A Different Language: A Conversation with Percival Everett

By George MakariAugust 7, 2023

A Different Language: A Conversation with Percival Everett

Dr. No by Percival Everett

THIS INTERVIEW with the award-winning writer Percival Everett, which took place on March 15, 2023, was part of a series conducted by psychiatrist and writer George Makari for Weill Cornell’s DeWitt Wallace Institute on the nature of the imagination.


GEORGE MAKARI: Frequently I’ve seen the same quote of yours—it goes something like, “My goal is to know nothing, and my friends say I’m well on my way.” People love this disarming quote, but those who haven’t read your work may not realize that you are one of the most talented philosophical novelists in America. Your books are so filled with ideas. What does it mean to know nothing?

PERCIVAL EVERETT: I think it’s that I start working on a novel believing I know something about a subject or the world, and by the time I am at the end of it, I’m pretty much disabused of the fact that I know anything at all about it. At least I have changed my mind, and I like that feeling. I’ve not only grown accustomed to it, but it’s also comforting to me. By extension, I feel like that’s where I should be headed in life. The more I think I’m learning, the less I know.

Can you tell me a little about your engagement with analytic philosophy—Wittgenstein, Russell? Really heady stuff, which in your hands is always punctuated by intense humor. Tell me about your background: before you went to Brown to study writing, your focus was philosophy, right?

Yeah, it was—philosophy and science. I studied biochemistry and philosophy, mathematical logic, and it was from studying logic that I followed Wittgenstein into what is called ordinary language philosophy. I continued to do that as a graduate student, in a PhD program in Oregon, but the thing about Wittgenstein and philosophy—his main premise is that philosophers create their own problems by their failure to attend to the languages they learn to speak. That they create these problems with bad language. Unfortunately, Wittgenstein did not practice what he preached, so I lost interest, and as ordinary language philosophy consisted mainly in the constructing of scenes and dialogues in which people address philosophical ideas, I was already writing scenes. I’d been a reader for a long time, and I was too young, a bit immature to actually complete the degree. When they told me it was time to write the dissertation I think I just made a face and said, “No.” But I took what I learned about creating dialogues and just moved to fiction, a much better way for me to explore things. It was fairly organic, my coming to the writing of fiction.

You’ve said that you often get prompted by a philosophical problem for a work that then becomes a novel, so I guess that follows from what you said: the scenes develop out of a philosophical problem?

Yes, and often a not terribly interesting philosophical problem. Mostly it’s problems of logic, and not the logic of identity or any kind of cultural identity—it’s actually logical identity. I’m interested in the fact that A is A is not the same thing as A equals A, and even as I say it, it gives me a headache. But that’s at the root of almost everything I make.

Why is Wittgenstein so funny?

Oh, probably because Wittgenstein was not funny at all. He, in fact, mistreated one of my childhood and current heroes, Bertrand Russell. Russell went out of his way to protect Wittgenstein and to give him a place to work and study, and Wittgenstein, asshole that he was, treated Russell terribly. My intellectual hero and the model I would like to follow is Russell’s.

I think it’s going to surprise people where this discussion is going to end up: in some places that are very close to home, as well as some places that are very abstract. It becomes about naming, doesn’t it? Naming as a function of meaning creation?

What I’m interested in is how these marks, these sounds we make in the world, can actually mean anything to anyone else. Naming—proper nouns at all—is fascinating to me. Saul Kripke would describe them as being “rigid designators.” They do work in the world just by naming, and this comes from J. L. Austin, the idea that naming is a performative act. In naming anything, you’ve done something to it, you’ve changed its relationship with the world. So I often play with names just for that very reason. That and the fact that I’m pathologically a punster, and just trying to have some fun.

Well, you walk the tightrope so beautifully between high seriousness and comedy. It reminds me of people like Beckett. One of the parlor games of Percival Everett criticism is “Who is he like?” People keep trying to come up with an analogy for what you do and it’s fascinating, in and of itself, that it’s very hard to do. I was about to say, “like Beckett,” and I could come up with others. You must find that amusing because you play so much with identity and naming, and people are trying to come up with a different name for you. “Maybe he’s like that guy?”

Well, I wish somebody would tell me.

Let’s maybe start with the most recent novel, the award-winning Dr. No (2022). You’re frequently put in the postmodern, metafiction kind of bucket. Again, I’m flagging that it’s a bucket, and that you don’t belong in a bucket, but when you came to Brown, there was John Hawkes and Robert Coover. Was that when that Roland Barthes kind of metanovel became attractive to you?

