The Craft of John Edgar Wideman

The Craft of John Edgar Wideman

A conversation with one of the greatest living Black American writers on work, life, and why good fiction is like a game of basketball.

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John Edgar Wideman has outlived many of his peers. Born in Washington, D.C., in 1941, he grew up in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh and went on to attend the University of Pennsylvania. In 1963, he became the second African American to win a Rhodes scholarship, and in 1965, he began an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he studied under Kurt Vonnegut, among others. In 1967, Harcourt published his first novel, A Glance Away, and he was off to the races. Since then, Wideman has published nine more novels, six collections of short stories, and five memoirs, earning nearly every award possible in the process. Despite this long career, and despite the deaths of many of his contemporaries, Wideman shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. His commitment to finding new stories to tell, his attentive chronicling of persistence through loss, and his dedication to craft have made him one of the greatest living Black writers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Wideman’s writing pairs a close attention to the life of the mind, with an unflinching eye to the horrors of racism and poverty. In (auto)fiction and nonfiction in which authors appear as characters, musing about their implication in and distance from the conflict at hand, he has captured the 1985 MOVE bombing (in Philadelphia Fire), the lynching of Emmett Till and the court-martial of Louis Till (in Writing to Save a Life), and the incarceration of his own brother and son (which appears throughout his work). His new collection, You Made Me Love You: Selected Stories, 1981–2018, compiles short stories that feature characters as diverse as Frederick Douglass, a blind basketball player, and Wideman himself and discusses issues from slavery and abolition to sports, romance, visual art, academic scholarship, and more. I spoke with him about the collection, prisons, and the importance of dialogue. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

—Elias Rodriques

Elias Rodriques: You’ve dedicated this collection “To all those coming up after: stay in the struggle.” What’s the struggle?

John Edgar Wideman: The real struggle, for me, is aside from the cultural or social conditions thrown up in people’s faces, whether we’re talking about slavery, a world war, or an epidemic. Those things are part of the world, and they always happen. But for me, the struggle is—over and against all those external forces—continuing to live a life and to cope with the unexpected, the unknown, and the threatening. In other words, the big struggle is to maintain some sort of integrity of inner life that, for that person, is precious and valuable. That’s all we have. That’s the struggle I want to contribute to. Nobody ever solves the struggle, but I want to reach people at the level at which they are organizing a sense of self and of individual identity.

ER: Is that why you often write in the first person for the characters of the stories we read?

JE: Yeah, but the odd thing about discussing work is that it can all be made to sound rational—that one made certain kinds of decisions, and one can ask, “Wasn’t that smart or dumb?” But in effect, I would have to say I bumble along. It turned out that speaking in a first-person voice worked for me because it gave me a chance to be an individual, to talk about this struggle, and to stay alive. That kind of immersion is like playing basketball. I respect basketball as a game and I love to watch people play, and I’ve had heroes and I still have heroes, including my daughter, but playing the game is what it’s about. Putting stories in that first-person perspective is, for me, engaging the reader in a kind of pickup game. I’m with the reader, exploring how this game is going to be played, what the rules are, and what matters in this game. I speak in my own voice, and that’s my participation: I’m playing. But it’s also very difficult, because it crosses lines. I’m asking you for something and hoping that you’re going to ask questions back.

ER: You’re like Doc [from the short story, “Doc’s Story”], shooting your free throws blind, expecting no one will turn it into an oop.

JE: It’s easy to pretend one is conscious, but when you take off from the ground and you have the ball and the other team’s trying to stop you from scoring, you leave your feet. You don’t exactly know what’s going to happen, except that when you get old, you don’t get very high. But when you take to the air, that’s the greatest feeling in the game. It’s unpredictable. That’s where improvisation, guesswork, and chance all enter. You don’t know whether someone is going to jump up and smash the ball down. You don’t know whether one of your teammates is going to suddenly become open. It’s that energy—that unpredictability—that has kept me writing.

