Sunday, November 20, 2011



E. Ethelbert Miller today offers us this quotation: "Come, then comrades; it would be as well to decide at once to change our ways. We must shake off the heavy darkness in which we were plunged, and leave it behind. The new day which is already at hand must find us firm, prudent, and resolute. We must leave our dreams and abandon our old beliefs and friendships from the time before life began. Let us waste no time in sterile litanies and nauseating mimicry. Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe. For centuries they have stifled almost the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called spiritual experience. Look at them today swaying between atomic and spiritual disintegration. And yet it may be said that Europe has been successful in as much as everything that she has attempted has succeeded." Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth. 

As we draw near to the end of this E-Channel project, Ethelbert Miller has decided to add a stimulating new wrinkle to the questions he asks me. For five days, he plans to present me with a famous quote by a black intellectual and ask for my response. The first (above) is from Frantz Fanon, and I'm glad he selected this one. I haven't read Wretched of the Earth since the early 1970s, but I was at that time strongly influenced by this work, Black Skin, White Masks, and the phenomenological flavor of Fanon's investigations into the experience of black embodiment. Before I examine Fanon's quote, I'd like to start with a statement made by poet Jaswinder Bolina in his superb essay, "Writing Like a White Guy," which can be read in its entirety at this link: 

        "If the racial Other aspires to equal footing on the socioeconomic playing field," Bolina writes, "he is tasked with forcing his way out of the categorical cul-de-sac that his name and appearance otherwise squeeze him into. We call the process by which he does this 'assimilation.' Though the Latin root here---shared with the word "similar"---implies that the process is one of becoming absorbed or incorporated, it is a process that relies first on the negation of one identity in order to adopt another. In this sense, assimilation is a destructive rather than constructive process. It isn't a come-as-you-are proposition, a simple matter of being integrated into the American milieu because there exists a standing invitation to do so. Rather, assimilation first requires refuting assumptions the culture makes about the immigrant based on race, and in this sense assimilation requires the erasure of one's preexisting cultural identity even though that identity wasn't contingent upon race in the first place."

I've written often that America is inconceivable without the contributions made by black Americans since the year 1619. We can take that issue off the table. But because America has for so long been a Eurocentric nation, and because the creation of so many of its cultural forms have been dominated by whites who ruthlessly exploited about seventy years of segregation to rig the game in their favor after the Civil War, another important question arises: How shall people of color live here? Assimilation was never an acceptable---or even intelligent---goal. I've seen research that says whites make up 17% of the people on this planet, with the remaining 83% being people of color. (Other research I've seen places the white population at 30%, but even with that larger percentage, people of color, globally, are far greater in number than whites.) Why would anyone wish to assimilate with only 17% or 30% of the world's population? Or as Malcolm X once put it, "Why do you want to integrate into a burning building?" Or, for that matter, become an "honorary white man"?

During the course of my life, I think I've shocked (and maybe even saddened) some of my white friends who simply assumed that because integration brought them together for the first time with black people in school and on jobs, that black Americans either (1) Wished to be like them, or (2) Wanted to do the various things white privilege allowed them to do. (That mistaken notion may well have been fueled by anti-segregation arguments used during the early Civil Rights Movement by some of our leaders who said blacks languished or suffered when separated from whites. In other words, they made an appeal to pity or sympathy, the logical fallacy known as Argumentum ad Misericordiam.) When I explained that, no, that wasn't the reason at all, their expression became sober and perhaps even a little bit hurt. The reason, to put it bluntly, was that I was there studying and working beside them only because I desired to support my family and build upon the positive and inspiring work of my black predecessors. (This is partly why in an earlier post I said that, looking back, I see the last sixty-three years of my life as being much like a tour of duty in a foreign land.) As individuals, we could be friends and colleagues, yes (that was my father's counsel to me when I was young), but that wasn't the motivation that carried me from my father's home to white schools and the workplace. No, I didn't want to culturally imitate their life-styles or join them in some of the dysteleological behaviors they seemed to enjoy. (Many were liberal or progressive, as we say today, and felt the need to be rebels because they had painful "issues" with their own parents, which I didn't have with mine, whom I simply wanted to honor, because I saw the dignified way they lived in the Jim Crow world as noble.) I didn't want to marry their sisters (even though I obviously have no problem with inter-racial marriage). Get drunk or do drugs. I didn't want to play or party. I didn't have any interest in conspicuous consumption. Or being sexually promiscuous in this culture, which is drenched every day through the media with the propaganda of sex and violence. Or the adolescent, infantilized aspects of American pop culture. Richard Wright addressed what I'm saying here in American Hunger when working as a dishwasher, peering up from the copy the American Mercury he hides behind a newspaper, he observed white waitresses whose "lust for trash" was paralleled by similar desires for alcohol, cheap thrills and consumer goods in the black community. He wrote, "It seemed to me that for the Negro to try to save himself, he would have to forget himself and try to save a confused, materialistic nation from its own drift to self-destruction."