As you point out, I resist labels. I tell the story the way that will serve the story. I have, from the beginning of my career, believed that I should be able to do something that I haven’t been able to do yet, which is to make an abstract novel. I’m constantly trying to figure out what I mean when I say that, and I don’t have an answer. I don’t know what an abstract novel would look like; I haven’t seen one. The closest I think that I’ve gotten to one is actually a novel that most people would consider one of my more realistic novels, and I say that because I think the idea of realism in fiction is so bizarre—it’s not upsetting as much as it’s confusing. I’m reminded of a choice that Howard Hawks made when he was shooting Red River in 1948. He decided to shoot in black-and-white, not color, because he wanted it to be more realistic. So, of course, let’s do it in black-and-white, because nothing’s more real than the world being devoid of all color. So, anyway, it’s that notion of “what real is” that’s been driving me.

That seems so central to Dr. No—fair-enough segue?

Yeah, I think so.

This amazing novel is a tour de force and incredibly funny. It is a takedown of, or takeoff on, 007-style spy novels, and is a very powerful novel of ideas that plays a lot with exactly that abstract notion you mentioned earlier. You put these glyphs on a page, they’re squiggles, they’re lines, they’re nothing really, and we end up seeing a world and believing in that world. And then you constantly pull the rug out from under us as we fall into belief and fall out of it. Dr. No is about a kind of evil genius who is very rich, and he has this idea that he is going to take over the world, as evil geniuses are supposed to do, by controlling this very, very special thing that’s in Fort Knox. And to get this very special thing in Fort Knox, he’s going to enlist, really commandeer, the main character, who is a Brown University professor of mathematics, who studies nothing. He studies the notion of nothing, and this is exactly what’s in Fort Knox. Remember, Fort Knox is where the gold is that underwrites the paper that we say has value. It’s a brilliant conceit, a high-wire act with humor laced through it. Do you mind if I read a little bit from the beginning?

Please, my memory will be jarred if you do.

Here are the first few lines: “I recall that I am extremely forgetful. I believe I am. I think I know that I am forgetful. Though I remember having forgotten, I cannot recall what it was that I forgot or what forgetting feels like.” It goes on like this, a very self-doubting narrator. “If we remembered everything, we would have no language for remembering and forgetting. As well, nothing would be important. In fact, nothing is important. The importance of nothing is that it is the measure of that which is not nothing.” Finally, we start doubling over in laughter as this poor fellow has changed his name to Wala Kitu, which means “Nothing Nothing” in Tagalog and in Swahili, respectively, and the “who’s on first” punning and joking leavens what is really serious stuff. Nothingness is a big deal, and so the narrator says, “It is sad for me that the mere introduction to my subject of interest necessarily ruins my study. I work very hard and wish I could say that I have nothing to show for it.” This book hurtles forward, creating such narrative momentum, such desire to know the next thing, and then it drops these moments, again and again, where we’re reminded that there’s nothing but these marks on the page. I wonder if you would tell us about negation and why you became so interested in it?

Well, that’s no small question.

It’s no small book.

Well, I’ll mention something—you know, Bertrand Russell wrote short stories. I like a lot of them, and there’s one that I’ve been unable to relocate, but I remember it fairly well. It’s about a philosopher who discovers, who determines through his thinking, that the root of all evil, all bad things, is negation. So, to make his life better, he decides to purge his language of all negatives. At the end of the story, he’s sitting in his study, books strewn about, all over the floor, on the desk. His friend enters the room and asks, “Have you found the book you’re looking for?” Quite upset, he looks at this friend and pauses and says, “I have found many others.” That’s a book I read when I was really quite young, 12 or 13.

So, he doesn’t say “no.”

He doesn’t say “no.” But what it doesn’t do is it doesn’t change the problem. And that’s fascinating to me. Not only is there nothing wrong with negation, but there’s also something quite positive about negation. In fact, we wouldn’t be able to do any calculations at all without cancellation. In organic chemistry, you wouldn’t be able to use the factor-label method, you wouldn’t be able to counter something that’s acidic with something basic. Negation is maybe one of the more important things that we experience, but in the same way that the West was slow to come to the number zero, negation seems to be something that we instinctively think is bad.

It’s interesting from a developmental perspective, the child’s “no” is a very important moment where some sense of autonomy emerges through that “no.” A separateness as well.

