Can Literature Teach Us How to Die?: A Conversation Between Ilan Stavans and Priyanka Champaneri




IF WE DON’T KNOW how to die, can we know how to live? Nonreligious literature is filled with characters realizing that death is about more than the loss of control; it is about accepting that being and nothingness complement each other. But aside from offering solace, does that literature also teach us how to die? And could translation help us to appreciate death? This dialogue explores these questions. 

Priyanka Champaneri is the author of the recently released novel The City of Good Death, which won the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. She holds an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University and has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts numerous times. 

Ilan Stavans is the publisher of Restless Books and the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Cultures at Amherst College. His latest books are What Remains: The Suitcases of Charles F. at Willard State Hospital (2020) and Selected Translations: Poems 2000–2020 (2021), which features translations into English of a hundred classic poems written in Spanish, Yiddish, Hebrew, Ladino, Portuguese, Russian, German, K’iche’, and other languages.

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ILAN STAVANS: I’m haunted by the idea of a “good death,” which is what gives your breathtaking debut novel, The City of Good Death, its traction. The story takes place in and around a hostel in the holy city of Kashi in India, also known as Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges. People go to Kashi to “detach,” to let purifying fire release the body from the cycle of reincarnation. I wonder if in the West we know the meaning of a “good death.” In the last chapter of Don Quixote, the knight dies two deaths: he “gives up the ghost” — just as Hamlet does when he travels to “the undiscovered country” — but before that he relinquishes his persona of Don Quixote to become once again Alonso Quijano. Neither of these deaths are graphic, yet they are wrenching. And even after Quijano “confesses” to the town priest and delivers a living testament, the reader knows there is no afterlife for him. It seems to me that we are horrified by the end, not knowing how to approach it. Death is the conclusion; there is nothing after it. Through death, we as individuals vanish once and for all. What remains? Perhaps memory remains, but even that is fleeting. What is a “good death” for you?

PRIYANKA CHAMPANERI: This is such a complex question, and I will start with the caveat that the answer I give now is subject to change as I get older. But at this particular moment, a good death for me is inextricable from the life that leads up to that end. I cannot expect to have a good death if my life did not accomplish certain specific things. And these things are not material. The goal that I am always striving toward is to balance the scales as much as possible in the time that is given to me. This means fulfilling all my obligations to the people and things I am duty-bound to. But one thing you mention, about “vanishing once and for all” — I don’t think of death in that way. Based on the belief system I’ve chosen for myself, I don’t believe I will be erased entirely. I existed in another life before this one, and I’ll return in another life after. Certainly, the person that I am now, in this life and in this reality, will vanish when I die. So, is it that loss of identity, then, that makes death horrifying?

IS: Ironically, Don Quixote, in spite of his two deaths, doesn’t really die either. Readers have been keeping him alive since 1615, when Cervantes published Part II of the novel. To me, that is life after life. In any case, my friend Sherwin Nuland, a surgeon and author of How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter (1994), frequently pointed out the way death in the West makes us feel ashamed: we avoid talking about it openly, we hide from it. But death is an essential part of our natural cycle. If we don’t know how to die, we can’t know how to live.

PC: Absolutely. We are all rushing toward death — and I count all living things in this “we,” not just humans — yet we ignore this one thing that is a universal certainty. It’s akin to getting in a car, going on a journey, and expecting that you’ll be driving forever without end. But, of course, there must be a final destination, and accepting that will likely affect the places you’ll end up driving to, right? I really feel that, if you’re able to accept that end early on, really understand that, yes, the days you have are finite — if you can get to that point, it can only increase your quality of life. Because if you truly understand that death is the inevitable end, then you’ll be more apt to make decisions that take that brevity of time into account. You’ll be more mindful about the relationships you hold onto and nurture in your life — and, conversely, you’ll know which people you need to walk away from. You’ll weigh your decisions differently; you’ll pull joy out of places where you might not usually do so.

