Wideman on Campus, continued

Al Filreis: We’re grateful that you chose that day job, judging from yesterday’s three-hour session with the students in our Writers House seminar. Continuing the theme of politics and history and ethical choices, I wanted to ask you about the presentation of Mallory in Two Cities. As a reader I’m sort of a sucker for World War II vets who emerge in the present day. Here’s Mallory sitting at the edge of participation in World War II, doing a lot of KP duty and getting involved accidentally in atrocities, seeing something that really scars him for life and then emerging into the political scene, where he brings into his mind the MOVE thing as well as Emmett Till’s image and so forth. He becomes a deeply political figure. This follows from your statement about how politics can persuade us without being straight on, and I’m asking you what you think of the politics of Mallory and what Mallory stands for in that book, or how he helps you with history?

Wideman: The nitty gritty, day by day, line by line process of writing remains, to a degree, mysterious—trying to reach the spirits of the characters, trying to
do whatever I can to make them reveal themselves to me so I can get inside their space and imitate or represent or get them to speak the novel for me. But I also consciously plan a novel’s trajectory, and when I stand way back, I understand Two Cities was about the knitting together of generations, and Mr. Mallory’s role was pivotal. He connects the oldest and youngest males of the community. He’s closest to death, the end, so he’s the closest to the starting over each new generation commences. Young people learn from older people, young people fertilize older people’s thinking—a circle. To me, that circle—maybe among all American men but certainly among African American men—that circle has been ruptured, broken by the facts of history and oppression and economic exploitation.

Filreis: The desecration of Mallory in his coffin is for me a very sad moment in the book, obviously. I wonder if you could speak to the tragedy of a younger generation not respecting the Mallorys? And does that have anything to do with the dedication of the book in memory of your nephew Omar: “We didn’t try hard enough”? Is our not trying hard enough related to the desecration of Mallory and the disrespect of that earlier generation?

Wideman: When Mr. Mallory is thrown out of his coffin into the street, it’s the lowest point in the novel. It’s not only Mr. Mallory lying there. If the scene works, the coffin is a cradle, and inside it you also see Kassima’s sons, who’ve been killed as teenagers in street violence. Mr. Mallory’s old body is their bodies as well, and for me that connection was literal, not symbolic, because the first time I heard of the desecration of dead bodies it was teenagers doing it to other teenagers—funerals in West Philadelphia, in North Philadelphia broken up by gangs because killing somebody wasn’t enough, you had to dis ’em one more time. The revenge stuff never ends. How deep can you go? Gangs terrorize the family, terrorize the funeral. And then the same kind of stuff occurred in Pittsburgh. I saw it almost happen at my nephew’s funeral. So when Mr. Mallory hits the street, he’s a child as well as an old man. In the passage there are words that suggest cradle, words that suggest youth, words that make Mallory seem like a baby as well as an old man.

Filreis: We have a question from Cassie MacDonald, [a member of the seminar].

Cassie MacDonald: This is about Two Cities, and I wanted to say that I love this book for the love that is in it. Do you draw from the Bible much?

Wideman: The Bible is explicitly and implicitly part of Two Cities. My reading of the Book of Lamentations just nailed for me the fact that I had to write Two Cities. My mother reads my books, and she is a very astute reader of the Bible and whenever I use something that either alludes to the Bible or a biblical reference, I always discuss it with her and she takes me seriously. She’ll go back to the passage and think about it and we have conversations about these kinds of things, and I’ve learned a lot from her. The Book of Lamentations is about a group of people who find themselves with their city, their nation, their lives devastated. The Book of Lamentations asks, “How did it happen? What does it mean? Why is God doing this to us?” The catastrophe is almost too overwhelming to mourn. When loss seems past mourning, how do we get our hearts, our souls around it? And that seemed to be a perfect place to begin to write about Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and contemporary America, because how can you measure or weigh the loss, the bloodletting that is still going on?

Filreis: We have a question here from Prentice Cole [W’76].

Prentice Cole: I wanted to commend you for your reading last night and was most impressed with the ability to talk from two different voices [both that of a black man and a white woman], and I wanted to ask you about your experiences in West Philadelphia and University City. It would seem to be so compelling that that experience would have allowed you perhaps to speak from those different voices.

Wideman: I think, again, I’ve been very fortunate. I grew up in Homewood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—a community that was predominantly African American. Growing up, the first, I guess, eight years, nine years I saw only other African American people on a daily basis. White folk we would see when we went to stores and places like that. But then my family moved to Shadyside, which is another neighborhood in Pittsburgh, and there was one street, half of a street, where there were a few black families, four or five. Other than that, it was white—and forgive me for using words that are only approximations. The language hasn’t refined itself to give us neutral terms to talk about Americans of various colors and cultures, and this black and white is a shorthand which is a pernicious shorthand, but I haven’t figured out a way to make the distinctions myself—it should be a national project, not mine. Anyway, so-called whites and so-called blacks were in a totally different proportion in Shadyside than in Homewood, so I got to hear kids whose families spoke a different language at home.
    Pittsburgh’s always been a very polyglot place. I saw, without knowing I was seeing, different languages, different alphabets on the sides of churches and public buildings as I was growing up. The languages were mysterious to me, strange scraggly writing on stones. Not only did I see it on stones, I heard it in people’s voices. My exposure to other speech communities continued, when I came to Penn, then lived outside the country. For an African American young person to get out of this country and see that things can be stacked in a very different way is a crucial experience. It’s good for any young American. What we have here in our country is not a given; it doesn’t have to be this way. That was such a wondrous thing to discover, and I could only discover it by getting on the outside.

Filreis: You said yesterday at the seminar that you thought about leaving Penn after six weeks or so—

Wideman: Five minutes. [Laughter]

Filreis: Thought about it in five minutes but at six weeks got on a bus and the freshman coach pulled you off. And one of the students [in the seminar] followed it up by saying, “Well, what made you stay?” and you said, “Basketball.” I wonder if you could elaborate a little more. What was different about basketball than being at Penn at large? What was so crucial about that?

Wideman: Well, basketball was my safety zone. It was a sanctuary. I had no doubt I was wanted there, that I had a place there. There was no doubt I could hold my own there. The fact that [the assistant basketball coach] Dick Harter came down to the bus station to pull me off the bus—literally—and say, “Come on back,” meant that basketball needed me. The basketball court offers a kind of democracy. It’s not totally a democracy—in fact, it may be one of the last zones of good, healthy tyranny left. Ask any coach, ask any player.
    The rules are quite simple, and everyone knows them. If you don’t like them, you don’t have to go there. In sports, there’s a kind of openness about things and a really hard bottom line: If you hit the jumper, you can take the jumper. You miss the jumper, “It’s a bad shot, son,” but you know how it works—it’s clear. And some of the best teaching goes on in athletic programs, because you have such a willing constituency and it’s to some degree voluntary. The same way, in my creative-writing classes, people come to me because I’m a writer. They believe I offer something they want, and if you can’t teach in those circumstances you’re pretty hopeless. Sports also breeds a unique comradery. I’ve maintained sports friendships over lots of years.
    On the hoops court, most of the time, what you did counted—not what you said, not the history, the social and economic status you brought to the court, not what you wore before you stepped onto the court, not where you could go afterwards, not who your parents were. You entered the Palestra and the court became a sort of magic square. You go out on it, and you could create your own world.

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