- From Brothers and Keepers to Two Cities Social and Cultural Consciousness, Art and Imagination: An Interview with John Edgar Wideman
This interview took place in Frankfurt, Germany, on the last day of the 1998 International Book Fair where John Wideman had just participated in the writer’s roundtable that clotured the event. It was entitled The Written and the Unwritten and dealt with the role of the writer as conscientious artist helping to bring about an evolution in the human rights of oppressed groups. The various societies chosen as exemplary were represented by Wideman as an African-American spokesman, by Armenian-American Peter Balakian, German-Jewish-American Robert Goldmann, and Lebanese-Palestinian Elias Khoury. The first exchanges in this conversation picked up where that debate had left off.
I would like to start with yesterday’s roundtable on the written and the unwritten. One of the things that impresses me in particular is that with yourself and with the literary quality of the people on that panel, we can put to rest the old quarrel between Richard Wright and James Baldwin that one must be either a literary artist or a protest writer.
Well, I’m afraid we probably won’t ever be able to put it aside because it’s not a legitimate dichotomy in the first place. It’s a very artificial distinction, but if you have societies that continue to be racist, then the perception of the work will continue to fall into a racist construct, so I guess the fight will never end until we have a perfect world. I think it’s very vexing, very vexing in this sense: the literature, the literatures of the formerly oppressed, or the marginal, and very specifically African-American literature, has reached a stage of high-tech, to make a metaphor. There is tremendous variety—people who write as Africans, people who write as totally assimilated Americans, people on the left, on the right, women, young people—there’s representation of the entire African-American community, and a whole panoply of styles, so that in that sense, the literature has grown. It’s exciting: many different perspectives are incorporated. But if it’s high-tech, it’s still operating in a sort of pre-industrial society, to continue the metaphor. Because of the attitudes, because of the inability to look at this technology, the technology of the writing, for what it is. And continuing to try and fit it into an obsolete frame. So I imagine that suggests there still is a critical project to try to bring these different systems into line. [End Page 568]
You were saying yesterday also that although there are all these different writers and that they speak with many different voices in many different genres and modes, that the hierarchy of the publishing world is not yet all that open.
It certainly doesn’t reflect that kind of variety. The boardrooms are still male and Caucasian. Most editors and major houses are all one complexion, maybe not so much one gender, but I think the women who actually make the decisions—“We will publish this, or not publish it”—are still very much in a minority. And of course when you get into the other realms of book production and distribution, it’s even more monolithic in terms of race and gender. The only area women seem to have a corner on is publicity.
You talked yesterday about a kind of homecoming, in creating the language that you use. In reading Two Cities, I felt that you were going towards the type of writing that we saw in Homewood Trilogy and Reuben than what was in Philadelphia Fire or Cattle Killing. I see you writing with three rather different hands. Is this book for you, in a way, a homecoming?
It’s always been my objective to write books that my mother would like to read, and my mother is an extremely intelligent person, but she is not a literary person. She reads plenty of books, and always has, and if a book is challenging, she rises to it. But...