Why John Irving Can’t Leave America

Question: As a writer, what is your relation to America?

John Irving: Well, it's odd that I've written two novels out of twelve about Americans who leave this country and go and live in Canada and stay there, although the characters who do that are very different and their reasons for doing so are also different. The reasons are political in the case of Johnny Wheelwright, the narrator of A Prayer For Owen Meany, he does hate his country. That's not the case for Danny Baciagalupo and his dad, they're fugitives, they're running away, it's not their choice to go to Canada, although it does become Danny's choice to stay.

I couldn't do that. I couldn't do it primarily as a writer. I think if I'm going to continue to pick on my country in some way as a writer, I better live here. I better be here first hand, not as an expatriate. So I would disagree with the Ketchum character in Last Night In Twisted River when he tells Danny that he should leave this country and stay away. I would disagree with that, in my case.

In my case, too, unlike Danny, I have three children and four grandchildren, I'm not going anywhere. I live part time in Toronto because my wife is Canadian, but I'm an American and I always will be. I remember thinking in the last years of the Vietnam war that I would never see this country as divided again as it was in those years, but I was wrong. I think we as a people are more divided today. I think back in the latter years of the Vietnam war, it was chiefly that war that divided us. I don't think it's fair or enough to say that we are divided today because or, or only because of, the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq. I think there are other deep political and cultural rifts in this country. Conservative/liberal rifts, religious and not religious rifts. I think there are any number of differences among Americans that divide us angrily and sharply.

And, you know, boy, I really have the highest hopes for President Obama. I'm very excited about him, but he has inherited such a mess. Such a turmoil that I hope people will give him time to sort it out and to undo at least some of the damage that George W. Bush did to this country. And I think I'm already too old to realistically imagine that even if Mr. Obama is hugely successful, that he can actually undo all the damage George W. Bush did to this country's reputation, to the way we are seen outside of this country, to the way other people in the world see us. Maybe that can be recovered or that reputation that we once had can be regained, that good reputation. Maybe it will be regained in my childrens' lifetime, but I don't expect to see it happen. There is, of course, a lot of anti-Americanism around the world that is simply hostile and vehement and motivated by the desire to see any democratic way of life destroyed.

But there's another kind of anti-Americanism that we have contributed to and it embarrasses me. I'm sick of seeing this country's bully patriotism used as a smoke screen and as a cover up for things we haven't done right.

Recorded on: October 30, 2009

Between America’s bullying sense of patriotism and its increasingly divided populace, it’s difficult for a writer to call the land home. Yet, insists John Irving, if he’s going to "pick on" his native country, he needs to do it from the inside.

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