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What's behind the work of John Edgar Wideman, the author of the new novel Two Cities, is simple: if you're going to talk the talk, walk the walk

October 7, 1998

Two Cities In the introduction to The Best American Short Stories 1996 the novelist John Edgar Wideman wrote, "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 the mainstream sense of pace and structure, while his unsparing focus on African-Americans rattles a white cultural framework. Through its attempts to answer troubling questions about individual identity, Wideman's work self-consciously acknowledges the power that stories have to seek out the unfamiliar and to herald difference.
Discuss this feature in the Books & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

Previously in Books & Authors:

Manifest Destiny (September 1998)
A conversation with Robert D. Kaplan, whose latest work, An Empire Wilderness, suggests that the future of the United States won't be at all what we expect.

Fear of Falling (September 1998)
Andrew Todhunter talks about his new book, Fall of the Phantom Lord, about the rock climber Dan Osman, and examines the lure of putting one's life on the line.

Eve's Bible (August 1998)
An interview with Cullen Murphy, whose new book, The Word According to Eve, explores the revolutionary implications of feminism's encounter with religion.

Bittersweet (July 1998)
Roy Blount Jr. looks back at the complicated source of his career as a humorist -- his mother.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

"... and afternoon tea with the light, bright, siddity Frogs, all those sweet things Gus lied about in Italy during the war that wasn't true either, except, except if you were there, you know what I mean ..."

Hear John Edgar Wideman read an excerpt from Two Cities (in RealAudio).

Wideman's writing 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. Homewood is one of the physical and psychological settings of his latest novel, Two Cities: A Love Story. The three narrators of the novel speak from their wounds: 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 ease his loneliness by breaking through the emotional walls Kassima has erected; and Mr. Mallory, Kassima's elderly tenant, who served in the First World War, 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 streets with his camera documenting the black, urban experience he witnesses. The people and the voices that intersect in the book are as dynamic and raw as they ever have been in Wideman's work.

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. 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 lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he teaches in the graduate writing program at the University of Massachusetts.

Wideman recently spoke with Lisa Baker, a former Atlanticintern who is currently writing fiction and working on documentary production.

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John Wideman
Mr. Mallory, the photographer in Two Cities, worries that his pictures won't acurately represent what his subjects feel. For you -- as an artist -- what's the risk of not recording a story accurately?

It's life or death. What's at stake is the perpetuation of the world as I see it -- the world that's in counterdistinction or at odds with the world as other people see it. For African-American people, I am in the business of inventing a reality that gives a different perspective -- on history, on crime, on art, on love. I'm very actively deconstructing the given formulas and definitions of African-American culture and life, and trying to put in their place those that seem more reasonable, more real, more lively, more potentially positive. I can't think of anything more important.

Is writing for you an act of violence, or of confrontation? If so, what is its target? Who are its victims?

I don't intentionally write something just for its destructive effect. For me, it's always a question of trying to excavate -- maybe from a very depressing or very negative situation -- what has potential, what has energy, what can be moved to another level. Proust said that before Renoir painted a certain kind of woman, she didn't exist -- but after Renoir painted her, you see her everywhere. Now that's a kind of positive spin on the power of art to transform the way people see and understand. Writers transform: they throw a hand grenade into the notion of reality that people carry around in their heads. That's very dangerous, very destructive, but not to do it means you are satisfied with the status quo -- and that's a kind of danger as well, because a kind of violence is already being perpetuated. Real change is always violent, but it may hurt a lot less than what's in place before the violence occurs.

What's the role of the audience of your work, then? Do you see yourself in participation with your audience?

I want to get my audience out into a space that feels a little bit uncomfortable -- sort of knock the pins out from under the ordinary way of seeing things, challenge assumptions and certainties, whether it's by means of punctuation or vocabulary or character types or weirdness of story. I want to get my audience slightly unsettled, so that whether or not they come exactly to the place I launch my writing from, some new thing will be created between us. Not necessarily my view or their vision, but something new. So I depend very much on conspiracy and cooperation with my audience.

Much that I do in my writing -- technically, emotionally -- has to do with clearing space. Clearing space in my imagination, and clearing space for the audience so they can deal with something that's unknown, where none of us feels that we're in control. I guess in a simple way it's like a playground game. You don't know where it's going to go. You share some assumptions, but you throw it all up for grabs for a while. The game is a testing ground, a proving ground -- and that's what's fun about it. It's never going to be the same way it was before.

