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Ishmael Reed
Film review, Satellite, Vol. 1, Iss. 5 - April 2001
Conducted by email

When I first met Ishmael Reed, as a student in his poetry workshop, the first words he said to me were: "Get out of my chair." A reader familiar with his work would not be surprised. Ishmael Reed's most visible occupation seems to be that of controversy-creator, but he has a number of roles--recent MacArthur "Genius" Grant recipient, social activist, Pulitzer-nominated novelist and poet, foundational postmodern writer, playwright, multicultural icon, Oakland's resident artist, and now the author of the newly released "Reed Reader." Reed stands out from the usual list of authors that grace college reading lists--not just because he's alive and black--but because he appears as often in the opinions section as he does in course syllabi.
And opinions are something Ishmael Reed has a lot of.

Satellite. What's your latest project?

Ishmael Reed. I'm working on a novel about the O. J. phenomena. It's called Making a Killing. also a new science fiction novel called The Terrible Fours. An excerpt will be published in a New York magazine called Artbyte. I'll be publishing a new book of poetry called Enu Buru which, in Yoruba, means bad mouth.

S. You've said "No one says a novel has to be one thing. It can be anything it wants to be, a vaudeville show, the six o'clock news, the mumblings of wild men saddled by demons." And, you've done TV, novels, poems, and even an opera and screenplay. I've read that you write every day for your novels but only write poetry with inspiration. How do you approach these mediums differently?

IR. No matter how good a prose writer is, their work has to include some trite lines, for example "he said" or "she said." In poetry one strives for pure originality.

S. You're currently moving to another medium--the Internet--and edit Vines and Konch, both online magazines. How do you think the Internet will influence contemporary writers in the same way that TV, movies, radio, and jazz have influenced you?

IR. More players will enter the writing game as a result of the Internet. It's already happening. Even print has gone beyond the kind of thing we were accustomed to in the 60s when I was a young writer, living in New York. The cost of "Food for Thought," the anthology that you and your colleagues assembled in my class, would have been unthinkable in the 60s.

S. And, to follow up on that, it seems like modern America caters to sex and violence so self-paradoxically that I wonder if it's even possible to shock any more. You've been called the meanest writer in America--do you think it's still possible to be 'mean' and controversial? You once said that you look at Free Lance Pallbearers, your first book, and look at it as the work of a younger writer. Do you think your approach to satire has changed over time? Also, you've said that, possibly because of your race, many critics have been unable to appreciate your satire because they think that your novels are straight narratives (!)--what effect do you think your race has had on your satire?

IR. Most American critics are wedded to a Eurocentric education. I use the term advisedly since, recently, some of the top intellectuals in Europe met and couldn't decide upon one central European tradition, but Americans have been exposed to a circumscribed curriculum and apparently, except for a handful, at places like M.E.L.U.S., and elsewhere, a flat earth attitude toward education continues--you go so far and you become contaminated by darkness. And so, while they might call me a satirist, my fiction belongs to traditions in this hemisphere that are thousands of years old. Native American scholars and few black and white ones know what I'm talking about. Characters like Chappie Puttbutt and Ian Ball are included in an oral/literary tradition that's thousands of years old.

S. What work by other artists interests you now? Any recent books, poems, TV shows, or movies you especially like?

IR. I just read a novel by Russell Leong. He's an amazingly gifted writer.

S. A long time ago, you said that we were entering a new Renaissance because of the incorporation of minority narratives into American literature. But now you've said that everyone is doing it--implying that it's becoming clichéd. Also some of your other experimental techniques, like switching to other mediums, are also popular. So many new novels seem to reiterate the same old tricks, and there seem to be so many poems about writing poems. What do you think will be the next avant garde in literature? Is it even possible to be experimental?

IR. Some of the hip hoppers are beginning to write novels. And there's a younger generation of writers who've gone beyond my generation, just as we went beyond the generation of the 50s. Richard Wright, for example, wrote haiku in English; I write them in Japanese. Jason Epstein tells a story about Ralph Ellison coming to his office and explaining Thelonius Monk to him. I can play Monk on the piano.

S. Your 1972 novel, Mumbo Jumbo, presented HooDooism, a counter-mythology to Western culture, and your poems have multiple references to the Egyptian god, Osirus (When you were included in Norton's Anthology, you mentioned that out of several centuries of poetry, you were the only one with any reference to Africa). You draw a lot from African traditions, and often, reviewers criticize your work simply because they don't understand African conventions. How do you think these traditions differ from Western ones?

