A. Naomi Jackson interviewed Jeffery Renard Allen at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on Tuesday, July 8, 2014 as part of Kweli’s Third Annual Writers’ Conference.
A. NAOMI JACKSON: Can you talk about your process of writing your book – how the idea came to you, and what it took to mold the idea and story into a book?
JEFFERY RENARD ALLEN: If my memory is correct, I chanced upon the story of Blind Tom back in 1998 in the pages of Oliver Sacks’ wonderful book An Anthropologist on Mars. I found Tom an intriguing subject for a novel for a number of reasons and thought that his life was rich with possibility for story, for symbolic action. Here was a black boy who was born a slave in Georgia but who started playing piano at age two, a boy who within a few years was playing professionally and by age ten had played at the White House, the first African American to do so. This prodigy was one of the first African Americans to play the piano professionally, one of the first African Americans to have a classical repertoire, and he became not only the most successful pianist of the nineteenth century but also the most famous black person in the world. However, hardly anyone knows about him today. Why has he been forgotten? I was also intrigued by the fact that he had a radical approach to performing on stage, billed as the “Blind Tom Exhibition.” He would play three songs at once, each in a different key, and he had an entire selection of his own compositions where he would imitate on the piano the sound of natural phenomenon and man-made objects. Not only that, he also displayed astonishing feats of memory. He would give orations of famous speeches and also invite members of the audience to come onstage and perform original compositions on the piano that he would then play back and improvise on, performances that I would eventually dramatize in the novel. However, although intrigued, I didn’t start researching Tom’s life in earnest until the fall of 2001 when I had a fellowship at the Center for Scholars and Writers at the main branch of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street. Still, for another two or three years, I had to kick the book around in my mind, had to find out some things, learn some things and grow some before I even had a clue about what this novel was really about.
NAOMI: Were there any surprises or obstacles you had along the way of writing the book?
JEFFERY: Because I wrote this book over such a long period--ten years, more--I had many challenges from a craft standpoint. Such questions as how should I begin the novel? How should it end? (My thoughts about the ending kept changing, evolving.) How would I organize the book into clearly defined chapters? And how many chapters should it have? How do I indicate to the reader that this book is not strictly historical, but something else? How will I handle the jumps in time? What role will borrowed texts, sampling--newspaper articles, songs, Blind Tom memorabilia, etc.--play in the novel? What shape would the overall structure take? This last question was the hub, for the writing was all that more difficult since I didn’t complete a full draft of it until May 2009. From then on, for the next four years or more, I worked through several revisions of the novel with Ethan Nosowsky and Fiona McCrae, my editors at Graywolf. They pointed out certain things, but I also developed new ideas on my own, discovered some additional possibilities, and so it went. Of course, in the process of revision you start to think quite deliberately about overall meaning and connection, subtext and range. Eventually, I was able to pin down the structure of the novel. Then the last element fell in place when I realized that I needed to use an image at the start of each chapter of the novel that would provide the narrative with an overall coherence of structure, story and meaning.
Although I never conceived of this novel as historical, I still needed to make my story which is set in the late 1860s speak to the present moment.
But I think I should say more about the role of time in the novel. Although I never conceived of this novel as historical, I still needed to make my story which is set in the late 1860s speak to the present moment, find a way to enlarge the particulars of my story into universal experience, which is ultimately timeless experience—despite what these bone-headed cultural and political materialists would have us believe—the struggles that we all face beyond specific matters of moment and place. The trick here was to make the novel feel timely for the reader, urgent, although it is set one hundred and fifty years ago. Here we can take a pointer from the African continent. In many traditional African cultures, time is not linear but a vast sea (Langston Hughes’ big sea) where past, present, and future all exist at once. Best that a writer envisage symbolic action in fiction as this time-thick sea and seek therefore to construct scenes that will strike resonant tones across the years, for generations to come.
