undefinedReed, 2015. “Combative Writing has always been our tradition, even when we try to avoid it.”

 

I met Ishmael Reed at the Bowery Hotel, in New York, where he was staying for a ­couple of nights with his wife, the dancer and educator Carla Blank, and his daughter, the poet Tennessee Reed. In the novel Mumbo Jumbo (1972), Reed’s most acclaimed work, black artists spread “Jes Grew,” a virus of freedom and polytheism and ­improvised expression that overthrows a repressive status quo. Reed, gray hair swept to the side, eyes constantly darting around, restless with ideas and mischief, has become Jes Grew personified. His own groundbreaking literary output over six decades, in multiple languages and every form—essays, fiction, poetry, film, even editorial cartoons—has infected a generation of artists. His work as an institution builder, anthologist, and publisher has spread the work of hundreds of writers from outside the literary mainstream—students, black folks, immigrants, working-class writers, avant-garde experimentalists, and every member of his immediate family. Tennessee and Carla are both published authors, as is Timothy, Reed’s elder daughter. Reed’s late mother, too, wrote a memoir, called Black Girl from Tannery Flats

Reed’s present trip to New York, from his home base in Oakland, was a quick stopover on his way to Venice, where he was to receive the Alberto Dubito International Prize for his poetry. In his acceptance speech for the award, he would talk movingly about the tradition of black writing, “the kind of writing that I called ‘writing is fighting,’ a term that I borrowed from the boxer Muhammad Ali,” and of his hero Dante, another fighting writer who paid a price for his iconoclasm. The award was a reminder that poetry, as a form and sensibility, is the thread woven through everything he’s produced, from blues lyrics and a gospel opera to his collage-like fiction.

Despite his deep generosity and his pioneering work in defining an ­inclusive American aesthetic, Reed’s literary combativeness over the years—his clashes with certain feminist critics are the best known, but his list of targets and antagonists is long—has made him, in his words, a writer in exile. When I walked into his hotel room, the mood was quickly set by the bright, bickering figures on his television screen—a cable-news program on Donald Trump. Reed sat in a darker corner of the room shaking his head at the farcical scene and allowing a deep, sly laugh. Over the hours we talked, I occasionally tried to steer the conversation to questions of style and technique, but Reed parried those questions and instead returned, again and again, to politics, history, the fate of America and the world, and his battle fronts, still raging.

Chris Jackson

INTERVIEWER

Let’s start with something elementary. What is the first poem you remember reading?  

REED

You know, I didn’t really start reading poetry until I started going to the University of Buffalo, where I spent two and a half years. Before that, I spent a semester in the night-school division of the university, Millard Fillmore College. I may have read T. S. Eliot, maybe some of the modernists. I read some Langston Hughes in the newspapers. The Simple series. I read some things in high school, routine stuff—Edgar Allan Poe and all that. They didn’t introduce us to a single black author. But I really didn’t start reading poetry until I started at the university. The university was like a trade school for me. Matter of fact, I stayed too long, because within two years I had all the tools necessary to make a modest income as a writer. 

INTERVIEWER

Did you enter university thinking that that was what you wanted to do, to be a writer?

REED

When I went to grammar school in Buffalo, I got mostly negative reviews from the white women teachers—these teachers would say such terrible things about my behavior that I was ashamed to take their report cards home. I had only one black teacher during my whole education, a woman named Hortense Butts. She encouraged me and gave me tickets to concerts. Called upon me to play Christmas carols on the violin. I used to get beaten up by black women and white women. I was an equal-opportunity target. In first grade, I was slapped so hard by one white teacher my mother took me out of school. In eighth grade, I was assaulted by a woman teacher. She had a Victorian style. It was because I had a fistfight with her teacher’s pet, who called me a rat in front of the class. I thought to myself, How do I gain this woman’s affection? Because I wanted to be liked. That was my whole thing. I was someone who wanted people to like me—I still am.

INTERVIEWER

And how did you win her favor? 

REED

She told me that the greatest thing in the world for me would be to be a tech man. She told me I should go to the technical high school. So I did. I was totally unequipped. I got Fs. We had a thing in woodshop where the first ­assignment was to make a box to put your tools in—I never got beyond that. I spent most of the time in the band room playing the trombone and the violin. 

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever get the box done?

REED

No, I didn’t, because I was afraid of those electric saws. So I transferred to a traditional high school, and that year I went on a trip to Paris, sponsored by the Michigan Avenue Y in Buffalo, for a Bible-study thing. That trip changed my life. 

INTERVIEWER

How?