Accepting death is not a sign of surrender. It’s knowledge, a tool we can use to recalibrate or refocus when we feel unmoored in the world. But thinking in this way is not easy, and it’s not a switch you can just turn on within yourself. It takes constant practice. I can’t say I’m very good at it myself. But I’ve also encountered enough death in my life — and just as impactful, enough near death — to goad me to get better at this way of thinking as the years go by. And because of those experiences, whenever I have a decision before me — particularly regarding relationships — I always have the same two questions drumming in the back of my mind. If I am no longer here tomorrow, what will I wish I had done? And if that other person is no longer here tomorrow, what will I regret not doing?

IS: To me, death is a variety of translation. In translation, we “redress” a text so that others might be able to embrace it. This means that the original dies — metaphorically, of course — in order for the translation to be born; or, if it doesn’t die, it at least moves aside. There is a kind of transmigration, maybe even reincarnation, in translation: the self travels from one body to another. When I reimagine a poem by Anna Akhmatova, Paul Celan, or César Vallejo in English, I’m fully conscious of the clash between life and death, between construction and destruction, that is at stake in the creative process. What prompted you to write The City of Good Death?

PC: The initial catalyst was reading a Reuters article that turned out to be about the death hostels of Banaras. I was immediately struck by how practical and utilitarian these places are: they essentially offer only the shelter of concrete walls and nothing more. And I could not stop thinking about how intentional these places are. This is not a place to have a holiday. This is not a spa or a meditation retreat. The entire purpose of a death hostel is right in the name: you’re there to die. And not just die — you’re there to exit the cycle of rebirth completely. And the part of me that had grown up intimately familiar with Hindu philosophy understood all of that and accepted it — but I had also grown up in the United States. And I could equally understand how incongruous this direct confrontation with death can be within a Western society, where the focus is so much more on everlasting life, on holding off death or ignoring it entirely.

I had spent my life up to that point on a steady diet of mostly Western literature written in English. And it was a diet that has given my life so much richness — but I inevitably had to contort myself as a reader to understand the work on a deeper thematic level, which usually always meant having to don a Judeo-Christian lens. I was just desperate to read something that used my default lens, one that I knew many other people carried. And this city, the death hostels, the people who journey from afar with the sole purpose of making that final exit — it all held so much potential for a story that I could write using that default lens, and hopefully share with people who either had the same lens or were open to accessing it.

IS: After living a good life, my 79-year-old mother, who lives in Mexico City, is in the process of precipitously losing her sense of self. She has trouble remembering who those that surround her are. The case, I’m told, is one for the books: in two months, from January to March 2021, she has gone through what Alzheimer’s patients experience in five, 10, 20 years. On New Year’s Day, I had a normal conversation with my mother over the phone. Eight weeks later, she no longer knows what day of the week it is, is afraid of the dark and sleeps poorly, and her sentences are monosyllabic. Day after day, she is ceding the space she occupies. Her thoughts are jumbled. She is disinterested even in reading. It is painful to watch it all because she herself doesn’t understand what is happening and, therefore, is quite upset. Anxiety is her modus vivendi now. Just before she entered this state, my mother said to me that she wanted to die. I asked her if she wanted me to inquire about a merciful end. But she was afraid. Among other things, I wonder if she dreams — if in the theater of her mind she sees, when she is unconscious, scenes from her life. That would be a gift, but my impression is that the thief we call Alzheimer’s has stolen even that pleasure.

PC: I deeply empathize with your mother, because her fear is real, and it’s a humbling thing. It’s like standing on a beach and seeing a colossal wave roaring toward you from a great distance. You can see and hear it; its imminent arrival is no surprise. But that knowledge doesn’t mitigate the terror you feel as it gets closer, knowing you are about to be swept away into the unknown. What can you do to lessen that terror? How do you comfort yourself before being engulfed? Some might say that having a strong conviction in a belief system can help. But one question I struggle with is how a person can be so certain of how they might react in a theoretical situation, only to have instinct — the deepest, most primal emotions — ultimately override all of that when the actual moment comes. It’s all well and good to think about death in a general abstract way, but how can any of us be sure of how we will react when we meet that moment?

