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John Edgar Wideman is a big man. Though slightly stooped at sixty, he still has a basketball player’s body—long arms, huge hands, legs that seem to rise nearly to his chest.

Long admired for its lyricism, Wideman’s work carries with it the rhythms and cadences of black vernacular and music. In his acclaimed Homewood trilogy—the novels Hiding Place(1981) and Sent for You Yesterday (1983), and the short-story collection Damballah (1981)—he evokes the spiritual and physical life of the working-class black community in Pittsburgh where he grew up. Although he left Homewood to attend the University of Pennsylvania on a basketball scholarship, the legacies of family and community remain a rich source of material for his work. In Brothers and Keepers (1984), he writes about his brother, who is serving a life sentence in prison. In Philadelphia Fire (1990), he writes about the revolutionary organization MOVE and about his son, who is also imprisoned. Most recently, in a collection of pieces titled Hoop Roots (2001), he has returned to a childhood passion: basketball.

Wideman sat down for a first interview in his small, book-lined office at the University of Massachusettes, where he has taught since 1986. A second conversation took place last fall at a crowded restaurant in Boston. In both meetings, Wideman spoke for hours, only occasionally raising his voice above a near whisper.

 

INTERVIEWER

I wanted to start at the beginning, so to speak. Many of your novels are set in Homewood, where you grew up. What was life like for you there?

JOHN EDGAR WIDEMAN

I lived with my mother and father and brothers and sisters some of the time; some of the time my mother and father were feuding, so my mother would take us to live in my grandmother’s house. When I went to my grandmother’s house, not only was my grandmother around, but her mother lived in Homewood, and then there were great aunts; and, of course, there was my grandfather and his friends. So there I was a little kid and I was around every age bracket and not only seeing them, but hearing them talk—being taken around the neighborhood by my grandfather and meeting his cronies. It was very rich in that way.

INTERVIEWER

What sort of stories did you hear?

WIDEMAN

My aunt Geraldine was the unofficial historian and storyteller. She had all the information about family members and the gossip that came out of the church, because we were very much part of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. At family gatherings, the older folk had the floor, had pride of place, and it was their stories I remember.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give me a brief example of one or two of the stories?

WIDEMAN

Brief examples of family stories that I heard when I was three or five or six or seven? I wouldn’t have a clue where to start. They weren’t so much set pieces—though there were someof those. They were more stories about family peculiarities, and characters in the family or in the neighborhood. Part of it was just hearing. You had to be there to appreciate it, you had to be part of the fabric of the history for them to have real meaning.

One character was Aunt Fanny, who went to everybody’s funeral. She always carried an umbrella and she always was dressed up because she always was on the way to somebody’s funeral. Didn’t matter whether she knew them or not. She was going to go to the funeral and she would talk about the person and half the time make up the story because she didn’t know, really. My grandfather on my mother’s side told stories about his work and working with the other Italian paperhangers. The stories also changed as I got older. They got bawdier; they got raunchier. Sometimes they just changed because people change. Part of what would happen is that other people would add little bits and pieces to the story. Or they would amen it or somebody would say, Well that’s not the way it was. What really happened was x, y, and z. You would get competing versions, and it became like dueling banjos. People would try to out talk or over talk or loud talk one another.

The stories were performances. It was how somebody told it, not the content. Just to reproduce what was actually said wouldn’t do it at all. There isn’t the energy, there isn’t the call and response. They are not set pieces, but folk art, folk performance.

INTERVIEWER

Since there are competing oral versions, where do truth and imagination combine to create a full story?

WIDEMAN

Truth becomes a function of the choral nature of the exchanges. Stories are told over time, and so they naturally accrue meanings. The stories were common property. And so you weren’t after a version of truth. You were after the most entertaining version.

In Haiti, as I understand it, storytelling and history itself are not a business of necessarily elucidating facts or the truth of an incident, but finding the version that is most entertaining and therefore will get retold and live in immortality. When I read that about Haitian folklore and history, it struck home—it’s exactly what I observed in my own family.

INTERVIEWER

What were you reading growing up?

WIDEMAN

Anything I came across. Pretty eclectic, pretty happenstance. I read all the books that were in the Shadyside Boy’s Club library—books about submarines, dogs, grizzly bears. There were a lot of books in my house, so that was another source. My mother was a reader, my father was a reader. Not anything particularly sophisticated. My mother read fat historical or romantic novels; my father liked to read Westerns, Zane Grey, that kind of stuff. Whatever they brought in, I read.

INTERVIEWER

Did you read any African American writers then?

WIDEMAN

No. Those didn’t come my way. Frank Yerby was around, but I didn’t even know Frank Yerby was African-American. I liked stuff that had an adventurous edge to it, that took me to places I had no experience of. Movies and TV were much less a part of daily life—there was nothing to grab the imagination. Books were my Internet, my TV, my movies all rolled into one.

INTERVIEWER

It wasn’t a sense of escape from something unhappy, then, but simply a longing for something exotic?

WIDEMAN

I think I was kind of melancholy as a kid. I spent a lot of time inside my own head, a lot of time sort of staring into space wondering what the hell was going on. I had solitary instincts when I was very young, and reading was a way to make that time a little more entertaining.