 My only reason for living in America---staying in America---was to acquire as many useful skills as possible, contribute as a citizen to the professional fields I belonged to (and assist my colleagues and students of all backgrounds), and increase the happiness and well-being of my family. (As a friend of mine from Ghana said in the late 1960s, what he loved about America was that whatever you wanted to learn, there was someone here who could teach it to you.) In a word, my feeling was that I didn't need certain European and white American cultural formations because I had my own unique culture and history in America which, sadly, most of my white friends and associates were woefully uninformed about (that, of course, was damage or lack of knowledge caused by the era of segregation.) Something I felt I certainly didn't need to be involved with was the refuse or dross and culturally damaging ideas of European and American societies. To know Western intellectual history was necessary, yes, and even to know it better than the majority of my white kinsmen, because the West is where I live and work. But, as the old saying goes, I felt it wisest to be "in it but not of it." Early in Middle Passage, Rutherford Calhoun, a freeman, expresses this sense of himself when he speaks of how revolted he is by the thought of becoming a "gentleman of color," which he sees as being assimilation turning him into "the image of an Englishman, round of belly, balding, who'd been lightly brushed with brown watercolor or cinnamon." Yet, to a certain degree, when in Rome one must minimally do as Romans do. When in a foreign land (culturally) courtesy demands that one acquiesce to a degree to the customs, dress and etiquette of the host country. I would do that if living for extended periods in either the West or the East.

 So what is my point? It is simply this: While black Americans are co-creators with whites of the nation we call America, and have been intimately involved (with good and bad results) with whites during the last 300 years, we---as black people---are wisest, in my humble opinion, when we recognize our situation to be very much like that of immigrants of color who come from countries that have in recent decades thrown off the yoke of colonialism, as we did slavery and segregation. Our survival strategies in the white West are quite similar to theirs. Indeed, I would say they must be identical to theirs. And the most important of these strategies, I would add, involves the principle of Take the best and leave the rest. And how shall we interpret "the best"? Malcolm X offered this test: Ask yourself, "Is this good for black people?" 

Fanon lauds Europe when he says, "And yet it may be said that Europe has been successful in as much as everything that she has attempted has succeeded." He was right to make this remark at the time he made it. But we should define more clearly what Europe has been most successful at. After the Dark and Middle Ages, after the Enlightenment, Europeans made rapid, then exponential progress---relative to older nations and cultures---in science and technology (and the achievements of some older cultures, especially in the Middle East, made this possible), thereby giving Europeans the edge in manipulating the material world (Nature), and producing (again in terms of material life, though not always in terms of the life of the spirit) unprecedented levels of wealth and prosperity. Historically, science and technology as we know them today are products developed since the 16th century to a degree of refinement within Western cultures. But the beauty of science and technology is that they are not inextricably bound to Western cultures and religions. India has its version of M.I.T. That nation and China now surpass America in the production of engineers; America's IT industry increasingly relies on scientists, technicians, and engineers from non-Western countries where STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math) are emphasized. (I recently had the occasion of visiting a California school and seeing a meeting of its Honors Math Club---all the students were Asians, with about three being Caucasians in a group that filled a small auditorium.) Even as I write these words the Chinese are making progress toward developing their own space station. China, India, Pakistan (and Iran, according to recent reports) have developed nuclear technology within their own cultural matrixes. The material standards of living are rising in those nations. As we progress deeper into the 21st century, as President Obama works to link America's future to the no longer sleeping giants of Asia, we can say, I believe, that what we call modernity is no longer the monopoly of the white West. But for people of color world-wide this must be a qualified and critical modernity, one in which cultural or racial assimilation is no longer a conversation we need to have; one where we examine the cultural and scientific successes of the white Western world for the last 2,500 years, but also its errors and failures, and resolve not to repeat them. A century in which we, as people of color, take the best and leave the rest.

            That is my response to the quotation by Fanon.

Friday, November 18, 2011


"Humor is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humor; for a subject which will not bear raillery is suspicious, and a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit."  Aristotle
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Why does a political cartoon ignite violence in many parts of the world?  Is it the power of image over text or a combination of image and text?  How does a good cartoon work (on the mind)?  Are there issues of class at work when people become offended by a cartoon? Are political cartoons only for the educated?"

             Think about this cartoon that I saw many years ago:

             We see a young, black mother enter her son's bedroom. She's surprised because he's wet his bed sheets. The mother is Alberta King. The boy is little Martin Luther King Jr. By way of sheepishly explaining himself, he says, "I had a dream."

Did that cartoon idea offend you? If so, you should ask yourself why. Do you perhaps feel that there is something so "sacred" about King that a drawing about him bed-wetting as a little boy is offensive and in poor taste? Do you believe he never wet his bed sheets as a child? Personally, when I saw that cartoon, I laughed out loud and admired the cartoonist for his imagination. He took me by surprise with it. And I didn't feel in any way that the grandeur of Dr. King was diminished.

 I would answer Ethelbert's question by saying that biting political cartoons are not so much for the educated as they are for people who are open-minded. People who are not afraid when their sacred cows are presented in a way that provokes laughter (which, by the way, is a healing experience, a liberating one). And we all have a sacred cow or two, don't we? Some idea we are fiercely attached to? One with which our sense of identity and self-worth is tied up to?

Early in my career as a cartoonist, I was criticized by some people for drawings about black people that were as free-wheeling and innocent as the one I described above, for in my late teens and early twenties I was irreverent, like most college students. (When I became a college professor, I had to wait until I left campus for that side of myself to show, but it still revealed itself in my fiction.) One drawing in Black Humor showed Africans crammed together in the hold of a slave ship, looking predictably miserable; then one daffy-looking captive suddenly says, "Say, let's have a sing-a-long." That drawing still ruffles the feathers of the sanctimonious, the tight-sphinctered, the political prudes, the people who feel there is only one way---one profile or meaning---for emotionally reacting to something. 

Those people, in my view, were usually socially timid, even cowardly, and mired in what we later came to call political correctness (which is a twin for being religiously pious and "correct"), so this is not a question about "class." (And they certainly didn't mind when the ox was being gored for a political belief held by those they disagreed with.) They were also rather hypocritical, because in private they would laugh at and enjoy such work (as we did the comedy records of Redd Foxx in the '60s, or those of Richard Pryor in the '70s), but disavow in public that they approved of or enjoyed it. In other words, their reaction to the drawing was, sadly, all about themselves. Their self-righteous selves. Their image of themselves.