As well, this novel taught me much about the importance of the unplanned in a defining way, unlike anything I had ever experienced before. I mean here the importance of serendipity, those fortuitous moments that you chance upon. And I’m not talking about research here because research is a kind of fishing expedition where you have a general sense of the kinds of things you are looking for that will be useful to your fictional narrative. I’m talking about all the unexpected gifts that fall into your hands. I received numerous gifts over the many years that it took me to write the novel. I will just mention one example here.
In the summer of 2004, I was invited to teach a writing workshop in St. Petersburg, Russia and decided to bring along, as light reading, a recently published book about the Fischer-Spassky World Chess Championship from 1972, a match I recalled from my childhood. (I was an avid chess player up until age nineteen or so, and Fischer was hands down my favorite player of all time.) In those pages, I encountered the story of Paul Morphy—I should say re-encountered because I had been quite familiar with Morphy in my chess playing days, but had long since forgotten about him. I realized that Morphy was not only a contemporary of Tom, but that their lives had some striking parallels. Importantly, I understood that Morphy could become an important figure in my novel in terms of the present action and the conflicts and themes, that Morphy’s presence in the book could enrich the narrative in a number of ways, on several levels. And he does. Now, this is the kind of thing you could never stumble upon through pure research.
NAOMI: Your book addresses the inability of language to connect characters who can’t bridge the gulf of autism with words. How did you think about this as you were writing?
He seemed to be a man who literally “talks with his hands” as Public Enemy used to say about their DJ Terminator X.
JEFFERY: One of the things that stood out about Tom in the research that I did was his silence. How little there is on record of the actual things he said, that people heard him say. He seemed to be a man who literally “talks with his hands” as Public Enemy used to say about their DJ Terminator X. Although this holds true as well for my novel, I would still say that Tom does quite a bit of communicating in the pages of my book, finds creative ways to express his thoughts, his feelings, his needs and desires, although he is not a vocal person in the novel and although the things he says sound like riddles, conundrums, or pure gibberish. Not only does he connect to others, he also is the force that forms connections between others. The problem is that most people in the novel have little desire to listen to Tom, to find out who he is and what he is about since they only wish to exploit him for their own selfish ends.
NAOMI: At one point, one of Tom’s owners, Madame Bethune, says “An idiot and a nigger—lord have mercy—Tom is doubly short of self. (Perhaps triply short. She had not counted his blindness.”) Can you also speak about this question of “black genius” and racism as it relates to your character Blind Tom?
JEFFERY: Geneva Southall, the University of Minnesota musicologist and professor who devoted her professional career to studying Tom and who wrote a three-volume biography about him, argues that Tom was a musical genius along the lines of Mozart but that America could not accept the idea of a black genius in Tom’s lifetime. Of course, we all know that most white people of the nineteenth century believed that they were superior to black people, that we lacked true intelligence, that we were more animal than human. So how could such a populace entertain the idea of a black genius?
Moreover, Southall works diligently to separate fact from assumption, to deconstruct the many deliberately constructed fabrications about Tom. She points out that it was Tom’s first stage manager, Perry Oliver, who created the idea that Blind Tom was a “natural” who had no musical instruction or training and who never studied or practiced as even the most accomplished musicians do. She provides factual evidence to the contrary.
As well, Southall takes exception to the idea that Tom was an autistic savant, for she believed that Tom was a true creative artist. The widespread belief was that savants lack true creativity, that they parrot rather than create, that they imitate, memorize. But as Southall discovered in her research, Blind Tom penned over five hundred compositions, so how could he have lacked creativity? Southall believes that Perry Oliver and others--Tom’s owner General Bethune, and in the big picture, both the slave-holding South and America as a whole--presented Tom to the public as an “idiot savant,” that they created a public persona that would both cater to the racist ideas about black people that were commonplace then and that would create an exciting stage show. In coming to see Blind Tom perform, many people believed that they were embarking upon an encounter with a semi-divine being who possessed supernatural powers.
NAOMI: What can you say about the imagined island of Edgemere? Its relationship to Manhattan and its islands, as well as islands you’ve spent time in, like Zanzibar and Lamu?
