OPOSSUM interviewee and Indiana University Professor Walton Muyumba has a great review of Zadie Smith’s latest up at Los Angeles Review of Books now. Muyumba looks at Swing Time (a novel animated by music, yes!) through the lens of Smith’s important essay “Two Directions for the Novel,” weaving in a meditation on blackness and minstrelsy, and proposing that Smith’s intention is to create “an aesthetic practice for decolonizing realism.”
Below we present Muyumba’s insightful, wide-ranging conversation with Graham Oliver, which you can also read in our Fall 2016 debut.
IMPROVISATION and CROSS-FADING CULTURE:
an INTERVIEW with WALTON MUYUMBA
By Graham Oliver
Walton Muyumba is an associate professor of English at Indiana University, focusing on American and African Diaspora literature. As we discuss below, his work bridges the academic and mainstream worlds. His book, The Shadow and the Act, examines the influence of jazz improvisation and pragmatist philosophy on the literary art of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Amiri Baraka. He’s written for a wide range of publications, including The Atlantic, The Chicago Tribune, Oxford American and the LA Review of Books. Muyumba also serves as a board member of the National Book Critics Circle.
I met Muyumba through the author Ben Fountain. They had crossed paths in Dallas, where Muyumba spent ten years living and writing while teaching at the University of North Texas. More recently, Muyumba has moved to Indiana University in Bloomington. He spoke to me from his office there via video chat. Behind him were overflowing bookshelves and piles of books stacked precariously high. While he referred to his stacks for a title once or twice, it was clear from the start that this is a guy who has been swimming deeply in the overlapping worlds of music and literature.
The following has been edited for concision, clarity, and cohesion.
Graham Oliver: Your book, The Shadow and the Act, brings together a lot of different narratives and histories that all speak to one another. Can you give us a summary of that book?
Walton Muyumba: The book brings together three particular areas of study that I continue to be concerned with: American literary studies, pragmatist studies, and jazz studies. What I argue in that book is that you can tell a story about pragmatism that includes African American thinkers and writers by examining how those thinkers and writers have dealt with African American cultural practices, communities, and politics.
Pragmatism is a philosophical practice that lends itself to thinking experimentally and improvisationally. One of the great books on the mid-19th century genesis of pragmatist thinking is Louis Menand’s book The Metaphysical Club. Pragmatists aren’t really interested in the historical questions of the analytical philosophical tradition.
That’s not to say that pragmatists disparage either the analytical or Continental philosophy practices. What they’re after, I think, is a way of dealing with and thinking through the persistent and continual problems of contemporary American life.
Menand’s book is really useful for seeing the roots of pragmatism, which spread initially during the mid-19th century, as the Civil War is flaring up, and young Harvard men are trying to wrap their heads around the Union’s dissolution, the moral positions one must hold in order to defend the nation, or, even more, how to defend the nation in the name of eradicating slavery.
These guys weren’t deeply abolitionist in their ideologies, though they could cross the Charles River from Cambridge into Boston and find fire and brimstone abolitionists claiming that slavery would mark the nation’s undoing and damning. They wanted to deal with these kinds of practical problems and find practical solutions.
GO: How do the three writers—Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Amiri Baraka—fit in? How did you choose to focus on those three?
WM: The book charts the ways Ellison, Baldwin, and Baraka fashion literary artworks and produce cultural criticism that allows them to disseminate their philosophical claims. Their novels, stories, poems, and essays, let the three imagine jazz as a musical art and as a model for living in the world. Thinking and imagining improvisationally, these three writers made art meant to draw readers into a discourse, a conversation, about how to solve the sociopolitical and philosophical concerns of African Americans and Americans in general.
In various interesting ways, all three writers argue that jazz offers a model for thinking philosophically. More importantly, I think that they all claimed that jazz offered a model for living the most American kind of life, learning to imagine identity improvisationally and solve our social problems improvisationally.
