Black Talk, Black Feeling: Fiction Roundtable - Believer Magazine

Black Talk, Black Feeling: Fiction Roundtable

In the second installment of Black Talk, Black Feeling, we spoke with Namwali Serpell, author of 2019’s award-winning debut novel The Old Drift (and Ismail’s very patient dissertation advisor); Brit Bennett, author of the New York Times #1 bestseller The Vanishing Half; and Whiting Award-winning author Brontez Purnell, whose story collection 100 Boyfriends is forthcoming from FSG. Our conversation started off in momentous fashion: Brit’s book had just climbed to the top of the Times’ bestseller list, and Brontez had finished his graduate program at Cal Berkeley and was celebrating his birthday. The jubilant energy set the tone for a discussion that was both lighthearted and probing. We delved into questions about what it feels like to write fiction at a time when Black fiction writers’ work is in danger (as ever) of being treated as sociology, the meaning of timeliness for work that is never actually timely, how writers balance the market against aesthetic aspiration, whether there is space for b/Black humor amid today’s political climate, and so much more. We hope you enjoy it.

(And if you haven’t had a chance to read the first installment of the series, featuring Danielle A. Jackson, Cassie Owens, and Hanif Abdurraqib, you can find it here.)

—Niela Orr and Ismail Muhammad 

I. THE HIGH CONTRAST OF OPPOSITES

ISMAIL MUHAMMAD: How are you all doing right now, during the pandemic?

BRIT BENNETT: It’s been strange for me having a book out right now during quarantine. I’m by myself right now, so I’ve been isolated since March. So there’s the feeling of extreme isolation in this moment, and then also this feeling of being extremely exposed. Like, I’ve never felt more exposed in my life. And there’s something weird about that tension that I haven’t quite reconciled yet.

BRONTEZ PURNELL: I think it’s really fucking weird because, if it wasn’t based in so much death and damn mayhem, it would actually be, like, a relaxing time. I just graduated from Berkeley in May. And I realized how much over the last two years I always have had to fucking hustle to get this kind of nebulous career to work. I was like, “God said ‘go to your room.’” [Laughs]

There is a part of me that, even though there’s uncertainty, takes pleasure being with it. I think what’s fucked up too is that if this had not happened, we wouldn’t be sitting here vibing and talking like this. The first thing that happened [when the pandemic hit] was that everybody was at home and I got on the phone. It was like the ‘90s again where you’d call people and they’d be at home, and they wanna talk for a minute. For years I would show up to LA and there’d be, like, ten people at a reading. In Oakland, like fifteen at the most. But then there’s these Zoom readings where there will be 150 people and they are from all over the world. So when you say that you’re feeling exposed, like, everyone’s paying attention to Black people right now! Everyone go! [Laughter.] And so, you’re like, [affects a serious tone] “I’m Black; it’s hard.” Ummmm, what else? [Laughs] And so, there’s part of me that’s just really enjoying this root network that we’re creating while we’re in trauma. It seems really strong. And I hope we keep that energy up from here on out, no matter what happens. That’s the most positive spin I put on it to keep going within it. 

NAMWALI SERPELL: I feel like what we’re all saying is that there’s a lot of high contrast right now: I’m alone, but I’m exposed. I’m in my house and haven’t touched another human being in however long, but I can be on these Zooms with 1600 people where I’m feeling a real sense of community. And at the same time, there’s a feeling that, you know, it’s time to air our Black trauma. But there’s also a lot of hope, man, there’s a lot of love and a lot of hope. There’s also a lot of anger. Everything’s all pressed up together. So I’ve been feeling overwhelmed with the high contrast of opposites. I go through a full spectrum of emotion every day. [Laughter] And it’s exhausting, but it is also really energizing.

IM: I wonder — how is the sense of being overwhelmed with this contrast affecting your writing? I ask because both the sense of isolation and doom, and the sense of hope, seem like they’re rooted in a larger perception of urgency around anti-Blackness. Everyone is feeling such urgency, but I wonder if that’s a good thing for writers, especially fiction writers. Fiction isn’t a medium in which you can prioritize urgency, right? Fiction takes time. 

