own.

I am not alone in treasuring Batuman. Take her friend and fellow novelist Sheila Heti: “She’s the sort of person you’d gravitate toward if you had just come into a kindergarten class and there were twenty kids you didn’t know and you were five years old and they were all playing. You’d go straight up to her and want to be her friend.” And book critic Christian Lorentzen, who was in her Harvard class of 1999: “She describes everything there so perfectly, like a fine-grained panoramic camera for awkwardness, dumbassery, and tadpole intellectualism,” he says. “We all knew about the magic of Elif’s writing right away, an ineffable aspect of her language that really gets across the workings of her mind and in a way that’s always funny, so it’s been fantastic and something like destiny fulfilled to see her become a novelist and the greatest writer of my generation.”

The following conversation was recorded just hours into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while I was at a residency in Wyoming and Batuman was in her home in Brooklyn on a staycation, as she called the rare time off from work—recovering from a recent bout of non-COVID-related-illness. Nonetheless, even my transcriber commented that she had to dig the conversation out of many overlapping peals of laughter.

Porochista Khakpour: This is the second book, with Selin in her sophomore year, while in the first she was in her freshman year. So you could technically do a tetralogy, right? I’m assuming she graduates from Harvard.

Elif Batuman: Yeah. Benjamin Kunkel made that joke. I said, “I’m writing a sequel,” and he asked if it was set in the present, and I was like, “No, it’s her sophomore year,” and he asked, “Will it be a tetralogy? In volume four you find out if she got enough credits to graduate?”

Khakpour: [Laughter.] I’m working on a sequel too. I keep thinking maybe it’s just better to do a trilogy, right, because mine is somewhat in keeping with the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, and I keep thinking, “Well, maybe it needs a third. No one just does a sequel.” Are you working on another? 

Batuman: The Idiot is mostly a book I wrote in my early twenties. I edited it in my thirties, and it came out early in 2017—the beginning of Trump’s America. I went on tour and I was seeing all this insanity on airport TVs. The decision to write a sequel came from that time. Partly from the kinds of questions I was getting.

One question I got from a few men was, “Why doesn’t [Selin] read the newspaper? There’s only one mention of a newspaper [in The Idiot], and the article is about elephant sperm. Is that all you were thinking about?” I got that question in both the U.S. and in Italy. I was in Italy in 2018 when they were having their own Trump moment, with this very scary guy, Matteo Salvini. At the time I was rereading Elena Ferrante, speaking of sequels. I was reading the third Neapolitan novel, in which Lena publishes her first novel, about this awful thing that happens to her as a teenager because of her crush on Nino. Lena’s book comes out in 1968. All her leftist friends are like, “Why did you write this bourgeois novel that’s only concerned with love.” Then there’s an older guy who tells her, “Don’t listen to anyone who tells you your book is prurient, because those people clearly have not read Henry Miller.” 

Most of The Idiot’s reception was super warm and positive, but like many writers and negative people I fixated on the things that people complained about. And that was, “Why isn’t the book more political?” and, “Why don’t Ivan and Selin have sex?” 

The more I thought about that, the more I thought, “Those things are related.” When the New York Times review came out, it had this quote from Martin Amis, in which he said Pride and Prejudice would have been a better book if it had a thirty-page sex scene between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Our mutual friend Christian [Lorentzen] was like, “[The reviewer]’s just upset that Selin and Ivan didn’t fuck!” And I thought, “He’s not the only one. I was also really upset.” At the same time, I was remembering how I read The Rachel Papers [by Amis] when I was eighteen. Because a guy recommended it to me, a friend of mine, a genuinely kind and sensitive person. It had this traumatizing passage about how disgusting it is to give oral sex to a woman that I really feel turned me away from lesbianism. 

For years, the people who I would talk to about my lesbian thoughts were guys I was dating. It didn’t occur to me that this was the wrong audience. I just thought, “Oh, you talk about sex with the person you’re having sex with.” When I’d tell them, they’d go, “I don’t know if you have what it takes to eat pussy.” They were like, “Because I really want to. All I want to do is eat pussy.” And I was like, “Uh-oh. That’s not how I feel. I want lots of things more than I want to eat pussy.” Then years later I actually spoke to two lesbians, and that was when I found out lesbians aren’t obsessed with eating pussy. Like, it’s not the main point of being a lesbian.

