I have an interview with the brilliant John Keene over at The Creative Independent. Most of what made it in there deals with process and writing. But our conversation included a lot of fascinating stuff about race and history, so here’s some extra stuff, lightly edited, condensed, etc.
"Othello" is a great enough work of dramatic art that, if the racial element were entirely removed, the play would still be a profound accomplishment. That Othello is a "Moor" could be made–almost–irrelevant. (Disagree?)
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) December 26, 2017
Can we talk for a second about this Joyce Carol Oates tweet about Othello?
I had said something about it on Twitter, and you had a very historically embedded response to it. Could you unspool that in a non-Twitter context?
I like what you had to say to her in terms of the fundamental necessity of race and, of course, Othello’s Blackness being part of the story. What struck me was, I taught that play several times. We have an introductory course for English majors, Foundations of Literary Study, and so I introduce the students to different genres. Usually my thematic movement is Colonialism/Post Colonialism. So Othello fits perfectly there. But one of the things that really fascinates me about Othello is, in teaching the students about literary criticism, and historicizaton, etc., we did a little bit of reading about Othello. And it’s so interesting to think about how, in Othello, and some other plays, Shakespeare is grappling with questions, in real time, about blackness and otherness.
There’s this amazing portrait of an ambassador, I guess, from one of the North African countries that would have existed then, it wasn’t Morocco. There’s this amazing portrait of this ambassador, and it’s unclear whether Shakespeare would have ever seen that particular picture, but imagery of that kind circulated about Northern Africa and the Middle East, and of course Africa itself. There was also a moment where, in his transposition of the story from Britain to Venice, he’s picking a very similar society. A maritime society, but also a society that you could say gives him a little bit more leeway, but, like Britain, [one that] is very much engaged in mercantilism. So there are all of these parallels between the Britain of his day and the fictional Venice.
But the fascinating thing that most people usually don’t talk about is that, in Shakespeare’s time, he would see Black people walking through the streets of London. They may have been working in the theater, or they may have been working on the docks. This is also the moment where slavery is getting going. So you have all of these things happening in the background, and as you pointed out, they all feed into the play.
I think it’s very interesting that in the play, you have these moments of slippage. One of the things the students always ask is, “What is a Moor?” This is what the dictionary says a Moor is. And then, when you read through it and you see how, in fact, it’s not even so much about Moorishness Africanness. It really is about Blackness. When you think about all of those insults that come out of Iago’s mouth or the horror that Desdemona’s father feels about this. He’s a warrior, he’s just like this big “black ram.” So you see that. Shakespeare was kind of working through multiple things at once, which makes the tragedy that much more powerful. So when Joyce Carol Oates makes the statement, I was just sort of like, “What are you doing? You’re smart enough to know, you’re not making any sense.” You know? I don’t know. I don’t know.
I teach the play all the time, also to my intro students. And Shakespeare’s proximity to Black people and the multicultural nature of London at the time is something that they’re always surprised by. I’m always telling them, “Yeah, obviously race is central to the play, but it’s not only one thing.” So, of course, there’s the way that Iago weaponizes it and Brabantio, his reflexive fear, or horror, as you say. But, the term Moor is so confusing to them because I’m like, “Well, it’s used as an insult, but it’s not always an insult.” It’s these multiple things. People use it as a neutral descriptor sometimes in the play and the hardest thing that they seem to have is disaggregating the most clearly racist forms of speech in the play from the play itself. Right?
The fact that Elizabeth the First, twice, she has this call to expel the “Blackamoors” in two different ways. And there’s the kind of panic there that clearly was palpable for the monarch. Because one of the questions my students always have is, “How many Black people were there?” And I think, well, clearly there were enough for her to notice or for someone to bring it to her notice, or whatever. And not just once, but multiple times.
Anyway, I take them as they come, but that one I thought, let me just say a little something about this, because that play is, on so many levels, such an important work of art. On a linguistic level, it’s majestic, but also, in terms of, again, that complexity and layering of seeing the society around you and constructing a work of art that on the one hand reflects that society but also figures out a way to shift it so that you get an almost indirect, or a slant view, to me is actually quite powerful. And I think he does that again and again.
Your comment on Othello on Twitter got me thinking a lot. Because the fictional play that Joyce Carol Oates imagines, the raceless Othello, you’re involved in writing historical fictions in a different way. Your work, and I’m thinking here of the stories in Counternarratives, is engaged in colonial history, postcolonial history in a way that doesn’t turn away from the fact of race and the historicization of race. You try, at certain moments, to centralize race as a way of understanding the historical moment that you want to write about. So I wonder if you want to talk about race, history, and colonialism/postcolonialism, how that triad emerges in your work, or how you approach it.
I’ve been very interested over the last 20 or so years, even really before that, but especially over the last 20 to 25 years in an understanding of the history of ideas, particularly in the West, and histories of conceptualizations of peoples, nations, philosophical concepts, etc. That’s very abstract. [I wanted] to make it more practical, just to be thinking about something like capitalism. Clearly there have been many brilliant people, Ian Baucom, we can just go down the list of people who have written about race and capital, capital formation, etc. Someone like Paul Gilroy, in a different kind of way, talked about the Black Atlantic.
This is not to say that other people haven’t fictionalized it or dramatized it, but I think I was trying to figure out a way of writing that past, but writing about it with a certain kind of complexity that also involves a dramatization of the coming into being of certain kinds of ideas.
One of the things that, clearly, is so fundamental to our existence in the U.S. is a certain idea of freedom. Freedom and liberty are two words that are bandied about all the time. The new World Trade Center is the Freedom Tower. Newark Airport is Newark Liberty Airport. All these new names that come into being after, for example, 9/11. So, a while ago, when I was actually still in graduate school, I thought it would be really interesting to try to write a story about a character that I’d encountered in an historical work who was, in one way, an embodiment of freedom, but in another way, the exact counterexample or the antithesis of what was possible at the moment of the country’s coming into being.
Thinking about the dawn of modernity, the dawn of ideas, the dawn of all these systems that have really kind of locked in. So often, I think we disaggregate systems of knowledge from systems of power. Often when we talk in a general sense, for right or wrong reasons, we disaggregate these things, so they lead us to always have to ask, “How did we get to this place?” or, “What happened?”
So, I thought about that. And I also wanted to try to think in broader terms than just the U.S., but to keep race, and Blackness, in particular, at the center of these stories. So that led me to go beyond the usual approach, to expand it a bit, but also to try to go in different directions. I feel like, so often, in the English speaking world, for obvious reasons, we think of the anglophone world. So the anglophone Caribbean, anglophone Africa. So I wanted to expand that a bit and to look at, for example, the Spanish speaking world, a little bit. Brazil is an interesting analog. I think it was George Williams, the great historian at Stanford, who did those comparative studies of the U.S. and Brazil. But to mix it up a bit.
So, as a way of, again, thinking about a trajectory, but not a smooth trajectory, something more complicated, more jagged, more rhizomatic, and to see if it worked. Built into a project like Counternarratives is the possibility of failure, or various kinds of failures. I was interested in that as well. So, that was my overarching process. Then, of course a key component of that is the colonial and the postcolonial. The dawn of empire and the decline of empire, but I mean empire in another way.
You’re describing this project as a kind of theoretical, conceptual, political whole. You’re using the book as a way to, as you say, engage the history of ideas, or certain ideas. I think normally when people engage with those things, they think about doing it in a way that is explicitly theoretical or explicitly through historical work, through archival work. You deal with all of that stuff through fiction. So I’m wondering about the technical research process that undergirds that conceptual engagement animating the project. How do you go from the research to the writing?
One other way of approaching all this is in a scholarly sense. [In scholarship,] you really do have to make sure that whatever approach you’re taking, it’s very clear. You know, there’s the rationale. With fiction, I feel, almost sort of along the lines of theory, you have a lot of leeway. All this to say that another component of this is not so much the history of forms, but the ways in which various forms themselves might be deployed to tell these stories. I just wanted to add that to the mix.
So, in certain cases, I had an idea. The challenge then, was to figure out how to tell the story. Sometimes there was research where I came across something id read and I thought, “Oh, my God. I really wanna try and dramatize it. What would it look like if this were a short story?” In other cases, it wasn’t something I ran across, but it was an idea I had.
So, to take two examples, with “An Outtake from the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” just the nub of that was based on a character in Lorenzo Johnston Greene’s The Negro in Colonial New England, which is such a fascinating book. It’s pretty much forgotten. And I was motivated to read that book because I was so curious: “Why is there so little about slavery in the North?”
I was born and grew up in a border state. It was a northern state, but also a western state, Missouri. So, reading Greene, he’s got all these nuggets, and just wonderful stuff in there. It’s a narrative history. There was this larger than life character and he’s focused on the character in talking about slavery. But I thought, that was what motivated me to then say, “Wait a minute. There are all these interesting things happening at the very moment.” Which isn’t to say that Greene doesn’t acknowledge all that, but that’s not his interest. His interest is writing about slavery, giving you this slick scholarly breakdown about slavery in New England, particularly in Massachusetts.
So, I had in the back of my mind, that story about a character. But from that, I then decided to try to tell that story. So I figured that one way to tell the story might be to take an episodic approach and to be able to put [historical] documents in there. Part of what I also wanted to do was to, on the one hand, use the authoritative, historical voice, but also have that voice be unstable. Have things undermining that voice, because part of what the entire collection is also trying to do is to think about what does it mean to speak with authority about U.S. history, or the history of the western hemisphere, or about race, etc. So that was one approach.
A different approach would be the story “Gloss.” I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools, and I remember hearing that that, on some kind of feast day or something, there was an anecdote that Father Charles Nerinckx had basically approved Black nuns in Kentucky in the 19th century. Those were the little anecdotes that stuck with me because it was like, “Geez, there were Black nuns in the 19th century.” Anyway, I said, I want to tell several different stories. How can I use that bit of knowledge?
So that led me to think, first of all, Catholics are written out of the history of the 18th and 19th century of America. But then, also, of course, Blackness in relation to religion, etc, particularly at a crucial moment of the early 19th century. That became my way into this story. One of my colleagues at Northwestern had given a talk about the Haitian Revolution and he had suggested you should read this book by David Paul Geggus. One of the little anecdotes there was that when the Haitian Revolution happened, a number of the slave owners actually came to the United States, which isn’t news. Usually people think they went to New Orleans, but they went all over the place. They went to Maryland. They went to Philadelphia, etc. All these little kernels of things. So, for me, the challenge became, how do I create a story out of this? So, a lot if it involved, at times, really outlandish leaps, in terms of imagining things, thinking through these worlds.
Then, I would go back in certain cases and do a little research to make sure I got things basically right. I did that probably the most for the Civil War, because I remember reading an interview with someone many years ago where they were saying, and I always tell my student this, “If you want to talk about guns and the Civil War, you wanna get those two things right, because people will freak out.” So, I did do a lot of reading about the Civil War to make sure I got the battles right.
Here’s what I think. A lot if it involves me just making certain kinds of leaps, and with this, I allowed myself to be drawn forward by character as a guiding force, by the interactions between character and plot, and to see where it would take me. So in certain cases, I didn’t even have an end in mind. One of my favorite stories, “Acrobatique,” was pure happenstance. I just happened into the Morgan Library in New York and saw this exhibit on Miss La La, and I thought, this is such an interesting story. This Black acrobat that Edgar Degas is painting, the only Black person he ever painted, even though he had family members who were living in Louisiana and were Black. They were Creoles. He also struggled with that painting, even though he was an extraordinary draftsperson.
All these things came together, and I thought, “But what if I tell it in her voice.” Usually the impulse would be to tell it in Degas’ voice, and I was convinced that there were about three or four versions of her story out there. I think Catherine Frazier actually has a poem about Miss La La, but it doesn’t deal with any of the biographical material. All of which is to say that a lot if it is an exploratory process for me, and I try to let the research sit to the side, and just see where my imagination will take me.