REED

On the plane to Paris, I read in this guidebook that there was a place in Paris called Pigalle where you could see “acres and acres of breasts.” A few days later, that’s exactly where I went and before the day was over I was at a table with a big old bottle of champagne in front me—me and a couple of hip white boys from Long Island. And we woke up there the next morning, too, at that same table. In Paris, I met Africans for the first time. All I knew of Africa before was what I’d seen in the movies and the textbooks here in the United States, but these Africans were students and intellectuals studying at the Sorbonne. I thought, I have been lied to. Not one had a bone in his nose. I think that was when I began to challenge everything I was being taught. One day, one of my high school teachers asked me to be part of a delegation that was going to meet Eleanor Roosevelt. I said, No, because I’m not going to be here. What can you all teach me? I had been in Paris, man, wearing my fake glasses and talking about existentialism, even though I was mispronouncing the word. When I came back to Buffalo, I dropped out of school. I was seventeen. My plan was to stay home and read plays but my mother said, You’ve got to get a job, so I worked at a library and that’s where I first read James Baldwin. I think it was Notes of a Native Son. It stopped me cold. I had never seen a black guy that could do this. When I was a child, I thought literature was written by lords and knights and stuff. You know, these people living in these great estates wearing beautiful clothes. Baldwin showed me something different. Then I discovered Dante, man. That really turned me on. My parents thought I had lost my mind. I would go up to the attic of our house in Buffalo and play a recording of John Ciardi’s Inferno while I followed along with the book. I read Dante and realized how much power a writer could have. A writer could put people in hell who weren’t even dead yet. I loved James Joyce, too, and really studied his work—at the library I would listen to proceedings of the James Joyce Society. I especially loved Dubliners. Nathanael West was another favorite, A Cool Million. I had never seen satire and nonlinear writing like West did—he was creating collages—and that influenced me. I still write that way. I wrote a short story in night school that was a mix of Joyce and Nathanael West. My teacher ­responded very strongly to the story, and they offered me a full scholarship to day school at the University of Buffalo. I didn’t receive the full scholarship because my stepfather wouldn’t sign a statement of his assets.

INTERVIEWER

Why not?

REED

“These white folks want to know all my business.” I liked my stepfather, I loved him. But there was just a gap between us. He was semiliterate and grew up in the South. Southern blacks were always getting finagled out of their assets by con artists. This still happens. Since 1979 I’ve lived in Oakland’s ­inner city, where we’re bombarded by mail and phone by predators who want to lure us into shady transactions. Anyway, I didn’t get the scholarship, but I didn’t really need it. I borrowed money to enter day school. After a year and a half, I had read Yeats, I had read Pound, and I had already read Joyce. I had studied enough to steer me to what I wanted to do in writing. My ideas for Neo-HooDooism were inspired by those Irish writers and their Celtic Revival. I discovered Pound’s ideas about multiculturalism, which influenced me, although I think I’ve gone beyond him because I’ve studied Japanese. I get my characters right. He didn’t. And he was a fascist, but I’m talking about his writing. Yeats’s anticolonial literature was another important discovery for me. What we ended up doing in the sixties was to revolt against the colonial masters. You see colonialism in the fifties generation of writers, in Baldwin, in Ellison. They talk about their masters and influences—Baldwin, who was a great writer, a great writer, always mentioned Henry James and Dickens. Ellison and those guys, they mention Hemingway. There was an abrupt departure from those sources in the sixties, when black writers start reflecting the influence of Malcolm X. And then we went off into all kinds of directions. Some black writers went into Arabic and African languages. I went into folklore, looking for examples of African religions surviving the slave trade. I called this Neo-HooDooism. Nobody told us about this but it was all right there, underground. 

INTERVIEWER

So those writers gave you some ideas about drawing from alternative sources, but did they also help you think about your style on the page? 

REED

Yes, and so did W. H. Auden. I still have that sort of spare style. I was also very much influenced by George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” where he advocated that you refrain from flamboyant language.

 

INTERVIEWER

What appealed to you about that kind of clean, clear writing? 

REED

It’s like Miles, man. Somebody said that Miles didn’t have the chops of Coltrane, who was a scholar, but Miles and Louis Armstrong went for the tone. You hear some of these guys playing like they’re getting paid by the note. Miles was very disciplined, very smart. Spare. Kind of Blue is a minimalist masterpiece. That was my style, too, right up to today. 

INTERVIEWER

What was the black community like in Buffalo back then? Was there a literary scene? Were other people reading Baldwin?

REED

Yes, our circle included Lucille Clifton, who had performed in Baldwin’s play The Amen Corner when she was a student at Howard. She went on to win a National Book Award. At the time, she was raising a family and writing on the weekends. She was crazy about Emily Dickinson. I introduced her to her husband, Fred Clifton, who, next to Malcolm X, was the brightest person I’ve ever met. There was my late friend Carl Tillman, who was writing novels in high school, and the classics professor Philip Wooby, who won a fellowship to the American Academy in Rome, and Teddy Jackson, who introduced me to the works of Camus and Sartre. 

