Better you read it.
Okay. So can you tell us what is the most important thing readers need to know about this novel?
The book is many things at once, travels in many directions, explores a number of possibilities in an effort to engage the reader and engage the world. I hope that anyone who reads the book will resist any inclination to try and pigeon-hole it as say a historical novel, or a novel about slavery and Reconstruction, or a novel about a musician, since it is all those things and more.
The book is full of narrative devices and tricks. And the language is rich, baroque at times. What’s driving it all?
Once I was talking to the great jazz saxophonist James Carter and telling him how much I admire the fact that he seems to do things in the saxophone that no one has thought up before. His response, “I’m just trying to keep the reed wet.” So there’s your answer: in Song of the Shank, I’m just trying to keep the reed wet.
In the pages of your novel, Blind Tom is quite the musical innovator. Who might his playing most resemble in terms of musicians today?
You started your first novel in 1990 and your second, Song of the Shank in 2003. How did your thinking about and approach to fiction change in the years between the two books?
The most important thing is that I discovered the work of some writers I hadn’t either read in 1990 or writers who had yet to publish, writers who inspired me to push my work in new directions, find ways to keep the reed wet. Namely Proust, Clarice Lispector, Thomas Bernhard, and Michael Ondaatje, and W.G. Sebald, among others. I also for the first time began to read African writers extensively.
What are some recent novels that have impressed you?
Half of a Yellow Sun, 2666, The Daydreaming Boy, The Museum of Innocence, and Edouard Leve’s Suicide, just to take a handful.
Mostly international writers. What about American writers, especially African American fiction writers of your generation?
The usual suspects—Junot Díaz, Paul Beatty, Marlon James, Colson Whitehead, and Victor Lavalle. Their work is always interesting and worth reading. I will go on the record to say that The Known World and John Henry Days are major achievements. Among the generation of older living African American fiction writers, I still find inspiration in the classic stories and novels of Paule Marshall, John Wideman, Toni Morrison, Percival Everett, Paule Marshall, Edward Jones, Wesley Brown, and Jamaica Kincaid. Hilton Als is the African American creative nonfiction writer whose work I admire most, while Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts is a terrific young writer of creative nonfiction.
You published your first book of poetry, Harbors and Spirits in 1999. One review in Foreword Reviews states that “The most remarkable aspect of this first book of poems is the range of stories and motifs from African-American history and life that it gathers into what is indeed, if not a single poem, a single and unified voice.” What has been your journey towards being a writer and poet?
I have thought of myself as a writer from the time I was seven or eight years old. I was an avid reader then began to write stories in imitation of the things I read or of the movies or television programs I saw. At a certain point, I also started to invent stories in my head before I fell asleep each night. All of this came naturally to me. But it wasn’t until I was in college that I had any sense of what it means to be a writer, what a writer is, what a writers’ life involves as a position and a profession. I learned from my teachers, and I was very fortunate to have their encouragement, advice, and support.
Films played an important role in my formative years as a fiction writer. In the 1980s, I used to go to see movies four or five times a week, studying greats like Bergman, Fellini, Godard, Welles, and Antonioni. Watching film, a writer can learn something about how to use images and symbols, because directors are forced to find visual representations for the interior life.
At a certain point in my late twenties I started to write poems as a way of gaining an understanding of how language operates. That said, I should note that poetry and prose are too different forms, with different processes. I tend to write poems for a number of years, and prose other years, but never both. That said, the one commonality is that language is always my first entry into a poem or a narrative. A focused engagement with language keeps me interested and makes me feel challenged.
Some force other than myself made me into an artist. I accept that, and I feel both blessed and cursed. The greatest challenge for an artist is to grow and develop, to find out what interests you and what it is you have to say that no one else can…
You are a member of the mentoring faculty at the Norman Mailer Centre, the organization takes in young writers annually giving them the chance to write and be mentored by professional and acclaimed writers such as yourself. This is not a rarity in America and Europe. You have also done a lot of work with young African writer. What needs to happen on the African continent – besides simply dismissing it as a possibility for only rich nations – for organizations like the NMC to spring up and thrive?
I think what Binyavanga Wainaina and his cohorts have done with Kwani? in Kenya shows that it is possible for literary organizations to thrive on the African continent. And Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is doing great things with Farafina Creative Writing Workshop Trust in Nigerians. I will hold these out as models. We need more of them, many more. Finding funding is always the challenge. Let Africans do Africa. Let us assist and lend a helping hand.
A few years ago, you were a visiting contributor to the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop and stated publicly that “The best writing from Africa is yet to come.” Considering the greats that have already emerged from the continent this is both a brazen statement and an exciting prospect. Could you speak more about that?
This might be one of those instances where I put the proverbial foot in my mouth. Perhaps I can retract it here. I never meant and certainly don’t want this statement to sound like a melodramatic pronouncement. First you should know that I was speaking primarily about African fiction written in English. Most of the best work today is primarily realist and primarily conventional in form. And I’m okay with that. Nothing wrong there. Good writing is good writing, is always an achievement. I’m simply interested to see what will happen when more African writers go off in new formal directions. Some of that already exists of course in the work of say a Chris Abani or a Helen Oyemmi, but I think there will be much more to come.
Playing devil’s advocate; please comment on the following statement: Even when African or born in Africa, you’ve still made it as a writer when your book is snatched by American or European publishers and their public like and buy the work. It doesn’t appear that the reverse is true and it doesn’t look like this rule will change soon. Do you agree and if there is any accuracy here, why do you think that is?
