Speaking with Jeffrey Renard Allen was a real pleasure. I found him to be that delightful mixture of a person who has their heart and brain connected and directed towards good things. This is the full interview, lightly edited. A much shorter version of this interview first appeared in northerly, September 2016, for the Byron Writers’ Festival.
(NB: I have taken this photo from Wikidata – I couldn’t find anything to say it was copyrighted. I’m assuming it is available under Creative Commons. If I am wrong please let me know.)
You write across 3 forms – do they feed into each other or are they separate?
Well I write across four actually – I’ve been writing some essays too, personal essays. The one point of continuity in all the writing I do is an interest in language. I have to be excited about the words themselves before I can be excited about anything else that I am trying to do. My point of entry is the language and from that I think about the larger question of form, how I can shape the form to do things that interest me, or find ways to shape the form to say interesting things about the world.
My own experiences usually translate into the form of fiction, though that’s not to say that my fiction is inherently autobiographical. But if I have certain ideas, say about music or history those things tend to form into poetry. Poetry tends to be more about ideas than it is about story or narrative. I’m not a lyric poet, so to speak, or a narrative poet.
Then the short story is what it is, a shorter form. At the moment I’m working on a story about – I’ve imagined a friendship between Jimi Hendrix and the painter Francis Bacon, primarily set in London, New York and Tangier. I was interested in both artists and I have been for many years and I realised they were in the same places at the same time. So it’s an idea, but it’s a narrative that’s in some ways about some of the things that concern me as a writer and an artist; something about the process of creation, something about what the artist is trying to say about the world and the artist’s relationship to the world.
And obviously the essays I write tend to deal with factual matters but I try to approach them in a unique way as well. For instance I was recently asked to write a piece on the Black Lives Matter movement (published in the Evergreen Review). Rather than just a straight forward political take on the entire thing I also tried to bring in certain elements of narrative and my own experience. I tried to bring in certain thinking about literature and film and other things, to find a more open and organic way to approach the subject. Through that organicism I wanted to find a way to say some things that aren’t being talked about around the movement and the phenomenon of these killings.
Like for example, when I was growing up in Chicago and people from my generation – my mom being from Mississippi, being born and raised in the segregated south – we always had low expectations of police, for people of authority. It was always gonna be assumed that they were your enemy. The idea was to say what you had to say in a particular moment and try to survive that moment and then just go on about your day, and I think that’s in some ways been lost on young black people. This is not in any way justifying police conduct, but I think there is a kind of naïve expectation that the police officer will honour your rights and will honour your life just because he should do that by law, whereas we never believed that when I was growing up. There were many horrible cases of police abuse and misconduct in Chicago that everyone knew about. It was just assumed that you had to expect the worst, figure out a way to get out of the situation, just survive it, and I think that needs to be a part of the conversation.
And while much has been said about this issue and much has been captured on video, I don’t think a lot has been said about how to address the problem.
Many people talk about the idea of community policing, and that was something that we talked about in Chicago too many years ago. Whenever a shooting or something happened there would be calls for the police department to be disbanded and something else to be put in its place, but of course that never happened and it never will happen.
So the question is, what can we do from a practical standpoint to really address this?
I think the only practical thing that can happen is to have legislation that particularly addresses matters of police misconduct. And there has to be a really strong push to get legislation through that will address this and as far as I can tell that’s not even on the agenda with the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s platform, that’s not part of the conversation at all. Demonstrating without legislating to get some changes put into places doesn’t really achieve much.
How do you approach the novel?
I’m trying to tell stories that are interesting but also unique in some way, and I think it’s important to challenge the received form of the novel. Unlike other literary forms every novel is its own animal so writers can break whatever rules they want. I try to set up ambitious challenges for myself.
How did you discover the idea for your latest novel, Song of the Shank?
That was pretty much accidental. Quite a number of years ago in the late 90s I was reading a book by Oliver Sacks, the neurologist, called ‘An Anthropologist on Mars’ where he talks about the usual neurological disorders, where he talks about the disorder savantism, or the autistic savant. In one chapter he talks about this British savant named Stephen Wiltshire, who happens to be of African descent and can draw anything he sees, anything he just gets a glimpse of. He talks about Blind Tom in a footnote as kind of historical precedent to Stephen Wiltshire and other autistic savants that we know who’ve been documented, and that’s really how I became interested in this story.
I realised later that I’d actually already read about him – I’d done a lot of reading about music because it’s something that interests me, and I’d read about him in previous books, a little bit here and there. It had never occurred to me that he might be a great character for fiction but at that particular moment I was trying to figure out what my next novel would be about and that’s how it came to me. Oliver Sacks whet my appetite to find out more about Blind Tom and when I began to find out more about him there were just so many fascinating things about his life that seemed to lend themselves to fiction.
You write primarily African –American characters: when you write a story around someone like your character Blind Tom how much of your world view changes?
In this novel there are a number of important characters who are white people, particularly the Elisa character, so I’m not only writing about a white person, but I about a white woman in the nineteenth century. Just trying to wrap your head around those things is always a challenge I think. For me I think it’s just an interesting thing to do, because I am interested in people – even though I may be a shy person and probably kind of anti-social at times – but I’m still very interested in people and personal experiences and our commonality. I believe fiction is always about commonality. I really have a problem with this idea that a person owns a particular territory, you know, if I’m a white person I can’t write about black people, and if I’m a black person I can’t write about white people, that kind of thing. So to answer your question directly I feel like when I’m writing fiction I’m enlarging my understanding of human experiences as a whole and not just particularly African-American.
Family relationships appear a lot in your stories as well. What is it about the family that attracts you as a writer?