I first traveled to Zanzibar in July 2006, but at that time, I didn’t see any connection between Zanzibar and my novel.
JEFFERY: You know, as much as I feel that I am a writer of place, a writer who puts setting at the center of the narrative, I am more interested in invented locations than I am in actual places, more interested in pushing the geographical and demographical facts, exaggerating them to make interesting and revealing narratives. So from the start, I was not terribly concerned with adhering to the actual facts about New York City in the mid nineteenth century, or with the actual geography of the South for that matter, or the many other locations that pop up in the novel for one reason or another. I first traveled to Zanzibar in July 2006, but at that time, I didn’t see any connection between Zanzibar and my novel. Mind you, Zanzibar was the center of the East African slave trade, and clearly I should have been looking for similarities or confluences between that slave trade and the Atlantic slave trade which is key to the workings of my novel. There was another important similarity between Zanzibar and Edgemere that I overlooked at the time, and that is, Zanzibar is essentially a black island nation, as is Edgemere. It was only when I traveled to Lamu later that year, in December, that I saw how Lamu could serve as a creative model for Edgemere. I felt this way, in part, because on the island of Lamu you feel that you are in an ancient world because of its technological simplicity, its religious and cultural identity, and the decency of the people. So when I went back to Zanzibar some five years later, I could now see the similarities. If you look at the two maps in the book, the map of the city is actually Zanzibar, while the map of Edgemere is Lamu. Such identifications are important, at least in part, because I wanted to address racial violence (such as the Civil War Draft Riots in New York City in 1863, still the worse race riots on record) and also explore questions of racial identity and where black nationalism fits into all of that. Black nationalism was a big part of the conversation around race in America in the nineteenth century. I thought it important to look closely at this ideology (and others), even as I found it important to look at how place and identity meet (city versus town, state versus nation, mainland versus island, South versus north, urban life versus rural life, resident population versus immigrant population, etc.) and examine the conflicts that so often arise when a group becomes territorial (I own this, I live here, You’re not wanted here, Go back to where you came from) or when a group needs to claim a new territory as a necessary safe haven to survive.
NAOMI: On p. 159, you write: “This body isn’t his (he doesn’t own it) but moves when he moves…Is it any wonder he sang like that? Why he played like that?” Can you speak to the relationship between self-ownership, self-determination, and Blind Tom’s gifts?
Music both frees him and binds him. I think much in the novel is fraught with this kind of ambiguity.
JEFFERY: It seems to me if nothing else, Blind Tom "owned" those things that made him peculiar to most--his blindness, his eccentricity (call it autism or savantism if you like), his prodigious memory, and his music. In my novel, all of these qualities of self give Tom a very powerful agency. People have to put up with him, deal with this difficult man-child. And in this difficulty, we discover the foundation of Tom's self, his active resistance against the world. And perhaps this resistance brings with it freedom, or moments of freedom. But nothing is ever this simple. It cuts both ways. Tom's strangeness obviously alienates him from some people even if others are drawn to him because of it. Most importantly, music both frees him and binds him. I think much in the novel is fraught with this kind of ambiguity. For such is life.
NAOMI: Why write about Blind Tom now? What do you think his story has to tell us about black artists and their relationship to the production and distribution of their work? Do you see any connection between the exploitation Blind Tom experienced in his lifetime and the conversation Ta-Nehisi Coates has reignited about reparations?
JEFFERY: Of course, my primary reason in writing about Tom was to write a good book, to create an engaging work of literary fiction-- this before anything else. But the best fiction is metaphor, meaning that the narrative has to do the job of speaking on several levels at once, speaking to many audiences—that thing I mentioned earlier about the universal. So yes, in Tom’s story you can see many parallels between the music business in Tom’s era and the music business today. It has indeed been a shady business from day one.