INTERVIEWER

You met Malcolm X in Buffalo in 1961? 

REED

Yes, I worked with Joe Walker, a young man who put out the Buffalo Empire Star, the city’s black paper. We had a radio program and interviewed Malcolm when he came to town in 1961. The radio station thought we were too friendly toward him and his point of view, so we got fired. Malcolm took Joe to New York and Joe became an editor of Muhammad Speaks. When I went to New York, I’d sometimes talk with Malcolm. I even wrote a terrible poem about him called “Fanfare for an Avenging Angel.” It was so bad I threw it away. But Malcolm X complimented the poem. He said it reminded him of Dante and Virgil. Back then we thought the Nation of Islam was ­going to go south and kick ass, eliminate the Klan, and all that. But they were nonconfrontational. It was King who was the militant. 

INTERVIEWER

What did you do when you got to New York?

REED

I went to meetings of the Umbra collective, on East Second Street. We were surrounded by geniuses back then, people like Lorenzo Thomas. He was aligned with the white avant-garde and straddled these worlds—white avant-garde, black nationalism. And then there was Norman Pritchard, who was chanting and doing this rhythmic jazz, but he died mysteriously. And Calvin Hernton—I later published two of his books. I publish these guys’ books and don’t sell them because I just like to keep them. Amiri Baraka, of course—I published his book of cartoons and a play. David Henderson, who later wrote a biography of Jimi Hendrix, was also a member. I met a lot of ­painters and writers and musicians. I’d go out of the house for the newspaper in the morning and return at four a.m. I’d run into Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Joe Overstreet—we knew all those people. That was New York. 

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned Umbra, the radical writers’ collective. A lot of these people were part of it. What was Umbra like when you joined? 

REED

It was already factionalized. The poet Askia Touré, who was then Roland Snellings, was leading the black-nationalist faction, which was a first for me. Because we were very green in Buffalo about political movements, I had always thought nationalism was something that Italians had or other Europeans had. I had never heard of any black nationalism, even though it’s been around since the 1900s. And then there was an integrationist faction. The two sides were irreconcilable. For one mad moment, I was caught up in over-the-cliff extremism. It was the poet Joe Johnson and his girlfriend at the time, Cathy Rogers, who talked me down from the ledge. When the four children were bombed at the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, black intellectuals were hurt deeply. No matter how much our poetry had a militant pose, we realized that we didn’t have the firepower to take on our enemies. We turned on each other.

INTERVIEWER

Did you think of yourself as being close to the Beats, like Baraka and Ted Joans? 

REED

I read the Beats and took some influence from some of them—Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among others. Members of Umbra read with Ginsberg and Amiri in 1964 at Columbia University. But by then I was reading mostly black literature. We had a different reading list than the Beat writers did. I also learned I had to get out of New York because it had become too distracting. 

INTERVIEWER

What distracted you? 

REED

New York was possessed of that old European idea of respecting or even revering the writer or the artist. I mean, if you were black in those days, you could get by with one poem or one novel. If I had remained in New York, I would’ve been killed by an overdose of affection. By 1974, after I published The Last Days of Louisiana Red, I was a token in waiting. Later on, Saturday Review even suggested I was the next Negro Whisperer, whose job is to tell whites what those drums mean. I wrote to Saturday Review declining the honor. It’s like somebody putting a target on your back. As an editor, I’ve found that black, Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American talent is common. I’ve read thousands of manuscripts, put them in my magazines, anthologies. But anyway, I left New York because I couldn’t be their token, hanging out with Norman Mailer, having Leonard Bernstein invite me to write the text for his Mass, appearing with Robert Lowell at Town Hall, getting cussed out by a drunken Ralph Ellison in front of a bunch of great artists. I said, I’m going to go to the most barbaric place in the United States. So Carla and I went to Los Angeles. 

INTERVIEWER

At the time did you feel drawn to the nationalist camp, as opposed to the idea of multiculturalism?

REED

I broke with nationalism when people started taking seriously Elijah Muhammad’s idea of Yakub—that the white man was a devil, not even ­human. Baraka wrote a play about Yakub. Askia Touré had by then converted Amiri to nationalism, and whenever you’d see him he’d be in African garb. I always said you could tell the state of the political avant-garde by how Amiri dressed. When he had a seersucker suit, he was an integrationist. Then he put on robes and became a nationalist. Then he discarded that and went to jeans and became a communist. But back then he was always in the robes. Of course, he was also still coming downtown.

INTERVIEWER

I know you and Baraka had an up-and-down relationship through the years.

REED

He had an up-and-down relationship with everybody. He was like Sugar Ray Leonard. He’d kill you in the ring, but outside the ring he’d be the nicest guy. I never stopped having an active correspondence with Amiri—as a matter of fact, I published him up until a few months before his death.

INTERVIEWER

What did you think of him as a writer?

