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.
As a result of a trip to Nigeria, my Ishmael Reed Publishing Company published 40 Nigerian writers in two anthologies. I sold the anthologies to the Egyptian Center for Translation. These writers’ works will be translated into Arabic.
So, I might be part of Jesse McCarthy’s “Negro League” in this country, but in the world, I’m a major player.
Jesse McCarthy Replies
I’m a fan of Ishmael Reed’s work, which I have always read with delight and affection. Flight to Canada, which I consider his best work, is in my esteem one of the finest novels in the canon of postmodern American fiction. My remarks were intended to confirm Paul Beatty’s place in a pantheon of black literary satirists, an important tradition of which I consider Reed to be the greatest living representative. Nevertheless, it remains a fact that Fran Ross’s novel, Oreo, was very nearly lost entirely (New Directions is thankfully, if belatedly, reprinting it this year). William Melvin Kelley and Cecil Brown, despite having written uproarious and challenging fiction, are terribly neglected. And even Percival Everett and Mat Johnson, who enjoy mainstream-publishing opportunities, often receive a tellingly muted reception. I was expressing my concern—one that I continue to believe is well founded—that Paul Beatty’s new novel would share a similar fate.
In his letter, Reed actually makes my point for me, by giving an extensive account of how unjustly marginalized his own writing is here in the United States. I completely agree with him that the New York literary establishment routinely ignores black writers and engages in tokenism, a harmful and scandalous fact that does much, as Reed notes, to convey “the impression that black talent is rare,” when in fact “it’s common.” Reed seems to take offense, as if he understood my allusion to the Negro League as implying that his work is somehow inferior. But the shame of the Negro League isn’t upon the players or its black organizers, but rather upon the racists who kept them segregated for fear of having to compete openly with them. The way I see it, the league that gave us Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, and Jackie Robinson can only constitute a glorious companionship. Reed deserves a wider audience in this country than the one he obtains. I do think that’s a shame, but it goes without saying that it is not his own.
Thank you, John Nichols, for your excellent, comprehensive portrait of Wisconsin’s governor [“Get Ready for Scott Walker…,” August 17/24]. I have watched him on several occasions and have been completely unimpressed. At the August 6 Republican debate, Walker appeared to be somewhat sleepy and a bit ill at ease, and gave forgettable responses to all of the questions directed to him. It does not seem possible that he could win at the national level. But, of course, I thought so about Nixon as well.
walnut creek, calif.
In his column “Our Stupid Politics” (July 6/13), Eric Alterman stated that George Pataki “has not held public office since losing his reelection bid for governor of New York in 2006.” In fact, Pataki opted not to seek a fourth term.