And all three are thinking about how to escape the traps of racial thinking. They do so even as they acknowledge that race is also a social reality; that you can get killed for being a black person; that your participating in the body politic can be limited because of your blackness; that segregation and redlining can limit your possibilities for generating personal wealth. You need an improvisational, pragmatist practice to deal with those realities simultaneously. What I write about in The Shadow and Act are the tools those writers offer readers for managing these cultural and political problems, problems that persist today.
GO: This makes me think of how geography plays a role for these three writers. During their careers, New York was the epicenter for both jazz and literature, and all three lived there at one point or another. What would’ve happened without that overlap? And does the decentralization of music and literature that’s happened since then explain why it seems like fiction speaks to culture less frequently today?
WM: Since the 1930s, if you wanted to hear the best musicians and you wanted to write about jazz (and I think this is still true), New York was the place to be. Had the three writers been elsewhere, they probably would not have been heard in the way they were heard in New York. There’s a fourth writer who floats through my book but ought to be central to this exchange: Albert Murray. Murray’s writing and thinking on jazz and the “blues idiom tradition,” as he would call it, is really crucial to any conversation one is trying to have about jazz’s continued importance to American culture and to our understanding of American music.
In their published correspondence, Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray are often talking about intellectual ideas, music criticism, blues idiom music, and the literary tradition. Their letters begin in the 1940s. Murray published a short story in the early ‘50s, started publishing book reviews in the ‘60s, and published his first books in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. He didn’t begin producing books until his early 50s because he was teaching at Tuskegee in Alabama, and no one in New York publishing knew about him. He wasn’t on the scene, he didn’t have an agent, he wasn’t talking to magazine editors or publishers. By the time his first book, The Omni-Americans, arrives on shelves in 1970, Murray was 54.
In 1970, Amiri Baraka had already been publishing poems for fifteen years and had six books to his name. James Baldwin, who began publishing essays in the late ‘40s, had seven books to his name in 1970. And Ralph Ellison, whose career began in the early ‘40s, had two magisterial books in 1970, Invisible Man and Shadow and Act.
Because New York was the publishing mecca, the hub for jazz performance, and center of American cosmopolitan life, Ellison, Baldwin and Baraka could build work, build reputations, and gain access to venues and institutions unavailable elsewhere. When Murray arrived in New York, he had to catch up with those three. Luckily, Murray had refined his ideas such that he produced and published twelve books between 1970 and 2005.
GO: I read Black Music by Baraka, where he’s talking about the performers and the venues, and I was just amazed at how funny and accessible it was. It’s a great little book.
WM: Absolutely. It would’ve been hard for Baraka to generate the reputation he does had he been living in Los Angeles. Living in LA in the 1960s, he could’ve created the same high quality poetry and drama and even been a significant critic for Down Beat. In New York, however, Baraka had the advantage of proximity and deep access to the jazz avant garde. He could walk across town from his apartment near the Bowery to the Village Vanguard, see a set, and then hang out with musicians following performances. I think that proximity and access influence the criticism he produced, whether album reviews or liner notes. He couldn’t do that in Los Angeles.
To get back to your question about the comparison to today, New York continues to be significant for writers, painters, musicians, critics who are trying to produce the best work and influence that culture’s shape. Thinking about pop music criticism, for example, three New York writers very important to my learning how to write about music are Greg Tate, Dream Hampton, and Scott Poulson-Bryant. During the 1990s, I read those three regularly in Vibe, The Source, JazzTimes, Spin, and The Village Voice. Before the Internet became the main resource for music writing, you actually had to hoof it to the bookstore or newsstand to find those writers in print, to read their reviews and profiles. Those magazines don’t have the same power that they did 20 years ago. Music criticism feels diffuse now.
Even though those three are groundbreaking critics, I don’t feel that I can get to their writing as easily or regularly as once was possible. Things change. Scott Poulson-Bryant has just finished his PhD at Harvard. When I met him five years ago in Cambridge, he intimated something like this to me: “I wish I had done this PhD earlier, but I was holding onto this dream of the magazine world sustaining a particular ethic and drive and making it possible to continue to be a cultural critic, a cultural journalist.”
Another important writer for me is Nelson George. He’s slightly older than the other three, but man, I feel like I used to be able to pick up almost any magazine with music writing and read something by George. I know he’s still writing, but I don’t feel like I can find his new work in any specific spot regularly.
