MARCH 26, 2016
IN A WORD, Darryl Pinckney is lovely.
At the start of his reading at University of California, Riverside’s Writer’s Week, he says that he is “truly very nervous.” This nervousness contrasts with the lack of any sort of self-consciousness apparent in his work. He is a rule-breaker who argues his points with confidence. He knows what he is talking about, or at least projects as much, whether he is taking us through the rebuilding of Berlin or giving us a concise — and all too relevant — retelling of the role of voting within the black community. He sounds authoritative. And yet in person his voice is nearly soothing and his eyes soft; he says he is known to faint, and then notes that such a comment probably wasn’t a very “manly” thing to say, now was it?
We communicate partly through what we do not need to say. On our walk along the pathway leading from the reading space to the room where I will conduct our interview, we try and determine whether or not the Super Bowl is coming up soon and I say that my partner wants to watch it, so it must be within the week. There, a look of acknowledgment of our small sameness. Too, he notes that my hair is not quite a ball, as Cello, a character from his most recent novel, Black Deutschland, styles her own “good hair.” I nod and say it tends to do as it pleases. Again, a place we are painted with the same brush, not completely, but in a way that says, I get it. We are instantly comfortable, and fear of outing oneself as too black or too gay or too critical of current standards of what it means to be a marginalized writer dissipates. Vulnerability realized, we gain access to the space we need to discuss his work.
A longtime contributor to The New York Review Of Books, and author of two novels, most recently Black Deutschland, and Blackballed: The Black Vote and US Democracy, a mediation, Pinckney is immersed in both the past and the present. He is a thinker on history and a disbeliever that we can move totally beyond where we came from. Just as his characters seek escape and do not find it, Pinckney exists in flux, speaking both to what it means to pick between the lesser of two evils come election time and to desire, desperately, a fresh and untethered experience. Pinckney, though, also knows the values of such tethers, and the immense knowledge held in these, our bodies.
RACHEL CHARLENE LEWIS: Throughout your work there are themes of identity construction, reconstruction, rebuilding, and destruction, both in the theoretical and in the physical.
DARRYL PINCKNEY: Growing up black in the ’60s there were a lot of questions about what it meant to be black. Where did you fit, are you black enough? These questions were very much influenced by ideas of coming of age, and the revolution of black consciousness was of course a part of it. During this revolution of black consciousness, Stonewall happened. A lot was going on in terms of what one was, what one wanted to be.
We have to remember that identity isn’t static. It changes over the years. You go from being a younger person to a middle-aged person, an old person. You change a lot. Identity, too, is made up of many things.
By questioning and complicating identity, there is room to drown the identity question, which, in the end, I’m not so interested in except where it touches political reality or social destiny.
Jed, the narrator of Black Deutschland, constructs a new identity up against the architectural piece of the novel. For the bulk of the novel, he works for an architectural theorist. He is surrounded by physical rebuilding during his own sort of theoretical rebuilding of constructs of self.
I was always interested in the architecture of Berlin. Because it had been destroyed, there was a lot of room for building. Part of being in Berlin was looking at modernism in 20th-century Berlin and its influence on this destroyed city. Being in Berlin encourages you to question the old buildings and empty spaces and the stories they tell.
I wasn’t aware of identity building as relating to or echoing the architecture’s restoring or rethinking of the novel. You know, you try to be aware of what you’re doing in your writing but it doesn’t always work out that way. It’s interesting to see how readers take your work to different places and read it in different ways.
Part of what holds the structure of the fragmentary work or deliberatively interrupted narrative together are the patterns, the secret links that fit together in the overall work, and, in that way, you’re right, it is like constructing a physical space.
What is it that draws you to this fragmentary structure?
I have a sort of fondness for the strange, small lyrical work. I had different works in mind by men as much as women. Bruno Schulz, The Pure and the Impure by Colette, Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick. At this point, I don’t have to call these authors to mind; their works are just a part of me. I’m interested in putting together stories where you don’t have to say, “The sun rose, this is the middle, and the sun set.”
