Besides writing the book, Busy Dying,
Hilton Obenzinger is a long-time Palestine solidarity activist who now teaches writing at Stanford University. Following is the text of a recent email interview with Busy Dying author Obenzinger. (See below for parts 1 to 2).
In what way is your `Busy Dying’ book different or similar to former Columbia Students for a Democratic Society [SDS] chairman Mark Rudd's recently-published book, `Underground’, from both a political and literary point-of-view?
Hilton Obenzinger: I worked with Mark on his book for years, including the first time he attempted to write it in the 80s.
My book is fiction because I began to doubt whether I could ever write a memoir without inventing memories – and it became easier to tell the truth by releasing myself from the memoir format. I spoke with people who were there, such as Mark but also other friends who were part of the Low Library Commune – it’s an interesting thing, doing research on your own life from others’ vantage points – and I used real names when I could, but if I couldn’t contact someone, I used fictional names.
My book has additional, different themes than Mark’s – including coming to terms with the death of my brother and the literary scene at Columbia and in the Lower East Side – and it moves back and forth between students at Columbia back then and the work I do with students at Stanford today.
Mark’s description of Columbia 1968 is from his vantage point, of course, and it’s well done. It’s a welcome addition to the historical understanding of Columbia 1968, and the growing library of Weather Underground literature. The book gained greatly because of the 40th anniversary conference in 2008, and he was able to provide an even broader perspective, particularly on the media distortions of the occupation and strike that created “Mark Rudd,” the Great Revolutionary Leader.
But his biggest struggle was figuring out how to discuss his post-1968 Weather Underground experience. I wrestled with him many times on how to characterize mistakes while historicizing them, and we don’t always agree. It’s a tough job trying to understand one’s own involvement in the 1968 moment and its aftermath in a larger (even worldwide) political, even sociological context.
I think, in the end, he did a fine job in the book. He tried staying honest throughout, tried to be judicious, and he certainly did not romanticize – and it’s well written.