Photo by Julie Keresztes.
J. M. Holmes’s “What’s Wrong with You? What’s Wrong with Me?” appears in our Summer issue (no. 221); it’s Holmes’s first published story. Next year, it will be included in the collection How Are You Going to Save Yourself. Like the other stories in the collection, “What’s Wrong with You? What’s Wrong with Me?” follows a group of friends, four young black men—Dub, Rolls, G., and Rye—as they navigate the tangle of sex, race, and class. The story opens with Dub pressing Rye with the question “How many white women you been with?” Rye shies away from answering amid the group but later tells G., in confidence, about a sexual encounter with a white woman that left him at once ashamed and exhilarated.
I spoke with Holmes over the phone recently, just after he’d returned to Milwaukee from a trip through Portugal, Italy, and Croatia with his mother and sister. He was laid back and cool, despite admitting that he was nervous. (“That was my first interview,” he told me afterward. “I feel like I just asked my girl to prom.”) We talked openly about intimacy in interracial relationships, the black body as sexual fetish, and shadeism.
(NB: Some of the story’s details are purposefully left out, so as not to spoil the experience for our readers. But you can read “What’s Wrong with You? What’s Wrong with Me?” here.)
Let’s start with the most obvious question. When did you start writing?
As a little kid, I wrote fantasy and poetry and stuff, but I didn’t start writing seriously until college, at Amherst. That’s where I met Judith Frank. She was the first person to take me in and say, You can do this, you’re good at this thing. Then Amity Gaige. Then I took a bunch of creative-writing classes.
You went to Iowa.
Yeah. But it’s a revolving door over there. So many people come through—it’s fucking huge. Well, twenty-five people in every class, and then you’re there with sixty other writers, and people have a tendency to really hang on. They go there and they don’t ever want to leave because they have access to these brilliant writers and agents and everything. I enjoyed parts of it. I think the best part was getting to meet the professors, the writers who care about your work, and being given the money and the time to write. I got my agent through Iowa, and I think … well, I obviously wouldn’t be talking to you if it wasn’t for Iowa, so in that regard I love it. But socially, it’s a bit draining. You have a lot of talented people in a small space competing for resources. It’s not a recipe for a lot of friendships or good times.
Who influences your work as a writer?
I can’t stop listening to Frank Ocean. He cuts to the center of sentiment in a good way. And Kendrick Lamar—I think he’s a genius. I definitely listen to music more than I read books. Don’t get me wrong, I read a lot. But I grew up rapping. Like, really, truly rapping. The most hurtful comment I got at workshop was from a woman who wasn’t a fan of mine, for another story in the collection where G.’s freestyling. She said, I just don’t think this narrator could rap like that. And I was like, First of all, that’s not really a critique. And second of all, you know what? That’s bullshit. I was so offended.
I’m a big fan of Walter Mosley, too—he’s just so unmistakably himself. I’ve read a bunch of his detective fiction.
In one of your stories, a character wants to get a tattoo of the line “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them,” from Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village.” Did Baldwin factor in?
Baldwin, yeah. Was it Mosley who said that he wishes he could be like Baldwin, so cool in his hatred? I had never come across a thinker like Baldwin. He’s a big-time motivator. I wrote “What’s Wrong with You? What’s Wrong with Me?” before I read “Going to Meet the Man,” but “Going to Meet the Man” overlaps a lot thematically with this story. So when I read it, I was like, Aw, shit, Baldwin already did it. It was great … better. He got there before everybody, and we’re all still in conversation with him. If you’re black and you write something of merit—especially if you’re a black man—he’s automatically going to come up in conversation. I wouldn’t say he directly influenced my work, but anyone who picks him up and reads him … he stays with you.
Where did “What’s Wrong with You? What’s Wrong with Me?” come from?
Well, it’s not really new in the black community. I think the story will be shocking for a lot of people, but it won’t be shocking for black readers. I sent the collection to some friends of mine, and one of them said, I like the collection, but I hate the first story. It’s kind of been played out. Like, she’d just heard it too many times. It hurt my feelings, but to a certain extent I agree. It’s all over the Internet, it’s a major narrative in porn. It’s everywhere.
So why write it?
