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John Edgar Wideman by Caryl Phillips

John Edgar Wideman, like any great storyteller, discovers the truth by telling the tale. Every story is a journey, unexpected and frightening, a deep plunge into the unconscious minds of those he has dared to commune with. One reads John Wideman knowing that one is in the presence of an author who moves intuitively, and courageously, an author who plunges below the surface, an author who might not find his way back to the surface, but in the struggle for light and air, he is discovering meaning and hope, and truth, in the midst of chaos. It has been said that he is an author who asks us to come with him, but an author who makes no promises.

John Edgar Wideman has been a Franklin scholar, a Rhodes scholar and a Thuron Fellow. His teaching career has taken him from Howard University in Washington to the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a Professor of English, Director of the Afro-American Studies Program, and an assistant basketball coach. ( laughter ) In 1974 he moved West, to the University of Wyoming, Laramie, and in 1986 he moved back East, to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst where he took up his current position as Professor of English.

But it is as a writer that John Edgar Wideman is best known, a writer who seems at ease in both the novel and short story forms. His seven novels are: A Glance Away (1967), Hurry Home (1970), The Lynchers (1973), Hiding Place (1981), Sent for You Yesterday (1983), Ruben(1987), and Philadelphia Fire (1990). His three collections of short stories are Damballah (1981), Fever and other stories (1989), and All Stories Are True (1992). He is also the author of a very moving memoir, Brothers and Keepers (1984) and recently, Fatheralong (Pantheon, 1994).

Some years ago, the French critic, Michel Fabre, wrote, “John Edgar Wideman is one of the few novelists who emerged in the Black Power era without sacrificing the demands of art to the persuasions of radical militancy. Possibly as a result of his commitment to his craft, his sizeable fictional production has attracted increasing attention and he is now considered as one of the best American writers of the younger generation.” This observation needs updating. John Wideman is not one of the best American writers of the younger generation, he is one of the best American writers of any generation. His work is not limited by traditional conventions of storytelling. His narrative is, and John will love this word, post-Joycean, his sensibility often Faulknerian. He is a consummate ventriloquist, able to appropriate the voice of a murdered baby with the same facility with which he speaks from the point of view of a child, or an American Jazz singer in a Nazi death camp. The prose is elliptical and dense, but always elegant and, at its best, it hits us with the force of prayer—or perhaps more appropriately—gospel.

His awards and fellowships are too numerous to mention. I will, however, mention the PEN Faulkner Award in 1984 for his novel, Sent for You Yesterday, for it seems appropriate that John should have an award named for Faulkner. And last year he received a much-deserved MacArthur Fellowship.

Recorded at Woottons Bookshop in Amherst, Massachusetts, March 29, 1994, for a live audience.

Caryl Phillips I want to begin by asking you, John, about that moment, if there was such a moment, when you first decided that you wanted to write.

John Edgar Wideman There are probably many moments. And what I’ll do now is tell a story, hopefully slightly entertaining and with some bearing on the truth, although I wouldn’t claim for it any veracity beyond that. My father was a reader and I have a very strong image of him right now: I remember him sitting in our living room, which was also our dining room, (laughter) which was also our kitchen, which was mostly the whole house. I remember him sitting in a chair, tired from work, and he would pick up these pulp novels, westerns mostly, like Zane Grey, and he’d read these things as a kind of sleeping pill. He was a big man, so these books were always small in his hands and his legs would be stretched out in front of him, and gradually, his eyes would start to drop and the legs would get more and more slack and then he’d fall off to sleep and I’d hear “plunk,” the book would hit the floor. They were pretty trashy, tacky books, but I read them because that’s what was around. And I began to see that there were certain formulas in these books which weren’t too difficult to figure out. And I thought, well, hell, I could do that. These things aren’t hard to write: the guy rides into town, he sees a beautiful lady, something is at stake, he figures out a way to help her, etcetera, etcetera. And I thought, you know, this would be fun to do, easy to do. So, that’s when I had this glimmer that I could, maybe, become a writer. The other part of it comes from another direction and has nothing to do with books and writing and reading but it has to do with listening. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family full of storytellers. It was particularly the women’s province, and I grew up listening to women’s voices tell stories—my aunts and my mother, my grandmother and their friends. And I loved to listen to these stories. And they created a world for me. Not only did they create a world, but they created a kind of sensibility—something to measure myself against. And the more I listened, the more the act of storytelling penetrated my consciousness. It was something I wanted to partake of. The reading was easy. Anybody could do the stuff that Zane Grey was doing, but telling the stories the way the women in my family told the stories was something that I could only wish I could do, hope I could do. That was the real comparison, that’s what I wanted to be able to make—the kind of energy and eloquence, and the funny, crazy stuff that was in the stories women told. So those were my two models and as far back as I can remember, they were the models that I strove to emulate.