In Two Cities your characters exist in between extremes -- between memories of the past and possibilities of the present, between death and life, between what's strange and familiar, connected and disconnected. In between two cities, as it were. If you buy this, why do your characters live here?

Any set of coordinates is always inadequate. We live in invisible places. We live in a place we think we are, and we live in a place that thinks us -- or a place that's so much more mysterious, more encompassing, that we never can reduce it to a series of facts or coordinates. Those are the basic two cities: what we think we understand and what we don't understand. Once you admit that contrast -- if it makes sense to you, if you feel it -- then just being black or white, male or female, becomes problematic, because you're never just any one of those. You're always constructing, moving back and forth, losing and gaining, frightened, holding on.

The same issues, characters, and landscapes appear again and again in your work. In your introduction to Best American Short Stories you argue that lasting stories acknowledge the mystery at the center of things. Is some of your recycling about getting closer to this mystery?

A lot of what I do is intuitive, emotional, and by now, at my age, certain obsessional themes and ideas are just there. I keep coming back to them because I have no choice. I guess I have found what I want to write about, and for me it's inexhaustible. It's like a vein of ore, and at this point I'm probably stuck down there with my little old shovel, or my teaspoon, or whatever it is that I'm using. That's where life has placed me. I can't be too wise or too theoretical about it. There are certain things I need to sort out. They call me. I'm driven back. It really is a compulsion. It's where the energy comes from.

Could you talk about the different meanings of "doing time" in Two Cities?

If I were to set myself out to try to describe some of the salient features of African-American culture, I would start with something like time, and try to articulate how some ways of experiencing time have become embodied in everything from the way people walk and talk to the music they make and the stories they tell. Time is a kind of leitmotif. It's a kind of index to the culture. I've learned a lot from a book by a man named John Mbiti called African Religions and Philosophy. He talks about "Great Time" -- the ancestral time. It's nonlinear; it's always been here, it always will be here. It's like a river, like the sea, and we kind of swim through it. You don't pass through it in one direction; you float in it, you are immersed in it. It is the medium that holds everything. You are just as likely to bump into someone from fifty years ago as bump into someone you saw the day before. Not only the living, but the dead. Linear time, for me, is a way of trying to make sense of the mystery of Great Time. Clocks, hours, centuries, progress, and other material ways of comprehending time are very Western and very arbitrary. Mbiti would argue that Great Time is very much a traditional part of the African world view.

Once I thought about this concept a whole lot of other things began to make sense. Even something like my aunts and grandmothers' saying that something's going to happen "by and by." Well, when is that? Is that on Thursday? Friday? In an hour? No -- "by and by" is Great Time. When will there be justice? When did the gods walk the earth? When will judgment day be? When you are thinking about things like these, linear measures of time aren't very helpful. When you think of a person's life, you can usually point to some moment -- maybe it's in the first five or ten or twenty years of their life -- when they are in a situation of crisis or tension, and the very best of them comes out. In that moment, they've performed some action that epitomizes the ways of the ancestors, the ways that go back to the founding of the community. When some heroic action is performed, everybody recognizes it. Things may get better, may get worse, a person may get rich, may get poor, but it doesn't matter. It's not the accumulation -- it's to be ready, to be full, to move in Great Time, with some sort of elegance and grace.

Once you begin to think that way, you see it's very logical in African-American culture -- where people have very little control over things like progress and material accumulation -- that a concept like Great Time would be crucially important. Because it provides a mirror, a place where you can see who you are and what you are in your own terms. It's a place of myth. You can imagine a time when the earth was ruled by people like you -- people who looked like you, who held your values. That's the founding time, the ancestral time. That's important if you haven't had the power to write the history books, or build the cathedrals. Your great people have to be held in the oral tradition, and you have to tell stories about them. You can't locate them in terms of dates, but you can create them imaginatively in Great Time. It's the time of art, of imagination. That's very appealing to me. And that's a long answer.

The title of one of your short-story collections (and one of your stories) is All Stories Are True. In Two Cities, though, you show how words can lie.

I have a feeling that truth is totally contingent, relative. It's not an essence. We think something actually happened, and the discipline of history tries to pin it down, and date it, and all that kind of stuff. If our lives are to make any sense we have to believe that things do happen -- to people, to states, whatnot. But the more questions you ask, the more problematic that all becomes. Yeah, there had to be something called World War II. Lot of people died. Ships, planes, wrecks under the sea. But what did it mean? How do you represent it? How can any two people agree on what happened? Begin with one Japanese person, one American person, and they'll argue for ever.

