Interview with author Jonathan Kozol
By Gordon W.E. Nore
Writer’s Digest magazine
Cincinnati, Ohio, USA
“Of course, I write with a subjective bias!”
There is no shortage of writers who publish books and articles about social justice. For many of us who toil in this corner of the writing trades, Jonathan Kozol has been a leader. Simply to say that he has published ten books dealing, largely, with gap between the rich and the poor is a vast disservice to his remarkable contribution. It might be more accurate to say that his books are periodic personal documents charting a thirty-year odyssey through the lives and homes and communities of people that readers might otherwise not meet.
Kozol’s odyssey, and ours, began in 1964 when he boarded a subway train in Cambridge and got off in Roxbury, where he became a substitute teacher in some of the country’s poorest inner-city schools. “It was a journey,” he tells a 1992 audience at the Chautauqua Institution, New York State, “from which I never returned.” It wasn’t supposed to be that way: The gifted Harvard graduate had won a Rhodes Scholarship, but after an unhappy term at Oxford, fled to Paris to live the life of a “literary dropout and expatriate” novelist. Disillusioned at “not having written anything worth publishing,” he returned to the US and solemnly renounced his plans to be a writer. But the children of Roxbury changed all that. “The year I gave up writing,” he says the fifty-nine-year-old author, “was the year I found something worth writing about.”
The experiences of that year and the next grew into Death at an Early Age (1967), a portrait of the lives of several school children he met during this period. A steady stream of books followed. The Night is Dark and I am Far From Home (1975), a controversial analysis of the ethical failings of public education, drew particularly hostile reviews from some critics. Kozol found himself no longer welcome in the offices of large and influential publishers: “For ten years I was essentially locked out of mainstream publications,” he said in the 1990 reissue of The Night is Dark, which has gone through ten printings and is still required reading in high schools, colleges and universities across the country.
In 1985 Kozol’s Illiterate America told the stories of adult non-readers in several cities. In 1988 Rachel and Her Children: Homeless Families in America threw open the doors of The Martinique, a notorious welfare hotel in New York City. 1991’s Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools revisited the painful themes of Death at an Early Age. Had the education of poor children improved, or had it become worse?
Fast-forward to 1996. Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and The Conscience of a Nation is been out since the fall of 1995, when it became his second book to win a place on the New York Times best seller list. In 1996, it returned to the Times list — a rare accomplishment for any writer. The journey this time takes us to the community in the South Bronx, New York City, known as Mott Haven, whose 48,000 residents have a median family income of $7600. Throughout Amazing Grace, the author appears primarily to describe settings and introduce the residents whose voices form the heart of this narrative.
We meet Anthony, an uncommonly articulate “writer of novels.” He is twelve. His mentor, Mr Castro, is a local poet. We meet pastors, like Reverend “Mother Martha” Overall. And Mrs Washington, the author’s guide, friend, and advisor. She is 51 years old. She has AIDS.
All but absent from Amazing Grace are Kozol’s rhetorical powers, noteworthy in a work filled frightening images. No, he has not turned cold, nor has he abandoned his politics — he believes, instead, that the people of Mott Haven can tell their own stories. His conversations with Mott Haven’s residents are transcribed throughout. Amazing Grace is not a political work, but a theological one. He asks people about their religious beliefs? Do the wealthy care about them? Who will go to Heaven? Why?
I caught up with Jonathan Kozol just after the page proofs were distributed, in early September. This interview was to have taken place in August, but he was rewriting the book, “again!” a Crown publicist tells me.
WD: I just received the proofs of Amazing Grace a few days ago.
KOZOL: I was rewriting right up to the proofs, like I always do, which drives my publisher crazy. I just had such a hard time giving this book up.
KOZOL: This book means more to me than almost anything I’ve ever written. I’ve grown to be very close to people in Amazing Grace. The women and children that are at the centre of this book are close friends of mine now. It was very important to me to make sure that I did not in any way impose some kind of external expertise on top of this narrative because I think people can speak for themselves beautifully, including some of the children.
I was also checking facts. An example would be rechecking a statement that a woman made about some arcane aspect of the welfare system to make sure her information was correct, and, more importantly, that I understood what she was saying.
There is a tendency for some white liberals and activists like myself to comment too much instead of just letting the words of poor people speak for themselves. In this book some of the people really serve as commentators. Mrs Washington, for example, is a better expert on poverty than any statistician at any of the Washington think tanks. She’s precisely the kind of person whose voice we never hear, or very rarely.
WD: What’s wrong with the way experts are usually used in these kinds of stories?
KOZOL: You know how newspaper stories — a classic New York Times or Washington Post kind of story — typically will start with a bit of narrative, and then, in order to anchor the piece somehow, will totally switch to an expert:
According to the Professor XYZ of the University of Such-and-Such, this is a very common pattern that we are seeing here…
And then they come back to the story. There is something curious about the way newspapers do articles on issues of this sort. It’s as though the story wouldn’t be legitimate unless they get that expert in. I know a hundred people who speak as beautifully and as movingly as Mrs Washington does and dozens of kids who are a fascinating as Anthony. There are thousands of people like this in every inner-city. The tragedy is that their gifts are largely wasted because we given them no opportunity to find their voice, to be heard.
