Books interview: George Makari

The professor of psychiatry and author of Of Fear and Strangers discusses learning about America from Twain, the ‘history of xenophobia’ and how to address it

September 27, 2021
George Makari


What sorts of books inspired you as a child?
After my third-grade teacher entranced me by reading E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web aloud, I became a voracious reader. At home, my father conveyed a love of language when he recited snippets of Arabic poetry, while I devoured everything I could find by Mark Twain, even his lesser efforts such as Tom Sawyer, Detective. For the son of Lebanese immigrants, Twain became my guide to the mythic geographies of America.

Your new book explores the ‘history of xenophobia’. What books first led you to this topic?
After finishing Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind, I was left thinking about how we so easily and frequently mis-know each other, a matter close to my work as a psychiatrist. I dug into Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations and Thomas Nagel’s The View from Nowhere, as well as Michel Foucault’s lectures on the function of confession. All of that high-flying theory crashed down to earth during Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. I began to wonder if xenophobia was a social and political manifestation of the same knotty philosophical and psychological problems that I was fascinated by. After that, the hunt was on.

Can you suggest a few books that convey a sense of what xenophobia feels like ‘from the inside’?
There are so many! Haven’t some literary critics argued that the moral function of literature is precisely to take the reader inside the lived experience of those they might otherwise objectify and see as strange? Many memoirs – I particularly like Brown: The Last Discovery of America by Richard Rodriguez – convey the isolation and weird angles of entry that come along with being a demeaned outsider. However, for what it feels like to be treated as a xenos, a stranger, you can do no better than read Ralph Ellison’s brilliant Invisible Man. For non-fiction, just stick with Ellison, whose essays in Shadow and Act are revelations.

Which books can help us address today’s ‘new xenophobia’?
This trouble has been building for years, but until recently it was not widely recognised outside a small group of specialists. I read students of xenophobic movements in a number of nations, empirical work by social scientists and descriptive journalistic narratives such as Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. None of them provides us with a compelling synthesis or differentiated approach to this three-headed monster, which I believe is made up of problems of identity, irrational emotions and group psychology.

What are the last books you gave as gifts, and to whom?
Kevin Young’s anthology African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song and Honor Moore’s collection Poems from the Women’s Movement, to my children.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?
The first volume of The Complete Poems of A. R. Ammons; Yves Bonnefoy’s edited volumes on Mythologies; Herman Melville’s mesmerising late novel, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities; Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom; and Louis Menand’s The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War. All started, none yet finished.

George Makari is professor of psychiatry, and director of the DeWitt Wallace Institute of Psychiatry, at Weill Cornell Medical College. His latest book is Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia (Yale University Press).

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Shelf life: George Makari

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