REED

He was a great writer. As I’ve said before, Amiri did for English syntax what Monk did for chords. Both were into original inversions. And now that he’s dead they’re recommending his book for a Christmas gift. The New York Times hated him. Then they recommended SOS for Christmas. 

INTERVIEWER

It just goes to show, it’s never too late to be a token. So, you left New York, and at some point you went down to New Orleans, and this is where you immersed yourself in voodoo culture.

REED

I had a tourist’s idea of voodoo. I think in my generation most black ­people grew up in families where people whispered about a religion as old as Christianity. I was naturally curious. My first novel, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, plays with the idea, jokes about it. My second novel, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, shows the influence of Haitian mythology and religion, which I’d started to study, and I put some of those themes and characters in there. In my next novel, Mumbo Jumbo, I went as far as I could in using the Haitian spiritual idea. Years before, I went to Nigeria and began to study Yoruba. I discovered that this religion ranks with Islam and Christianity as a world religion. Oshun, one of the children of the Yoruba god Olódùmarè, is celebrated every year in Atlanta, in Nigeria, and in Brazil. So this is a worldwide religion. But I’m not a religious person. I’ve always been skeptical of religion. And some people get carried away. I know of a Dutch woman who read Mumbo Jumbo and then went to Haiti and became a priest, and now she’s got some religion going on in the Netherlands. That’s happened. But to me it was about something different—Mumbo Jumbo connected to the idea we had in the sixties, that we had to find new mythologies. Like the Irish reviving Celtic culture, we had to go deeper into our own culture. We were in a colonial situation where we were treated like good natives if we got the catechism of colonialism correct, and we wanted to get far away from that. Then I wrote Japanese by Spring because I thought that if I ever wrote another book in English exclusively, I would have to quit. 

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said your belief in syncretism—in cultural recombination and adaptation—goes back to your exposure to Pound. But it sounds as if that really flowered when you explored voodoo. 

REED

I call it African religion. Voodoo I think is a Hollywood term—sticking pins in dolls and nonsense—but its influence is important to me. I mean, what would happen if the Chinese who came here had forgotten about Confucius? Or the whites forgot about Christianity? So this African religion was smashed, but I think it shows its durability by its survival all over the hemisphere. All over the world. In Brazil, it’s competitive with Catholicism. An evangelical pastor made some disparaging remarks about candomblé and they charged him with religious intolerance. 

INTERVIEWER

So you have a certain kind of Christianity on the one hand, which has ­ossified into a monoculture with a dogma, and then you have these various forms of traditional African religion, which don’t resist influence but absorb everything, so this openness becomes the source of its power. 

REED

I think the way that the African pantheon absorbs the cultures of others is a perfect metaphor for multiculturalism today. The clash in this country is with monoculturalists, white nationalists, who say they are defending Western civilization. I’m in the middle of writing an essay called “The Last Stand of White Nationalism.” Right now, some people are trying to go against the coalition that Obama put together—Jewish, Asian American, blacks, Latinos, with millions of whites who accept diversity. It’s just overwhelming, a sad way for their story to conclude. When I look at American civilization in terms of two thousand years, I think the European invasion and the white nationalism that followed might have been just an unhappy period, an unfortunate phase in civilizations that are thousands of years old. 

INTERVIEWER

When you say it’s the last stand, do you really think this is the death rattle of white nationalism? 

REED

It’s over, man. They just don’t have the numbers to maintain this settler fantasy, where we’re all movie Indians whooping it up at the sight of their wagon trains. The haters might deny this, but one of the fastest-growing demographics is biracial children.

INTERVIEWER

The first book of yours I ever read was the essay collection Writin’ Is Fightin’, which was the entryway into all of your work for me. And you’ve gotten in plenty of scraps over the years. But is writing really a form of combat? 

REED

Amiri and Richard Wright were wrong in dismissing the African American tradition as ­being flowery. You’ve got people back in the nineteenth century, like Frances Harper, who were talking about the issues of their day. And some of them risked their lives—for example, James Bell went after Andrew Johnson and called him all kind of names. You could be murdered! But I was ignorant of this, too, until I started to read nineteenth-century black poets. Combative writing has always been our tradition, even when we try to avoid it. I recently saw an article in the New York Times about Cave Canem, the group of black poets, and one of them described the trend in black literature as a “shift out of the ‘I’m a black man in America and it’s hard’ mode into the idea of ‘you are who you are, so that’s always going to be part of the poem.’ ” As if the tradition of writing about black suffering—I’ve been ’buked and scorned and all that—was dead. But why can’t you write about the hardships that black men and women face in everyday life? It was certainly hard for Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland. I mean, I run into racial stuff every day. I was racially profiled in a cemetery. 

INTERVIEWER

A cemetery? 

