John Edgar Wideman

Laura Miller interviews author John Edgar Wideman.


Laura Miller
November 12, 1996 1:00AM (UTC)

John Edgar Wideman's life is as dramatic as any of his brooding, Faulknerian novels. Born in Pittsburgh to a black working-class family, he became an African-American golden boy a Rhodes scholar and basketball star, as talented on the court as he was brilliant in the classroom, and the subject of a 1963 Look magazine article titled "The Astonishing John Wideman." As a boy, he planned to leave his background behind for a dazzling future as a novelist, academic and intellectual, but family and politics intervened. Wideman came to see the complex problems of African-American life as inescapable. His brother, Robby, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison (the victim was killed by Robby's partner in a robbery) in 1976. Wideman's struggle to come to terms with his brother's deeds and their consequences became the subject of his memoir, "Brothers and Keepers." Then, in 1986, his own 16-year-old, mixed-race son stabbed and killed a classmate during a field trip. Articles that subsequently appeared in Vanity Fair and Esquire indicated the boy had long been emotionally troubled and characterized Wideman as filled with controlled racial anger.

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Wideman's newest novel, "The Cattle Killing," however, seems far less angry than tragic and soberly inclusive. A challenging, often impressionistic fiction set during an infamous yellow fever epidemic in 1793 Philadelphia, it traces the path of an itinerant preacher and other blacks who pitched in to nurse the disease's victims, only to be blamed for the plague and massacred later. "The Cattle Killing" weaves together the voices of blacks and whites, men and women, all well-intentioned, all flawed, all struggling to avoid being sucked into the vortex of America's racial animosities. Wideman's potent, lyrical voice picks up strands of Shakespeare and Poe, as well as more ancient storytelling traditions. The title refers to a disastrous prophecy visited upon the Xhosa people, an African tribe who were convinced that they could rid their land of Europeans if they killed off their sole resource, their cattle.

Wideman spoke with Salon during the book tour for "The Cattle Killing."

This isn't the first time you've written about this yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia.

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I tried to write the story a long time ago, and I didn't get it right. I was in the midst of teaching myself African-American lit. Norton had asked me to organize an anthology. I became aware of Richard Allen's writing and his narrative of the Philadelphia plague. It seemed an archetypal configuration of the problems, the issues and many of the ironies that have dogged black-white relationships ever since. And it happened so early. It struck me that, boy, we need to understand what happened then, if we're going to begin to try to understand what's happening now.

What appealed to me at first, was the luridness of it, the horrible image of cleaning bodies from the streets of Philadelphia. The cart drivers would pile them up onto the carts at night, so they wouldn't frighten people. They'd drive these down to a plain outside of Philadelphia, dump the bodies and set them on fire. They would race one another to this charnal pit and wager rum. Whoever won, everybody else would have to buy them a drink. This image just struck me, like something out of Bosch, these stacks of bodies aflame and the smell and the horror. It was like Armageddon, the end of the world, an apocalyptic image. I thought, this is where race and race war might take us.

Seemed like it would be quite a story if I could capture it. Then I learned more about Richard Allen, and maybe 20 years later, I wrote the story "Fever." In the intervening years, I thought about the MOVE incident. And AIDS, which wasn't around when I wrote "Fever," so it becomes a kind of strange prophecy. I knew I had my finger on something. This is one more attempt to unravel that mystery. I write about things, not because I have them figured out, but because they are mysterious to me. Because I want to know. I haven't figured out all the things that plague might mean.

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How do you see this novel as changing from the story "Fever"?

First of all, the scope is much wider. The individual characters have been fleshed out and new characters have been added. Also, I am trying to write a history novel. My notion of history is not linear, but much more like traditional, indigenous versions of history —African, American Indian, Asian —that sees time as a great sea. Everything that has ever happened, all the people who have ever existed, simultaneously occupy this great sea. It fluctuates, and there are waves, and ripples, so, on a given day, you are as liable to bump into your great-great-great-great-grandmother, as you are to bump into your spouse. That idea appeals to me because it makes problematic concepts like living and dead, concepts like progress. The notion of progress is crazy in many ways. I also wanted to get a love story into the narrative, a couple of love stories, mostly unrequited love stories.

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Why did you want to do that in particular?

