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Remembering the Life of Author and Social Activist, Susan Sontag

December 28, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, we remember writer and human rights activist Susan Sontag, who died today of leukemia. The author of 17 books translated into 32 languages, she sat for a conversation with our Elizabeth Farnsworth in 2001. Here’s an excerpt from that talk.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Susan Sontag’s novel “In America” won the National Book Award for fiction. It was the latest of many honors– including a MacArthur Genius Grant– for Sontag, who has written three other novels, short stories, a play, and six works of non-fiction. Sontag once reflected that all her work says, “Be serious, be passionate, wake up,” and she has lived a life strongly committed to ideas and activism. She has read and written voraciously, covering topics ranging from illness to photography, film, and literature. She first gained wide notice with a 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp,” in which she virtually defined that slippery term. As an anti-war activist, Sontag visited Hanoi during the U.S. bombing there, but she later took the American left to task for not having more vigorously criticized repressive Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

SUSAN SONTAG: So then it makes sense when Petrov says, “you’re making me nervous.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In recent years, Sontag staged Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in besieged Sarajevo, using flashlights and candles in the absence of electricity. She traveled more than a dozen times to the city during the height of the war there, and audiences appreciated the risks she and the cast took to put on the play. The book, “In America,” is based on the real-life story of a Polish actress who came to America in the late 19th century to create a kind of utopian community. What about that story attracted you and made you want to make fiction out of it?

SUSAN SONTAG: Well, first of all, I’ve always wanted to write a novel where the principle character was a performer, a woman– an actress, an opera singer, a dancer. I was started a novel that I finished where the character was sort of very vaguely inspired by Isadora Duncan. So I wanted to write a theater novel, and then I wanted to write a novel about people discovering America. So the two came together when I heard of this actress who came in the 1870s.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I was struck by how much this novel is about America, and I was struck by the two tones. There’s a kind of mournful tone for what is lost here of the past, and also this great joyful tone about what’s possible here. Is that what you intended?

SUSAN SONTAG: Well, what’s interesting is all these things are always in America. In the post-Civil War United States, people were already regretting modernization and corruption and the mercenary spirit and harking back to an older America, where people were more virtuous and family values were stronger and people weren’t so interested in money. So that’s a perennial idea. And then there is this wonderful — I must say, I participated myself — belief in the power or possibility of self-reinvention. We always believe in America we can start again, we can turn the page, we can invent ourselves, we can transform ourselves.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How does a character come to you? Marina, for example, the actress. Does a line… do words come to you first or clothes or an image?

SUSAN SONTAG: That’s a very good question. You know, John Gielgud said– here’s an actor, not a writer– he said, “The first thing I need to know when I’m working up a character is how that person walks.” I think I need to know how that person talks. I need to hear speech rhythms. It’s the way the person talks or the way the person feels. It’s finally a set of feelings. But I start with a theme, and the theme was theater, self- reinvention, discovery of America. But I wanted to tell a novel — I wanted to write a novel, tell a story, where the main character is a striving woman. And it’s a realistic book? I mean, she’s no angel, but I like her a lot. I admire her and I admire her guts. I admire her courage. And I wanted to write a novel about a woman.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I wanted to ask you about your essays. You wrote these very serious essays, and I read them before I read the novel. And I was struck by the tone of the novel. It has such a light touch. It has wonderful humor in it. How do you think about your novels in relation to this very serious, intellectual, activist past you’ve had?

SUSAN SONTAG: Well, I guess… I guess I am serious, she said, grinning. Well, the novels are much more representative of me than the essays. The essays, I’m kind of cranking myself up and trying to say something true and eloquent and useful, but they are a bit of a strait-jacket and I feel all sorts of parts of me are not in the essays that are in the novel. The novel is much closer to me and the way I am and the range that I have. That’s why I really just want to write fiction now.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Did you actually come to a decision that you could do as much by giving pleasure to people in novels as you could as an activist or in essays?

SUSAN SONTAG: Well, activism, strictly speaking, is what I do as a citizen and a human being. And that has nothing to do with being a writer. I would hope that I would have gone to Sarajevo and did whatever I did there without being a writer because I didn’t go there to be a writer. I didn’t go there to write about it. I went there to work in the city, to live and work in the city. So the activism remains, but that’s my belief in righteous action. I think people… I think I believe in altruism. I think that once in a while you should do something for other people, people you’re not related to, with no interest in it for you — just do something for other human beings out of a sense of solidarity. It’s probably very arbitrary, but, you know, once in awhile, that’s part of, I think, a good human life. But, yeah, I want to have more color and more emotion in my writing, and so I think I’m a little braver. I think I’m actually a better writer than I used to be. I don’t… I think pleasure is a wonderful thing. And also novels aren’t just pleasure. I think they are an education of feeling. They extend your feeling. They make you… they should make you more compassionate, more… have more empathy with other human beings.

GWEN IFILL: Again, Susan Sontag died today of leukemia. She was 71 years old.

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