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The following is a transcript of a phone call that occurred on January 21, 2022, later edited by Ishmael Reed in April. A huge thanks to Nicole Melchionda for assisting in the transcription.
Ishmael Reed: Hello?
George Salis: Hello, this is George from The Collidescope. Is this Mr. Reed?
IR: Oh, yeah. Hi! Yes, it is.
GS: How are you doing?
IR: I’m doing fine.
GS: Thanks so much for taking the time. It means a lot to me. I just wanted to start by asking how have you been handling the pandemic?
IR: Well, you know, we’ve just returned from New York where Carla Blank, my partner, director of my play “The Slave Who Loved Caviar”, and two of our actors got COVID and she was affected so she’s recovering and my test came out negative so that’s how we’re handling it.
GS: Well, that’s good. I wish them a speedy recovery.
IR: Thank you very much.
GS: And it does seem like everyone who hasn’t gotten it is starting to get it with that new variant. But along with the pandemic comes a lot of quarantine and it seems many artist types are getting more work done now than perhaps before the pandemic. Is that true for you?
IR: Yes, that’s been my experience.
GS: That’s wonderful. So I wanted to talk about Konch Magazine.
IR: We began publishing in 1990. We started out with a print issue which cost us $750 per issue. We then turned online in 1999.
GS: That’s pretty early to go digital I think.
IR: As a matter of fact, I had an online international student magazine called Vines, which included writings from the U.S. and the Middle East, but I couldn’t keep it up because of finances.
GS: What has it been like collaborating with your daughter, Tennessee Reed, who is herself an accomplished writer, for so many years?
IR: She really puts the magazine out. I assemble the material, the manuscripts, but she has studied how to publish. She got her Master of Fine Arts in poetry at Mills. After graduation, she enrolled in Berkley City College where she studied photoshopping and other techniques. So she’s able to publish books now.
GS: Oh, that’s wonderful.
[Tennessee Reed emailed the following reflection on Konch Magazine: “The most memorable issues for me were our special issues. One was our special plague issue which was a two-volume publication. The first volume was published on May 29, 2020, and the other was published on June 9, 2020. It took two months to get it organized. I started working on it in late March of 2020 when events got canceled or put on hold. We gathered sixty-four contributors from North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. They wrote essays, blogs, letters, poetry, and journals. For the cover image, I used a picture I took of Ishmael Reed with a figure wearing a plague mask when we were in Venice, Italy in 2016. For the other images, I used Google Maps and pinpointed where each of our contributors came from. I divided them by each continent. The other special issue was a tribute to the late poet Miguel Algarin. Longtime family friend and poet Nancy Mercado gathered all of the contributors for this issue. There were about sixty people as well. It was published on March 2, 2022. It was in a completely different format than our other issues. Instead of listing the table of contents by genre, I divided the issue by Group A, Group B, and Group C. There was also an introduction by Ishmael Reed and Nancy Mercado. Group A included people whose first names started with the letters A-E. Group B included letters F-M and Group C included letters P-Z. At the end was a statement by an artist who did a painting of Miguel Algarin. I included the painting. For the cover photo, I used a photo that Ishmael Reed took of Miguel Algarin sometime in the 1980s. I had found it when we were getting ready to ship photos to the archives.]
IR: So we’ve been publishing books since 1974.
GS: Yeah, that’s a long time for sure.
IR: The first book that we published in 1974 was recently picked up by New Directions.
GS: Which one was that?
IR: It’s called Francisco by Alison Mills. Which I published on a dare. (chuckles) And it received endorsements from Toni Morrison and William Demby at the time.
IR: It was like an avant-garde novel memoir about her dealings in Hollywood. She was the babysitter on Julia, the Diahann Carroll show on television, and she married a filmmaker named Francisco Newman and so the title of the book was Francisco and it’s about their, you know, being a couple. They got married and raised five children, all of whom are achievers. So she didn’t write another book until Maggie 3, which I published in 2007. She became an Evangelist and a filmmaker with Christian themes.
GS: Quite the life.
IR: We’ve published a number of titles since then. As a matter of fact, we’ve been publishing Black, Latinx, Asian American, and Native American writers. We published the second book [What Moon Drove Me To This]by Joy Harjo, the current Poet Laureate, in 1974, as well as a book [Random Possession] by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge in 1979. Last year, 2021, she received The Bollingen Prize and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. I published Fay Ng, Mona Simpson, Terry McMillan, John Keene, Kate Trueblood and Ken Chen, Danny Romero, Mitch Berman, and Frank Wilderson when they were students. Mona Simpson is now the publisher of The Paris Review. And Terry McMillan is a best-selling author. We’re the first ones to publish her. I was editorial director of Yardbird Reader, which began in 1974 and lasted for 5 issues. We published a number of writers who are now part of the canon.
GS: So you’ve been doing wonderful work to give voice to the voiceless for so very long.