So after The Idiot I was having all these questions about why I went into literature, why I hadn’t been more interested in politics, why I hadn’t identified anything that was happening to me as part of politics, why I lived through these painful heterosexual dynamics, for years. Why did I do that? Then I started reading “second wave” feminism for the first time. Why hadn’t I read that before? It was all there. I read about depoliticization and heteronormativity, and I realized what had happened to me in the nineties. It was already an underlying idea in The Idiot, but it wasn’t that explicit. I hadn’t been totally clear, not with myself and not with other people. That was why I had to write a sequel. 

Khakpour: Somewhere I read that you said The Idiot was actually the prequel to this. Is that how you think of it? Is Either/Or for you kind of like the first book, and The Idiot is like zero?

Batuman: In a way Either/Or is the first book that I feel like I wrote as an adult—where I had the idea for a book, and then I wrote it. My first book was my editor’s idea, and it was essays and stuff that I’d written for magazines, that wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do. 

With The Idiot I’d had a contract to write another book that became impossible for me to write for a bunch of reasons. As part of the research for that book, I had exhumed a novel that I had been working on a long time ago. As I was reading I found it more surprising and interesting than I expected. It foreshadowed a lot of the problems I was having in my thirties. Problems I thought I’d discovered only in my thirties. I was already having them when I was eighteen; I just didn’t recognize it at the time. So that was when I realized this was the book I could write now: a book I had basically written already.

Khakpour: So these books were technically written sixteen years apart?

Batuman: Pretty much.

Khakpour: It feels like you wrote them back-to-back.

Batuman: Well, I edited a lot. 

Khakpour: Was it really different? Did it sound different?

Batuman: The editing was cutting. I’d say between 60 and 80 percent of the book was already there, but it was a small part of this much larger book that had some problematic stuff in it that I’m now kind of excavating. 

Khakpour: I keep coming back to this, but are you working on another book in this series? I mean, you really could do a tetralogy.

Batuman: I do think about doing more books. But the next one would start when she moves to California. It would start in 2000 and it would be these California years. Then in another book I really want to write about all the things that changed for me between 2016 and 2019. 

Khakpour: Have you been in touch with Ivan, the Ivan character?

Batuman: That character is based on a real person who actually wrote some of the e-mails [in The Idiot], so I wrote to him for permission. 

Khakpour: Oh. Wow. You stayed in touch with him?

Batuman: I’ve seen him twice since 1996. I saw him once in 2006, when I was at Stanford and he came to give a talk. We ate Middle Eastern food. Then the next time I saw him was 2016, right before The Idiot came out, and then he read it. He’s been super nice about it. 

He has three kids now and he told me that he was trying to explain to his youngest son, “This person wrote a book, and I’m in it, and my sisters are in it, and my mom is in it.” And the son said, “Am I in it?” And he said, “No, it all happened before you were born.” And the son was like, “Is the woman who wrote that book still alive?”

Khakpour: That’s amazing. I feel like you write about him really affectionately, whereas another writer could actually have turned him into like an archetypal asshole or something, but there is a way that we’re really hung up on him, and I even remember the first time I read The Idiot, I was at the ending and nothing happens, he doesn’t even call her. I was so mad. I was like, “How can this be? How can you leave us like this?” I was so frustrated, and I really wanted a sequel. 

But all of the other characters, have they read it? I love Svetlana. I’m assuming she’s real.

Batuman: Svetlana was also based on a real person. She really wrote some of the notes in the book that Svetlana writes to Selin, so I asked for her permission too. She was super nice about it. She has two daughters. She actually gave the book to her older daughter to read—the older daughter was stressed about something, and Svetlana thought it might be fun or relaxing for her, but she wasn’t into it. Then the younger sister, who really seemed too young to read it, apparently picked it up and loved it and was asking her mom all these questions. “Who’s really the idiot? Is it her? Is it him?”

Khakpour: I love how your titles always refer to canonical titles. Like Dostoevsky’s and Kierkegaard’s now.

Batuman: Part of me is a little embarrassed about the titles. They each happened in sort of an ad hoc way. A few years ago The Idiot was translated into Russian, and the Dostoevsky Museum was really kind and invited me there to do an event, and they were like, “This person is here to talk about her book, The Idiot,” and everyone was like, “Wait what?”

Khakpour: That’s so funny. Was it weird for them? 

Batuman: I guess it’s like if someone from Sweden wrote a book called The Sound and the Fury.

Khakpour: But I think they’re funny and they work!

Batuman: Reusing titles isn’t actually all that uncommon in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, in Russian literature. First Love, The Duel, Demons—stuff like that. There’s even another War and Peace. This guy, [Pierre-Joseph] Proudhon, also wrote a War and Peace.