I don’t want to assume things about your mother’s experience, but in general I hypothesize that the fear comes from the unknown, and the aloneness. We will all face that moment when we must stride off the stage and into something we cannot be sure of, and we all must make that journey alone. That fear can be so powerful that even someone who has lived their life confident in what happens to them after the wave comes isn’t always immune to it. And it also comes back around to fear of losing your identity. If you have a great attachment to the person you are in this life, then the prospect of leaving that life at the end is going to be difficult. Platitudes are easy to spout from a distance, but really, Ilan, what do I know? What do any of us know? And what does that knowledge matter, if that ocean of fear that comes alongside death is equally inevitable? Is the fear then something to fight against? Something to run from? Something to accept and sink into? I have no answers. But I have an intense sympathy for your mother, for everyone awash in that fear.

IS: In Mexico, people commune with the dead all the time; and on Día de los Muertos, we celebrate with food, music, and candles at the cemetery. Malcolm Lowry, in Under the Volcano, recreates the phantasmagoric atmosphere of Day of the Dead. In Jewish culture, the dead are also with us constantly: in the prayer recited every morning, in the High Holidays, on Passover, etc. The Talmud states that sleep is one-60th of death. I love the image: death is with us every night when we surrender consciousness. I feel this in my bones. The full quote in the Talmud is more emblematic. It states that fire is one-60th of hell, honey is one-60th of manna, the Shabbat is one-60th of the World to Come, and dreams are one-60th of prophecy.

PC: I love this idea of these intensely symbolic and sometimes distant abstractions being portioned out in a way we can attach relevance to in our daily lives, especially regarding sleep. It makes me think of John Updike: “Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” I’m fascinated with all the different ways people around the world have folded the dead into their lives. While this is not something actively practiced in my family or in my house, I’ve seen many Hindu households with framed photographs of deceased elders — parents, grandparents, and so forth — occupying a space and treated with the same veneration as the household shrine would be — anointed with rice and flowers during daily puja ceremonies and treated with special attention during holidays. And in the 15-day period preceding the holiday of Navratri, food is prepared and left out for any departed family members who may still be lingering, in the hope that it might bring them peace and send them onward to the next life.

On another end of the spectrum, I read a New York Times story about the death rituals of the Toraja people of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. They’ve perfected very specific ways of preserving their dead so that a body can be exhumed and cleaned every few years or so. They take photographs alongside their dead loved ones and take great pride in caring for the body, all with the idea that the spirits of the dead remain behind to offer the family protection. But the decayed body itself is not feared or viewed as repugnant — it’s venerated within this tradition. And so, the dead remain alive in the memories of those left behind, but more than that, death is normalized. If you can recognize that the journey has been taken by so many before you, perhaps you can mitigate some of that fear. I tried to express a similar culture in my novel. Bodies are openly carried through the same cramped lanes that people pass through, going about their daily lives in the city. Families caring for their loved ones in the death hostel are still mired in the worldly troubles that await them when they return home. Death, rebirth, and all the rest are discussed openly as a matter of course rather than a matter of taboo.

IS: In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion tackles that issue through paradox. She doesn’t believe memory will allow her to reconnect to her husband, who has suddenly died; instead, she delves into the state of magical thought that is grief. In this state, we aren’t fully ourselves; our mental capacity is transformed. I don’t know whether to describe it as diminished. Instead of thinking rationally, we are in a nebula. Memory is fleeting: what we remember arrives to us as if through a veil. As you say, the dead are alive but in limbo — a Dantesque theater.

I have two thoughts about this. One thing I wanted to explore in The City of Good Death was the idea that a story can become stronger, infused with life, the more and more it is told. And I think that idea translates to our dead as well — the more we recall them, the more we solidify our memories of them by writing things down or speaking the words aloud. It’s no different from an incantation. You are conjuring them into being. And conversely, by not doing those things, by suppressing those memories, or hiding your grief, or overriding your emotions so you can get to a place of “normalcy” … well, it’s a second death in a way. You lose the person in life, and you lose them in memory as well. We have real power within ourselves, through memory, through ritual, through storytelling, to bring what was dead back to life. But it’s worth mentioning that this power can be used in the opposite direction as well. Because not all the dead are worthy of remembrance through the eyes of the living.

