Five Questions for Robin Hemley

We’re thrilled to announce that Robin Hemley has received a 2013 Pushcart Prize for his essay “To the Rainforest Room,” which appeared in Orion’s May/June 2011 issue! (Also, receiving “special mention” from this year’s Pushcart judges: “Breaking the Spell of Money,” by Scott Russell Sanders, and “Speed Freaks,” by Ginger Strand.)

In addition to his essays, Robin is the author of eleven books of stories, memoir, and innovative nonfiction. We spoke to him, moments before he stepped on a plane to Australia, about his prize-winning essay, the nature of authenticity, and his thoughts on Easy Cheese.


As well as a Pushcart, you’re entitled to some kind of award for being the first person to write an essay in which rainforests and Easy Cheese are both featured prominently. Can you say a bit about why Easy Cheese is a useful metaphor in a discussion of authenticity and the natural world?

During my childhood in the sixties and seventies, I was obsessed with ease, with convenience, as were most Americans, I’d argue. I doubt that contemporary Americans would quite as readily welcome a product called “Easy Cheese” now. While we’re still largely a convenience-driven society, we/I don’t always like to be reminded of this.

And that’s where the endless quest for Authenticity fits. Now, I would never pick up a can of Easy Cheese because it’s fake and who wants to ingest fakeness? I still want convenience, but I want to be able to conveniently pick up an overpriced bar of True Cheddar at my local co-op and serve it to my friends who will thus admire my good taste and my own authenticity. Metaphor? Who’s talking metaphor here?

If authenticity is forever out of reach—as you argue in “To the Rainforest Room”—what’s a more realistic hope for our experience of the world?

I think it’s probably a good idea for us to examine what it is we yearn for in our fruitless quest for Authenticity. We’re constantly reminded of the things we’ve lost or the things we think we’ve lost: authentic landscapes, authentic language, authentic values. But this search does indeed seem to me a bit of a trap—an eagerness to consume the world, as though Authenticity can be ingested (except for True Cheddar, which can be ingested).

I don’t understand why people want to buy Vietnamese beer in Vietnamese restaurants, for instance? Do the Vietnamese make especially good beer to go with Vietnamese dishes? Why not a Heineken? And why do people insist on using chopsticks in Thai restaurants, when the Thai don’t use chopsticks in Thailand? It’s just this persistent craving for security, for acting right, that must have been inculcated in high school, or before that, that drives us to try to be Authentic.

Next time you go to a Chinese restaurant, don’t order a Tsingtao. Order a Red Hook and see how liberating it is! I guarantee, you’ll veritably skip out of the restaurant, casting aside your Authenticity shackles.

You move from Nebraska to Ecuador to Australia in this essay, assumedly over the course of at least a few months. When and where did the germ for the piece present itself?

About four books ago, I investigated a purported anthropological hoax in the Philippines, where, in 1971, the Tasaday were “discovered” leading an authentically Stone Age existence. For a time, I was obsessed with figuring out whether they were indeed a real “Stone Age” tribe, until I figured out how ridiculous the quest was in itself. That project gave me my first real look at how problematic authenticity is.

So that was the germ, and for a time, some entrepreneurs wanted to build an indoor rainforest in the town adjacent to my town in Iowa. The rainforest was never built, but I loved the notion of it. As I’d been to some “real” rainforests, I thought it would be interesting to explore this notion of Authenticity through the lens of a “fake” rainforest and a “real” one. Happily, there was a great example of the former in Omaha.

You’re a writer, an editor, and a teacher at the University of Iowa. Do you also find time to read? What’s on your nightstand at the moment?

I find time to read and to be read to. Right now, I’m reading The Mystery Guest, by the French writer Gregoire Bouillier. He’s sort of a French version of the British writer Geoff Dyer. After that, I’m going to read A History of Bombing by Sven Lindquist. I’m also listening to an version of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, and reading Great Expectations (which is taking forever) to my nine-year old at bedtime.

Any new writing projects in the works?

I’m working on an environmental thriller of sorts, set in the Philippines.