I consider myself very American. I might not love this country, but it’s the only one I know. And the entire collection is meant to explore an American point of view, our psychology … or psychosis. With this story, what’s more important to me than pointing out that black people are fetishized—though all of that is in the background or the foreground, or however you want to put it—is the question of how someone maintains a genuine, truthful, intimate relationship with someone else if they’re afraid that that’s in the back of their mind, the back of their throat, you know? Can someone maintain that relationship?
Do you think it’s possible?
I think so … I hope so. My girlfriend’s white. A couple years ago maybe I thought you couldn’t or that it’d be too hard, but I don’t think it’s one size fits all. If a relationship is going to fail, it’s going to fail on a lot of fronts. You’re probably not going to be blindsided by something like that.
I have a lot of liberal friends who will argue that sex is just sex, then you go about your business. But at what point is that not true? There has to be a line somewhere. In Rye’s case, for someone to be able to do this to him—to go there, to say that … You can’t just put that away, I don’t think, unless you have a steel-trap mind maybe, but even then I don’t think you can. It’s pervasive, it spills over into your everyday thoughts.
But at the end, Rye tells G. what happened and says he “loved it,” that it made him “harder,” that he “wanted her so bad.”
I’m not a psychologist. I try to be, but I have no training and I don’t know how much I believe in psychology. What I do know is that I wanted everyone to be complicit. I wanted everyone to be guilty. “Guilty” isn’t the right word, but I didn’t want anyone to come away squeaky clean, as if you could say, Oh, she transgressed and he was a strong black man, or, He became violent and she’s the victim. It’s a lot messier than that. A lot of it gets internalized. You don’t have time to reason your way through it and say, Oh, I shouldn’t enjoy this, or, This is demeaning, or ask yourself why it’s getting you off. You’re just left to think about it later.
As Rye says earlier, “I been conditioned.”
That’s a riff on Chameleon Street, which is the only movie in history to win Sundance and not get picked up by a major distributor. And it didn’t get picked up because white distributors didn’t know what to do with this black film that wasn’t, like, a Blaxploitation film. It’s a Catch Me If You Can type. But the opening scene is two guys talking about a woman with good hair, and one of them says, Man, I’ve been conditioned … Even my conditioning’s been conditioned. So it was meant to be a joke, but jokes don’t entirely cover up truths either, as much as they try. So yeah, it’s definitely supposed to read that way.
G. seems to wonder if this is in the back of his girlfriend Madie’s mind, too. If she doesn’t also have a “black appetite,” to borrow a phrase from the story. He says twice to himself, in quick succession, “I wasn’t on an auction block in front of her.” As though he needs convincing.
I think it’s a little heavy-handed to say he needs convincing, but for me, that’s exactly where the heart of the story lies. It’s not so much that race play happens, that sexual fetishes happen, but again it’s, How do we return to what is “normal,” how do we return to intimacy? So for G., that’s definitely a soul-searching moment, trying to figure out whether or not this is in Madie’s head, too. And if it is, how to compartmentalize it.
There were a few black women at Iowa who really hated the way white women were portrayed in this collection. They felt the heavens parted when white women were on the page—like when G.’s in the shower with Madie, washing her hair, or when Rye’s looking at the photo of G.’s aunt, stuff like that—and there aren’t really any black women in this story. So they saw the collection as a deification of white women. Some of that’s intentional, but some of it’s probably my own lack of awareness, too.
Where do you think that comes from?
Shadeism is a very, very real part of my life, and it’s a subtle motivator in a lot of my work. It’s another common trend that is as old as racism itself. We grow up looking at whitewashed models and all that. I feel like even Queen B was criticized for not wearing her hair naturally or for using makeup to appear lighter—I can’t remember. But even when we are aware of the issue it doesn’t mean that some of that pathology hasn’t already seeped into our thinking. So when white women get deified on the page subconsciously, it doesn’t surprise me, but it’s something I try to be aware of.
A friend of mine read “What’s Wrong with You? What’s Wrong with Me?” and wondered if the girl at the end, with Rye, was Madie, which hadn’t crossed my mind, but now I can’t stop thinking about it. You know, since Dub is joking about Madie sleeping around while G.’s away at school and egging Rye on to say how many white women he’s been with …
That’s a dark-ass twist. It was supposed to be ambiguous, for sure. But it never crossed my mind that that would be the situation. What Dub says is definitely supposed to have some validity, to make G. sweat, but … damn, that’s a dark read.
Caitlin Youngquist is an associate editor at The Paris Review.
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