In fact, that happens quite dramatically in a very bad movie. It was one of the Planet of the Apes films, in which they come back into our present time because the apes are from the future, and their entire revolution starts when one ape says “no.”

So, this main character knows a lot about math.

Yes, he does. I don’t.

I don’t know about that—I think you have a lot more work to do to know nothing. This novel is so erudite, I kept googling math problems. A lot of it does have to do with set theory, it seems like you’re playing around with the notion that math has a way of thinking about identity, a different sort of way of organizing sameness.

Well, everything comes down to sameness and difference, doesn’t it? Even Frege’s puzzle that I’ve been puzzling through the last three or four books, how Venus, Hesperus, and Phosphorus all refer to the same thing but mean something different. The whole idea of sense and reference, it’s there again and my head starts hurting.

I think this nominalism is so relevant for your prior book The Trees (2021). I should back up—the main character in Dr. No is on the spectrum. He has a very loving, warm relationship with a one-legged pit bull that he carries around in a BabyBjörn. He talks to him, and the dog talks back, and the dog is very philosophically sophisticated, and often makes these points that challenge the main character to change his behavior and his actions. It’s also clearly the most loving relationship in the book, where there’s a lot of distance and sense of isolation. The main character is with his dog, Trigo, and he starts to contemplate the “fantastic revelation that no one is born with a name. And no proper name was a rigid designator,” he says, “as it seemed all too clear that there were no other possible worlds, though I might have capitulated to the notion of possible futures, allowing that no future actually existed.” Can you untangle that for me? Obviously, there’s a bunch of philosophical problems in one power-packed sentence.

If I could, I wouldn’t have written that sentence.

Okay, well, “no one is born with a name” is something that, yes, you not only understand it; you’ve also helped us understand it in a much deeper way. Naming is categorizing. What is a rigid designator?

It’s, for example, your name—George—which is a name that exists in the world. We can imagine that George is the name of your name, but you, George, as I use it, that is a rigid designator, in that it applies and specifies only one thing in the world, that being you.

So, there’s this tension, there’s an evil genius, on the one hand, who wants to take down the world. He’s angry; he has a trauma, a burden, from the assassination of Martin Luther King. He wants to destroy America: America has given him nothing, he says, and he wants to give it nothing in return. And he’s a character who really sees through all social conventions because he’s kind of a sociopath, right? Social convention—the way that we pretend that we know what we know when we know it because we share the same meaning—he just plows right through that. Whereas these other mathematicians, who are quote-unquote “on the spectrum”—and after a while, “on the spectrum” started to sound less and less like a phrase that had denotative meaning as you used it—they see the world through the lens of math and of a reality that really doesn’t have to do with language so much. Is that fair to say?

Um, I don’t know if it’s—

Or is it a different language?

It’s a different language. I believe that perhaps most artists, and most people who think a lot, actually fall on the spectrum. I think it might be our next evolutionary step, it’s another way of seeing the world. My son is considered a high-functioning dweller on the spectrum, and I watch him, and I realize that, Oh, I recognize that, he gets that from me. And I say to him, while he’s not looking, “I’m sorry.” The whole idea of reading the world becomes a different thing when you realize that it’s not only context-driven but also individual-driven. The notion of reading, what it means to each of us. And I don’t mean reading books; I mean reading everything. For him, for my son, the problem is, supposedly, reading social cues. And I’m fascinated by that because I would just as soon ignore most social cues myself, but my training doesn’t let me do it as much as is probably appropriate.

But I hear you saying there’s a kind of freedom in that, from the burden of social cues.

Yes, I think it frees him up to think. He says the most remarkable things all the time, just as kids who are more profoundly impacted on the spectrum, even more than he does, say things that are unexpected and fascinating. It leaves me wondering about the nature of conversation. You know, the one where I talk, and then you talk, then I talk, and then you talk. There’s another way of hearing communication.

From what I hear you saying, he’s able to communicate that difference to you so that the conversation, the communication, it’s different, but it’s not impaired. I’m wondering about the question of private language that you bring up so much, the Wittgensteinian concern about whether there is a way we actually can know another’s inner state. I was talking to someone about this earlier, these ridiculous things where you go into a hospital and they say, “Tell us how much it hurts,” and there’s a smiley face here and frowny face there, and there’s eight things in between, and you’re supposed to press a button. My friend said, “Do they think my eight is the same as the other person’s eight?” And yet, that’s what we struggle with.

