Photo by Aubrey Odom on Unsplash
A little update: My introduction for Percival Everett’s Erasure was published in The Telegraph. It’s paywalled—not my choice!—but you can read if you have a subscription, OR if you just buy the new edition of Erasure, which you should because that book is brilliant.
I spent the weekend on Martha’s Vineyard. It wasn’t until the plane was descending through the cloud layers that I saw the water and the boats and the dark fringe of trees. “It’s an island,” I said to myself, but my seatmate assumed that I was talking to her, and she said, “Why yes, isn’t it lovely? We love our island.”
I was there for a book festival, and as far as book festivals go, this one was good. The organizers and volunteers were friendly and attentive. The audience came to most of the panels and were warm and responsive. Sometimes at book events, you feel like you’re talking in front of a mulch pile, but here, the audience was present. Everyone seemed keen to show off the island. The festival itself was run by a crew of women with sweaters tied around their shoulders and stiff white skirts. They walked with quick, darting strides and had the habit of scanning the perimeter every few seconds on the lookout for trouble and issues needing solving. They had the alert, swiveling heads of birds. The festival must have been a logistical nightmare to bring off, and here we were being taken to and from venues, to dinner, to our events, all without the least glitch. It’s the kind of operation that is underpinned by mountains of terrifying spreadsheets. I joked but was totally serious when I said they could probably run a country. I later found out that one of the organizers had worked at the World Bank, and I thought, “Yeah, that tracks.”
It was strange to see this collision of white-knuckled quasi-WASP intensity colliding with the laconic pace of island life. Or, I guess, my presumed idea of the laconic pace of island life. On Martha’s Vineyard, things were paradoxically décontracté even as they crackled with a reserve of neurotic know-how. People were always adjusting things—knives on tables, napkins, cups, shirt collars, sleeves, lunch platters, bagel plates, and on. Everything had the smoothness of the recently aligned, the meticulously tended to. I began to imagine that life on the Vineyard wasn’t laconic so much as it was streaked with such bouts of arrangement.
I did an event with another writer, moderated by a famous island writer. The panel had an easy rhythm to it. We talked about short stories, about our lives, about why and how we wrote and to whom. I think it was probably the right call. And besides, it was fun. We laughed and talked amid the few technological mishaps that seemed to plague me. My mic was off. The levels kept peaking and causing feedback from the speakers. Occasionally, the wind would blow into a mic on the lectern which drowned out whoever was speaking with a thunderous sotto voce. I joked that it was the ghost from the inn where I had been staying on the island. The night before, I’d plugged in my laptop, looked away to take care of something and by the time I came back, the plug had been removed from the wall and thrown across the room. Some people on Twitter suggested that I had pulled it loose with my foot. And maybe I had. But it seemed unlikely that I’d managed to yank it free with so much force that it ended up on the other side of the room. The manager of the inn told me when I arrived that the house had been built in the 1700s. And I thought, oh, that’s quite old. But also not old at all. The 1700s is barely enough time to cover the reign of two Hapsburg monarchs of the late Holy Roman Empire. Anyway, old by colonial American standards. Still, my first thought upon arriving on the island, after “It’s an island” was, as we were driving along the winding road, was that the houses had a squat, Protestant flatness to them that seemed familiar. I thought, “These ghosts are definitely Pilgrims, huh.”
When I first saw the houses peeking out through the trees, I thought also that this was why so many movies about ghosts were set in Massachusetts. It is a state that feels deeply haunted. Or maybe it’s just that I arrived in the state with a fixed idea about what its history looked like, and when I had that impression validated by the Protestant houses, there was some resonance created. And what is a haunting if not a resonance between our idea of a thing’s history and our present impression of the thing itself. Alabama feels very haunted to me because I grew up there and knew its history. I lived with the resonance between that long, dark chronicle of cruelties and brutalities, and I saw ghosts everywhere I looked. Reasonable then, that when I got off the plane and into the car and drove by the houses hidden behind stone fences and saw their Calvinist facades, I thought, yes, this is what I imagined it would look like, and the next thought was, must be haunted.
Anyway, the ghost from the inn plagued me that day and seemed to be playing havoc with all of the technology I came into contact with. Because it is an island, Wi-Fi and cell service are dicey at best. Depending on where you stand. Also, there is the matter of food delivery, or lack thereof. I think it’s true that the great digital safety net of app services have flattened and homogenized our experiences of contemporary cities. We go into an urban space, and it’s already been parceled up and sectioned for us by the app store that we have access to everything we could need. We superimpose upon whatever city we visit the five or six apps we need to navigate life as digital nomads.
