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The Architectonics of Fiction Author(s): John Edgar Wideman Source: Callaloo, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Winter, 1990), pp.

42-46 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2931600 . Accessed: 01/02/2014 10:16
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THE ARCHITECTONICS OF FICTION By JohnEdgarWideman

The African artist allows wide scope to his fantasy in the mask . .. With colours, feathers and horns he accomplishes some astonishingly live effects. In a slow creative process he brings to life a work which constitutes a new unit, a new being. If the sculpture proves to be a success, a helpful medium, the tribe adheres to this form and passes it on from generation to generation . .. Thus we have a style, a firmly established formal canon, which may not be lightly discarded ... For this reason a style retains its specific character for decades, even centuries. It stands and falls with the faith to which it is linked. -The Art of BlackAfrica,Elsy Leuzinger Novels-because of cumbersomeness, spaciousness of form, and the time and physical labor they require to construct-tend to unfold slowly. Novels resemble history, while short stories are more like current events. The best stories find means to compress or suggest the long view novels unravel in their more expansive spacial, temporal architectonics. Short stories have an attractive immediacy and accessibility, a flashy, newsy, commercial value. Stories can sell things, identify trends, advertise and promote assumptions about the nature of reality. They celebrate, like mirrors above the stairways of London subways, the passing vanity fair. Minority writers, since we're marginal politically and culturally, have a special vexing stake in the longer view; history is a cage, a conundrum we must escape or resolve before our art can go freely about its business. Our stories are generally less successful (marketable)because stories offer less room to fill in background, lay (in a legal sense) foundations. Our stories thus seem as marginal as our lives, unattached, unhinged from the quotidian reality of the mainstream, majority reader. Magazine editors know their jobs depend upon purveying images the public recognizes and approves, so they seldom include our fictions, and almost never choose those which threaten to expose the fantasies of superiority, the bedrock lies and brute force that sustain the majority's dealings with the other.Framed in a foreign, inimical context, minority stories appear at best as exotic slices of life and local color, at worst as ghettoized irrelevancies. However, as the assumptions of the mono-culture are challenged, overrun, defrock themselves daily in full view of the shameless media, more and more fiction gravitates toward the category of minority. New worlds, alternative versions of reality, are bur-

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CALLALOO
geoning. In spite of enormous, overwhelming societal pressures to conform, to standardize the shape and meaning of individual lives, voices like Ralph Ellison's reach us, impelling us to attend to the chaoswhichlives within the patternof our certainties. The truth that each of us starts out alone, a minority of one, each in a slightly different place (no place), resides somewhere in the lower frequencies of our communal consciousness.

Good stories transport us to those extraordinarilydiverse regions where individual lives are enacted. For a few minutes we can climb inside another's skin. Mysteriously, the dissolution of ego also sharpens the sense of self, reinforces independence and relativity of point of view. People's lives resist a simple telling, cannot be understood safely, reductively, from some static still point, some universally acknowledged center around which all other lives orbit. Narrative is a reciprocal process, regressive and progressive, dynamic. When a culture hardens into heliocentricity, fancies itself the star of creation, when otherness is imagined as a great darkness except for what the star illuminates, it's only a matter of time until the center collapses in upon itself, imploding with sigh and whimper. Minority writers hold certain, peculiar advantages in circumstances of cultural breakdown, reorientation, transition. We've accumulated centuries of experience dealing with problems of marginality, problems that are suddenly on center stage for the whole of society: inadequacy of language, failure of institutions, a disintegrating metropolitan vision that denies us or swallows us, that attractsand repels, that promises salvation and extinction. We've always been outsiders, orphans, bastard children, hard pressed to make our claims heard. In order to endure slavery and oppression it has been necessary to cultivate the double-consciousness of seer, artist, mother. Beaten down by countless proofs of the inadequacy, the repugnance of our own skin, we've been forced to enter the skins of others, see the world and ourselves through the eyes of others. The reality carried around inside our skulls is a sanctuary. Imagination has evolved as discipline, defense, coping mechanism, counterweight to the galling facts of life. We've learned to confer upon ourselves the power of making up our lives, changing them as we go along. Marginality has also refined our awareness, our proficiency in extra-literarymodes of storytelling. Folk culture preserves and expresses an identity, a history, a self-evaluation apart from those destructive, incarceratingimages proliferated by the mainline culture. Consciously and unconsciously, we've integrated these nonstandard forms into our art. Our stories, songs, dreams, dances, social forms, styles of walk, talk and dressing, cooking, sport, our heroes and heroines provide a record of how a particular group has lived in the world-in it, but not of it. A record so distinctive and abiding that its origins in culture have been misconstrued as rooted in biology. A long-tested view of history is incorporated in the art of African-Americanpeople, and our history can be derived from careful study of forms and influences that enter our cultural performances and rituals. In spite of and because of marginal status, a powerful, indigenous vernacular tradition has survived, not unbroken, but unbowed, a magnet, a focused energy, something with its own logic, rules and integrity connecting current developments to the past. An articulate, syncretizing force our best artists have drawn upon, a force sustaining both individual talent and tradition. Though minstrel shows