There’s another moment in Dr. No that is just so funny: the Brown mathematician says to his dog, “Meaning is always constructed after the fact. Not only is there no private language, but there is no such thing as private meaning.” And the dog says, “I know what you’re thinking.” There’s this question, if language is all social convention, how much private meaning can we communicate to each other?

It sounds boring when I say it because it is: Wittgenstein has this notion of a beetle in a box. We can’t get to any of our beetles—they’re all wrapped up in these boxes. So, the idea of us talking about these beetles becomes, “How do I know that your beetle is the same as my beetle?” But it’s unintelligible; we don’t need to see it to understand that these beetles exist for us. It’s like the sophomoric question, “How do I know that what I see as red is what you see as red?” Well, we’re both stopping at the light, so I guess it’s okay.

Is that the function of categories? Because a lot of your work is really trying to open up the problems of categorization and naming, the risks of naming. But is that one of the advantages? Is that why we do it?

You want to talk to somebody a lot smarter than me. I don’t know why we do anything. Categories are fascinating because, unlike names, they’re not fixed. As kids, I think all of us loved Venn diagrams: they were the most freeing things in the world. And it’s not where something clearly is what it is; it’s always the overlap that’s interesting. The whole idea of names—in fact, in the novel, the villain’s name is John Milton Bradley Sill. Milton Bradley is a famous game-maker, and that’s why it’s there. How is a kid’s pretending game anything like chess? How is chess anything like basketball? But we have no problem understanding that they are games. We can say to someone who is having us on, “Are you playing a game with me?” We’re not confused by that. Language is so imprecise, and it has to be to work with any kind of precision.

So even though Dr. No is your most recent book, I wanted to start with that and then go to The Trees because I think it really lays out some of the foundational thinking that then becomes, to my mind, central to The Trees. It’s a fabulous book, very moving, very funny, yet a completely different genre. You have written in many genres, and not only in genres but also about genres, in an act of self-critique, in a way. So, this is a ghost story, it’s a story about American history, and it’s a story about some of these problems of naming, and the way naming within social contexts can be murderous, can lead to catastrophe. And these are not only abstract problems. When we face something like race, which biologically doesn’t really exist, but as a name, and as a social convention, powerfully exists, your philosophical framework makes you such a rich interpreter of racial dynamics in America. The Trees tells a story—well, do you want to summarize it?

I’ll try. I suffer from what we in my house call “work amnesia.” As soon as I’m finished with a book, I forget it. Maybe it’s self-defense so I can work on something else. This book begins with the discovery of two murdered white men. At each scene, there’s also the corpse of an unknown Black man, who has been badly battered and somewhat decomposed, but that body disappears both times. There’s a reference, and it starts to become at least suggested that that body may be the ghostly reappearance of Emmett Till. These detectives from the MBI, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation (and I don’t even need to make a joke, when you find out there’s an MBI, just the idea of the MBI), these two Black detectives are sent to investigate these crimes, and it swells, and swells, until these murders are happening all over the country. Synopsizing a novel is a little like reading a menu.

I won’t torture you by making you do more, but I’ll fill in some blanks. So, we are in Money, Mississippi—Money, Mississippi, is the town Emmett Till was near when he was murdered. Just for those of you who maybe don’t know the backstory, it’s the spirit within the book. So the story is of Emmett Till; hopefully we all know his name, but we may not all know the story. A 14-year-old boy goes for the summer to Money. He is said, by a woman who is seven or eight years older than him, a white woman, to do something: flirt, whistle, something. That night, two of her relatives grab the boy, beat his face to the point where it’s unrecognizable, shoot him in the head, put barbed wire around his neck attached to a large fan, and drop him in the river. What happens next is actually really important. His body gets found, and his mother insists that it not be buried, that there is an open casket back in Chicago so that people can see what happened. Okay, I’m getting a little emotional, so you take it from there.

Obviously, that’s an incredibly affecting story. It’s hard to repeat it and not be emotional. The mother’s act of courage was remarkable because there was an insistence by the United States government that it be a closed-casket funeral. But she refused. Years later, Carolyn Bryant—the woman who claimed that young Emmett Till, 14 year-old Emmett Till, had accosted her verbally, or whistled at her—recanted her story and said that never happened. Not that he should have been killed for any reason, but the whole catalyst of this murder was completely fabricated. The two assailants, her husband and her brother-in-law, died of cancer before they could be convicted of any crime, and Carolyn Bryant to this day is alive in North Carolina. [Editor’s note: Carolyn Bryant died about a month after this interview.]