BB: Exactly. I think for me the strange thing about being a fiction writer in this moment is hearing people describe my book as “timely.” I think it’s disconcerting to me because the timeliness is something that does not come from inside the book; it comes from outside the book, right? The timeliness is the truth or perception of white readers wanting to read about Blackness in this moment. And I think to myself, If my book had come out two weeks earlier, if my book had come out one week earlier, would it have been described as “timely”? Absolutely not! Although, the same themes about racial identity and the same images of racist violence exist in the book. Those things would have always been relevant. You know? There would have been no point in time in which writing into that history would have felt disconnected from reality in America. So I feel so ambivalently about that. I feel proud that the book is doing well, but I also know that at least part of that is due, again, to a truth or perception that white people are finally ready to have the conversation about race. And this book is going to be a part of it in some way that I never intended it to be when I was writing it. The thing about fiction, at least for me, is that it’s not a real-time response; most novels take years and years to develop. So to have something that you wrote years ago be framed as a response to the moment that you could not have imagined at the time, I think that also speaks to some of the strangeness of this moment. At least for me.

NS: I totally agree. I feel like we have two different paradigms of time and timeliness working right now. We have to think about time in a very broad and global way, because we’re thinking this is going to be a global pandemic for years. The Black Plague was still around after 800 years, you know? But at the same time we have these, like, really tightly wound, very, very short news cycles, when it comes to what is or isn’t relevant. And I think that maps on to what Brit is saying. As fiction writers, we work on the big scale. We write over years and we’re thinking about things for years. And then you have this kind of sudden timeliness when the book comes out.

I’m in a very interesting moment because I’m revising a novel. It revolves around a Black family and a young Black boy, and a Black man is the narrator of the second half of the book. So I’m in the middle of revisions, and I’m nearing the moment where this guy gets shot by a cop, and I’m like, Oh! I can’t really concentrate because there are protests about this exact thing. It’s very telling that what we were writing years ago, and what we’re revising now, is still relevant. I think it speaks to Ismail’s beautiful piece in The Paris Review about the cycle of it, the repetition of it, right? So in some ways it has a consistent relevance. It’s been relevant. It’s just that we knew it was relevant and other people are awakening to that relevance now.

BP: I attest that I aired all my Black trauma before it was cool. [Laughter.] So… Everyone has totally, like, leaped onto my moment. I thought of it first. I’ve been an emotional exhibitionist for years. [Laughs] I do also think that when something is timely, you really gotta strike. It’s feeling like the gold rush and people are feeling like they have to make statements, or command some type of voice.

I dunno, I’m mostly a comedian. I write about some heavy shit but I just … I mostly like to laugh, and so at times like this I feel like my input is not often needed, or not serious enough. But then, there’s all these absurdities that pop up that I can’t help but be like, What the fuck is this?

For instance, I did a documentary about a Black dancer that got rejected by a movie festival a year ago. But now that they want Black voices, they were like, “We really want to show this. Would you be into waiving your artist’s fee and giving it to Black Lives Matter?” I was just like, “Of course I’ll give all my money to the movement!” But then I was like, Wait a minute, hold up! My art becomes free ‘cause white folks need to learn about racism?! [Laughter.] Like… that can’t be real! But you’re afraid not to do it! ‘Cause  it’s like, shit, you need the pay, you need the exposure. You’re like “Damn, fine, if someone’s gonna see it, okay,” you know? Again, yeah, the timing is just kind of a really funny thing. And also that feeling of like [Sings] “Will you still love me tomorrow?”

BB: I think that that also is so real— the capitalist implications of this moment happening within the system that we’re all living in and working in as artists. Because there’s a part of me that feels gross imagining myself benefiting financially from this moment. But then there’s also the thought of, Is my [success] alongside all the white people that are benefitting from this moment? I’m already kind of bracing myself for the next novel by a white person about Black Lives Matter that’s going to sell for god knows how much money, you know? ‘Cause we know it’s coming. So there’s this idea [Sighs]… what does it mean to… not even air out Black grief, because there’s obviously nothing inherently wrong in writing about grief, writing about trauma, writing about these things that are real and important. But there’s the sense of why we’re doing it, and this feeling that there’s this very narrow window of interest. I can already feel it starting to close.

BP: Ahh!

