Review: Author Garth Greenwell parsed the contradictions of desire with Writers’ Workshop colleague Novuyo Rosa Tshuma at Prairie Lights

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Writers Novuyo Rosa Tshuma and Garth Greenwell at Prairie Lights Cafe. Monday, Jan. 26, 2020. — courtesy of Kathleen Johnson/Prairie Lights

On Monday, Jan. 27, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma joined Garth Greenwell at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City to talk about Cleanness, his newest book of fiction. Graceful as it is reckless, brutal and vulnerable, dazzling and heavy with pain, Cleanness proves amidst the true hideousness of a subject lies magnificence, loneliness and the ultimate desire to be loved.

Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You, which won the British Book Award for Debut of the Year, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, long-listed for the National Book Award and named a Best Book of 2016 in nine countries. His fiction has appeared in VICE, A Public Space, The Paris Review and the New Yorker.

Novuyo Rosa Tshuma is the author of House of Stone, which won the 2014 Herman Charles Bosman Prize and the 2019 Edward Stanford Travel Writing Award for Fiction with a Sense of Place, was shortlisted for the 2019 Orwell Prize for Political Fiction and the 2019 Dylan Thomas Prize, and long-listed for the 2019 Rathbones Folio Prize. She is a fiction editor at The Bare Life Review, a journal of refugee and immigrant literature based in San Francisco.

The two met as MFA students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where they currently teach graduate writing workshops in fiction. Tshuma and Greenwell’s admiration for one another was instantly recognizable. Her questions to him demonstrated how artists take care of one another through thought-provoking conversations about their work.

Cleanness is neither a sequel or prequel to What Belongs to You, but a continuation of its thematic elements, incorporating some of the same characters and its primary location, Sofia, Bulgaria. Greenwell specified that Cleanness is also neither a novel or short story collection, but a work of fiction. It’s more of a song cycle, which he joked was unbearably pretentious, but also true. A series of heartbreaking narratives held by the same binding become in conversation with one another.

In an interview with Greenwell for Electric Literature, Aaron Hamburg writes, “Cleanness is an ode to the erotic experience, both in and out of the novel’s central romantic relationship, between an American English teacher and a Portuguese student living in post-Communist Bulgaria. The book also examines the precarious state of queer Bulgarians and contemporary politics in a country still struggling to deal with the after-effects of decades under totalitarian rule.”

From discussing the pornographic to how art is a tool for navigating the abyss, Greenwell spoke in a manner that was not far from the stunning quality of his prose. His sentences were expansive and recursive as the complex meaning reflected within them. Our desire for cleanness, he said, is perhaps the most dangerous desire of all. He believes there is something in everyone that longs desperately to be clean and to bathe in filth. There is no way out of what he defines as this “double-bind.”

There is a difference between speaking the truth and saying something in hopes that it will become the truth. Cleanness reminds me that language is not always a container for the truth, but something that feigns intimacy or hides from or protects it. Perhaps, this is another double-bind Greenwell’s book of fiction takes on, in his attempt to navigate the abyss.

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