REED

Carla and I were running errands and we went past this landmark cemetery, the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. Lot of important people are buried there. It’s very beautiful. So Carla and I separated and I lay down in front of this mausoleum. I was listening to Randi Rhodes on the radio. It was a beautiful day. Man, I was having a pleasant time. Next thing I know, here come the cops. They called the police on me. Carla said, Maybe it’s a coincidence? I told her, When I leave, they will leave. Which is what happened.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think there’s still value in the “I’ve been ’buked and scorned” narrative? 

REED

I wouldn’t put it that way. But a book like Black Boy, for example, is very important. Because you think you’re all alone, but then you discover that a lot of people have been through what you’re going through. Because for hundreds of years, they’ve told us that we’re not experiencing what we know we’re experiencing. You can give them all the empirical data and all the scholar­ship in the world, but they will still tell you you’re lying. Not only the ­yahoos or these Trumpistas, but the New York Times editorial page, columnists like Nicholas Kristof doing that model-minority thing, why can’t black people be like the model minorities. I mean, please. 

INTERVIEWER

This idea of literature as a form of representational justice goes back to what you were saying about Dante—that even as a young person, in your first exposure to literature, you were excited about the possibility of literature creating some kind of justice. 

REED

With literature you can condemn the powerful, and you can critique the power­ful. Of course, Dante paid for it. He was never able to return to Florence. He died in exile. He endured a lot to speak his mind. They tell us, Don’t write about politics. You know, because the politics is aimed at them. But Dante had a political office! And some of those characters in Dante’s Inferno are political opponents of his. The same with Shakespeare. His work was political. I was reading The Merchant of Venice the other day and it ­includes one of the most devastating antislavery arguments ever written. So I don’t know where they get the bourgeois idea that art shouldn’t be political. 

INTERVIEWER

When you talk about some of the writers you were influenced by, like Orwell or W. H. Auden, these are people who were concerned with the wider world. 

REED

Absolutely. “September 1, 1939” is about war. Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, and Milton all wrote about politics. Yet I, like them, have also written ­poems that have little to do with politics. I think back to some of what’s been said by the younger generation of writers, the ones who think of themselves as post-racial and who think of our generation as bitter. I’ve always said they’re probably going to face stiffer tests than we did. We were never confronted with a fascist like Trump. When we were kids, we used to hide under desks because we thought any moment Russia was going to declare war on the United States. And, you know, that faded. But these kids, my daughter ­included, this is the first generation to face extinction, and that is sobering. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you think there is a cultural response to that? To extinction? 

REED

I’m beginning to think that our species is a mistake of nature, a species that wants to destroy its own habitat. I don’t want to sound like a misanthrope, but there’s something wrong with us. There’s something wrong. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel like there are writers today who are creating work that’s politically salient, that can lead us down a different path? 

REED

I think you see that possibility in the black hip-hoppers. I mean, I look at a lot of their stuff on paper—a lot of it works. That’s where the possibility is. The rappers brought back rhyme. Critics try to put these kids down, but many of them are good writers. I shouldn’t be surprised by the sophistication, some of the allusions—some of them have read widely and just draw on a whole lot of different material. They really have restored an interest in poetry. It’s democratic and it’s worldwide. You know, hip-hop was there during the Arab Spring. Cuban teenagers said their relationship with the United States began to form because of hip-hop. It’s a form that’s still not given it’s due. Another cutting edge in black writing can be found in Afrofuturism. When I was at the Givens Foundation for African American Literature, most of my students were black women, and most were writing sci-fi. Their model was Octavia Butler.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve always felt that there was a real similarity between hip-hop and your aesthetic, in the way it absorbs and deploys every kind of musical form and verbal idiom. But do you think it goes back further?

REED

Oh, yeah. To West Africa. I’ve translated Yoruba poetry, and you find the same stuff there. The boasting, the posturing, the signifying. “Your grandmother eats rice with sneakers.” Then the toast, you know, goes back in the underworld to the early 1900s. Even the rhymes are the same. The couplets, the boasting, the gangsterism. That’s an old form. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you think you’ll ever reconcile with your feminist critics? 

REED

A number of black, Native American, Hispanic, and Asian American feminists have championed my work, and I have published a number of them. But I do have problems with some feminists, like some who used to write for the Village Voice. They were terrible. I mean, they called James Baldwin a woman hater. I was the first to publish excerpts from Ntozake Shange’s masterpiece, for colored girls . . . Now, if you polled feminists who found that the least expensive way to bond with minority feminists was to bond with their handpicked surrogates in expressing hostility toward black men, I’d probably be voted as one of the worst misogynists in the country. Ms. magazine described me as a misogynist. But if you polled Native American women, black women, Asian American women, and Hispanic women—poets and intellectuals—you’d probably get a different result.

INTERVIEWER

What was the trajectory of your relationship with Baldwin? 