Can I just add one thing: the two men were tried, but they were exonerated in Mississippi. They sold their story to a magazine a few years later, if I’m correct, admitting having done it, and to this day the woman who started this ball rolling is living her days out in North Carolina. The news that she was there, did that come out around the time you were spurred to write this novel? Because I remember that became a moment where the press was covering the fact that, wait, this woman is still here, nothing happened to her, and her life has gone on as if nothing happened.

It wasn’t until well after the novel had been published that I discovered she was still alive. I had no interest in her, more than the imagined character that I created for the novel, and I didn’t want to know anything about any of these people because I was making quite stereotypic facsimiles of them for the book.

Can you tell me about the use of stereotypes as a critique of stereotypes? Because the book keeps making us think about that.

Well, growing up as a Black kid in America, in the 1960s and ’70s, I was bombarded with stereotypes of my people. In fact, when I would go to the bookstore to look for books, I could find books about slaves, books about the Antebellum South, and books about what was then called “the ghetto.” I came from a family of two generations of doctors and professors, and I didn’t know where my story was. I didn’t think I was any less Black for having come from a different picture, but we weren’t represented there at all. To this day you can probably turn on the television late at night and find an episode of The Three Stooges or Abbott and Costello’s movie Africa Screams (1949) and see these horrendous depictions of Black people that are accepted as gross and insulting stereotypes but yet recur and recur. In fact, the most recent version of it—I don’t know if you are familiar with Quentin Tarantino’s film Django Unchained (2012). It’s ostensibly a Western. I would not say that Tarantino is racist, but it takes a lot to be aware of the racism that is in all of us having been enculturated in this society. He repeats a racist trope that shows up regarding other peoples in literature and film, and that is the white people taking care and training the Brown people. We have versions of it from 1970s and ’80s television with something called Diff’rent Strokes (1978–86) and a show called Webster (1983–89), where young Black boys are adopted by white men, and they’re taken care of. And there’s a later version where a former convict is taken in by a house full of white women—it’s called Designing Women (1986–93)—where they take him in and give him a life and he becomes the character that he can be because of this white presence. But in this film of Tarantino’s, aside from all of his posturing and his belief that he has some kind of protection from a claim of racism, he repeats that same story, in fact to the point where, at the end of the story, it is not the Black character who is outraged by the behavior of the slaver but his white father figure. These things are persistent and they’re hard to erase. So with this novel, I turn it around, and I present—knowingly, unfairly—depictions of white characters that might be considered over the top and offensive.

It’s what I think makes the novel even more distressing for the reader because, by the time you get to the end, you kind of want the virulent, white racists to get what’s coming; you want them to suffer. You end up falling into the inverse problem, and as you become more and more emotionally consumed, then at the end, when the deaths start happening everywhere, you kind of go, wait a minute, I’m not sure I was bargaining for this. I just, like, wanted a couple of the bad guys in this story to maybe die.

In my defense, I never want anyone to die, but I do want them to have to live with each other.

Well, that’s a beautiful way of putting it. No, I took it as a warning shot about living together, not demonizing each other. I think some critics noted how you pulled us into this satire, but it’s a tragedy as well, it’s a ghost story, and at the end our own inner stereotypes feel implicated. You know, I suppose a lot of liberal folks are buying this book, and they’re like, we’re going to be on the good side, we’re going to be with the saints, and at the end you feel uncomfortable because you haven’t only been imagining equality and tolerance; you’ve imagined vengeance. There’s a lot of revenge in the novel, right? Do you want to tell folks who Mama Z is and how you thought of her?

I can try. She’s a woman, I think she’s over 100 years old in the novel, and she has in her house compiled an archive of dossiers of all the people lynched in the United States since 1913, the year her father was lynched. She’s presented as a stereotypic, maybe spiritual elder, the inscrutable figure that America likes to create when talking about really old Brown people.

And then she turns out to be more of a kind of magical person, no? She has some supernatural power?

I don’t know. You have to tell me.

So, the mystery of how these deaths are happening all over the place is not her supernatural power?

Maybe it is. I don’t know.

It is an open novel, in that sense. But it’s very touching really, because in a way there is a notion of witnessing, testimony, and it goes to this problem of how categories can kill. This is a group of people in a filing cabinet, all in one category—they are the lynched—and yet there’s a kind of bumbling, if you will, or deeply unfairly treated, young professor from the University of Chicago, and he comes down there, and he decides that he’s going to write every single name down, which, if I remember correctly, you did. You wrote those names down yourself.

