Guest Editor Conversations: Percival Everett, Fall 2014

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Cover for I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett with a cartoon hand holding a card bearing the titleWe’re happy to present the first of a new series–interviews with our guest editors, following the publication of their issues. Below is an introduction by Jessica Treadway, Emerson College professor and author of the forthcoming Lacy Eye (Grand Central, 2015), and a conversation between Editor-in-Chief Ladette Randolph and Percival Everett, guest editor of the Fall 2014 issue.

If you read Percival Everett’s books blind, without any names attached, it would probably take you some time to absorb the fact that a single author was responsible for them all. I knew it was the same author, and it still took me time–his work is that versatile, that eclectic, that impossible (thank goodness) to pin down. It is always exceptionally smart. By turns it can also be laugh-out-loud funny, tender, quiet, rowdy, clever, provocative, and sad. Even in the case of an outlandish premise, it is completely true.

His narratives range from conventional arrangements of words on the page to sketches, word pictures, chemical and mathematical equations, lists, rhymes, and imagined dialogues between Socrates and one of his interlocutors (during the course of which Socrates is asked, “What the fuck are you talking about?”). He’ll start a novel with a fragment, as in The Water Cure, which begins, “The arduous nowhere.” He’ll mess with us about what’s really going on, as in the novel Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, in which we can’t be sure whether a father has written about a son or that same son about his father. (This book contains one of my favorite pieces of advice from a parent to a child: “Never trust anyone who has not read Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”).

Then there’s Glyph, narrated by a brilliant intellectual baby named Ralph who reads Henry James in his crib but refuses to speak, choosing instead to write elaborate and erudite notes to his mother and to the psychologists who’ve kidnapped him, hoping to gain from his unprecedented genius.

I particularly admire the way Percival Everett’s work captures the poignancy of relationships within families. The Water Cure’s narrator’s grief over the murder of his six-year-old daughter is palpable on every page. And I keep returning to this excerpt from Erasure: “Anyone who speaks to members of his family knows that sharing a language does not mean you share the rules governing the use of that language. No matter what is said, something else is meant and I knew that for all my mother’s seeming incoherence or out-of-itness, she was trying to tell me something over tea. . . . but since I didn’t know the rules, which were forever changing, I could only know that she was trying to say something, not what that something was.”

His tone can be satirical, straight, or something in between. My own introduction to his work was I Am Not Sidney Poitier, about a young man whose first name is “Not Sidney” (which of course leads to frequent encounters straight out of Who’s on First?), who was raised by Ted Turner and who, in college, takes a class from a professor named Percival Everett in the philosophy of nonsense. My favorite scenes are the ones that take place during Not Sidney’s visit to his girlfriend’s house, where he overhears her parents discussing their displeasure about how dark his skin is, compared to theirs. Reading those scenes made me smile and wince at the same time, giving me a preview of what it would be like when I came to Erasure, the first-person account of a writer named Thelonius Monk whose contemporary retelling of a Greek myth gets shelved in the African-American section of bookstores because its author happens to be black. Upon being told by his agent that the line on him is he’s not “black enough,” Thelonius takes a page from the book of a privileged Oberlin coed who visited Harlem once and subsequently wrote a bestseller called We’s Lives in Da Ghetto; he dashes off a novel he titles My Pafology, under a pseudonym, with painfully hilarious results I can’t even begin to do justice by describing–you have to read it for yourself.

Percival Everett’s writing causes us to think and feel, to question and reflect. It also defies and challenges the assumption that the fiction we are expected and rewarded to write must somehow reflect the bodies we occupy, the lives we inhabit, and the communities we belong to, either by choice or by chance. When selecting the stories as guest editor issue of Ploughshares, he writes in his introduction, “I was looking for range and adventurousness. I did not want stories that read or looked alike.” He’s describing the work of the authors in the issue, but he is also describing his own. If you haven’t done so already, I urge you to dive in and enjoy.

Ladette Randolph: Every writer knows how difficult it is to write humor well. From the beginning of your writing career, your work has been funny, fearless, and irreverent about very serious, and often taboo subjects. Could you say a little about the role of humor in your work and what you’ve learned over the years about its uses.

Percival Everett: I know that I am ironic, but I don’t know when I’m funny. I don’t think about being funny, but I like funny. I love Twain and I like to think he’s my biggest influence, but who knows. Humor is important because it is disarming. Laughter happens for many reasons and can be shaped into other emotional responses. I’m not smart enough to understand the workings of this, but apparently I can make a couple of people laugh now and again.

LR: Three of your seventeen novels were inspired by Greek myths. What is it about these stories that pulled you in deeply enough to want to reimagine them?

PE: Greek mythology was some of my earliest reading. I love the stories. In the case of my Medea novel, I was never satisfied with insanity being a sufficient reason for the killing of her children. The character Dionysos becomes the vehicle of my examination of the notions of deity and immortality.

LR: You said once in an interview that you prefer painting to writing. Could you talk a bit about that and the differences in the creative process between the two disciplines?

PE: Did I say that? If I did then I probably meant it. Writing is cleaner. Painting is more physical and I do like that.

