Books In Conversation
DARRYL PINCKNEY with William Corwin
“In a city like that everyone is always moving through with weird or strange stories.”
Busted in New York and Other Essays
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019)
I first met Darryl Pinckney in 2014 when he was working on his novel Black Deutschland (Picador, 2016). He picked my brain on the subject of egomaniacal architects (I studied architecture and had a few notable examples as both mentors and employers). At the time I suspected it was for a character, but he only admitted that when we sat down for the interview for the Rail this past October. Pinckney is of course known for his reviewing and writing for the New York Review of Books starting in 1977, and his literary and political commentary in the essay collections Sold and Gone: African American Literature and US Society (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001), Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature (Basic Books, 2002), Blackballed: The Black Vote and U.S. Democracy (New York Review of Books, 2014). He has authored two novels which are loosely autobiographical: High Cotton (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992) and Black Deutschland (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016). Pinckney was the recipient of the Whiting Award in 1986, and won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for High Cotton in 1992, and the Vursell Award in 1994 from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
I was intrigued with his experiences in Berlin in the ’80s working on theatrical projects with Robert Wilson, Heiner Müller, and David Byrne, and that interest is what sparked my initial desire to discuss the melding of fact and fiction that takes place in Black Deutschland, but of course that interest expanded exponentially as we discussed his other projects. He has written for Granta, Harper’s, and The Threepenny Review, and his most recent book is Busted in New York and Other Essays (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019).
William Corwin (Rail): Your most recent novel, Black Deutschland is the story of Jed, an American who finds himself lost in an Isherwoodian reality of artists and high and low culture in Berlin; but Jed is unable to settle or fit in or succeed in any meaningful way. To unpack this scenario though, was it Isherwood that got you to Berlin in the first place?
Darryl Pinckney: Yes, yeah definitely. It was Goodbye to Berlin, Prater Violet, Christopher and his Kind, all those sorts of things. In the ’80s, Weimar Germany became very cool and people rediscovered the films and some of the art, but especially the films; Brecht, things like that. A lot of attitudes came from Brecht and that leather jacket/gallows feeling. And Berlin and the Lower East Side were twin cities, and people went a lot between the two: in film especially.
Rail: You were working with Bob [Wilson] doing productions?
Pinckney: The first thing I did for Bob was called The Forest (1988), and he just asked me out of the blue in a Japanese restaurant if I wanted to work on it. He drew a picture of it and he explained to me this long story about Gilgamesh. I had no idea why. And then at the end he explained that he was doing it with Heiner Müller doing the text, and perhaps someone should work with Heiner on the text. Well, the story was that a year before, maybe two, Bob had done a piece called Death, Destruction & Detroit 2 (1987) and Heiner was to do the text but he couldn’t write it, or didn’t write it. Finally at the last minute [he] sent a long letter to Bob explaining why he couldn’t, and Bob used it as the text and it was a big hit: he didn’t want to risk it twice. So I don’t know what I was supposed to do … bring Heiner ideas? This was nonsense, so I would chase Heiner from West to East Berlin and back, and whenever I caught up with him I would get these long, long monologues on German literature. It was really fascinating and rather wonderful. I was very fond of him, he was a great guy, and when I was homeless he gave me a place to live.
Rail: How’d you end up homeless?
Pinckney: Well you know after Bob’s production would leave town I would have nothing, so usually you would sort of move, stay where you didn’t pay, or something like that. I always offered to pay Heiner and he wouldn’t even start the conversation. He had an apartment he had access to in West Berlin and I stayed there with Volker Spengler, a Fassbinder actor who was a rather wonderful, insane presence, and a very beautiful actress named Margarita Broich, and they had a lot of young up-and-coming actors in their circle. Now, watching German films or German TV, I’ll see someone I remember in his or her youth playing an older character.
Rail: It wasn’t a commune, just sort of a place that Müller had? To put up actors?
