Showing Up Every Day: A Conversation with Dewaine Farria
Dewaine Farria belongs to the world. As a US Marine, he served in Jordan and Ukraine, and spent much of his professional life working for the United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS), with assignments in the North Caucasus, Kenya, Somalia, and Occupied Palestine. In June 2013 Dewaine was awarded UNDSS’s Bravery Award for his actions during an attack on the UN compound in Mogadishu, an ominous day he’d later recount in a poignant and wrenching essay for the New York Times. He now lives in the Philippines with his family and recently turned forty-six. For all his globetrotting, he maintains a close relationship to Oklahoma—he earned a master’s degree in international and area studies from the University of Oklahoma, and he visits his mom in the Oklahoma City suburb of Harrah as often as he can.
The Sooner State also plays a prominent role in Dewaine’s debut novel, Revolutions of All Colors, which won Syracuse University Press’s 2019 Veterans Writing Award and shook up the military-writing scene in the best of ways. An intergenerational story that stretches from a 1970 New Orleans to a fictionalized Harrah in the ’90s and on to Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004, Revolutions wrestles with themes of violence, masculinity, and what it means to be a Black American both at home and abroad.
These are heavy ideas, of course, and they’d overwhelm a lesser scribe, but Dewaine’s character-driven narratives and crystalline prose set his work apart. Don’t take my word for it, though—the National Endowment for the Arts named him one of its 2022 Creative Writing Fellows. He joined me over Zoom from his office in Manila, a healthy half-a-world and fourteen hours away. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Matt Gallagher: Great to see you, Dewaine. You’ve led an interesting life. Mind walking us through your journey, both as a person and writer, for those unfamiliar with your work?
Dewaine Farria: Well, even as a kid, my family and I moved around a lot. My dad was career air force, so growing up all over definitely shaped me when I was young. [Dewaine dedicated Revolutions to his father, Command Chief Master Sergeant Karl Lewis Farria, who passed away in 2016.] It gave me a different perspective of America and what it can mean to other parts of the world. My parents retired and settled in Harrah, Oklahoma, and from there I joined the Marines only a few months after graduating from high school.
The Marine Corps was the first thing I did well at. It was the first thing I excelled at. This is all pre-9/11, mind you, so some things were different, some things were the same. . . . I spent a couple years as a military policeman, then made corporal and applied to be an embassy guard. That brought me to Jordan and later to Ukraine.
Writing would come later . . . at that point, I was real focused on joining the agency [CIA], and a mentor told me I needed to get a master’s degree and learn a language. So that’s what I did.
Gallagher: After you left the Marines, you ended up in the UN instead, right? Then we’ll talk writing, I promise.
Farria: Ha ha, sure. I got in early with the UN’s Security Department, as they were building it up and out. Started there in New York, then it took me to Chad, Chechnya, Haiti. . . . We conducted various mass-casualty exercises [with local emergency-response units], which, unfortunately, came into practice during the earthquake there [in Haiti] in 2010. Then came the North Caucasus, Nairobi, and a field coordination job in Mogadishu, helping with a polio vaccine campaign. That was an education in information warfare, let me tell you . . . and that’s where the attack [on the UN compound] happened. After that, I took an assignment to East Jerusalem/Palestine . . . then, finally, I made the move to the Asian Development Bank, which brought me here to Manila, where I’m responsible for the safety and security of the organization’s field offices.
Gallagher: Okay. Thanks for chronicling all that, because I think it’s important to your creative work. How’d you come to writing during those years?
Farria: I guess I thought I’d write a memoir someday, but I hadn’t really talked about it much, let alone put myself out there. But, you know, I had rough drafts of stuff.
After Mogadishu, we had to go to counseling. It was mandatory. I fought it at first, because I was worried how it’d look professionally. But we had no choice. And it was great, man! Really helped. So, my wife and I started going to counseling; it saved our marriage. You know, Iryna had been with me through all that—we met in Ukraine when I was in the Marines and she was working for USAID, and we were long overdue for having some hard conversations.
And writing came up during counseling. Iryna encouraged me to pursue it. So I started taking classes online, and I really liked it. Gotham, Stanford online . . . that led me to looking into various low-residency programs, and I ended up going to one at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
And it’s funny, the workshops were where I polished the stories that make up Revolutions. The workshops were where I made them readable and hopefully engaging. But for the most part, I’d started working on them way back when, in Mogadishu. That’s where the seeds were planted.
Gallagher: It’s hard to replicate experience.
Farria: Exactly. At the same time you need to let the imagination go, too. I don’t know what the right balance is. But it’s a balance.
Gallagher: Let’s talk more about Revolutions. It’s such a cool book—the reader never knows what to expect, chapter to chapter, but you make it all connect through characters and themes. What would you say are your major themes? The ideas you find yourself returning to?