I didn’t write every single name down; I wrote perhaps 1,000, until my hand cramped.

To give them names?

To give those names some meaning to me. Despite the fact that many of the names are quite common, I never would have been able to dream up that many names, and in doing this, they did become real for me, and not simply, as the character says in the novel, “They’re not statistics anymore.”

You had a touching experience after the novel was published.

Oh, yes. In the novel, there’s a list, an abbreviated list, of victims of lynching, and there’s a name, David Walker, followed by David Walker’s wife and David Walker’s four children. A woman in Tennessee, after the novel was published, sent me a letter and informed me that she knew David Walker’s wife’s name, and it turns out her name was Annie. So, when I give readings from this novel now, instead of reading it as it’s written, I read: David Walker, Annie Walker, David and Annie Walker’s four children. And that experience of having that knowledge given to me by someone I didn’t know, because of this novel, moved me greatly.

There’s also a poetic thing that happens when this University of Chicago kid—I’m going to call him a kid, he’s 27—writes all the names down. At some point, Mama Z says to him, “What are you doing?” He’s writing the names down to give them names, and then he’s erasing them to free them.

Yes, she asks why he’s doing it in pencil.

And that is a wonderful vision for America: if we could find a way to recognize our history and also be free of it. But this is a novel about the fact that we still are a haunted nation. I wanted to ask you more directly about race and the imagination. So how do you think about your responsibility versus your individual imaginative freedom? The kind of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, argument? I’ve seen people write that Percival Everett is clearly on this side or that side, and I’m not really sure I get one side or another from you. But tell me how you think about that for yourself. You’ve been so creative, so imaginative, and also really responsive to Black experience in America.

Well, I’m an example of Black experience in America. Basically, I don’t feel that I’m in any way socially obligated to write a protest novel. That said, I don’t think there’s any novel in American literature that is not about race, given the history of this country. If there is no race in a novel, then that’s the racial comment that the novel is making. My characters often share my experience, or something like it, because that’s the way we all write. What do I know about the world? I know about the world what I’ve lived in the world, and so everything that’s there is just because that’s what’s made me.

That’s a compelling answer, but it would have made Partisan Review go out of business because there’s no debate! To me, that’s a pretty winning answer. Your earlier novels, the notion of social demand and pushing back against social demand, it must not have been so easy. Clearly you wrote out of some insight into the darkness that this kind of demand came from—

I don’t think of any demands like that; I write about people. People have their experiences in their lives. I’m amused by the insistence of our culture on trying to read any work in that way. There was a review of my second novel, Walk Me to the Distance (1985), in which I do not specify the race of any of the characters. Now, a close reader could probably figure out that, yes, this character is Black, but I don’t say it. And what I learned early on is if I didn’t have my character comb his Afro or cross Lenox and 125th Street, at some point in the first 10 pages, then that character was white. So, I did not have him do any of that. And there was a review, I think it was in The Washington Post, where apparently the reviewer liked the novel—talked about the violence being sublime, I thought that was kind of weird—but at the end he adds a one-sentence paragraph that read—I remember this part clearly—“By the way, the novelist is black.” Since he couldn’t work it into the review of the story, he had to find a way to put it in there. At best it’s curious; at worst it’s pernicious.

Yeah, in Dr. No, there’s a little backstory about race, but we don’t really find out the race of the main character until I think it’s mentioned once at least three-quarters of the way into the novel. It’s trivial.

On page 50 of my novel Glyph (1999), the baby who is narrating the story says, “By the way, I’m African American.” I’ve had so many people write to me and say, “You’ve caught me.” Because there is no reason to read this baby as being white, in the same way there’s no reason to read this baby as being Black, but why should the default assumption be anything?


Percival Everett is a Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California and the author of nearly 30 books, including Percival Everett by Virgil Russell (2013), Assumption (2011), Erasure (2001), I Am Not Sidney Poitier (2009), and Glyph (1999). He is the recipient of the Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, the Believer Book Award, and the 2006 PEN USA Center Award for Fiction.

George Makari’s most recent book, Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia (2021), won the Anisfield-Wolf prize. He is director of the DeWitt Wallace Institute and professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College.

LARB Contributor

George Makari is the director of the DeWitt Wallace Institute for Psychiatry and professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. He is the author of Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis (2008), Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind (2015), and Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia (2021). 


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