Pinckney: No, it was his, or a Western publisher made sure it was available to him, and in it lived these two people who were close to him. And so he added me. It was very quiet, you know, someone strange could appear at any moment. And be there for, you don’t know why, and then disappear—so it was rather interesting.
We did what we could [with The Forest] and David Byrne was doing the music and I’m not sure how well everything was working but it was my first time on that side of Bob’s work and it was completely fascinating, completely fascinating. He used to take three hours to light three minutes: everything, you understood, was theater when you watched him put it together. So that was a really great experience, and it gave me a way to stay in Berlin.
Rail: Why do you position the protagonist, Jed, of Black Deutschland before the wall goes down?
Pinckney: Before the wall went down, what a kind of great time that was. I think he’s [Jed’s] one of these people who never moved on from the café. You could see them, they existed, people who had gone to Europe, especially Black artists, for this freer life and found it. But not all of them were successful in the way we think of an artist or writer being successful, but they were still there. In a city like that everyone is always moving through with weird or strange stories. So it’s got some camouflage for Jed’s aloneness.
Rail: And where’s Jed’s creative impulse going then?
Pinckney: It didn’t go anywhere. He’s an avid reader, and concert-goer, but he clearly never did anything. So the deeper story is this kind of dysfunction, in this generation that’s supposed to achieve—so it plays on the autobiographical tradition, but the Black autobiographical tradition doesn’t have many losers, the record or the existence of an autobiography is for someone who’s achieved something or the memoir is someone who’s lived through something interesting. And this is a guy who’s in an interesting place, but that’s all.
I mean I suppose I related to him in that he is governed by an unreality or a fantasy or a dream: but if you’re not then you never go anywhere. Who ever went someplace with the correct impression of it? That’s why you go, in order to see if what you thought was true. And so he keeps looking for a certain kind [of character] that he met in German literature who’s not exactly real. But Isherwood made him up, even if he’s based on someone real. So he’s chasing an image.
Rail: I mean there’s a parallel between Jed and Isherwood’s character/persona.
Pinckney: Well it’s clearly a work of memory, but it sort of takes place in front of our eyes. Isherwood has a much more active voice, but he is the narrator who’s the character who’s present in the scene. But it’s Sally Bowles who decides Christopher Isherwood is not boyfriend material, so he doesn’t have to embarrass his character by pretending in any way. It immediately makes his character the observer of everyone else. So in a way Jed’s luckless-ness is a bit like Isherwood’s secretiveness; that he’s forced to be an observer of everyone else having a wild old time and he’s left out. He never meets these white guys he [Jed] dreams about.
Rail: It’s not a tragedy, the book, by any means … do you think?
Pinckney: Yes. Unrealized lives.
Rail: I want to talk about Isherwood. Isherwood says “I am a camera.”
Pinckney: But of course he’s not really just a camera–
Rail: Yes: I was reading in his diaries, he says “Why invent—when life is so prodigious? Perhaps, I’ll never write another novel, or anything invented—except, of course, for money. Write, live what happens: Life is too sacred for invention—though we may lie about it sometimes to heighten it.” I thought that was an interesting coda to his “I am a camera,” which is very iconic—it’s fine, but it’s very simple. In terms of your writing, when you are writing about Berlin, you aren’t channeling Isherwood, but you are thinking about his presence there and his writing about it; what did you think about him? Your style is more Joycean; I mean it flows,
Pinckney: Well, other people would have more unkind verbs, but thanks …
Rail: I felt it captured the language of thought.
Pinckney: That’s supposed to be it. You’re in his head, but his head is not an omniscient place. Each section begins with some kind of historical riff, but who’s telling us this? Is it Jed, or is it Jed’s reading?
