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WIDEMAN Brief examples of family stories that I heard when I was three or five or six or seven? They weren’t so much set pieces—though there were of those.
My grandfather on my mother’s side told stories about his work and working with the other Italian paperhangers. People would try to out talk or over talk or loud talk one another. There isn’t the energy, there isn’t the call and response. Frank Yerby was around, but I didn’t even know Frank Yerby was African-American.
They are not set pieces, but folk art, folk performance. I read all the books that were in the Shadyside Boy’s Club library—books about submarines, dogs, grizzly bears. My mother read fat historical or romantic novels; my father liked to read Westerns, Zane Grey, that kind of stuff. INTERVIEWER Did you read any African American writers then? I liked stuff that had an adventurous edge to it, that took me to places I had no experience of.
John Edgar Wideman’s profound new book begins, as it must, with the American Civil War.
The first story in this collection, “JB & FD” imagines a kind of conversation between two of the most important figures of that conflict, the white anti-slavery crusader John Brown, hanged in December 1859 for treason, murder, and inciting slave insurrection, and the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who had himself been born enslaved.
INTERVIEWER Since there are competing oral versions, where do truth and imagination combine to create a full story? In Haiti, as I understand it, storytelling and history itself are not a business of necessarily elucidating facts or the truth of an incident, but finding the version that is most entertaining and therefore will get retold and live in immortality. There were a lot of books in my house, so that was another source. Movies and TV were much less a part of daily life—there was nothing to grab the imagination.
WIDEMAN Truth becomes a function of the choral nature of the exchanges. When I read that about Haitian folklore and history, it struck home—it’s exactly what I observed in my own family. Books were my Internet, my TV, my movies all rolled into one. The Homewood neighborhood in Pittsburgh where he spent his youth serves as the setting for a number of his books.That’s the difference between learning about Homewood through my writing and learning about Homewood from sociologists. Though slightly stooped at sixty, he still has a basketball player’s body—long arms, huge hands, legs that seem to rise nearly to his chest.Long admired for its lyricism, Wideman’s work carries with it the rhythms and cadences of black vernacular and music.The story begins as historical fiction but swiftly moves away from the conventional, its ten sections shifting between the voices not only of Brown and Douglass but also that of the author himself, looking out of a motel window on a snowy morning, trying to imagine himself into his characters’ lives.He considers John Brown as a boy, driving cattle through a blizzard: “I compare his predicament to mine, and I’m ashamed.” Empathy is the business of fiction, but the drive towards it has a peculiar urgency in Wideman’s work, which has often blurred the boundary between fiction and non-fiction, the personal and the imagined.A second conversation took place last fall at a crowded restaurant in Boston.In both meetings, Wideman spoke for hours, only occasionally raising his voice above a near whisper.One character was Aunt Fanny, who went to everybody’s funeral. Part of what would happen is that other people would add little bits and pieces to the story.She always carried an umbrella and she always was dressed up because she always was on the way to somebody’s funeral. She was going to go to the funeral and she would talk about the person and half the time make up the story because she didn’t know, really. Or they would it or somebody would say, Well that’s not the way it was. You would get competing versions, and it became like dueling banjos. Just to reproduce what was actually said wouldn’t do it at all.