Extended Interview with John R. Gordon

Extended Interview: Inspirations for Drapetomania, Race and Sexuality, and Some Sage Advice

CONKER talks to John R. Gordon about his new novel Drapetomania

(Extended interview: Click here to view the abridged version)

Cat van Maanen: The first question I must ask is why the Antebellum South, and what inspired you to start writing Drapetomania 10 years ago?

John R. Gordon: Three things inspired me in particular. In sixth form, we studied Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. He’s the tragedian of the white South (who fought a war to keep slavery, and lost), and the most extreme Southern Gothic stylist, and inspired (or inspired a response from) many legendary African-American authors, including Toni Morrison. So I was early fascinated by the macabre self-mythologising South, where strange fruit hangs from the poplar trees, and its linguistic rhythms.

Then, at university, when I first started to become a thinking person, I discovered all these incredibly powerful African-American writers & thinkers – Baldwin, Wright, Himes, Baraka, Lorde, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Angela Davis and others – many of whose work was at that time out of print & had to be hunted down in second-hand shops, and they really structured my sense of what it meant to be a writer in the world.

Thirty years later, this novel is my love-letter to those black radical artists, activists and thinkers who in a way created me artistically and politically, many of whom were only a couple of generations removed from slavery times. The third thing was, at a time in my life when I felt under pressure from domineering personalities, I had an image of a slave on the edge of a plantation, about to run. And I had a title (from a chance reference in the Times Literary supplement): Drapetomania. It took me ten years to fill in what lay behind that (after all hardly original) catalysing image.

CVM: It is interesting that you mention Toni Morrison. As you will know, she is also an author of the Gothic, which is often used to explore sensitive topics. Did you find that you were employing use of Gothic tropes in Drapetomania? Whilst reading the novel I noted a general undertow of religious references. Can you expand on your reasons for using religion in the novel, and what inspired the biblical names of the characters?

JR.G: Well, of course Beloved is a touchstone to me – a neo-slavery narrative that is also a savage ghost story. I do find the Gothic – with its notion of psychology embodied in (or by) landscape a powerful form (I loved Mervyn Peak’s Gormenghast trilogy as a child, and later Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, that strangely heightened quintessential Gothic romance). Plantation houses looming from the shadows, swamp-oaks festooned with cobwebs of moss, lend themselves to a Gothic aesthetic, (something picked up on above all in the lyrics of the song Strange Fruit) and I wanted to evoke an extremity of landscape. Cyrus, hearkening back to his lost African forebears, is by inclination an animist, who has a sense both of the presence of spirit creatures – haints – and genius loci – the spirits of individual places.

Abednego (as you can tell from his book) feels this much less strongly; is more incipiently secular. Though both of them question Christianity as a tool of the slavemaster, of course Bible texts frame much of their thinking. Cyrus (and Bale, the head blacksmith at Amesburg) have Apocalyptic visions (an echo of real-life revolutionary Nat Turner). That was really a realist choice: referencing, for instance, the Children of Israel escaping Egypt-land in song was a way of using Bible stories to model liberatory possibilities, and church services were a rare chance for the enslaved to legitimately gather together, and possibly make plans. At the same time, Cyrus & Abednego’s sexuality (though they wouldn’t of course express it in this way) makes them wary of religious orthodoxy (Biblically-inspired heteropatriarchism thereby an analogue for white supremacy). At the same time the Biblical story of David and Jonathon becomes talismanic and prophylactic in the face of criticism. Having a good many characters assigned Biblical names was again a realist choice. My impression is that the initial white habit of assigning the enslaved humorously grand names (Pompeii, Caesaar and so on) receded over the centuries. Abednego suggests survival (of the fiery furnace) though we hear that Shadrach died, so too much meaning shouldn’t be read into it. And Bale sees his own name as a sort of objectification (cotton bale) even though the spelling Baal actually means a heathen deity, so a very fractured naming just as his life (being forced to turn the screw on Varlet) has fractured his mind. And quite a few characters reclaim themselves from their imposed names by taking on nicknames – Diver, for instance. In a sense both Cyrus and Bed have to think their way out of a white worldview that states that how things are is exactly how the benign, all-powerful deity intended them to be. So, I’d say my impulses around religious themes are perhaps more essentially realist & political.

CVM: You have mentioned in previous interviews that Audre Lorde was a key influence over your work due to her “total and merciless honesty”. You also commented that honesty and uncensored truths are so important to you. Did you find it difficult to find a balance between being ‘brutally honest’ about history in order to tell the story correctly, and remaining sensitive about the topic?

