Listening As an Act of Love: Marie Mutsuki Mockett in Conversation

Jul 2, 2021

Screenshot of Marie and Garnette discussing over Zoom

This is an excerpt of a free event for our virtual events series, City Lights LIVE. This event features Marie Mutsuki Mockett in conversation with Garnette Cadogan discussing her new book American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland, published by Graywolf Press. This event was originally broadcast live via Zoom and hosted by our events coordinator Peter Maravelis. You can listen to the entire event on our podcast. You can watch it in full as well on our YouTube channel.

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Marie Mutsuki Mockett: You don’t see me talking about love or the importance of love very much. Maybe I would have a larger Instagram account if I constantly put up memes about love. I should probably do that.

I consider [American Harvest] to be an investigation of something that I didn’t understand and that I thought was important. So I asked questions and wanted to try to answer those questions by talking to people who were very different than I am. To sit with them and find out what their genuine experience in the world is, and then see if I could answer some of the questions that I have.

I did not tell myself, “This is a book about love,” or “You must employ love.” I also didn’t spend a lot of time saying to myself, “This is a book that’s going to require you to be brave.” I just really was trying to focus on the questions that I had and on my curiosity. I was trying to pinpoint, when I’m in a church, when I’m in a farm, when I’m around a situation that I don’t understand, what’s actually happening. And that was really what I was trying to do and how I was trying to direct my attention.

Garnette Cadogan: But love comes up a lot in the book. And for you, a lot of it has to do with listening. In many ways, this book is a game of active listening, and listening–as you’ve shown time and again–is fundamentally an act of love.

You decided to go and follow wheat farmers and move along in their regimens and cycles and rituals, and not only the rituals of labor, but rituals of worship, rituals of companionship, and issues of community. When did you begin to understand what is the real task of listening? Because in the book, time and again, you remind us that there are so many places in which there is this huge gap, or this huge chasm, in our effort to understand each other.

Marie Mutsuki Mockett: Well, that is where love comes in. Because that is the only reason why you would spend time listening to people or talking to people. What would be the motivation for trying to be open to others? Why should you be open to others? We don’t have to be. So why should one be?

And you’re right that things do get reduced down to this question of love. I had always heard that Christianity was the religion of love. And that love was one of the things that was unique about Christ’s message. I didn’t really grow up with any one religion. Also, my mother was from Japan, so I also grew up always hearing about how for a long time, the word love didn’t really exist in Japanese. There really is no way to say “I love you.” Linguists still debate whether or not you can say “I love you” in Japanese and there are ways in which people say it, but it doesn’t have the same history, and it doesn’t have the same loaded meaning that it does in Western English.

So I was aware from a really early age, because I heard my parents and other people talk about this, that this question of love was very much a part of Western culture and that it originated from Christianity. And I really wondered what does that mean? And if it means anything, is there anything to it? And if there is, what is it? And there’s a scene in the book where I talk about my feeling of disappointment that no one had ever purchased me anything from Tiffany, the jewelry store, because if you live in New York City, you’re constantly surrounded by Tiffany ads. When you get engaged, you can get a Tiffany box. And then on your birthday, you can get a Tiffany box. And then in the advertisements, the graying husband gives the wife another Tiffany box to appreciate her for all the years that she’s been a wife and on and on. I know that that has nothing to do with love. I know that that that’s like some advertiser who’s taken this notion of love and then turned it into some sort of message with a bunch of images, and it’s supposed to make me feel like I want my Tiffany ring (which I’ve never gotten). That’s not love. But is there anything there? And that was definitely something that I wanted to investigate.

I think I started to notice a pattern where I was going to all of these churches in the United States, and I’m not a church going person. And the joke that I tell is that I decided to write American Harvest partly because I wasn’t going to have to speak Japanese. I could speak English, which is the language with which I’m most comfortable. But I ended up going to all these churches, and I couldn’t understand what anybody was saying. I would leave the church and Eric, who is the lead character, would say, “What do you think?” And I would say, “I have no idea what just happened.” And so it took time for me to tune in to what the pastors were saying, and what I came to understand is that there were these Christian churches that emphasized fear, and churches that didn’t emphasize fear. And then I started to meet people who believe that God wants them to be afraid and people who are motivated by fear or whose allegiance to the church comes from a place of fear, in contrast to those who said, “You’re not supposed to be afraid. That’s not the point.” That was a huge shift in my ability to understand where I was, who I was talking to, and the kinds of people that I was talking to, and why the history of Christianity mattered in this country.