IR: Now that Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf is headed for Broadway for the second time, none of the press has mentioned that Al Young and I, Black men, were the first to publish an excerpt from the drama in 1974. That’s because the media, publishing, theater, and film view promoting a gender war in minority communities as good for ratings. Just as they created division among feminists by choosing stars. The New York Times, MSNBC, and CNN are three of the culprits. There have been complaints about sexual harassment and assault at NBC since the 1980s. Carole Simpson said that she was sexually assaulted while working as a newscaster at ABC. But as long as powerful white men control the media, the rap of misogyny will be passed on to Black men. In fact, one of those ‘honorary Black feminists’, a white male accused Amiri Baraka and me of being opposed to Ntozake. This was printed in The Washington Post without the statement being fact-checked with me. Ntozake’s family objected and they had to apologize. Another problem is that those who have co-opted the feminist movement practice their misogyny on Black men because they depend upon powerful white patriarchs for advancement. When I was hit by Ms. Magazine, I discovered that white patriarchs, Lang Communications bankrolled them. The hit was ordered by Robin Morgan who saw Valerie Solanas as a hero. She shot Andy Warhol, an unarmed gay man.But going back to Konch Magazine, which was founded in 1990, recent issues included contributors from Europe, Asia, and the United States writing about the plague. The most current issue is dedicated to the late Miguel Algarin, founder of the Nuyorican movement. He produced all of my plays beginning in the 1990s. Rome Neal has been my director.
GS: That’s great.
IR: We have a very distinguished board of directors for the Before Columbus Foundation, which does the American Book Awards, which I founded in 1976, including Joy Harjo and the current third-term U.S. Poet Laureate, the former Poet Laureate of the United States, Juan Felipe Herrera, Marlon James, winner of the Booker Prize, and Pulitzer Prize winners, and others. Viet Thanh Nguyen, Carolyn Forche, Joy Harjo, Juan Felipe Herrera, Nancy Carnavale, Laila Lalami, Wajahat Ali, Shawn Wong, Genny Lim, Nancy Mercado, Margaret Porter Troupe, Karla Brundage, Marie Anderson, Justin Desmangles, Gundars Strads, Sean Hill, T.J. English, Victor Hernández Cruz, and Lawrence DiStasi. So we’re all writers so we’re very competitive with the National Book Awards and Pulitzer Prizes.
GS: Of course.
IR: I also founded PEN Oakland, which is called “The Blue Collar PEN.” We issue annual book awards named for the late poet Josephine Miles.
GS: Do you think the mainstream publishing world has gotten better with giving voices to the voiceless or those who were once whispers, as it were?
IR: Oh, I think they’ve gotten worse as a matter of fact. There’s a very brilliant novel called The Other Black Girl [by Zakiya Dalila Harris]. It came out last year and it got a lot of publicity but didn’t go anywhere because I don’t know why they thought that a young woman’s critique of the publishing world (chuckles) would gain traction, she writes about an editor who works at a large publishing company and they hire another Black person and they become rivals and she talks about the attitude of publishers toward Black fiction and nonfiction. And Elizabeth Nunez, a brilliant novelist, wrote Beyond the Limbo Silence and Bruised Hibiscus, and a number of excellent novels, in an interview with Poets & Writers, she said that, when it comes to Black literature, publishers are looking for “girlfriend books.”
GS: Hm, well that’s always the problem when you have to balance art with profits, right?
IR: Fortunately, I came up in a time when that wasn’t the case. I got Doubleday to publish two of my books, three actually, which were considered, you know, experimental. I got them to publish N. H. Pritchard’s The Matrix. So I think around the 70s they started looking at the bottom line, mid or late 70s.
GS: I’m wondering if you think it’s true that there has been or still is pressure for Black authors to write only about Black experience instead of being guided by their muse in any way they see fit.
IR: The white experience is considered the universal experience and so in the 40s and 50s Black writers were encouraged to include white characters because whites were seen as those who purchased books. After Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It On The Mountain , a very impressive work, I’m sure that the publishers told him that he had to include benign white characters in his novel Another Country , in order to reach a market. Since there was a lot of resentment against race-mixing at the time, interracial relationships end in suicide, insanity, and betrayal, like in Robert Anderson’s 1953 play, “Tea and Sympathy”, which ends in the suicide of a woman with gay inclinations. Heterosexual relationships are the pits in Another Country. The only positive relationship is between white gay men. In Giovanni’s Room, another privileged white man goes through the novel trying to make up his mind whether he is gay or straight, hurting a gay man and a heterosexual woman along the way. Of course, Baldwin was the token of that time due to his backing by modernists like those around the Partisan Review, which received money from the CIA. This explains why his hit on Wright was published there. Wright was considered a communist. I’m writing a long piece for a new anthology in which I refer to anthologies as acts of resistance so when the publicity departments and the publishers, reviewers, and academics impose tokens on us, which they’ve done for over 100 years, you know, back to Claude McKay in the 1920s, and before that, the abolitionists, Blacks have used the anthology form to reply and to, you know, broaden the number of Black writers who are available to the public, from The New Negro  by Alain Locke to Nancy Cunard’s anthology called Negro (1934), which was really a breakthrough because it included women. While The New Negro announced the Harlem Renaissance, Black Fire (1965) by Larry Neal and Amiri Baraka introduced “The New Breed.” Several major anthologies have been published since then, including The Norton Anthology [of African American Literature, 1996] which was put together by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Nellie Y. McKay, and Dr. Barbara Christian. It challenged the official canon and had a strong feminist bent. So anthologies not only when Black people produce them, but Native Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans challenge the white establishment’s license to decide which minority authors are available to readers.