JR.G: Audre Lorde inspires me for the way as an activist she brought her whole self to the table, which requires very real courage – ‘as a black lesbian in a mixed-race relationship with a Jewish woman’ – because so often black people are rejected in white spaces, lesbians in gay predominantly male spaces, women in male-dominated spaces generally, and queer black people in black-centered spaces. She and Angela Davis were part of my growth (as was bell hooks) in that they critiqued an aspect of black radical thought that I had romanticised despite its patriarchal aspects (which were oftentimes also homophobic) and machismo.

They also critiqued (white) feminism, and so were intersectional decades before the term became widely used. I found her Cancer Journals very insightful, and I love her quote, ‘When I dare to be powerful – to use my strength in the service of my vision – it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.’ – as I am habitually full of fears.

CVM: You have mentioned that you found it difficult to write the less obviously brutal parts of the novel. What do you think is the significance of these more insidious moments to you?

JR.G: Brutal honesty can be counter-productively aggressive, of course, and that’s where the balancing act comes in, or one risks shocking for the sake of shocking: torture porn. I aimed for realism, in the sense of not going beyond what the historical record supports – which is brutal enough without troweling on fabricated layers of horror. So, in this context ‘brutal honesty’ means ‘nothing here can be shrugged off as too over the top for me, as the reader, to believe in: I can’t escape it by accusing the novel of fancifulness.’ I was particularly concerned to show that all this was (to those involved) modern, innovative and business-minded: a quintessence of free market capitalism. I aimed for realism at the level of making sure that Cyrus’ reactions to slavery’s many cruelties were plausible & proportionate, given his life experience: in that sense little surprises him.

CVM: The incredible descriptions that you have written in Drapetomania are so beautifully poetic and vivid, the novel really does involve all of the senses!   Having written for stage, do you think that this affects how you have written Drapetomania? I was also reminded of version of in-yer-face theatre at times: stating something as it is and not holding back. Do you feel that you have in some way utilised this style of writing?

JR.G: I think in terms of what shocks us most, it’s often the more relatable thing. For instance, the moment in Steve McQueen’s film Twelve Years a Slave that most jarred me wasn’t the gory whipping: it was when the enraged white mistress throws a stone ashtray hard into slave maid Patsey’s face, a version of which one could imagine happening to oneself at any moment. I felt Cyrus would be most struck by what was more oblique: the bridled young man who has starved to death; the bodies boiled down to the bones.  These moments compel him to feel in a way the expected punishments and situations do not.

My writing is perhaps more affected by screenwriting, with its visuality and economy, than theatre, which tends to use dialogue to stand in for staging that may be lacking (quintessentially, Shakespeare). Both forms make me more concerned than many novelists that when I do use dialogue, it’s convincing. Even though this is a novel, I feel I’ve failed if an actor couldn’t read the dialogue out loud and it land well and sound natural – something that sometimes gets exposed in audiobooks.

In terms of description I try to write evocatively but with a minimum of metaphors and similes, and attempt a visceral and objective feel – though I would call that accuracy more than anything else. It seems to me a very male style – when I reread a passage I thought delicate and lyrical it’s also quite blocky and blunt. The notion of ‘writing for all the senses’ here comes out of Cyrus’ nature – someone to whom everything is a wholly new experience (even climbing a hill: his whole life has been lived on the flat) – and therefore vividly felt in a moment-by-moment way.

CVM: Gay black lives and experiences have taken central stage in your previous works. However, writing a novel set during slavery times is a complex task in a whole different way. How did you find getting into the characters of Cyrus and Abednego, finding their voices, and articulating their experiences?

JR.G: For a long time, I was afraid I would be unable to finish Drapetomania due to the proliferation of research required the further Cyrus goes out into the world. I also worried that pouring all this effort into a historical fiction was a sort of ducking of the responsibility to represent real lives lived now (interestingly an anxiety also felt by Toni Morrison).

This really changed for me with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement: the murderous conduct of the (white) police today is clearly a continuation of how black Americans have been treated throughout history – rather than, as it is sometimes considered, a rupture with that history or a new sort of racism. As Faulkner says, ‘The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past’. So suddenly a historical tale felt it might speak vividly to the present, and I wrote the second two thirds of it – where he transitions from the wilderness to being among people – very fast and with an urgency and a sureness of intent I hadn’t felt before.

Inbetween this I read a very helpful memoir by a British Abolitionist MP, W.S. Buckingham, A Journey in the Southern Slave States, (1832). Being a sort of tourist, he set down a myriad of everyday details that contemporary American writers didn’t trouble to detail – inn menus, stagecoach rates, furnishings, smoking habits, styles of hats. He was also interested in business and economic matters, and my fictional towns – De Bray’s Town, Honeycomb, Amesburg – and plantations were heavily informed by his analyses; and of course he was very interested in the minutiae of how white southerners spoke of slavery, ‘The Peculiar Institution’.