CP So, by the time you went to the University of Pennsylvania, did you embark on a degree in English with the notion that you wanted to write, or teach, or both?

JW Well, what I did was embark on a degree in Experimental Psychology. And I did that because I thought the idea of reading people’s minds was kind of groovy. You know, to read people’s minds and anticipate what they were going to say and do, that was a great power trip. And Penn was the center of Experimental Psychology. I lasted about a month, because I found out that, rather than reading Freud and getting into Orgone Boxes, what you do is count the number of times rats walk through this maze and pick up a pellet in an hour if you zap them with electricity.

CP We haven’t talked about it, but did you know that I began in Experimental Psychology and (laughter) I switched after three months.

JW Well, there’s something about it that has an appeal. But anyway. In college, I worked very hard to figure out a way that I could live the rest of my life and not have a job. To that end, I was a jock, I played basketball. I figured that I would play basketball and make a lot of money. Anything that I could do that would enable me to have my cake and eat it too, that is to have this sort of pseudo-job but have a good life, and have the good things, that’s what I wanted to accomplish. So, basketball was the first thought. And then I didn’t grow the extra foot I needed to grow as an undergraduate and so I decided well, what’s the next best thing. I can’t play ball, writing seems like a pretty good gig. Writers don’t have bosses, they don’t have to go and punch clocks. So that’s the reason I thought to maybe try writing.

CP You ended up going across the water to Oxford. What influence did Oxford have on you as a writer, and as an American. And as a black person finding yourself at Oxford in the mid-1960s?

JW Yeah, (laughter) in any order. Well, going to Oxford, for me, was an exciting opportunity. In fact, I went there consciously because I had made the choice to be a writer. I had never been out of the country—and I knew, or I thought that, in order to be a writer, you had to be down-and-out in Paris or Rome. And since Mom and Dad were not going to send me to Paris or Rome, I had to figure a way to get there on my own, and the Rhodes seemed ideal. So, it was important in the sense that I had begun to identify with a kind of vocation and I was making big choices, major choices that would facilitate this writing business. What happened there? First of all, I heard the language spoken in a different way. People there take the language seriously in a way that we don’t. You read a box of tea and it says, “Wait until the water boils furiously.” (laughter) This is the kind of eloquence on a teabox that I didn’t get from my professors at Penn. So that was exciting. And also the time at Oxford was an interesting time, because these were the early ’60s. So, I left an America in tremendous ferment and found myself in a kind of catbird’s seat across the water looking back on all this stuff that was happening. And that was, for me, a little frustrating. It’s almost like the people you’ve heard about who never went to war and wondered, well what kind of person would I be if I actually had that wartime experience? I didn’t have the civil rights experience. The only march I ever went on was back in 1967 in Iowa City—a protest march—and by that time, it was no big deal. I still wonder—how my life would have changed if I were in America and had decided to go South during the Freedom Summer to ride the buses or join a radical organization. It would have been a different life. But I discovered that I liked that distance. I liked that angle, the oblique angle. The vantage point of seeing this business from England and having to put it together in my imagination on the basis of headlines and letters and spot visits back to the United States. So I found myself getting a lot of practice being an outsider. England was changing a lot at that time as well. The first wave of people from the so-called Third World were making their voices felt at Oxford. People who went back to Africa and became Prime Ministers of their countries, people who went back to the West Indies and became political powers, artists, etcetera. So, I had a firsthand look at this ferment: people of color who were unlike anybody I had ever known in the States. Now it may be hard for some of you to believe but, the degree to which black people—and all of us—were kept ignorant, and still are for that matter—but in the ’60s it was appalling. Politically I was uneducated, unsophisticated, I could feel that race was a problem in the South, but as long as I kept my nose clean I could kind of make my own way in the North. I was very naive. So, England was a way of getting a perspective on a lot of these received attitudes. And in that sense, it was very important. It was a political renaissance. It was, for me, growing up.