Well, somebody said,"Why don't you write a love story? You always write these sad stories." [laughs] I'm very suggestible, you know? If somebody said,"Write a story about kangaroos," I'd try to write that story. And one way of visualizing African-American peoples' relationship to America, I think, is a story of unrequited love. We came here like all the other immigrants. We were fascinated by the land and wanted to make a home, to raise families. My father used to make us stand up when the national anthem was played. He rooted for the Yankees, and he was all-American in lots of senses. But that love has never been fully answered or accepted. "Yes, it's nice that you love us. Go off and fight for us and do this for us." Then the old finger of admonition comes up and it's touch and go.

Also, I have an idea that love is not so much about bodies —or, well, yes, it is about bodies, but we get confused. I'm interested in the spirit, in what is immaterial. My preacher in the book thinks he's chasing a flesh-and-blood woman. But what attracts him is the spirit that is contained in that particular envelope of body. So, by nature, and necessity, the love will be unrequited. He will never be able to capture —through the flesh, or the pursuit of the flesh of a particular person —everything that a spirit contains. Therefore it might be true that all love is doomed to be unrequited or unfulfilled, because you never can consume or fully experience another person. Something will always elude you. That's what keeps you coming back, in a way.

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That seems to be a condition of desire, what keeps us going, why we get up in the morning, why we write novels, why we report for newspapers. It's never enough, we always fall short. We are creatures of the flesh, we are bodies, and we can only express ourselves —and only get so close to one another. There's a residue, which is the best thing and the worst thing in the world, that spirit and flesh combination.

You made your central character a preacher. He feels that he loses his faith towards the end of the story. I'm wondering what attracted you to that theme.

He loses the faith in a Christian church, there's no doubt about that. The question I'm pursuing, and that has always interested me, is: What happens to faith when you get kicked in the teeth? What happens to faith when you watch all of your family get marched off to Auschwitz? Religion is nice work, when you can get it. But what happens under pressure? My mother has been a fascinating person for me to watch, because she has profound religious faith and an awful lot of terrible things have happened to her. She seems unshakable. That again is a mystery to me. I study it. I think about and try to represent it.

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I don't understand why black people have been so quiescent, so passive over the hundreds of years of American history. Why hasn't there been more violence, more armed struggle? I know answers to some of that, but it seems to me it's an issue of faith, an abiding faith in some sort of great beyond, or great spirit, or even in the American dream. All those things are connected. Why we keep falling in love, why this guy would keep chasing after this woman when every time he reaches out, she disappears, or takes on a new form. For me, that describes the nature of my own life, my own temperament and understanding of things. Like Ellison said, beneath our certainties, there's always chaos. I'm examining that profound skepticism and reinforcing whatever positive faith I have that it's worth writing another sentence, worth making another try to make myself a better person, to understand things. I'm trying to find reasons to live a rational and ethical life.

For a lot of people, it's precisely when they get kicked in the teeth that they turn to religion. Maybe that's one reason why your mother's faith is so strong.

Because she's been kicked in the teeth a lot. Bishop [Richard] Allen [historical founder of the A.M.E. Zion Church, who appears as a character in "The Cattle Killing"] has a long soliloquy about that in the middle of the book. I am exploring things through these characters; it's no secret. He says that the worst moment was also the moment where God was clearest to him, when the deacons came in and chased the black people out of the church, actually interrupted their prayers, physically jerked them off their knees, and said, "Get to the back gallery." How could this happen in God's house? In the church? Where is He? The seeming absence of God was the time when God seemed most present to Allen. That was a kind of revelation to me.

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That was the moment where he was called upon to be more than what he had been before, because he was called upon to lead these people.

His reaction is to turn to himself to become God, so that's where my secular orientation comes in. That's how I read it. At some point you can't continue to ask for help; you have to act. Then, whether or not there's a God behind you, there's a kind a freedom. You establish that you are not an automaton, that somebody else isn't pulling the strings.

To me that connects with the title of your book, which is about an event that happened in Africa, but is not obviously the central event of the book. I am curious as to why you chose to name the book after that story.

If I could boil the book down to a sentence or two, choose one thing that I want you to come away with, it is that if you believe the lies of your enemies, this is a sure path of self-destruction. If you internalize those lies, you're on the way out. It's analogous to the "cattle-killing" that's going on now. That's ultimately the the biggest danger for African-American people, that myth of integration that's been sold to both whites and blacks. It's a bogus concept. It's not a blending, merging amalgamation that makes sense. It's really just a political accommodation that's asking a minority —in this case African Americans —to kill their cattle, to give up what's distinctive.

