The World Is a Cargo Cult
Nick Laird on messianism, content bubbles, and the stories that connect Northern Ireland and the South Pacific
A wedding consumes the beginning of Modern Gods — though fittingly it is a second wedding, a slightly awkward re-do, an uncomfortable acknowledgement that an event which was supposed to be blessedly enduring and singular is in fact just a construct, able to dissolve and even be replaced. This second wedding is also a harbinger of the rest of Nick Laird’s double-stranded new novel, in which two sisters are suddenly dropped into situations far outside their known worlds.
The wedding at the novel’s start is Alison’s, a Northern Irish woman who, after a failed first marriage to a terrible alcoholic, is marrying Stephen, a man who seems evenly tempered and sober, if to the point of being bland. Alison’s sister Liz is a New York-based professor who flies home to Ulster to attend the wedding before traveling on to Papua New Guinea, where she is set to film a television series for the BBC about the “world’s newest religion.” The day after the wedding, Alison learns of her husband’s secret past, while Liz quickly finds herself enmeshed in the politics of a South Pacific ‘cargo cult’ and its enigmatic leader, a local woman who broke with the island’s equally fanatical Christian missionaries. Though the two stories could not be farther apart geographically, both sisters find themselves in a situation that they weren’t prepared for — Liz navigating a threatening cult in the jungle and Alison wondering if she can reconcile the truth about her husband.
I had the pleasure to talk with Laird, an award-winning poet and novelist, over coffee about researching cargo cults, the danger of surrounding yourself only with your own beliefs, and how he might never shake his former job as a lawyer on the Bloody Sunday inquiries.
Carrie Mullins: Your novel follows two sisters, Alison and Liz. Their storylines are very different, and I wondered, which came to you first?
Nick Laird: Neither of them really came first — it was always a book about two sisters. I wanted it to have two halves, a home half and an away half. The two halves hang together; for me they end up dealing with the same things: how we talk to the dead, what we owe the dead. I always knew it was going to be partially set in Ulster, and then as far away from that as possible, a sort of through-the-looking-glass.
The books that have meant the most to me over the years are books set in a faraway country, like those by Joseph Conrad, but also books like Franzen’s The Corrections, where a character dips into the narrative and then goes off somewhere else to have another storyline, with links back-and-forth between them. So I knew the kind of book I wanted to write, though obviously the book you’re left with is almost nothing like the book you envisioned it would be.
CM: I read in the acknowledgements that you were doing a Guggenheim Fellowship. What led you to create New Ulster in Papua New Guinea? Can you tell me a little about the research process?
NL: I’m meant to be doing a nonfiction book on poetry called The End of Poetry. I haven’t quite started that yet, but a lot of the material is already there. It’s based on essays I’ve been writing for the Guardian and other places. So the research was just for many years, I read a lot of books about Papa New Guinea. Finally my wife said to me, Please stop ordering books about Papa New Guinea, our flat can’t take anymore. I just had bookcases and bookcases of them. I’ve been to Fiji and spent time there years and years ago, but actually had never been to PNG, and in a way I wanted it that way, I wanted this to be a kind of made up place, partially because of the kind of latitude that gives you as an author. There is an island called New Britain and one called New Ireland but none called New Ulster. I wanted it to be an obvious, direct flip that seems to be a straight allegory but then changes and becomes its own thing, so that was the idea. I also knew I wanted to write about animals and birds — I’m very interested in ornithology.
CM: Did you learn anything fascinating or weird when you were researching these cultures?
NL: The cargo cults are interesting to me because — do you know who David Attenborough is?
CM: Of course. I want him to narrate my life.
NL: I know, he’s just the best. That’ll be the saddest day when he goes. I grew up on him, like everyone, and in 1960 he went to PNG. In his book Quest in Paradise, he talks about meeting a leader of a cargo cult. This cargo cult had started around the Second World War when an American GI called John had given the tribe lots of things like chocolate bars and fridges, and they’d seen the American jeeps. Then this guy left with the American army and he became a kind of messianic figure who the cult thought would return. They called him John Frum, which they think is a corruption of John from America. They’d been worshiping John Frum for years and David Attenborough said to them, You’ve been waiting for John Frum to return for twenty years and it’s obvious he’s not returning. And the leader of the cargo cult said, Well you’ve been waiting for Jesus Christ for two thousand years. So the idea that Christianity itself is a cargo cult or any kind of nationalism that works towards this ideal future is a cargo cult was interesting to me.
In Northern Ireland there’s the same kind of thing — people are in these content bubbles. Same as in the Trump era, and any place where you surround yourself with an attitude that reflects your own beliefs. I wanted to play with some of those ideas.
