Ishmael Reed © Terence Byrnes.
Seventy-three-year-old Ishmael Reed has been a major figure in American letters for more than four decades. In April, Dalkey Archive published Juice!, Reed’s first novel in more than fifteen years. Juice! tells the story of a struggling African American cartoonist whose personal and professional life is disrupted by the media frenzy surrounding the O. J. Simpson murder trial. Earlier this summer, Reed, who is based in Oakland, California, responded to some of my questions about his latest work.
Juice! is your first novel since 1993. What inspired you to write another novel after all these years?
I began this one as soon as I heard about the murders. I was vacationing in Hawaii, and the murders ruined my vacation. The media went berserk over the murder of Nicole Simpson, the kind of ideal white woman—a Rhine maiden—one finds in Nazi art and propaganda, murdered allegedly by a black beast. It was a story that reached into the viscera of the American unconscious, recalling the old Confederate art of the black boogeyman as an incubus squatting on top of a sleeping, half-clad white woman. It was also an example of collective blame. All black men became O. J. The murders ignited a kind of hysteria.
Juice! does not have a conventional structure. The novel incorporates courtroom documents, television transcripts, and pieces of visual art. It also plays around quite a bit with time. What gave rise to the novel’s peculiar shape?
I try to experiment. Writing a conventional novel would be boring for me. In this novel, I added cartoons. Cartoons were probably my introduction to storytelling as a child, because on Sundays we got The Chattanooga Times, and I’d read the funnies. A publisher wanted to publish Juice! but decided that the cartoons weren’t up to par. So, at the age of seventy, I studied at the Cartoon Art Museum of San Francisco, and the cartoons improved so much that I now do political cartoons for The San Francisco Chronicle’s blog, City Brights.
Both Juice! and your previous novel Japanese by Spring focus on people of color desperately seeking acceptance from predominantly white institutions. Is the topic of tokenism informed by your early years in the New York literary world?
Absolutely. When the old Saturday Review of Literature anointed me the number one token, I wrote a letter telling them that I was not, which, as far as I know, was unprecedented. White New Yorkers have had a great influence over which black writer is divo or diva since at least the 1920s. At one time, the communist party had the influence. When Chester Himes and Richard Wright broke with the party, it was the end of their careers in the United States. In the 1960s, when black nationalism was in vogue, all black characters had to be portrayed in a positive way, and when the feminist movement was born out of black nationalism, so did all black women. Since the mid-1970s, white feminists have had great influence over which black fiction gets marketed. I’ve gotten a lot of heat from some women in parts of academia, publishing, and book reviewing. On some occasions, they’ve censored my work. The late Joe Wood asked me to write a piece about Oakland politics for The Village Voice. He said that a feminist editor at the time wouldn’t even read it on the grounds that I was a “notorious sexist.”
I’ve also been called paranoid for including, in Reckless Eyeballing, a white feminist character named Becky French who is in the business of manufacturing black divas and black boogeyman melodramas. Toni Morrison, Michele Wallace, and bell hooks have made similar comments about white feminists directing trends in black literature, yet nobody calls them paranoid.
When you first began writing in the sixties, African American literature was not really a respected tradition. Do you think the situation for black writers has improved since then?
Black male literature, classically, the literature of dissent reaching back to David Walker’s Appeal (1829), has been murdered. Some members of the younger black male avant-garde have gone to Germany for recognition. When the great John Edgar Wideman can only get a book published by a vanity press, then you know that all of us are in trouble (except for those who write that the slave masters were black, or that the problems of black Americans are self-inflicted, the kind of stuff that excites the Pulitzer and Tony juries). The Kindle, Nook, and iPad might change this, because soon we will be able to download the work of black writers in Asia, Africa, and Europe, where the atmosphere is not as hostile as it is here.
I’ve managed to survive because I write poetry, plays, and songs as well as fiction. My income is supplemented by royalties from poetry and songs. Within the last few months, I’ve written songs for Macy Gray and the rapper Black Thought. When Tupac mentioned me in a song, it compensated for all of the hostile responses to my nonfiction and fiction.
The legacy of Ralph Ellison looms large in the world of African American letters. The two of you are perhaps the only black American male writers to enjoy such longevity and critical attention. Did Ellison influence your work?
Ellison looms large because Invisible Man is one of a few books by black men and women that white academics and reviewers are acquainted with. I didn’t read Ellison until 1968, when I used Invisible Man in a classroom. There were many influences on my early work, some of them from painting and music. If I had to point to a black writer who influenced my first novel, The Free Lance Pallbearers, it would be Charles Wright, who wrote The Wig. James Weldon Johnson, Chester Himes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Rudolph Fisher were among my black influences. But the main influence on my second and third novels was Joe Overstreet, who introduced me to the sophistication of African religion and its ability to soak up different traditions. I think that my work has more in common with that of Romare Bearden and the Saar women, Lezley and Betye Saar, than with writers.
I think that the accusations that Ellison was an Uncle Tom are unfair. I understood this after I read Arnold Rampersad’s biography. Ellison experienced the aftermath of the Tulsa Riot of 1921 and probably suffered post-traumatic stress from that experience. Three hundred black people were massacred. It showed that some whites resort to savagery when hopped up on the social heroin of racism. Then Ellison had to make compromises during the period of the Red Scare, and abandon his communist politics. He had to cut down the competition so that he could remain number one and, even with all of his honors, he was humiliated. When he finally broke with his patrons, they abandoned him. A sad, sad story.
Are you optimistic about the survival of traditional African American folk culture?
I think that the use of African American folklore comes in cycles, when there is a need for its renewal. The source for hip-hop is folklore. The features one finds in hip-hop can be found in the old “toasts” that arose from the criminal underworld. Cecil Brown in his book Stagolee covers some of this, as do Sterling Brown, Quincy Troupe, Steve Cannon, and Colson Whitehead. But now I’m looking at Native American folklore and beginning to look at Southwestern magical realism, which existed before the South American version. I even found a Shango, the Nigerian “saint” associated with thunder, in a story from the Southwest.
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