BB: I could be wrong, but there’s a feeling of this being a brief moment. I think of what Namwali was saying: we have been having these conversations for decades, centuries. But a mainstream white audience is new to this conversation, and will get tired of the conversation eventually, and I wonder what that means to Black artists whose art I think is also being read quite narrowly right now. I think this narrow didacticism through which Black art is being read and engaged with is the least interesting way to engage with any art. But our art is being engaged with in this very narrow way that feels like it has a very short shelf-life. At least that’s how it seems to me.

II. “I’M A GODDAMN WRITER. DRAMA HAS CONFLICT. THERE’S GONNA BE VIOLENCE THERE.”

NIELA ORR: Brit, what you’re saying goes back to Toni Morrison’s observation that Black fiction is often read as sociology, not as art. And so some people don’t think about writers’ phrasing or their sentence-level poetry, or any of that intentional work. They don’t think about the art. The idea is, “Let me read Native Son to understand what’s happening in the Black community,” instead of reading a sociology book or a work of people’s history, or some other, more appropriate text. 

Brit and Namwali, you both talked a little bit about violence and how you’ve been thinking about that as you’re writing. And I’m sure this is something you’ve been considering long before this moment, of course, but I’m wondering how all three of you are thinking about depicting violence in your work. Does the proliferation of trauma porn, death videos, and other spectacles of Black mortality change the way you think about framing the pain—and the joy—of Black characters on the page?

NS: Before I forget the thought, I did wanna say that, in response to the idea that we have a closing window: It seems to me like the important thing in the small timeframe that we have is to make the material demands, right? To get paid and hired and contracted—because that’s the money that’s gonna sustain us when they all change topics in however long, and start thinking about other things, or just revert back to this very simplistic way of thinking. It takes a long time, actually, to adjust a white readerly mindset so that it is not looking to Black texts for tokenistic, exoticist representations, or just to relieve guilt. And so I don’t think that that work is gonna be done in this moment—it’s gonna be a long scale—but we need to get paid while we’re working on that, for the future. I decoupled monetary value from literary aesthetic value a long time ago. One facilitates the other, but they’re not actually tied together, because the market is fickle and it’s white, and so you can’t rely on it. But aesthetic value you can focus on. You can work, you can have community, you can speak to our ancestors, our literary ancestors. It’s the long work, it is the long haul. Just to say, get your money, girl. [Laughter] Don’t be feeling any kind of way.

But I can speak briefly to the other question. I wrote a short story—again, we’ve been doing this work—I wrote a short story a while back about the pool party incident in McKinney, Texas where that little girl got thrown on the ground. And in the course of writing that story, I had to watch that video probably five times, and I got a question when I read from the story in New York at Triple Canopy. Someone in the audience asked “How could you stand to watch it?” And I said that writing about it is what allowed me to overcome the pain of watching it. And this sounds really clinical and kind of terrible, but if I back up from it enough to write about it and to figure out how to write about it—and that piece is very much about Black joy interrupted by violence to Black people—and trying to think about how to convey that best to a reader, the acts of thinking and writing somehow diffuse the trauma of witness, of just watching it over and over again. I was thinking about the reader, and I was thinking about the community of people who might read this work. So it’s almost like a distribution of that pain across the community, through this process of treating it in words, rendering it into a form. I don’t want to say “aestheticizing it,” because I wasn’t trying to make it pretty and I wasn’t trying to make it, graphic, right? But I was considering all of those questions in trying to make it a form. And honestly, to make something a form is to hold it, is to contain it, it’s to give yourself a way to contain it. So I think in general that’s been my perspective on it. I don’t force myself to watch these videos over and over again as a receiver, but as a creator. It feels like a responsibility I have, to create a form in which it can be registered by other people, and not just as trauma.

BP: Echoing what you’re saying, I don’t think there’s anything that you can truly write about that should be viewed as shocking. I do think there is something once-removed about the written word, about writing something that happens to a character, in a world where frankly you can scroll through and see twenty of the most violent images of whatever. Like, young kids these days have crazy access to porn on their phones, whereas we had to sneak it out of our parents’ room. Again, this is a world where there’s so much visual representation of any nuts thing you wanna see, and there is something elevated about the written form where I just don’t see it as the same thing.