This reading gave me confidence that I could accurately convey both the structure and the psychology of the white society that constructed, and was supported by, chattel slavery. This reading was an adjunct to my initial research, which consisted of reading over 1700 pages of slave narratives, which present a very wide variety of self-aware ex-slaves’ mentalities (& lives, & struggles) to the reader. These are themselves literary constructs, mainly aimed at white audiences, sometimes edited by white sponsors and publishers, and inflected by the writers’ awareness (very varied) of literary genres – including (as it went along) slave narratives themselves – a bestselling genre for several decades (all of which is satirised by Ishmael Reed in Flight to Canada).

CVM: Drapetomania has been likened to the Great American novel, how do you feel about this, and was it your intention to frame the novel on the Great American novel 20th century style?

JR.G: It was hugely honouring to be considered to have written a great American novel! Time will tell. I did take what I was doing seriously and did model what I was doing on the titans of American literature – Morrison, Baldwin, Wright, Twain – and intended an epic feel. One motivation was to give gay black readers in particular a narrative where a black gay man (setting aside the anachronistic shorthand) is the hero, risks it all for love of another man, and overcomes almost insurmountable obstacles to do so.

I wanted to express a vision that was informed and validated by same-sex love, and one which incorporates it into the natural world, rather than in opposition to it, as heterosexual narratives tend to do. Cyrus and Bed also become caught up in a wider struggle for liberation, so same-sex romance is shown to be part of a greater (black) human uplift, not a selfish retreat from communal life and obligations. Such lives are lost to history – they would not have been written down at the time, and would certainly not have been published even if they had been – hence the ambivalent photograph that is the book’s cover: beyond it there is only speculation. I think this is where fiction has a role to play: to repair at least mythically the rents in the historical fabric, and represent those who have been silenced and erased.  This act of repair is I think analogous to the way myth must step in for all ancestors of slaves whose lineage was swallowed in the Middle Passage.

CVM: Can you tell our readers what they can expect from Drapetomania in a few sentences?

Drapetomania is an epic tale of black freedom, uprising, and a radical representation of romantic love between black men in slavery times. Intense, passionate, at times deeply moving, it reveals hidden histories and lives through the heroic attempt by field-hand Cyrus to find his sold-away lover Abednego.

CVM: Now that the release of Drapetomania is just around the corner, do you have any new projects that you’re working on? What does the future hold for you?

JR.G: I have several projects in the works; a satirical novel about chasing arts funding and minority identities, and a historical play looking at same-gender love in the Windrush era in the midst of a race riot. At the moment the play is in the lead, as it’s stimulating after writing a long, complex novel – a very solitary (though rewarding) experience – to turn to something more interactive and sociable. I’m also developing a short film about the interactions between black queer road men and rude gals and multiracial gay bohemia, which could be very exciting.

CVM: What advice would you give to other LGBTQ+ people who are looking to write their own experiences, and the experiences of margianlised groups, and what do you wish you had known when you started out in your career?

JR.G: Above all, don’t let anyone tell you that writing (or other art-making) centering LGBTQ+ characters, themes and viewpoints is trivial or self-indulgent. Even other LGBTQ+ writers can be guilty of this, sometimes bragging their new work is wholly hetero, as if that deserves a round of applause. It does not. Our lives are as wholly worthy of serious literary treatment (and indeed any other treatment) as straight lives. We must resist the hostile programming that tells us our lives are less valuable and less valid, not ‘universal’. This is a lie. Work that challenges this toxic presumption affirms all our humanity (including that of the hetero mainstream).

Now is the best time to do minority-focused work. You may not make money out of it, but the new technology means that online publishing & self-publishing are affordable, & many small presses have sprung into being (including the one I co-founded, Team Angelica) because of it, and are receptive to diverse work. Amazon provides a shop window across the western world and haphazardly beyond, something that never existed for us before. Write the work you want to write (of course it doesn’t have to have LGBTQ+ content: it has to be about what most excites and compels you) – at least then it will have one excited reader: you. And since you don’t know whether what you write will succeed or not, try always to love the process, the challenge of creating the work as skillfully and insightfully as you can.

John R. Gordon’s Drapetomania: Or, The Narrative of Cyrus Tyler & Abednego Tyler, lovers. is out on the 17th May.

If you want to find out more about Drapetomania, check out CONKER editor Cat van Maanen’s analytical review.

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