There’s something that I really like about reusing titles. Everyone’s riffing on theme. Everyone’s riffing on first love, because everyone has a first love. There’s something endearing, like each person is coming with their composition to share with the class.

Khakpour: It’s an extra joy of your work when you get certain references, but if you don’t, it’s not like—you’re never that writer who’s a mean snob who’s like this is super insider and if you don’t get it, I’m going to exclude you, which is why I also think your work constantly feels fresh. You know, it doesn’t get outdated—which reminds me, I don’t know if you know right now because you’re kind of off social media… 

Batuman: Yeah.

Khakpour: …which is sad because you probably had the best Twitter account of anybody. I mean, it was truly a masterpiece.

Batuman: I miss it.

Khakpour: But I think you probably don’t know that your London Review of Books essay “Get a Real Degree” is back in heavy rotation. Did you know that?

Batuman: No. 

Khakpour: It’s having another life lately and I don’t know where it came from. It probably just came from the usual stupid MFA argument that never leaves us. Your piece could have been like the final word on it because I love that piece. It was probably the first piece by you I read.  I reread it this morning because all these Gen Z kids are obsessed with it. 

I know what a novel MFA class would have said about The Idiot. They would have said, like, the ending needs more of a conclusion. You’re not wrapping it up. Some canned answer that they would have given and that would have ruined the ending, which I think is perfect. 

Batuman: I wrote that piece more than ten years ago. Part of it actually came out in n+1 in 2006. I think MFAs have gotten a lot better. 

Khakpour: A bit, but I’m like still teaching at some of those and I’m still like ugh, why do we even have workshops. I’m at the point where I think workshops are almost useless and I’d rather do one-on-one like Oxford Don-style tutorials. 

Batuman: I think that would be great. But I mean, it’s good they have you. The MFA has you. It’s no longer this cottage industry of people honing their craft or whatever.

Khakpour: Well, we all hate it, kind of. That’s the other problem, like what do you do with a system where the people that are supposed to be the mentors are also telling students that this is garbage. So, we’re all just phoning it in. Hopefully, you’re getting a check every month for your stipend, and then, like okay, we’ll write you a blurb one day. Like that’s the most you’re going to get. This and a ton of debt. 

I don’t regret my experience because I had an MA, not an MFA. It was at Johns Hopkins before they turned it into an MFA program, so it was 2002-2003, and I got very close to Steven Dixon and Alice McDermott, which was great but I attempted suicide the second semester. You know, it was a miserable place. We were all on so many psych meds. We were just miserable and like wanting to die the whole time. So, I kind of regret it actually.

Batuman: It was the same in the PhD program. Half the people didn’t finish, people kept trying to kill themselves, or getting hives, or going blind. I think about that a lot. Why did it have to be like that? There’s literally no reason. It should be this wonderful time.

Khakpour: Right. And it’s not even just in our field. My dad got a PhD from MIT, and he was suicidal the whole time. Anyway, I just love that early theory of writing you put out…. It’s amazing you wrote that in 2010, twelve years ago. You were in your early thirties. If you think about 2010 all the work that was…probably the freshest stuff that was happening in the early to mid-2000s was maybe like what we use to call alt lit, which you can’t even really call it anymore. That was like a mini movement that was exciting. 

Did it really create great work? I think it created as much good work as the Beat Writers created, which is like not really great work, but the characters were interesting, right? The spirit was interesting.

Batuman: I like that comparison!

Khakpour: If you read Kerouac right now, you’re just going to be like, “Really, why did I love this?” It’s not great. There’s a couple sentences you might be like “Wow, okay,” but not most. But if I go back and read some of Tumblr sort of fiction, is it good? Like not really. I’m not really going to teach that to my classes, but I’ll let them know that that was a kind of a mini movement that was interesting.

I’m fascinated by this piece having a second life and how your work just has this freshness, and you were so ahead of your time, and you continue to be.

Batuman: When I started publishing essays, I was still a grad student. I was really in that mindset. The tone sounds more confident than I would want to sound now. But that’s just how we all were in grad school.

Khakpour: I think all of us Gen Xers at this age now, we don’t really have to prove we’re smart anymore, so we can have fun with our work, and I just think in our twenties, we still had to prove ourselves so much. It was so much wasted energy for me to be the smartest girl in a group of mostly guys. 