GS: That’s beautiful that they can do that. And speaking about identity in general, whatever that may mean, is the identity of a writer more important than their words, or are their words more important, or do you think words can’t be separated from identity?
IR: Well, I always think about what T.S. Eliot said, that all ethnic writers might not be great, but all great writers are ethnic and he talks about Chekhov being Russian and, you know, Dumas being French and, you know, ethnicity will show up in your work whether you, you know, your particulars or your background will show up in your work even though you might say you’re writing universal novels, so, for example, Ralph Ellison who’s considered above ethnicity—if it were not for the Black features in his Invisible Man, it’d be different (chuckles). So I think the identity question arises from people like the columnists for the New York Times. You can look at my piece about the columnists for the New York Times in Alta, which is online, where I talk about how in reaction to the George Floyd murder many sections of the New York Times have gone diverse except for the main editorial page which is dominated by guys whose résumés are interchangeable and so when they talk about identity and wokeness and all that kind of stuff, I think what they mean is that they want us to assimilate or identify with them. (chuckles) And even though they might be ethnic or ex-ethnic, they feel that we should assimilate. Assimilation has been the entrance to success in the United States, but now that’s being challenged. If you look at the Capitol Rotunda, you find two paintings. One is of Pocahontas being assimilated, Christianized. Another is Christopher Columbus, which glorifies one of Europe’s invasions of North America. His mission was to Christianize pagans as well as loot the place. Some civilizations were in existence thousands of years before his arrival. Phillis Wheatley was successfully assimilated from “paganism” when the country of her birth, Sierra Leone, probably had a more sophisticated cosmology than the Christian one. Italians and Irish and the rest of us are pressured to swim culturally in an Anglo mainstream. Ronald Reagan passed as an Anglo because he felt that his Irish heritage would jeopardize his career. You know, like the Russians didn’t want Jewish people speaking or writing Yiddish. A Tinglit Big Man named Alfred Perkins, leader of the Frog Klan, told Carla and me that when he spoke his native language he was punished by his teachers. I mean it happens all over the world and so that’s what the Ngewo identity thing is about because now that they found a narrow eurocentric viewpoint is inadequate when assessing the complicated cultural racial history of the United States and that the eurocentric elite is falling behind, panic has set in. In my play about Jean-Michel Basquiat, the great painter, “The Slave Who Loved Caviar,” I looked at some of the criticisms of his paintings by critics Hilton Kramer and Vivien Raynor, and some of the others who were very harsh. They were not able to identify some of the cultures, some of his references. For example, Haitian mythology, Native American art, because they were looking at his art through a very narrow frame and I always say when I’m using the term “eurocentric,” I do it with a lowercase “e” because the intellectuals I’ve met in Europe see the United States as a land of many cultures, not as part of an Anglo Diaspora. I’ve been to Europe many times beginning at the age of 17 and they’re very much interested in Black literature over there. You know I’ve gone to conferences in Switzerland, France, and Germany where people from all over the world come to talk about Black literature. I was in China and at one university you had 76 scholars devoted to studying Black literature, even ethnic literature, and so I think this demonstrates a very narrow settler point of view in which Americans romanticize Europe. Bret Stephens, who’s always haranguing against ethnic studies and all this kind of stuff, I asked him if he’d ever taken a course in Ethnic Studies and of course he didn’t reply yet he and his colleagues criticize Q-Anon of disregarding facts. But I asked scholars in China, Italy, and Switzerland to reply to his tirade in the Alta article against Black ethnic studies and he looked very narrow. There are universities in Europe where American Ethnic Studies are taught that were founded before the European invasion of the Americas.
GS: Speaking of ignorance, it’s no secret that Americans are fairly ignorant of history in general, but there’s also the element of myth-making to replace that history.
GS: One recent example would be Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, which you’ve been vocal against.
IR: Right. I thought the issue would be settled when, I don’t know if you read that piece in the New York Times about Hamilton as a slave owner.
GS: I might have.