LR: What writers have most influenced you?

PE: Too many to mention. I think I’m influenced by everyone I read.

LR: Who are the contemporary writers whose work you most admire?

PE: Many. I wish I were as good as most of the people I read.

LR: While you frequently address the issue of race in your work, you’ve also resisted it–brilliantly in your novel Erasure, and also in interviews where you’ve questioned the insistence of publishers in characterizing you as a “black writer.” You’ve been writing for over thirty years now and during those years you’ve satirized aspects of our culture, especially around questions of identity. What advice, if any, would you give to writers just starting out who might be facing their own challenges in this regard?

PE: Just write what you want to write. Write what you see as true, important, even fun. I would suggest that you not write because you think your have some message.

LR: In your novel Glyph, the narrator—genius baby Ralph—shares at one point his own definition of genius, which he concludes “must not be measured by one’s command of all of Western civilization’s great ideas, but by the ability to find a way back to the beginning where the truths are uncorrupted and honest and maybe even pure.” This sounds like a good idea, something we might all wish for, but is the reader meant to take it seriously? Is it simply evidence of how Ralph’s high intellect can’t compensate for his emotional immaturity? Or is it in fact something more, the wisdom of children? How would you define genius, and how important is genius?

PE: We all like to think that children are wise, and whereas we hear them stumble onto the occasional truth, they are basically dumb. Dumb is not the same as stupid. You have to grow up to be stupid. I long to get back to being dumb. There is true genius to be found in the freedom that being dumb gives one.

LR: I often read for what I’ll call pulse points in a novel, those places where the narrative lifts off the page, and I as reader experience a heightened engagement that seems to transcend language. In your most recent novel Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, which is about many things (including the relationship between a father and son; a critique of the white writer’s freedom to write about black experience; aging; and marriage) one section near the end of the novel felt especially significant for me as a reader. It’s a stunning riff on language itself and articulates what I feel may be the core concern of much of your work. If you were here, I would ask you to read the section and to talk further about how you see writers navigating the impossible–using language, our only tool, to create story. In lieu of your reading this passage, please forgive a long quote (from page 222).

. . . lying here like this I have learned some things about us and learned nothing at all and it is the nothing at all that sings to me in this cucumbery trance, that we may assume, we may choose to assume, that as any given state of affairs is upset, that there arises an instinct to make them anew and as we set about we entertain all these words, all these thoughts, notions, utterances, calculations, equations, texts, all of this, and language remains always a step ahead of us, and we think this most clearly as we die, a step, two steps ahead of us, our speaking, our writing, our groping always lags behind language, far enough that there is nothing to say about language itself, as we cannot look directly upon its magnificence, like Semele and Zeus, burn baby burn, and yet, a Hegelian desire, a Freudian instinct, no matter how much we yak, how much we entangle ourselves in words and texts, all we ever do is circle where we think language might reside, guessing like we guess about the location of electrons, about positrons and pions and muons and kaons and leptons and quarks and imaginary ducks, using it without pause, without thought, knowing that we cannot live without it, that we define ourselves with it and by it, but it is not ours, it found us, waited for us to find it, we evolved to find it waiting and we explore its structure, the structure we impose, believe we add to its content daily, recognize its turns, its fluidity, its features, its alterability, and yet we cannot account for it, explain it, find the egg of it, because it is, in short, god, the only god that we know or will know or have known, it being immaterial, without form or mass or weight or constituent parts, the identification of parts of speech being little more than an exercise in question begging, like describing judgments by examples of things judged, and it is completely dependent on us and yet we give it nothing, just as digging more ditch makes the ditch no more a ditch and it dies every day and yet continues to live, lives in units that we cannot see or hear and so big that we cannot miss them and we can represent none of them, as it exists without senses, without medium without intention, without reflection or deflection, but not without us, as it makes us human, forces us to be human, reminds us to be human, yet has no feeling toward us, gives us life, conflict, confusion, war, and understanding, and it is all-powerful and without judgment and it can state its own apparent inadequacy and then overcome it, revealing that we are the site of the failure, create contexts, is contexts, is not the sum of its parts, and we cannot see, imagine, the whole of it, cannot imagine it at all and it creates gods for us to pray to, gods for us to fear and love, creates religions and then refutes them, creates a way for us to talk about the unknown, about language itself and yet does not create itself, it not created, just is, and we cannot imagine ourselves without it, cannot imagine without it, because it is god and it lets us know that god is just a word, that god is just a grammar, that its grammar is just our feeble construct to approach its radiance, it has nothing to do with texts, it has nothing to do with words, and probably has nothing to do with our thoughts and the things we think when we know we know nothing when we know there is nothing when nothing is our last safe cave of language, and vegetable, vegetable, vegetable me . . .

PE: I’m pleased that you like this passage. I like this passage. It says what it says and makes sense to me in the context of the novel, but outside of the novel, I don’t know. I love language. I love that we can use symbols and have them mean something and I love that I cannot control what meaning my art will make once it leaves me. Truth of the matter is, I’m just an old horseman and I can occasionally make a book. I’m good with that.