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Why should I give this up? You find out that there is no good answer. The answer is very treacherous, because it says: to disappear. Then, great, I disappear. I, too, am a working stiff. I, too, can breathe the bad air and be crowded and work for less and less satisfaction, and live in houses that somebody else owns, and pay 10,000 times the interest that I should for the damned thing, because I want to be a homeowner. Or I can buy products that are bad, or continue to profit from our position in the international arena, which is a big bully, having nine-tenths of the world's resources under our thumb. Great. I get to be one of those folks?

Even if you win the rat race, you're still a rat.

Yeah. The quality of life that is beckoning to post-industrial Americans is not a very attractive one. The craziness of the MOVE [a radical black group in Philadelphia whose house was bombed by city police in 1985] people is their sanity; they were saying no to the System. We can't gainsay them; it makes perfect sense. So, the myth of integration is analogous to the prophecy of the cattle killing.

You've also talked about segregation as another type of myth. Could you explain?

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Not exactly a myth. I don't see very much difference between segregation and integration. They are two sides of the same coin. The problem is the assumption of race that divides people into so-called "whites" and so-called "blacks." Once you buy that, however you sort it out —whether by sticking the blacks and whites together, or dividing them —you're stuck with blacks and whites, and the assumptions of what white is and what black is. We waste time worrying about those strategies, when both of them are kind of doomed, prefigured by the concept of difference, that, in fact, is not about difference but about hierarchy. It's about who's on top. That is the only historical or intellectual consistency in the notions of race. It is a sham, it's a way that one people separates and puts themselves above another; whether we're talking about race in Asia, or in South Africa, it's a divide and conquer tool.

What would the other path look like, that wasn't either integration or segregation?

That's the path that Allen took, when he accepted that what we are mainly is the spirit, something that is not defined, not reducible to something else, something that is always in the process of being constructed, like gas. We have these immense possibilites of making something of ourselves, but we get sidetracked, by being a man, by being a woman, or being black, being white. All the dichotomies that western thinking pushes us into.

Writing a literary work like "The Cattle Killing" is about not having these simple polarities, but you must run into people who are frustrated by that.

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Oh, yeah. I read reviews all the time, where people say,"This is exciting and innovative, and I kind of like it, but why don't you punctuate? Why don't you use quotation marks? Why don't you have a linear time scheme? Why aren't your characters more identified? Who is this young man? Is he Richard Allen or isn't he Richard Allen?" Or somebody just scolds me or is unhappy with one indeterminancy or one level of stuff that's unresolved.

That is often characteristic of political criticisms of art. People want it to make a definite statement.

I often want things to make definite statements. If I order onions sliced thinly on my hamburger, I don't want them to come out sort of medium. But that doesn't mean it's a reasonable desire, in all things.

Most recently you've written two autobiographical books. When I was researching this piece, someone gave me a copy of a story that ran in Esquire magazine about your son. By writing about your own life, you've opened yourself up for people to look at, but it still must have been difficult to see that story.

When I write, I don't open up my life for people to see; I open up what I want people to see. Writing is both revealing and an act of concealment. It is deciding to construct a public persona. It is often a preemptive strike. One might write because one doesn't want people to know one's life. So that should be clear first. Just because I write about some aspect of my personal life from my point of view, that doesn't mean it's open season for anybody else to say whatever they want about the same business. So, if I put my father in a book, now somebody thinks they can ask me any question they want to about my father and I am obliged to answer?

Do people really do that?

Oh yeah. Some of it's kind of nice, sweet. I still get people asking, "How's Robby? I think about him all the time." Like family. I've had people come up to me, and say, "I really know your family." Which is a great compliment to me, to the writing, and whatnot. But journalists have a very specific agenda, they begin to pry. They want a good story, that's all. They don't give a shit about my brother or my father or me. It's "What can we make of this? How does your story serve us?" Then I just clam up. Also, I am not licensed by my son, or my brother, or my mother, to discuss their lives in public. In fact, I have been asked not to.

And you ask them if you may write about them?

No. I write what I want to write, and then, when it's finished, I use my judgment to see whether or not I think it's intrusive. If it is problematic, then I ask those involved. I won't necessarily do what they say. But I do consult. I haven't had too many problems. Nobody's really gotten angry at me. Nobody, as far as I know, has felt betrayed. With the one book that was probably most intrusive, "Brothers and Keepers," my brother was an editor. He was an author, in a way.