Humor, then, is one of the antidotes for self-righteousness and pomposity. For taking oneself too seriously. But that, of course, makes people nervous. To have one's ideas or beliefs laughed at stings most people deeply. But that only means they are fundamentally insecure in their beliefs and ideas, their ideologies and cherished views of the world. Once a cartoonist or humorist recognizes that (think of Mark Twain or Will Rogers or George Carlin or Moms Mabley or Lenny Bruce), the temptation to burst their bubble of rigid belief in a drawing is just too tempting. 

 Why are cartoons, drawings and all visual art so powerful? The answer is simple: we think in terms of pictures, images. Visual art affects us on the most primal level of perceptual experience. Why do you think more people watch television and motion pictures and on-line videos than read books? Heck, even if one is illiterate, they can understand a picture.

 I'm confident that no matter how calcified people become in their beliefs there will always be someone---a cartoonist, a comedian---somewhere in the room who will hold up those beliefs for a sardonic examination, saying what others are thinking but are too timid to say, and set everyone to laughing until their sides hurt and tears of mirth come streaming from their eyes. In their own small way, our cartoonists are liberators. They keep us honest. And we should thank them for doing that.


"Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together." Vincent Van Gogh.

"Trifles make perfection, but perfection is no trifle." Michaelangelo. 

E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "In your essay "A Boot Camp for Creative Writing" you mention that writing well is the same as thinking well. What does thinking well mean? How do you teach this? Are their certain steps a person must take in order to think well?"

The statement I often repeat that, "Writing well is the same thing as thinking well," can be linked to that old chestnut, "Ninety percent of good writing is rewriting." This is not to say that "first thought" on a subject is not useful (or "First thought is best thought," as Allan Ginsberg put it"). My writer's notebooks are filled with "first thought" lines that came to me unbidden at various times during the day, which I jotted down because they were perfect or nearly perfect in the form they originally took. 

But the best writing on the level of the sentence (as well as larger structures such as plot and character detail) is usually twentieth or one-hundredth thought. Personally, I don't feel we should burden people by showing them our first drafts; rather, what we share should be at least a third draft. With first draft, every page is like a prayer---in that draft we put something on paper just to determine whether or not it is worth our continuing to work on it (or at least continue in that particular way). As Sartre one said, "Every sentence is a risk." Why? Because the Devil is always in the details. People are generally vague and avoid being specific or precise because they hope to escape scrutiny. They think that if they are vague in details, like Herman Cain, no one will be able to pin them down. Art is just the opposite of that: it hungers for and seeks specificity and haecceity (the "thisness" of things"). One must develop both the meaning and the music of each and every line. 

Obviously, this meticulous attention, this meditation on detail, requires time. And great patience. (And, yes, these E-Channel posts, written so quickly, accelerate and truncate this process I'm describing of taking the time to think well and thoroughly. In my best work, I strive for intellectual and imagistic density.) The creative process requires time to consider dozens of alternatives for a single word. Time to experiment with the form of a sentence, shaping it as one might a thing of plastic or clay, molding it until the music between it and the sentences that come before and after it are as perfect as possible in cadence. (Ideally, you should revise a sentence until it surprises you, and is no longer recognizable as your first draft version of it, for in later drafts it will be clearer, sharper, richer.) If memory serves me, Hemingway revised the last page of For Whom the Bell Tolls 39 times (and for reasons know best only by himself, he wrote standing up). We come to understand that, unlike automatic writing or certain kinds of Zen art produced in a single stroke without one's brush or pen leaving paper, creating a work of art is generally a process of thinking and rethinking everything that appears in one's first draft.

One of my former editors at the New York Times Book Review put it this way: a masterpiece is a story that does not need to be rewritten. When we consider such a work, we find it difficulty to think of it being otherwise than it is, in all its parts and pieces, because they reinforce each other so well, creating a work that feels organic, whole. (To pull out a single passage would be like ripping an arm off a human body.)The reason for that is because the writer (or artist) is way ahead of the reader insofar as he or she has imaginatively and intellectually considered every possible variation on character and event, every possible word choice, and why the words finally selected are logically and necessarily the best words at this moment in the story.

 In one of my writer's notebooks, I reminded myself that, "The beauty and basic soundness of craftsmanship (techne) is a form of truth. Its very well-made quality is truth. Shoddiness, slipshod work of inferior quality---reflecting errors, haste, and indifference---is the absence of truth, the denial of truth."

"Thinking well" when writing also means that the writer considers the impact, consequence or possible reaction readers might have for each and every word in his (or her) work, for every speech and action in a story. You must relentlessly ask questions about every decision you make and how it will be received or experienced. Is a statement accurate? Have you checked and double-checked every fact? Is a sentence, image or word in poor taste? None of this means that you censor yourself. (There is no way that a writer can be all things to all people or satisfy everyone. As Milan Kundera once said, only kitsch is art that has a "desire to please at any cost.") But it does mean that you take into account the possibility that you might unintentionally offend or hurt a reader by one of your decisions---and, if one is a moral writer, you choose not to do that. And it also means that after thinking about a decision hundreds of times, you decide to stick by it (if you love what's on the paper and feel it is right and proper) even if it ruffles a few feathers.

 In every sense, then, writing is thinking. Thinking with certain tools specific to the storytelling process, but thinking nevertheless. And the rules of rigorous thinking (like logic) apply to storytelling as much as they do to expository writing or any form of speech or expression.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "How important is your character Baleka? How symbolic is this 8 year old?"