Batuman: The norm has changed too. I don’t think the young women who are like we were feel like they have to be the smartest woman in a room full of men. I don’t think that’s a thing.

Khakpour: It’s funny because I also think the Gen Z readers who are reading us in their undergrad classes or whatever, they could be our daughters, right? So, it’s also kind of funny how we naturally, as we get older, we think in terms of twenties, multiples of twenty a lot.

Batuman: Yes! Now we’re in our forties, the twenty-year-olds could be our children.

Khakpour: It was not a number I was ever aware of until I hit my forties, and now, I just think of what does twenty really mean? All it means is, that’s a full generation, so that person could be my child and their approval of me is really important to me, more than Boomers twenty years older or even people my age. I find it the highest compliment. Also, they’re not so easily fooled by things and they’re really smart. They’re maybe the smartest generation. They’re so quick to get references. They already know things that were our era. They’re very good readers. 

Batuman: I wrote the last book thinking mostly of Gen Z, partly because they’re at the age I was writing about. I got the most engaged responses to The Idiot from Zoomers. And those people are our hope! We need to ingratiate ourselves to them!

Khakpour: Here’s a bit of a weird question—your being named a Pulitzer finalist…I can’t remember, who won that year?

Batuman: Andrew Sean Greer!

Khakpour: They must have had a cool committee that year. They were all books that felt very personal. Sometimes the Pulitzer can be a little dry or overly serious and very woke in its selections. It always feels a little formulaic, but I thought that year was really good. So how has it felt? Has it been more pressure? Or not?

Batuman: I think if you win, it can be a big deal and a lot of pressure. If you’re a finalist, it’s easier. For me it was really only positive. It was just a boost of confidence.

Khakpour: Did you get a call? What happens?

Batuman: No. They announce the winners, and then they’re like, “By the way, these other people were finalists.” There’s no point where you’re like, “Oh, we’re the three finalists—who’s going to win?” which is also really nice. It’s just such a surprise, and it’s already done. Unlike being on a shortlist, which is stressful. So it was my best prize experience. At the same time, as someone who’s been on prize committees, as I’m sure you have too, you’re just so aware of how arbitrary it all is. And I’m really embarrassed to care about prizes. I kind of feel like it would be better if they didn’t exist.

Khakpour: I keep thinking about what a crazy week, or even what a crazy day, it has been. A few months ago, or even let’s say last month, we could have said, “Oh, in COVID times how crazy it is for writers to be talking about their work,” and now suddenly it’s not like COVID is gone, but the only thing on my mind is obviously Ukraine. Here we are talking books and the world has changed so much just in the past twenty-four hours.

Batuman: I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I had never been to Ukraine until 2019. Then I was invited to Russia, by PEN, and also by the U.S. Department of State. There’s a program where they bring American people to give talks. You’re supposed to represent the freedom of American culture? I don’t know, they’re really like, “Say whatever you want,” so I was making all these jokes about how no one in America has health insurance, and then I was looking at the State Department guy and he was like [nodding]. 

Anyway, when we were planning this trip, the organizers asked if I wanted to expand to Ukraine, to Kyiv and Lviv, since I was already in Russia. And I was like “Sure, fun, I’ve never been to Ukraine.” So that was how I ended up going. I had to send an e-mail in advance with a summary of the different talks I was going to give at schools or cultural venues. I had written the summary thinking of talks I would give in Russia. So they were all based on Russian literature. One was about how I’d been rereading Anna Karenina and Eugene Onegin, which are two of the books that made me want to become a writer, and how I now see that, even though they’re great and beautiful books, they were for me the vehicles of a damaging ideology about women and narrative. There was another one about War and Peace and childhood trauma—about how romance channels children, in this gendered way, into either romance, aka becoming a wife and mother, or the military, aka running away from your wife or mother. 

I was so ignorant I didn’t even think of writing different talks to give in Ukraine. I mean I was like, “They’ve all read Tolstoy and Pushkin, so what’s the problem?” Well, just because they’ve read it doesn’t mean they want to hear you talk about it. It’s an accepted idea among pro-Western left-leaning people that Russian literature, especially Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, were a vehicle for Russian expansionism, of imperialist ideology.

At some point I was a guest on a radio show in Kyiv. The host was asking about my background in Russian literature and what I learned or thought about Ukraine. The true answer was that I learned almost nothing. You learn Gogol’s mom was Ukrainian. That’s it. But I mentioned that I had a job in college in the nineties in which I did secretarial work at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. She was like, “So tell me about that.” I was explaining how the offices were in this kind of cool, little, weird house that had been repurposed, and everyone was really sad all the time. She was like, “Oh, really? Tell me more about this little sad house. Was it very different from the Russian department?” [Laughter.] I was like, “Well, everyone in the Russian department was also super depressed, but in a different way, and in a bigger building.” 