WD: Do you feel that you let people speak for themselves in your other books?
KOZOL: I’ve always tried to, but I didn’t do it as fully as in Amazing Grace. In previous books there was an inclination on my part to want to interpret what they were saying.
In writing nonfiction, especially about poor people, an elemental part of writing is listening. We all need to learn to listen better. I will try to continue this in future books.
WD: Did your approach to writing Amazing Grace pose any different or greater challenges compared to your other books?
KOZOL: The challenges were no different except that the material was more painful, so there was a strong temptation to vent my own anger. That is the only difference — one of intensity.
WD: Following Harvard and Oxford, you lived in Paris in close proximity to well-known Beat Generation writers like William Styron, Laurence Durrell, William Burroughs, Richard Wright, and Allen Ginsberg. Did your early training and practice in fiction help to supply you with the skills to write so effectively about the real lives of dispossessed people in the United States?
KOZOL: When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, I thought that any felicitous phrase that came to my mind was worth writing down and publishing. It came straight from the forehead of God.
The one thing that I learned being with older writers is that writing is very hard work. And I think I learned something about the craft of writing, seeing how hard some of these good older writers worked, and how much they revised.
In general, I think the best preparation for writing about poor people is to live amongst poor people and work with them: to be a teacher or field worker or change agent or priest or pastor or whatever.
WD: So there is a limit to training writers for this sort of work?
KOZOL: Once a certain self-discipline is established, and you learn simply how to write and rewrite and criticize yourself, from that point on, I think the less time you spend with other writers the better. You should spend more time with people you really write about.
I find something very stultifying about the world of creative writing classes and writers’ conferences in Vermont where people spend entire summer weekends hoping that they shake hands with some novelist. I don’t think that is inherently different from being a Beatles groupie or hanging around Fenway Park hoping to meet Moe Vaughn. In fact he’s probably more interesting, a genuine hero. [Laughs.]
WD: You don’t seem to choose the topics of your books as much as they choose you.
KOZOL: It’s always been that way. I didn’t sit down three years ago and say, “What’s my next book? I think I’ll write about the South Bronx. OK, let’s see if I can set up some interviews.” I just got on the subway one day to visit a church I had heard about, and then met some people, and before long I had a half-a-dozen close friends. Then I found I was spending half my time sitting in people’s kitchens in the South Bronx. Before six months had gone by, I found I was writing another book. When I write book proposals to publishers, I’ve usually already written half the book, and I simply propose to do what I’ve already started doing.
WD: What about objectivity?
KOZOL: Are there some journalists who accuse me of coming to these books with a protective bias on behalf of America’s victims? Yes there are. One writer who reviewed Rachel and Her Children said something sardonic like: Well, of course, this is advocacy writing. My answer to that is, of course, I write with a subjective bias. What do they expect? Lobotomy? You spend years of your life with children who have been savaged in every possible way. From a theological point of view, I think that neutrality would be absolutely evil.
I’m stunned at the number of journalists who pretend to be neutral. I doubt that they really are. I think most decent journalists secretly empathize the kids I’m writing about. But they not only pretend that they are neutral — they have to pretend that they’re not even present in their own writing. Suddenly in the midst of a story about Roxbury or the south side of Chicago, there is a bizarre line like this: A child tells the reporter…The reporter notices… And so on.
The reader pauses for a moment and thinks, “Who is the reporter?” and then realizes that is the person who is writing the story. Then the reader wonders why the reporter can’t say, “I.” But that’s the whole problem. There is a pretense of godlike objectivity, and that’s why there is no first-person pronoun. It’s a form of journalistic deception because the personality of the interviewer always changes the interview.
For example, if the journalist is rather cold and urbane and talks in a phony British accent, that’s going to have one kind of affect on the person he or she is interviewing. I doubt that Mrs Washington would talk about God to somebody who sounds like Winston Churchill, or any Harvard University imitation of Winston Churchill.
On the other had if the journalist is a Black man who speaks the language of the inner-city, that elicits a different reaction. Kids might be somewhat more apt to fall into that pattern of speech.
To take a third example, if the writer, like myself, is very interested in religion, it’s far more likely that children and grownups will open up in a sincere way about their beliefs.
WD: One of your strengths is your ability to interview children. Any advice?
I’m very careful about giving advice like that to other writers. I like to be with kids. Kids always ask me if I have a pet, so I tell them about my dog. Then they’re likely to tell me about their dog. My own guideline is to be yourself and to be as open and vulnerable as possible, not to pose as a more authoritative person than you actually are. It’s easy for me to be myself with children, because I’m not a very authoritarian person.