That probably has to do with the fact that my own family is kind of weird and screwed up. I was an only child, raised by a single mother, and that was true for most of the women on my maternal side. Women who didn’t have husbands or who had had husbands but were alone – that’s where my interests in family relationships began. My mother and my aunt had a really strange relationship, not only didn’t they like each other but they would have these really bitter arguments and I didn’t understand why. That was the seed of my first novel, investigating the origins of this conflict, this strife in the family. You have to go back and look at where you came from, and then I became very interested in what their lives were like in the south and what they might have been like.
Similarly, my paternal grandmother didn’t want me to have anything to do with my father. I was living in Chicago and he had moved to Kentucky, and often she would call me and say ‘oh, yeah, your father was just here’ but you know she never called me when he was there. He was involved in things that they thought I shouldn’t be privy to. So it was a very weird kind of family dynamic all around.
For that reason I’ve been very interested in the question of what family means. I’m particularly interested in the question of things other than the traditional nuclear family. How we form our own families outside of biological relationships because it’s something we have to do to have support and to survive and stay sane. I think a lot of my fiction is about that ultimately.
Your work has often been described as musical and you’ve also described your poetry as being musical, while Song of the Shank is about music and a musician – did that affect the writing? Were you trying in a poetic way to put music into the writing?
You don’t really know everything that you’re trying to do at first. It starts with trial and experiment. But from the start I knew the book would have multiple voices, and I have in many ways mirrored Tom’s own musical ability. He could imitate people’s various musical styles, he was known for his skills and memorisation and imitation. He was a mimic: he could not only recite speeches but he could also imitate the voices of people. So I thought the voice should be multi-voiced as a reflection of who Tom was as a musician. When I started to think about that I also became really interested in how his style of music seemed to prefigure people like Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis and so on, even though he existed before either the blues or jazz.
In certain parts of the book I was aiming for a thick narrative, where there are many kinds of voices and directions coming in at once. Changes and ideas being introduced that the reader isn’t always sure where they’re coming from. That seemed to be to me a reflection of Tom as a receptacle for all things, different ideas and voices and information and musical styles and so on.
I’ve always been interested in music that is very layered, so for example one of my favourite albums is Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, which has two drummers on one song and all these various keyboards and different things like that. And about ten years ago I discovered a singer from Mali named Oumou Sangare, who’s been probably my favourite singer for the past decade since I discovered her music. This particular culture she comes from in Mali has a unique approach to music as well; she also does this kind of layering thing where she’s the lead singer but there are also back up singers and there’s traditional violin sound that’s essentially guitar and there’s also electric guitar and there’s some drums and there are some traditional flutes. I guess the simplest way to think about it is a kind of call-and-response. I wanted to reflect some of those musical directions.
Can you talk about your facilitatory work in Africa? Has that influenced you at all?
It really came about by accident. I was invited to teach in St Petersburg in 2004 and when I was there I met a Kenyan writer who became a good friend. In turn I went to Kenya in 2006 to teach a workshop for a festival he has there, and while I was there I met all of these other writers from around the African continent. And that was really my first encounter with Africa directly. I became very interested in young African writers and also in African fiction, its development and where it’s heading. I’m very interested in international fiction, probably more so than American fiction. I know for the most part what American fiction is trying to do and say, whereas international fiction gives me another lens on the world with which to think about my own experience.
I was working on the novel in all this time as well. My time on the African continent began to shape the writing. For example, one of the locations in the novel, is essentially an all black island and part of the writing was based on things that I observed in Kenya on an island called Lamu, and also in Zanzibar, part of Tanzania.
The African-American tradition is a literary tradition that begins in orality and is always probably informed by it. I’m thinking of books like Their Eyes Were Watching God, Beloved, and your own works, books that shape the experience of African-Americans in a new way – yet many African-Americans are unable to access literature. How do you bridge that gap and bring this literature to these people?
I don’t know if I have an answer to that. Certainly in the 1960s people had a strategy they tried with literacy, during the Black Arts movement. The idea was to write literature that you could take to the people, and that mostly involved writing poetry or writing plays or street plays because those things were easily accessible to an audience and the public.
You know the unfortunate reality is that books take time and serious books require a lot of thought and time as well and I’m not sure that there is any easy solution to that dilemma. I do think one of the fundamental problems with America is that our educational system is broken, which is to say that we have people who are essentially functionally illiterate, and people who are scientifically illiterate. I mean functionally illiterate in the sense of not really understanding how to read a work of literature, or what literature is about, people who don’t want to read literature and who have very little exposure to literature.
It’s a larger question of the whole approach to education. I don’t think there’s an easy way. A large part is that literary fiction has a very select audience, which is unfortunate. I mean there are books that break beyond that audience, and you try to do what you can to make people interested but it’s not always possible to do that. I think sometimes too people are just not aware of what’s out there. I think that’s part of it. And I think the reality is that some people don’t have the time to read either; they’re too hard working, taking care of kids and that kind of thing.
You mentioned once in an interview that writing was about ‘putting the dirty stuff in people’s faces’ – what does that mean in writing terms to you?
I’m not a big buyer into the gritty reality or whatever you call that kind of thing, I’m not a social realist or any of that kind of stuff. I just believe that a writer should be open to writing about any subject he or she chooses, if it’s something interesting and worthy of reading.
In America sometimes we have this mythology about ourselves that doesn’t go challenged or it goes unchallenged. Take Donald Trump; there have been so many people that have apologised for his behaviour and tried to write it off because of one thing or another, when there’s still a certain kind of blatant nativism and misogyny and racism. That is all part of the American reality so you can’t just write those things off. I think it’s important, for any writer, to write about things that are often overlooked.
*Interview by Katinka Smit (c) 2016.