Visiting Writer’s Series: James Hannaham
The 2016 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction recipient, James Hannaham, will be joining the AU Literature Department for a reading on Wednesday, November 9. Hannaham is a journalist, critic, and fiction writer, and is the author of God Says No. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he teaches in a creative writing program at the Pratt Institute.
Second-year MFA candidate Vince Granata interviews Hannaham here about point of view, the responsibility of fiction to reveal injustice, and breaking from the traditional MFA structure.
Vince Granata: You’ve described the task of switching narrators between a more traditional third person narrator and narration from the point of view of Scotty (crack) as “a bit of Olympic luge.” Frankly, Olympic luge sounds easier to me than pulling off crack as a narrator as well as you do in this novel. Scotty’s voice is enthralling and poetically compelling. For me, this passage from Scotty’s first interaction with Darlene gets at the voice’s power: “It dawned on her that she felt like recently everything in life had twisted her ass out of shape, but right then she seen that her distorted outline was a piece of a puzzle, the last one hanging above what had been a real tough board. I floated her ass above the board on a cloud of smoke. The smoke lowered her down and pushed her in place and something inside her went snap and we finished the puzzle together.” When I read that passage the first time, I had to stop myself because I found I was rooting for her drug use—for anything that would, as Scotty describes so beautifully, deliver her from her immense pain. How did you create Scotty’s voice?
James Hannaham: I’m surprised that you’re less interested in that seemingly contradictory impulse you felt than in the sleight-of-hand (sleight of voice?) involved in making a character sound like crack. We’re nothing for billions of years, then we’re alive for a minute, and then we’re dead for so long that if you’re having an especially painful life, it seems logical to me that self-destruction would have a great deal of allure; it seems like nothingness or death are far more natural states of being (or non-being, I guess) for those of us afflicted with consciousness. Scotty came about as the solution to a problem, really. I didn’t want to write a first-person narrative about a drug addict because that felt dishonest—what drug addict would have lucid, novelistic recall?—so I started writing this voice in a close third person that was supposed to be a character closer to who I imagined Darlene might be. Then I decided that I wanted Darlene to have fallen further, but I had really been enjoying writing in that earlier voice. So I started looking for an excuse to keep writing it, and asked myself, “If it’s not Darlene, then whose voice is it?” And one of the answers that came to me was that it might be the drug itself. Which I didn’t think anyone would particularly like—except Victor LaValle—but it seemed risky and fucked up enough that I decided to see if I could pull it off. Later, as the abjection and brutality of the story became clearer to me, Scotty provided a way of leavening some of that with its unusual perspective on the whole scenario. That voice and its upside-down perspective on things made it easier for me to finish writing the book in the first place.
VG: The debt slavery practiced at Delicious Foods (and I hesitate to use that term, debt slavery, because it almost sounds like I’m softening the slavery at work there) was at first so shocking to me that I hoped that Delicious Foods was a purely fictional invention. As it turns out, I was one of the people too busy staring at my phone to realize how real this type of place is. How did you arrive at these very real stories of slavery and to what extent is Delicious Foods a recreation of specific places? How did researching these stories and creating Delicious Foods lead to an aim of, as you’ve described, “putting a metaphorical defibrillator up against [the reader’s] ideas about discrimination even more than race?”
JH: A variety of ideas came together around the same time. I had taken a course in grad school called “Cultural Tourism, Slavery Museums, and the Modern Neo-Slavery Novel,” and after having read a bunch of really great books addressing the legacy of slavery, I felt I wanted to try my hand at it, but also that I wanted to address one of the problems of these narratives, which was that while one of the main aims of the authors always seemed to be to emphasize that the racist myths forged in the days of legal slavery still affect us today, the stories were all either set in the past, like Shirley Anne Williams’ Dessa Rose, Beloved, and Caryl Philips’ Cambridge, or satires packed with anachronisms like Middle Passage by Charles Johnson or Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed. After contemplating how to solve this problem for a while, I came across John Bowe’s book Nobodies, in which there’s an account of a black woman who was enslaved in Florida in 1992. I lost my mind. Time suddenly had no meaning. There actually was no need to write about slavery as a thing of the past because it literally wasn’t. Not even in the American South! And the more research I did, the more I realized that most people are all pretty much too busy staring at their phones. Which were probably assembled by slaves, or at least very low-wage workers.
