A Gay High School “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” Featuring Kurt Cobain

Aaron Hamburger's novel "Nirvana Is Here" is about love, race, abuse, and yes, Nirvana

Photo by Krisztina Konczos

Among the myriad charms of Aaron Hamburger’s second novel, Nirvana is Hereis his protagonist, Ari Silverman, a medieval historian trying to reconnect with his high school crush, Justin. Ari’s search leads him to recall the events that led them to become friends—and more. By turns, Hamburger is tender and provocative in his examinations of sexual abuse, racial strife in ’90s Detroit, and the way that discovering Nirvana changes everything about Ari’s world. The complexities of this novel are deftly handled by Hamburger, whose sensitive and observant prose is a pure joy to read on every page. He’s the winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letter’s Rome Prize and a nominee for the Lambda Literary Award, and he and I spoke about his novel last week over email.

Kristopher Jansma: Aaron, your novel Nirvana is Here is in some ways a timeless story of coming-of-age. Young Ari struggles to find safety and love as a queer Jewish boy in ’90s suburban Detroit. And yet it also feels quite timely because you also delve into Ari’s life in middle-age, still processing his abuse, in the #metoo present day. To start, I wondered, is this a story you’ve wanted to write for a long time, or was it perhaps inspired by these conversations around rape and abuse that have begun happening more recently?

Aaron Hamburger:  This is in many ways a story I’ve been attempting to write my entire life but it took me a while to find the right frame. My initial motivation was to write something that would force me to delve into the emotional realm, so I began doing various disconnected and fairly autobiographical pieces on the same theme, attempting to find my way into a story. And then I was talking to a fellow writer, Elizabeth Searle, with whom I teach at the Stonecoast MFA Program, about all these “reboot” type stories, like the novel Emma becoming the movie Clueless, and I was saying how I wanted to write a gay high school version of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and she said, “Do it!” And that gave me the permission I needed to really launch into a larger plot line and take real events but transform them to make a more satisfying and more richly textured story. It took me a good six years to write it, and it’s striking that when I was finished, so much of what’s in the novel has now become so timely. Maybe the world is catching up to me? Or, in all seriousness, a lot of the issues the book raises, like the #metoo movement or race, are ones that have always been present in American life, and now for a whole host of reasons we’re having what feels like a very different national conversation about them than what’s gone on in the past.

KJ: Yes, absolutely, and can I add that “Gay high school Tess of the D’Urbervilles” is surely exactly what we all need right now? So there’s some classic Hardy in there and also, as the title suggests, some classic Nirvana. I’m curious why you centered Ari’s development around that band in particular?

AH: I recently wrote a piece in The Washington Post about Kurt Cobain’s support of gay rights, which is more substantive than I think is generally known. In the book, Ari is not completely aware of all the things Cobain did and said regarding gay rights, yet he does feel a spirit of acceptance coming through the sound, the lyrics, and the image of Nirvana. Cobain and Nirvana positioned themselves as advocating for people to be different and find their own voices. While Cobain may have been an imperfect messenger in some ways, he had the right message for the right time, coming as he did at the end of the 1980s, when so much of the music that had their sound was associated with hetero-forward hair metal bands singing about bagging babes, “cherry pie.”

I was inspired by Kurt Cobain because he made it seem okay, cool, and defiant not to conform.

I too was inspired by Kurt Cobain because he made it seem okay, cool, and defiant not to conform, which maybe is not so original to him, but at the time it was original to me. Until Nirvana became popular, which was actually during my college life, not high school, I was unaware of what became known as “alternative” music and culture. As I explored that aspect of pop culture, I found a lot of personal liberation there, and I wanted to delve into that in this story. 

Another reason I chose the Cobain story as a backdrop was that I liked the narrative frame that it provided: the book takes place during the three years between the unexpected success of Nirvana’s Nevermind and their quick rise in 1991 to Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994, which coincide neatly with Ari’s three years at Dalton and his three-year relationship with Justin.

I’ve noticed that in some reactions to the book, people note the title refers to the band, not the spiritual state of Nirvana, but I think they’re wrong. It’s both! The idea of the title is that we can find “nirvana,” aka what we need, right here, right now, in every moment. Even in moments that are painful, because they have the potential to teach so much. Or even if they don’t, we are lucky because they always end. If someone punches me in the face, as soon as that happens, it’s over. Isn’t that wonderful? Now I don’t have to be punched again unless I do it to myself in my own mind by reliving that moment and dwelling in it. Which is not to say I want to deny that it happened, but rather, to acknowledge the painful episode without having to feel the pain of it the way I did the first time.