Did you ever feel pressured by him to represent things in a way that didn't seem real or true to you?

Well, that wasn't an issue. But in "Fatheralong," I said something about my father not being around very much after I left home. My brother said,"You're wrong. He was there at my graduation, he was there a lot. I really don't think you're being accurate enough, or fair." So I had to go back and think about that from his point of view.

What is it like to have this journalist writing about such a painful event in your life, trying to tell your story, especially in a way that is so ...

Crude. Well, in a way I was infuriated by it. One of the stories was written by a former student of mine — the one in Vanity Fair, which might have been the most ugly because it was the least informed. And it was problematic. There was an element of vindictiveness to it. I think that this lady sold her editor on the idea that she had been my student and had a fairly decent relationship with me. So therefore, she would be able to bring home the bacon. When I turned her down flat, in terms of talking about the situation, I know that threw her for a loop. She couldn't believe it; the other end of the line went dead. I am sure she had to deal with that in terms of her editor. And she had to write a story without me cooperating. You know the old journalist threat: "I have to write this story, and if you don't talk to me, someone will. If you want your point of view represented ..." It's all pretty tacky and I got over it pretty quickly. My biggest disappointment was that somehow I thought I failed the student because I thought I would have taught her better than that.

Another example is to have my son, who is a writer, begin to tell stories, in fiction and non-fiction, which have to do with events I've lived through or drawing on the collective family history. That's real weird. But interesting.

Do you ever say to yourself, "Now I know what it's like; I've done this to others, so I can't really complain."

That's been happening to me for my whole life! I've had to read experts on African-Americans my whole life. Although it may not have been about John Wideman, per se, it's about my family, about my neighborhood, about what made homeboy tick. About the athletes that I admired. I've had to deal with that bullshit from day one. The few little stories that I've been able to get into the web don't even begin to equal —they're a drop in the bucket compared to what's out there and some of the things I am trying to reverse, or change.

Even if it's not specifically personal you still take that on?

They are personal. Tell me you don't cringe when you read something about a woman can do this and a woman can't do that; that female writers are overinvolved in their emotions and they can't —you know —to hear that stuff.

I have never actually read somebody describing me personally, as an individual. I can say that guy who wrote that died two hundred years ago, and didn't know me, and he didn't even know the women around him. He's just ignorant. But then when it's somebody that knows me, I might feel differently. I might think, does this person see something inside of me that I don't know?

All stories are true. I chose that as a title of one of my books.

What about those people who wrote those stories about you —do you feel like those are true? That's a tough one.

I chose that, again, because it's mysterious. Most of us have an intuition of what that means. The more we think about it, the tougher it gets. Do we really believe it? Is it paramount to saying nothing? If they're all true, then what does it mean to tell a false story or lie? It is complicated stuff. There is part of it that seems real, correct ... useful.

"Cattle Killing" feels tragic. You have had a personal life with a lot of suffering in it, as well as some happiness and good fortune. Is that perhaps why this is such a haunted book?

We have a haunted history. The historical incidents that take place in "Cattle Killing" and the impressionistic cuts into contemporary culture, as far as I'm concerned, are absolutely documented, on record and powerful elements in history and present life. I am a reporter in that sense. But, I have children, and I have been lectured by them. My daughter in particular asked, "Why are you so cynical?" It wasn't so much what she said but that look in her eye. I realized that I never want to be in the position of painting a picture of the world where the potential for life, the future and happiness would be excluded for my children. I feel compelled not to pass on a vision of bleakness, destruction or cynicism.

I want to tell the truth as I see it, but I also have to believe that individuals —my kids, your kids, whoever —can do something about it, and I want to show the ways in which they can do something about it. Because there were great men and women during slavery. There are great men and women operating right now —in Bosnia, in Rwanda, in the Bronx —people who have rich and full lives and lives that, I think, most of us could respect. I believe in that possibility. The whole theme of creativity and making books, the theme of the human potential to visualize the world as other than it is and to visualize ourselves as other than we are, is crucial in all my work. Images of transformation, of passing things on, of the new day.

So, although your work retains the sense that something terrible can always strike, also there is some hope.

Well, if something terrible happens, you've got to do something about it. Your choice is either to be crushed by it or to carry on. That's a choice all the time. At this point today, and in my work so far, I have tried to suggest that it is worth carrying on. That's in fact what I am doing. I think the best thing and the worst thing about life is that you don't know what is going to happen. The best thing and the worst.


Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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