Wideman on Campus, continued
Wideman: The nitty gritty, day by day, line
by line process of writing remains, to a degree, mysterioustrying to
reach the spirits of the characters, trying to
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 didnt 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, its the lowest point in the novel. Its not only Mr. Mallory lying there. If the scene works, the coffin is a cradle, and inside it you also see Kassimas sons, whove been killed as teenagers in street violence. Mr. Mallorys 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 teenagersfunerals in West Philadelphia, in North Philadelphia broken up by gangs because killing somebody wasnt 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 nephews funeral. So when Mr. Mallory hits the street, hes 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. Shell go back to the passage and think about it and we have conversations about these kinds of things, and Ive 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 [W76].
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, Ive been very fortunate.
I grew up in Homewood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvaniaa 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 whiteand
forgive me for using words that are only approximations. The language
hasnt 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 havent figured
out a way to make the distinctions myselfit 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.
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 busliterallyand say, Come on back, meant that
basketball needed me. The basketball court offers a kind of democracy.
Its not totally a democracyin fact, it may be one of the last zones
of good, healthy tyranny left. Ask any coach, ask any player.