A Conversation Between Rebecca Brown and Thomas Glave


Rebecca Brown: As much as part of the good lefty in me would like to do away with certain kinds of “categories” or “ranks,” I think titles are very important. I want to talk about the title of your new book, Words To Our Now: Imagination And Dissent. But first I want to throw you a kind of curveball and ask you, if you had a title, what would it be?

Thomas_glave_3 Thomas Glave: It would be that same title. I especially think (and hope) that the “Imagination and Dissent” part speaks not only to and about the work in that particular book, but to and about anything I wrote before this book and to all that will come after it.

RB: After reading the collection, the title struck me as even more rich than it had when I first read it. Because this book contains an undercurrent of the simple power of words— both to you as a writer working in traditional and experimental forms, and as an activist who is working to try to reclaim or reconfigure or engage in dissent against words like “masculine” or “male” or “race.” So, a few things to ask you: Have you always had a sense of the power of words? Always wanted to live so vitally with them? How do you see the role of writers—or you in particular—insofar as either maintaining or tending old words, as opposed to redefining or invigorating them?

TG: I think that especially as a black person living in a racist society, and as child of Jamaican (and thus Caribbean) immigrants living in an essentially anti-immigrant society (or at least a society that shuns immigrants who are poor, of color, or perceived as being “ill,” as in having AIDS), I began to learn early on about the power of words. I said “especially as a black person” because, while I have also experienced, as a gay person, the demeaning and defining power of words hurled or whispered in homophobic assaults, the fact that my skin is racially marked (that is, my skin is not white) in this Thomas_glave_2_2 race-obsessed society means that I began to learn very early what it meant not to be white. In a society that values whiteness above all else, as the United States does, one learns quickly—especially, but not only, if one isn’t white—how powerfully words impact on one’s very life, survival, and possibilities for freedom and accomplishment.

In a different way, these dynamics, vis-à-vis words, play out in the most fascinating and disturbing words when we use and listen carefully to everyday language. Depending on who we are and where we are, do we say, “The woman went to the store” or “The black woman went to the store”? Who—and what—are we really talking about when we use not-so-subtle encoded references like “the inner city” or “urban crime”?

I advise my students all the time to be extremely vigilant about the language they use, but I know that such vigilance is really difficult to develop; after all, particularly in the U.S., we’re not encouraged to be vigilant about language. A vigilant, critical intellect doesn’t, I think, make for a strong, forward-charging capitalist state; but even more critically, a vigilant gaze would constantly scrutinize closely and challenge—even defy—freewheeling, cynical, empire-minded government.

George Orwell gave us those wonderful words, in 1984, for the sorts of pernicious, unethical languages that corrupt, overreaching governments systematically employ: “doublespeak” and “doublethink.” As a writer, but also as a conscious person and citizen of the larger world, I feel that it’s really my conscientious duty to continue questioning and severely critiquing all the doublespeak that exists and has proliferated in my lifetime.

Look at the words we hear bandied about today: the “war on terror,” for example, or “terrorists.” But we seem to forget that members of the Ku Klux Klan were—are—terrorists. And members of U.S. right-wing militia groups are terrorists. The U.S. government practices routine terrorism in all the Latin American and other nations it attempts to dominate, subvert, and economically exploit for its own ends. The U.S. public’s amnesia and ignorance about such realities is a sad, actually tragic example of a lack of necessary vigilance over disingenuous, misleading language. But writers can forcefully address that amnesia.

RB: Of course some of the words you have written to re-define old words have been very practical indeed. I am thinking particularly here of Toward a Nobility of the Imagination: Jamaica’s Shame (An Open Letter to the People of Aamaica).  This piece comes from your work as an organizer in Jamaica. Could you talk about what your work there involves?

TG: I’m not doing organizing work in Jamaica anymore, although I sometimes yearn, very much, to do it again. Whether I like it or not (and sometimes I really don’t
like it, given all the painful problems and increasing violence there),
Jamaica will always be a part of my life. That particular essay,
written in Jamaica, came out of a time of political and personal
desperation and urgency. I was working with the LGBT Jamaican group I
helped to found in 1998, J-FLAG (the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians,
All-Sexuals, and Gays). We had to field (and survive, in every sense)
an enormous amount of opposition— and I mean opposition that
was both ferocious and frightening, with capital Fs. I don’t think that
I can stress this enough. I don’t know if it’s possible for anyone who
has not spent extended time in Jamaica to imagine that level of
homophobic fury and outrage, but it was real and, at times, pretty
daunting for all of us in J-FLAG. We were grateful and fortunate to
have each other as support.

And so one evening, looking out at Kingston from my apartment, I began to feel an actual sense of overwhelming strangulation, as if I were literally being asphyxiated. I felt that I had no air to breathe, and that if I didn’t find some air very soon I was going to die, or perhaps break down, or do something awful to myself. I really felt these things— clearly the pressure that we all were feeling. And suddenly I felt the words to that essay rise up inside me, and I sat down and wrote it at what I recall as top speed.

