NER poetry editor Rick Barot speaks with author David Mura about his poem “A Late Elegy For Jimmy,” which was recently published in NER 37.3. Mura reflects on our responsibilities, embedded in the tensity of American experiences of race, as white and non-white writers and readers. “This is what I love about being a writer,” Mura says, “it’s part of my job to address my ignorance, to learn about different cultures, literature, histories, communities; to continue to create for myself an identity which acknowledges how complex our country and its people are, which engages a global consciousness.”
RB: Can you talk about the origin of “A Late Elegy for Jimmy”?
DM: Baldwin has been such a seminal figure in my development as a writer; what I feel for him and his work is a deep love and gratitude, and that, more than anything, is the generation of the poem. I have Baldwin’s collected essays, The Price of the Ticket, always in the thicket of books on the table surrounding my desk, and I’m constantly referring to Baldwin in the essays I’ve been writing recently. Some are on race in general and some are part of a book on creative writing where I’m examining how writers of color have altered both the context for literature and way we practice our craft. I also have a book of late interviews on Baldwin on my desk and the book has a brown cover with a portrait of Baldwin, and I refer to that in the opening lines, which came about just looking at that book. In the last few years, I’ve become interested in the ways Baldwin navigated through his identity as a gay black man, the difficulties he faced in his relationship to the black and gay communities. He comes at a very different time in both those communities as opposed to say Langston Hughes before him or Essex Hemphill or Hilton Als later. In part because of the ways my being an Asian American male has brought me to question traditional patriarchal and white definitions of masculinity, I’ve always learned from gay and lesbian writers—Baldwin, Mishima, Pasolini, Rich, Susan Griffin, Lorde. At the same time, genius, whether Baldwin, Miles, or Bessie is always sui generis, possessing its own particular singularity; I see Baldwin’s response to the question of whether he was part of the gay community or not partly in this light. I also wonder if, when he came to write Giovanni’s Room, the prospect of dealing with a character who was both gay and black felt too complicated or too difficult for him to address, and this brings up for me the difficulties of catching within language the particular complexities of being a writer of color. As Baldwin wrestled with the difficulties of his identity, I, as an Asian American, am trying to situate myself in relationship to him specifically and black culture and history in general. Finally, this is an elegy and elegies are always reflections on mortality, not just in relationship to the person elegized but to the poet themselves.
RB: You recently published a powerful and provocative essay, “Ferguson, Whiteness as Default, & the Teaching of Creative Writing.” One of the things you discuss in the essay is the need for white writers—and presumably, writers of color, too—to read deeply in the literature produced by writers of color. Who else, besides Baldwin, is important to you in this body of literature?
Well, too many to mention all of them. In the book I’m working on about creative writing, which includes the “Ferguson” essay, I have essays on Junot Diaz, ZZ Packer, Sherman Alexie, Maxine Hong Kingston, V.S. Naipaul, Garrett Hongo, among others. Some of the theoretical and critical writings that form the background of the book include Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, Said’s Culture & Imperialism, Frank Wilderson’s Red, White and Black: Cinema and the Structure of US Antagonisms (Wilderson is part of the theoretical group Afro-Pessimism), and of course Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks; bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Andrea Smith, Kevin Young’s The Gray Album, Jeff Chang’s Who We Be: The Colorization of America, David Palumbo Liu’s The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age.
RB: Your essay sketches some of the hard work ahead for writers of color as we create literature that unabashedly embraces the complex textures of our experience. The essay also sketches the hard work that white writers—and white teachers of creative writing—have to do to understand and value the work of writers of color. How do you see this work moving forward, especially in the era of Trump and the national wounds he has exposed and aggravated?
