Doug Unger, Author and Activist
Douglas Unger has published four novels and a collection of stories, including Leaving the Land, which won the Society of Midland Authors Award for best fiction, a citation from the PEN Ernest Hemingway award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and Robert F. Kennedy awards. His fourth novel, Voices from Silence, was an “experts recommend selection” of the Washington Post Book World. New fiction and essays have appeared in Boulevard, Southwest Review, The Writers Chronicle, and Carve magazines, as well as in West of 98: Living and Writing in the New American West and the Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Fiction. He has just completed Dream City, a novel set in Las Vegas.
Unger moved to Las Vegas in 1991, after teaching eight years at Syracuse University. He is the co-founder of the MFA in Creative Writing International program and PhD with Creative Dissertation at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Unger serves on the executive boards of Words Without Borders, Point of Contact, The Americas for Conservation and the Arts, and as an advisory editor for The Americas Series with Texas Tech University Press. His awards include a Guggenheim fellowship for fiction, a Fulbright scholarship in Comparative Literature for Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile, a fellowship from the Fundación Valparaíso in Spain, a State of Washington Governor’s award, the Nevada Board of Regents Creative Activities Award, and induction into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame.
I met Douglas Unger following a June 2016 panel at the AULA MFA residency that explored the role of writer-activists in an era when sustainability has become imperative. I was struck by Unger’s response to the moderator’s question, “Are you a writer or an activist first?” Unger said, “I would characterize myself as a ‘literary activist.’ I work with groups that engage writers in environmental activism.”
Unger approaches sustainability from his childhood experiences, which included vacations and holidays spent on his father’s sheep ranch in South Dakota. He watched farms and ranches go under as a result of major social and economic changes that included the rise of agribusiness and urban flight. Later, Unger used his writing to engage the challenge of sustaining communities and cultures during periods of rapid transformation.
Unger’s contribution to the sustainability panel was still fresh in my mind when we met for breakfast at the Marriott the following morning. I recognized Unger from the back, thanks to his neat ponytail. He was checking his flight information on a computer in the hotel lobby. He logged out and I ordered a coffee before we slid into a spacious booth to chat.
Juliann Allison: How did you become a writer? How did you transition from reluctant rancher to writer and activist?
Douglas Unger: I’m not sure if I set out to become a writer. I grew up partly in Colorado, partly outside of New York. I went to Argentina on a student exchange and stayed. The system was very strange, and it allowed you to study without having a place as a student at the university, as an estudiante libre. I went to the University of Chicago and took mainly sciences. I was thinking about getting into neurophysiology, and worked in a neurophysiology lab. I had connections with United Press International (UPI) and when all the war demonstrations were going on and there was political turmoil, I started covering that for UPI as a photojournalist. So I started writing, and gravitated toward it. I’m glad because I discovered in the neurophysiology lab that I am not very good with my hands. I think that if I had become a brain surgeon, I would have done terrible damage.
The old family farm-centered agricultural model embodied a kind of independence, a complete thinking about one’s relationship to town, relationship to city, relationship to state that emphasized certain American values…
JA: Did you consider yourself an activist at this point?
DU: Not really. Although I was certainly sympathetic to the activists. As a journalist, I really tried to be objective.
JA: Your first novel, Leaving the Land, is the story of a turkey farmer’s daughter struggling to hold onto her family’s land while their hometown falls victim to corporate farming. Can you tell me more about this novel, which many consider a classic on the vanishing family farm in the American Midwest? To what extent does it capture your own sense about agriculture, the agrarian lifestyle, and contemporary culture?
DU: There’s a big difference between identifying with a character who is integrated into a particular circumstance and being that character yourself. Leaving the Land is much more based on my father’s second wife, and her growing up on a turkey farm outside of Gillete, Wyoming, and listening to her stories about it, and really identifying with her whole sense of the land where she came from. The rest of it is invented.
My attitude toward that kind of agricultural labor is—I don’t want to romanticize it—it’s hard. The work is hard. The labor’s hard. The demands on you are very, very difficult. In my day, whole families would be out working all day long just to make the place work, to make a profit. I identified with the character, but I’m not a big back-to-nature person. If I prefer any kind of jungle, it’s an urban jungle. If you could spin me around three times and drop me into any city, I’d feel at home. I’ve gone through periods of time when I’ve worked out in nature, but I prefer the companionship of people and cultural activity of the city any day.