ER: Since you mentioned aging, I’m curious about the long arc of your career. Looking back at the work in this collection now, some of which is 40 years old, what stands out?

JE: The fun for me was to go back and read some of these stories, and to have other readers and editors read the story and say, “I like this one” or “We don’t need this one.” That made me go back and read them. I don’t usually do that. Time is limited. One thing you learn through age: You don’t have forever. You better use the time you have. So I usually don’t look back. Books that are already done are like games already played. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that might be interesting and fun about games that are over, but they’re over. I’m hungry for the new day to figure out the sentence that I need next to move the story that I’m in the middle of.

ER: But why now? Your first book [A Glance Away] came out in 1967. You could’ve pulled together a collected-fiction book years ago. So why did you look back now?

JE: I looked back because it was an editorial task. I don’t want to look back. What’s in it for me? One of the scariest things is picking up a story and reading a line and thinking, “Why did I spend my time doing that?” or “I wish I had a red pencil to get this boy in better shape.” But that’s a dead end. It’s too late. I like to keep my eye on the ball, not on the shot that I made or missed a minute ago but on the possibility for a new one. The game is still going on. I don’t want to beat up this basketball metaphor too much, but it does simplify things. I have no idea whether you are a basketball fan or not.

ER: I am.

JE: But basketball has become a way of talking. I apologize to everybody who hasn’t been on the court, but it’s a world that has connections to metaphysics, history, individual achievement, heroes, and myths.

ER: This is partially my fault too. Let’s change gears. Both Damballah and American Histories, which are 38 years removed from each other, begin with stories of slavery. How have the stories that you want to tell about slavery changed over the years?

JE: Paradox: Slavery is not over, has not ended, and its effects are still with us, but I was never a slave and my people—African American or African people—were never slaves. It’s still around, but we were never slaves. Slavery is something imposed. People are enslaved. That happens because certain groups have power and impose a social condition on others: captivity, service, or death. That’s not only for a lifetime but also for the children of the ones who have become enslaved. There’s no denying that, just like there’s no denying that there are Black people and white people.

ER: Of course.

JE: The idea of white and Black, and the idea of slavery, are dangerous. They are deeply embedded in our consciousness. In other cultures, they take different forms, but they are part and parcel of the universal inheritance of mankind. So how can one not be concerned about slavery? Its vestiges have not disappeared. That urge that human beings have to subject people, to make them follow not their own will but the will of someone else, and those instincts that all of us possess to have power over others are probably never going to go away. They have infected society after society. We’re still in the midst of a social condition in which there is a class vulnerable to enslavement and people who have spent an awful lot of time keeping those folks down or trying to enslave them.

But I knew there was something else—I knew there was a part of me that had nothing to do with the idea of me, of Blackness, of second-class citizenship that I saw projected by the culture. I had to sort stuff out, but I continue to write about some of the same things because those dangers and hierarchies have not disappeared.

ER: The language of slavery and of abolition is often applied today to prisons, and prisons are central to so much of what you have written. How have your thoughts about prisons and abolition changed in your fiction?

JE: I read everything I can get my hands on about prison reform, the history of prisons, and the philosophical debates about prisons and punishment. I have a fascination for all those kinds of things—concentration camps, hospitals—for various reasons. I read Erving Goffman when I was in school, and then he was a colleague. He writes about how institutions attempt to impose an identity upon its members. I have that intellectual interest, but unfortunately, I’ve had family in prison for as long as I can remember. I’ve written about it and thought about it, and I’m still fighting not only prisons per se but also the courts, the law, and the institution of parole. My brother was in prison for 40-something years, and then he got out. What happens to somebody who’s had that experience? Where are they going to go? Where do they fit in? How do they catch up? How do they learn to use a computer? What the hell is a cell phone when you haven’t seen one or touched one?

ER: How do they adjust?

