Academic journal article African American Review

Angularity: An Interview with Leon Forrest

Academic journal article African American Review

Angularity: An Interview with Leon Forrest

Article excerpt

Leon Forrest was the author of four novels that effectively created an oral history of his mythical territory of Forrest County, which strongly resembles Chicago. In the first three works - There Is A Tree More Ancient Than Eden (1973), The Bloodworth Orphans (1977), and Two Wings to Veil My Face (1984) - he explored the spiritual core of African American experience through the blending of mythic, biblical, folk, and Shakespearean discourses. His last novel, Divine Days (1992), was consciously modeled on James Joyce's Ulysses in terms of its ambition to articulate the essence of a culture in a massive work designed, as Forrest phrases it in this interview, to be the "Great World Novel." He also published a collection of essays, Relocations of the Spirit, in 1994. This interview was conducted in Chicago in 1995, roughly two years before Leon Forrest died of prostate cancer on November 6, 1997.

Byerman: Since we're in Chicago, I'd like to focus for a moment on the importance of the city to your work. Especially with Divine Days, and to some extent your other works, the setting is very specific. Could it be set someplace else?

Forrest: I don't know, because Chicago is the city that captures this kind of rowdy spirit that, it seems to me, has been missing so much from African American letters. This blend of the sacred and the profane seems to me to be so much a part of the Northern experience, particularly a city like Chicago with its great possibilities of going for broke. It's a hustler's town. You can make a comeback after falling, and people will let you up. It's not bound up by class differences in the black community the way other cities are. The idea of open-ended possibility in Chicago of the black community is really, to some degree, true of the muscularity of Chicago in a general way; in other literatures, it's mellow. Because of that, my fiction seems to me to be set uniquely in a kind of Chicago, though I always call it Forrest County work. The specific things - barbershops, bars, and churches - you can find those anyplace, but I hope they would have a certain Chicago character to them.

Byerman: One of the things you mention in Relocations of the Spirit is the range of writers who have come from Chicago, who are associated with Chicago - Lorraine Hansberry, Robert Hayden, Cyrus Colter, Gwendolyn Brooks. Do you think there's something that these writers have in common that has to do with the city?

Forrest: First of all, Hayden didn't come from Chicago - I just mention Hayden as a favorite writer - and Hansberry was a little too neat for the ethos of Chicago. Brooks is an outsider, and Colter is a transplanted guy from Indiana. It's really Bellow who is close to the outlandishness of Chicago, the sense of the hustler's town, the role of certain kinds of tricksters, the great humor of it. I think I'm more in that kind of tradition, much more than I would be to the tradition of another transplant, Richard Wright. (Laughter.)

Byerman: I want to ask you about the idea of the voices in Divine Days. One of the things that struck me in reading through the book is that, while the characters are very different and their stories are very different, their voices seem to have a lot in common; that is, there seems to be this piling on of language and the playing with language (all the puns and other types of word play). Many of the significant voices in the text have this in common. Is there some sense in which they're all simply your voice?

Forrest: Oh, no, not at all. I mean, I hope that each has his/her own coinage, but I obviously am attracted to certain kinds of characters who evolve in my artistic imagination who are great talkers, and there is a kind of tradition of an orchestrated oral tradition, in which you start off with A, move to C, move to E, and then come back and pick up B and D. That has to do with the way jazz moves, and the folk sermon and just general storytelling. …

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