Unfortunately, the literary game is just that, a game full of all sorts of politics. I know for a fact that there are many terrific writers of the African continent who we never hear about either here in America or in Europe. The publishing industry is just that an industry that is subject to fads as all industries are. Certain things go in and out of vogue. And publishers hers are always trying to find that next thing that might strike it hot. On the other hand, many countries in Africa have their own troubles with low rates of literacy and limited readership. (So, for example, a novel only needs to sell about 2000 copies in South Africa to become a best seller there.) Much work to be done, yes?
Success can be said to be measured in different ways, perhaps it is very personal. For a writer success could be how many copies are sold, how much money is made. Recently a writer mentioned how after many books written of a detective series the fans pretty much write his books now and in many ways the first ones were great but the subsequent ones continually less so. He is successful though, and read in many different languages, and yet the quality of his writing is diminishing. a) Is there some safe-proof way of measuring success that would include your confidence in the success being in correlation to your talent? b) How do you measure your own success as a writer?
In terms of money, I have earned far more from awards, grants, and writing-related activities such as teaching and public readings than I have from the sale of my books. And that’s the reality for most writer. True success for any writer starts with striving to be the best writer you can be. Publishing and craft are often at odds, especially here in America where you are always in the competition with thousands of other writers for every literary crumb in a way that no writer is in any other part of the world. Each year thousands of students graduate from MFA programs in addition to the millions of other people in our country who are trying to get books published. So the level of competition is crazy. So if you sell only 500 or 5000 copies of a book, that in no way makes you a failure. A writer’s first commitment is to her/his art.
You speak about competition, but isn’t there also a community of writers, and how do you see yourself in terms of that community?
Yes, those things perhaps go hand in hand, competition and community, as everything about the writer’s life is paradoxical. I did see myself as an extended community and try to support other writers, especially my most promising and committed students. However, that doesn’t mean that I attend a lot of readings and things of that sort, an exhaustive possibility in the city of New York where literary stuff is happening every day, and at every hour it seems. Instead, I feel blessed to have among my friends some literary geniuses who make me smarter, and who push me (indirectly by the example of their work) and make me want to give language my all. I won’t single there out here to avoid be ing accused of name dropping.
Can we move on to some personal questions?
Let’s give it a try.
If you had unlimited wealth, what would be your one guilty pleasure?
I would have a chef who could cook me every meal I love every day of the week.
A good Cuban cigar every now and then.
When I was a kid, baseball was my favorite sport. And I loved boxing too, growing up as I did in the era of Ali. But boxing hasn’t been interested really since the late eighties when Tyson was in his prime. And I don’t follow baseball anymore–although seeing someone pitch a no-hitter is still one of the great phenomenons of nature. Now I like basketball, but only during the playoff season.
Many people see some deep affinities between sports and writing. What’s your take on this topic?
I think those affinities are largely exaggerated. Of course, the best athletes are creative. I also think that all of us find inspiration in great athletic performances. At least once a year, I watch Ali’s fight against Forman, a fight that everybody said he would lose, and Ali’s last fight against Frazier, a fight that brought out the best each man had. Those fights keep me going.
What about the analogies that many people draw between writing and music?
Another exaggeration. Of course, whether prose or poetry your language needs to have some rhythm and all that. But a writer is not a musician. (I should know!) The important thing is making. All art is about making. So draw inspiration from wherever you need to make your prose, make your poem.
Since you are a movie buff, what would you say is the best movie you saw recently?
Under the Skin, but you should also check out Blue Caprice and Fruitvale Station, great films from last year that were largely overlooked.
Is it true that you have met many celebrities?
Yes. And some I didn’t actually meet in the flesh. For example, when I was ten years old I got the chance to talk to Bette Davis on the phone for a few minutes. My mother worked for a woman who was close friends with Davis, so much so that Davis would escape to Chicago on the regular and hang out in this woman’s Gold Coast apartment. One time, Davis left behind a copy of Thomas Tyron’s novel The Other, which she was reading for the film version of the novel that was scheduled for production. I happily liberated that novel from my mother’s employer. Imagine that?
Was she your favorite actor?
She was then.
Who is now?
Samuel Jackson, Marion Cotillard, many others.
Over the last thirty years or so, the Coen brothers have put together the greatest body of work in American cinema.
What is your favorite city?
I love going to Paris, but Amsterdam is a great place to write, a small, interesting and manageable city without the many wonderful distractions that Paris has to offer.
Rumor has it that you are a member of something called the Malaria Club. What is that?
It’s a club that nobody should join. I contracted malaria in West Africa in the summer of 2008 then spent six weeks near death in the hospital during the holiday season of 2008 and 2009.
You seem to have a thing for Africa.
You might say that. My wife Zawadi is from Zanzibar–her family from a small town called Kigoma on the Tanzanian mainland–and we have a beautiful baby boy, James Kagoma Allen.
Anything that I have forgotten to ask you that I should ask?
No. Your time is up.
JEFFERY RENARD ALLEN is the author of two collections of poetry, Stellar Places and Harbors and Spirits; a story collection, Holding Pattern; and the widely celebrated novel Rails Under My Back, which won the Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize for Fiction. His other awards include a Whiting Writers’ Award, a support grant from Creative Capital, and the Charles Angoff Award for fiction from the Literary Review. He has been a fellow at the Dorothy L . and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. Allen was born in Chicago and is currently professor of English at Queens College of the City University of New York, an instructor in the graduate writing program at the New School, and an instructor in the low-residency MFA writing program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He has also taught for Cave Canem; in the Summer Literary Seminars program in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Nairobi, Kenya; for the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop in Lagos, Nigeria; for the VON A/Voices Workshop; and in the writing program at Columbia University. He is the fiction director for the Norman Mailer Center’s Writers Colony, and is also the founder and director of the Pan African Literary Forum, a nonprofit organization that supports and aids writers on the African continent. Allen lives in the Bronx, New York.