Shortly thereafter I sent it to the Jamaica Observer newspaper and I still give them credit for deciding to publish it in January of 1999, even though they’d published terribly homophobic things before then and have featured homophobic rants since (rants, incidentally, by respected Jamaican journalists). I can barely describe
what it felt like to be in Jamaica and see that essay published there while I was there, but I remember feeling tremendous pride, gratitude, fear, amazement, and, above all, pleasure that I could share those words with everyone in J-FLAG. It was only when I saw them published that I understood, more deeply, how much we, and I in particular, had needed them.

RB: All this stuff about history and language and the cultural politics of writing I’m throwing at you! But the first essay in your book, “Baychester: A Memory” is a tender, personal, intimate portrait of your father, of part of your growing up. Any comments you’d like to make about the nature and role of memory for the writer? The importance of family and/or culture of origin for a writer?

TG: Although I’m aware of how much I’ve grown as a person “beyond” that particular essay, it still means a great deal to me—partly because it does involve my father, and partly because I see in the essay a younger, less politically aware version of myself, for whom I have enormous compassion. Clearly, a judicious memory is of great importance
for any writer; what we recall can become nonfiction or fiction, or something else entirely, but our memories, connected to our emotions, make all sorts of (re-)imagining possible. That essay captured an especial sequence of years and experiences, but what I find even more interesting about it is its anticipation—which I couldn’t have seen at the time—of work I would do in the future, both in Whose Song? and in Words to Our Now, and, I daresay, work that I’m completing now.

RB: So, in one way, Words to Our Now
begins with very loving a kind of origin story— i.e., how you came from
your father and the rest of your family. Other essays in the book talk
about your relationships to other artistic and political forebears,
folks like Essex Hemphill, Brian Williamson, Carolivia Herron, Claude
McKay, Bob Marley, even James Joyce. I wonder if you could talk about
your sense of having a lineage—whether familial, cultural/national, or
artistic—and the importance of an artist having a “place,” however you
want to define that.

TG: A “lineage”…I do feel that, however I may feel about it, my work exists
in relation to the work by writers, especially black writers, and
especially Caribbean and North American black writers, who wrote before
me. My father had been a journalist in Jamaica, and, when I was growing
up, he and his friends, and some other family members, talked about
many of those people (Jamaican writers and political luminaries of the
time, the colonial era in the nineteen-thirties and nineteen-forties).
I like very much the idea of being part of a kind of “family” of
writers, black writers throughout our diaspora, who are engaged with
each other in all kinds of conversations. But I could say that I feel
this way about Joyce also, whose work I continue to love, and many
other writers as well, including Latin American writers, to whom I feel
an abiding closeness— the Caribbean and Latin America share so many
realities, after all, and in some cases we share borders. I
think that you could call this idea of “lineage”: historical, cultural,
political, and artistic. And, as I said, while I do feel a great
closeness to black/diasporic and Latin American writers, I deeply
believe that all of us, from everywhere, are really speaking
with one another. I think that, more often than not, we feel that we’re
not connected because we’re not listening.

Just a quick word on Brian Williamson, since you mentioned him in your
question: he was a dearly loved friend from J-FLAG, one of the founding
members from 1998. Brian was someone whom I actually knew and can
really say I loved; I stayed in his house in Jamaica one Christmas, and
visited him all the time when I was on the island. I used to do a ton
of work for J-FLAG on his computer, after hours. Those are only some of
the reasons why his murder in 2004 was so devastating to so me and to
so many other people.

RB: I want to move away from Words to Our Now a bit and talk about Whose Song?
And Other Stories, your previous book.  Again the title of this strikes
me as really significant.  Because so much of this book is about asking
about who gets to sing? Whose songs get sung, whose stories get told?
Who has the “right” to tell which stories? I suppose people expect you,
as a black man to write first-person stories in the voice of a black
man. Which you do, of course. But you also write in the voices of white
women, of non-black people who are afraid of or bigoted towards, or
“exotically” attracted to black folk.  And while you don’t shy away
from the complexities of these specific permutations of race relations,
you do all of these vocal gymnastics with incredible compassion,
insight and sympathy. Can you talk about your intent or process in
creating these voices that are so apparently unlike your own?

TG: With Whose Song?
I was really interested in figuring out what it might mean to be this
character or that one—this or that person—and what it would be like to
feel those feelings and be in those situations in which those people
found themselves. It really isn’t, and has never been, that interesting
to me to write in a fictional voice that I recognize as distinctly my
own, vis-à-vis character. I might do that in nonfiction, but then that
is an entirely different process from shaping fiction. It’s just really
intriguing to me to wonder what it might be like to be this particular
person—why does she or he feel that way, and why does she or he go
about his or her business with that particular approach, understanding
or lack of it?

