Your fiction and your poetry seems to be chronically referred to as “experimental”…
“Chronic” is a good word for it…
...and that seems to be juxtaposed to the term “conventional,” and these two terms keep cropping up. I’m interested in finding out what those terms mean to you, and why do you feel that “experimental” is used to describe your writing in general?
For me they’re troublesome—very troublesome—but I think it’s an effort on the part of people who need to define writing in terms of genres, in terms of categories, to do just that. It seems to be the convenient way of dealing with things that are in the marketplace. It’s “black” or “experimental” or “feminist” or “historical romance” or whatever. Basically we live in a culture that requires these definitions. It’s kind of a tag. I’ve agonized over tags, and I think there’s no way around them, so I don’t fight them anymore. Those are labels that are either useful or detracting at times, depending on where you are at the moment or where the customer is at the moment, or where the researched or book reviewer is at the moment.
What’s the connection to your writing? Why do you feel it’s termed “experimental”?
Because, I guess, as the reviewer said in yesterday’s L.A. Times, it’s because there is a tradition of Afro-American fiction and poetry, and that tradition has been—in fiction, especially—realistic, or naturalistic. “Social realism” is what it’s generally called. It means that Afro-American writers have traditionally made a sociological or psychological—and it’s usually both—examination of the so-called black experience, which is another term that has no meaning whatsoever.
There is no single black experience. There are certain kinds of cultural aspects of the experience of black people generally that might be summed up in that way, but it seems to minimize the importance of diversity within the culture. That’s just one of the troublesome things about labels. The minimization.
Well, the terms are double-edged. Reviewers can employ them in an effort to valorize certain writers’ work—experimental can be avant-garde and “fresh”—or they can marginalize writers through the same labels.
Yes, and this is exactly what happens, normally. Especially with Afro-American writers, or even any so-called subcategory of writers in this culture: women, Native American, Asian-American—whatever. It’s generally considered “the other” division. There is a kind of crossover point, too, at times. It seems to me that the ethnic identity of a writer is not what causes that kind of definition to take place. We have examples of that—Frank Yerby, Willard Motley—just in looking at black writers. There’s always been a concurrent tradition of black American writers who have not at all concentrated on the elements that cause Afro-American literature to be defined as a subcategory. Yerby, as you know, every book he wrote was a bestseller, but they were poplar novels—romance novels, essentially.
I think the defining element takes place at one level of decision on part of the writer—what an individual writer chooses to write.
It’s also possible to write out of an ethnic experience and at the same time transcend those definitions, just as Ralph Ellison has done. Toni Morrison has done that. Also Alice Walker. That happens because the writer has tapped into some elements of the human experience that transcend the merely cultural. Now, when a writer does that, it doesn’t necessarily follow that society is going to pick up on that and bring the writer into the mainstream; that doesn’t necessarily happen. A writer such as Charles Chestnut, for example, was never really brought into the mainstream as a celebrated American writer.
You dedicated your novel Emergency Exit, published in 1979, “to the people whose stories do not hold together,” from a quote from Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises in which he writes, “I mistrust all frank and simple people, especially when their stories hold together.” What did that dedication means for you in 1979, and further, what does it mean when a story doesn’t hold together?
I was trying to justify the structure of that book, which was a system of fragmentation, but a system nonetheless. In other words, a fragmented form that was essentially a unified, coherent entity. I do believe art has to have form. As William Carlos Williams said, “There is no such thing as free verse.” There is really no such thing as a free novel, it’s not like life. Life is kind of formless and pointless at times, but a novel really can’t be that way, just as a poem can’t be that way.
There’s an organizing intelligence? A structuring…
Yes. It has a kind of internal integrity. It’s like a leaf or a tree or a rock, or anything that can be seen to have its own intelligent system. In using that dedication I wanted to justify my form in that novel. I think it was probably the most radical novel I’ve written in terms of form, and therefore the least accessible, and commercially the least successful. But I don’t know whether the novel itself is a success or a failure; I don’t know that about any of my books. I haven’t felt the need to write that kind of novel again. Once I’ve been down a river, I just like to travel another way.