Straw hat and leather sandals, Ken Kalfus looks like he stepped out of a Woody Allen film. American from the East Coast (born in New York, lives in Philadelphia), he has a past as a journalist and a present as an appreciated novelist. David Foster Wallace once wrote, “There are writers who are hip and funny, there are writers who are intelligent and technically innovative, and then there are writers who are wise, moving, and profound. Kalfus is all of this at once.”
With the intelligence that even Foster Wallace recognizes in him, Kalfus wrote a book in which he imagines that the United States has imploded due to a bloody civil conflict and that Americans are forced to migrate to a world where no one welcomes them . The novel – “Two in the Morning in Little America” (Fandango Editore) – is a dystopia that brings the devastating polarization of recent years to its extreme consequences. A disturbing intuition, that of the author, considering that the idea for the plot dates back well before the assault on Capitol Hill in 2021.
Ironic and helpful, Kalfus stops to chat with Sky TG24 in Mantua, while preparing his speech at the Literature Festival.
Are we sure that your book is just fiction?
The purpose of the novel is not so much to predict the future, but to imagine what the consequences of a civil collapse in the United States might be for Americans. How would Americans feel – how would I feel – if we were the migrants in a world that no longer welcomes us? Today these reflections sound different than when I started writing the book. The question of what could happen in America torments us, and clearly the next election will be a critical moment in American history.
What do you expect?
Trump is likely to get the Republican nomination. And if that doesn’t happen, he’ll demand it anyway. If he then wins the elections, I think he will put an end to the power groups that prevented him from remaining in command in 2020: he will put an end to the independence of the judiciary, that of the army, and so on. If he does not win the elections it is quite obvious that he will not admit defeat. When that moment comes, there will be a large minority of Americans convinced that Trump has won: many of them will be armed, many are already part of militias, so it would be a perfect scenario for violence. Even before the elections, in reality, there is the risk of clashes: they can break out during political demonstrations, in conjunction with the hearings in Trump’s trials and so on. We must not imagine this civil war as something specific and “institutional”, complete with marching armies. I’m thinking more of widespread unrest, something like that.
Trump ends up impeached and the polls reward him. Isn’t he strange?
It’s downright bizarre. As for me, I often feel like I live in an upside-down world. And living in a topsy-turvy world is good for a novelist. Because then you can understand what it really means to live in a world like this: what is more exasperating than believing that something is true, that it is an objective fact, while those in front of you deny everything? You ask yourself: what’s wrong with my head? I see things as they are. What is it that others see and I don’t? It’s a very, very paradoxical situation.
What is the main characteristic of the polarization shaking the United States, in your opinion?
In America, politics is largely tribal. We identify with those in our faction, with people who we think look like us, who live like us, etc. It is very difficult to see beyond our tribal identity. This is not just the case in America, but throughout the world. I spent a year in Yugoslavia at the beginning of the civil war. Yugoslavia is a great country with a great people, very intelligent. Yet in the end the Yugoslavs found themselves trapped in their own competing narratives, their own alternative realities. That’s why they went to war and destroyed their country. If it happened in Yugoslavia, I told myself, there is no reason why it couldn’t happen in other countries, including the United States.
If the division is a question of opposing narratives, can’t a new narrative be the solution to the problem?
Sure, I guess that would be a solution. Let’s take the period immediately following the Second World War: Americans looked at that conflict almost with affection, as a just war on which they all agreed. There was solidarity, there was a common narrative. I don’t hope for another war like that to break out, obviously, but I think it would be useful to have a common vision of things, just as happened in that period. I think we are in a diametrically opposite situation right now.
What role does social media have in all of this?
Social media has played a leading role in fueling anger and extremism, because it has created a kind of morbid mutual intimacy. Previously, certain information came mainly from TV, and was certainly capable of arousing strong emotions. The viewer, however, is a passive, external observer. Now, however, we have the feeling of being personally involved in everything that is communicated to us. Even an obvious truth ends up being doubted, because everything is up for discussion.
To describe the American migrants who are the protagonists of your book, were you inspired by the reality of migratory flows?
My novel, which in some ways is also a comic novel, contains several fantastic elements: I imagine for example that, once US influence waned, the world lost familiarity with American culture. Nobody listens to our music anymore, nobody speaks English, and so on. Americans, forced to emigrate, find themselves alone. The reality would probably be different, but in my novel the world forgets about America and is reluctant to welcome Americans, who in this diaspora recognize each other and tend to live together in the countries they arrive in. This makes me think that perhaps, while I was writing, I had in mind the migrants we all know: those who arrive from Iraq, for example, or from Somalia. These are people who then find themselves in Europe, reunite with their compatriots and try to recreate their previous lives in the countries of arrival. The same thing happened in the United States, when the Italians, the Irish, the Jews and so on arrived. Everyone founded their own community, just like the American migrants do in my book.
Wokeness, cancel culture, political correctness. These are much discussed topics that especially involve intellectual professions. How do you live them?
As an individual writer, I don’t think they pose a problem for me. I think there is a lot of intolerance in our society on many topics, and that cancel culture is a common term especially in right-wing circles. It’s a bugaboo, something we want to talk about at all costs. However, there is also some truth. It’s true that people are ghettoized for expressing unpopular opinions. I don’t think it’s a problem in general, but on campuses and in the academic environment it’s a pretty serious issue. This type of intolerance hurts everyone.
We should listen to each other more. Now intolerance is widespread and continuous insinuations are made. Even in this case it is probably tribalism. You look at someone and you start ticking boxes: this is their gender, this is their race, this is their age, they have glasses, and so you make a judgment, whatever it is. You understand which tribe it belongs to, exactly. This is how a decidedly negative intolerance is fueled.
The United States once liked to call itself the “City on a Hill,” the beacon for democracies around the world. What has changed?
We have always known that America is flawed. But it also has a form of government and a set of laws that allow it to solve problems. I’m confident? I do not know. We’ve come very low but I think America has always been a work in progress, a country that’s not a city on a hill but tries to be. We’ve always had racism, we’ve always had gender inequality, we’ve always had economic inequality. But we also have many people trying to make America a better country, just like elsewhere. I think hope starts with us.