I received this question from Ethelbert on September 2nd. For two months it has sat unanswered on my computer. Symbolic? My mind kept nibbling at the question, "Is this little African girl representative of something more than a little African girl? Is she some abstract idea?" Then a few days ago when writing the post entitled "Our Fathers, Ourselves" (November 7), I looked at the photograph of myself and my daughter Elizabeth. (That was her name from birth, which was my mother's middle name; at age 21 she legally changed it to "Elisheba" since she no longer felt like an "Elizabeth," though her new name in Hebrew means Elizabeth. Go figure. She's a conceptual artist, owner and curator of Seattle's Faire Gallery Cafe on Capitol Hill so she decided to get as creative with her name as her canvasses.) And as I looked at that photo of she and I holding hands as we walked on a very icy street with snow all around us, my memory was jogged and I realized, This is Baleka.

 Middle Passage was written between 1983 and 1989. When I completed the novel my daughter was eight-years-old. (I remember her telling me in 1990 that even though she didn't know what a National Book Award was, she prayed on the night of the ceremony---which was exactly 21-years ago yesterday---that I would win in the fiction category.) So for the six years during its composition, I had a little girl of African descent in my life, day and night, dominating my thoughts, because a father's relationship to a daughter is---well, special. As my former student, writer David Guterson put it so well, "Having a daughter is like falling in love for a second time." Daughters powerfully bring out in fathers their most primal protective instincts. They see their daughters as perfect, beautiful, angelic, and incapable of doing wrong. A father's love for his daughter may well be the perfect example of Platonic love.

 And all that is what Rutherford Calhoun feels for Baleka when her mother is swept out to sea during a storm and he becomes her guardian on the slave ship, The Republic. I've often said, "When you have a child, you have to stop being a child yourself." For most men, fatherhood brings about the abrupt "letting go" of childish things because suddenly another life---vulnerable, helpless in a hostile world---requires your moment by moment nurturing and attention to survive. You cannot eat until your child has eaten first. If she is sick, you feel sick. And in a world of predators and corrupting influences, you screen ruthlessly everyone and everything that draws near to her, determined that you will not allow anything to cause her harm. That is the change brought about by Baleka's presence in Rutherford's life.

 And here's a bit of esoterica for you. The Sanskrit word bālikā (बालिका) means "girl" or "young girl." But I didn't know that, of course, until after 1998 when I began to study that beautiful language.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


 "I would stare out to sea, envying the sailors riding out on merchantmen on the gift of good weather, wondering if there was some far-flung port, a foreign country or island far away at the earth's rim where a freeman could escape the vanities cityfolk called self-interest, the mediocrity they called achievement, the blatant selfishness they called individual freedom---all the bilge that made each day landside a kind of living death." From Middle Passage.

E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "From the first sentence of MIDDLE PASSAGE, your novel seems to embrace the theme of Flight. This theme appears quite often in African American literature. How is your novel different from others that have explored this topic? In 2011, where can a black man run to? What might he be escaping from?"

Yes, and yes again: the slave narrative, one of America's most indigenous literary forms, is all about flight. The flight or escape from slavery: Frederick Douglass's daring tale of escape, or that of Henry "Box" Brown who mailed himself to freedom. I think if we poke at this idea a little bit, slavery can be seen as a metaphor for anything that constricts or confines human imagination and the universal desire to be free. 

The cage one might wish to escape from could be an arranged marriage (for a man or a woman), as is the case with Rutherford Calhoun in Middle Passage. Or it could be escape from an abusive marriage. Or a suffocating family life. Or a spirit-depleting job. Or an affluent social class to which one feels he or she doesn't belong. Think of all those science fiction stories in which characters try to escape from future dystopias. Or the flights of Huck and Jim. Or all those supposedly broken-hearted soldiers who joined the French Foreign Legion after a love affair went sour. Or nearly every Sinbad story starting with that character feeling bored at home and deciding to sail off on a ship (in most stories he's soon shipwrecked.) We find this theme of flight throughout world literature, and the reason is because the experience is both primal and paradigmatic. (It also forms the basis for the adventure story, which is one of my favorite forms of fiction.) In my notebooks, I long ago jotted down a short list of experiences that serve much the same archetypal storytelling function as flight---primal "ground situations" (to use John Barth's phrase) from which one can conjure entire fictional worlds (but don't ask me where I first read about this list because I've forgotten its source):

1. Birth.
2. Death.
3. Marriage.
4. Attaining adulthood.
5. Serious illness and recovery.
6. War and concluding peace.
7. Choosing a vocation and launching a career.
8. Setting out upon a long journey.

The theme of flight is, I think, a variation on  #8, "setting out upon a long journey." In Middle Passage, the flight that Rutherford Calhoun takes by going to sea to avoid marriage hurls him from the frying pan into the fire. An immature young man at the novel's opening, he is forced to achieve adulthood by all the challenges and crises he experiences at sea. He lives through the death of many, through a serious illness, through war (the slave revolt on the Republic), and finds a new vocation when by the novel's end he has indeed become a sailor. So the novel hits every theme in the above list except for birth as it cycles through the three basic conflicts in storytelling: Man vs. nature. Man vs. man. And Man vs. himself.
          But Ethelbert asks, "In 2011, where can a black man run to?"