IR. Well, I'm not bound by the opinions of the American cultural elite which often sounds like an overseas colony yearning for the motherland, while in Europe it's American arts that are all the rage. Ironic no? After Japanese by spring, I traveled to both Japan and Africa. While Japanese By Spring was panned here, it received excellent reviews in Japan. The book was reviewed in the latest issue of the publication of the Association of Nigerian Authors, the review was done by a Swiss critic. What I'm saying is that it's a big world. I'm not some pathetic token standing before the settler cultural committee pleading "Choose me. Choose me." The kind of "minority" literature promoted by the white academic establishment, which controls what students read, includes images and plots that are no different from the kind of stereotypes we get on TV. These people don't know how much their tokens are despised in their own communities. My interest in African religion in this hemisphere is the same as the enthusiasm the Irish writers had toward a Celtic revival, or contemporary Asian American writers have in texts written in Kanji, or Hispanic writers in Aztec, or Toltec. Writers try to renew precolonial traditions all over the world.

S. What writers would you recommend to someone interested in the topic?

IR. They should read anthologies and attend readings.

S. You're an outspoken voice in racial politics. How did you feel about the current landscape of race in America, especially with the recent brown-out of network television, the loss of the black-and-white binary opposition of race politics, and the first census that will allow mixed ethnicity entries? Also, you've adamantly campaigned for an accurate representation of African American males in the media, and called the modern English department just another form of "ethnic studies" for dead European writers. But you've also said that you're not a nationalist, and "there's a danger because I do see people aligning themselves on ethnic and racial lines in competition over resources and political power." I'm curious of your take on the ethnic studies movement that simultaneously defended an under-funded and important department but simultaneously divided the campus.

IR: The current atmosphere is the same as the old atmosphere. Blacks, yellows, and browns receiving hostility and rudeness from whites every day, because those who control the media and the educational system have done little to educate whites to live in a more complex world than the one in which I grew up. Even modest reforms like ethnic studies are bitterly opposed. They may choose model minorities from time to time, but below the surface, they hate them too. Look at all of the hate crimes aimed at Asian Americans all year round. White supremacy is still the greatest threat to our country becoming a culturally rich cosmopolitan country. Anyone who has read Linda Chavez's Colorblind would know about how completely dishonest, cynical, and sinister are the forces who got Proposition 209 over--how they used every devious trick in the book, and had a lapse in their colorblindness long enough to understand that this wretched proposition would pass if they pasted a black face on it. I wish your publication would do an investigation of the hateful rightwing forces that put up the money for this ugly thing. The man who put up the first 50,000 is written up in an antidefamation league report as a hater, and while lazy shiftless journalists and op ed writers view Connerly as a martyr, going against the tide of political correctness, he only agreed to be head minstrel for this thing if they'd put up 500,000 which is piddling in comparison to the kind of money David Horowitz and D'nesh D'Souza get for recycling stereotypes about blacks that have been done to death. D'Souza and Horowitz ought to hold a fund raising clinic for these black conservatives who sell their talents for very little.

S. When jazz composer Jon Jang visited the campus last semester, he commented that even though you recently received the MacArthur Grant, you "hadn't changed," meaning that you were still an activist for minority causes. You've been critically successful: you've been twice nominated for the National Book Award, as well as for the Pulitzer Prize and the Lewis H. Michaux Literary Prize. Has your success diluted your political credibility? What sort of causes are you interested now?

IR. I'd like to see Oakland remain a multicultural city, but that's becoming a vanishing possibility with the forced exodus of blacks and Hispanics from the city.

S. You've been really influenced by jazz and artists like Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Cole Porter. The hip trend in poetry--spoken word and Islam readings--seem to appeal to a rap aesthetic, and you have poets like Quincey Troupe, who was the Heavyweight Slam champion of the world and also wrote a book on Miles Davis. You've said that Black poets have been more successful at rhythm, and what's your opinion of this link between music and poetry? Where do you think African American writing is headed?

IR. This is the richest period for African American writing, but the average reader is kept in the dark, as a result of the lit. establishment pushing tokens who peddle its line. Right now, it's hating black men or blaming the problems of millions of blacks on their behavior, even though a Mammoth study from Harvard just came out proving that racism is still a big obstacle to the progress of millions of blacks.


All content, unless otherwise noted, (c) Ken Chen, 1998-2006. Ken Chen can be reached by email.

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