Interview by Arnold Serapilio
Dr. Elvira Basevich grew up in Brooklyn in a small immigrant community “far from the lights and glitter of Manhattan.” Her parents emigrated from the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, and Basevich—one of five children—was born along the journey. “I’m an in-between person. I grew up in this ethnic niche in Brooklyn. My father never learned to speak English. In some ways, I’m a New Yorker; I have that comportment and self-identity. But in other ways I never quite felt like I fit into not just New York City, but America.”
As a teenager, Basevich discovered the work and ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and has pursued philosophy ever since. She earned her BA from Hunter College, CUNY, and her Ph.D. from The Graduate Center, CUNY, having defended her dissertation in 2017. Previously she was an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan; currently she is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
Her first book, Du Bois: The Lost and the Found, is forthcoming from Polity in 2020.
Q: What was it about New York or America at large that didn’t jibe with your identity?
EB: It wasn’t so much it didn’t jibe, it was more my trying to figure out a plausible narrative for how I, and my family, fit into the country. I think where I grew up and where I was educated played a big role in positioning that question for me as an important one.
Q: Your mother came to America from the former Soviet Union, right?
EB: Yes, my parents came to the United States. My mom was a refugee, and I was born along the way. I think that was a big part of my “in-between” feeling. I took that feeling up in a really big way in my work, in my education, and in my writing—it’s all connected with my family history.
Q: When did your parents tell you that piece about yourself, that you were born along their journey to America?
EB: No one’s asked me that! When did they tell me? I think it is so bound up with my sense of self that I must have been very, very young.
Q: So you’ve lived with that as long as you can remember?
EB: Definitely. I can’t remember a moment in my childhood where it wasn’t salient, where we weren’t talking about it. My mom would sometimes jokingly call me her “little Austrian baby,” as if she just found me on the side of the road or in a bus station. Her humor about it had a tinge of sadness. And there were odd little things to remind us of it, like the only photograph taken of us that year is her holding me for a travel document photograph.
Q: You mentioned that in-between feeling informed your work. Was it this sense of self and reconciling your surroundings that drew you to W.E.B. Du Bois?
EB: It’s always interesting to think about these kinds of questions because there are so many different explanations for why we do the work we do. The one that most readily comes to mind is that I was trying to figure out a way I could fit into this country and have a positive role to play. So much of Du Bois’s work is thinking about, “What can Americans hope for? Can we hope for justice in light of a profoundly imperfect past? And how can white European immigrants join the country ‘responsibly,’ that is, without perpetuating or condoning the injustices of the past?” That kind of tension, that kind of problem, really spoke to me. Du Bois poses a challenge to America to look at itself—and the world—from the perspective of those who are systematically excluded from it, especially by having understanding and compassion for the black historical experience.
There’s a version of being an American that makes sense to me, and it’s one that’s bound up with the question, “How can we make this a better place?” For me, the only plausible version of national or personal identity explicitly asks everyone to stand in solidarity with those who are excluded for no reason.
Q: I can’t say I consciously delved into the journey of self-discovery until about five or so years ago. But it sounds like you’ve been living with it your whole life.
EB: Ironically, there are some advantages to being a displaced person. [laughs]
Q: Because it propels you into this thoughtful headspace?
EB: In a way, you have to take up these abstract philosophical questions about self, identity, and responsibility, and then it becomes bound up with this question of survival, “How can I go forward and just exist?” You can’t, if you don’t have answers to those questions. And often times we live a life where those answers are already given to us—they’re pre-formulated by our immediate context. Well, you rip away that context and you’re left with a person who’s truly just wondering all the time and doesn’t know what to do. There’s no question in my mind I wouldn’t have become a writer, and I wouldn’t have become a philosopher, if those things didn’t happen to my family.
So then this question of, “Why Du Bois,” right? How did I come to do this? I think Du Bois just raises these global questions of who I am and where I come from that, in a way, asks the seemingly impossible: for us people to forge together some kind of moral community. I find it both a very difficult challenge but also very comforting to have an answer.
Q: So philosophy—based on listening to you talk—seems like a predisposition from birth, basically, but when did you lock into it as a structured study? When I say “when” I mean abstractly speaking, where were you at in your mind?
EB: Where was I? I was somewhere in Coney Island with my best friend at the time…I guess I was 14, 16, and we would spend a long time thinking about feminism, and our families. At some point existentialism came up and I started reading really ferociously—Sartre and de Beauvoir and all those folks, that school. But at the time I didn’t really know philosophy was a discipline. I had no sense that you could do a Ph.D. in philosophy, that it could be your life. In college I began the academic study of philosophy.
Q: You write poetry as well. What was it about the medium that compelled you to that creative expression?