I guess this is why all of the culture writers are so determined to mark themselves out by seeking recommendations for places to go and visit when they travel. I watch them tweet out calls for recs. Places to eat and things to see, they crave the secret, hidden menu of local experience so that when they present the spoils of their travels to Instagram, Tik Tok, and Twitter, what they are showing is something apart from the flatpack, ready-made aesthetic experience of the city. And because they do not cite their sources so to speak, what one imagines is that the person doing the posting is the curatorial intelligence behind the tableau. Isn’t that funny? Silly, even. That our tastemakers are engaged in a kind of extractive mining of the local so that they can disseminate a vibey contact-transfer trace of the real thing to their thousands and thousands of followers, many of whom were mined for the very suggestions that made the extractive process possible in the first place. They’re feeding our own lives back to us, but at the mark up of what we call charisma.
But I am not above it all. I love convenience. I love being able to order food and have it arrive quickly. I love being able to summon a car and go to a place. I love being able to use Google maps and point myself in whatever direction. I love, too, being able to opt out of human interaction in the moment, to substitute what is at hand with the pleasure radiation that is social media. I love to irradiate myself with tweets and comments and likes and the frothy chaos of the feed.
On the island, nights were long and dark. There was no Wi-Fi in my room. Or, I should say, there was Wi-Fi but there was little of it. I had cell service in my room, but not downstairs in the inn itself. And very seldom in the conference spaces. The plug situation was dire, to say the least. It was a bit of an unintentional detox. I gave over to the ghosts and the horses in the field and the geese in the pond and the sky and the trees and the patter of people talking on the lawn or the sunporch. I talked to strangers, and listened to them, and felt my face heat up from the action of smiling and talking, gesturing. I was a human among other humans, and I had no digital overlay to superimpose upon the scene. I had to simply use my own eyes. I thought, I’m really out here. I’m really doing this. In the world. Yikes. I thought, Is this who I am? I can’t load Twitter, and people are talking to me.
The part of me who was moving in a couple of weeks and who was distracted by logistics and worried about someone in upstate New York and worried about a furniture delivery happening right that moment across the country in Iowa, the part of me who wanted to be at home reading a big book about Maria Theresa of Austria—I had to set aside all of that part, the flashing, living part of me who lived in the ether, and inhabit instead the muted, mundane fleshy self who had worn a slightly too warm shirt to a literary event and then had dinner as the sky darkened and the museum lights gleamed high above the glass which had once shone the brightest light on this continent across the churning seas to guide people home. That self, who had to remember to use the silverware from the outside-in, and who had to remember how to make eye contact and make conversation and who scanned the landscape of the conversation to avoid giving a bad impression, that self, who had always been, let’s be honest, the less interesting version of me, was all there was because the bulk me had been left behind with cell service in the airport parking lot.
On the island, I was me. And the ghost was also me. I had to learn how to be in a space with other people. It was hard. Awkward. It was work. But it was pleasurable. I like people. Or I think I do. Our table was pretty jumping.
There was a moment after my panel, in which a white woman came up to me and asked: “You say you write more from things observed than experienced—then why is it that no one else can write about the black experience?”
On its face, it’s the kind of question that I could write a pithy essay about and go viral and get a book deal for an essay collection by blowing up this white woman and slamming her for the racist suppositions in her questions. I could turn this woman, this human person, into an example, into an anecdote, and I could take away whatever genuine curiosity or real desire to understand that had made her ask the question. I could make her an abstraction. I could make her into a token to be traded in the marketplace of identity essays for profit. I could do all of that without you even knowing that I’m doing it, and you’d go along with it because you don’t want to be called racist and because you maybe want to feel good about slamming the bad white woman with her bad ideas about art and writing. You’d go along with it and you’d feel good about it and you’d feel that your moral schema for the world was validated by this anecdote, and you’d nod your head and say, Good!
But I don’t know, that sounds pretty silly to me. It’s also silly when the moral terms of our engagement with other people are set for us by the discourse, whatever that is. And, I mean, on my less generous days, I go with it just like anyone else. The same as ordering a Lyft or ordering a hamburger because I don’t want to cook. The convenience of our moment recreated in not just our art but also our human discourse and human congress. Plus, I’m black, and, like, as much as I would like to deny it, certain parts of my social reality are prescribed by existing under white supremacy. I do have to think about scripts. I have to think about the ways in which I withhold nuance, and withhold care and withhold generosity. Because those things are extracted from me without asking. They are presumed. And you might think, but shouldn’t we all presume that we are acting in good faith and therefore deserve good faith. And I think, yes. But also, that is not how racist societies work.