JA: What about urban environments?
DU: I think about the integration of green space, and open space, and utilized space in cities a great deal. I’ll use Berlin as an example. I’ve become interested in Berlin recently because my wife lives there. I’ve observed the way the city uses big parks, and the way the residents of the city have community gardens on the outskirts of the city. There’s a whole connection with getting out into the green spaces while you’re enjoying the city. There’s a way the European cities have integrated that better than our cities have. I think about city design, and wish that we could do a better job of it.
Las Vegas is getting better. They had no plan up until about 2000, then they started with a nice plan to make walkways and hiking trails. They’re a little late, but they’re doing a much better job. Out in the new areas, like Summerlin, there’s more of a British feel because it has roundabouts and green spaces. That part of Las Vegas is better planned, more walkable.
JA: You’ve talked about the relationship between the agrarian lifestyle and issues of democracy, individualism, and responsibility. If we are losing these virtues associated with agrarianism, where do you see them being re-enacted?
DU: My philosophy has been formed by this Harold Breimyer book, Individual Freedom and the Economic Organization of Agriculture. It adopts, like Wendell Berry does, a Jeffersonian view of American democracy, and I think it’s essentially correct. The old family-farm centered agricultural model embodied a kind of independence, a complete thinking about one’s relationship to town, relationship to city, relationship to state that emphasized certain American values—frugality and connection with agricultural resources that looks at the farm as complete and sustainable entity that diversifies by rotating crops from legumes to wheat. And you have some type of animal, not because there is an intrinsic value to raising animals but because you get an organic fertilizer. This connection cultivates a sustainable, holistic view of a person’s landscape and how to use it that doesn’t spoil or waste it. That attitude was extremely important. Plus there was an independent attitude toward what power and what freedom we wanted inflicted on us by law, and which powers and freedoms we wanted to have control of ourselves. There’s a whole sense of community involvement as well because of cooperative uses of water and markets, and farm co-ops. That kind of thing, which is a quaint model now, really fostered an attitude toward sustainable life.
What happened in the latter part of the twentieth century is that that model was replaced by an economy-of- scale model, in which you had a hundred-sixty-acre small-scale family dairy replaced by a thousand-acre operation, and then by a two-thousand-acre farm. You are dealing with units that are larger than a family can manage, and so you hire laborers, and adopt a monoculture. You have a whole movement in farming to using a lot of fertilizer to produce tremendous yields, and raising one-grain crops, and selling them. In the 1980s and 1990s, corporations bought up farmland. There are exceptions to it. Organic farms, for instance. Now there’s a movement back to the land—millennials trying to teach themselves how to farm.
In the Third World, monoculture farming is promoted. There’s money in it, whereas there isn’t money for sustainable, small farms. Everyone talks about North American free trade and, Oh God! the factories are leaving. But nobody talks about what it did to Mexico. Suddenly, there were farm credits available for large farms so they adopted these huge, corporate-style farming methods and we see the result of that—onions and fruits coming into Trader Joe’s. What NAFTA did was shake up subsistence farming, which the Mexican Revolution was designed to preserve. And now it’s happening all around the world.
JA: Can you talk about how Latinos view their own, or humanity’s, connection to earth, land, or place today?
You have to know who you are to understand your relationship to the place around you and your community, to have some sense of an integrated self that you understand as you, even though that changes
DU: There’s an interesting thing that emerged in the polling of the Latino voter in the United States and our misconceptions about that growing and important sector of America. Everyone assumed that immigration would be a big issue, and jobs and the economy would be a big issue, and there would be all of these conservative values. But the truth is that the top two concerns for Latinos were the environment and climate change.
