How Jazz Carries the Word
Tell me about your earliest experiences as a writer. When did you begin writing fiction? How did you know or decide that writing would become a full-time career for you
I originally began writing poetry in college and was encouraged by a professor who felt the voice in my poetry was far more engaging in the use of language than when I wrote essays. In 1970, I joined Sonia Sanchez’s writing workshop at the Countee Cullen Library in Harlem and most of what I wrote, initially, were poems. It wasn’t until I started attending John Oliver Killens’ writing workshop at Columbia University in 1971 that I began writing more fiction.
I never stopped writing poetry but my primary focus became fiction. It was John who encouraged me to consider expanding my short stories into writing a novel. I never thought of writing as a career in terms of it being a job. I saw no separation between my writing and who I was as a person.
Your first novel, Tragic Magic, was noted for its particular language that was likened to the rhythms of jazz. I feel that many Black writers who were writing fiction in the ’70s were influenced by jazz, e.g., George Cain, John Edgar Wideman, Clarence Major, to name a few. Later, you would write a collection of stories about the lives in the jazz world titled Dance of the Infidels. Tell me about your relationship with the culture and music of jazz and how it has found its way into your writing.
In terms of the generation of writers you mentioned, I would add Amiri Baraka, Aisha Rahman, Toni Cade Bambara, and Ishmael Reed. My relationship to music and jazz came directly from my parents. We lived in Harlem in the late 1940s and early ’50s, and they often went to dances at the Savoy and the Renaissance Ballroom. My father talked about the bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Jimmy Lunceford, and the musicians he saw, such as Billie Holiday, in the clubs he frequented when he came to New York from North Carolina in the late 1930s. Music was all around me on the radio and old 33 1/3 rpm records he played on a phonograph.
As an adolescent during the 1950s, I began buying my own records, gravitating toward Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Carmen McRae, Nina Simone, Nancy Wilson, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver, Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley. My brother-in-law introduced me to Jimmy Smith, Gene Ammons, and Dexter Gordon, among many others. So, I guess it was a natural progression for me to use language as a form of improvisation that is inherent to jazz.
Toni Morrison edited Tragic Magic when she worked at Random House. What do you recall of your work with her when she was editing your manuscript?
My novel was acquired, initially, by Ted Solortaroff, a Senior editor at the paperback publisher, Bantam Books. His assistance was invaluable in helping to shape the manuscript. He then approached Toni Morrison about publishing the hardcover edition of the novel with Random House. I was quite stunned to learn of her desire to publish it.
From the very beginning of my work with Toni, her attention was directed not so much on technical issues, but toward encouraging me to imagine a story that I would want to read as I wrote it. She suggested that I be mindful of using language that would take on a life of its own and realize that language comes with responsibilities once I raised voices in my novel loud enough to be heard by readers beyond the words on the page.
Your second novel, Darktown Strutters (1994), also deals with music in some way, much the way Tragic Magic sourced from jazz music. In Darktown Strutters, you explore the life of a character named Jim Crow and the experiences of minstrel shows, pre- and post-civil war in America. How did you begin writing Darktown Strutters, and what was your exploration of the Black experience during the time of minstrel shows?
Because my father told me stories about our family that were passed onto him going back to before the Civil War, my connection to the historical experience of Black people was formed very early on. As a result, everything I’ve written has had a historical context that includes how we’ve defined ourselves through art, especially music.
The writing of Darktown Strutters began as a flashback within a more contemporary story. My editor pointed out that the flashback related to 19th Century blackface minstrel performers was more interesting than the formal narrative voice I began with because the story of minstrelsy was told using the same Black vernacular speech as the characters in the novel. My decision to explore 19th Century minstrelsy can be traced to Faulkner’s admonition that the past is never past. And while history doesn’t repeat itself, it does illuminate the present.
It could be argued that blackface minstrelsy represented much of the popular culture of the 19th Century. What I tried to dramatize in the novel was how the use of blackface by Whites was double-edged. It was a way to present grotesque and comic images of African Americans, as a form of entertainment, that would justify the enslavement of Black people, see them as not threatening and deny their basic humanity, and at the same time offer humorous social critiques of society that would be acceptable to a White audience.
When Black performers used burnt cork in minstrel shows, it was often a mimicry of White actors using demeaning stereotypes to depict Black people. They implicitly mocked those very stereotypes. The reprehensible 19th-century image of blackface was embedded in the ways African Americans were represented throughout the 20th-century. The disturbing minstrel mask is the past that still stalks the present.