KJ: Yes, and you connect those two nirvanas in the novel really well, which impressed me because I recall that Cobain, even, had only a pretty loose understanding of what “nirvana” meant in the Buddhist sense when he chose it as the band’s new name. But there’s a meaning there that listeners can find on their own–certainly much more than if they’d stuck with Fecal Matter or The Stiff Woodies or something like that. It speaks to what you bring up in the Post article, about how vocally political he was, that his anti-establishment raging was sort of wedded to a love for those that society was forcing to the margins, like Ari.

There’s a scene early in the novel I loved, where Ari finally gets the actual Nevermind album so he can study the words better than on the mix tape Justin’s played for him–only to find that there aren’t any liner notes, so he’s still left to just interpret the bursts of words he can make out. You call it a “sound collage of resentment”: “Pick me, please pick me. I’m ugly, but that’s okay. No, stay away. A little group of self-assured pricks. A dream, a horny dream. I know it’s wrong, but there’s nothing I can do. Just stay away. Something’s in the way.”

You mix actual bits of lyrics together with Ari’s own thoughts, and it emphasized nicely how the incoherence oddly makes the music more relatable. I remember hearing the Tori Amos cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time in college and realizing I had sung along to that song in my car probably a thousand times and never once gotten 3/4 of the words correct! But it doesn’t really matter because there’s something in the tone that carries it all. You describe his “quivering voice a hair above a whisper, as if it were too painful to speak. As if he’d survived something worse than I had. As if he needed my sympathy, not the other way around.” 

That line made me wonder—Ari has, actually, a surprising amount of sympathy in his childhood. His parents seem supportive, they put him in therapy after his assault, and send him to a private school away from his tormentor. Ari’s brother tells him about his gay roommate and suggests that things might get better when he gets to college. And then there’s Justin, who at times goes out of his way to be kind to Ari. Of course Ari faces a lot of cruelty, but there’s still a lot of genuine love in Ari’s life, which made this feel very different from other stories of queer youth I’ve read, where protagonists are surrounded with bigotry and hatred from all quarters… was it your intention here to tell a different kind of story?

I think at base, all of us want to be liked and want to like each other. It’s our true nature.

AH: That’s a really interesting question. My primary motivation in embarking on this book initially was to make use of emotion in my work, to practice what the writer Breena Clarke calls “radical empathy.” Or as George Saunders says, “Revision means asking myself, what could I know about these characters that would enable me to love them more.” Notice he does not say “like” them more, which is a very different thing. I don’t need to like someone like, oh, I don’t know, Donald Trump to recognize that he is a fellow human being just as I am. I think at base, all of us want to be liked and want to like each other. It’s our true nature, and when we go away from that, it causes us pain. And I don’t know if this is true or not, I’m just theorizing here, but maybe literature that doesn’t recognize this, that writes off its characters as being less than fully human, just isn’t deep or interesting enough. I’m sure I’ve done that in my work, but it’s an impulse that I want to get away from. Think of how Anne Frank famously wrote that deep down she believed all human beings were basically good. If she could write that from such a deeply dark place, then who are we to say we can’t find the humanity in those around us now?

Thinking about the plot of this book, I think you’re right that Ari gets a lot of sympathy. But I also think there’s quite a bit of misunderstanding of Ari’s situation, or well-intentioned moves that don’t work, and those have the potential to cause pain. Sometimes our best intentions aren’t enough when we want to help someone in pain. Sometimes that person has to do some work on his own, as Ari does. I think that’s what makes his relationship with Justin so special. Justin doesn’t necessarily treat him with sympathy or not with sympathy. He just takes him at face value, meets Ari where he is, without a story or judgment, which is incredibly attractive. Who wouldn’t want that?

KJ: Justin was such a fascinating character. He and Ari are from different worlds and yet Justin’s sincere curiosity allows them to connect. The way he praises Ari’s Israeli candies and tries to learn Hebrew words and Jewish holidays. And Ari, in turn, learns something about Justin’s community in Detroit. They, and you, are really working against a lot of long-standing racial divisions—was that a challenge?