CP You began to write, pretty soon after you got back from Oxford.

JW Well, I began to write there. I did do the tour of Europe and I began to keep notebooks. And by the time I got back, I had most of my first book finished.

CP In 1988, you made this statement: “At a certain point in my writing career, after I had done three books, I made a decision, I wanted to reach out to readers that the earlier works had perhaps excluded. I wanted to get everybody’s ear.” Those three books were written in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Can you explain what it was about those first three books that you felt excluded certain people, and who were the people being excluded?

JW I would second guess that statement. It’s too simplistic because, for one thing, it served critics who have written about my work since, as a point of departure. And I think it’s unfair. I believe if I look closely, objectively, at what I’ve done, the themes and the concerns and the centering in an African-American world have been there from the beginning. What I sensed was a lack of fluidity in a vernacular voice that I wanted to change. We’re talking shop, we’re talking about a writer’s ability to use various registers and communities of the language in a way that feels natural. I feel that in my first three books, as is the case with many writers, I had models, I had examples of eloquence, examples of people who I felt captured something special in their vision, in their themes, etcetera. And so, as I tried to get my own feet under me, I was imitating, I was enthralled, I had stars. And I realized, the more I wrote, that that kind of looking outside of myself for models was insufficient, that, as good as the stuff was that I had been reading, it missed whole levels, whole realms of experience that were personal, that were mine. I could not simply take my experience and put it in this language that I had received—as a graduate student and as an undergraduate—as the language of literature.

CP Who were the models and the stars?

JW Certainly, T.S. Eliot was one: his poetry, the blending of levels of language that’s in his work, his concern with time, his concern with history, his use of classic sources, his ability to speak to, not only other writers, but other epochs, his sense . . . This was probably unconscious—but one thing that appealed to me was the West-African notion of “great time” that is part of Eliot’s writing, that is not time as a linear flow but as a great sea. And if you read “Prufrock”, Eliot is operating in “great time.” People who lived a thousand years ago speak to people who live now. They bump up against each other: take a boat ride in the Thames and you might run into Queen Mary. All that appealed to me. I didn’t know exactly why. Also, as a young writer particularly, anything that was strange, that I didn’t quite understand, presented a challenge. So I had to go after it. I had to master it and figure it out.

CP Many writers have cited other art forms, perhaps most commonly painting and music, as influences upon them. When I was reading your second novel, Hurry Home, I was struck by the character Cecil who sees a relationship between his experience and what he sees when he looks at a painting by Hieronymous Bosch. Does one need some understanding of Bosch to get at the heart of this novel? And, to what extent, if at all, have other art forms influenced your writing?

