Shadow Canons: Danzy Senna and Andrew Martin Recommend


The Review’s Review

Snow on snow in Geneva, Switzerland, courtesy of jenny downing, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Over the last few years, I’ve been reading unappreciated and erased novels by Black artists from the twentieth century. They’ve helped me think about the idea of illegibility—about what the literary world has historically deemed too wild, complex, radical, experimental, or challenging to be included in the precarious and burgeoning Black canon. I’m also interested in why some promising writers give up after only one or two books. What conditions are required to be a writer over a lifetime? Some of these forgotten novels have since been rediscovered, like Nella Larsen’s twenties classics and Fran Ross’s 1974 Black feminist picaresque, Oreo. Others are still fairly unknown, like William Melvin Kelly’s dem and Willard Savoy’s Alien Land, his only novel, published in 1949, about mixed-race identity and passing. My most recent addition to this “shadow” canon is Alison Mills Newman’s Francisco. Originally published by Ishmael Reed’s press in 1974, it’s a California road-trip story about a Black woman artist, musician, and actress whose husband, the eponymous Francisco, is a Black indie filmmaker. Reading it, I can see how it rubs against that era’s prescribed notions of uplift, chastity, and even Black feminism in its celebration of Black love, sensuality, and joy. It doesn’t deal in the familiar tropes of trauma or alienation, and the female narrator is enthralled by her male lover at a time when narratives about Black men as absent or as abusers were more palatable to the mainstream. Thanks to New Directions, who reissued the book a couple weeks ago, it’s found its way back into the world in time for the author herself to experience its discovery.

—Danzy Senna
Read Danzy Senna on Robert Plunket here.  

The career of the filmmaker/playwright/novelist/actor Bill Gunn serves as both a cautionary tale about the racial and aesthetic narrow-mindedness of the American film industry and a still-visible signal flare to artists interested in pushing beyond conventional forms. His best known work, Ganja & Hess, which he wrote and directed, is a Black vampire movie with hints of Cassavetes and Jodorowsky, a rough-hewn, hallucinatory freak-out that lodges itself deep in your subconscious. It’s now considered a classic, but even with his increased recognition in recent years, being a devoted Gunnian requires a good deal of digging. His great soap-opera homage/parody Personal Problems, a collaboration with Ishmael Reed and a murderer’s row of excellent Black actors and musicians shot on early video equipment, is now in wide and official circulation. But his first film, Stop!, finished in 1970 but never released by Warner Brothers, requires luck and persistence to see. Having finally tracked it down this month in a fuzzy but perfectly watchable dub online, I can say it’s worth the effort. An improbable anticipation of The Shining blended with the free-flowing sexual gamesmanship of Nicolas Roeg’s then-contemporary Performance, Stop! would have been only the second released Hollywood film by a Black director, and surely the strangest for a long time to come. In its startling mix of genres and frank, often sinister sex scenes, it belongs in a dim, curious video store aisle of the mind.

Gunn’s 1981 novel, Rhinestone Sharecropping, which seems to be as deeply out of print as a book can be, miraculously became available to check out in the Brooklyn Public Library system a couple of weeks ago, after a hold request so interminable and ambiguous that I had begun to doubt the book even existed. But it does! Much of it is a roman à clef following a Gunn-like character’s experience working on a script for a famous football player’s biopic—a clear stand-in for Gunn’s ill-fated real-life work on The Greatest, a Muhammad Ali movie (starring Muhammad Ali!) for which Gunn was denied writing credit. The novel delivers blistering epigrammatic truths about how Hollywood treats artists, and Black artists in particular. “Fear is the gin we are weaned on,” he writes. “Our talent is sustained on a steady diet of terror, even in death. We have visions of being turned out of the graveyard if the order is given and the check is stopped. It is with us in our dreams.” At one point, one racist producer asks another, “What kind of white star you gonna get for a Black movie? … Lassie?” prompting the unforgettable response: “Is Lassie white?!” It seems like the WGA strike would be a great time to scoop this thing up (@McNally Editions? @NYRB?) and unleash it on the public.

—Andrew Martin
Read Andrew Martin on opera here