LaValle’s work has won the Whiting and Shirley Jackson awards, among others. He teaches writing at Columbia University, and spoke to me by phone.
Victor LaValle: I must have been 26 or 27 when I first read Kenzaburo Oe. I was in grad school, and an ex-girlfriend who studied Japanese literature said I should read his first novel, A Personal Matter. I devoured it, I loved it, and I was disturbed by it. I wanted more, so I took Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness, a collection of Oe’s novellas, down from her shelf.
“Prize stock,” my favorite piece in that book, takes place during World War II in a small, remote Japanese village, where a young boy named Frog lives with his brother and his father, who is a trapper. One day a jet plane crashes near the village, and the pilot is taken captive. That pilot turns out to be a black American solider. It’s the first time anyone in the village has seen a black American before.
Word is sent to the nearby town to ask what should be done with this prisoner of war, and in the meantime he’s kept shackled in the basement of a building. As the village incorporates the black soldier into daily life, the children gradually fall in love with him (in ways that can be disturbing to a modern reader), and even the adults become used to him. But when word comes back that the captive is to be sent to the town, the soldier reacts badly and things go horribly all around.
“Prize Stock” showed me a way to write beautifully about horrific things, and do so with a real politicized understanding that still manages to avoid being didactic. This is a story, after all, about racism, about tribalism: Oe is unflinching in his willingness to show how the villagers—not just the adults, but the kids too—assume their superiority over this black man. Presume his inferiority. And yet Oe never tries to get you to like him, the author, by stepping out and saying, “Of course, these people were stuck in their time, and they were terrible, but I am good.” That’s very difficult to do, but it’s the most courageous way to write a story like this. Many writers fear implication so much that they’ll ruin a good story just to avoid it.
When I teach this novella to students, the immediate reaction is often: This is awful, these people are racists. From there, it’s easy to have the attitude that Oe wrote a racist story. But it’s obviously not a racist story if you really pay attention. What I do is go through the novella with them and point out all the ways that Oe very subtly plants clues of a more objective reality. Ways Oe makes a careful distinction between what the characters think and what the author knows.
One thing that usually bothers readers, for instance, is how much attention villagers pay to how the black man smells. They talk again and again about his odor in this degrading way. About two-thirds of the way through the story, the children take the black pilot to the lake because they think he smells so bad. And as you watch him joyously bathe himself, you realize: Of course he stinks. He was in the middle of a war, he survived a crash, and he’s been living in a basement in the same clothes for a week. Anyone would get a little ripe. The real point here is that Oe hits this note and then moves on without too much fuss. But this is when he’s showing his hand, telling you that he knows. That’s why it’s in there.