When I’m with children, even when the setting is very grim, I usually feel a sense of contagious exhilaration, the mischievous faces of children bring out a mischievousness in me. I had some fascinating conversations with kids like Cliffie, such as the time he described God to me. [He quotes from Amazing Grace:] “‘He has long hair and He can walk on the deep water.’ To make sure that I understand that this is an unusual ability, he adds, ‘Nobody else can.'”
The unexpected sweetness of that little saying that “nobody else can” can restore all my energy on the most weary day.
WD: You said in a speech a couple of years ago that you don’t like to use tape recorders, especially with children, for interviews, yet I noticed an early reference in Amazing Grace to using one.
KOZOL: [Laughs] Only once. With Cliffie. The truth is he accidentally screwed up my tape recorder somehow. The next one I got, I did something wrong, and it didn’t work right either.
Another reason that I don’t use tape recorders is that I don’t really do interviews. It’s a misnomer. In this book, these aren’t interviews. They’re conversation. They’re life, really. There are very few cases here where I sit across the table and ask people six questions. Often I was just having dinner with someone or walking to the subway. Even when I tried to use a tape recorder, I found that it was after the official interview was over that the kids would say something that was really moving.
My main objection is that kids tend to show off for the tape recorder. They talk differently — I don’t know why. They think they’re on the radio or something. And a lot of grown ups get stiff and scared and become very formal if you take the tape recorder out.
I rely at least 95% on written notes. I’m never sure what I learned at Harvard, but one thing I learned was to write incredibly fast in the freshman survey courses. And in the course of talking to people for an hour-and-a-half, I might write eight or ten closely packed pages of legal pad. Sometimes it’s a little awkward walking around with a legal pad under my arm. Periodically I’ll say, “Let’s stop here for a moment while I catch up on what you just said.” Also, I’ve learned how to listen to a sentence while I’m writing down the previous sentence. I’ll actually slow people down if they’re getting ahead of me. I’d come back on the train later after several conversations with thirty pages of notes. It’s pretty comprehensive.
WD: Your last four books have often placed you in the homes and communities of people living in extremely desperate circumstances. Don’t you have to be careful when you’re talking to and writing about people who are so fragile?
KOZOL: Yes, careful in many different ways: The first of all not to expose them to retaliation of the authorities they are criticizing. Careful also not to ask questions that are more painful that they can bear at that moment. But most of all, careful in writing later, of not speaking of them in ways that I would not speak if I were in front of them. That’s the most important thing: I try to make sure that every word that I write is something that I would feel comfortable reading in their presence. Otherwise it feels like an insidious kind of betrayal. I still say things that are not flattering if it is the truth, if it’s appropriate. It’s a matter of saying it in a tone of voice that is not snide or vindictive or patronizing.
A nun I know once said to me: “When you enter the home of a very poor person, and when you later describe it in your writing, you should think of it as if you are entering the sanctuary of a church. Treat everything with respect. Don’t trample on anybody’s heart.” To me there is something sacred about the trust of a woman or a man who would impart in a conversation with me in their kitchen or their living room in the South Bronx.
A great many people like myself think they’re being respectful and still are infuriatingly condescending. It’s awfully hard to avoid it because everything in our culture suggests that we are entitled to judge the poor. I don’t happen to agree it because I don’t know what moral standing we have to judge poor people.
WD: You’ve challenged the clinical observations of some social scientists. Has the academic model of discussing poverty and related issues failed us?
KOZOL: I wouldn’t say that. There are many academic social scientists who are eloquent and wise in their insights into the lives of poor people in this country. But there is a severe and supercilious type of neo-conservative academic mind set among some social scientists that does, I think, represent a real betrayal of ethics and a real form of intellectual dishonesty because they don’t know any of the people they’re talking about, and yet they speak as if they do, All they know are numbers, and the numbers, depending on who is interpreting them, always tend to mean completely different things. The is the part of social science that I find dangerous. There’s always a glazed sense of unreality about it. It just never rings true to me.
I try not to deal with numbers at the expense of human beings. My books include extensive statistical data by I do not think that the numbers should take the place of people.
WD: Do you have any sense what this book will accomplish?
KOZOL: I have no idea. There was a time when I was younger I though that books could change the world. I had the confidence to believe that all of the problems I described in Death at an Early Age would be corrected upon publication. Obviously that was not the case, and I don’t believe that anymore.
What I am doing now is being a witness.
Books by Jonathan Kozol
Death at an Early Age (NAL-Dutton, 1967)
Free Schools (Houghton Mifflin, 1972)
The Night is Dark and I Am Far From Home (Simon & Schuster, 1975)
Children of the Revolution (Delacorte, 1978)
Prisoners of Silence (Continuum, 1979)
On Being a Teacher (Oneworld, 1981)
Illiterate America (NAL-Dutton, 1985)
Rachel and Her Children (Fawcett, 1988)
Savage Inequalities (HarperCollins, 1991)
Amazing Grace (Crown, 1995)
Gordon W.E. Nore © 1997