Book cover for American Harvest

Garnette Cadogan: So you started this book, because you said, “Oh, I only need one language.” And then you ended up going to language training.

Marie Mutsuki Mockett: I needed so many different languages! I mean, even this question of land ownership that we’re talking about: I feel like that’s a whole other language. There are places in the world and moments in history where people didn’t own land. It didn’t occur to them that they had to own the land themselves. So what’s happening when we think we have to? Like with timeshares. I’m really serious. What need is that fulfilling? And you don’t need to have a timeshare in Hawaii, where you visit like one week out of the entire year, right? So what need is that fulfilling?

Garnette Cadogan: Rest? Recreation? I’m wondering … has the process of living, researching, and writing this book changed you in any way? And if so, how?

Marie Mutsuki Mockett: I mean, absolutely, but it’s so hard to talk about. I think that I have a much better and deeper understanding of the history of our country, and a much greater understanding of the role that race plays in our country. A deeper understanding of the tension between rural and urban, and also of our interdependence, which is something I sort of knew, but didn’t completely know. And why just kicking out a bunch of states or getting rid of a bunch of people isn’t actually an answer to the tension that we’ve faced. And it’s because there’s this great interdependence between people. So understanding all of that and realizing how intractable the problem is, oddly, has made me feel calmer about it. Because I realize it isn’t as simple as if I just do “X” everything will be fine. I think, when you feel like, “If I just master the steps, if I can just learn this incantation, then everything will be fine,” I think when you live that way, it’s very frustrating. And I realized the problems are deeper than that. And some of the problems the United States is facing are problems that exist all around the world. I mean the urban rural problems: it’s a piece of modernization. It doesn’t just affect our country, it affects many countries.

Garnette Cadogan: You know, we’ve been speaking about land, God, country, Christianity, urbanity, and in this book, a lot of it is packed in through this absolutely wonderful man, Eric, and his family. Part of what makes it compelling and illuminating is we get a chance to understand so much through this wonderful, generous, and beautiful man, Eric. For those who haven’t read it yet, tell us about Eric, and why Eric was so crucial to understanding in so much of what you understood, and also some of the changes that you went through.

Marie Mutsuki Mockett: He’s a Christian from Pennsylvania. He’s a white man who’s never been to college, but has a genuine intellectual curiosity, although not immediately apparent in a way that would register to us. Because we’re at an event that’s hosted by bookstore. So when we think of intellectual curiosity, probably the first thing that any of us would do would be to reach for a book, right? That’s not what he would do. He wouldn’t reach for a book, he would find someone to talk to. He’s a person who is very much about the lived experience. But he was very open to asking questions and trying to understand other people’s experiences and how the world works, and he was very concerned.

He was the person who told me in early 2016 that he thought that Trump would probably win, when none of us thought that this was possible. And he said this is because we don’t understand each other at all. And he’s a very open-hearted, very generous person. And you see him change over the course of the book.

He called me the other day. He said, “I’ve been hearing a lot about violence against Asian Americans.” He’s met a couple of my friends. He wanted to know, “Are they all right?” And then he said, “I just want you to know that we talk about racial justice all the time in church,” because of course, that’s the way that he processes life’s difficult questions: through church. And I was kind of moved by that, because one of the points that American Harvest makes is that these difficult questions don’t get talked about in church. And he said, “I just want you to know this is something that we talk about.” So you see him really develop and change as a result of his exposure to me and to seeing how I move through space versus how he moves through space. And it’s a big leap of imagination for people to understand that other people have other experiences that are legitimate and real. It seems to be one of the most difficult things for people to understand, but he really made a great effort to do that. And I think that’s kind of extraordinary.

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Purchase American Harvest from City Lights Bookstore.

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