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CALLALOO
were popularized for mainstream audiences as a parody of black life, a 1984ish rewrite of black-white relations in the antebellum South, these musical reviews were also a vehicle for preserving authentic African-derived elements of black American culture. Today, rap, for all its excesses and commercialization, reasserts the African core of black music: polyrhythmic dance beat, improvisational spontaneity, incantory use of the word to name, blame, shame and summon power, the obligation of ritual to instruct and enthuse. Rap also reflects the integrative, synthesizing coherence of the Diaspora, the international, cross-culturalcoming together - Rasta, Calpyso, Reggae, Rap-in shared styles of expressive behavior that unites black people even as we disperse and settle in every corner of the globe. It's no coincidence that rap exploded as the big business of music was luring many black artists into "crossing-over." Huge sums were paid to black recording artists, and then a kind of musical lobotomy was performed on their work, homogenizing, commodifying, pacifying it by removing large portions of what made the music think and be. Like angry ancestral spirits, the imperatives of tradition rose up, reanimated themselves, mounted the corner chanters and hip hoppers. As soul diminished to a category on the pop charts, the beat from the street said no-no-no, you're too sweet. Try some of this instead. Instigation. Revitalization. The mighty mouth of a hip generation. Stomp your feet. Don't admit defeat. Put your hands together. Hit it. Hit. Boom. Crank up the volume. Bare bones percussion and chant holler scream. Our loud selves, our angry selves. Our flying feet and words and raunchy dreams. Instruments not possessed, mimicked by our voices. Electronics appropriated. Recording tricknology explored and deconstructed, techniques reversed, foregrounded, parodied. Chaboom. Boom. Sounds of city, of machines of inner space and outer space merge. Boom boxes. Doom boxes. Call the roll of the ancestors. Every god from Jah, Isis, Jehovah, Allah and Shango to James Brown and the Famous Flames. Say the names. Let them strut the earth again. Get right, children. Rap burst forth precisely where it did, when it did, because that's where the long, long night of poverty and discrimination, of violent marginality, remained a hurting truth nobody else was telling. That's where the creative energies of a subject people were being choked and channelled into self-destruction. When an aesthetic tradition remembers its roots, the social conditions (slavery, oppression, marginality) and the expressive resources it employed to cope with these conditions, the counter-version of these conditions it elaborated through art, when it doesn't allow itself to be distracted, that is, keeps telling the truth which brought it into being-the necessity of remaining human, defining human in its own terms, resisting those destructive definitions in the Master's tongue, attitudes and art-then that tradition remains alive, a referent, a repository of value, money we can take to the bank. Afro-American traditions contain the memory of a hard, unclean break. This partially accounts for key postures that are subversive, disruptive, disjunctive. To the brutality that once ripped us away and now tries to rip us apart, we turn a stylized mask of indifference, of malleability, a core of iron, silent refusal. Boom. Chaboom. Boom. While our feet, feet, feet dance to another beat. I look for, cherish this in our fiction. On the other hand, or should I say other face, since the shield I'm raising has two sides and one cannot be lifted without the other, what about the future? Is there any