As far as we can tell at Americas for Conservation + Arts [a Colorado-based organization dedicated to uniting diverse communities for a sustainable future], neighborhood organizations that are out there everyday, organizing Latino families, find that most Mexican-Americans have some connection to the land or have some relatives who have done agricultural work. They saw first-hand the changes that have gone on and they are concerned. There’s also a tremendous sense of community involvement and community support that, in part, comes just from culture, support for community food, community child support, community concerns for each other. When you put on an event, organize literary events, try to get a crowd out in the Mexican-American community, what you’ll see is that not only will they come, but they will bring food for the community, and be thinking about who will take care of the kids. If I do this in the middle of Las Vegas, I’ll have to think about this as an organizer. It won’t just come up out of the community. That’s a different kind of thing, a different kind of relatedness.
I’m sure there are other communities like that. It kind of reminds me of rural farm communities. Maybe you can attribute it to a closeness to the landscape. Maybe you can attribute it to a different way of looking at community. But that community sense is directly related to their concerns about the environment and climate change.
JA: Your writing and activism are clearly integrated around questions of culture and sustainability. What organizations, in addition to Americas for Conservation + Arts, are you engaged with? How do you think your efforts have impacted Latino communities?
DU: Latinos are a tremendously cohesive, organized unit or sector of the population. They understand that to do anything, they have to speak with one voice. But in the Latino community you have to be careful because there’s a real difference between El Salvadorans, Mexicans, and Guatemalans, and each group is different from the Cubans and from the Puerto Ricans. But there is a sense of a common project of assimilation, a common project of community building.
I’ve done an interesting thing with Words without Borders [a nonprofit that recognizes a strong land ethic among Latin American and Latino communities]. When we put together our Mexico unit [one of three country-organized courses]—I chair that project—I thought we had to do something about the Indigenous communities and languages in Mexico. I selected poetry and stories [translated from] Mazateca and Curicha from the backlist of Words without Borders magazine. Then we started to look at the differences among those subcultures in Mexico and discovered, my gosh, that there are whole neighborhoods of these peoples in odd places. Just outside of Seattle, there’s a Uribe community. There’s a Mazateca community right here in LA, where they’re in the same neighborhood and they’re riding the same buses to work, and their getting together to cook their native foods.
I participated in this project with the Nevada Council of the Arts, looking at Oaxaca and Zapoteca embroidery, and how there’s a whole society that is passing on the embroidery arts from mother to daughter, and then doing these festivals among themselves to show off the results of their work and sustain this beautiful and elaborate embroidery, and the symbols in it, and the way one reads the embroidery. We did a whole museum show together. My graduate students and I translated, put the text together for the catalogue for that exhibit.
Even within an ethnic community, there are dozens, often many more subgroups, and each one has its own concerns, and different traditions. I’m still thinking about that, thinking about what that means, certainly, within sustainability and cultural preservation. It’s important and I’m interested in how we preserve these cultural ideas, and art, the songs of these communities, where we make space for them in the American patchwork, the American idea. And how do we encourage cultural cohesion in a society made up of these different parts? That has to do with sustainability.
How do we preserve the beautiful folkloric songs? How do you preserve Mazateca poetry that is so focused on the role of the mother in society? This is really interesting to me as an artist. It’s fascinating that Mazatecans have this preoccupation with mothers in poetry, and then you find a Mexican comedian in the U.S., in a club, making the audience laugh with twenty different mama jokes, right? Where does that whole thing come from? And isn’t that interesting to think about? You can do anything in Mexican culture, generally, you can insult somebody, call them anything you want, use every curse word in the book, but if you insult his mother, it’s a knife fight. You cannot insult his mother. It’s the one thing they don’t do.
If you teach the availability of these cultures and subcultures, the richness of them, who knows what students will make of it, but at least it’s there.
JA: Can you tell us about your new work?
DU: I’ve just spent a long time working on a book about Las Vegas. It’s very complicated. It’s called Dream City and what I’m trying to do with the book is to go against all the available Las Vegas clichés. There’re no murders, no hookers. There’re no gangsters. There’s one old barber who is nostalgic about the mob days, but there’s no mob. What it’s really about is the corporate world of Las Vegas and how it modeled the city. It’s about all the back-stabbing. It’s fiction, but it’s set in that world.
