The “Paris Review” has one of the best collections of interviews with authors–and A to Z list, all available online . Among the dozens and dozens of mostly white writers featured, I spotted only five black writers–the Americans Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and John Edgar Wideman as well as the Nigerian, Chinua Achebe. There’s also an interview with the white South African writer, Nadine Gordimer.
More on the Americans later.
The two-part interview with Gordimer (in between inane questions such as “Do you have seasons in South Africa, or is it hot all year round?”) reveals that, indeed, she seems to have “distill[ed] passion” in the “forty-odd years” that she’s been a writer. We learn that her mother, stuck in an unhappy marriage, called the doctor in frequently to look in on this delicate daughter: it was Gordimer’s mother’s way of carrying on an unconsummated love affair. She was prevented from any physical activity, including dance, for which she had a passion; and taken out of school altogether at 11: she became “a little old woman.”
But it’s Achebe’s vivid humour that got my attention.
Achebe’s interview takes place at his home in upstate New York – he appears in “traditional Nigerian clothes,” reminding the interviewer, Jerome Brooks, more of the “priest in Arrow of God than Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart.” (Someone should tell Brooks about Yinka Shonibare’s Dutch wax cotton work.)
Achebe talks about how he “foolishly” sent his manuscript (handwritten, and the only copy there was in the world) for Things Fall Apart to a typing agency in London – one that was advertised in the Spectator – because he’d “learned that if you really want to make a good impression, you should have your manuscript well typed.” They charged him thirty-two pounds, and never replied, though he write them over and over, getting “thinner and thinner and thinner.” Finally, his boss at the broadcasting house, a Mrs. Beattie, went to check up on the manuscript while she was on leave in London. The frightened typing house finally sent him one copy – with no explanation. He sent it to Heinemann – who had “never seen an African novel.” At John Mcrae (a professor at the London School of Economics, who had “just come back from those places”)’s urging, they published a few copies – it was a risk.
And that was how the Heinemann African Writer’s Series came into being.
As for the African-American writers, there are some surprises. Among the usual annoying questions that writers usually hate to be asked (“What is your creative process?”), there are gems of unintended hilarity and insight. Angelou’s interview, conducted by George Plimpton on the stage of the YMHA on Manhattan’s upper East Side, reveals that she has “kept a hotel room in every town [she’s] ever lived in.” She insists that all decorations are removed – no tacky paintings of milkmaids or flowers –“nothing to “hold [her] to anything”. She wants nothing in the room changed for the duration of her stay – not even the sheets (though the hotel staff tell her that the sheets must be getting mouldy). She leaves home at six, and writes while lying across the bed, till about 12:30 or 1:30. She has a “proper, quiet, lovely dinner”; she is a “serious cook”. And on language itself, she says that though she can “mumble around in about seven or eight languages,” it is still English that draws her with its ability to “do anything” – she reads the Psalms, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Shakespeare, Poe, or James Weldon Johnson not so she can “imitate” them, but to “remind [her] what a glorious language [English] is” before she might begin a day of writing. What she hates? Being called a “natural writer” – for Angeou, those are the critics whom she wants to “grab by the throat and wrestle to the floor” because “it takes me forever to get it to sing. I work at the language.”
It is the black American minister’s voice she still hears, melodying sentences like “God stepped out, the sun over his right shoulder, the moon nestling on in the palm of his hand” – it is this voice that helped her formulate lyrics during the years in which she was mute, after her rape, and the subsequent killing of her rapist. Here, we also realise how ill prepared Plimpton is for the interview: he does not have a clue that Angelou was raped, or that she did not speak for some years of her life. When Angelou refers to those years, Plimpton asks, dumbly, “Mute?” Angelou graciously explains, and adds, “Of course, I’ve written about this in the Caged Bird”.
Morrison uses number two pencils to write her first drafts, and can switch from “raging about the violence in the United States to gleefully skewering the hosts of trash TV talk shows though which she confesses to channel surfing sometimes…punctuating her sonorous, deep voice” with “rumbling laughter,” smacking her hand on the desktop.
John Edgar Wideman is introduced as “a big man” who, “though slightly stooped at sixty…still has a basketball player’s body – long arms, huge hands, legs that seem to rise nearly to his chest” before the interviewer speaks about “the rhythms and cadences of black vernacular and music” in Wideman’s work. Yes, the author loves basketball – but from this introduction, you might think it’s some tamed version of Bigger Thomas writing poetry here. Plus, there’s some pointed questions (vaguely connected to Wideman’s focus on the “political”) about Wideman’s brother being in jail, and about his son, who is also in prison for murder – the author says, simply, “My son doesn’t like me to talk about his situation, so I don’t. Period.”
Jame’s Baldwin’s interview, by Jordan Elgrably, is more nuanced, focusing on the author’s “explosive relationship with himself and America,” and the city of Paris, where he first came to grips with the complexities he would have to face. We find that he writes in longhand, because it allows one to “achieve shorter declarative sentences.” Baldwin also speaks freely about the much ado made of his sometimes-antagonistic relationship with Richard Wright, and his criticism of Native Son – on a “technical objection”: “I could not accept the performance of the lawyer at the end of the book…I think it was simply absurd to talk about this monster created by the American public, and then expect the public to save it!” If anything, “the American way” says Baldwin, is not to “recognize it [the monster]” but to “destroy it.” However, he is insistent that he reserves “utmost respect” for Wright’s work – especially his posthumously published novel, Lawd Today (Baldwin tells the interviewer to “look it up”).–Neelika Jayawardane.