While the typical wage theft scenario in the American agricultural world involves trafficking Mexican nationals, confiscating their passports, and torturing and keeping them imprisoned, there are occasionally farms that go looking for destitute, desperate people—which they refer to as “crackhead crews”—to exploit them in the manner of Delicious Foods. (Here are a few links: “For slavery, man to serve four years;” “Slavery of migrant farmworkers continues in the U.S. to this day;” “Labor camp owner given 30 years in prison.”) This place was particularly appalling because it was actually called, I kid you not, Bulls-Hit Farm. Most of this happens in Florida, but for various reasons I decided to set the book in Louisiana. A lot of my first novel takes place in Florida, and I didn’t especially want to revisit it; I had spent three years in Texas and I felt that I could represent the terrain with reasonable accuracy; there’s a running theme in the book about racism being like a curse you put on someone’s body that actually works, and one of the book’s literary predecessors is an enigmatic novel called The Grandissimes by George W. Cable (1880); I stole the name of the owners of the farm, Fusilier, from that book, actually. And Sirius B is my take on one of the characters in that book, Bras Coupé (literally Severed Arm), who tries to escape into the bayou only to be lynched.
VG: On a related note, something you said in an interview with Guernica has really stuck with me. “One thing a novel can do that nonfiction is not as good at doing: myth-making, in a certain way. We don’t just need the facts, we need a kind of myth around it. What I’m providing is an emotional story that goes along with the truth of what’s going on.” I, most likely, wouldn’t have turned to the nonfiction material that exists about places like Delicious Foods if I hadn’t read your novel. I realize that a substantial part of that problem rests with me, and says something damning about what I’m not willing to see, but I suspect that for many reading the “emotional story” you create around Delicious Foods, this “myth around it,” may be a powerful motivator to get people to look up from their phones and take notice of how real these places are in 2016. Do you think that fiction is a more effective means of revealing injustice than nonfiction?
JH: Yes, I’m glad to hear that the book had that effect. But the idea is hardly new. I mean, say what you will about Harriet Beecher Stowe, but Lincoln did apparently credit her with having started the Civil War by writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I don’t know that fiction is “more effective” at revealing injustice, but I think it has greater potential for creating empathy. Reading about the plight of Syrian refugees in a newspaper might make you feel pity, anger, etc., but reading a novel about the very specific physical, historical, emotional, and financial challenges of being a Syrian refugee through the eyes of a great storyteller lets you live someone else’s experience vicariously and hopefully breaks your fucking heart badly enough that you understand the situation better and maybe even try to improve the lives of others. It also creates a bit of tension—since you’re never sure how much of fiction is “true,” you’re likely to go exploring and trying to find out how accurate the author’s depiction is, which will maybe eventually lead you to political action. Which you did! But mere awareness is often just as important to promote.
VG: I loved how the novel ended, with Eddie recalling an encounter he had with Sirius B. “Sirius said, the myths and faiths and social everything stopped meaning anything to him. The survival instinct took over from the day-to-day fairy tales he’d needed when all of them worked for Delicious, and something essential in his brain turned him back into an animal.” Why did you choose this moment with Sirius as the novel’s ending? While much of the penultimate chapter, given for the first time through Darlene’s POV, points at some type of hope and potential family reconciliation, this last beat with Sirius feels decidedly less hopeful. Why is it important that he get the last word? I wonder too if there is some echo here to the book’s epigraph, “The worm don’t see nothing pretty in the robin’s song?”
JH: It’s funny that you find it less hopeful; I think it might be the most hopeful image of any in the book, of someone at one with nature, free of human society, if only briefly, especially its oppression and desire to squeeze free labor out of him. Free of damaging preconceptions and myths, sustaining himself without a job, no cell phone. That’s what I always want when I go on vacation! I don’t know if there’s an intentional connection to the epigraph, which I think has a variety of resonances with the story in addition to validating the worm’s perspective on robins. There are a lot of technical reasons that I chose to engineer that moment in the way that I did, none of which are all that interesting. But I do remember saying that I was “trying to pull the nose up” a little bit, since the original ending was far more nihilistic. But as with my first book, I did want the ending to seem hopeful to people who look for hope and maybe more ambiguous to people who notice the darkness of the context and are aware that we’re all fucked no matter what we do.