Just when I think it can’t get worse, it turns out this is a call-in show, and people start calling in to ask questions. I was sure they were going to be like, “Who is this asshole and why is she on the radio?” But I remember this woman called and said, “I just want to say thank you. It’s been a pleasure to hear this person who’s traveled so much and who’s been to so many places and read so many books; how nice to hear her ideas. This is very different from what I usually hear on the radio. But since she’s traveled so much and has read so many books, I was wondering if she could tell us her perspective on why Russia does not want us to be free and does not want us to live our lives and insists on invading our country,” and then she started to cry.

Khakpour: Oh my God. What did you say?

Batuman: I told a story from Dostoevsky’s childhood. It’s about when he once saw a drunk officer jump in a carriage and start punching his coachman, and then the coachman started whipping the horse, and the carriage set off at this tremendous speed, everyone beating each other, and Dostoevsky was like, “This is Russia.” I talked about how trauma is contagious. I also said how I didn’t think until recently about novels being a vehicle for nationalist ideology. Like, it’s a fact I learned in grad school, but I didn’t understand it, or see it, or care about it, until 2016. And I didn’t think of applying it to Ukraine until I was actually there. Anyway, it was after that trip that I incorporated the Ukrainian Research Institute into Either/Or. Selin has that job. 

I’ve been thinking back about that radio show. Because it’s as if the woman who called in in 2019 saw what was going to happen. If I think about how I would answer that question now, in a more sensitive way, without saying anything that mentions Dostoevsky or risks comparing Ukraine to a horse, I think what I would say is that the thing I’m always impressed by when I travel and meet new people is…okay, it’s not like there are good people and bad people. But there are some people whose goal in life is based in some way on love or meaning. That’s actually most people. Then there are people whose goal is based on power. That’s because of trauma. I mean, that’s because of the coachman whipping the horse. 

You wouldn’t think those people are the minority, because so many of them are in positions of power. But how do you get a position of power? Either you inherit it, which means you were raised in power dynamics and that’s all you know. Or you deliberately sought it out, to prove that you’re not a worthless piece of shit—and that also comes from childhood trauma, because it’s only traumatized people who equate worth with power. So the trauma-zombies are controlling things, but we’re the majority. I just think we have to remember that, and be optimistic, and be relentless, and reform our institutions so that the majority is reflected, and we’re free from the minority rule.

Khakpour: It’s funny because the Iranian perspective often is like, “What’s wrong with Russians?” because in Iran everybody basically hates the government. Like that’s just accepted, and we always assume that everyone in a country with an authoritarian government—the governments are bad, not the people, right? Iranians somehow have it in their heads, and it’s not correct, that all Russians love Putin.

Batuman: That’s what they think in Ukraine, too. They were like, “Next week you’re going to hear very different things than you heard here.” And I was kind of scared, and I was like, “Really, am I?” Then I got there, and no. Everyone I talked to hated Putin. Part of it is the people who support Putin are the richest people, those oligarchs.

Khakpour: I would always hear Iranian activists say, “Don’t think Russia is all Pussy Riot.” At the same time, I’m looking at these protests in Saint Petersburg and those are huge crowds. I think it gets more confusing, at times being artists, especially from adjacent places with a history of unrest that are still not solved. 

Our countries are not really stable, you know, even when we think it’s stable. When I think of Iran in the 1990s, was it that stable? Not really. There was still like the mullahs. Like the clerics were all still there doing the same shit.

Batuman: Every time I go back to Turkey, I feel like I have to rethink the assumptions I had about what it was before.

Khakpour: It’s very strange. It’s this very weird thing because not only are we in America, we’re also in New York. In some ways that connects us better to the world but in other ways it shelters us completely.

Batuman: Super parochial. Super provincial. I actually find New York a very oppressive place to be and to think. 

 

Porochista Khakpour is the author of two novels, Sons and Other Flammable Objects (Grove, 2007) and The Last Illusion (Bloomsbury, 2014), the memoir Sick (Harper Perennial, 2018), and the essay collection Brown Album: Essays on Exile and Identity (Vintage, 2020). Her next book, the novel Tehrangeles, is forthcoming from Pantheon.