Life in the Major League
In his review of Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout [“Shelf Life,” August 17/24], Jesse McCarthy includes me among a group of writers in “perpetual search of an audience.” Just because most of my books and theater have been ignored by the New York media—including The Nation, which hasn’t reviewed a book of mine since the early 1980s—doesn’t mean that I lack a wide audience. The New York media view black literature in terms of one-at-a-time tokens, which conveys the impression that black talent is rare. It’s common. This is a form of literary neocolonialism, where dangerous natives are separated from those who are more accommodating. I’ve seen tokens come and go.
As a result of my novel Japanese by Spring, written in three languages, I was invited to Japan and China. Though the book was ignored here, it received enthusiastic reviews in both countries. My novel Juice! was also ignored in this country but was received favorably in China and by The Times Literary Supplement in London. In June, my play Mother Hubbard was performed in Xiangtan by a Chinese cast, with an enthusiastic review from the Hunan Daily.
All of my books are being translated into Chinese. In May, I was honored at a conference in Mulhouse, France, where scholars from India, Europe, and China read papers about my work. My appearance in Freiberg, Germany, was featured in Badische-Zeitung (“Der 77-jährige Ishmael Reed ist eine Legende als Dichter, Denker und Jazzer”). During the same trip, my daughter and I performed our poetry accompanied by students from the jazz school at Basel, Switzerland’s Music Academy. In addition to writing nonfiction, fiction, poetry, theater, and songs, performed by such eminent pop stars as Macy Gray, I play jazz piano and appear on the CD For All We Know, performed by the Ishmael Reed Quartet featuring David Murray. I’m 77 years old and have two jobs: poet laureate of the San Francisco Jazz Center and visiting scholar at the California College of the Arts.
My last three books—Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media; Going Too Far: Essays About America’s Nervous Breakdown; and The Complete Muhammad Ali, which came out last month—were published in Montreal. As of this writing, the latter is No. 1 among the 100 Ali books in Canada and No. 2 in the United States, even without the blessing of the New York literary establishment, whose endorsement, in the past, was essential to a black author’s gaining traction.