In Black Deutschland, since Jed’s moving between Berlin and Chicago and is a work of memory, the bits fit together in a more fragmented way — there is already an autobiographical voice, and so I didn’t want it to be so chronological — the bits fit together in a more fragmented way. This adds interest because it leaves room to move in different directions toward the same point.
In some ways the fragmentary nature of the novel simply reflects the protagonist’s inner state. He of course is speaking from where the book ends and looking back on how the book began. Gates once pointed out that the slave narrative is already a consolation because it implies that the slave got away to a better place where they can look back. This guy is looking is looking back, but I don’t think he’s in a better place.
In terms of the inner workings of the narrator, both in High Cotton and Black Deutschland, I noticed a sort of stoicism. In a Q&A following your reading at UCR, you said that you tend to replace expression of emotion with history. I kept feeling that in the story: we get more history than emotional breakdowns or anything like that on the page.
Jed is falling apart, but he is not in touch with his emotions. It’s also meant to be a surprise. It’s better to say, “Coretta Jones had to sell all her jewels” rather than, “She’s sad.” It has a different texture. When you don’t do something, you have to do something else, and writing is figuring out how to do that compensation.
Every writer faces intimidation of the blank page, and has limitations — as writers, we have to play to our strengths. The history that comes in: Is that Jed dealing with it? Or is emotion being expressed in other means? Each chapter of Black Deutschland begins with a historical riff, using a near-omniscient voice rather than being limited to a first-person narrator. Here, we don’t need to see breakdowns. I don’t think I believe in this show don’t tell — telling is showing, especially for black subjects. You could show, and then people might still get it wrong. If you tell, and people get it wrong, it’s not your fault.
I also lean toward modernist fictions that aren’t afraid to have voyages into the essayistic. The American suspicion of novels with ideas is one that we should get over.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how writers trying to portray a universal experience. Especially when you don’t fit into the dominant culture as a white, male writer, you often have different life experiences. What one writer or reader finds universal, another may totally not pick up on or find impossible to empathize with. Can you speak to the idea of universality is a thing writers should strive for?
When I was a student, there seemed to be the idea that blacks could write autobiography because the black experience was so powerful, but maybe we couldn’t do well in fiction (this was pre-Toni Morrison) because being black was such a limiting thing.
But every story has universal meaning because each is dealing with the human problem. The specifics are what makes it interesting, and what makes it new.
Do you think a reader must understand every word on the page for a work to be successful? You mentioned the idea of small references being missed out on, which made me think of the many references to hair you make in both of your novels. Some nonblack readers may not understand the significance of a character having long, “good” hair, and may wonder why it’s worth being written down.
No, not every reader has to get everything. Everything should be clear in context so that a reader can sort of figure out the meaning. I try to make the narrator someone who doesn’t get everything himself so it’s fine for the reader not to. There are a few historical stories in the Black Deutschland that Jed tells incorrectly. It’s not the Google generation, and it’s come to him wrong. It’s not that he’s unreliable narrator, he just doesn’t know. If the reader misses some small thing, the piece is not ineffective, just as Jed is not unreliable for believing a version of history that isn’t true.
In your 2014 interview with Guernica, you spoke on Hillary’s need for the black vote. I’ve heard pushback from the black community regarding white people infantilizing black people by insisting they vote for Sanders because it’s in their best interest. Do you think this has shaped support for Sanders, and how do you think this will influence the outcome of the election?
Black people aren’t stupid. The problem is getting people to vote, especially the young. It’s kind of sad for me to see them excited for Bernie Sanders because something grave is facing us. People say he’s this kind of idealist. He’s not really; he’s actually kind of a mean guy who hates everyone except his own spiritual vanity.
At the end of the day, we can’t waste time playing games with the Right Wing.
Everything is so corrupt and crazy. So much is going on to manipulate the voting process and who is and isn’t able to vote. We have people redrawing lines to keep local and state government in their hands. It really matters who’s president because of the patronage and the power gained by who appoints justices.
So what of the disregard for Clinton?