JE: The mechanical jumps are nothing compared to the emotional and metaphysical adjustments that a person makes. I have learned so much from my studies of prisons, and I’ve learned from my brother and my son. I’ve watched the kind of strength they’ve maintained despite imprisonment. When I’m looking for heroes, I could start there. How does a person who has all the normal props that everybody depends on have them totally taken away? Everything from your shoelaces to your shoes to where you lay your head at night to what you eat to how long you can stay up to who you are able to consort with to what you can read—all that stuff is controlled by external forces. How, in that kind of abyss, do you maintain a sense of identity?

That’s the struggle I was talking about for the people like my brother and my son. There’s so much to be learned: What has a society lost, what have they gained, and why that price? Why couldn’t something happen to them in the free world that would create strong individuals like that? Why do we have prisons that can squeeze out some of the best in human beings and an educational system that squeezes out some of the worst? I’ve watched it over the years. I don’t simply have to speak of my relatives: I learned from Frederick Douglass and the historical record of so many others.

ER: You’ve learned how a leaf flying over a wall [in the story “All Stories Are True”] can be a thing to cheer for, even when that leaf blows back in.

JE: I forgot that moment in that story, but as soon as you said it, I saw the yard and the prison in Pittsburgh, the people sitting around, the chairs, the tree. I hear the voices. It all comes back.

ER: Since you mentioned Douglass, can you talk a little bit about why you wrote the story “JB and FD,” about Frederick Douglass and John Brown, as a kind of dialogue?

JE: The dialogic method is very appealing to me. I like to ask questions—the dialogue of a back-and-forth. That’s not something I picked up in a class studying European continental philosophy; that’s how I grew up. One’s opinions, if one holds them strongly, get interrogated. You have to put your money where your mouth is; you can’t just talk shit. You’ve got to get out there and act out stuff on the court, sitting and waiting for the next game, in the barbershop, and in the church. When I was a little kid, I would listen to the sermon, think about it, and then talk about it to friends. That give-and-take is so much a part of the dynamic of African American language. And that push-and-pull dynamic makes it impossible to talk about American language without the African tones and echoes merging. So there’s that need for me to test by speaking and by listening.

ER: Listening is as much a part of the dialogue as speaking.

JE: Silence has so much to do with this dynamic of give-and-take, of speaking and listening. If one person speaks and you don’t jump in and say whatever you have to say, whether it’s agreement or disagreement, but you let the silence reign, some of the most important exchanges can happen. If you jump in right after someone finishes speaking, then you break the charm. You cut off the possibility of talk and reconciliation. When you were asking about silence and dialogue, I thought of that, and I remembered my mother leading me in a simple version of the Lord’s Prayer when I was a child. I was that young, she had to lead me by the hand. It’s not those words, it’s not Christianity, it’s not the church, it’s not my mother’s religiosity, but it’s the silence of that moment and the expectation that there was some dimension where the give-and-take of me as an individual and some greater, more powerful, too-immense-to-even-consider force could come together. Silence is crucial to me.

ER: It’s there throughout your stories, even in the last story about Jean-Michel Basquiat and Romare Bearden meeting. They don’t say that much to each other. They think a lot.

JE: And they created the art. They had one another’s art. I don’t know that it’s ever on record that Elgin Baylor talked to Julius Erving, but they had a lot to say to one another. You don’t get one without the other.

ER: Because that story stuck with me and because it’s about an imagined meeting, I want to know: What does imagining alternative histories make possible for you?

JE: I think at the end of the story, there’s a tree. Of course, trees don’t talk—or do they?

ER: It depends on who you ask.

JE: Somebody’s made a whole lot of money on a story in which trees feature as characters. Anyway, I was in France looking out over the ocean. There were these huge trees and stumps of others that had been cut down right on the edge, almost the precipice, overlooking the sea in Brittany. That tree, I realized, was a composition of all that had happened between the time it was a seed to the time that it was this trunk that was three feet across. Time could take the form of that tree. That tree could be a witness and take the shape that it did over time. It might be there another hundred years, but it was also old and dying. That sense of a life so much larger than mine, that told me everything I needed to know about mine. When talking to Frederick Douglass or talking to John Brown, one goes quiet inside.

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