IR: Yeah, it was released by the Schuyler historic site in Albany, which is situated in the home of General Philip Schuyler. You know Philip Schuyler was Hamilton’s father-in-law and they released a statement showing receipts where Hamilton had sold slaves. I thought that would end the argument, that we won. You know, he was involved in the dirty slave businesses all his life, he owned slaves and sold slaves, which is ironic because you have Black women like Amanda Gorman who’s the inaugural poet praising “Hamilton.” She was selected by the president’s wife, Jill Biden, which shows you how tokens depend upon rich backers. For example, Phillis Wheatley’s patron was George Washington who sold slaves and hunted fugitive slaves, signed the Fugitive Slave Act and broke up Black families, but she wrote this poem honoring him, and Amanda Gorman and other Black intellectuals and womanists and feminists praise “Hamilton” even though he sold at least one Black woman, yet I’m the bad guy, right? So I thought the argument was settled but they’re still pushing this fraud. They made a couple of changes in Sally Hemings’ movement. However, they still portray Hamilton as an “ardent abolitionist,” which Lin-Manuel Miranda said he got from Ron Chernow who’s one of these historians who gets course adoptions and Pulitzer Prizes on the basis of glorifying these slave owners and exterminators of Native Americans, Hamilton, and Washington. As a matter of fact I found a letter where Hamilton congratulated a vigilante mob that went into a Native American settlement and massacred everybody, men, women, and children, whom Hamilton called “savages.” So I mean it’s just a fraud. Carla Blank, my partner, and I have just published a book called Bigotry on Broadway where we have Native Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, and others responding to how they’re depicted in Broadway shows.
GS: I was going to say, do you think creating these kinds of mythologies as a replacement for the real history is worse than forgetting history period, or is there no distinction there?
IR: No, I think the curriculum is designed to convert American students into thinking they’re Europeans. So when Bill Maher and all these guys who have millions of followers say they’re being canceled, you know this new slogan called “cancel culture,” I challenge them to just pick up six university or college catalogs at random and you’ll find that what Americans call “Western Civilization,” which I guess excludes the algebra, they’re still in charge, they have nothing to worry about. So I think that the curriculum at Harvard, Yale, and all these other places are established to create fake Europeans, so they’re very ignorant of American history. I found that big backlash against my play in the New York Times, and on Broadway World there are over 200 comments questioning my motives and showing complete ignorance of American history.
GS: Do you think creating satirical fiction or other kinds of satirical art is the best way to dispel these myths or is that just myths on top of myths?
IR: Well, my work has more in common with “Toasts” like “Shine Swam On” and “The Signifying Monkey” than with any kind of literary tradition. [Mona Lisa Saloy writes: “‘Toasts’ are performed narratives of often urban but always heroic events. For many Blacks, both performers and audience, hearing about or performing the winning ways of the central character becomes as creative a release as Black music. Toasting is today’s continuance of an oral tradition, but many contemporary toasters read their complicated and elaborate versions from a text. As with any oral tradition, many versions of the same toast exist. The toast is a dynamic performance within the Black community of recognizable and popular central characters.] My novel Reckless Eyeballing, which very few of my detractors read, is a Toast in novel form. The critics, whose view of the novel is based upon rumors and not their reading it, have cast the novel as anti-feminist or anti-Alice Walker when the feminist character Tremonisha Smarts is one of the few characters with integrity. I was boycotted at Baton Rouge by some white feminists when I visited there and the boycott collapsed because none of them had read my book. So after that experience, I decided that I would try to become a global novelist and I wrote a novel called Japanese by Spring, for which I studied Japanese and I’m bad at languages, but I did the best I could. But anyway, the people in Japan appreciated it and it got good reviews over there when I traveled in several Japanese cities, and the Chinese universities adopted it as a national project, which meant that the government paid for the research on the book. I visited universities in China twice at their invitation. On the second trip to Hunan, students at Hunan University of Science and Technology performed in my play, “Mother Hubbard,” which PBS in San Francisco (KQED) was supposed to do but backed out. They sent a scholar Dr. Yuging Lin over here for a year to talk to me about my work, and my books are being published in China. I studied Yoruba, which is the language that most Blacks spoke when they came here and I got a very good reception in Nigeria, and published two volumes of Nigerian writers. One called 25 New Nigerian Poets and the other called Short Stories by 16 Nigerian Women. So last year, after my views got rejected here by the mainstream press, I published in Haaretz in Israel, Libération in Paris, El País in Spain. I made contact with El País years ago and they asked me about the George Floyd stuff and all that. So El País, that’s always open to me. And so I’ll give you an example of something that recently happened. My publisher’s in Montreal, American publishers don’t publish my nonfiction anymore, so I’m published by Robin Philpot, a French Canadian in Montreal, and while visiting Montreal, where the books are published, I found out some information about John Wilkes Booth that I hadn’t heard before. John Wilkes Booth had visited Montreal and Robert showed me the sites where the conspirators, something called the Confederate Secret Service, met and John Wilkes Booth spent about, I don’t know, six, seven weeks in Toronto, so there was a big movement, a pro-Confederate movement in Canada. We had thought that Booth was the lone assassin of Lincoln, but of course there were about six or seven people who were hanged. So I learned a lot about the motives