One critic I’m digging a lot now is Seth Colter Walls. He writes about jazz and classical music for Pitchfork, The Guardian, and Slate. He’s the only jazz writer I seek out because I know he’s producing work regularly. I used to know when Nate Chinen and Ben Ratliff had their regular columns at The New York Times. I love those writers too.
All of this is to say, many of these people are New York-based writers, but our access to their writing about jazz, about R&B, about hip-hop, is occluded by the way the internet kind of blew print media. The writers in Chicago or LA are important too. But maybe they don’t have the same national profiles as the New York writers. Then again, maybe it’s no longer possible to have a national profile any longer.
GO: It seems like if you want to be a well-read critic outside of a few select publications, a lot of it now depends on you going out and having a relationship with your audience via social media. But, I think that kind of thing also happened with Baraka. From what I’ve read, the magazines he did, like Yugen, seemed to be created to have more direct interaction with his readership. I’m curious, would you make that comparison between his role starting these publications and the role writers have today where they’re talking directly to their audience on Twitter?
WM: I think the small literary journals that were being manufactured in mid-20th century hipster and avant-garde communities are the precursors to zine culture that emerges in and around the punk and hip-hop scenes in the 1970s.
There’s a moment where the magazine comes up as this sanctified space for communicating cultural ideas. Then when the Internet rose up, you didn’t necessarily need a small community-based magazine because you could have your own web space. Then some of those cultural organs waned away. The journals and zines were powerful in terms of direct communication. Of equal importance: they produced—and we still don’t know how to figure this part out, because we don’t know how to archive the Internet as such—an immediate archival resource. You could track the culture as you’re making it.
Those little magazines weren’t just communicating culture; they became reservoirs for the culture. It’s hard to say that’s what Slate does. It’s hard to say that’s what Twitter can be. I think it’s possible. There are so many writers, so many outlets, so many pieces disseminated that it feels very hard to find the special critics, the ones with big ears and great sentences and a special voice, on your own. It seems as though the strength of your cultural experience is shaped by the strength of the communities you participate in electronically. Whom do you trust to follow in those communities when books, music, movies, TV shows or critical pieces are presented as attention worthy? That seems an important question too.
It’s hard to go back to the Internet and say here’s how so-and-so responded to whatever single that came out, or the videos from the Beyoncé album, or “Formation.” Stuff gets missed and buried.
Amanda Petrusich, a music critic I’m really enjoying lately, wrote something profound recently. It was an idea that I’d been thinking but couldn’t really articulate, even to myself. This is what the smart writers, like Petrusich, do: they explain the things that we’re thinking or feeling but are incapable of expressing ourselves. In “The Music Critic in the Age of the Insta-Release,” Petrusich explains that demanding all these thinkpieces to arrive just minutes after a surprise album drops is probably a mistake because they can’t offer the well-considered readings or ways of listening that involve the fullest interpretations—taking the album, reading the liner notes, listening closely to the tracks several times, and then writing a review of the music that happens to also essay arguments about what the music means and how it’s responding to the cultural or the sociopolitical moment.
GO: Where can we turn for that kind of work? Does it exist anymore?
WM: I think that there are writers who take their time responding. Writers like Daphne Brooks, for instance, take weeks or even months to think and write brilliantly about the cultural moment. They’re the writers I find myself craving to read. Brooks just had an essay in The Guardian, “How #BlackLivesMatter Started a Musical Revolution,” about D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, Beyoncé’s performance at the Super Bowl, and Kendrick Lamar’s performance at the Grammys. It’s great cultural journalism because Brooks had lived with this stuff for a while before writing. She didn’t write the piece a week after “Formation” came out, she was waiting. I think she weighed it, measured the responses: what were the responses to “Formation”? What were the responses to Beyoncé and Kendrick’s public performances? What does Black Messiah sound like a year after its release? What do these pieces mean individually? How are they speaking to each other? What does all this mean two months later as opposed to one week later?