Also, I’m a goddamn writer. Drama has conflict. There’s gonna be violence there. I don’t get out of writing about that at all. You know? Maybe if I wrote, like, self-help books, but I don’t. [Chucking] I write fiction. So it’s not something I really labor with. Like, “Do I have the right?” “How do I write about this?”  “How do I frame this?” That’s not necessarily something I struggle with when I think about all the other signifiers going on right now, or in general.

BB: I love what both of you are saying about it … I’m excited to go back and re-read this later. [Laughter]. But, for me, honestly, I do struggle—I don’t, I can’t watch those videos, I can’t look at them. My dad was describing the George Floyd video to me. I had to hear it filtered through him because I could not stand to see it. I mean, people keep talking about it being nine minutes long; it’s such a massive amount of time. So, it’s something that I struggle with and even in my fiction, I think I always have to deal with violence at a remove. I don’t think that’s aesthetically better or anything like that. That’s just how I think I have to grapple with it.

In [The Vanishing Half], there’s a moment of violence that happens to the main character’s father. Part of it is witnessed and part of it happens elsewhere, so there’s the immediate witnessing and then there’s that removal of it being recounted. And there’s something about me that needs some of that distance, I think, to grapple with violence. I dunno, I think sometimes the glance away becomes more horrifying than actually looking directly at it. And maybe that’s just me being unable to sort of look directly at these moments. But I do think that makes its way to my fiction, and I think that’s also the way that I deal with seeing these videos looping over and over and over again.

NO: I didn’t watch the Floyd video—I’ve seen it online, unexpectedly, while scrolling social media—but someone printed a transcript of what he was saying when he died, and I saw a meme made of it on Instagram. I couldn’t read it in full. When I saw some of those words, especially him crying out for his mom, I just fell apart. And Brit, what you’re saying, too, about the lack of description being more explicit reminds me of first encountering that strategy in college, reading Frank Norris’s McTeague—y’all know that book? It’s a naturalist novel. In that book, a character is murdered, but the killing is not described explicitly; it’s just hinted at through vague descriptions. The death scene is more obscene because you have to imagine it yourself. You have to imagine, and your idea of what happened is more powerful than what could be rendered on the page. And also that withholding is sort of related to Morrison’s decision-making around sex scenes. She never wrote sex scenes explicitly; I think her point of view was the reader’s sexuality and sense of sensuality is more interesting than hers. So leaving gaps is sexier, in a way. And in the case of death scenes, potentially more frightening.

IM: I think, too, all of this feels related to Hartman’s point about dismissing [Frederick Douglass’] aunt Hester’s scream. Her point is that something is lost in presenting the spectacle of anti-Black violence, right? When instead what we should be focusing on is the way it permeates our life in quotidian ways. 

III. THE PLEASURE-MACHINE OF EMPATHY

IM: You all write about Black life, for the most part. And what I admire about all of your writing is that sometimes we see anti-Blackness winding its way through those stories, but the focus is never actually anti-Blackness itself. And I wonder if we can just talk a bit about your approach, especially these days, to writing about Black life, Black joy, Black sociality. Does writing that feel different after the Floyd uprisings, or do you feel like you’re just doing the same work?

NS: I’m kind of perverse—like, I’m perpetually perverse. I finished a draft of the novel I’m writing in 2014, so that’s how long I’ve been working on it. The only significant change I’ve made since then is that I went through and took out any marking of any person as Black. And so you just have to figure it out based on what people are saying, based on how they’re speaking, based on how they relate to each other, and based on the fact that they will call out other people as white.

I want Blackness to be the default, because whiteness is a minority population in the world, if we’re thinking globally, so why is that the default? This is stuff I’ve been playing with for a while anyway, but in this particular moment with this particular novel you would think that I would go in the other direction—but I’m thinking ahead of this moment. I want my work to center Blackness. I don’t really love the phrase “Black joy” anymore, to be honest. These things become slogans. I got called “Black Girl Magic” the other day, and I was trying to take it as a compliment, but I was like, “Actually, it’s a little too close to Magical Negress!” And so there’s this sense for me that yes, there is Black joy in my work, but it’s just joy. It’s just people’s joy, and to me, as with Morrison, people are Black. When I say people, I mean Black people.

BB: Yeah, I love that.