Isherwood is not putting down things as he found them or experiencing them, he’s recreating them on the page. Anytime you’re doing that you’re inventing. So he’s sort of posing and saying “I’m a naturalist,” but he’s not. It takes a lot of work to make something seem so lifelike. And also he does that kind of “show, not tell” and it works with the period he’s dealing with because the context almost explains everything all the time. You know, these people are dancing on the edge of the volcano. For Berlin, where everything had already happened, you set the city up: it had to be visual because I wanted people to see the city.
Rail: In visual art, it’s very easy to put two contradictory images on a canvas. Kiefer will attach the lead wing of an airplane onto a depiction of the Black Forest. It’s more difficult in text, and it’s challenging when, as you say, you don’t know where the source of the thought is, but I thought that was very daring. I’m curious about your process of sitting down and blocking out these thoughts. Did you let it flow? I feel your first book High Cotton also has some of that sort of contradictory thinking. In High Cotton there’s always a story. It’s a story within a story, within a story.
Pinckney: It’s examples of Blackness you meet along the way.
Rail: I feel like the figure of the grandfather in High Cotton, which you say is autobiographical fiction, I feel that almost the more important thing than the narrator’s story is the grandfather’s life.
Pinckney: Yes. I can’t help but distance from first-person narrators as much as I want to use the first person narrator. I don’t know why. I take a first-person narrator and the first thing he does is shut up. So it talks through other people, which is the whole point, really. And in Black literature, the first-person is always a guide to unfamiliar places or people. I didn’t want to write a third-person book about “the Black middle class” or “the Black bourgeoisie.” High Cotton is a story about education.
I never really responded to the culture of folklore that says we’re all sitting around telling stories. My Black family was nothing like that. But they’re still a Black family, they just didn’t sit around telling stories. In fact they didn’t tell you anything. The whole point was you were supposed to be kept from all that and it was gone through for your sake so you didn’t have to. But I actually did have these manuscripts of my grandfather, my great-uncle and an elderly cousin that I wanted to use. They didn’t leave oral stories, they left attempts at written work or written testimony. And so I was trying to use that as this way of meeting these older characters. Also, the elderly people in my childhood didn’t talk to kids, and you didn’t talk to them.
Pinckney: NO. My grandfather would never have a conversation with me about anything until I was much older and he was a real pain in the neck. But growing up, no, you were presented and that was it. So I had to kind of invent what they were like. I did have a great uncle who played with Noble Sissle, I can see him on Youtube now.
I would have spun it out so that it was more about them than the nameless sexless narrator, but he was being put through paces of Black identity.
And failing them all.
Rail: Failing them all?
Pinckney: You have to fail at these things.
Rail: Why do you have to fail?
Pinckney: Because there’s too much triumph already, and a lot of the Black story isn’t.
Rail: Well there’s a wonderful line where you say “Sometimes suffering—”
Pinckney: “Sometimes suffering has no meaning, it’s just suffering” That’s actually James [Fenton]. James said that.
Rail: I see that only in terms of my own personal history, as someone of Jewish descent: there’s so much of the Holocaust narrative that is about surviving, but that’s inaccurate, statistically, it was a very successful enterprise: no one really survived. So I think I see this in some Black narratives as well, is the desperate need to redeem: that this wasn’t all just suffering—
Rail: —there was something good that came out of it.
Pinckney: I don’t think that just because you don’t win it’s not an inspiration or, you don’t win, if you know what I mean. It just doesn’t all have to be boosterism. And what kind of success could these particular narrators have? Since they don’t, themselves, know what it is they want.
Rail: Your characters, as you just said, don’t really know what they want. Did you know what you wanted when you went to Berlin?
Pinckney: To write.
Rail: You wanted to write?
Pinckney: But what to write? Some things I couldn’t do, and some things I wasn’t particularly interested in trying to do. I’m not sure I could write—I don’t know what’s called a straight story these days—I don’t think I have a talent in that direction at all. It has to be something from the side in order for me to use it
Rail: I was interested in the idea of personal responsibility in Germany: the Germans have acknowledged their guilt and they’ve made reparations. Is there a certain feeling there that you’re amongst people who have done the right thing, and then looking at America where people very rarely take any personal or communal responsibility for slavery or racism?