This is probably a problem only with pop music criticism. Jazz writing isn’t really event driven. However, we ought to want the best writers covering those moments when Jason Moran or Vijay Iyer or Esperanza Spaulding puts out a new album, has some curatorial residency at a museum, or performs in some new grouping—the kinds of things that generate musical newness, bending rules and reshaping the idiom. The critic who gets to go sit for an extended period with the new music or spends a week visiting the artist in residency, will probably produce really rich work.
I think what any critic wants to do is produce the richest kind of stuff however you’re communicating with the readers. I just don’t think we know how to use Twitter or Tumblr or Instagram in the way that Yugen or Floating Bear worked, or even what Baraka was doing in those reviews or liner notes he was writing. Some of his liner notes are incredible art. I don’t know if there’s a writer who is doing that now. Last year, I read Jessica Hopper’s strong first book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. She’s a Chicago writer. I was stumped while reading it because I didn’t know her work and hadn’t any inkling of her name. I love investing in good writers who are new to me. But I still found myself questioning the critical community, like, in this day and age, how’s it possible that I don’t know Hopper’s work? How and why is the Internet keeping this from me? I think that’s just electronic diffusion. I don’t know where to look any longer.
GO: Fast, short pieces on the internet are the default form for writers to comment on culture contemporarily, right? It strikes me that if a writer wants to talk about culture, they write a short piece for somewhere like the New York Times’ site, but it feels like they’re less likely to do that sort of work in fiction, the way you describe Baldwin, Baraka, and Ellison incorporating not just jazz in general, but specific figures and songs into their fiction or poetry.
WM: I think that writers want to figure out how to respond to popular culture and incorporate it in their works, but it’s difficult unless you have a sense of who’s lasting and who’s not. This is part of the genius of what Ben Fountain does with Destiny’s Child in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. He recognizes that Beyoncé is a generational phenomenon. It’s not just that she’s got gigantic talent. You don’t even have to be a well-trained listener to hear that she has talent. It’s the whole great American package. She’s exceptionally beautiful. Her physical and vocal talents are also exceptionally. Though she’s clearly honed her talents and attributes through training, she has a presence that can’t be coached up or boosted by accouterments. I think that she has such physical presence that she draws all the air toward her. Even in the midst of the recent Super Bowl halftime show, the wildness of three different acts performing and moving around at once, your eyes keep tracking for Beyoncé.
Fiction writers have to negotiate this difficulty though: if any individual writer recognizes that fifty years from now we’ll probably still be talking about Kendrick Lamar’s art, but not Arianna Grande’s or Fetty Wap’s, then that probably means other writers recognize that too. If everyone recognizes that riffing on Kendrick Lamar or his lyrics might help them document this American era, how can you reimagine that same material in order to fashion your unique literary vision while still diagnosing the cultural moment’s specific elements in your stories or novels?
GO: And how do you say something new about Kendrick Lamar?
WM: Yes, I think that’s the deal. Many writers recognized that there were several mid-20th century jazz and popular musical performers who would be lasting and significant cultural figures. Emily Lordi deals with some of these figures in her book, Black Resonance. Lordi writes about the influence that innovative and singular musicians like Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin had on writers like Ralph Ellison and Gayl Jones. Lordi studies how Jackson’s performance techniques push Ellison to rethink his ideas about African American cultural practices and expression.
When he writes about Jackson in his sterling essay, “When the Spirit Moves Mahalia,” Ellison is thinking, “If I’m able to review her deftly, I can communicate something that is original but that many people will recognize.” As a novelist, Ellison might also be imagining, “If I can figure out how to present this cultural icon as a kind of metaphorical figure within my novel, I can generate an intelligence within the work that forces us to rethink how the culture functions in relationship to black women’s bodies and voices, and so on.”
GO: You’re also borrowing some of their power, right? You talked about this in your book, that when those writers invoked jazz, they were automatically imbuing their work with some of its cultural clout.