Nor is it any accident that my novel begins in 1866 and ends in 1869, those first years of the Reconstruction. How easy it is for us as a country to tell the story of slavery again and again in books and on the screen, and our triumph over it in the form of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War that brought an end to it. But consciously or unconsciously, we avoid Reconstruction because it was a failed project. And the consequences of that failure linger, are with us today and most likely will be with us for generations to come. Our country chooses to hold up the facade of progress, that sets the stage for a deep dishonesty about who we are as Americans, where we come from, and why our country seems to have an unshakeable obsession with violence. White people from Europe came here and exterminated Native Americans by the thousands and took their lands. On Thanksgiving, we neglect to mention that those pilgrims killed those same Native Americans who saved them from starvation, killed them, and stole their land. And these pilgrims needed free labor to work these lands, hence the introduction of slaves from West Africa. This country took large parts of Mexico by force. Then we have the entire history of the Jim Crow South that saw the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, America’s first homegrown terrorists. And around the world we have supported fascist and totalitarian regimes that use violence against their own citizens, state terrorism in effect. And elements of our government have arranged for the assassination of any powerful figure seen as a threat as President Eisenhower did with Patrice Lumumba, and our violent policies in the Middle East have created an enemy that we can never defeat. I could go on and on because the examples are numerous, voluminous. Do we want to have an honest conversation about any of this? I don’t think so.
We have certainly made progress in this country on many fronts. That said, we are still blind to much about who we are as Americans. How often is it that we truly look through the eyes of the other, those we have slighted or wronged? You know, while Abraham Lincoln is one of our most admired presidents, many Native Americans have nothing but scorn for him because of all our presidents, he ordered the execution of the most number of Native Americans. When do we ever hear about that? This is a fundamentally violent country, a country where so often violence goes hand in hand with profit and gain. Why is there a gun in every American movie? Why does the NRA have such a stranglehold on Congress? Why do we have so many spree shootings? And why do so many people use guns to commit suicide? Why did we invade Iraq and go to war there? Why have Stand-Your-Ground laws become common practice in our country? The answer is quite simple: because there is money to be made, there are billions of dollars made off of gun culture and guns sales, some serious cheese for a privileged wealthy minority and their minions. Of course, the age-old stereotypes about black people (mostly men) can be put into the service of this profiteering enterprise, even as new ethnic and religious groups come in vogue for demonization, namely Arabs and Muslims, two groups who have become synonymous with terrorists in the eyes of most Americans. Easy then to routinely gun down unarmed Black men, to bomb Iraq, Afghanistan, or Palestine. So it was also easy in Tom’s time to inflict violence on the black body. If it could happen to Tom, if can happen to all of us. We should never forget that.
Tom was one of many victims of historical erasure, who slipped through the cracks of the official story. So perhaps I bring Tom back in the same manner that Ta-Neishi Coates puts the question of reparations on the table. Time for us to have an honest conversation. But is that even possible? Is it not telling that this country has never officially issued an apology for slavery? Why is that? So of course we deserve reparations. Hard to believe, however, that a country that cannot come to terms with its violent past, that a country that seems vested in perpetuating certain stereotypes (lazy black folk on welfare, violent black people, black people addicted to crack, black people shucking and jiving, cooning and buffooning) that such a country would seriously entertain the idea of reparations. And to do so during this supposedly racially-blind, post-racial era makes it unfathomable. When the time comes, we will find only ourselves at the negotiating table, holding a conversation amongst ourselves. But perhaps that's where it should begin, needs to begin, has always begun.
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Q&A from Audience
MALAIKA ADERO: You have been on book tour now for a few weeks. What has been the reception to your book?
JEFFERY: The reception has been strongly positive. However, I am troubled that some critics and readers assume right out that Tom was a savant. And I am also troubled that in a few instances I have had some overtly racist comments made about Tom. For example, when I did an online interview, I had one person who insisted on calling Tom crude. So for whatever reason, there appears to be some resistance to making his story part of the dialogue again. But it is up to all of us to decide what stories need to be told, what stories need to be discussed, what stories need to show us who we are, and which stories can best tell us who we are.