Pinckney: Well, reparations certainly were a fringe issue in America in Jed’s time [set in the ’80s]. And Germany and what happened was considered so extraordinary that no one thought it weird that Germany was repaying Israel. In a sense it had a nasty echo of the Treaty of Versailles, they had to sort of pay up. But yes, a big part of the attraction of Germany is that they’ve been through all this and they know the price of it. And so you had a very civilized, rational, passionless kind of technocratic government that didn’t want to hear from extremists of any kind, and the population wasn’t interested in it either. Now that’s sort of gone with the politics of immigration, but Berlin was also always an open city.
As it turns out, a lot of Germans probably resented all of this as part of this elite culture or this liberal culture imposed on them for political or Cold War reasons that they didn’t take part in and sort of had nothing to do with: I never met anyone “ordinary” in Berlin. Whatever you mean by “ordinary.” I didn’t meet anyone with a nine-to-five job. It always was just whatever was cool, you know what I mean? So you live in an unreal place. But yes, because it was Germany and they’d been through it all, and what Berlin stood for politically as this subsidized city where it was very easy to pitch your tent. Because as this surrounded city, they were always wanting—official policy was to encourage people to come—it had always been. And there was no business, there were no politicians, so culture was the important presence of the West in this place behind the Iron Curtain.
Rail: Do you have another novel in you, do you think?
Pinckney: I’m writing a memoir, about Elizabeth Hardwick and Barbara Epstein and Susan Sontag and the New York Review. People forget what intellectuals they were: these were really rather brilliant people, and for whatever Susan was, she wasn’t a fraud. And so I’m trying to remember them related to the work they were doing, more so than to their personal business, which I didn’t know a lot of because I was so much younger than they were, and certain confidences will remain, and the record doesn’t need my off-duty remarks. They were so interesting, and … anyway, you don’t have to dig.
Rail: Do you think that people need to hear about them right now? Do you think they’re important at this moment?
Pinckney: I certainly miss them and what they would say about everything going on now. They wouldn’t have put up with any of this. They had these places where they could speak. People respected these places and that’s not there anymore. No one’s listening to MSNBC in the same way.
We definitely have some writers who people pay attention to what they’re saying.
Rail: Like who?
Pinckney: Ta-Nehisi Coates or Paul Krugman, Masha Gessen. Or maybe the prestige of the writer is passed to other artists: so people listen to Jay-Z and Beyoncé, the way they did to Sartre or de Beauvoir. I don’t think they are—but they’re something else—they don’t have to be, they can be something else. I mean Beyoncé’s videos speak to people: what is a young girl seeing when she sees incredibly beautiful Black women of different shades in these gowns in a song called “Brown Skinned Girl.” It’s a different message.
Rail: What is the message then?
Pinckney: I guess it gets old when you’re beautiful, but maybe certain Black women can’t be told it enough, given 500 years of not-being told this. Everyone is saying the right thing: what is it doing? I can’t tell. It’s not for a lack of voices or eloquence or anything like that. But there’s something not happening, there’s something missing.
Rail: Well you talk about it in Blackballed, the first essay in Blackballed—you open by talking about your father and the 2004 election and complaining about the election being stolen from John Kerry. It was funny reading it because you’re not disagreeing with your father, but now your father seems to be a lot more right than he was 16 years ago, which is disturbing.
Pinckney: I’m still hoping that it’s the white supremacist’s last gasp, and I guess last time around I was so sure, so I don’t want to leave myself open this time.
Rail: How would you leave yourself open?
Pinckney: To hoping.
Rail: Oh, to hoping. Oh God.
Pinckney: All that pretending about Weimar, Hello. Here’s the real thing: how do you feel? It’s not so romantic … not romantic at all.
