A Talk With 'A Real Pro'

Ishmael Reed on Japan, Vanilla Ice and Yorubaphilia

Ishmael Reed was born in Chattanooga in 1938 and grew up in Buffalo, New York, where he dropped out of the university because he wasn't interested in being a "slave to somebody else's reading list." Eight years later he moved to Berkeley, where he has been teaching ever since, and in 1979 relocated to an Oakland neighborhood of the type his parents "spent about a third of their lives trying to escape." Reed has published poetry anthologies, plays and 10 novels, including Freelance Pallbearers, Mumbo Jumbo and Reckless Eyeballing. He spoke with The Crimson recently about his latest satire, Japanese by Spring, and his status as the "bad boy of American publishing."

Q: How has your audience changed during your career, or the manner in which the critics have received your writing?

A: I think once in a while you get some insightful criticism. I've gotten generous criticism from people like Henry Louis Gates and people form different countries. I've gotten very bitter criticism in the United States. They tried to stop me in the 60s and 70s. And then, what I call the "negro catchers" tried to stop me. Frederick Douglass talked about the bounty hunters who used to try to crack down on the slaves, and the Black ones were worse than the white ones. So I've had them. Some of it's been fun, because I always think of myself in the image of the fugitave slave. Now I'm doing opera--a libretto that's been commissioned by the San Francisco Opera, so they have to follow me in the thicket of Tosca and all these different operas. I'm writing in Japanese, so they have to learn that.

Q: How did you get interested in Japanese?

A: There are a lot of reasons. I wanted to pick up where Richard Wright left off. At the end of his career he was working on haiku. I always look at the past, and just like a contemporary musician would pull musicians from the past, I look to see what could be expanded and developed. So I picked up with Richard Wright's haiku by learning Japanese a few years ago. Also, a late friend of mine, Richard Brautigan, who was a novelist, was becoming acquainted with Japanese culture. A few years before he died he told me he was going to Tokyo, so I feel that I should continue that journey. Also, a Chinese-American scholar, a friend of mine, Frank, Chin, pointed out the parallels between Chinese fairy tales and African-American folklore, and also I'm finding some Japanese folklore and fairytales about strategies and tactics for everyday life. So those were the seeds for Japanese by Spring. Also, I needed to get a new readership.


I see my market as international. And I think, especially for African-American males, they're going to have to market their books well, because there is an attempt by some of the fanatical fascists in the literary feminist movement to annhiliate the Black male literary culture. They want to get rid of all the contemporaries and guys in the past. They go back digging up poor Richard Wright. They've got some Black male critics who are following this because there's money in going along with this. Myself, in order to survive, I publish my own magazine, books, novels.

Q: How has the book been received by the Academy so far?

A: The Northeastern media and intellectual establishment sets the trends for African-American culture. They're not set by Blacks because they don't have the power. They got upset with me when I walked out of the establishment and set up my own establishment. I set up institutions, I set up publishing. I founded PEN Oakland--Poets, Essayist and Novelists--an international organization because I got tired of these country club PENs in LA and New York. We are an activist PEN. We've led two media boycotts because we believe the diversity movement has to challenge the media now. There's a lot of poison in everyday life in America because the media cannot reform the way the Man's other institutions like baseball reformed. There's only four and a half percent minorities working on newspapers in this country. The media has a terrible record, so what you have is people spreading propoganda against African-Americans and Latinos all day, 24 hours a day.

Q: Which relates to the hip-hop trend of Blacks buying into MTV notions that they need to be more street, more down, less privileged to be authentically Black. How do we get away from that? Where do we find valid experiences to write about that are consistent with out lives?

A: Youth all over the world like hip-hop, rap. They're very interesting forms. There was an attempt on the part of some Black feminist critics and white male critics at the New York Times to turn the market of rap over to Vanilla Ice; it didn't work, obviously. There was a big thing about them wanting to do to rap what they're trying to do to Black male literary culture. But it's easier to do it to the literary culture because that's a weak culture without a strong support system. They were saying that rap is misogynist. There's alot of misogyny in rock-and-roll, but that doesn't get criticized. I think rap is perfect, with its mixing and sampling. I was doing mixing and sampling back in the 60s, Palbearers, Mumbo Jumbo, it's all mixing and sampling stuff. I used disparate streams of data.

Q: The new novel pokes fun at Eurocentricism within the university.

A: Well that's interesting, because [Japanese by Spring] makes the point that any number of cultures can play the centric game, but that doesn't lead to anything. It's amazing how you see all of these so-called academics putting down multicultural courses, saying they want to stick to the Classics. Dartmouth has some of the best Classics professors in the country, but there are still all these Greek plays that have not been translated. If these guys were so interested in Greek culture, they'd want to translate some of those plays instead of writing Op-Eds all the time, sitting on their lazy behinds writing the same Op-Ed over and over again to the Wall Street Journal. They say there's no work.

Even my friend Gates--beautiful literary criticism, but he sneaks over to Forbes and says there's a cultural poverty in the inner city. I live in a Black neighborhood, and who's lazy? The people who get up at 5 o'clock in the morning and go down looking for cans, or some guy in Washington who sits in a think-tank all day talking about the underclass? So I wish he'd stick with literary criticism and leave social policy.

Q: Gates gets criticism, at least from students at the university, for conservatism. How do you feel about academics who adhere to traditional, Western forms and notions of the academic?

A: Students should feel privileged working with Gates. I think he's insisting that they go beyond the pop-Afrocentric version of African culture that's fashionable nowadays. I think its very impressive to look at the ruins of Egypt, but its a dead civilization. I agree with him. I'm a Yorubaphile, and that's complicated, lifetime study--it's not like a song by Public Enemy. It's a language that's two thousand years old that's becoming one of the leading languages in Africa. Now there's a movement in Nigeria to restore Yoruba to the curriculum. So this is a language that's going to become a language of trade in Africa. It seems to me that if someone wants to really know the psychology and the world view of most of our ancestors who came from West Africa, one should delve into it. I think what [Gates is] insisting on is that devoting a curriculum to the investigation of African culture is hard work and takes many years and is more important than a Cleopatra t-shirt (I never understood why people accepted Cleopatra, you know, she was a collaborator).

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