for the Confederacy and the plan to kidnap Lincoln but then they decided that they would kill him. So I wrote a piece saying that Booth’s philosophies are very right at home with today’s Republican party, that this is John Wilkes Booth’s party. He killed Lincoln because Lincoln floated the idea of giving Black soldiers who fought in the Civil War the franchise. Booth was in the audience when he made the speech. Booth turns to a person and says, “I’m going to kill him.” And then I read Booth’s reasons for killing Lincoln, the letter he wrote, and it sounds like the Republican platform. You know, it opposes Blacks voting, it supports states’ rights, you know the whole thing, and so I wrote a piece saying that John Wilkes Booth would be at home in today’s Republican party and as a matter of fact this is Wilkes’ party. New York Times rejected it, and another publication rejected it, the New Yorker rejected it and so I got a publisher in Hareetz in Israel. So I decided that the very few ways that we can express ourselves in this country are through novels, poetry, and theater because we’re shut out of the media, which has been siccing mobs on minorities for a few hundred years. Even when they have a Black person running it, they have a Black president of MSNBC, a Black president, yet all day on MSNBC you see white guys pushing their books. And that happens at book reviews, even those run by feminists, and the white guys are still the ones who get their books reviewed, not white authors who are seen as race traitors, or those who are experimental like Ron Sukenick and his circle, but white men who have a better chance at writing about racism and Black issues than we do.
GS: Yeah, that’s crazy.
IR: A young editor in New York invited me to submit two proposals. One for a book of poetry and one for my memoirs. I did better than that. I sent the books in. I didn’t hear from him, but previously he asked me to write a piece about Oakland [Blues City: A Walk in Oakland, 2003], which I did and he wanted to publish a novel of mine and the salespeople said that it would only receive awards and critical praise. It would only receive rewards and critical praise. So, instead, the same publisher published a book by Adam Mansbach, I think his name is, The Confessions of an Angry Black Boy or something like that [the actual title is Angry Black White Boy], white guy story, you know, that’s how it works, a practice that we call Elvising after Elvis Presley, the original white negro. So we have to do the best we can and you’ll notice that “The Slave Who Loved Caviar” got audiences where Broadway didn’t get audiences. We had good audiences, but it was ignored by the Times, ignored by the mainstream media, but it was picked up by the Black press and the Brown press media, which is one of the reasons it was successful.
GS: When you mentioned learning Japanese, I remembered a question I was asked recently because in my novel I’m working on, there’s one section that’s set in Japan and I was asked, “Who owns stories? Who has the right to set something in Japan or in Canada or any other country?” So my question is who owns stories? Is that something you ask yourself or are all stories up for grabs?
IR: It depends upon your, uh…
IR: Study, research. Maybe a third of the books in my library are by white authors but they’ve done their homework.
IR: I mean, Eric Foner or the late James Loewen, who wrote Lies My Teacher Told Me. These are very helpful authors. The ones I have a problem with are people like David Simon who did The Wire series. A disgrace. It’s sort of like the kind of stereotypes promoted in fascist Germany or fascist Italy, in how it promotes stereotypes against Black people, especially Black men. So it’s like these people who have a very superficial knowledge of Black culture who make all the money catering to an audience that shares their prejudices. I had a big problem with The Wire, which is being taught at universities, (chuckles) you know, at Harvard and The University of California at Berkeley. I wrote about my misgivings when I was contributing writer to Playboy. One of the Black scholars at Harvard said that The Wire said more about the Black urban condition than any sociological treatise, which is a conclusion not reached by three sociologists. In the book, The Long Shadow, three sociologists dispute the portrait of West Baltimore shown in The Wire. They write, “West Baltimore stands out in the popular imagination as the quintessential ‘inner city’—gritty, run-down, and marred by drugs and gang violence. Indeed, with the collapse of manufacturing jobs in the 1970s, the area experienced a rapid onset of poverty and high unemployment, with few public resources available to alleviate economic distress. But in stark contrast to the image of a perpetual ‘urban underclass’ depicted in television by shows like The Wire, sociologists Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Olson present a more nuanced portrait of Baltimore’s inner-city residents that employs important new research on the significance of early-life opportunities available to low-income populations.” Even one of the lead actors of The Wire said that the show portrays Blacks as not caring about their neighborhoods. So David Simon was very annoyed with me when he went on tour for his other Black pathology product called The Corner [A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, 1997]. He was on a radio show on KPFA station out here and I called and challenged him because he’s going on tour with a young Black kid from the ghetto and I accused him of manipulating or profiting or abusing this child and he went to the Jewish Weekly and said that I’d called in and I yelled at him and that he’s not happy with his success because of me and all that and so I challenged him to—even in the New York Times, which is like a Black pathology central, said that this idea that teenagers, Black teenagers selling drugs is an exhausted genre—so I said why don’t you do something new like a series about a suburban white family whose patriarch is pouring guns into the ghetto. (chuckles) That’s how it really works. All the guns that come into our neighborhood are coming from the suburbs. Well, I said I have to do it myself, so I did do it, and Audible is publishing my short story, “The Man Who Was Not Himself” [not yet available], about a suburban family whose patriarch is pouring guns into the ghetto. I had to do it myself.
