Storming the Gates of Paradise draws together twelve years of essays. The paradise in the title refers to the public and private spaces reshaped by greed, fear, and sentimentality: the Western towns whose indigenous names were supplanted by those of prospectors and bureaucrats; the national borders erected in an attempt to maintain a fictional homogeneity; the nature photographs that construct a fantasy of virgin wilderness.
As you were putting together Storming the Gates of Paradise, were you able to make any observations about your writing and your career to date? I’d been anticipating at some point assembling a sequel to As Eve Said to the Serpent and expecting it to be similar because my interest in gender politics and representations of landscape in nature hadn’t died away. When I started to look at what I’d actually been writing over the last few years, I realized that the work had become much more directly political and much more urban.
What steered you toward that kind of writing? The urgency of resisting the Bush administration and some related things have placed me more in the streets than in the woods than I might have been ten years ago. Urban landscapes are still landscapes and you’re often standing up in urban places to defend rural places. I feel that it’s important not to make an urban/rural distinction, as the places become more and more interfused, if they were ever separate.
I met Susan Sontag in 2003, and she was writing a talk for a human rights award she was receiving and showed it to me. I realized that I hadn’t been speaking as directly to people as I could, not only about this moment but also about the emotional content of this moment—the interior, personal side of what is often represented purely as public life. The other thing is TomDispatch. I have a fantastic relationship with Tom Engelhardt, to whom I sent the essay that became Hope in the Dark. That original essay was written to counter the despair that had broken out when the war began, which I felt was based on a not very useful and accurate analysis of how activism works and how history works and what timelines we can expect to see results on. It was the first thing I did on the Internet. The immediacy of that, the ability to reach people directly, gave me an outlet I hadn’t had before. I’ve been plenty political even in the 1980s, but talking about what happened with nuclear testing in 1951 is very different from talking about what happened on the streets last week. So it’s partly about having a place to say those things and partly about feeling like I had gained a different kind of voice.
Could we talk a little bit about your education? You went to school in Paris at the age of seventeen. What motivated you to go overseas at such a young age? I didn’t go to high school, period, which is one of my formative influences in a sense. I knew from two years of junior high school that I was categorically a loser. I was small and skinny and poorly dressed and too dumb to hide that I was pretty smart at academic subjects and didn’t fit in. I feel like high school is mostly a kind of behavior modification center and I didn’t really want four more years of punishment. My parents were going through this epic divorce that lasted most of my adolescence. It was the seventies and nobody else was paying attention, so I went to an alternative junior high school for ninth and tenth grades and took the GED at fifteen and started junior college as an unaffiliated freshman at sixteen. Walking down the hall one day, there was one of those posters—you know, “Go to school in Paris”—with a card you send away. So I sent it away.
I’d been yearning to get out of suburbia. I knew that the world was bigger, more interesting, more complex than that version. And Paris as a social place was not particularly great, but Paris as a physical place was incredibly delightful and stimulating and rewarding at seventeen. People under eighteen could get into any museum for free, so I could just walk into the Louvre and look at one painting or one room. The place was a great adventure. There was this sense that I was in this city where doors were being flung open.
What happened when you came back to California? I really went through college as though there were some sort of award for speed. I finished up at San Francisco State University in a year and graduated right after I turned twenty.