This question makes me wonder if there is a need for flight for black men in general. What is it they need to flee from? (If one has broken the law and the police are at one's heels, well, yeah, I guess there is a need for flight, which is the title, of course, for the second section of Richard Wright's Native Son.) But I can't racialize this question in a general way. What it does is make me recall one of my favorite Zen stories, which is (once again) a variation on #8 on the above list:

          Two monks, one old and one young, traveled on foot for several days from their home to another village. The trip was tiring. They ran out food. Their feet became blistered. Rain one evening soaked their robes. As they finally approached their destination and could see the village that had taken them so long to reach, the younger monk became excited. He began to walk faster. Then he started running toward the village. The older monk did not run. He maintained his steady pace of walking. And he called out to the younger monk, Here also it is good.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "How does a fiction writer learn to write good dialogue?"
This could have been an easy question for me to stumble on. I started thinking about individual lines of dialogue---or speech between characters--as an isolated phenomenon, and what I liked about them. One can extract dialogue from a story and discuss in a general way its virtues. But we should remember that dialogue occurs in a context, in other words, within a specific scene. And every dramatic scene has a structure. If we have two characters, say, each enters a scene motivated by a desire or need (or a conflict) that has brought him or her there. So they have (1) An Entrance. They seldom jump right into talking about their individual motivation for being there; instead they may engage in very natural and easy small talk or banter, as we find Richard Wright's characters doing at the opening of a scene in his novel Lawd Today:
         "What you know, Skinner?"
         "Don't know. What you know?"
         "Don't know. How's (another character) doing?"
Or in another exchange from the same novel:
         "What you saying, Jake?"
         "Ain't saying."
So for a few moments (or beats) in the scene we have what is called (2) Rhythm, the natural flow of speech between two people. At some point this will lead to (3) The Hit, or that heightened moment in their exchange where the issue (or conflict)that has brought them together is finally revealed. (This can be a true revelation, as in the pivotal "slapping" scene in the film "Chinatown" where the character Evelyn Mulwray reveals to detective "Jake" Gittes that she had an incestuous relationship with her father when she was 15-years-old.) Finally, after the Hit, the characters will (4) Exit the scene. A couple of things should be noted now. First, the emotional encounter experienced by the characters in a single dramatic scene will cause them to register some degree of change, psychologically, i.e., they will not exit that scene as clean as they went into it. Ideally, the scene (with its dialogue), will advance the story, moving its plot forward. So, to repeat: the structure of a dramatic scene (and usually comic ones, too) in which dialogue appears, and which determines what dialogue will be there, involves an entrance, rhythm, the hit, and an exit (from the stage or the scene).
Focusing more closely now on individual speeches, there are a few obvious points to make. Characters usually speak naturally or colloquially in short, crisp sentences. (But long speeches are, of course, sometimes required. If you want to learn how to make a character give a long speech or monologue without it being boring, do Exercise 7 in John Gardner's The Art of Fiction for practice; and also try your hand at Exercise 8, where you're asked to "Write a dialogue in which each of the two characters has a secret. Do not reveal the secret but make the reader intuit it. For example, the dialogue might be between a husband, who has just lost his job and hasn't worked up the courage to tell his wife, and his wife, who has a lover in the bedroom.") Ideally, those sentences should reveal character through the words the speaker uses and the specific cadence of his or her use of language. Each character's speech should be so specific to him or her that we can dispense with the label "he said." But if you must attribute a line of speech to a character, then the standard and simple "he said" will get you in less trouble than a risible choice like, "he ejaculated." (Please, don't ever write that one.) Now, take a look at this exchange from Wright's American Hunger:
        "Can't you read really?" I asked.
        "Naw," she giggled. "you know I can't read."
        "You can read some," I said." (Italics mine)
For me, the "some" in that sentence delivers a bit of the texture of black speech, and is more effective than, say, if the character had said "a little." Good dialogue is the product of a writer having a good ear, of listening carefully to how others speak, the words they choose, the stresses they place on certain syllables in those words. For example, in Dreamer I attempted to provide scansion for a line from Martin Luther King Jr.'s sermon "A Knock at Midnight" in a scene where Chaym Smith, King's double, is trying to learn how imitate the good doctor's individual speech patterns and where he places stress on words (see page 107). 
 But an even more vivid and wonderfully funny example of the music of rich, ethnic speech than the three lines from Wright above can be found in the recently published novel, Ed King by David Guterson. In this very well-crafted work of fiction, the protagonist Ed King is the adopted son of Daniel and Alice King, a Jewish couple, who raise him with their biological son, Simon. During one of Daniel's phone conversations (the subject is whether to let Ed know he's adopted), we have a textbook-perfect example of textured speech so convincing we almost feel we are hearing it close range right at our ear and not reading it on the page:
         "Maybe one day they ask," said Pop. " 'How come he's tall, I'm not tall, he's got his nose, I got my nose, his hair, the other hair'---what you gonna say to your boychiks then? Huh, Dr. Dan? I'm waiting for you! This one, he's hitting home runs from the left side of the plate; the other, he's making Einstein in science class; one allergic maybe to nothing, one don't leave home without having asthma; one is this, one that, one up, one down, one yes, one no---so what do you say, Mr. Know-It-All?"
        "We stick with the mystery of genetics," answered Dan. "It couldn't be simpler, Pop."
        "Simple?" Pop said. "How is it simple? One day, he's gonna find out."
       "We stick with the mystery of genetics," Dan repeated. "If no one slips up or spills the beans, he isn't adopted. Let's all remember that."
       Pop sneezed into the phone. "Excuse me," he said. "It's lying, this business. The tooth fairy's lying, the golem is lying, Santa Claus lying, all of it lying, but this, Mr. Eddie, not adopted, that's lying, that's Number Nine of the Ten Commandments lying. Listen, Daniel, I'm telling you from my heart, you want more tsuris than you already got? Go ahead---tell this lie!"
Because we're talking about dialogue and not monologue, I find my writer's notebooks of the last 40 years filled with numerous examples of witty and crisp exchanges or repartee between two characters. Perhaps this is just my personal taste, but I suspect audiences for any story (in a novel, short story, in film or on stage) enjoy funny dialogue between characters, as in this back-and-forth between two characters in philosopher George Santayana's novel The Last Puritan:
          "Are you a Catholic?"
          "No---I've lost my faith."
          "Then, a Protestant?"
          "Sir---I've lost my faith, not my reason."
         And Charles Dickens is nothing if not a master of humorous dialogue. Here's an exchange from Great Expectations:
         "What's the name of them things with humps?"
         Joe nodded. "Mrs. Camels, it was."
         I supposed he meant Mrs. Camilla.
Being Buddhist, I must confess to having a great affection for those dialogue exchanges that not only make us smile but also slap us upside our heads with a spiritual lesson. Consider this famous Q&A reprinted in John C.H. Wu's The Golden Age of Zen: Zen Masters of the T'ang Dynasty:
        "Do you perceive the fragrance of the cinnamon?
        "Yes, I do," replied Shan-ku.
        Huang-lu said, "You see, I have hid nothing from you."
       And from that same volume: 
          A monk asked, "Who is the Buddha?"
          Pai-chang replied, "Who are you?"
And with that example I'll end today's mini-lecture on some of the possibilities for dialogue.