GS: I’ll be sure to link to that. That’s wonderful.
IR: I’ve done three pieces for Audible. One is called “Malcolm and Me” about my meeting Malcolm X in 1962 and subsequent meetings with him in New York. And the second is “The Fool Who Thought Too Much” which is about conflict between court fools and the Enlightenment in 1700s Germany and the most recent one which they’re going to publish in November is “The Man Who Is Not Himself.”
GS: I wanted to switch gears a little bit. Your work has been influential on Thomas Pynchon and he even mentions you in Gravity’s Rainbow. Have you read Gravity’s Rainbow?
IR: Ah, yes.
GS: And what did you think?
IR: Well, I’m always looking for originality and I found that to be original because most novels read the same way.
IR: And so I’m always looking for writers who are, uh, you know…I think he’s actually more successful than other white experimental writers. I know a lot of them and they’re not found to be marketable.
GS: Yeah, he’s certainly an exception in that case.
GS: Have you been keeping up with his novels since then?
IR: No, I haven’t.
GS: I know he’s gotten a little bit into the realm of historical fiction with Mason & Dixon. I have yet to read that myself. But it almost seems like that would be up your alley.
IR: Well, I’ve had uh…my most recent novel is called The Terrible Fours. I’ve done a series called The Terribles which are hated, hated by American critics. (chuckles) The Terrible Twos, The Terrible Threes, and The Terrible Fours, so my most recent novel was published last year, published by Dalkey Archive. Robert Philpot of Baraka Books in Montreal published The Terrible Fives. The French knighted John O’Brien for publishing avant-garde French novelists.
GS: Rest in peace.
IR: Yeah, he promised me that he’d publish anything I wrote because I was no longer being published by the large publishers.
IR: In the United States, after a relentless hatchet job in the New York Times on The Terrible Threes where the author, a surrogate, said it didn’t make sense, I was dropped by the major publisher who published the book. Of course, it had a plot and storyline, but I guess that was his opinion. But, uh, so Dalkey Archive published my recent book of poetry called Why The Black Hole Sings The Blues and they published my daughter’s collected poetry, Califia Burning. Experts said she had a learning disability that was so severe she’d never read and write. She published her first book when she was 11. She read from her book Circus In The Sky at the American Booksellers Convention in Anaheim. One of the astronauts was in the audience. He came up and introduced himself (chuckles) and said he’d spent some time in the sky. And by the time she went to college, she published more books than her professors. She’s read from her work in Europe and Japan. On April 8, she read from her work at the 2022 Whitney Biennial.
GS: So I just wanted to take a moment to read the quote that’s in Gravity’s Rainbow where Pynchon writes, “…keep in mind where those Masonic Mysteries came from in the first place.” And then in parentheses: “(Check out Ishmael Reed. He knows more about it than you will ever find here.)” So my question is, Do you know more about Masonic Mysteries?
IR: That was something I was interested in years ago. He’s referring to my novel Mumbo Jumbo.
GS: Ah, Jes Grew.
IR: Yeah, which is over 50 years old this year and there’re going to be new editions. As a matter of fact, a new edition came out in Poland a couple weeks ago. But I mean Scribner’s is doing a new edition of Mumbo Jumbo so this is going to be the 50th anniversary of Mumbo Jumbo. All of my novels are in print beginning with the first ones published in 1967.
GS: Do you think there’s going to be a new lens through which people read Mumbo Jumbo considering the pandemic and then Jes Grew?
IR: Well, you know, I go back to the Puritans where they imagined that there was a Black person in the woods corrupting the citizens of the town. “Young Goodman Brown” I think is the best, one of the great short stories. It was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the greatest of American white male writers for my money. He had all of these pious people, pious during the day, but out in the woods boogying with the devil at night. But the devil is depicted as a Black man, there was no such figure, and then rock and roll and critical race theory. The way I would look at Mumbo Jumbo now is that it suggests there’s something about Black culture, an X factor, that causes mass hysteria.
GS: Do you mean that both in a good way and a bad way?