Rail: “When we talk about Black writers, especially those from the past, we are, as if by definition speaking of writers either predisposed or forced to go against the grain.” That’s from the introduction to Out There. Why do you say that Black writers have to go against the grain?
Pinckney: Well again, it’s this thing of how do you describe an experience unfamiliar to everyone else? Early on, if you read books about fiction, Black fiction is criticized for crossing that line of not remaining fiction but introducing sociological elements that don’t coalesce with the rest. And this is sort of trying to bring in information about the world of these characters. I think throughout the 20th century, the struggle of Black literature is to tell the truth, to say what it is really like, to speak in their own voices. John Edgar Wideman has a great phrase, to “jump the frame” of the literature itself. And often that took the form of the struggle for realism. Then suddenly, I would say in the ’70s, [there was] the influence of magic realism. People didn’t want to write the kind of fiction that appealed, or explained, or was about a problem. The emotional shift in the reasons to produce this literature was kind of led by people like … well, Toni Morrison, Henry Dumas, Gayl Jones, and it was part of a wider avant-garde at that time, in women’s literature, and people like Pynchon. This kind of experimentalism in American literature in the ’70s crossed many categories. And Black literature was one of them. So it didn’t have to be trapped in realism: not that realism was a trap when you consider how long people battled to tell the truth, or present a true picture.
There was an African-American writer named Charles Chesnutt who wrote in the late 19th, early 20th century. He had blonde hair and blue eyes, but he didn’t want to pass for white because he wanted to be famous and if you were passing you couldn’t be famous: someone would turn up and [expose you]. Early on he submitted stories to the Atlantic Monthly that the editors liked but it made them uncomfortable and they didn’t really know why, they couldn’t say why. When you look back you can see that what they minded, or what they were feeling was the absence of racist imagery. Chesnutt just didn’t have it in there. He didn’t have anything else to replace it, but just by removing, say, an old Black guy in big pants, and a sort of funny mouth and bug eyes, the Black characters had become something else right away: despite what you take away. And the editors couldn’t figure out what it was. It wasn’t what he said, it was what wasn’t there. And this was part of this coming of realism; disposing of these stereotypes and other conventions by not using them. And their power was expressed when people noticed that something wasn’t there, meaning the Black character wasn’t judged by the language. I forget how that ties in to what I was saying.
Rail: Having to go against the grain.
Pinckney: No, it’s sort of usage, usage … so society, yeah. Since publishing is a business that functions by precedent, and literature isn’t. You get something that’s a bestseller, so the publisher wants to use the formula over and over again until it’s exhausting. But someone writing isn’t thinking that way, and if they are, it’s not likely to work. Also, because Black literature was always treated as outside, we treated it as more of an avant-garde than it really was. At least as far as someone like Langston Hughes or Zora Neale Hurston were concerned. They actually wanted to be commercial hits—a lot of their work is driven by the desire to have a hit. And they weren’t working with what they could do. I don’t know how to analyze their failures—is it the time? Is it what they were doing? Was what they were doing not good enough? It’s hard to say. Mostly it was probably the times, and it drove Zora Neale Hurston crazy to see people succeed with what she thought of as her material. I don’t think that’s right—everyone uses everything, you have to. But it’s still what her life as a writer was like. So you used to always be trying to find your way in. Now I don’t think a Black writer has a hard time getting a hearing, or at least getting published. Getting readers is another story.
Rail: You said the ideal audience is in the future, which you just said, I think most artists probably believe that, but what do you mean by that?
Pinckney: That you hope that something will last and that people will understand what you’re trying to say: the dust may have cleared. They’ll read it differently because their experience will be different. But I hope that, sometimes, a later time understands more, can see more than you could.
Rail: Do you think that applies in particular to our lives right now?
Pinckney: Yes. All we can do is be real. What it means we may not get to know. W. E. B. Du Bois said “The history of the world is a great novel, [or a great story] even if you don’t get to know the end.”
Special Thank you to Robin Vousden for making this possible.