Monday, November 14, 2011


"I've had a good run." Dr. Gary Storhoff (1947-2011)

 E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Recently Gary Storhoff died. He was the author of UNDERSTANDING CHARLES JOHNSON published by The University of South Carolina Press in 2004. Storhoff was a Buddhist fellow traveler. Did this provide him with a deeper or different insight into your work?  How will you remember Gary?"

I'm going to remember Dr. Gary Storhoff as an outstanding scholar to whom I am forever indebted, a gentleman, a dedicated teacher, devoted father and family man, and my brother in the Buddhadharma. I only learned about his passing away yesterday from his wife. He died at age 63, exactly a week ago on November 7, peacefully at home with his family after a year-long bout with cancer. Never did he complain about his illness or the fact that, as he put it, he was leaving this "beautiful world."

We were introduced in the best of possible ways---by his work. I read one of his scholarly articles on my work, and I was so impressed by his insight, the depth of his knowledge of literature and philosophy (Western and Eastern), that I called his English department at the University of Connecticut (Stamford) and left a message, thanking him for this gift of the mind and spirit. (He describes our initial contact in his tribute for me in the book published this fall in India, Charles Johnson: Embracing the World.) It was Dr. Storhoff who first made clear the presence of Buddhist epistemology in my story "Moving Pictures." 

 Later, at one of the sessions for the Charles Johnson Society at the American Literature Association, I heard him present a brilliant analysis of another of my stories, "Executive Decision," and afterwards I told him that he'd inspired me to take another pass at Buddhist epistemology in a work of fiction, one that perhaps would be less elusive than in "Moving Pictures." That story, "Kamadhatu: A Modern Sutra," is forthcoming in Shambhala Sun. (I owe the existence of that story to him.) I should also mention that after Storhoff read his paper that day, I saw another participant who read a paper before him lean toward Gary and enthusiastically whisper, "You win! You win!" I believe that is the feeling everyone will have when they encounter Dr. Storhoff's scholarship. It is original, top-tier, rigorous, and deeply learned.
 He was one of the founding members of the CJ Society, one highly respected by the other officers for his personal and professional integrity. He authored one of the best books on my work, Understanding Charles Johnson, for which I am deeply grateful. And for the last few years, he co-edited with John Whalen-Bridge for SUNY Press the ambitious, interdisciplinary, and ground-breaking three-volume series on Buddhism and American Culture: The Emergence of Buddhist American Literature (2009); American Buddhism as a Way of Life (2010) ; and Writing as Enlightenment (2011). In addition to his books, he authored 65 articles and chapters in American, African-American, and ethnic literature journals. He received two teaching awards, and served for two years as assistant to the director at the Stamford campus. He is survived by his mother, his wife of 39 years, a son (a film animator), a daughter, and two brothers. His ashes will be scattered at his home in Danbury and his childhood home in North Dakota.

 Like a stone tossed into a pond, his absence among us will ripple outward and be felt by many for a very long time: by family, friends, his students, colleagues, those who care about American Buddhism and literary/academic culture. I remember him as a quiet man---quiet in that solid, steady, reliable American heartland way that someone would be who was born in Duluth, Minnesota and grew up in North Dakota. He never promoted himself, but instead let his works and deeds speak for him. I am convinced that a man like Gary Storhoff is an achievement of culture and civilization. That he was the very embodiment of culture and civilization. And that, of course, explains his humility. Do not underestimate all the decades of disciplined living, devotion to learning and the highest ideals of teaching, love and sacrifice for others required to produce a true man of character, credentialed and accomplished, like Gary Storhoff. We academics (and artists) sometimes tilt toward cynicism; we often silently watch the everyday, selfless work of our colleagues but fail to properly honor them until their sudden absence leaves a hole in our lives. What I'm saying is that men and women such as him are a crucial bridge between generations, transmitting day in, day out "the best that has been known and said in the world" (to borrow a phrase from Matthew Arnold), in the West and the East, from those who came before us to those who will follow us and embrace 24/7---as Storhoff did---the daily, demanding work of keeping the goodness, truth, and beauty to be found in culture and civilization alive and vividly present from one era to the next. What I wrote about M.L. King Jr. in Dreamer (words adapted from the Tao Te Ching), I would say about Storhoff: "Not putting on a show, he commanded respect; not justifying himself, he was distinguished; not boasting, he was instantly acknowledged."