But here is the thing. I could understand on a base level why she might have that question. I could understand why it would seem like a contradiction that two black authors could say that they write from observation more than direct experience, and how that could frustrate a white writer who feels that they are doing the same thing when they sit down to write. Of course. But if you look beyond the surface of that argument. When you look at the material reality, they are not the same situation. And also, the idea that a white writer can’t do anything is silly.
Anyway, here is what I said to her: You can write whatever you want. Anyone can write whatever they want. You have that right. You can write about black people if that is what you want to do. But just because you do it does not mean that people will not find it lacking or harmful. You have to be willing to live with the fact that people might find your work bad, for one thing, racist, poorly done. Etc. And you have to be cognizant of the fact that there are power dynamics at play. In society. In culture. That has to be a part of the work, too.
There were other things that I wanted to say, but the question betrayed to me that this was not a person who had a very advanced sense of art or craft or writing. This was not a person with a very sophisticated view of things. I think what she wanted was probably to feel that I had granted her permission. I think that’s what that question is for. Alexander Chee has a great essay about this, in which says: “They don’t want an answer; they want permission. Which is why all that excellent writing advice has failed to stop the question thus far.” He calls the question a Trojan Horse, a way of asking without betraying what is really being asked. Which is that you absolve them. But the idea that one homosexual black writer on a panel in Martha’s Vineyard can absolve you from writing potentially racist fiction is a racist idea in and of itself.
It can certainly seem like there are rules as to what you can and cannot do in writing at the moment. Social media makes these sorts of things feel like urgent, concrete things in the world, like the third rail. But no one is going to break into your house and make you change all of your characters to match your personal identity. No one is going to hold a gun to your head and make you take out the black and brown people. A fear of being called out on social media, a fear of being found lacking, that is part and parcel with the artist’s calling. If you are afraid of getting dragged on Twitter because you think it will end your career, then, I don’t know, look up Kevin Spacey.
I’m of two minds about this. I don’t think cancel culture is real. That’s silly. But. They do be trying to cancel people out here. The censorious impulse does exist, and it has for a long, long time. It has quite the tradition in this country especially. But I also think, probably nobody who really should be cancelled gets cancelled. When people say, I can’t say this because I’ll get cancelled, they probably mean something closer to I would like to say this thing I think to be true without blowback and consequences. And, like, total mood. Total vibe. I too would like to be able to articulate my earnest feelings about certain of my peers, but I know that in doing so, I’d be setting them and myself up. I also think the attitude presupposes that there was ever a time when everyone within a culture or society had carte blanche to just drop tough truths from the belfry towers, and it’s simply not true! There have always been people who have had to censor themselves and their responses as a means of social survival. And what we’ve always had are different codes, different canons of taste, for different castes. That is how a hierarchical society works. What we’re seeing is the leisure and scribe class (mostly white) reacting to an erosion of their ability to say whatever to few consequences.
Ask not for whom the hand claps back for it claps back at you. And ask not why because you probably know what you did, tbh.
Anyway, when the woman asked me that question, I did immediately think about how I’d tell the anecdote. And I’ve already told it a few times. It’s changed a little in its tone with each telling. At first, an exasperated can you believe? And then Well, I guess maybe she was curious. And now a bemused, Oh, how boring, let me bootstrap to what I really want to talk about. Which is perhaps ethically dubious of me. Probably. But: reparations. I can do what I want. I can tell the stories of what happened to me and how I behaved and you are free to take it or leave it or to ask yourself how I might be shading the telling in order to tell or obscure the truth. How am implicating myself or avoiding implicating self? What are the ways I am feinting, dodging, avoiding? I’m asking myself those same questions. I’m always trying to figure out who it is I am serving in my writing.
And sometimes, just sometimes, I look over my shoulder because I feel some close, cold presence there, some hand on my shoulder, guiding, telling me to ease up, take it easy, and whose hand is that if not my own, if I am not indeed the ghost haunting my own room. I guess we all must be haunted that way. By the ghosts of our future cancelled selves. But the thing about a ghost is that it can’t really hurt you. All it can do is make you afraid. It’s the fear that gets you in the end. And so, there’s nothing for it but courage and a willingness to accept that when you throw something into the world, the world has a right to fling it back.