BP: I always think about when I was in high school and they would make us read shit like A Separate Peace. And echoing what you said, I remember thinking that I had to locate myself in this book about these white boys going to prep school in New England. But I knew—as Black people instinctively know—that I had to identify who the universal character was and I had to locate myself in that person. And with my books, that’s what I genuinely strive to do, ‘cause I feel like sometimes if I explain too much or I feel like I’m doing a 101 for somebody, it just becomes less fun for everyone involved.

In one book I wrote, a character was having a problem with his white boyfriend. This Black dude who read the book, and who was dating a white guy, came up to me and said, “Well it seems like you left so many things wide open. Why didn’t you say this about it? Why didn’t you say that about it?” And I’m like, I’m not writing you an encyclopedia to read your white boyfriend with [Laughter]. The character is having problems with all men, actually.

But it becomes that. And so, I think the work to be done and what should be implicitly expressed is: you shouldn’t be looking to us for sociology, you should be locating yourself within the work. A [white] person will be like [Affects comically enthusiastic tone] “No, I just love The Color Purple. I felt like it was speaking to me!” [Laughter] That’s good literature, that’s how that’s supposed to be!

That said, the only people that have ever complimented me on my first book, Johnny Would You Love Me if My Dick Were Bigger, the people who are just like, “that reminds me so much of my life,” are white, straight, punk women in their late forties. [Laughter] Black women have never walked up to me and been like, “I really get that book.” Like, Black women walk up to me and be like “Damn, are you okay? Like, fuck, girl!” You never know who is idealizing you as the universal, either, and so that can also be a scary and crazy trip also.

BB: Yeah. I also just wanted to say briefly—I don’t know if this is directly speaking to this question—but I wanted to tell you, Namwali that I assigned your really amazing essay, “The Banality of Empathy” to my students and they loved it and it’s something that I think about a lot. And I was thinking about it during the American Dirt controversy—

BP: Ooh!

BB: —in which, um, [the book’s capacity to engender empathy] was trotted out all the time in its defense, this argument that American Dirt allows readers to imagine that they are in the skin of its characters. So I thought about your essay in terms of that, but I have been reflecting on it in the context of my Instagram mentions right now. The average person tagging me on Instagram right now is probably a thirty-year-old white lady, who [has read my books and] is writing, “For the first time ever, I saw myself in the skin of a Black person!” “The Banality of Empathy” is such a brilliant essay everybody should read because it truly forces you to see from a different perspective that—as you just said about slogans—the very convenient slogan that “the value of fiction is that it allows you to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,” or whatever. A lot of fiction writers like to trot out the idea that it’s unquestionably good to try on somebody else’s skin. I just wanted to tell you that the essay has become eerily relevant in my life. It speaks to questions a lot of people are grappling with as far as identity and writing.

NS: I had occasion to google American Dirt because I needed to—The New York Times interviewed me about my essay in relation to the controversy. And I looked it up, and immediately the Goodreads entry popped up and it had like 99,000 reviews, with a rating of, like, 4.4 stars. The entire controversy did nothing to the success of that book.

BB: Oh no. Yeah, not at all.

NS: They loved it! They ate it up! [Laughter] They ate it up. And they continue to make it really hard for us to convince publishers not to push that kind of stuff, and to publish us instead.

BB: ‘Cause it works! I mean, that’s the thing. It was a successful book by every measure imaginable except maybe the opinions of, like, us. [Laughter]

NS: It’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin all over again, right? It’s the pleasure-machine of empathy. I try not to be judgmental of where people get their pleasures. Like, whatever your kink is, that’s cool. But it’s tough. The hardest thing for me is not to get seduced into thinking I need to write a certain way to please that kind of reader.

IV. THE NABOKOVIAN-MORRISONIAN MODEL

NS: To be honest, [the problem of pleasing a particular readership] is not a phenomenon that is limited to us as Black writers in the contemporary moment. Nabokov’s whole thing was that Lolita is popular because of white women in America, right? White American women. And they  really did get the book. This is our readership, so how are we responsible to that readership? Like, can we be good teachers to them, or do we just capitulate to their demands and be consumed by them?

BB: Yeah.