“The idea that Christianity itself is a cargo cult or any kind of nationalism that works towards this ideal future is a cargo cult was interesting to me.”
CM: I was going to say that the book felt really relevant. Belef and Alison are really two sides of the same coin, both believed in something, Christianity and the sanctity of its institutions, and then we see what happens when there’s a vacuum of belief. Like you said, a lot of people right now are facing that void and filling it with, well, with scary things.
NL: Yeah I was interested in this idea: where do you locate the transcendental, what do you move towards? If you’re a writer or a poet, it tends to be in the momentary flash of observation or detail or something beautiful you notice, whereas the scary side of that is to look for the transcendental in this imagined future. You know: Everything good will come if you only do this. These forms of control were interesting to me, and Liz comes at it form a very cold perspective in a lot of ways. But she is someone who observes these little moments of transcendence; she likes to look at things rather than working towards a greater goal.
CM: Part of these stories, and their power over us, tends to be the character at the center. Like when your character, Stephen, is talking about how he ended up involved in the mess that he did, he said, well you knew who the local bigwigs were and seeing them wield their influence was really impressionable. You see that ability to influence in Belef, too, who created a following out of nothing. She’s magnetic, and I was wondering how you created that charisma.
NL: I don’t know. Does it work?
CM: I think it does.
NL: She makes me laugh, Belef — you can’t really quite put your figure on why she has this personal force, what Walt Whitman called talent. It’s the talent to lead or move people. Part of it is a kind of reaction to missionaries and her husband disappearing and her child dying; it hardened her and sharpened her. But she’s just one of those people who’s very secure in herself. Everyone is drawn in by the gravity she’s exerting.
In terms of how you get the character, I never really know how the characters come along. I just draft and redraft until it seems right. Usually the character speaks English and it’s the language, it’s what they say, that lets onto what kind of person they are. But with Belef it wasn’t the language because she speaks a sort of mix of pidgin and English, so I wanted her to have that kind of head-down bullishness. Most of the cargo cults are led by men so I was interested in how a woman would do it, and it’s meant to be partially about the violence that’s been done to women. Like in Northern Ireland, of course it’s mostly men who kill but it’s the women who suffer in the end, who have to raise the kids alone, have to make money, and have to grieve across generations.
CM: Is there more pressure when you’re writing about Northern Ireland? Do you feel a burden to be “authentic?”
NL: I think I actually do. I wouldn’t expect to say yes to that question; I think that if you’re a white male you’re meant to have artistic freedom, you’re sort of able to speak on behalf of whoever. My wife [Zadie Smith] gets asked, do you feel a pressure to speak on behalf of mixed race people, or black women, but white men don’t get that. Being a Northern Irish Protestant, I feel a responsibility to complicate the narrative. The narrative is very, very simplistic when it comes to Ireland. People like me, who are Protestants in Ireland, tend to be viewed, especially in America, as colonial figures, but of course we’ve been there for a lot longer than most people have been in America. We have mixed heritage, Catholic and Protestant and all the rest, so when it comes to Northern Ireland I do feel I need to complicate that narrative.
When you grow up, you have all these received narratives from church and state and they’re all very fundamentalist, they’re all very black-and-white and extreme. So when it comes to literature, you want give scope to the full humanity, make it complicated and ambitious and difficult in a way. People talk about whether or not writing is political, and my answer to that has always been that it is political because once you try to fully realize someone, then it closes down a lot of avenues like political violence, and it makes it much harder when you know someone has a past. What does Trump say, that democrats aren’t even people? That kind of rhetoric is very dangerous.
“Being a Northern Irish Protestant, I feel a responsibility to complicate the narrative. The narrative is very, very simplistic when it comes to Ireland.”
CM: So do you feel like your work will be received differently back in Northern Ireland?
NL: Yeah. I did an interview for the Irish news a few days ago and they put it up as a book by a Tyrone-born, ex-Saville Inquiry lawyer. I was a lawyer and for years I worked on the Bloody Sunday inquiries. I’d represented the British Prime Minister Ted Heath and Secretary Lord Crawford, he was in charge the Sunday where they shot dead fourteen civil rights protesters. And I felt like that’s the immediate slant on me, instead of just a writer. It’s hard to escape the shadow of many years of history in Northern Ireland.
CM: Do you actively have to engage with that while you’re writing? Or do you just write and decide you’ll deal with it afterwards?
NL: I think I just write really, but I remember after my first novel, my parents got anonymous phone calls, people ringing them up and giving them grief about various things I’d written in the book. So I’m not not aware of annoying people. You have to write what interests you. But most of the people I’d annoy won’t be reading the book, so we’ll be all right.