My second thought is that, as useful as memory can be in navigating grief, there is a temptation to become addicted to it, and thereby sentence yourself to a future of living in the past. Whether you are mired in memory, or in that nebula of grief, eventually you will have to pull yourself out, you must move on with living your life. But that presents another of those unanswerable quandaries — when do you accept that you have fallen too deeply? When are you allowed to drop the hand of memory and continue forward, alone, without feeling as if you are leaving that departed one behind?

IS: This is a suitable place to talk about oblivion. Often remembrance and forgetting are seen as antonyms — that is, as antagonists. But there is enormous benefit, not to mention health, in forgetting. We can’t remember everything. And we shouldn’t either. In order to think lucidly, we need to forget a vast amount of information. This allows us to think in abstractions, not in particularities. But forgetting is also a welcome respite. Most things have value in the present. That’s where they live. To transpose them to another time coordinate is to needlessly extend their life. Forgetting, in other words, is a palliative. In any case, I hope for myself a “good death”: instantaneous, without suffering — switching from being to non-being without my noticing it. It is a foolish, ambitious wish.

PC: You’re right — as vessels, we are simply incapable of remembering everything, and that’s to our advantage. We have to let go, we have to jettison the things weighing us down in order to move forward. But we equally cannot force ourselves to let go — it’s important to process and reflect and resolve first, otherwise we’re not forgetting so much as suppressing. During Hindu funeral rites, after the pyre has almost completely burned, the chief mourner must turn his back on the body and walk away. Under no circumstances should he look back, because doing so symbolizes that an attachment remains between him and the departed one. I was so captivated by this part of the rites when I was first reading about them, this very tangible action that has such symbolic weight, that it was inevitable that it would show up in the novel. When the death hostel manager Pramesh performs the rites for his cousin, he fails this test, and that failure incites his journey into these memories that he had assumed he had discarded and detached from years before. But really, he’d been carrying them all the while and actively shunting them aside because he couldn’t bear to relive those moments.

As for your vision of a good death, it’s ambitious perhaps, but entirely universal. In my belief system, the most exalted death is one where a person is entirely conscious and cognizant at the moment it is happening, and if they’ve attained a certain spiritual level, they can even choose the exact moment to exit their body. And that is considered an incredible gift, because if you can master your moment, you are also able to master your thoughts — and the things contained in your mind and in your heart when you die are critical to determining where you go in the next life. I’ve thought about my own death quite a bit. But I’m too superstitious to tell you plainly what I hope for, Ilan. Speaking it aloud or writing it down would be akin to jinxing it.

IS: I frequently ask myself — alone and in front of others: friends, students, the general public — if literature teaches us how to live. After reading your novel, I realized I needed to reformulate the question: might literature teach us how to die? A Shakespeare sonnet (“No longer mourn for me when I am dead / Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell”), poems like Christina Rossetti’s “Gone far away into the silent land,” Rubén Darío “Lo fatal,” and Neruda’s “Love is so long, forgetting so short,” stories such as Isaac Babel’s “Story of My Dovecot,” Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and Borges’s rewriting of it in “The Secret Miracle,” as well as Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Cabalist of East Broadway,” mesmerizing novels like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved

PC: I wonder, Ilan, if those two questions actually approach the same gate. Because the process of living is the process of dying. Every day that we live is a step forward in the direction of death. Is it too simplistic to suggest, then, that the answer to both questions is also the same? But that aside, I do believe in the power of art to teach, because art, for me, is always about perspective. No matter the medium, art offers me a chance to don someone else’s lens and view the world through their eyes. Whether it’s about living, or dying, or just being — I always learn something. I always see something new. Art isn’t ever going to answer all my questions. But it can offer some clarity. And equally important, it can offer comfort.

IS: You talked about “the ocean of fear.” It is intrinsic to life and, thus, primal and irresoluble. Mapping it is perhaps the best we are able to do.

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Priyanka Champaneri received her MFA in creative writing from George Mason University and has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts numerous times. She received the 2018 Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing for The City of Good Death, her first novel.

Ilan Stavans is the publisher of Restless Books and the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, Chile’s Presidential Medal, the International Latino Book Award, and the Jewish Book Award. Stavans’s work, translated into 20 languages, has been adapted to the stage and screen. He is the host of the NPR podcast In Contrast.

 

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