Academic journal article African American Review

Storytelling and Democracy (in the Radical Sense): A Conversation with John Edgar Wideman

Academic journal article African American Review

Storytelling and Democracy (in the Radical Sense): A Conversation with John Edgar Wideman

Article excerpt

In his introduction to Best American Short Stories 1996, John Edgar Wideman wrote that "stories that mount a challenge to our everyday conventions and assumptions stir my blood. Not only because they are exciting formally and philosophically, but because they retain for fiction its special subversive, radically democratic role." Wideman's own writing assumes this role. The muscular energy of his prose and his nonlinear style, which segues in and out of multiple narrations, formally challenge a mainstream sense of pace and structure. His unsparing focus on African Americans rattles a white cultural framework. Through its attempts to answer ultimate questions about individual identity, Wideman's writing self-consciously acknowledges the power that stories have to seek out the unfamiliar and to herald difference.

Wideman's fiction most frequently returns to the landscape of his childhood--Homewood, an African American community in Pittsburgh--and to the well-publicized tragedies of his own life, which have resulted in a brother and a son in jail, to write the complex, varied experiences of blacks in America. Homewood is the physical and psychological setting of his latest novel Two Cities: A Love Story (1998), and the voices that intersect in this work are no less dynamic or raw. The three narrators of the novel speak from the wounds of their lives: The young woman Kassima has lost her husband to AIDS and her sons to gang violence; Robert Jones, scarred by a lifetime of racism, longs to break through the emotional walls Kassima has erected to ease his loneliness; and Mr. Mallory, Kassima's elderly tenant, who served in World War I, repeatedly resurrects his relationship with John Africa, the founder of MOVE, the black separatist group whose Philadelphia settlement was bombed by police. Mallory roams Homewood's street s with his camera documenting the black, urban experience he witnesses. In the explosive climax of Mallory's funeral, Kassima and Robert must confront the youth violence around them as they decide what to do with Mallory's brutally honest photographs.

Wideman is the first writer to win the PEN/Faulkner Award twice--in 1984 for Sent for You Yesterday and in 1990 for Philadelphia Fire. His nonfiction book Brothers and Keepers received a National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, and his memoir Fatheralong was a finalist for the National Book Award. He won the Lannan Literary Fellowship in 1991, the MacArthur Award in 1996, and, most recently, the 1998 Rea Award for the Short Story. Wideman resides in Amherst, where he teaches writing in the graduate writing program at the University of Massachusetts.

Baker: Mr. Mallory, the photographer in Two Cities, is scared, "worried that the picture on the film won't be the picture in my mind." Could you talk about the role of the artist of black, urban American: as witness, as recorder, as someone responsible for accurately representing what people feel?

Wideman: Mr. Mallory is a guy who would be very familiar to anyone who's lived in an African American community, I think--any big-city, African community, and probably some small-town communities--because Mr. Mallory is the man possessed of artistic instinct, artistic power, sensibility, intelligence, who never gets an opportunity to develop and exploit these qualities, these gifts. And so in some ways they turn in on him. And sometimes this ubiquitous character in African American communities--an old man, sometimes an old woman--is a very silent and bitter person, but sometimes these persons are also connecting points, and rallying points, and nodes of knowledge for the community. The person that I am talking about is usually an eccentric of one sort or another. He might be a janitor, in a building. But every now and again, when you speak to him, you hear something you couldn't imagine this person knew. You find out that he or she has been all over the world. You find out that he has a shadow life that's jus t incredibly varied and interesting. …

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