I will sorely miss Dr. Storhoff. But, even as I grieve, I find great joy in the brilliant gifts that he so generously gave to us. Those gifts of the mind and spirit (and his personal example) will never---ever---be tarnished by time. Thank you, Gary.

La guerra e terminata
    de la virtu battaglia
    de la mente travaglia
    cosa numma contende
The war is over.
    In the battle of virtue,
    the struggle of spirit,
    all is peace.
(Jacopone da Todi)

Sunday, November 13, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "What can a Buddhist teach a politician about poverty?  How do we define wealth? Are our problems rooted in money or simply the "idea" of having and needing money?" 
In the Cakkavatti-Sīhanāda Sutra (The Lion's Roar on the Turning of the Wheel) we are told the story of how a society failed. A king "did not give property to the needy, and as a result poverty became rife. With the spread of poverty, a man took what was not given, thus committing what was called theft." As more and more people engaged in theft "the use of weapons increased, from the use of weapons, the taking of life increased...lying increased...the speaking evil of others increased" along with sexual misconduct, harsh speech and idle chatter, covetousness and hatred, false opinions, incest, excessive greed and deviant practices, lack of respect for mother and father, for ascetics and Brahmins and the head of the clan. 

Commenting on this sutra, H. Saddhatissa says in Buddhist Ethics that, "If rulers do not prevent the spread of poverty in their domains they not only induce disorder therein but create disrespect for all recognized forms of authority, so contributing to the deterioration of the human race." Put another way, this very old story states that widespread poverty causes the collapse of all the gossamer-thin structures of civilized life, and plunges men and women into a degenerate state of living like "goats, sheep and such animals."

From a Buddhist perspective, then, some degree of material prosperity is required for all who have not renounced the world and donned the robes of monks and nuns. If you traveled through Japan in the 1990s, as I did on a five-city lecture tour, you probably discovered in your hotel room a Buddhist version of the Gideon Bible in the drawer of a desk. The title of that work is The Teaching of the Buddha, a text with English on the left side page and Japanese on the right, published in 1966 by Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai (Buddhist Promoting Foundation). 
In Chapter Two of that book, entitled "Practical Guide to True Way of Living," we are informed that householders, especially those engaged in business, have a moral duty to succeed and create wealth for the sake of others. In the family of a householder, "Every member must work hard like the diligent ants and the busy bees. No one must rely upon the industry of others, or expect their charity. On the other hand, a man must not consider what he has earned as totally his own. Some of it must be shared with others, some of it must be saved for an emergency, some of it must be set aside for the needs of the community and the nation, and some of it must be devoted to the needs of the religious teachers." Far from being motivated by greed, the householder inspired by Buddhist ideals labors to create wealth as a form of service or seva. He is not attached to wealth, nor does he cling to it. This passage continues by saying:
          "One should always remember that nothing in the world can strictly be called 'mine.' What comes to a person comes to him because of a combination of causes and conditions; it can be kept by him only temporarily and, therefore, he must not use it selfishly or for unworthy purposes."
So wealth is more than just an idea. It is one of life's necessities, required to reduce physical suffering for oneself and others, despite its impermanence. But what is true wealth or riches for a follower of the Dharma? H. Saddhatissa gives us an answer when he writes:
          "To Ugga, the King's minister, the Buddha gave seven states that are not subject to fire, theft and other damage:
The riches of confidence, riches of morals, of shame and fear
  of wrong-doing.
The riches of listening, of charity, wisdom are seven.
Of whom is possessed these riches, or woman or man,
That one is invincible either to devas or men.
Because confidence, morals, are brightness, the vision of
Give yourselves up, wise one, to remembering
That which the Buddha has taught."
          True wealth, then, is found in one's spiritual practice.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Could you talk about your relationship with the writer Russell Banks?  His name appears in the acknowledgements of MIDDLE PASSAGE."
 I've known and admired Russell Banks since the 1970s. He's one of our grand men of American letters: prolific as a storyteller, influential as a creative writing teacher (as his daughter once said, he has produced many "Russell sprouts" who imitate his realistic stories about working-class Americans), and an author who has unselfishly supported the work of other literary writers.
We probably first came into contact in the late '70s when he was one of the writers publishing with the original (or first incarnation of) The Fiction Collective and I (with the help of a couple of my graduate students) handled the manuscripts submitted to that organization from my office at the University of Washington. We had a nice dinner conversation when his novel Continental Drift was selected as a city-wide read in Seattle. We were on the same panel together in 1995 discussing "History and Fiction" at the 92nd St. Y (with Marilyn Robinson and Allan Garganus). And in 1998 when he published Cloudsplitter and I published Dreamer, we read together at Harvard during our book tours, courtesy of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  
Banks has been very successful, I think, with seeing his fiction adapted as films. Notable among these adaptations is Affliction, a 1997 film based on Banks's 1989 novel; actor James Coburn received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in that film.
And speaking of Academies, Russell Banks is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I have little doubt that he was the prime mover behind my receiving in 2002 an Academy Award in Literature from that organization. You can hear Banks's voice in the citation I received on May 15 of that year:
           "Charles Johnson is a storyteller with a philosopher's intellect and a historian's belief in the power of the past to shape the present. But he is before all else a true storyteller. Johnson's literary intelligence and devotion to his craft have allowed him to explore at a consistently high level of artistry a myriad of narrative forms and modes drawn equally from Asian, European, and African traditions. In his novels, especially Middle Passage and Faith and the Good Thing, and his many short stories, he has ingeniously braided history, philosophy, and imagination in making post-modern fiction of the highest order."
So it has been my great, good pleasure to be able to count as one of my friends in this lifetime a writer as distinguished, talented, big-hearted, and generous as Russell Banks.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