JW Hmm. What has been very useful to me—and simply fun for me—is to find that, through the medium of writing, I could think about things that were important to me. It’s actually a means of thinking. I was very moved and excited by the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch. I didn’t exactly know why, but then my handle on understanding him came intuitively. It wasn’t a question of going out and reading a lot about Bosch. Although I did make it my business to travel to cities where there were Bosch paintings so I could see the originals. I had a kind of craziness about him, an obsession. On the other hand, it didn’t drive me to the library. I began to see these black faces in Bosch, black people in his paintings, sometimes at the edges, sometimes at the center . . . Particularly the Bosch painting which contains the Annunciation and the Wise Men on the left-hand panel, the adoration of the Magi. And one of those Magi was a black person. I guess I can make this kind of simple. When you’re traveling through Europe as an African-American, and you see an image of yourself, it’s rare, and you do get excited. I understood something very crucial about Bosch through the way that he depicted this African personality. Why was the African dressed so down, compared to these dowdy wise men? Why did he stand in a certain elegant way, with his limbs supported in a particular fashion? Why was his waist more narrow? Why was there a certain luxuriousness and splendor in his garments? What was this medieval Lowlander seeing in these African people? And why was what he saw so much of what people saw in Pittsburgh and in New York about contemporary African-Americans? Why was there that kind of continuity? Jesus! And, through the character of Cecil, I sort of worked those thoughts out. So, Bosch comes into the novel. And no, you don’t necessarily have to know a lot about Hieronymous Bosch, but if you listen to the questions I ask in the book then I would hope maybe you would become interested in Bosch and become interested in the whole idea of representation in Western art and where we fit in it and how we’ve influenced it from the very beginning.

CP Okay, lets just go back to that quote of yours from ’88. I picked it up from a piece you wrote for the New York Times. The title of the piece was, “The Black Writer and the Magic of the Word.” Let me play devil’s advocate for a minute and ask you: do you think of yourself as a black writer?

JW (pause) No, because the word, like so many words, has been totally . . . raped of meaning, it’s been destroyed, it’s a tool, it’s a kind of tong, something to pick up people without touching them. And that aspect of the word, unfortunately, hits me when I hear it. I don’t like it. And it has a very vexed history, that word. Those two words. On the other hand, in my own mind, there’s something very much like the word “black” that resonates and is crucially important to me. I might lexify it with the term, African-American, but I have no doubt that I represent and am part of a very specific culture. And that culture has its roots in Africa and across the ocean; and some of you, fortunately, know the story of how African cultural traits were retained and transmogrified and met Europe. And so, I see myself in that cultural strain and it’s crucial to me. And the more I understand about those roots, the closer I get to what’s important in the voice that I have.

CP You mentioned, in a short interview in the New York Times, how over 20 years ago you were approached by students at Penn and asked to teach a black literature class. I quote from John Wideman, “I gave them the jive reply that it wasn’t my field. I was one of the few black faculty members at Penn; they came to me for all kinds of soulful reasons and I gave them the stock academic reply, which was true. But I felt so ashamed that I got back in touch with some of them, then agreed to teach the course—and then began my second education.” Can you characterize the nature of that second education?

JW Well, very specifically, I spent the summer in the Schomburg Library, reading books that had been written by people of African descent. Of course, we’re all of African descent if we believe the latest anthropological bulletin. But, people of the African diaspora—I read those books, and then I made it my business to begin to interview and talk to and make a connection with other black writers. And I organized a course in Afro-American lit. And since that point, I’ve been reading everything I possibly can. As I learned more, I found out what I needed to understand, what African-American culture might be. It led me into linguistics, it led me into a study of the language. And that was a very fruitful part of it. I mean, once I was in Germany, giving a lecture on the black voice, of all things, black speech, and, at the end of the lecture—I was speaking English, I only know two German words—to an audience who supposedly understood English—and a fraulein raised her hand and said, (I had been talking for an hour about black speech) “Herr Professor Videman, vould you speak some of that black English for us?” (laughter) So, you’re me up at the podium, what do you say? “Hey, baby, what’s happenin’?” (laughter) I didn’t know what to say. It stunned me. This was a nitty-gritty question. One answer is, “Hey, I’m an African-American and I’ve been talking for the last hour. You’ve been listening to African-American speech.” And I think that is something which is the beginning of the real answer: there is no single register of African-American speech. And it’s not words and intonations, it’s a whole attitude about speech that has historical rooting. It’s not a phenomenon that you can isolate and reduce to linguistic characteristics. It has to do with the way a culture conceives of the people inside of that culture. It has to do with a whole, complicated protocol of silences and speech, and how you use speech in ways other than directly to communicate information. And it has to do with, certainly, the experiences that the people in the speech situation bring into the encounter. What’s fascinating to me about African-American speech is it’s spontaneity, the requirement that you not simply have a repertoire of vocabulary or syntactical devices/constructions, but that you come prepared to do something with that repertoire, those structures, and do something in an attempt to meet the person on a level that both uses the language, mocks the language, and recreates the language. It’s a very active exchange. But at the same time as I say that, the silences and the refusal to speak is just as much a part, in another way, of African-American speech.