The physical body is everywhere in your work -- on your beds, on your basketball courts, in your language. What do bodies reveal?

All my life I've been very aware of my body. I have always used it as a gauge of things. When I look at a person and I see their body, that's the beginning of knowledge about them. Furthermore, I respect the body. It's one thing to be smart and quick-witted, but can you back it up? In the world that I grew up in, if you said something, if you acted in a certain way, you had to back it up -- and that meant being physical. It didn't mean you had to win all your fights, but it meant you had to be willing, with your body, to back up what you were saying. I trust the body. I trust pleasure, I trust pain. You can muck around with those a little, but after a while they win. They tell you. They're the boss.

The political group MOVE features prominently in Two Cities. Could you talk about the relationship between physical movement and political movement?

I recently had a letter from a woman in prison for whom I was providing a kind of independent-study course. She's doing a degree at Antioch, and I am doing a creative writing thing with her. In her letter she said that she had read that there was a big conference on the West Coast about prisons -- a conference of critics and activists, devoted to thinking about the role of prisons in the United States. My friend, my student in prison, said she was happy to hear about the conference, but also said she was hoping for something more like the Cinco de Mayo, where people actually put their bodies out in a particular place to show everybody what was at stake -- to show everybody that, hey, something awful has happened and now here we are. We need to show our bodily support for things. If you are going to talk the talk, walk the walk. It's simple. The metaphor is compelling.

What does your novel say about the wounds of the inner city?

I hope my novel is saying a lot of things about them. First of all, it's documenting the carnage. It's suggesting -- and maybe this is the best thing imaginative work can do -- that this carnage is happening to people. In that sense, to you. To human beings who bleed and sweat and play ball, just like you, reader. That's who all this shit is happening to. And if it's happening to them, how can you live a life that either pretends it isn't or, in some very active way, even sustains and perpetuates what's going on. That's the cry at the bottom. The things that you read in the newspaper are not happening in a vacuum, they're not happening to a different breed of human beings -- they're happening to you, all around you. If you identify yourself as a human being, then you should take into account the people in this book, and the world that they live in. It's quite real; it's right there.

Built into Two Cities is no particular political persuasion, set of ideas -- except the most basic, and maybe the most profound. If you care about someone, if you really care about someone, then you have to be prepared to go to their most awful places and face those most awful places with them. Until you're ready to do that, the relationship with that person will always be less than satisfactory. Even if you go to those places it might not become satisfactory, but if you want to open up the possibility of deep connection you have to be prepared to deal with afflictions of mind, of body, of spirit. And I guess I am trying to hold this out as a carrot -- so far I've only talked about the stick. The carrot is, Hey, isn't it great when people do meet on that level playing field, when people realize they're in this thing together? Can't it be great? Isn't there real potential there? Powerful thing. That's why the book is subtitled "Love Story."

Why three narrators in Two Cities -- three plus?

Well, I'm really interested in democracy, in the radical sense. The kind of communal storytelling that happens on the basketball court, in the barber shop, and in my aunt's kitchen are amazing examples of democracy. Anybody can come to the court to play. Everybody gets a chance. And then it's all woven together. Nobody sits and has a vote afterward and says you guys are right, you guys are wrong. It's a process. It's how self-expression creates a communal attitude, or set of attitudes. It's such a beautiful thing, a democratic thing. I love that. So, my stories are point, counterpoint, fugue -- ideally, a kind of music that has a shape and form.

Why this book, now? And what's next?

I've had this subject in mind for a long time -- the subject of trying to figure out how someone who is visited by all sorts of tragedies can maintain dignity and strength and continue to create a life. If I can understand a little about that and get my understanding down on the page, I think it might be useful. Two Cities was dedicated to my nephew, by the way, who was shot down and killed. His brother was killed, too, within the space of the year. It was a terrible family tragedy, but it also came in the context of black boys dying like flies in Pittsburgh -- in the whole country -- and that was something I had to write about.

Next is a book about basketball, which I hope will be about basketball in the same way that C. L. R. James's Beyond a Boundary is about cricket. Really a study of race and culture, using sport as a way of getting people's attention. I'm writing about basketball because it's what I know and care about probably more than anything else. It will be my way of talking about this tag end of the twentieth century and what it means to be an American.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

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