"My understanding of the Dharma comes in living color, so to speak. As a black woman I can see and experience things others may not, which in turn gives me a 24/7 practice of compassion." Zenju Earthlyn Manuel.
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "What are some of the 'problems' Black Buddhists confront within the Buddhist community?  It seems as if our attempts to be people of the spirit keeps being held back by the chains of the skin. Is there no escaping racism?  Are we ever enlightened?  Are we trapped by the monkey mind of race?"
 This is a very important and timely question. And fortunately this month  Buddhists of color are addressing it in articles that are powerful, beautiful, and enlightening in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly.
 Buddhist nun Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, the author of Tell Me Something about Buddhism: Questions and Answers for the Curious Beginner, is interviewed in Tricycle. There she says: 
        "When I walk out my door, it is guaranteed that someone or something will let me know that my dark skin is not good enough or let me know that I am not welcome. All I have to do is look at a billboard, be followed around in the store, or have the clerk smile to everyone but me. So, every moment the depth of my practice as a black woman in the Dharma is one that requires deep-sea diving and unbroken awareness. My understanding of the Dharma comes in living color, so to speak. As a black woman I can see and experience things others may not, which in turn gives me a 24/7 practice of compassion. I have no time to waste, protest, yell back, or play games. And it is exhausting to act out when I feel wronged. So, with Buddha’s teachings I understood that I could change my response to the human condition. I ask each day, how do I walk as vulnerable and as soft as I feel without looking over my shoulder? I walk with what I know to be true if I am awakened to the true nature of my own life. This is my face. I walk with it. That is how I understand the teachings from the body in which I was born." 
           Zenju's inspiring interview can be read in its entirety if you click on this link:,0
The new, winter 2011 issue of Buddhadharma also directly takes on today's question with a powerful and important forum entitled, "Why is American Buddhism So White?" The panelists discussing this issue are Larry Yang, a leader of the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland; Amanda Rivera, a member of Soka Gakkai International; Angel Kyodo Williams, founder of the Center for Transformative Change in Berkeley, California; and Bob Agoglia, executive director of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. The photographs of Buddhists of color that illustrate this forum are just stunning. It was my privilege and pleasure to write the introduction for this panel discussion. I include that introduction below for your reading pleasure, and urge you to pick up the new issue of Buddhadharma:

           I would wager that every Buddhist enjoys the story about Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch of Zen, who presented himself as a poor “commoner from Hsin-chou of Kwangtung” to the abbot of Tung-shan monastery in the Huang-mei district of Ch’i-chou in hopes of study, and was rebuked by the abbot with these words: “You are a native of Kwangtung, a barbarian? How can you expect to be a Buddha?” Hui-neng replied, “Although there are northern men and southern men, north and south make no difference to their Buddha-nature. A barbarian is different from Your Holiness physically, but there is no difference in our Buddha-nature.”

For more than two millennia one of the appeals of Buddhism is that happiness and freedom from suffering can be achieved by anyone, regardless of race, class, or gender. But we must remember that all convert practitioners are embodied beings who come to dharma study from somewhere. They are firmly situated in a particular moment of history. If they are American practitioners of color, who from childhood learn to be bi-cultural, some portion of the real, daily suffering they experience in America will arise from racism and social injustice. And in the post-civil rights era this social suffering assumes forms that are so subtle, so deeply interwoven with our individual being-in-the-world, they are nearly invisible to white practitioners. 

These unexamined, ingrained patterns of conditioning, are, when viewed from a Buddhist perspective, perfect examples of what we mean by illusion if the racial or cultural self is taken to be an unchanging, enduring entity or substance. They are assumptions about identity that are as close to us as our breathing, so familiar that when these presuppositions are unveiled “awakening” to them can be experienced as deeply unsettling by practitioners who cling to a sense of “whiteness.” James Baldwin explained this well when he said, “It’s not the Negro problem, it’s the white problem. I’m only black because you think you’re white.”

In the societies where Buddhism has taken root, it has adapted to the everydayness of the lives of the laity. But problems arise in a multi-cultural society if one racial group of practitioners, with its preferences and prejudices, has historically been privileged and dominant over others.

The overwhelming whiteness of American Buddhist centers is not a problem just for teachers who want to transmit the dharma to everyone. The United States is presently undergoing a dramatic sea change. Demographers predict that by 2042 minorities will outnumber whites. This “browning” of America is arguably one of the greatest cultural issues in the 21st century, a change that is already affecting everything from employment to popular culture, and especially our system of public education.

 A recent article by Jen Graves in Seattle's The Stranger, entitled "Deeply Embarrassed White People Talk Awkwardly About Race," reports on how progressive whites are addressing this issue through organizations such as the Coalition of Anti-Racist Whites. “Whiteness is the center that goes unnamed and unstudied, which is one way that keeps us as white folks centered, normal, that which everything else is compared to," CARW cofounder Scott Winn says in the article. "I think many white people are integrationists in that 'beloved community' way, but integration usually means assimilation...As in, you've gotta act like us for this to work."  

And Peggy McIntosh, the anti-racism activist and Wellesley Centers for Women scholar, sums all this up well when she observes that, “I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.” 
In order to solve this problem, whites must listen deeply to Buddhists of color who are particularly well-suited (and perhaps even karmically directed) to take the lead in healing these wounds, not only in the American sangha, but in the larger society as well.