Sometimes I think that this kind of imagining is similar to the work that actors
have to do; I’m really interested in actors’ craft, especially that of
stage actors, and have a great deal of respect for it, so I would be
very happy if this were indeed true.

RB: I asked you about the compassion in your fiction. But of course there are also scenes of violence, despair. What’s the importance of violence in your fiction?

The “importance” of violence in the fiction…[the violence] really
happens because the characters bring it about, or because of their
environment, or because they don’t do something…they might
avoid some truth that is really critical to growth in their lives, or
turn away from something that, to them, is terrifying, but which, if
faced, might save them from further pain. Mind you, I don’t set out to
position violence in the fictions; as I said, the characters pull me as
a writer to that place, or not, by what they do and who they are. I never wanted any of that violence to happen to any of those characters in Whose Song?,
but I really felt as if, in most cases, I had no choice, as the writer,
if I was going to tell those characters’ truths: those violences were,
for all of them, pretty much inevitable. I didn’t want to back away from it, no matter how frightening it got (and it did, quite frequently, get very
frightening, very upsetting). At the same time, I was particularly
interested in certain kinds of violence—political repression, for
example—and in what happens to human beings as living forces, and to
language as a vital means of communication and memory, when violence
permeates everyday existence, as happens in “The Pit” and “A Real
Place,” stories set in the context of dictatorship. Some of the fiction
I’m working on now moves through some
unforgivingly violent places, and it has been really fascinating, and
painful at the same time, to see how much the characters do not
want to remember. In several instances, they would rather pretend that
the intolerable present actually does not exist—and now, after spending
some time among them, I understand more why.

RB: One of the pieces in Whose Song? is called A Real Place.
If a reader were to pick this up from a bookstore table and flip
through it, she might see those irregular line lengths, the erratic
blocks of prose and think “This is a book of experimental writing.”
And we all know what that means in this materialistic publishing
climate! I am a fan of work that takes formal risks but am aware that
many readers are not. Can you talk about what you are up to with your
less traditionally shaped work? What is the relation between the shape
of a piece and its content?  Do you choose the shapes of your work
initially?  Or do they come during the creation of the piece. And
finally, what is the relation between the shape of the work you write
and the kind of work you do in the world as an activist?

“A Real Place” took the form that it did because I understood from the
outset that the text had to reflect, visually, the fragmented voice of
the character as I heard it in my head. That
voice was very quiet, almost a whisper at times, and sounded to me in
some ways like the voice of someone who had been broken, and who even
in the act of speaking and remembering might still, somewhere inside,
be broken—damaged, hurt, scarred. That character was not someone who
would speak in complete punctuated sentences. The voice on the page had to show that consciousness and, I hope, its unwillingness, even in the act of speaking/telling, to remember.

Other works have taken on forms that I did not expect, but invariably, at least in Whose Song?
the forms, if “experimental,” were directly related to something in the
characters—Gregory’s tortured, convoluted interior language in “The
Final Inning,” the narrator’s careening language in “Accidents,” the
white woman’s back-and-forth denying language in “—And Love Them?”
Sometimes ideas for experimentation do come later on in my process with
the works, but for the most part, at least in what I’ve done so far,
I’ve had from the beginning at least an intuitive sense of what
I wanted to do with the work— but again, with the fiction, at least,
this was because I heard the characters’ voices and, from that, began
to get an intuitive understanding of who they were and what was
happening with them from the timbre of their voice(s). The realm of
intuition is extremely important to me, and not one I like to talk
about very much, except to say that I recognize its power in my working
process. It is sometimes unreliable, but I can’t imagine working without it.

honestly not sure what the relation is between my creative work’s
“shape,” to use your word, and the work I’ve done as an activist. When
I worked more extensively as an activist, I often found myself
disappointed by how incredibly unimaginative the language
employed by activists, myself included, was; we seemed to use the same
words over and over again—words like “empowerment” and “analysis” and
“hegemony” and “protest,” among others. And, at least among the radical
lefties I knew and worked with, we never seemed able or willing to
really imagine bigoted people as more than “rednecks” or
general laughingstocks whom we despised. We denounced their hateful
behavior—and I think that we were correct, humanistically speaking, to
do so—but we never seemed to want to understand why they felt
the hatred or fear or bigotry they felt. I do believe that that myopia
has been a great weakness of many activists, at least some of those I
have known. But I don’t know; maybe activism can’t take the time and
the risks that art can in that regard. I wouldn’t be interested in
writing a sentence like this one: “The sexist man ties his shoe and
thinks for a moment about his class and racial prejudice”—but art can amplify, right? Art should not, I think, reduce things to slogans or easy phrases—at least not the kind of art I wish to see!