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Amy Tan Q&A: “I don’t think about doom – but I know what it feels like”

The author talks global warming, Donald Trump, and Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No 3”.

Amy Tan was born in Oakland, California in 1952 to Chinese parents. Her first novel, “The Joy Luck Club”, was published in 1989 and later adapted into a major film. She has since published five other novels and two children’s books.

What’s your earliest memory?

The most vivid happened in the front yard of my first home in Fresno, California. My parents and older brother were on ladders picking fruit. One piece fell on my head, my brother laughed and I cried with indignation. I picked up the fruit and held it in my palm: a soft, fuzzy, golden ball.

Who are your heroes?

I admire many people for specific selfless deeds: Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Peter Knights for founding nature organisation WildAid, Zheng Cao, a mezzo-soprano who healed others while struggling with cancer. Also, those who do compassionate work and stay anonymous. Many women fall into that category.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Bernd Heinrich’s Mind of the Raven. I became passionate about nature – noting changes over time and interactions with other elements in the ecosphere.

Which political figure, past or present, do you look up to?

Looking up is a dangerous perspective to take when it comes to people who are by their nature political, and thus required to make imperfect compromises.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

A timeless place on an island in Raja Ampat, Indonesia, surrounded by marine life, and the writers and composers of the 1930s.

Who would paint your portrait?

Dear God, spare me.

What’s your theme tune?

Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No 3”. It surges with passion, victory, delusion and  annihilation – good for all occasions.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Don’t let anyone tell you who you are. My mother told me that when I was young, and I absolutely follow it.

What’s currently bugging you?

The leader of the less free world, the US despot I refer to as “45”. I am venomous in my feelings towards him and his spineless, hand-wringing, salivating toadies.

What single thing would make your life better?

Having another president.

When were you happiest?

Despite my disgust with our current president, I am extremely happy now. Happiness is cumulative, not temporal.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Naturalist illustrator. I love wildlife and learning something new by noticing details and patterns. It is work that requires solitude. In all those ways, it is very much like writing.

Are we all doomed?

The greatest threat that could doom all of us is global warming. It is coming with certainty, unless changes are made. But I do not think about doom, and I do know what doom feels like. I was in the CNN newsroom in New York on 9/11 when the first tower was hit. The day before, my doctor called me about some peculiar test results and said I likely had brain or pancreatic cancer… 9/11 made me forget I had been told that. As it turned out, it was not World War Three, it was not cancer.

“Where The Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir” is published by Fourth Estate

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry

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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist