Author: mark sussman (page 1 of 18)

A Season for Losing

Thanksgiving 2016 my partner and I headed down to Boston for a meal with friends. We were in the post-election haze, feeling apprehensive, angry, and stupid. The future was bleak and our imaginations filled in the four years ahead of us with every disaster imaginable: constitutional rights trampled, women and immigrants and people of color suppressed, racists and anti-semites given free rein, nuclear war, and, worst of all, the smug, sneering faces at the presidential prick’s rallies, reveling in their victory and wallowing with pride in the “greatness” to come. Trump was, in characteristically perverse style, correct: we were so tired of winning.

It was Thanksgiving, though there didn’t feel like much to be thankful for. Everything we did have, stability, friends, family, health, and so on, felt blotted out and stained. Perhaps that in itself reflects a kind of privilege, the privilege of forgetting the relative ease of your life. Despite looking forward to a couple days spent among good friends, all I could see was the four years ahead and the failures behind: repeated struggles on the academic job market and the ongoing existential crisis provoked by same, worries about settling into a life of mediocrity, a pretty sad looking bank account, and deeper anxieties that are frankly none of your business. If I had so far managed to suspend all that angst, to tell myself that it was all temporary and that I’d come out okay in the end, the election seemed to nudge my situation out of the virtual and into the actual. Four years is a long time. Maybe it’s forever.

I had been tasked with bringing liquor and cocktail materials, so in the back seat of our rental car, there was a box with a standard set of ingredients and tools: rye and gin, lemons and limes, dry and sweet vermouth, bitters, and a travel kit of bar tools my partner had thoughtfully purchased for me. If life was in doubt, we could at least drink.

The meal was good and it was good to be with friends. It was a smallish gathering, maybe ten people total. I mixed drinks for some, others sipped wine. We ate goose instead of turkey, a welcome change of pace. Despite our best efforts, conversation drifted toward “the political situation,” or whatever you call what was happening. And we kept talking and drinking cocktails and wine, and the conversation kept drifting, and soon it became clear that the party was still going, but we could not just keep pounding cocktails or we’d all end up passed out on the floor. No problem, I’d go get some beer.

New York City’s liquor laws are incomprehensible, but you learn to navigate them. As a Jew, I find their Old Testament-style mysteries relatable. They dictate that a grocery store can sell food and beer but not wine and spirits. A liquor store can sell wine and spirits, but not beer or food. This leads to a kind of Talmudic hairsplitting, where some liquor stores will not sell bitters, deeming them food rather than drink. Grocery stores and bodegas, because they sell food, will not sell wine. Instead, they stock the abhorrent “wine product” Chateau Diane, because it is not technically wine, whatever that means. Liqueur-soaked cherries, while they contain spirits, are abominations in the eyes of the Lord and so find themselves exiled to specialty food stores. The ways of the New York City Liquor Authority are not to given to man to understand.

Massachusetts liquor laws, while reasonable on their face, conceal a cruel caveat. You can get your food, wine, spirits, and beer all in one place, sure. But on two days a year — Thanksgiving and Christmas Day — the state reverts to its bygone Puritanism and forsakes the sale of alcohol. There is a good reason for this. The idea is that restricting alcohol sales will reduce drunk driving on two of the worst driving days of the year. It’s sensible legislation. It probably saves lives. Fine.

They don’t tell you this when you enter the state, though. There are no holiday signs that read “Welcome to Massachusetts: Hope You Brought a Six-Pack.” There is no warning posted above the Gillette razor blade factory that greets cars entering Boston. And this seasonal dryness, I would argue, is salient information. It’s the sort of local custom you want to know, like which side of the road to drive on or whether tipping is expected in restaurants.

And so, when it was no longer feasible to keep drinking cocktails made with London gin and high-proof rye, and I volunteered to make a beer run to the corner store, my hosts looked at me with pity in their eyes and delivered the bad news. It was not only unexpected, it felt a little outrageous, and so I went a little libertarian. How could the government decide that on whatever random day that I could no longer use my hard-earned money to buy something that was legal basically every other day of the year? This government meddling in the lives of ordinary citizens cannot stand. Even if there was a public health logic to the law, there was no justice in it.

Surely there was some exception for this. I mean, you used to be able to smoke in Denny’s restaurants for years after smoking was banned in all other restaurants. Why? You aren’t really eating Moons Over My Hammy unless there’s a charred, stale smell lingering in your nostrils, that’s why. Cigarette smoke is part of the gestalt, same as the earth tones of a Starbucks. There must be some national chain that had flexed its muscles and demanded an exemption in order to corner the Massachusetts holiday booze market. But no, I was told, no such luck. American capitalism’s pitiless amorality had chosen today, of all goddamn days, to take a holiday.

I’m not sure exactly what I was thinking, but at that point I made recourse to my usual strategy when these things happen and went into full denial. Drinking more was no longer the point (yes it was). This was a matter of principle (and also the drinking). “You could buy booze yesterday, and you’ll be able to buy booze tomorrow,” I declared. “I’ll be damned if I can’t find some today.”

Every city has a black market. Downtown Manhattan used to be littered with black market outlets, like an illicit mall. Handshake drugs in Tompkins Square Park, dimebag hustlers in Washington Square Park, bootleg CDs sold from tables scattered all over the Lower East Side, unsanctioned t-shirts on St. Marks, prohibition-era speakeasies, the various hook-up spots gay men would frequent for anonymous sex, and so on. They’ve mostly been flushed out, or at least reduced in size, by Giuliani-style crackdowns, overpolicing, gentrification, drug delivery services, and the internet. But before all that, if you knew where to go and what to do when you got there, it was there for you, at least theoretically. I never lived in that New York. Maybe I caught a glimpse of it, some remnants are still around. But I’m not well-trained enough to know it when I see it.

Boston must have been no different. But if my senses were dulled to New York’s black markets, then I knew nothing at all about Boston’s, much less those of the specific neighborhood where my friends lived, Jamaica Plains. What was I or anyone doing in Boston, anyway? My friends had moved there for a job, but despite their best efforts, the city was not to their liking. The only reason any of us were there at all was because these friends are the sort of people you make the trip for. What dark avenues would I have to travel to find Boston’s Thanksgiving demimonde? How would I perform the subtle gestures, the knowing nods? When asked for the secret password, what would I say? How long would this journey take?

Like 30 minutes, as it turned out. I headed out into the night with another guest, who I’ll call Paul, and our hosts’ dog, who is a good girl but not very intimidating. We walked down a hill, crossed a major intersection, cut through a park and some public housing and ended up on a street with a strip mall on one side and some convenience stores on the other. There was nothing doing in the strip mall, but one of the convenience stores was open. Paul and I figured our best bet was just to pop in and ask. It must be a slow night, maybe they’d be grateful for the extra business and flout the law. Paul stayed outside with the dog, I did a quick lap around the convenience store, and found that it was the sort of place that apparently never sold alcohol, not even on regular days. I asked the woman behind the counter if she knew of anywhere that might sell us some beer. She shook her head, even after I said I’d be willing to pay a little extra. She was a middle-aged woman, clearly English was her second language, and she didn’t want to be rude but also obviously did not want whatever problems I was bringing with me. I thanked her and left.

Paul and I stood there for a minute considering our options. As we were about to walk off, a kid, maybe mid-to-late teens, who had been hanging out in the store came out and asked if he had heard right: were we looking to buy some beer? He told us he knew someone who could hook us up, he’d be right back.

Paul went into the convenience store and pulled out cash from an ATM, and by the time he came out, the kid had returned.

“Okay,” he said, “My guy’s got a case of Corona.”

“How much?” I asked.

“60.”

Now, $60 is an absurd price for what he was selling, well over twice what you would pay in any grocery store. But the situation was desperate, and there was risk involved, and I was just happy things were resolving themselves so quickly.

“Fine,” I said.

“No,” Paul said. “40.”

This seemed unusual. I didn’t know Paul well, but he didn’t strike me as the kind of guy to haggle with strange men on the street. He was a mathematician, so maybe that had something to do with it. But really, I think he understood that he was in the middle of a story he’d tell people when he got back home, and that he hadn’t played an active enough role yet. He wanted a better part. I understood the impulse, no one wants to be a bystander in their own story. At the same time, I worried he would blow it, that his attempt to seize narrative agency would read as arrogance to the kid, and we’d be left standing there, two beerless schmucks and one dog on a chilly Thanksgiving night.

“50,” he said.

“Done!” I said, before Paul could speak up.

The kid pointed to a corner about 300 feet away, and told us his friend had it in his trunk, that he’d pull up over there. We walked down and waited. Nothing happened. We kept waiting and nothing kept happening. We agreed that something felt off, that we should go back and ask the kid what was up. I could see him still standing in front of the convenience store, a silhouette against the fluorescent lights glowing in the window. But we didn’t want to risk not being at the corner, just in case the car with the beer did show up. Also, we didn’t know this kid. He seemed fine, but it was a weird situation. If I asked him what was up, maybe he wouldn’t like it. So we agreed that Paul would stay at the corner with the money, and I’d take the very good but, again, not very intimidating dog and go talk to the kid. We referred to this as “our strategy.”

As I approached the convenience store, I realized there was someone new talking to the kid. He was bigger and older. I asked what was up, and the kid said the beer was here. Why did he tell us to wait at the corner? We never got an answer on that. I waved Paul back over, and he handed money to the new guy. Maybe it was the shadows cast by the convenience store light, or maybe it was just the situation, the saddest drug deal ever made, but the new guy looked tougher, harder. He held eye contact and didn’t smile.

“So,” I said. “Where is it?”

“It’s right there,” the guy said, and nodded to his right. I looked over and saw a dark alley leading to a staircase. It had “trap” written all over it. I felt proud of myself for recognizing the situation, on having both “book smarts” and “street smarts.” What a rare combination!

“Hell no,” I said. “I’m not going up there. Bring it down here.”

“It’s right there,” the guy said.

“Just bring it down and we’ll go,” I said.

Things were getting tense. Anything could happen now. The guy looked exasperated.

“It’s right there. On the ground. Pick it up,” he said.

I looked down and saw, on the ground in front of the alley, a box wrapped in a black plastic bag. Jesus. I handed the leash to Paul and hoisted the box onto my shoulder, satisfied by the weight and clinking of the bottles. I thanked the new guy.

“You guys aren’t from around here, are you?” he said.

“No,” I said. “Where I’m from you can just buy beer at the fucking CVS.”

Paul and I headed back and burst into our hosts’ apartment, a petty victory wrapped in plastic and firmly in hand. People exploded in shock and joy, a little because we got the beer, but mostly for accomplishing what had seemed like an impossible task. We played a drinking game, and I lost badly. It had felt like a season for losing, the post-election darkness closing in and smothering whatever meager optimism had survived the generally inhospitable conditions in which it clung to life. But really, in the haze of a good meal among friends, we were all winning. Against all probability and in the dumbest way possible, we had pulled one out, or at least that was what it felt like at the time. Is it overblown, irrational, borderline incoherent to say that, in overpaying for a case of shitty beer off some dudes in Jamaica Plains, we were were taking one back from Trump, someone who we thought, even before his inauguration, had taken so much from us? Yes, yes, yes. It makes no sense. But I didn’t care at the time. I don’t care today. The connection was felt if not real. It’s Thanksgiving. Give thanks for what you can get, get it wherever you can, make it mean what you will.

The Rules of Disengagement

Yesterday, the New Yorker announced that its editor David Remnick would appear live in conversation with “economic nationalist,” former Breitbart CEO, and former senior Trump aide Steve Bannon at its annual festival. The next five or so hours played out according to a familiar kind of political choreography. People protested loudly on social media, including some of the New Yorker‘s own writers. Appalled festival participants past and present announced that they would have nothing to do with an event where the likes of Steve Bannon was an invited guest. Under pressure, Remnick rescinded the invitation to Bannon, but stated that he intends to conduct an extended interview with Bannon anyway, to be aired later on the New Yorker‘s podcast.

The entire thing reminded me of the fantastic 2016 crime movie Hell or High Water. One thread of the story follows two bank robbing brothers, played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, knocking over branch after branch of the same bank. The idea, as Pine explains at some point, is that when someone robs a bank, all of its employees are trained to do the same thing every time. Bank Robber A demands the drawer money from Teller B, who will not trigger the alarm until after Robber A has left, as long as Robber A doesn’t allow her to go to the vault.  If you know the steps, you can dance the  dance. If you know them really well, don’t get too greedy, and have a clever getaway plan, you can continue knocking over bank branches forever. There are rules of engagement, even for criminals. Of course, in the movie, someone gets greedy. You wouldn’t have a movie otherwise. It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. Jeff Bridges is in it. It’s really great.

Remnick too seems to have gotten a little greedy, if not for money then for its virtual equivalent: cathartic, performative indignation. He also seems to have forgotten the steps to the dance that allow you to cash in, ignored the rules. In offering a “platform” to Bannon, he must have imagined that he would bring him onstage and take him to task for his role in the mainstreaming of white nationalism as both a tool in anti-immigrant politics and as an end in itself. Remnick must have imagined that, after being subjected to an onslaught of reason and righteous indignation, the audience would explode in applause and cheers, and then, Bannon, like Tinkerbell in reverse, would shrivel up into a chunk of carbon and be swept offstage by a janitor.

But that is not how this particular dance works. Not only because Steve Bannon has no ideas worth “engaging,” not only because the force of his politics depends on an appeal not to reason but to base instinct, not only because we, as a country, have already been exposed to Steve Bannon’s ideas plenty, thanks, but also because Bannon actually doesn’t need to “win the argument” in order to win.

Simply by announcing that he had invited Bannon, Remnick set in motion a social media chain reaction that could only result in Bannon coming away the victor. Now Bannon and his defenders can point to the entire debacle as evidence that, once again, these liberal snowflakes are too afraid of having their precious feelings hurt to debate people who “disagree” with them. While doing precisely nothing, Bannon gets to claim the very ground the New Yorker sought to hold by inviting him in the first place, which is the ground of free speech, debate, and “an exchange of ideas.” (Never mind that most people are uninterested in such an exchange, which is like trading your brand new 50″ TV for a picture of a TV drawn by a Nazi). New Yorker readers and the internet at large are now mad at David Remnick, who comes off as the sort of naive free speech fetishist whose good faith provides cover for racists, bigots, and trolls to continue to dump their garbage in the public square.

And that’s the generous interpretation!

Here’s another, less generous one. Remnick must have known he would get social media blowback for the announcement. He’s not an idiot. But he figured this blowback would actually help to promote the event rather than bringing it down around his head. Such an assumption would rely on the idea that other participants in the event would choose to remain on the bill rather than dropping out in protest, that, whatever their views on Bannon, they would not choose to sacrifice their own platform. It would also entail the idea that, while the online hordes howl, “enlightened” people would pay good money to see Bannon speak. In this scenario, online outrage is just a means to an end, which is the promotion of an event that will sell tickets and earn clicks, and, when, surprise, it turns out that Remnick totally owns Bannon in front of a live audience, when Remnick lines up indignant applause line after indignant applause line, then all of the online outrage will have been nullified, and everyone will go home satisfied that reason, intelligence, and liberalism have won the day, as expected.

Frankly, this latter interpretation seems more plausible. Remnick either ignored or failed to understand that engaging in any way with the likes of Bannon only serves to amplify his message and confer legitimacy on him. But I find it difficult to believe that he doesn’t understand. What seems more likely is that he wanted to get a little bit of the action, to use social media outrage to his own ends, a skill he apparently does not possess. “Engaging” with alt-right “ideas” isn’t complicated. There’s only one rule: don’t engage. In flouting that rule, Remnick got what was coming to him. The only just deserts would be for all of the participants in the festival who said they would drop out over Bannon’s appearance to stay out even after Bannon was disinvited. It would be a nice lesson in the power of disengagement directed at someone who still hasn’t learned.

What I Read: February 2018

Reading and writing, at least for me, have a kind of zero-sum relation.  If I’m writing more, I’m reading less and vice versa. Some of that has to do with the time each of them takes, but I also think they probably draw on and deplete the same cognitive resources. So I tend to put off writing when I have a lot to read, and then I’m left with the feeling that I’m not “being productive.” When I’m writing a lot and not reading as much, I tend to feel that I’m “getting dumber.” This has definitely been a “dumber” month. Part of that is due to the time and energy teaching requires, along with whatever other gigs I’m doing to pay the rent. But I’ve also gotten a fair number of words on the page.

A lot of the “dumb” and “unproductive” calculus is determined by publication as well, of which I did very little last month. Part of that is due to a sort of confusion on my own part: should I be devoting a lot of energy to scholarly publication right now? Besides the projects I’m already embarked on, should I be putting together another peer-reviewed article? Going full-bore on the book? Or is my energy best spent elsewhere: pitching freelance pieces, working on creative endeavors, following up with friends and potential collaborators on things we said we wanted to work on together?

