Jeffrey Renard Allen is the author of two collections of poetry, Stellar Places and Harbors and Spirits, and three works of fiction, including the novel, Rails Under My Back and the story collection Holding Pattern. His latest novel, Song of the Shank, was included on The New York Times‘ list of 100 notable books of 2014. Allen is fiction director for the Norman Mailer Center’s Writers Colony in Provincetown, and he has served as the Program Director for Literature for the Jahazi Literature and Jazz Festival in Zanzibar, East Africa. He currently teaches at the New School in New York City.
To read an excerpt from Song of the Shank and an exercise on stretching present action, click here.
In this interview, Allen discusses the “thick narration” of Song of the Shank, writing characters who are different from the author, and the transforming power of art.
The most striking thing about the novel is its narration, which feels like stream of consciousness but isn’t, of course, because it’s written in third-person. But there is a definite narrative consciousness at work, one that sees into the characters’ heads with a kind of detached empathy but that also roams where it wants—following, for instance, a group of black Civil War soldiers through the dangerous early months after the war and back home to New York. How did you develop this narrative style?
Jeffrey Renard Allen
In Song of the Shank, I sought to establish a kind of thick narration where various voices seem to slip in and out of what is essentially a limited narration. So the direct thought of a character will pop up at a given moment in the story, along with asides, ideas, song lyrics, biblical verses and other texts, questions and doubts, alternatives, flashbacks and other kinds of voices and materials that may or may not derive from this character. A million embedded stories. At the same time, I wanted the book to feel loose in the way it moves backwards and forwards and sideways in time, although the book novel’s overall structure is carefully orchestrated.
You can chalk this up to denseness on my part, but I assumed at first that Eliza was black. I caught on, of course, but it took a few pages. Then, in the second section, when I got to Tabbs, who is black, I became aware of the difficulty of the characterization that you accomplish in the novel. It’s not a secret that some, perhaps many, male writers are notoriously bad at writing female characters. And, white writers often create black characters that tend to reflect the writer’s perception of the role filled by black people (The Help) more than the reality that black people actually inhabit. Was it more difficult to write Eliza than Tabbs? Or, to generalize a bit, why do you think it’s so difficult for writers of privilege to imagine the lives of characters who are not like them?
Jeffrey Renard Allen
It was not any more difficult for me to write Eliza, Perry Oliver, Seven or any of the white characters in the novel than it was for me to write Tabbs, Charity, Ruggles or any of the other black characters. And the reason why is simple: the imagination is a vehicle that carries us to that honest place where we can put ourselves into the bodies of other people. Of course, it requires a lot of hard work to create a convincing character, a person who had the entire emotional and intellectual range of felt life. That said, I might note that I did encounter one great difficulty in this novel in terms of characterization. At first I found it hard to hear my characters, to create dialogue that was both convincing and engaging for people who were alive in New York City in the 1860s.
Any good writer seeks to avoid generalization, which is both an aesthetic and moral dead-end. Instead, you must choose to be, to engage the world as it is. The long and short, I don’t think that it is difficult for writers of privilege to imagine the lives of characters who are not like them. Some writers knowingly or unknowingly, simply choose to embrace their privilege, which means that they must create cardboard stereotypes of people who they feel lack any agency and who are therefore in need of sympathetic white saviors.
One of most fascinating details in the novel is about the Freedmen arriving in the North, the way begin talking faster than they did while in the South: “Their once slow tongues up the pace too, stumbling into strange conjoinings of consonants and vowels, a metamorphosis that Tabbs has heard seen with his own skeptical ears and eyes.” Do you recall where you learned this detail? Or, if not, how sort of things were you reading? What did your research process look w like?
Jeffrey Renard Allen
I was intrigued by the whole process of the Freedmen’s acquisition of language, this matter of freedom and literacy, as some have called it. So I read quite a number of books on this topic, numerous personal testimonials from both former slaves and from the northerners who taught them, along with historical texts. Like with most things in this novel, I tried to find appropriate but striking metaphors that could help turn fact into image, scene, illustration. But language is also a central concern in this novel where language, where words both constrict and liberate, create and destroy. After all, “Blind Tom” begins as a linguistic construction borne out of Perry Oliver’s desire to exploit Tom for financial gain. At the same time, Tom has a kind of mastery of language that knows no bounds, that no one can contain.
The first paragraph of this novel is several pages long. The plot is minimal. The narration requires slow reading. In other words, this is a novel that asks for (and rewards, I believe) patience on the reader’s part. As a result, it’s a novel whose value will be measured in literary terms rather than sales. So, I’m curious how you see this novel fitting into Big A, Big L American Literature. If it should win some major award (and if you imagine such an event), what do the judges say about it?
Jeffrey Renard Allen
Of course, I have high hopes for my novel. The first thing I would want any reader to say about this novel is that “Jeff Allen gave everything he had when he wrote this book, every bit of himself, on every page, head and heart” because that is true. I really tried hard to get it right. Art might be the only form of perfection available to humans, and creating a work of art might be the only thing in life that we have full control over. So we might ask, How is great measured? Craft is certainly one thing. I also would like to think that certain works of art transform the artist. Indeed, Song of the Shank required a process of personal growth that I could not have expected when I first began writing the book more than a decade ago. I could not have written a better book.
First published in December 2014