VG: Since I’ve asked about the ending, I’d like to circle back to how the novel opens. In the second sentence we learn that Eddie “thought he could feel his phantom fingers brushing against his thighs, but above the wrists he now had nothing.” While we aren’t told for a long time how Eddie lost his hands, the reader certainly suspects foul play. Why did you choose to open with Eddie in this moment, which occurs late in the timeline of the story? I’ve read you reference Attwood to describe a possible why for this opening: “To paraphrase Margaret Atwood, we want to know ‘how and why,’ not simply see ‘a what and a what and a what.’” Did introducing a recently de-handed character as an opening still feel like a gamble to you? How did you intend this first chapter with Eddie to impact the readers expectations for what might follow?
JH: I meant for the introduction of Eddie’s dismemberment at the beginning to be about dismemberment, not so much about plot, though it conveniently became a way of drawing the reader through the story. I meant for the story to be, thematically anyway, about discrimination—not even so much the racism that is often a smokescreen for discrimination—and for me the most appalling thing about discrimination is that in its severest form, one group presumes that they have the right to cut up and/or kill the bodies of another with whatever justification, be it science or genocide or both. That seemed to me a very basic fact about all such situations around the globe, hence a good place to start, a shocking, lurid even, somewhat improbable scenario. It’s also a book about labor, and what is a more powerful symbol of labor, especially to a writer, than a hand? So there was a lot of “juice” in that image/scenario, not simply shock value, but it represented a lot of what I wanted the book to evoke. Beyond that, I always had in mind that Eddie would become “The Handyman Without Hands” because of the way that part of the story encapsulated something about how some people, many of them black and seemingly incapacitated by discrimination to the point where one would assume they wouldn’t even to be able to function, can and do still find ways to turn their supposed weaknesses into strengths and survive and prosper. It seemed to summarize the black experience in America, having to figure out how to make a living in a place that enjoys denying you that right, but on top of that without the basic resources or tools you would need to get started.
VG: This question isn’t directly related to the book, but concerns your experience teaching in an MFA program. I’ve read you comment on the type of MFA experience you want to create for your students as a teacher: “We’re trying to develop some new way of critiquing work that is more informed by visual art critique, actually, and more encouraging of experimentation, particularly genre mixing.” One of the strengths of our program at AU, I think, is a willingness to entertain genre mixing: poets take nonfiction workshops, fiction writers try poetry, etc. That said, the MFA workshop, even when run well, can sometimes turn into a bit of an echo chamber, and I’m sure most have had the experience of a workshop where student work begins to appear in similar form even if content varies. How, as a teacher, do you try to encourage experimentation and elicit work that goes beyond the safe forms that are sometimes implicitly favored in a workshop setting?
JH: First of all, in the Pratt MFA, we rarely even call people “poets” or “fiction writers” or “nonfiction writers.” The word “writer” is even up for grabs if someone wants to create an improvisational performance piece or work in some other new form. Our students tend to lean toward one genre or another, but we’re striving for their work to create its own integrity, internal logic, and clear intention rather than for it to conform to the expectations of a predetermined genre. I keep saying that we’re looking for the next Claudia Rankine, just so that at least some people know what I’m talking about. The students also have a lot more control over the way that the critique itself operates than in a “normal” MFA. They can use their time to read their work out loud and solicit very little response if they wish, they can do a kind of performance and get the attendees to participate, they can arrange a talk around questions they have about the work or about work in general; it’s extremely open-ended. And by being in the room with people who are all trying to stretch the boundaries of convention in terms of both form and politics, we’re finding that the work becomes more adventurous. There are a lot of conventions and clichés of the MFA program the Pratt MFA is actively trying to destroy, starting with its conservative values and the way that it masks political choices as aesthetic ones.
Vince Granata is a staff editor at Café Américain and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.