Farria: Masculinity comes up a lot, specifically Black masculinity. What it means to be a man in the twenty-first century. Identity. Violence and the state sanction of violence. Who can use violence against whom and when, that’s always found its way into my work, seems like. Sex and gender have recently been coming up a lot. Sometimes consciously, sometimes I only see it during early edits. Incarceration, for sure. That’s been a big one.
Gallagher: Revolutions is fiction, but you’ve been doing more and more nonfiction as well. I’m thinking of your piece in the Times about Mogadishu, and also about your recent essay in War on the Rocks that confronts the legacy of the Confederacy and the Civil War in terms of remembrance. Do you find a relationship between the genres, or are they totally different for you?
Farria: This isn’t my quote, but it resonates with me: fiction is more like jazz, free-flowing, I’m figuring it out as I go. Nonfiction, I have a plan, usually something I’ve been thinking over, something that bothers me, and I know what the container of it is. If not by my mind or idea, at least by the limits of the world and history.
Regarding that Civil War essay, I think I’m going to write more about that subject. We’ve been abroad for so long, it sometimes feels like you’re watching a caricature of your country on the news, watching it tear itself apart. And you know, what happens in America matters to the rest of the world; you don’t really understand that until you’ve lived abroad.
What happens in America matters to the rest of the world; you don’t really understand that until you’ve lived abroad.
Gallagher: What is it about the Civil War that’s compelling you to write about it?
Farria: Hmm. If I knew I’m not sure I’d need to write about it! But I think it’s related to being a father. I worry my kids don’t love America the way I do, don’t know it the way I think I do, and anyone will have a hard time understanding America without understanding the Civil War. That understanding can only come from reading.
Take the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A classic, right? I think every American needs to read that book at least once in their life. My eldest daughter was assigned it this past summer, and she had some misgivings about it. Like a lot of young people these days, I think, she was worried about some of the content, that reading it for a class somehow legitimizes it. But we talked about it, and I tried to make the case to her that a book like Huck Finn is incredibly useful if you want to understand the institution of slavery. I mean, the moral conundrum of Huck aiding Jim in that book—that’s no easy decision, even if it’s the right thing to do. A boy is defying a whole institution, a whole society in many ways, to help one man. That’s a big, courageous deal.
Seeing that institution for what it was, how it affected not just those caught in it but everyday people who existed around it, that can come alive in good literature—make the past feel present. That’s the power of storytelling.
And my daughter, to her credit, she’ll argue with me, but then she’ll go put in the work and read. I learn a ton from her. She’s reading Bukowski now—
Gallagher: Your teenage daughter is reading Bukowski?
Farria: Yep! And I like Bukowski a lot, but she’s not wrong to point out the constant misogyny. Does that negate his work? No, I don’t think so. But it’s there, it’s part of it, part of the legacy, and so it’s part of our conversations.
Gallagher: Speaking of the younger generation: what do you tell teens or kids who come to you and ask if they should join the military? I ask because it’s a question I struggle answering.
I think that’s a dangerous thing, that only a certain class of Americans are supposed to fight our wars.
Farria: You know, I’ve only been asked that twice. And it bugs me. Maybe that’s because in my life, I’m exposed to a certain type of young person—embassy kids for the most part. And they tend to view the military as something other people do. It’s not even a possibility [for them]. And I think that’s a dangerous thing, that only a certain class of Americans are supposed to fight our wars. That’s not good for anyone.
My daughter’s asked me. I tell her, “There are lots of ways to do public service, but you should probably do one.” On the flip side, veterans can discount those other types of service, and that’s dangerous too. I want my daughter, all my kids, to give back in some way. My wife and I are raising them with that spirit, I think.
The other time, it was a son of a friend, a Black boy. While he didn’t say this outright, the subtext to his question was definitely, “What was it like being Black in the Marines?” I told him, “You’ll get a fair shake. Yes, you will encounter some racism. But you’ll do well if you’re a hard worker.” Because that was my experience. Not every moment in the Marines was good or pretty for me, but I still treasure being a Marine. Which is a very Marine thing to say, I know, but still.
Gallagher: Okay, similar question: what do you tell teens or kids who come to you and say they want to become a writer?
A lot of people talk about writing. Fewer put in the actual time.
Farria: Oh, wow. Why are they asking me? I’m still figuring it out myself.
Two things, I guess. First, you got to put your butt in the chair. A lot of people talk about writing. Fewer put in the actual time. The only way I’ve done what I’ve done is by showing up every day.
Second, you have to read and read widely. Even the authors and books you’re not “supposed” to. Maybe especially them.
Gallagher: Like Bukowski?
Farria: Like Bukowski.
Gallagher: Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on now?
Farria: A short-story collection. Dystopian, closely linked stories, but not a novel—more like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which is so good and has been a tremendous influence.
There’s a story set in Kenya, another in occupied Palestine, there’s one in prison. . . . I’m closing in on it, can see the end. Second books, they’re no joke. I feel like this has been the one that showed me how to be a writer, at least the kind of writer I aspire to be.