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CALLALOO
difference between sitting-in at an all-white lunch counter and a minority writer composing a story in English? What's the fate of a black story in a white world of white stories? What can we accomplish with our colours,feathers andhorns,how can we fruitfully extend our tradition? How do we break out of the circle of majority-controlled publishing houses, means of distribution, critics, editors, readers? Vernacular language is not enough. Integration is not enough, unless one views mathematical, proportional representation as a goal, instead of a step. If what a writer wants is freedom of expression, then somehow that larger goal must be addressed implicitly/explicitly in the fictional text. A story should somehow contain clues that align it with tradition and critiquetradition, establish the new space it requires, demands, appropriates, hint at how it may bring forth other things like itself, where these others have, will and are coming from. This does not mean defining criteriafor admitting stories into some ideologically sound, privileged category, but seeking conditions, mining territorythat maximizes the possibility of free, original expression. We must continue inventing our story, sustaining the double consciousness that is a necessity for any writing with the ambition of forging its own place. Black music again illuminates glories and pitfalls, the possibility of integrity, how artists nourished by shared cultural roots can prove again and again that even though they are moving through raindrops they don't have to get soaked. Their art signifies they are in the storm, but not of it. Black music is a moveable feast, fluid in time, space, modality, exhibiting in theme and variations multiple relationships with the politically, socially, aesthetically dominant order, the fullest possible range of relationships, including the power and independence, to change places, reverse the hierarchy, be the dominant order. What lessons are transferable to the realm of literature? How is musical language freer, less inscribed with the historical baggage of European hegemony, exploitation, racism? Is it practical within the forms and frequencies of this instrument (written English) to roll back history, those negative accretions, those iron bars and white-only signs that steal one's voice, one's breath away? Perhaps there are ways in fiction to achieve the dialectic, the tension, the conversation, the warfare of competing versions of reality English contains. One crucial first step may be recognizing that black/white, either/or perceptions of the tensions within language are woefully, woe is me, inadequate. Start by taking nothing for granted, giving nothing away. Study the language. The way we've begun to comb the past. Rehistoricize. Contest. Contest. Return junk mail to sender. Call into question the language's complacencies about itself. At the level of spelling, grammar, how it's taught, but also deeper, its sounds, their mamas, its coded pretensions to legitimacy, gentility, exclusivity, seniority, logic. Unveil chaos within the patterns of certainty. Restate issues and paradigms so they are not simply the old race problem relexified. Whose language is it, anyway? Martin Bernal in Black Athenahas traced the link between European theories of race and language. How nineteenth-century theories of language development parallel, buttress and reinforce hierarchicalconcepts of race and culture. How social "sciences," the soft core posing as the hard core of academic humanities curricula, were tainted at their inception by racist assumptions and agendas. How romantic linguistic theory

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CALLALOO

was used as a tool to prove the superiority of the West. How uncritical absorption of certain hallowed tenets of Western thought is like participating in your own lynching. By prepared to critique any call for "back to basics" in light of the research Bernal gathers and summarizes. The great lie that systems of thought are pure, universal, uncontaminated by cultural bias is once more being gussied up for public consumption. Whose GreatBooks in whose interest must be read? Whose story should be told? By whom? To what ends? How does language grow, change? What are the dynamics that allow individual speakers to learn a language, adapt it to the infinite geography of their inner imaginative worlds, the outer social play, the constant intercourse of both? Can the writer love language and also keep it at arm's length as material, a medium, foregrounding its arbitrariness, its treacherousness, never calling it his/her own, never completely identifying with it, but making intimate claims by exploring what it can do, what it should do if the writer has patience, luck, skill, and practices, practices, practices? In it, butnotof it. And that stance produces bodies of enabling legislation, a grammar of nuanced tensions, incompatibilities, doors and windows that not only dramatize the stance itself but implicate the medium. A reciprocal unravelling below whose surface is always the unquiet recognition that this language we're using constantly pulls in many directions at once and unless we keep alert, keep fighting the undertow, acknowledge the currents going our way and every other damn way, that we are not alone but not separate either, that any voice we accomplish is really many voices, that any voice is always steeped in unutterable silences, that the roles of speaker, listener, narrator and narrative, the form and direction of the tale may seem to be fixed, but we hold some keys. Any story is a lie, an arbitraryconvention for graphing chaos against a grid of one, two, three, maybe even seven axes from the billion we might select. Nothing really stands still for this reduction, this abstraction. It's at this level of primal encounter that we need to operate in order to reclaim the language for our expressive purposes. The hidden subject remains: what is our situation with respect to this language? Where does it come from? Where do I come from? Where do we meet and how shall I name this meeting place? What is food?What is eating?Why do people go to lunch counters? Black music offers a counter-integrative model because it poses this species of questions about music and fills us with the thrill of knowing yes, yes, the answers, if there are any, and it probably doesn't matter whether there are or not, yeah or nay, the answers and the questions are still up for grabs. And, oh my, mine are out there counting and ain't it fun.

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