The academy still needs vast work, especially in the ways it bleaches many younger writers of color (I am so disheartened when I meet younger Asian American writers who are clearly intent on avoiding the issues of race). One can do reading lists, and they are useful. But ultimately, what is required is the investigation and creation of a new identity, and this work will involve both white writers and writers of color. In this process, what is particularly difficult to change is the basic mindset of so many white writers, a mindset with both conscious and unconscious components. That mindset assumes that the reality of people of color, their lives and their consciousness, are secondary and minor, are not Universal, are not required understanding, are optional.
At the same time, both white writers and writers of color need to keep extending the boundaries not just of our reading, but of our lives. A few years ago, in an article in APR, Major Jackson asked why don’t more white poets write about race and one answer he came up with was that most white writers don’t have many black friends. Recently, in an interview in Slate, Jonathan Franzen was asked why he didn’t write about race, and he answered: “I have thought about it, but—this is an embarrassing confession—I don’t have very many black friends. I have never been in love with a black woman. I feel like if I had, I might dare….Didn’t marry into a black family.” Franzen speaks of this lack of black friends as if it’s something that’s happened by chance, rather than asking himself, “Why don’t I have black friends? Is it something I’ve made a conscious or unconscious choice about? Is it because of the ways I interact with or regard the black people I meet?” At the same time, despite his saying he hasn’t written about race, Franzen actually has done so in his novel Freedom, where the middle-aged white husband has an affair with a young Indian American. I find Franzen’s depiction of this relationship problematic; he doesn’t examine any of the racial questions that might arise from such a pairing, and it’s clear he’s never considered how the tropes of Orientalism might play out in such a relationship, either in its depiction or its real life dynamics. My surmise is that this vacuum is a result of both gaps in his literacy and in his personal life.
We live in a country of a vast, unprecedented diversity. I often find myself in places or gatherings where I am the only Asian American. I am constantly meeting people and becoming a friend, colleague or teacher of people whose backgrounds and cultures I need to learn about. I am constantly confronted with my own ignorance, with what I do not know. And yet, this is what I love about being a writer: it’s part of my job to address my ignorance, to learn about different cultures, literature, histories, communities; to continue to create for myself an identity which acknowledges how complex our country and its people are, which engages a global consciousness.
As for Trump, his election demonstrates that a majority of whites desperately want to continue within a country where the assertion of white dominance and supremacy remains the norm. It demonstrates we have so far to go in terms of fighting sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and religious bigotry. As Jeff Chang reminds us in Who We Be, cultural change precedes political change. For those of us who are artists and for those of us committed to justice, we must, as Baldwin did, continue to see what others refuse to see, speak the unheard, tell the untold; we must continue to imagine a world of love, equity, justice, and truth, to imagine ways we can move beyond and above this disastrous moment in American history. Keep speaking out, keep creating your art, keep gathering and strengthening our ties. We have work to do.
RB: Who are the writers and the books that you’re recommending to others these days?
I’ve listed some of the books above. As for work some might not know, I love the poems of Adrian C. Louis and Natalie Diaz, the novels of my friend Alexs Pate, Frank Wilderson’s memoir on being an American member of the armed wing of the ANC, Incognegro. If Ta-Nehesi Coates is one of the descendants of Baldwin, so is Hilton Als; his White Girls is a smart singular work which explores form and intersectionality in a number of revelatory ways. Garrett Hongo has a book coming out in the University of Michigan Poets on Poets series; he’s so brilliant and erudite, and he writes beautifully in prose or poetry. Some younger Asian American poets and writers from Minnesota, where we have a terrific community of Asian American artists—Bao Phi, Ed Bok Lee, Sun Yung Shin, Kao Kalia Yang, Yuko Taniguchi.
David Mura has written four books of poetry, most recently The Last Incantations (Northwestern University Press, 2014). He is the author of two memoirs, Turning Japanese (Grove Atlantic, 1991), which won the Oakland PEN Josephine Miles Award, and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality & Identity (Anchor, 1996). Mura teaches at VONA and is Director of Training for the Innocent Classroom, a program that addresses the racial achievement gap by training teachers to improve their relationships with students of color.