WM: Yes. The writers who have gotten the feel, the sensibility of hip-hop right in their works—they’ve borrowed power that makes the work shine in ways otherwise impossible. Look at Kevin Young’s To Repel Ghosts, the way he uses Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings and hip-hop simultaneously to generate a very specific and powerful lyrical force. You can feel a raw power in those poems that is both precise but also improvisational. And because the work feels improvisational, it also feels as though the poet is barely controlling it. Young is actually exercising great control. He’s shaping your impressions of what it must feel like to engage Basquiat’s paintings or to embody that early, early hip-hop scene. You’re barely controlling that experience. Terrence Hayes’s hip-hop poems are particularly evocative too.
GO: It seems like hip-hop is often used by writers as a way to explain the self, but I haven’t seen it used much as a lens on bigger things. Ta-Nehisi Coates includes hip-hop as he’s describing his upbringing at the beginning of Between the World and Me, but I don’t remember it coming up after that.
WM: On the literary side, generally speaking, I think that poets have a better and easier time dealing with this stuff than fiction writers do. So, among many influences, hip-hop is running all through work by writers like Willie Perdomo, Adrian Matejka, Major Jackson, Nate Marshall, and John Murillo, just to name a few. I already mentioned Hayes and Young. If there’s a hip-hop novelist, then it’s Paul Beatty, hands down. His novels, White Boy Shuffle, Tuff, Slumberland, and The Sellout, are superb and definitely hip-hop. We ought to also read Kiese Laymon’s Long Division as hip-hop. That’s an amazing novel too.
Though he’s writing criticism, Young’s The Grey Album is a masterful study of African American cultural practice. The last third of that work is devoted to hip-hop specifically.
There’s a book to be written on hip-hop aesthetics and pragmatism, I think. We also need one about hip-hop as a philosophical practice. Maybe it has been written and I just I haven’t seen it yet. Philosophers like Eddie Glaude and Tommie Shelby write about blues idiom music and hip-hop. Shelby listens to hip-hop, thinking of it as lyric poetics that might help him articulate and resolve particular cultural or philosophical problems. Emily Lordi and Daphne Brooks, whom I already mentioned, and Mark Anthony Neal at Duke are among the deftest academics and public intellectuals writing about hip-hop and its function by way of soul and pop music.
GO: How about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen?
WM: Rankine’s Citizen and the book before it, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely are blues idiom books. They are books that are about avant-garde improvisation and experimentation. Which isn’t to say that hip-hop’s not about that stuff. But hip-hop is in the deep periphery of Rankine’s focus.
Rather than hem everyone in with hip-hop, it might be better to think about the young, sophisticated artists who are innovating new directions for the literature. I’m thinking about Naomi Jackson and her first novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill. I’m thinking about Julie Iromuanya and Angela Fluournoy. There’s also Esi Edugyan, who is Ghanaian-Canadian, earned an MFA from Johns Hopkins, and wrote Half-Blood Blues, a fine novel that was shortlisted for the Orange and Man Booker Prizes in 2011-2012. Edugyan’s novel is set during World War II and imagines a half Cameroonian, German trumpeter who ends up playing with African American musicians trying to escape the Nazis, first in Berlin and then in Paris. Louis Armstrong is fictionalized in the book. Edyugan has a good sense of the music history and figured out how to get Armstrong in Paris as the Third Reich is heading to conquer that city. I think she could do this because Armstrong is an eternal and significant figure.
Right now, it seems difficult to imagine how a novelist, at present or in the future, might incorporate into her novel a great, but not well known, young singer like Cécile McLorin Salvant. The same goes for the more established Cassandra Wilson, a supreme, genius musician, who’s still not widely known in the culture. When real artists are fictionalized, readers ought to be able to say to themselves, “I see why she’s present here.” Maybe the writers I’ve just mentioned, all young black women, might be able to figure out how to make this happen. It will be a tough task because the culture’s become so diffuse.
GO: It’s also a diffusion of audience, right? You talk about the Baraka poem “The Bridge,” and it seems like most of his audience would automatically get the reference to the song. But if you think about today, how many songs are there that a contemporary audience of a book would have in common? It seems like not that many.