REED

By the time Baldwin was forty years old, he’d written two masterpieces. Giovanni’s Room is a masterpiece. Go Tell It on the Mountain, his best novel, he wrote when he was hungry, starving. Another Country comes close but gets messed up after it loses its most interesting character, Rufus. But by his forties, when I encountered him in person, he was on the decline. The Black Power people had rejected him. Henry Louis Gates Jr. said Baldwin never recovered from Eldridge Cleaver’s attack. Back in the 1970s, writers and artists used to go to this jazz bar in New York called Mikell’s—Baldwin’s brother was a bartender. I remember being there one night and Baldwin was there and no one was even paying attention to him. It was like his time had passed. When he was really down and his former patrons had abandoned him, he got a job at Bowling Green State University—they had called me up and asked me did I think he was qualified to teach. James Baldwin! I said, You shouldn’t even be asking me that. But then in his last interview before his death, with Quincy Troupe, Baldwin claimed I called him a ­homosexual slur. Nobody from the Village Voice called me to fact-check or say whether I denied it, and now that same interview is in a new volume from Melville House. I wrote to them about it, but as of this date, I haven’t received a reply.

INTERVIEWER

It’s interesting that you appear in that interview to be Baldwin’s tormentor, when you just talked about how, as a kid in the library, reading Baldwin was part of what convinced you that literature was something a black person could do. What do you think now of that postwar generation of black writers that preceded yours—Ellison, Baldwin, Wright, and others? As writers, do you think they were limited by being locked into Western models?

REED

Some of them were assimilated. They wrote for people who could afford to buy their books—liberals. Our generation didn’t care whether they read us or not. In The Fire Next Time, Baldwin used his nephew as a prop—his real audience was the liberals looking over his shoulder, those whom he called “the chorus of the innocents.” He wanted to get book sales. And then he tried to get the cash register by making his characters white, like in Another Country. He had to go for the marketplace. What was he supposed to do, wash dishes? Be a shoeshine boy? He had talent, and a liberal constituency picked him up. He became a proxy. What was he supposed to do? Same thing with Frederick Douglass. Was he supposed to shovel coal for a living? When I came to New York, I came with a very sophisticated guy with a lot of savvy—I met him in Buffalo. He organized the hospital workers, man, and they’d be in the headlines, you know, the guy was a genius. He could bring the hospital industry to its knees. And he was the only white man living in the segregated black projects. When I came to New York, he got me a job at Mount Sinai. He told me, you’re not going to achieve any status as a writer unless somebody takes you uptown. I was so naive at the time I thought someone was literally going to come down to the East Village, put me on the subway, and take me to some destination uptown. I didn’t know it was just a figure of speech. But he knew what he was talking about. They took Baldwin uptown. Even then, the thing about him is that he was tough but he was a genius. You know, Baldwin came down to the Village from Harlem when he was a kid to hang out with the painter Beauford Delaney. And Baldwin’s got a painter’s eye. Those details he draws into the characterizations—he’s really meticulous. It’s like hyperrealism. 

INTERVIEWER

Going back to your early work, you were nominated for those two National Book Awards in the same year, which is a remarkable achievement for a young writer, but even more so given that the books you were nominated for, Conjure and Mumbo Jumbo, were such radical works in terms of their nonlinearity, their surreal and satirical content, and their confrontational spirit. Were you surprised by that sort of reception?

REED

Well, I couldn’t write a realistic Norman Rockwell book surrounded by Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra and all these painters down in the East Village. It was impossible. I wanted to run with the big dogs. Joe Overstreet is the one who turned me on to the sophistication of African religion. He had this one painting full of these geometric shapes, and I asked him, What’s this? and he said, These are vèvè. They’re these geometric patterns drawn on the ground which summon the loas, or entities. Sort of like their landing strips, as one writer put it. There are hundreds of loas. They’re like the gods in Greek ­mythology. Anyway, that’s what got me going and set me off to Mumbo Jumbo and Yellow Back

But when Mumbo Jumbo was nominated for a National Book Award, William Gass told me that Southerners on the board objected to it and the book’s supporters were overruled. To be honest, even my publisher, Doubleday, thought I was a con artist. 

INTERVIEWER

Doubleday thought you were a con artist?

REED

I think some people there did. They were used to novels being written the same way. My editor Anne Freedgood had left Doubleday for Random House. With her, I had complete control of the book. I even designed the cover. I wanted to write another novel after Mumbo Jumbo. They brought in a black guy from advertising to tell me Mumbo Jumbo wasn’t selling enough and said they wanted me to write a biography of Jimi Hendrix. I didn’t want to, and I considered their refusal to be a firing.

INTERVIEWER

Doubleday dropped you after you were nominated for a National Book Award?

