“Because I am Salman’s wile, it is construed that I am
speaking for him. I would never presume to do so. There is
I’m in this frustrating
position of being the person who has lots of powerful things to say and the media hearthem
no more eloquent man than he.
as coming from him.’
The American author I
Marianne Wiggins talks to
Kristina Woolnough about violence, religion and cannibalism, the subjects
of her novel John Dollar.
The day after Marianne Wiggins’s novel John Dollar was published, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his farwa upon Salman Rushdie, Wiggins’s husband. The couple had to go into hiding under police protection. One consequence (no doubt the least of their worries at the time) was that Wiggins was unable to promote her book. ‘It was published and then I went into a vacuum. I never even had the privilege of seeing it on bookshelves. It was an unfortunate circumstance to have the book be born when it was. But that hasn’t taken away from its life and vitality.‘ She came out of hiding last August, and is now on the publicity circuit for the Penguin paperback issue of John Dollar. Savouring her freedom, Wiggins is enjoying doing the rounds, something that many authors find a necessary chore: ‘It’s a pleasure for me to be able to talk about my book at last.’
She inevitably gets asked about Rushdie and The Satanic Verses. A matter of life and death is,
unsurprisingly, bound to overshadow her own book. The fate of John Dollar continues to be inextricably linked with Salman
Rushdie, for even now, with his recent public statements coinciding with its paperback publication, Rushdie is likely to loom large in the minds of Wiggins’s interviewers. Is this a problem? Her professionalism as an author re-routes the question, and she moves in one sentence from literary terrorism against Rushdie to her book: ‘I’ve been holding the subject to what the subject needs to be'. John Dollar is a very powerful book, so anyone who has read it is quite eager to talk about it.’
Later, when our conversation turns full circle, we will return to Rushdie, but in the meantime, Wiggins’s challenge cannot be denied and we discuss John Dollar which is, as its author says, a very powerful book.
; On the surface, it is 3 Robinson
Crusoe cum Lord of the Flies tale of small girls who survive a tidal wave, only to find themselves marooned on the island on which they had picnicked with their parents the previous day. The children are the English offspring of ex-pats who have settled in Burma during the Raj. This basic plot is misted, confused and given compelling ambiguity by layers of metaphor and meanings.
Wiggins, in her pleasant Pennsylvanian accent, explains one of her intentions in the book and the choice of its title, a lead-in to a central metaphor. ‘It’s about the impact and the implications of the coloniser on the colonised. The East India Company was known by the nickname of John Company. I now am concerned with American topics of colonisation. I think thb United States is an empire — it’s the empire of the dollar. For that reason, I called it John Dollar.’
John Dollar is also a character in the book, but he is only sketched in -—
his role is primarily representational.
Post-tidal wave, the girls find him washed up on a beach, severely injured, and make him, a male adult, the centre of their lives. They bathe, feed and decorate him, waiting for him to take charge and tell them what to do. ‘He is the metaphor for God, the invisible face of God; he’s the metaphor for government, the invisible face of government: this hole in the middle of our days that we can’t see, that purports to have all the answers. That’s why I sketched him in as lightly as I did.’
Towards the end of the book, two of the surviving girls are discovered to be picking bits off his body (with a broken back, Dollar has no sensation below the waist) and eating them. Wiggins asserts that this does not portray a loss of humanity — rather, its cross-reference is religious. ‘It’s a ritual. By eating his body, the two girls actually believe that they are following along Christian lines. It’s a subverted use of the totems ofour “high” civilization. They subvert it, the other little girls don’t. They don’t commit savage acts against one another. In Golding’s exploration of the heart of evil, the boys do. In Lord of the Flies, the conch shell is the symbol of power. Here I have a human being who is kept as a symbol of power.’
Wiggins unabashedly acknowledges her use of other fictional models. ‘I think everybody does it. We’re following an oral and a written tradition. You don’t learn to write unless you’ve read other novels. You reinvent them. I pay a noticeable tribute to Golding because I name one of the chapters ‘Flies’.
The chapter-headings of John Dollar can be found in th unusually wide margins. Occasiona ly, paragraphs are accompanied by brief 17th century-style summaries in the margin. Key words sometimes appear in capital letters. Wiggins becomes increasingly animated as she discusses her English-language literary forebears and the development of English: ‘We used to capitalise all the nouns and some of the pronouns. Now the only pronoun that we capitalise is “I” and we‘re the only language to do it. It says so much about the Western attitudes of individualism.’
Wiggins hopes that readers will not miss the finer points of her book. Although the story does stand alone without the metaphorical dimension, she feels that she will have failed if both are not grasped simultaneously: ‘It would be as though I wiggled my bait and nobody took it.’
The bleak tone of the novel has not passed unobserved. Wiggins blames reality: ‘Look at the papers, look at the world we’re living in. There is a great deal of violence. It worries me. I want to explore the nature of it. I want to explore how violence has been condoned by established
religions. Look at the atrocities that have been committed in the name of one god or another, and are still being committed. It may be that our highest spiritual sense has yet to be deﬁned clearly. I don‘t think religion is the end ofit. The atrocities go on and on and on. We don’t seem to be evolving toward a higher plane of being. It astounds and confuses me and compels me to keep trying to explore the nature of human existence. In this book, I‘m trying to face everything that I don‘t want to face. Which is, the destruction of the species by the species - cannibalism.‘
Her views on religiousviolence, expressed through her fiction, are clear. However, she has opted to stall on publicly airing Rushdie-specific views. ‘People confuse anything that I pointedly have to say on the issue — and believe me, I have very strong opinions. Because I am his wife, it is construed that I am speaking for him. I would never presume to do so. There is no more eloquent a man than he. I certainly would not begin to define him. I’m in this frustrating position of being the person who has lots of powerful things to say and the press, the media hear them as coming from him. So the answer is to hang fire on it. The time will come when, ifI choose to, I will speak. In the meantime, I let my opinions be known through my art, through my craft.’
John Dollar is published by Penguin at £4. 99.
10 The List 9 — 22 February 1990