Right now, I’m putting the first section together in another way. I’ve been cutting it down and reshaping it. I’m trying to sell it. It’s very difficult to sell a novel these days. What I’m trying to do is take a look at people who are drawn into aspirational greed. The main character evaluates himself by how far he climbs up the corporate ladder in terms of money, and gets to the point where he is admitted into the wealthy and elite of Las Vegas who have their own rituals, and their own meetings, and their own places to go, their own rights of passage. And so he’s in this group where he’s always wanted to be and the recession happens and in 2010 he loses it all. In the process of getting there, he strips away every kind of passive human value, like compassion and his personal ethics. His marriage gets in real trouble, and he becomes more cynically disposed. He becomes what he never wanted to be, and loses it.
I’m hoping to make that an interesting story, but what I’ve discovered is that editors and readers in publishing houses want to know: where are the gangsters, where are the hookers, where’s the body? They expect a certain thing out of Las Vegas. This is different than that.
Novels, to me, are puzzles. It’s a question of how to structure the story to give your readers just enough so that they are interested in turning the page, and much of that has to do with the ordering of events, how to order events, how to anticipate events, then how to keep rewarding expectations, and reversing them along the way. It’s a structural problem.
JA: It sounds like fun. It sounds like a lot of work, but it could also be fun, a challenge.
DU: Yeah. I just finished writing an essay on teaching the Mexican drug war. It’s [published in] a couple of places. I enjoyed the process of teaching such a dark subject and watching students react to narco culture.
We all have to be activists. When you hear it, you have to confront it. There’s a nice way to be persuasive. But if you don’t, then you’re responsible.
It wasn’t depressing at all, translating, and comparing it to hip hop and rap, looking at it like a cultural phenomenon. Then looking at narco cinema. Who is the most prolific actor? A guy name Mario Almada, who has played the bad guy in 1000 films. What American actor has been in 1000 movies? You have Mexican narco film directors who are doing over twenty movies a year, right? I had students who went to our local Walmart and found titles, movies funded by drug dealers to make themselves look like heroes.
Then there’s the cult of Santo [Jesús] Malverde, which has more than twelve million devotees, that’s one out of every ten people in Mexico. It’s the saint of the drug lords. Yet it’s got this indigenous underpinning to the feminine goddess of underworld of Toltec and Aztec tradition. So it’s a reincarnation of her. It’s a whole new religion. My students were so fascinated by all of this. I wrote an essay about it.
JA: Do you have any advice for writers seeking to lend their voice to the earth or land? How important is a science background?
DU: It’s an individual attitude that you carry with you whether you are a writer or not. The thing is to decide who you are first. You have to know who you are to understand your relationship to the place around you and your community, to have some sense of an integrated self that you understand as you, even though that changes. Then, be very aware of what is around you. I like Henry James’s idea about what writers should be, and that a writer is someone on whom nothing is missed. Just be aware and observant enough to see what’s around you and cultivate that ability as much as you possibly can.
There’s that, and then about sustainability, I think we should all be activists. You can be an activist just by being a poet in your community, and representing that space in the cultural organization of your family, your community, your city. That’s a good thing, but if you look at the kind of crisis that’s coming, I’m very concerned that we all have to do something. In the United States, we are not nearly aware enough or focused enough on it. And it astonishes me that the corporate rhetoric by companies that want to exploit resources and damn the consequences and profit from it has been given such a privileged and unquestioned place in politics and the media.
It’s not that way around the world. You go to Germany, and everyone is aware. The same in France. You go to Argentina, and it’s a struggle, but not a naked struggle. If someone is going to profit, it’s out there. And the whole sense of climate change is out there. They are talking about it, and people are aware that there is more flooding, and every newscaster is saying it’s because of climate change. We don’t have that happening [in the U.S.]. If someone does say it, then there’s a counterargument being financed by someone who wants to do what they’ve always done, to exploit and despoil without paying for it.
We all have to be activists. When you hear it, you have to confront it. There’s a nice way to be persuasive. But if you don’t, then you’re responsible. I don’t want to be responsible. There are things we all really need to be aware of. [Climate change] is the most important issue of our time.
Juliann Allison is a feminist scholar, environmentalist, homeschool advocate, yogini, runner, rock climber, mate, and mother of four, with a passion for the outdoors. She is Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies and Public Policy at UC Riverside, and an MFA student at Antioch University Los Angeles.