EB: I just thought it was so beautiful. The first few poems I read I was so impressed by the ability to represent some feature of the human experience so accurately. I was a kid, and it resonated: a stranger, this person I never met, told me something about the way I experienced the world that I felt was true and authentic. I thought it was a kind of magic that we could do that with words. I do love novels a lot, and I think the writing I do draws inspiration from that. It’s very narrative-oriented, and there tends to be a heroine driving the story forward in some way. There is something just about the form of poetry that I really like that I think is really hard to do, and I like that challenge.
Q: Do you know what the magic is, or is the joy in not knowing and just chasing it in your work?
EB: I think truth is magic. Each medium, from philosophy—especially moral philosophy—to poetry, is going to give you a conception of truth. For me, at least, a part of what I really like about it is it’s my handprint on the world. A way of saying, “I was here, I saw this, I met that person.”
Q: You have a blurb on your website under the poetry section in which you mention you are an optimist at heart. How durable is your optimism?
EB: Extremely. [laughs]
Q: Does that come naturally or did you strive to cultivate that?
EB: For me, it’s about the resilience of the human spirit. What is it rational to hope for? I will always believe hoping for the goodness of others and the possibility of justice in the world is a rational thing to hope for. And, something we should be optimistic about, because it’s precisely our shared optimism for that end that could realize it! So long as we give up that attitude, we create the world that we fear, which is a world that’s oppressive, where we’re unhappy, where other people don’t see us.
Being optimistic is part of our resilience, of our capacity to see the world for what it is, with its deep imperfections, and yet still be able to imagine a different one. And that requires such a measure of strength—but for me, that is what sustains good art, good poetry. It’s the fountainhead for our moral imagination that allows us to hope for a better world against all odds.
Q: For anyone struggling with remaining optimistic, what’s a practical way to help them build their resilience?
EB: It comes down to: Who are you? What do you believe in? In the best possible world, what will you be doing in it? [laughs]
And if you think there’s a good answer to that—any kind of answer, even, at all—then you would need some kind of optimism to realize it, right? You would need the strength to move forward. There is no practical solution. It’s the hardest thing to do. It requires a commitment to live through a life fully, and that is extremely hard because there is no hand holding. And that can be terrifying.
When we have these kinds of crises or moments of uncertainty we figure out who we are—and we can surprise ourselves. You surprise yourself with your own strength, or your own faith.
Q: Is there any practical or substantive difference between hope and optimism, or is that just semantics?
EB: I wouldn’t say hope and optimism are different in kind. But I do think our attitudes toward them can have different scopes. I’ve found it easier to have hope and optimism in some general sense. One can move through life with a sense of hope, for example, that not only does one have a purpose, but that one’s purpose can somehow eventually be vindicated in the world—that others really see you for who you are or that the world you believe in will be realized a little more from something you’ve actually done.
But in the day to day it can be a slog, and practically, a form of extreme arrogance to expect understanding and vindication, as if we can really trust the shape of our lives to accommodate our desires and expectations. I’ve found that nurturing hope and optimism on a small scale can be hard, when faced with fear and doubt about specific relationships and projects. So I’m really big about celebrating the small victories: nurturing new experiences and friendships, completing a solid writing day, trying to actually say to others how you feel and what you think. And that for me is exhilarating and makes me feel like all things considered I’ve done all I can.
Q: Are you this contemplative about each action in your day to day, or do you rely on your habitual mind?
EB: Ha! I always think about that. I probably do do too much deep thought, where I could lay off a little bit with the intentional living. [laughs] But no, I’m a big fan of habit too. I think it’s good to have routines, things we don’t think about, to quiet the mind. I’m actually trying to do more of that kind of stuff—things that aren’t intentional living.
Q: How did you find the BA?
EB: I was living in Michigan and trying to find the best libraries in Boston because I knew I was going to be living here and I found this place through my online research.
Q: Let’s talk about writing process: what works for you; how you got to a place where you found something that works for you; do you write at certain times of the day, certain days of the week; do you have to be completely caffeinated, do you have to be completely sober—how did you find the magic formula?
EB: A big part of that magic formula, for me, is being in a library I like, that’s quiet. I’m a morning person, so if I’m in the library first thing that tends to create a state of mind in which I end up being very productive. And I treat work like a 9–5 job. What’s nice about that is you stop thinking, “Do I feel like writing?”—there’s always that question of how you feel about whether you want to write—you just need to cultivate a good habit around it. With time, you stop thinking about it on this meta level: “Should I keep doing it? Do I feel like doing it? Am I good at it?” It just becomes a part of your day to day—and also in a fundamental, unthinking way, a part of who you are in your life. That’s where I am at now.
