- A Conversation with Susan Sontag
This interview took place in late July, 2000 at Susan Sontag’s penthouse apartment in Chelsea on a sunny, tolerably hot day. Just as I entered the building, Sontag’s assistant was returning from some errands and we went up the elevator together. As we opened the apartment door, Sontag was emptying some trash into a bin. Later she mentioned that since her illness—she has been recovering from a second cancer that was diagnosed in 1998—her apartment had become a mess. “These days I’m mostly trying to make space for all the books I’ve acquired in the last two years and sorting papers and manuscripts,” she said. What makes the apartment at once austere and elegant are the dozens of Piranesi prints on the walls. I was reminded of lines in the Alice James monologue from Sontag’s play, Alice in Bed: “With my mind I can see, I can hold all that in my mind. Everyone says [Rome]’s so beautiful. I’ve looked at the pictures, the engravings. Yes, Piranesi” (81).
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I had brought with me a copy of a Chinese periodical review of my recent book The Last of the Chinese (also in Chinese) to show her. The editor had used the cover of her latest novel In America to illustrate the review—a delightful surprise for me, since Sontag has been an important influence on my own writing and filmmaking endeavors. An admirer of The Benefactor, Sontag’s first novel, before reading her critical writings, I translated into Chinese her essay “Fascinating Fascism” and her short story “Project for a Trip to China” back in the mid-‘80s in Hong Kong, without thinking much about copyright issues. Over the years, I saw Chinese translations of her work appear here and there in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China, invariably without her knowledge. Several friends urged me to interview her for Chinese publications, and perhaps to edit an anthology of Sontag’s writings in Chinese. As the Sontag anthology project became more realistic, I finally introduced myself to her at a Trisha Brown concert at the Joyce Theater and she agreed to my interview request right away. When I described the chaotic Chinese publishing scene, she shrugged it off. “People think that I’ll be angry because it’s pirated. But I’m not a very good citizen of capitalist society. Of course, I’d like to be paid, and I’m hardly difficult to get in touch with. I have a publisher and an agent, whose addresses are listed in the entry on me in Who’s Who, which I assume anybody can access online. But no, I’m not angry. Most of all I’d like to be read.”
Then we settled into a table in the kitchen. Behind me was a door that opened onto a wrap-around balcony, which overlooked the shimmering Hudson and the Manhattan skyline in late afternoon. Sontag put her leg on the table, tilted her chair back, and sipped her coffee. Two years ago she quit smoking. She started talking about Shower, the most recent Chinese film she had seen. She found it “mildly interesting” because of its setting in a Beijing in transition. Among Hong Kong filmmakers, Wong Kar-wai is naturally the one she is familiar with. She quite liked Fallen Angels, but was disappointed by Happy Together. (Serving on the jury of Hawaii Film Festival in 1986, Sontag apparently helped A Time to Live, A Time to Die, the breakthrough film by Taiwan’s preeminent auteur, Hou Hsiao-hsien, win top prize. She also named YiYi, by Edward Young, another major Taiwan filmmaker, the best film of 2000 [Sontag, “Best” 26]). I brought her up-to-date on the activities of our mutual friend Simone Swan, a founding director of the de Menil Foundation and an old acquaintance of hers, who has been trying to preserve the legacy of the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy by building low-cost adobe housing along the Texas border.1 Sontag responded positively, but suspected that “poor people might want concrete...