A Literary Icon: Tony Kushner

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Last Thursday, my brother and I went to Kingsbury Hall and thanks to my friend, House Manager John Armstrong, we were able to catch up with Tony Kushner and sit down with him for a short, yet insightful interview on topics not covered by Doug Fabrizio.

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Kushner is a Pulitzer winning playwright, an Academy Award nominated screenwriter, and in my opinion a poet and people’s champion. He has spoken out in defense of the LGBT community, championed the cause for Palestinian statehood and fought tirelessly to bring awareness to the most pressing and pertinent issues of our time. I was overwhelmed and thrilled to be chatting with such a literary icon who is refreshingly humble, yet throughly intelligent.

Bernie Garcia: Thank you so much for doing this! My name is Bernie and this is my brother Gerry. I was a child actor and did a movie with playwright Wallace Shawn some years back, are you familiar with him?

Tony Kushner: Yeah, Wally is a good friend of mine!

BG: I truly love your guys’ stance on supporting the Palestinian cause. How do you feel on a two state solution based on pre1967 borders?

TK: I think that is the only possible solution, and I believe that it can be achieved. I think that’s what we all should be working toward.

BG: Can you explain some of the backlash that you have had supporting that stance? Do you feel that there are a growing number of Jewish Intellectuals that are supporting the pre 1967 border cause?

TK: That’s a hard question. I have had this discussion with a lot of friends of mine. I think they are getting more divided in the Jewish community but in a way that reflects progress because of the division; theres been a lot written about that. The division is an expression of a large number of Jewish Americans who are becoming more vocal about their horror concerning the last two Gaza wars and the destruction of Palestinian civilian life, and also the increasing terror for the survival of Israel.
This is not the so called pro Israel lobby if that rubber stamps anything. In what Netanyahu wants to do, those folks are not friends of Israel. They are endangering the existence and the possibility of Israel continuing to exist as a Middle Eastern State. which is the only possible future it has. I think that it’s becoming a more open debate in the Jewish world and community than which was felt to be permissible in earlier times. I think that we are making more progress although it has become more rancorous in a way.

BG: I really want to congratulate you in championing that cause. I have Palestinian friends that are absolutely beautiful, and I also have a lot of amazing, intellectual Jewish friends too that share your same notion. Its refreshing. Its gives me hope.

BG: Can you pin point the time in your life that you considered yourself a professional writer and did that validation come from yourself or someone else?

TK: It is an interesting question. I’m thinking on how to answer it! I think there is a difference between calling yourself a writer and a professional writer. I still when I have to sign something and have to put profession and I write playwright, it feels a little funny like saying I play with dolls or something. It doesn’t feel like a real profession. I have been making my living as a playwright since 1990. I come from a family of artists who made their living as artists so that’s always been something I have wanted to do.
I always wanted to earn my living as an artist. And also I think if you’re a playwright, its an art form that requires an audience. If you don’t have an audience , you cant do it in a room. There are almost no playwrights of any significance who have not achieved a degree of success without an audience because you need one to develop. I think that you’re a writer or an artist when that’s when you want to self identify. It is like any other self identification: Jew, Mormon, Gay, American, whatever.
It’s strategic! Its not like any single one word can define your essence. And certainly what you do as a living probably doesn’t define you. Its like if you say you’re a cobbler, that is probably not all that anyone needs to know about you, that you make shoes. But when you decide in term of self identification as a working person, as an artist thats something what you do. You chose the moment in when you’re comfortable in saying that. There will always be a little discomfort with it but thats not the end of the world. Did that answer it?

BG: Yes, cool answer! You consider yourself a playwright, and a screenwriter. After seeing “Munich” there is this amazing exchange between Avner and Ali about the Olive trees in which Ali says they are everything to him while Avner questions the worth of the chalky soil and trees basically equating them to nothing. I kind of feel like you’re a poet; you promote love and tolerance. Do you ever feel like you’re a voice of a generation and take a step back?

TK: laughs Have you ever seen the HBO show “Girls”?

BG: I have seen a couple of episodes.

TK: There is this great line where she says, “I could be a voice of my generation… well I could be a voice of some generation…” No I never feel like I am a voice of my generation or the voice of a generation. No, no.

BG: There’s no burden or pressure there?

TK: No, because you will silence yourself. There are some writers that I admire enormously that feel that they have been given a special gift, but for me I feel like too much of my work come out of my anxiety and the things that i don’t know and the things that I feel unhappy about within myself. I feel that not being comfortable is a very important part of my being and the work that I do. I know I am not a poet. I wish I was a poet!

BG: I would disagree!

TK: Well, thats very sweet of you. I feel like Poetry is an immensely difficult thing which doesn’t have, often, the comfort of things like narrative. It’s the purest exercise of the power of language and its immensely difficult to do.

BG: Final question. Like I said earlier, you are a poet promoting love and tolerance.If you could wave a hypothetical wand and change one thing in this world, just one on Valentines Day.. .what would it be?

TK: Oh God! That’s an impossible question to answer! If I really could change a whole thing, the obvious answer would be the human-created change in the earth’s climate. There are many, many things that need changing but if we don’t fix that, we are not going to be here as a species.
We really are facing at the very least, the very end of anything recognizable as a civilization that we have worked to build for ten thousand years, and possibly the end of the planet’s ability to sustain our species or anything that is recognizable as our species. I can’t think of anything that is more terrifying than that and it is a fairly new threat, but it is a threat that completely stops you.
It’s the only thing that I have ever encountered that makes me feel like despairing. There is this great thing that journalist Jonathan Schell said who wrote this remarkable book called “The Fate of the Earth” in regards to the threat of nuclear proliferation and a nuclear holocaust.
This was before climate change loomed as something more threatening. He talked about extinction being “worse than death” because death is part of life. In extinction, people don’t die. “Extinction is the death of death.” I think that’s what we are looking at.

BG: Utterly Profound.

TK:It is terrifying. To be someone who denies climate change is the worst kind of denial. To deny it is to commit a crime against humanity. I think that would be the thing I would change because everything else we can work on. If we don’t fix this then we won’t have anything else to work on.

BG: Thank you so, so much!

TK: My pleasure! Nice to meet you both!

b.garcia@chronicle.utah.edu
@ChronyArts


 

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