Q: Does Du Bois: The Lost and the Found use your dissertation as a jumping off point, or expand upon it?
EB: Not really…half my dissertation I’ve already published, as articles. Most of the book is trying to present, in a very broad way, in as clear language as possible, “Who’s Du Bois as a person? What are the big pieces of his political philosophy? Who are the people that he fought in his life—what are the big polemics he had?” So much of it is already written, which I’m really happy about. I think, when did I write this? I don’t remember! Isn’t that crazy? [laughs]
Q: How do you know when to pause the research and dig into the writing? How do you reinforce your own parameters?
EB: Forcing yourself to stop reading. I’ve learned that reading is probably one of the sneakiest forms of procrastination. What I’ve done the last couple days, in finishing up, is skim major secondary sources, just to make sure I’m not missing any big pieces, but otherwise I ask myself, “Do I really need to keep reading this? No, I don’t? Close it. Write.”
Q: What were the great joys of working on this book?
EB: Writing with a sense of humor about really dark things. That is my favorite. It occurred to me that I was doing this when I was defending my dissertation. My favorite comment from one of my readers was, “It’s about slavery, but you’ll laugh.” I’m very jokey and sarcastic in my day to day banter, so it was such a pleasure to know that somehow without even realizing it, that came through in the writing.
You have to present information that is so dark. You have to represent the point of view, “What were these white people thinking? How did they justify what they were doing?” So to bring the absurdity of their actions to light through humor... [sardonically] “They thought this was a good idea?”
This is something I want to hone, and I think that’s probably the most fun I’ve had. There are times when I’m re-reading what I’ve written and I laugh out loud and wonder, “Is this a little too salty?” And then I think, it’s my first book, and people will know this is the way I’m going to write it. This is the tone I’m going to use.
You need the humor, frankly, otherwise it’s just hard to get through, and it’s hard to make sense of as a person. So much violence, so much unspeakable violence, and ordinary people were doing this, who were motivated to do it because they thought it was a good idea, and that is fundamentally absurd in such a deep way.
I’ve written fiction that to me was very serious and sad, but then people have read it and thought it was funny and cute. Finding that balance…
EB: I think it’s a good thing to press toward. If you’re going to talk about something really serious and dark, like loneliness, or racial trauma, or violence—of course we’re all going to have mistaken approaches. And I think the worst one is to try to elicit self-pity or sympathy in ways that are beyond the point, right? In my case what I’m writing about is a moral injury to somebody’s sense of personhood. As a writer I want to think about, “How can we use language to elicit the moral recognition from somebody else that it is a moral injury?” That in fact it ought never to have happened. Humor can be a really effective way of expanding our judgment.
For me, a part of it comes out of this Soviet Jewish experience. I grew up with lots of anecdotes about just horrible things, and they were all really funny! One expression my mother said a lot, “You have two options: you can either laugh or cry.” The other is, Хоть головой об стену бейся, or, “Might as well bang one's head against a wall.”
When I was writing my dissertation, I didn’t mean for it to be funny, so now I ask myself how I can be more conscious of trying to hone that and make it readable. Because otherwise you’re just reading a book that’s a kick in the gut. But I think it’s necessary, because it’s about the truth. It’s about what happened in the United States, and Du Bois’s political thought.
Humor is so disarming, some of the best books or movies—there’s some hilarious moment, and then they stick the knife in, you know?
And then you feel all the more vulnerable. That’s an opportunity for resilience right there, letting yourself be vulnerable.
EB: And we can always laugh. No one can take away from you your sense of humor.
Q: I’m pumped to read this! Are you able to talk about your time volunteering at Rethink?
EB: It is a student-run volunteer organization, largely based in New York City. It was essentially a bunch of grad students, mostly from Colombia, in philosophy. We would organize conversations with people. We didn’t really have a curriculum. I worked with women and girls who were victims of domestic violence as they were trying to transition out of these relationships. We partnered with a local nonprofit who gave us the space to meet, and we talked about things like, “What’s beauty? What’s propaganda? What’s hope?” And then just let the conversation happen. Sometimes one of the facilitators would intervene, but other than that it was just people talking about a concept.
It really tests you as a teacher. It tests your patience, it tests your skills, but you really see the power of a concept.
There were times when one of the women would stand up and hug another woman just to have the opportunity to be together, or to start crying. You talk about an idea, but what ideas are supposed to do, if they’re adequate, is to make sense of your experience. And if your experience has been very dark and difficult, just to have the opportunity to verbalize a thought, to verbalize your experience in a thought—very powerful. And something that is just infinitely more powerful if there are many people in a room who are there with you, bearing witness.
[Look out for Du Bois: The Lost and the Found, in 2020. We will post an update to this feature as publishing details emerge.]