IM: Can you say a little bit more, Namwali, about the idea of being a good teacher to them? Because I feel like, what you don’t mean is that our writing should function to educate them, right? But do you mean teaching—guiding them toward better aesthetic habits, or—

NS: I think I have in mind the Nabokovian model—which is also a Morrisonian model—which is, “You have to work to read me.” It’s about challenging the reader. So the pedagogy that I’m thinking of is not the pedagogy of, like, giving students treats and good grades and all that. It’s about, “I’m gonna give you something that confronts you, that challenges you, and that makes you think differently.” And yeah, that is not necessarily our responsibility. I mean, Brontez writes to make people laugh. Why should he have to teach people? People of color often have to take on that sociological model as a pedagogical burden.

But given that this is my audience, I’m thinking more about the question: How do I not capitulate to their demands but actually challenge them to meet me where I am and to understand something different about what it means to live? I mean, this is why we write; we’ve got big goals here. I don’t want to just feed people candy and give them a kind of relief from their political traumas. I feel like white readers very often work out their stuff through and on us.

So even that “Banality of Empathy” piece, right, which I think a lot of people responded well to… I did an interview about it, and a white woman was interviewing me and she asked me to read a passage from the essay. So I did, and then she said, “That was really hard to hear.” [Laughter] And I wondered, is this, like, masochism? Are we having masochism time? Why did you make me read it out loud while you’re interviewing me? But, at the time, I was so taken aback that I was like, “Why?” I didn’t understand why it would be hard for her to hear a reasoned analysis of the history of empathy in the 20th and 21st centuries. They wanna be scolded, they wanna feel bad. And I’m like, No, you just have to do the work. You just have to do the work. You have to read with me.

IM: That also feels like a way for them to… actively avoid absorbing the lessons that you’re putting forth through reasoned analysis. Kind of like imposing a framework that they already understand over something that may be too much for them to assimilate. It’s how they avoid learning at all.

I remember last summer, I went up to Mendocino to do a reading and I read from an essay I wrote about South Central Los Angeles and the history of what we call “Black Beverly Hills” here in the Windsor Hills-View Park area. And at the end, an older white woman came up to me and said, “It’s really hard for me to hear stories about incarcerated youth.” And I replied, “Nothing in this essay deals with incarcerated youth at all. I did not mention prison one time in this essay. I’ve never been to prison.” [Laughter] I didn’t know where she was coming from.

BB: Yeah.

IM: And it’s just like, you didn’t hear anything I said to you at all.

BB: I’m sure we could all go on and on about crazy Q&A moments like that. The one that came to mind did not happen to me. I was listening to Yaa Gyasi read from Homegoing and I remember this one white lady stood during the Q&A and her question was “How do we move on from slavery?” 

NS: Uhhhhh…

BB: And my soul just left my body at that moment. I was sitting there in the audience wondering, Is she serious?! The idea that Yaa could answer that question because she wrote a novel speaks to the demands of a white audience on the Black artist: these unreasonable, often masochistic demands. I think you talk about this in the essay a bit, this idea of like, suffering safely, leaning into that kind of empathy reading that suggests “Oh, I can briefly try on this pain and then I feel good because I’ve done that, and then I can go back to my life and it’s fine.”

NS: Mmm.

BB: I think a lot of us deal with readers wanting to dip their toe in a little bit, and wanting Black artists to be a conduit of that [abbreviated experience with empathy].

NS: Yeah.

BP: I hate it when them questions come up, too, ‘cause I’m like, Man, clearly if the world listened to me it would look a lot different. Don’t ask me shit, I’m just the messenger! [Laughter]

NO: A few years ago, in school, I saw Samuel Delany read—

BP: Oof.

NO: —and an audience member asked him something like, “How can we fix the 21st century?” and he said, “I can’t answer that question. You’re asking me to work right now. You’re asking me to write science fiction.” The person was asking him to do what he does in his novels in a Q&A.

BB: Yeah, just on the spot.

V. AN AESTHETIC READ

NO: Speaking of the many functions of reading, reading has been extremely helpful for me as I think through all these ideas, as I patchwork things into essays. What are you reading right now and what else are you doing for self-care? The definition of self-care I’m thinking of here is simply “caring for yourselves,” not the commercialized, sloganeering version of the term. Brontez, in an interview for The Believer you talked about “resting for the fight ahead.” You were saying that resistance can look a lot of different ways. And you talked about how resting is important for you. What does that look like for you now, and for all of you?