REED

Yeah. But forty-five years later, Mumbo Jumbo is still in print. After that, I said we should just have our own awards. I named it the American Book Awards. We had our first ceremony at the West Side Community Center in 1980. Among the first recipients were Jayne Cortez and Quincy Troupe. The next year Joe Papp’s Public Theater hosted us. We had Toni Morrison, Donald Barthelme, Hugh Masekela, Howard “Sandman” Sims, the great hoofer, all on the program. Amiri was in the audience, Evelyn and Avatar Neal, Ntozake Shange. It was a big event. Then we left New York and had it all over the country. We had ceremonies in New Orleans—Allen Toussaint came to perform. We had ceremonies in San Francisco—we had a thousand people. The National Endowment for the Arts cut off our grants, but we kept going. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that over those forty years those awards have had an effect in terms of widening the range of books that get published and read? 

REED

Absolutely. I mean, some of those people who’ve gotten awards, it’s helped them get tenured, it’s given them shelf life. The American Book Awards is competitive. As a matter of fact, the NEA ranked the American Book Awards with the Pulitzers and the National Book Awards. The Washington Post asked if the American Book Awards are the American League to the National Book Awards’s National League. We have a little office and got a nice grant last year. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you think it’s important that artists build their own bases of power? 

REED

You just want to use up whatever equipment you can get. When I got that MacArthur grant, I said, Everybody is going to benefit from this. So I ­financed an opera, we called it a gospera, using a whole bunch of black people in our community who were singers, artists. And then I financed plays where black actors had challenging roles, not prostitutes or maids or anything, and then I published books, including a couple of books from Nigeria. My plan was to publish books from each country in Africa. That didn’t work out. But I said thousands of people would benefit if I ever got one of those grants, and, you know, thousands have. 

INTERVIEWER

What was the gospera?

REED

I was commissioned by the San Francisco Opera to create something about Christ’s arrest and the garden of Gethsemane. I took some liberties with the story. I put Beelzebub in there and his character was bent on getting revenge for an exorcism that Christ did. I had Lazarus complain about being brought back from the dead and his mother complaining about having to take care of him. And at the end, when the Romans ask Judas to identify Jesus, he kisses everybody on stage. That’s the African-religion part, where all of the people are possessed by Jesus. Jesus is just another orisha in this play. After the composer rejected the book, the rights reverted to me. They invited me up to Union Theological Seminary to talk about it. And then, most recently, at the Institute for Signifying Scriptures, in Claremont, California. So I made about half my investment back by discussing the book. They showed a film of the gospera at a white Fundamentalist church on Good Friday. This was in Hampton, Virginia. The minister called me the following Monday to tell me he’d been fired.

INTERVIEWER

This is a theme in your work—taking traditional mythologies or forms and giving them new life.

REED

I think artists throughout history have done that. My novel Japanese by Spring got me to China and Japan. That’s when I learned that you don’t necessarily have to be dependent on the blueprint of the moment that’s imposed upon black writers. The critics here didn’t like Japanese by Spring, they didn’t even know what to make of it. But I went to a conference in China with it. I was also brought to Japan—I wrote songs in Japanese and performed them with a band at the Blue Note in Tokyo. Now I’m studying Hindi. I just wrote my first poem in Hindi, and my new novel is about learning the language—it’s called Conjugating Hindi, but conjugating, of course, also has sexual overtones. 

INTERVIEWER

In a recent speech, you described yourself as a writer in exile. What did you mean by that?

REED

My last few books have been published in Montreal. In the 1850s, Benjamin Drew, a white American abolitionist, published an anthology of narratives from fugitive slaves who’d come to Canada. What you discover is that even then they said things, from Canada, that the American slave narratives couldn’t. Right now, here in America, you are required to be soft. I just wrote a long essay on James Baldwin, forty pages, for an English magazine, and after they read it they came to me and said, Can’t you soften this? So the idea here is in order to get a mainstream publisher, you have to soften it to appeal to the sort of people they think buy books. The Complete Muhammad Ali was a book I was supposed to publish with Crown. The acquiring editor left the company and then they wanted me to make it into part memoir, part biography. When they finally abandoned the project, I could make the book into the improvisational, nonlinear work I wanted it to be. And it was published in Montreal by Baraka Books. So was another book of mine, Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media: The Return of the Nigger Breakers. And also, Going Too Far. I called it Going Too Far because one critic who was a contributor to The Root said I’d gone too far with my novel Juice! I said, You don’t know how far I’ve gone. I’ve gone all the way to Montreal. So I’m part of a tradition. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel like you see your influence in younger writers, even from your exiled position?

