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A Conversation With Portland Writer Cari Luna, Winner Of The 2015 Ken Kesey Award For Fiction

A Conversation With Portland Writer Cari Luna, Winner Of The 2015 Ken Kesey Award For Fiction

Photo by Mercy McNab
Photo by Mercy McNab

A city is always in flux–decay and destruction makes way for repair and improvement. Just look around, it’s happening right here and now. Capturing moments in time and reflecting them back on the page as a work of fiction is the mark of a truly talented writer. With The Revolution of Every Day, Cari Luna was recognized for that talent with the 2015 Ken Kesey Oregon Book Award for best fiction. The book follows the lives of a group of squatters inhabiting a tenement building in New York City’s Lower East Side in the mid-nineties. Their lives mirror the building they live in, damaged but still standing, constantly fighting to sustain itself.

ELEVEN: Regarding the origin of the book, is this a complete work of fiction? Did you ever live in the Lower East Side?

Cari Luna: It is fiction based on history, but not my personal history. I lived in the neighborhood, just a few blocks away from the Squats. I was aware of the squatters, but only in a passing way. I really didn’t understand what they were up to, and sorry to say, I wasn’t all that curious about it. I had my own shit going on. But I knew the neighborhood and I knew the time. It was a time and a place that I loved. I recognized what the squatters were doing at the time was no longer possible. That New York was done. I wanted to focus on that period. The book is set in ‘94-’95. I feel like that was the tipping point, when gentrification won. And so that period interested me. So I started developing the idea of “This is why New York has changed.” That’s when the rents really started to go up. I was trying to remember something that I had seen–it was July 4th of 1995. I was walking from my place on St Mark’s to my friend’s place on 11th and I saw a commotion on the corner of 13th and A. It was a huge crowd, mounted police, police in riot gear. I was born in New York, but grew up in the suburbs and my experience with the police was always a benevolent one, you know. I’m a middle class, red-headed white woman. So I’m there in the crowd and I recognize… police officers looking around, I could see on their faces (some of them) wanting someone to throw a bottle or something, hoping for a reason to react. It was the first time I could conceive any tension or complication in the police, and that really left an impression. What had been going on that night is that squatters that had been evicted from two buildings on East 13th retook those two buildings while everyone was distracted by the fireworks. They took the buildings back symbolically, they knew that they couldn’t hold them. They broke back in and hung banners that said “Home Sweet Home,” and then they escaped before they could be caught. So seeing them retake the building and the tension between them and the police, it made an impression. So when I went to investigate that period of time, I remembered the squatters. It felt like it was their story.

11: Do you see a parallel between the gentrification that went on then and what’s been going on in recent years in Portland, especially the Mississippi and Alberta area?

CL: Absolutely, I read somewhere that Portland is the fastest gentrifying city in the country. And yes, it’s a huge problem and I don’t know what the answer is to it. People are moving here, apparently. Let’s fill every empty space with condos and skinny houses, and fuck everybody who was here before. I feel kind of guilty. We are part of it, right? As I was part of it in New York.

11: It’s hard to have it both ways.

CL: Right. Cities change. How do you allow for cities to change while still protecting the population that was already there. I think that the answer is affordable housing and also some rent protection for individually owned businesses. How do you protect the Mom and Pop’s and the people who already live in the neighborhoods? Particularly from predatory landlords jacking up rents. Seattle is talking about a different form of rent control that interests me. Traditional rent control is if you’ve been here before a certain date, regardless of your economical situation, you’re one of the lucky ones. You got your place. Everyone that comes later is out of luck. We need to protect and create more affordable housing here.

11: There’s also an interesting connection between the dutch character Gerrit, and the Dutch influence on New York City itself. Can you talk about the history of squatting, where does it come from?

CL: I liked that connection, that wasn’t an accident. There’s a strong history of squatting all over Europe, particularly in England and Germany, and the Netherlands. Until around 2010 in the Netherlands, if you moved into a vacant space and you put in a table, a chair, and a bed, it was really hard to get you out. That was all that was required. I spent a lot of time in Amsterdam in ‘93-’94 and there were squatted restaurants and squatted clubs and coffee shops. It was a very political movement. There was a really really strong culture of squatting culture in Amsterdam that the New York squatters respected and emulated. They really followed the Dutch example in squatting. It was important for me to have a character from a Dutch Squat as part of the community at Thirteen House.

11: I like how many of the paragraphs end with him cursing in Dutch.

CL: I have a friend who taught me how to curse in Dutch. They have the best curses. It’s all based in diseases. Tuberculosis and cancer are the roots of many of their curses.

11: We need to have more non-sex based curses.

CL: Well it’s actually tuberculosis, cancer and prostitution.

11: Well, there you go. Back to Portland, congrats on the Book Award! Can you tell me how that all went down?

CL: The Oregon Book Awards have a weird cut-off period. A book has to come out by August of a given year to be considered so my book came out in November, so I missed cut-offs. Which is awesome because I would have been up against Ursula [K. Le Guin] last year and it was never going to happen. So stroke of luck! Timing is everything. So I feel extremely fortunate, it was an extremely tough field. I didn’t write an acceptance speech, I did not expect to win.

11: So you went from not publishing your first book to winning best novel for your second!

CL: Well the first book went in the drawer, I was writing Revolution during that time. I sent it to my agent and she passed on it. She was very uncomfortable with the squatters, you know…”Why would people want to read about a bunch of squatters?” Well, they’re human. So she passed on it and I spent a year trying to find another agent. A couple were on the fence, but were not ready to take it on. But I really believed in the book, and was not going to put it in the drawer. So I said “Fuck it, I’m going to send it out to the small presses on my own.” It’s a small press book anyway, and I feel really good about that. Pretty much right away, Tin House picked it up, and it turned out to be the perfect home for it. »

– Scott McHale