Academic journal article African American Review

The Nathan Heard Interviews

Academic journal article African American Review

The Nathan Heard Interviews

Article excerpt

When I finished reading Nathan C. Heard's novel Howard Street for the first time, I felt that I'd been living under a cultural rock for too long. I'd read Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Malcolm X, and other great black male "individualist" writers. I'd read about Howard Beach and Tawana Brawley and Crown Heights and listened to the warnings coming from Brixton, Brooklyn, Compton, Houston, and Kingston. I'd dug black culture from closer than the microscope can get. But--Caucasian boy that I am--I never had the role of outsider thrust upon me. good beats, fat basslines, dope rhymes, sweet buddha, and cool Red Stripe in a dangerous part of the city all taste different when you're a safe and quiet neighborhood to go home to. Reading Howard Street, an American tragedy of Shakespearean quality and dimension, made me realize that I hadn't begun to dig shit.

Had Los Angeles' Amok Books not reissued Howard Street (first published in 1968 by Dial), I might have continued to live under the American prejudice that New Jersey's only contributions to the culture have been gambling and Springsteen. With no disrespect to a once-great proletarian rock & roll singer and writer, Howard Street was a cultural revelation that steered me closer to the "straight and narrow way" that Bob Marley and the Wailing Rudeboy Wailers sang about than any book, record, article, slogan, commercial, or pair of platform shoes has done for too long. And learning about the life of the author, a high school dropout who spent eight years in prison, wrote his first novel on a borrowed typewriter, and shortly thereafter became a college lecturer (although he still doesn't have a high school degree), threw me.

Listening to the tapes of my interviews done during June and July of 1993 with Nathan C. Heard--author of the beautiful, desperate street tales Howard Street, To Reach a Dream, A Cold Fire Burning, When Shadows Fall, and House of Slammers--has also set me straight. His acidic, sophisticated wit, mixed with his gentle laugh, can be disarming, especially when you've seen nothing but the intimidating photos on the man's book jackets: Wearing tight, flashy threads in various eras, never without a menacing pair of shades, he looks like someone who just beat up the entire 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line. But his words come softly, deliberately, and precisely. Throughout my compelling mission to fly right, I never imagined such a strong, sensitive writer.

Beaumont: Where and when did you learn the most important elements of writing, the elements that shaped your style the most?

Heard: Well, while I was doing this nine-to-thirteen years in the State Prison in New Jersey.

Beaumont: Did you have access to a lot of literature in your incarceration?

Heard: Yeah, only limited by what kind. When a guy goes to prison, especially for being from my neighborhood, there's not shock of privation, of being lost. It's almost like going to homecoming, because everybody in the neighborhood's there already. So one of the things they do--because of the first few days you have to spend in quarantine--is start sending you all sorts of reading materials, usually sexual escapist stuff. And I got familiar with that. I just started reading to pass the time, mainly.

Beaumont: Did you read before you were in prison?

Heard: No. Before I went to prison, I had read two books in my life, The Babe Ruth Story and The Lou Gehrig Story, because I wanted to be a ballplayer. Those were the only two books I'd ever read voluntarily.

Beaumont: You read them when you wre quite young?

Heard: Yes.

Beaumont: So what was the most important book--or were there several important books--that made you decide that you wanted to write, and/or that you could write?

Heard: Well, it was the lack of important books that made me decide. There was a guy in Fresno, California, named Sanford Aday. …

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