There’s a lot of snobbery about the Clintons. Bill is sort of this poor guy and she’s this alrightnik — student government president at Wellesley, unhip clothes, stuff like that. People sneered about that and still sneer about her. It’s what we have, and it’s not bad. I don’t hate the Clintons. They were very poor and they made money, but I don’t hold it against them. Why should I? I just don’t like the snobbery about them. It’s a fool’s position.
People forget that when they came to Washington, they were the outsiders. They were the strangers in town. People say the Clintons are dishonest, that they’re corrupt. Who do they think the Bushes are? Or Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld? The people who gave us the Iraq War and Blackwater? The Clintons are small-timers compared to how grand the scale of larceny is in the Republican Party.
Ultimately, it would be really awful if a Republican won. The Right Wing in America is very serious — they never stopped. They never stopped in their opposition of the Voting Rights Act, they went on and on until they eviscerated it. Hillary can beat them all. They’ve killed her and killed her and killed her and killed her and she’s still here.
Since we’re talking about bullshit, what did you mean during your reading when you said that James Baldwin didn’t go along with the bullshit?
Baldwin was always very consistent. In the last years of his life, the big thing people were saying was that Baldwin had sort of fallen off. Popular black writers who had criticized him for being the darling of whites, specifically Amiri Baraka, came to embrace him once he was not popular with whites. His late essays maybe lack a certain verve, but he is consistent about what he’s saying and about his positions. He had this way of sort of saying, “If you don’t shape up, it will be morally hard for the country.” But that worked only insofar as the country cared about its morality.
Once the country ceased to care about morality, his exertions rang rather hollow. His work wasn’t addressing a nation with morals. Baldwin’s late work felt, at the time, rhetorical. But looking back, his work is not, it’s instead despairing in some ways. Baldwin was consistent throughout his writing life. He just got tired.
Your writing explicitly discusses issues of race and sexuality. Christopher Soto, a poet, wrote about the consumption of the pain of people of color by white readers in a piece for The Best American Poetry. Do you ever worry about your work being consumed in a way that is tokenistic and inauthentic?
The question has a long history. The slave narratives were of course primarily for a white audience to be told something they didn’t know. They were also read by blacks who could read, and these narratives were addressed to them. This was their story, or a story they could certainly understand from the inside.
In the late 19th century/early 20th century we get Charles Chesnutt on one hand and Sutton E. Griggs on the other.
When Chesnutt first wrote for The Atlantic Monthly, he didn’t tell the editors he was black. They were made uncomfortable by his stories and didn’t know why. It had everything to do with what he left out. What made The Atlantic Monthly uncomfortable were things he left out in his descriptions — there were no descriptions of his black character having bug eyes, or mentions of lips and baggy pants. He does not make fun of him at all. This implied respect. Ultimately, that’s what made these editors uneasy. The absence of codes, and racial identification they were used to seeing as a means of mocking and dehumanizing black characters. The editors had to kind of relate to the guy.
On the other hand, we have Griggs, who wrote militant works and sold them at black churches. They always have fierce proud black heroes, whereas Chesnutt’s characters are all light skinned because he wants the white readers to identify with blackness. Griggs had no interest in convincing white readers to relate to black people. These writers represent two different traditions in black literature.
So what do we do about this?
You just have to accept that a large part of your readership is going to be nonblack. Even Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is really addressed to white people, not black people, because he’s sort of telling them, not what we already know, but of an existence and experience we already know of, even if we haven’t experienced it directly.
If the goal of your writing is to influence and enlighten, black writers should remind themselves that whites and nonwhites and everybody needs to hear this stuff rather than these writers feeling bad about it, or inauthentic because of it.
One of the upsetting things that occurs during the Harlem Renaissance is the concept that nobody paid attention until whites paid attention. Some black writers really mind that black audiences didn’t pay attention to them until white writers began to pay attention. They were frustrated by the idea that success in that world — the white world — made you big in your own. The reality is that it seemed like once whites say that what you’re saying is okay, it is sort of okay. We’re kind of not at that place anymore.
I think you have to address yourself to an ideal reader and often that reader is in the future. In the meantime it’s important to escape the code and the frames and force people to react to what you’re saying or to your characters without help, without mediation.
If you’re being honest, they have to too. Otherwise, why do it?