IR: In a good way and a bad way. I think rock and roll, which was first despised, has done a lot to soften the culture. And as a matter of fact, some people, some scholars, I guess, have said that because rock and roll penetrated the totalitarian countries, it kind of liberalized them. So in a good way and a bad way. But I think a lot of the stuff is imaginary threats like critical race theory. It doesn’t exist, just like the devil in Salem in the woods didn’t exist, and yet this Governor Youngkin guy won an election over something that was invisible so there’s something about Black culture that causes people to hallucinate and, you know, like get into a frenzy and massacre Blacks and I think that’s the point that I was making in Mumbo Jumbo. I wrote a new introduction where I included all of that.
GS: Oh, okay. I will have to link to that as well. I have a staple question that I like to ask people I interview and that is, what is a novel you’ve read and think deserves more readers?
IR: Let’s see, there’s a novel by Ron Sukenick, one of the experimental writers about the golden calf [Mosaic Man, 1999]. I can’t figure the title right now, but I think it deserves more readers. I think they like Philip Roth and pedestrian writers like him. But Ron Sukenick was an excellent writer and one of those experimental white writers who don’t get enough attention. I like also A Different Drummer by William Melvin Kelley which I have written a review about but it’s not published and there are a lot of excellent writers, excellent novelists, but the Anglo minds of reviewers is just preventing the public from having access to these writers. So, uh, Before Columbus, we were contemplating doing a new book review. Ron Sukenick and I founded the American Book Review in 1977 on a plane coming out of Paris with Ray Federman sitting in front of us and, uh, you know, the New York Times, New York Review of Books, one Anglophile, one Francophile, or whatever, and we said we’d do the American Book Review as a multicultural review. He needed $6,000 to start it. I didn’t have the money and what happened has become another franchise for the Beat generation and it has not lived up to the kind of magazine Ron and I envisioned. Incidentally, he wanted to call it The National Book Review. I said no, American. Once in a while the editors admit that I had something to do with the founding of The American Book Review, but I’m not listed as a co-founder. So we’re thinking about starting a new book review but the resurrected this has-been Joe Klein. This is the guy who held the Black community responsible, the entire Black culture responsible for the central park rape of the jogger and when it was discovered that these kids were innocent, he never apologized.
GS: Hm, typical.
IR: Nowadays, neo-cons pay surrogates to do Black dysfunction dirty work. The principal proxy is John McWhorter who recently said that Blacks should be gene-spliced or given a serum to make them less violent. Even Charles Murray wouldn’t go that far. His The Bell Curve about Black intellectual inferiority was financed by a foundation with Nazi ties. (Google the Pioneer Fund). Murray has now gone beyond Moynihan. He’s saying that the white community is engulfed in a web of pathologies. He has a point. White life expectancy has taken a hit because of opioid addiction. So that’s being brought back by the Times. They even gave McWhorter a regular column. Can you imagine the fate of a writer who said that another ethnic group should submit to “gene-splicing” to make them smart? Would they get a regular column in the Times? White women who have power at places like The Nation, The New Republic, and in publishing promote minority women, some of whom are misandrists, as a form of literary reparations. Maybe because they grew up in households where minority women were treated miserably. Notice how whites in Hollywood and Broadway fetishize the Black domestic servant. Kathryn Stockett’s The Help made over 38 million dollars with her story about a domestic servant. The domestic servant who was the model for the story sued her. A white man named Tate Taylor directed the adaption. It shows. A villain is a Black man named Leroy who abuses his wife. Except for a white policeman who slaps a domestic who has stolen a ring from her employer, the white men are benevolent. None of them belong to the Klan or the White Citizens Council. One is shown helping a Black woman with her groceries. The time for this movie is when Medgar Evers was shot. Hollywood and Broadway should donate some of the profits made from this figure to the National Domestic Workers Alliance. White women with power in the book industry are pushing misandrist fiction from authors in the United States and Africa, and they’re ignoring great women writers, such as Kristin Hunter Lattany, Paule Marshall, Jayne Cortez, Carlene HatcherPolite, Louise Meriwether, and Adrienne Kennedy.
GS: I have a question a little on the sillier side here because, as you know, Moby Dick opens up with “Call me Ishmael.” What would you do if you were the character Ishmael in Moby Dick?
IR: Well, I wrote a poem about that.
GS: Oh, really?
IR: Called “35” [“The Author Reflects on His 35th Birthday”].
GS: Oh, yeah, I did read that.
IR: And I said, “Let me laugh my head off / With Moby Dick as we reminisce / About them suckers who went / Down with the Pequod.”
GS: Would you kill that white whale?
IR: No. Besides, the Wampanoag had a white whale myth before the arrival of the Puritans. Ishmael is a survivor and that’s what I took from that. All these people with their different philosophies and all their different positions go down with the ship and Ishmael (chuckles) is a guy who survives the whole thing, which is sort of like my autobiography.
GS: Do you consider yourself a survivor?