BB: I will say that the best, most interesting book I finished reading recently is Margo Jefferson’s On Michael Jackson. It was so thrilling to read a deep-dive on an artist that feels familiar but at the same time, is somebody that you could never possibly understand. And there’s something about that contrast that was really fascinating. All the different lenses through which she was able to analyze American culture, but particularly race in American culture through this one figure, were riveting. Michael Jackson is ubiquitous, but at the same time, he’s somebody that you feel like you could never truly figure out. The version I have has an updated foreword where she grapples with Leaving Neverland, the HBO documentary. She takes herself to task a little bit for not delving into the child abuse allegations as deeply as she could have when she first published the book ten years ago. So it was just an absorbing work of criticism and it made me think about other artists that I’d want to see this type of deep-dive into. Sadly the first one that came to mind was Kanye; that could be an interesting book. God bless whoever takes it on! It won’t be me. But I’m not gonna lie, I would probably read it.

I think we all described ourselves as frazzled. I’ve been doing the virtual book tour, so it’s just been Zooms every single day, and that’s finally starting to wind down. I’m looking forward to not being on Zoom and to start working on my next project, which is not explicitly about race in any way. So, it’s about what Namwali said earlier: “I’m writing about people, and when I say people I mean Black people.” And that is as far as I’m sort of engaging with any type of direct thematics of race. I’m excited to be able to work on that project and to kind of step away from the weird public/private dynamic of doing a book tour from your living room. [Laughs]

BP: I went to the Marin Headlands, up north, on the Marin side by the Pacific Ocean. And then I was like, fuck. I feel like I mostly stay in West Oakland—even when the lockdown happened I realized that I only really go four places: Berkeley, Eli’s Mile High, Starline, Lake Merritt—like, that’s it. And so I was up north, on the beach by all these white folks and stuff—of course—and I was just like, Oh shit, like, this is why we pay so much money to live in the Bay Area. This is great! I’m literally not even an hour from this place. So I was having that moment, and then as far as self-care, I don’t know if I really do that. ‘Cause even with nothing to do I still, like, stay up til like 4 and 5 in the morning, acting all crazy. I’m still late. Like I was late to this! And it’s like, who is late to the internet?! It’s not like I had to even go anywhere! So I feel like I just trudge along. [Laughter]

NS: I feel like my self-care is letting myself stay up late. I’m like, “It’s fine. Nothing is urgent.” I’ll “start my day”—and that’s in quotation marks—at like, 4pm. I’ll roll out of bed, do a lot of nothing. At 4pm, I’ll be like, Okay, time to work. I’ll work from 4 to 11 pm.

The other day I started making dinner and it was 11pm and I was thinking, “Who are you? What are you doing?” But it’s all good. This is what my body wants to do right now, it’s what it needs to do, and it doesn’t feel too crazy. So, yeah, self-care-wise, I’m just—[Laughs] It sounds like AA, but it’s very one-day-at-a-time right now. [Laughter] If I can get through tomorrow I’m good.

In terms of reading, because I was revising this novel, I had this sudden urge to have books around me that are important to the one I’m working on, even though they’re books I’ve read multiple times. But most of my books are on campus. So I bought myself new copies of Iceberg Slim’s Pimp, Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, [Virgina Woolf’s] To the Lighthouse. I bought all these books, then it occurred to me that there are some new books that I‘ve been meaning to read. And so I bought An American Marriage, because there is in fact an incarcerated person in my book, and I wanted to see how Tayari Jones played that out. It was great! And then in all of these anti-racist reading lists, there’ll be a whole bunch of white authors writing about race and then almost all of them will recommend The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which I hadn’t read since high school. When I came from Zambia in ‘89, I was 9. So six years into my time in the US I first read Malcolm X, around when the movie came out—and I remember at the time just being blown away that this was even a way of thinking about the world. I wanted to look back at the book now, so I reread it. And it’s so good! It’s not even just that it’s good, like as a story—it is a great story, it’s a gripping story. And it’s not just that he had such rhetorical power and such immense, perpetual curiosity—that was one thing that struck me; that man was omnivorous when it came to learning new things, constantly. But it’s also funny, it’s charming, it’s got a lot of wonderful qualities just as a work of writing. So that was my most recent read. And I’ll say, it was not an anti-racist read; it was an aesthetic read. [Laughter]

BP: My next book is about a straight white boy ‘cause I’m just trying to see if I can make more money doing it.

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