WM: You could turn on the radio and hear Sonny Rollins and then come across that poem and understand that yes, Sonny Rollins, as legend had it, would go practice on the Brooklyn Bridge. So there’s a cultural context that a lot of people would already have had in order to access that poem. And I think the poet understood that.
The same is true for the poets now, except that I think Baraka was trying to reach a broader audience in the sense that he wasn’t seeing his literary community as the limit of his field of play. Baraka could hang out with the Black Mountain School people, he could hang out with the Beats, and he sat alongside the black literary writers of his generation. I always like to tell my students when we’re reading Baraka or Lucille Clifton or Toni Morrison that at one point all three of these people were at Howard University at the same time. If they took any literature classes together, what were those classroom situations like, what were they discussing then? I always find that thought flabbergasting.
I think that Baraka’s different from say someone like Tracy K. Smith, the author of two excellent collections, Duende and Life on Mars. Smith’s reading audience is much narrower than I think Baraka’s audience was then. The little magazines don’t have national audiences the way they did in the middle of the 20th century. She’s also not writing jazz criticism, fiction, or Obie Award-winning plays. More to the point: the national culture has shifted and changed dramatically in the last 56 years. There’s no longer central space for literary figures like Baraka or Allen Ginsburg or Adrienne Rich, let along Smith or Natasha Tretheway or Robin Coste Lewis. Also, there’s other stuff to do. There’s great TV, there’s more movies, there’s the Internet now. Literary communities have gotten much smaller, much tighter, in order to support themselves.
GO: I saw that you’re working on a book that looks at the work of Junot Díaz. In Tracy Smith’s Life on Mars, astronomy is used throughout the book as a wide-ranging touchstone metaphor, similar to how Díaz uses elements of what I would call “nerd culture” in Oscar Wao. In your reading of Smith and Díaz, do you see similarities between how they’re using those metaphors and how the writers you focused on in your book used jazz?
WM: In some ways the best writers are always going to be dealing with nerd culture. Writing itself has become nerd culture. Even the most sophisticated seeming, beautiful people are nerds if they’re sitting down and taking the time to write. Take a book like Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies; it’s about a marriage and the spirit world and mythology. In order to sort out all that stuff into something that is fun to read on the page, that compels readers to turn pages, Groff has to mix and match those various systems into her own metaphorical structure. That’s nerd work.
Writers, like great music producers or DJs, have to cross-fade, if you will, not to match beats, but to bring out something sonically or imagistically that’s buried underneath the first layer of the thing that they’re writing. Ben Fountain, Lauren Groff, Tracy Smith, and Junot Díaz all have the ability to make beats. For Tracy Smith, she saw the way that David Bowie and her astronomer-father could stand up together, give her access to the stars, and then, free her to make music in her own voice and style, and offer up something new.
The writer has to ask, “What here is mine?” In jazz, someone might borrow an intonation, an inflection, or a lick from someone else to generate a new thing. Think of John Coltrane’s great song, “Like Sonny.” Is he referencing Sonny Stitt or Sonny Rollins? It could be either one. But, in the end, the reference doesn’t matter as much as Coltrane’s sound does. Is he offering listeners something uniquely Coltrane? For Díaz, he’s always touching or gesturing toward Love and Rockets or Beloved, but at some point the reference must add up to Oscar Wao, a unique thing that stands alone.
GO: So you have two books in progress. One is looking at Díaz, David Simon, and Kara Walker. The other is about John Edgar Wideman. Connect the dots for us: how’d you get from jazz and literature to these new topics?
WM: I hope that I’m becoming a writer working in the broad but elegant space of creative nonfiction. I’m certainly striving for that. I’m mixing criticism and personal writing together and want to make that my field of play. The Wideman book is probably going to be the first manifestation of this kind of work, bringing together artistic and scholarly practices simultaneously.
I want the book to work as a critical study of Wideman’s books, while also offering readers a set of essays inspired by Wideman’s literary style and the technical choices he makes across his many works. This new book begins with jazz in order to get to other places, like avant-garde literary and visual art. So, it’s an extension of The Shadow and the Act. I’ll also be writing about Wideman and basketball. And then finally, I’m trying to think through the concerns that I see consistently across his works and how to wrangle or wrestle with them in my own lived experience.