You took some time between Darktown Strutters, and your next novel Push Comes to Shove. In between, you wrote plays and screenplays and edited fiction. What was the process of inspiration like as you found your way back into writing a novel?
The 15-year hiatus between the two novels had to do with some false starts in writing the novel that became Push Comes to Shove. When I finally completed the novel, I submitted it to several publishers who decided to pass on the manuscript. Excerpts were published in various literary journals and magazines, and it was finally accepted by Concord Free Press around 2008.
During those years, I wrote short stories and completed three plays, two of which were produced. Writing is part of my nervous system, and like most writers, I’m always involved in some aspect of writing, even when I’m not writing.
Push Comes to Shove is your third novel, and it deals with life during the ’60s, the Vietnam protests. The language here is less adorned, a little more hard-eyed than the musicality explored in your first two novels. The themes also center more exclusively on violence. It seems a document of a time that has presented itself again, far more transparently today (in a time of social media), with much civil strife taking place across the world. How do you see the story you tell in Push Comes to Shove fitting into today’s social and cultural narratives?
The use of violence in bringing about fundamental political change was an issue I was trying to examine in Push Comes to Shove. Historically, this has always been a tension within all Black political movements. The characters in the novel have to grapple with the realization that while violence can be explained, it’s more difficult to explain it away without serious consequences.
As far as the issues I was raising about the movements of the 1960s and ’70s, the protests of today are a continuation of the demands for justice and equity that have always been an integral part of any struggle by African Americans and other embattled people. The differences I see are a conscious move away from dependence on a charismatic leader, such as a figure like Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, to lead the masses to the promised land.
The leadership of movements such as Black Lives Matter are much more dispersed and recognize the importance of the view articulated by Ella Baker, one of the pivotal figures in the formation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, who believed that the Movement should develop leadership that emerged from the people most in need of speaking and acting on their own behalf, rather than relying on the dominance of a single individual, who most often was a man. The other important development has been the use of social media that can galvanize large groups of people to immediately respond to events such as the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others.
You also served as a jury member for the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1982, along with Walker Percy and John Hawkes. I understand you were instrumental in David Bradley’s win for The Chaneysville Incident, a book that Percy and Hawkes were not acquainted with until you introduced them to it. What do you remember of your experience as a PEN jury member?
In 1980, novelist Mary Lee Settle came up with the idea to have a yearly award in fiction that would be judged solely by writers. In its second year (1981), I was asked by Mary to be one of the judges for the PEN/Faulkner Award in Fiction under the aegis of the PEN American Center. Mary decided that the composition of the committee should include an established writer (Walker Percy), one who was seen as more experimental (John Hawkes), and a younger emerging writer – which was my role.
We read approximately 200 novels and short-story collections. During the process, each of us pointed out specific books that the others might have missed. When I read The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley, it stood out above every other book I’d read. I made a point of recommending that Walker and John should read it. They had knowledge of the writers who ended up on their shortlist (Donald Barthelme, Marilynne Robinson, Richard Bausch, Mark Helprin and Robert Stone), but The Chaneysville Incident was not on their radar.
During our conference call to make our final selection, they enthusiastically, agreed that Bradley’s novel should receive the PEN/Faulkner Award. To paraphrase the character Aaron Burr in the musical Hamilton, Black people need to be in the room where it happens.
As a writer and a professor, how do you think the nature of fiction has developed over the last 40 years or so, since the release of your first novel? Do you feel the novel has lost momentum and urgency in the digital age of social media?
I believe with the advent of hip-hop in the early 1980s, and its expression into rap, spoken word, and poetry slam performances, are part of the continuum of the African American oral tradition. I agree that the centrality of the novel in defining contemporary American culture has shifted. The immediacy and velocity of social media has spoken to recent generations in a manner that the solitary experience of reading literature does not.
I still believe that reading novels and other literary forms are indispensable in slowing down the pace of daily living, so we can enter a story imagined by a writer that allows us to have an intimate encounter with the world we inhabit in ways we might not have considered otherwise.
Do you have another novel on the horizon? If so, can you tell me anything about it?
In the last few years, I’ve been thinking about Miles Davis and his groundbreaking recording of Kind of Blue in August 1959 and a week later when he was beaten by police outside Birdland.