CP Okay. I want to take a left turn now and ask you a few questions about your actual process of writing. You move with equal facility, it seems to me, between the short story form and the novel. What criteria, for you, defines whether an idea is better suited to a novel or a short-story? Is there one?

JW Only the practical working-out of it. I still think the story, “Fever,” is a novel. But one of the reasons it works well, and I’m happy with it as a short story is because, somehow, the novel is in there, and it’s pushing to get out. And I think that gives it some of the resonance that it has. A novel is certainly not a single idea and sometimes a story can be. But I would hesitate to think that there are any absolute cues, because I know that things in my experience that have started as stories became novels. And vice-versa.

CP Let me ask you about the story form, specifically the short story, “Everybody Knew Bubba Riff” from your last collection, All Stories Are True. It reads as though it has been composed in one sitting. It is like a long modernist cry—almost like a long note blown by a jazz trumpeter—was it composed at one sitting?

JW About half of the body was composed in one sitting . . . But that particular text that came out of that one sitting, which is half the story . . . you’d probably have a hard time finding it in the published version, because the way I work is to work and work and to rewrite.

CP Which half-answers my next question. Are you a man who painstakingly revises loose drafts, or are you a man who crafts slowly and deliberately, almost chiseling into stone words, phrases, that are already finely tuned?

JW Well, I hate to cop out, but it’s always a combination. Some things come easily.

CP Right.

JW And if some didn’t come easily, I would change professions. (laughter) You have to have that gift every now and again. And when the gift comes, you open yourself to it and the words just flow and you love it and that’s what the whole process is about. It’s really a way of going outside of myself. The sculpting and the chiseling and the work is more of a different discipline altogether. And I get tired of myself. I’m too aware of my limitations there and I’m always working against my limitations. So it’s claustrophobic for a while. And I wonder, is it ever going to get any better, because it’s me talking to me, what do I know? So you need that infusion from somewhere else, whether you call it the muse, or the unconscious, or whatever. It has to swing in, you have to be visited, I think. At least this writer does.

CP I want to ask you about your role as a teacher of writing. Two questions: firstly, has teaching affected your writing in any disturbing way? And do you feel inspired when you read the work of students?

JW Hmm. (pause) This is not a commercial, I assure you(laughter) Well unless you’re a total hypocrite, if you sit around and your job is to tell people, “Hey, look at this, this isn’t right, you can do better. Here’s something, change this. Write something beautiful. Write something strong,” if that’s your job . . . I take those messages home with me. When I sit down at my own stuff that shrewish voice which I hope is not shrewish too often, but that voice talks to me about my own stuff. So that’s one answer. Am I inspired?

CP Or encouraged by who is particularly good.

JW Bring it down a few pegs. (laughter)

CP Interested?

JW Alert. (laughter) I’m very lucky. Because we have an extraordinary group of writers at U Mass. And I am in fact inspired by some of their work. Inspired that this whole activity of writing is still alive. Some people are still hooked into it, hooked on it, and willing to take the chances and willing to push themselves. And willing to go a little crazy and willing to confront demons. And I see that activity as absolutely rare and crucial because what it does is sustain the whole notion of imagination in the culture. If there is any threat to our humanity, it’s the threat that somehow our imaginations will be squashed, will become obsolete. It will become redundant, useless. And writing is one way to keep that idea of imagination alive. In my best days I see that as the primary enterprise I’m involved in. Simulating the imagination. Foregrounding it, saying that it counts. Saying that whatever is in your head has some meaning. And I think most of the messages in the culture are saying that it doesn’t havemeaning, that it doesn’t matter what’s inside your head. Fuck you, ya know. Get in line. So I welcome people who are on a different track. We’re on our little boat, ship of fools, and there we are. It’s nice to have company.