REED

I see in the Times they mention me in connection with different writers. But they won’t review my books. I’m mentioned in connection with Paul Beatty, and Colson Whitehead has also cited me as one of his influences, or he said he couldn’t get away from my influence. I think if I’ve been influential it’s because I took the novel off in a different direction. One of the big influences on me for my first novel was Charles Wright’s The Wig. Bob Kaufman’s mock histories ­influenced Yellow Back. They always say Ellison was an influence, but I didn’t read Ellison until I started teaching black literature at UC Berkeley, in 1968. But Charles Wright was the one who influenced all of us down here in New York in the sixties. The surrealist takes, the jump cuts and all that. The characters. I was able to write an introduction to The Wig, the new edition, before he died. 

INTERVIEWER

But your work is in public spaces, you’ve toured the world, been anthologized. Do you think you’ve gone from an insurgent to being almost an institution? 

REED

I became more accessible when I started collaborating with musicians. I went to this place called the Soul Food Kitchen in Oakland, this black restaurant. They were playing a song I had written for Taj Mahal on the radio. And I said, This is it. I told the guy, the chef who ran the place, that it was me on the radio, but he didn’t believe me. Bobby Womack was performing ­before forty thousand people in Oakland Park. I told the man standing next to me that Bobby Womack had recorded my songs. He didn’t believe me. And then I saw that George Clinton said Mumbo Jumbo’s one of the best books he’s ever read. He wanted to do a film of it. And Tupac mentioned me in a song, “Still I Rise.” So that’s worth a lot to me. Worth a lot. To see the work appearing in new forms and locations. We just have to keep challenging and breaking up stuff. In art and culture and other places. 

INTERVIEWER

In one of your lectures, you encouraged your audience to “tell your stories, or people will tell them, and they’ll vulgarize and degrade you.” Aren’t marginalized people in a better position to tell their own stories today? Do you think things have gotten better or worse? 

REED

It’s better because of social media, where more voices can get through. Worse because Jim Crow Hollywood and Jim Crow media won’t budge when it comes to diversity, and so black opinion and black images are still manipulated by outsiders. This whole discussion about Black Lives Matter is being conducted and controlled by media people who have little chance of being harassed by the police. Other people tell our stories. I’ve had this ongoing back and forth about the HBO show The Wire. I want David Simon, the creator, to admit that it’s a cliché. He should do something new, like a series about a suburban gun dealer who brings guns into the inner city. Richard Price was also writing The Wire. We were on a panel at a conference in Aix-en-Provence together and I got on him. I said, You need to quit writing all these stereotypes about black people. And the audience turned against me. My friend Russell Banks got up, and he said, This is a local issue, you shouldn’t be bringing it up at this conference. But there was an International Herald Tribune on sale at the conference, and it had a big, full-page ad for The Wire. This stuff goes all over the world. Even a movie like Straight Outta Compton, about NWA and LA around the time of the riots. White writers tell our stories, but we have the ability to occupy some of the space.

INTERVIEWER

You have such a relentless imagination, even after writing so much, in so many forms, over the decades. What is your work routine?

REED

I get up early in the morning. And I take a lot of notes. I get a lot of ideas when I’m swimming. I swim three times a week. Some psychics ask, Where do you talk to God? For me, the ideas come when I’m in the bathtub or when I’m swimming. Water, it does something. And I move through ­different genres—that’s how I avoid writer’s block. So I’ll write a poem or draw a cartoon or work on a novel. Or I’ll write an essay. I get to reach a lot of people on Facebook.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve always advocated a democratic approach to literature—that good writing can be found anywhere, that it’s common and unsurprising. In your Neo-Hoodoo manifesto, from Conjure way back in 1972, you wrote, “Neo-HooDoo believes that every man is an artist and every artist a priest.” 

REED

Yeah, though I’ve discovered that Richard Wright said it first. The other day I was visiting this high school, and this Chicano girl gets up there and reads a poem that blew me away. And there was another student—I’m introducing her to The Paris Review because she’s just extraordinary. And these kids, even if they never write a poem again, I’ve put their work alongside canonized poets in anthologies like From Totems to Hip-Hop. I went to the National Council of Teachers of English, I read a poem by a student, then read a poem by a canonized poet and asked them to choose which was which. Fifty percent said the student was the canonized poet. In Totems to Hip-Hop, there’s a poem by Cynthia Gomez called “San José”—it came from a workshop I did where I asked students to write a city poem modeled after Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago.” The BBC called a couple years ago and asked for that poem. I wonder what happened to her. Even if she never wrote another poem, she wrote that. Just like Langston Hughes wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” when he was a teenager, and most amazing of all, Billy Strayhorn started Lush Life when he was sixteen. I mean, the lyrics on there are amazing! So, that’s why I got very humble. Because I came from Buffalo and I thought poetry was an elite thing. Then I came to New York and I met the poet Walter Lowenfels. He was in his seventies at the time and he was listening to Coltrane, and I met Langston Hughes, who was one of the hippest people I ever met. Both of them were great poets, but also just accessible to everybody. Langston was instrumental in getting my first novel published. They’re the ones who led me to believe that poetry, that writing, can come from anywhere.