GO: Brothers and Keepers has some especially provocative meditations on the process of writing that book, of putting his own life and his brother’s life down on the page and possibly gaining from his brother’s hardship. It’s probably the most powerful piece I’ve read about guilt.
WM: At its core, that book is Wideman trying to grapple with his individual success. Amongst all his siblings, Wideman was the only one to make it out of Pittsburgh and into the middle-class. Though the work is focused on Robby Wideman, I don’t think he’s the only sibling that the writer is considering. Wideman has to think about what it means to have made it while his brother is imprisoned for life. It’s possible, Wideman thinks, that he didn’t do what he was supposed to do as far as creating avenues out for the others behind him.
When I was doing research on Wideman—his papers are now at Harvard—I was digging through these boxes that haven’t been sorted yet and came across this letter. It is the most devastating letter you might read. It’s from a young professor at University of Rochester. It’s the mid-‘80s right after Brothers and Keepers has come out and Wideman, as you can see in some letters to friends, is worried about reaping the benefits from the book’s success. The letter from the young professor describes her experience as a college student in Pittsburgh. As Robby Wideman is on one side of town involved in the armed-robbery that leads to his conviction, another one of Wideman’s younger brothers is sticking up this woman at gunpoint in a park. The young professor challenges Wideman saying, “Listen, Brothers and Keepers isn’t just about Robby Wideman. This is about what your brothers were doing in Pittsburgh in the mid-1970s.” I don’t know if Wideman ever responded to her. I almost want to call her up and see.
GO: You should.
WM: It is a devastating read. It must’ve crushed Wideman. And even worse for Wideman, two years after that letter, his youngest son, Jake, ends up killing his best friend and going to prison. So, whatever it was that Wideman was meant to escape, he never does. It comes back into his family. A critic who has written about him once told me that he finds Wideman to be a very nice man and a good writer, but the work fails to engage with, confront, or express a truth about his family and a particular kind of rage at work among them. I’m not sure if I believe that, but it is worth thinking about.
The other book I’m making notes about is a comparative ethnic studies volume about 21st century American politics, international terrorism, and artistic responses to both. That’s where Díaz and Kara Walker and David Simon and Don Delillo are all kind of speaking to each other. I still don’t know how I’m going to sort this project out. That may be a more emphatically academic work. I’m also collecting the bulk of my reviews and essays into a discrete volume. I think the essays will actually demonstrate coherently how I’m moving towards creative nonfiction as part of my work.
GO: You’re working at Indiana University in Bloomington now, after many years at the University of North Texas near Dallas. Dallas to Bloomington, that’s a big move. How’s the new location?
WM: That’s a complicated question because I was actually born here when my parents were students at IU and I have done an undergraduate degree and PhD here. I’ve moved from a gigantic city to this very small place. There are many cultural gaps between Dallas and Bloomington. I had a broad, strong circle of friends doing a variety of things in the city, working to make Dallas into the best version of itself. People like the former executive director of the Dallas Arts District, Catherine Cuellar, who worked to bring people downtown for regular public events so that they, Dallasites, would see institutions like the Dallas Symphony, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Nasher Sculpture Center were open and available to all residents, rather than exclusive and restricted. I met her when I sat as a board member for La Reunion, an arts residency program, then in an early phase. At that time, seven years ago, we were still fundraising in order to purchase and develop space for that program. There are now two arts residencies in Dallas proper: La Reunion, which will shortly have a physical space in the Arts District, and Central Trak, which was developed and formerly directed by the critic and art historian, my good friend, Charissa Terranova.
I also have great friendships with people like Chris Vognar, Nicole Stockdale, and Mike Merschel at the Dallas Morning News and Anne Bothwell and Lyndsay Knecht at the public TV/radio station, KERA. My main cohort is too wide to name in full, but it is full of folks working for Texas Instruments, Dallas Public Schools, and the Dallas Public Library; they’re graphic designers, writers, cinematographers, gallery owners, and coffee shop owners. I feel that absence; I miss the way they all enriched my personal and social life.