I suppose all of this is to say that the question of “putting words on the page” and “keeping up with the reading” isn’t simply zero-sum. What you get “done” hangs suspended between all kinds of sets of competing interests and distractions that range from present necessity (What am I doing to make money?) to existential quandary (What am I doing with my life?). I’m not, it turns out, one of those people who sits down six days a week and cranks out 1,000 words before noon. Or perhaps I am, but I have too many things to do right now in too many different directions, that it’s not feasible to write like the machine I’ve always wanted to be.

Right now, I think it’s about “the small victories,” as they say. One thing I know I’m good at is finishing projects I invent myself, even if they they take longer than I want them to (they always do). But then, I’m also good at meeting deadlines imposed from the outside. That means that “outside” projects are always going to bump the self-invented projects onto the back burner, and that’s what’s happening now, which has made writing and reading into a kind of treadmill.

Barbara Browning, The Correspondence Artist

Barbara Browning, The Gift

Mohsin Hamid, Exit West

Pauline E. Hopkins, Of One Blood

Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power  

To be fair, I didn’t read even close to all of Crowds and Power. But then, I think it’s sort of designed to be read around in and dipped into, a practice I recommend for this book, especially in our current political “situation.” Canetti understood everything.

 

What I Read: January 2018

 

In an effort to keep track of my readings habits, remember books I would otherwise forget, and to just generally get my life together for crissakes, I’m going to try keeping track of all the books I’ve “read.” For me, having “read” a book means a few different things. In grad school, you learn quickly that you simply can’t read  every page of every book you need to know, especially scholarly material. So I’m listing a variety of books I read in a variety of ways. Usually if it’s a work of fiction or poetry — like Steal the StarsNeon in Daylight, Mira Corpora, and Imperium in Imperio — it means I read the whole thing. Other books, I’m reading for specific purposes or specific chapters, or it’s about something I’m sort of vaguely interested in, like The Great Transformation, In My Father’s House and The Age of Anger. I’m not listing stuff I read on the internet, because that would be insane.

I used to feel intense guilt about not finishing books, to the point that I would power through things even when I was bored with them, realized I had no interest in them, or when I had already gotten out of them everything I was going to get out of them. Books were like traps in that way. I’d walk into them expecting to get a nice juicy carrot and then, days later, find myself still caged in by my own misplaced sense of duty. Add grad school, and reading becomes, among other things, a perpetually embarrassing and anxiety-ridden exercise in endurance, a stroll in the park that turns into a marathon you forgot to train for and that some sadistic coach inside you forces you to keep running.

This is why, when you ask a grad student or professor or someone who works in publishing if they’re reading anything interesting, they stare at you with fear in their eyes and, if it’s me, start visibly sweating. You’ve just reminded them that they’re in a cage, and the cocktail party they thought they were attending was just a distraction from their own self-imposed incarceration. My parents once got me a Barnes & Noble gift card for my birthday, and I stood in the literature section in Union Square trying to make a selection having an honest-to-God panic attack. I was, at the time, drafting my dissertation prospectus, and every choice seemed like the wrong choice because it left out every other choice. And do I do the “right thing” by buying a book I need to read for my dissertation, or do I take the gift in the spirit in which it was given and choose something “fun.”

Contra all of that “when you do what you love, you never work a day in your life” crap, the truth is that when you do what you love, you turn the thing that gives you pleasure into work. Work is sometimes very rewarding, but it always comes along with bullshit: drudgery and tedium and failure and obligation. That’s how you know you have a job instead of a hobby, the bullshit.

Anyway, it would be nice to not have all of that baggage, so over the course of the last few years I’ve tried to just release myself from it. There are so many other wonderful things to be anxious about! The world in 2018 offers a veritable buffet of depravity and disappointment! Making more for myself seems likes gilding the lily. So with that:

Helen DeWitt, Some Trick

Hermione Hoby, Neon in Daylight

Nat Cassidy, Steal the Stars

Pankaj Mishra, The Age of Anger: A History of the Present

Karl Polyani, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time

Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture

Andrea Bachner, The Mark of Theory: Inscriptive Theories, Poststructuralist Prehistories

Jeff Jackson, Mira Corpora

Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory 

Samin Nosrat, Salt Fat Acid Heat

Sutton E. Griggs, Imperium in Imperio

Outtakes: More from John Keene

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.

 

 

Can we talk for a second about this Joyce Carol Oates tweet about Othello?

Sure.

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. 

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