IR: I’m 84 and I’ve seen tokens come and go. I’ve survived because of Black support and a multicultural alliance. All of my plays have been done at The Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York.
GS: That was actually going to be my next question. What advice would you give to your younger self?
IR: I think younger writers ought to learn different languages, or else, you know, they’re going to be confined, where you’re only confined to a few subjects. Or you’re restricted on what you can say. To have their careers determined by American critics, some of whom serve as literary patrollers. It was an American critic, Paul Devlin, said that I go too far, a rare admission of the kind of restrictions placed on Black writers.
GS: Yeah, well maybe you haven’t gone far enough. (laughs)
IR: Yeah, that’s what I told him. That’s my answer.
GS: My question was what advice would you give to your younger self, you would tell yourself to learn more languages?
IR: I would tell myself to leave New York sooner. (chuckles)
GS: Why exactly?
IR: Well, because, you know, I was saying if I had remained in New York, I would’ve been killed by an overdose of affection. And I was getting into bad habits because I’d come to New York with all of my stuff in a laundry bag and I had a lot of crummy jobs in order to support myself. But in 1967, maybe 5 years later, I was dining at French restaurants and had my name in columns and it was like being groomed to be the next token. And so I left New York for Los Angeles where I started working on my second novel [Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, 1969] in an apartment building. My partner was away, Carla Blank was away in the mountains teaching theater at a summer camp, so I was there alone and that was the best remedy for me, but I should’ve left New York as soon as I got that publisher’s contract.
GS: Do you think there’s an element of adversity that a writer needs or is that too romantic?
IR: I think so, I think you need space. There’s a lot of space out here [in Oakland, California]. I said after my last trip to New York, I said, uh, as well as having bicycle lanes, should have lanes for elderly people so they won’t get trampled. (chuckles) I mean it’s a very dense place, but you know, I think that’s why Ralph Ellison was only able to complete one novel because he’s spending most time downtown at the exclusive Century Club loading up on good food and drink. You get really, there are a lot of temptations there. I went to New York to get a novel published and as soon as I got that contract in 1966, I should’ve really left. Because after that you become a sitting duck for all the competitors.
GS: Well, I appreciate you and I have one more question if you’ll indulge me.
GS: A two-pronged question. Considering everything that’s happened in the news lately, let alone American history as a whole, what most causes you to lose hope?
IR: Well, I think as someone who looks at this stuff in a different way, I predict that the civil war that the media is trying to trump up because civil war will bring them ratings, will last one hour. After The Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and all these other groups have a shootout over who’s going to be the leader, they will go to Washington expecting thousands of people to show up to overthrow the government, right? Okay, you follow me?
IR: Then they’ll find that nobody shows up because they’re so stupid that they planned the revolution on the day of the Super Bowl.
GS: (laughs) That’s sort of what happened—
IR: That’s what happened.
IR: So that’s what’s going to happen.
GS: And that causes you to lose hope or gain hope?
IR: No, I wrote a play called “Life Among the Aryans”, which will be published by Powerhouse in May 2022, in which a million white men, white nationalists, go to Washington to overthrow the government. This play, performed in 2018, predicted the January 6, 2021 insurgency. And my novel Conjugating Hindi (2018) predicted the return of the Irish goddess Brigid. The Terrible Twos (1982) predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union, and predicted that it would begin in Latvia.
GS: The second prong of my question was what gives you hope?
IR: Oh, I don’t know about hope. I’m considering exile if Trump is re-elected.
GS: Oh, gosh.
IR: But my point is that Jews, Blacks, Native Americans, can survive a totalitarian government because they’ve had practice at it. And I think that immigrants and the first generation of immigrant parents will be disillusioned because they see the United States as a beacon of hope.
GS: Let’s hope that no such re-election happens, but if it does, what kind of exile did you have in mind? Would you move?
IR: I’d probably go to Montreal or Toronto or someplace, where I’d get on CBC, nobody censors me. (chuckles) You know? I get a lot of coverage in Canada.
GS: A “flight to Canada.”
IR: I wrote a novel called Flight to Canada, right! It’s ironic.
GS: Bring it full circle, huh?
IR: Right, absolutely.
GS: Okay, it’s been a wonderful pleasure speaking with you.
IR: Oh, thank you very much.
GS: Thank you so much, Mister Reed.
IR: Thank you.
GS: Have a good one.
IR: You too. Goodbye.
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1938, Ishmael Reed is a poet, playwright, essayist, and novelist. A prominent African-American literary figure, Reed is known for his satirical works challenging American political culture, and highlighting political and cultural oppression. Reed has been described as one of the most controversial writers. While his work has often sought to represent neglected African and African-American perspectives, his energy and advocacy have centered more broadly on neglected peoples and perspectives irrespective of their cultural origins. Perhaps his best-known work is Mumbo Jumbo, a sprawling and unorthodox novel set in 1920s New York.
George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, House of Zolo, Three Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.