GO: I read your piece about the church in the Dallas Arts District. It seems like you were able to engage with a wide range of topics in Dallas. When you’re in academia it’s so easy to get isolated away into a small world.
WM: In places like Bloomington, Indiana, that’s true. Nonetheless, it was very important for me to leave the University of North Texas; in terms of developing my career at UNT, I had reached a clear limit. Honestly, Indiana is a great fit for the kind of writer I am now. Opportunities have arisen in this new phase that couldn’t have happened in my previous position. I’d love to live in a big city again: I’m probably most productive when I’m living in urban spaces where the environment spurs my work on and off-campus.
GO: As someone who is finishing up a graduate degree and writes a lot of less academic book reviews and other material, striking a balance between the different types of work interests me a lot. How do you feel your own writing for a mainstream audience is received in the academic world?
WM: When I was an undergraduate, I didn’t know about the creative writing courses available to me. And when I was applying to graduate schools, I hadn’t heard of MFA programs. I simply knew that I wanted to write everything: my earliest attempts at writing took the forms of poems and plays. Later, when in graduate school, I messed around with short fiction and essays.
Had I known about creative writing courses or MFA programs, I think that I would have learned a form of basic literary discipline. I never learned such a thing from degree programs in literary studies. Had I known about and earned a MFA in creative writing, eventually, I imagine, I would’ve worked at a newspaper or a magazine covering cultural events, writing criticism, and publishing poems or stories along the way.
Instead, I earned a Ph. D. learning to write scholarship primarily. Over the course of my career, however, I’ve learned to write for both academic and public audiences. I’ve built a reputation as a critic starting with The Dallas Observer and working my way into venues with broader audiences, from The Dallas Morning News to Oxford American to The Atlantic.
The academy hasn’t always valued what I call critical arts journalism. And that was certainly true of my first job at UNT. While there, on a couple of occasions, I asked to stop writing critical arts journalism because some believed those reviews and essays were interfering with my scholarly output.
Generally, readers aren’t really interested in what literary scholars, academics do. Some books will break through occasionally, but infrequently. So, when I write scholarship, I’m imagining my peers across the nation as my audience. Though I’m helping to generate or maintain certain conversations, building works informed by most recent research in American literature, I still aim for prose that is lucid and artful, even when dealing with heavy duty critical theories or philosophy.
The scholarship also informs my critical journalism, especially when I’m trying to explain, say, African American experience coming out of Reconstruction and shifting into the 20th century. My study and understanding of 19th and early 20th century black life really helped me build my piece on St. Paul Methodist Church in downtown Dallas. Without that scholarly background, I would’ve had a hard time accounting for that church’s significance structurally, architecturally, and spiritually. And I mean its spiritual power in both religious and secular senses because St. Paul has been a meeting space for black folks since they emerged from the Deep South and headed north and west during the Great Migration.
There’s also a migration narrative around St. Paul: from the late 1950s-1980s, African Americans moved out of central Dallas as the suburbs around the city opened to them. Black middle class families stopped coming to St. Paul for some time, disrupting some of the political power located there.
A similar thing happened to Mexican American communities in Dallas, including the one that sat next to the black neighborhood that once surrounded St. Paul. Highway 75, which cuts through downtown, was once a railroad line. The Mexican Americans hired to dig out the line and shape the canyon for the highway, were digging out their own neighborhoods. Now, Highway 75 splits that neighborhood, disconnecting it into east and west sections and are now in the midst of full on gentrification.
Stories about ethnic communities now fading away or now erased are still part of our larger, national narratives. When writing about matters of American identity, who we are and how we deal with citizens or residents who aren’t white people, I think my research and scholarship in black and Chicano literature and American history lets me bring out buried threads that others might overlook.
Graham Oliver holds an MA in Rhetoric and Composition and is a candidate for an MFA in fiction at Texas State University, where he also teaches writing. His interviews, book reviews, and essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Ploughshares’ blog, Harvard Educational Review, and elsewhere. He is the nonfiction editor for Front Porch Journal and he lives just outside of Austin, Texas. You can follow him @grahammoliver.