AH: As I wrote about this subject, I knew it was something requiring work and thought. I wanted to address race in this story because to write about Detroit and not address race would be to write science fiction, and maybe that’s true of America as well. So I did my homework as much as I could. Research was invaluable, and I learned quite a bit about the complicated legacy of race in the history of Detroit. For example, I was reading interviews with African Americans living in Detroit describing the largely white suburbs surrounding the city as “the white noose.” That tells you something.

The advantage of writing about younger people is that they will do and say things that adults have learned not to do and say openly.

The advantage of writing about younger people in this context is that they will do and say things that adults have learned not to do and say openly when addressing issues of identity. I remember several frank discussions that took place in my high school about these issues, including a non-Jew who told me that we Jews should consider spreading ourselves around more instead of isolating ourselves in certain pockets of the Detroit suburbs, to show we were human beings just like everyone else, and that I had no idea the terrible things people said about us. Or I recall another conversation in which another student said, “I have no problem with homosexuality. It’s bisexuality that weirds me out. It’s like, make a choice one way or the other!” Those kinds of conversations always stuck with me, and that came through in the book.

KJ: Another very lively character is Ari’s present-day ex-husband, another professor who goes by “M”—”Not an initial, just the letter, to express solidarity with the transgendered.” He comes off as a comic character at first, teasing Ari to go online to reconnect with Justin. Meanwhile, Ari has been put on a committee at the college to review M’s potentially inappropriate interactions with a student at a party. At first this struck me as kind of comedic—and yet, as the book progresses it becomes a bigger question for Ari and for us. He’s gradually reflecting on his own rape, and suddenly he seems to be looking at his own former husband’s actions in a more serious light. “Who the hell is this treacherous predator?” Ari asks himself at one point—but then when he suggests that the committee should actually speak to M and the boy to get their versions of the event before drawing any conclusions, some of his colleagues get upset with him, as if he’s looking to excuse or defend M’s problematic behavior. Were you hoping to draw parallels between those parts of the story? Is there a sense of how those situations are, or aren’t different from one another, and how they should be addressed?

AH: The “#metoo” themes of this book may seem timely but in fact are an age-old question: How do we draw firm lines around the business of desire which is by nature slippery, formless, and shape-shifting? I think it was the Roman poet Catallus who compared love to a piece of ice held tight in your fist. You see this too in Ari’s specialty, the rules of courtly love, which were an attempt to get medieval knights to behave by a code that would constrain their awful behavior around women. The two situations in the book—Ari’s assault and M’s behavior—are linked by their sexual nature as well as issues of power and consent, but they are not the same. In our contemporary life we too often gloss over nuanced distinctions. These problems need to be addressed with thoughtfulness and care, not social media status updates, slogans, or quick fixes. And I will also say I do not believe universities should be in the business of judging crimes. Crimes should be handled by the judicial system.

KJ: As you mentioned earlier, the end of the novel comes to deal with the suicide of Kurt Cobain. Without giving too much away, we get to see what that meant to Ari at the time, and how he thinks about it all these years later. To wrap things up here, I wondered if you could talk a little bit about what Cobain means to you, as a fellow artist and writer. Is there something you’d want someone—perhaps a younger person like Noah at the end—to know about his music or his life?

AH: Kurt Cobain was an extremely talented and troubled man, one of those people who appear to the outside world to be bent on self-sabotage but during his short time on earth created great beauty. What struck me as I researched his life for this book is how controversial and outrageous many of the things he said and did at the time were and how routine they are now becoming. For example, there’s a picture of Kurt Cobain on the cover of a magazine in a dress and with painted fingernails—a gender-fuck pose that in the early ’90s was a good way to get yourself beaten up badly. Recently while on book tour, I met up with two friends of mine from those days each of whom lives in different cities and each has an adolescent boy who paints his nails, and it’s just the way it is. And their dads, if they have a problem with it, it’s their problem, not the kid’s. In my day, it would have been the other way around. That shift didn’t just happen out of nowhere. It took bold and brash people like Kurt Cobain who when thrust unexpectedly and uncomfortably into the limelight took the opportunity to rudely shove the rest of us into a better and more accepting future.

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