Q. What prompted you to write a memoir at this point in your life?
A. I wanted to experiment as a writer, do things I hadn’t done before with content and form. I’d written varieties of criticism for so long. I wanted to use those skills in a new way—to explore a culture. And I wanted to make myself a character, to work with dramatic narrative, confession, dialogue and all the materials—characters, individual and group histories, social details, psychological tensions. I also wanted to work with a structure that was more collage-like than linear. It’s no accident that many of the people in my parents’ generation were dying. I wanted to capture their voices, manners, the texture of their experience.
Q. Can you comment on the title, Negroland, and your use of the word “Negro”?
A. “Negro” has a specific historical meaning: it was the preferred word for us (following “colored,” succeeded by “black“ and “African American”) during most of the years I write of. So it conveys an aura as well as a social reality. “Land” is a literal and mythic word, isn’t it? It suggests a literal homeland with a geography and history, and shared beliefs, practices, experiences of a people.
Q. Do you think that members of the current generation of black elites, those growing up now, have it easier than you did in 1950s Chicago or do they face the same sort of pressures you did?
A. Every generation is freed of certain pressures and faces new ones. That’s the reality of historical, political, social and economic change. But do they still face varieties of racism? And the internal complexities that this particular triad—race, class, gender—creates? Yes.
Q. What are you teaching at Columbia this fall; have you ever taught memoir writing?
A. This fall I’m teaching a graduate MFA thesis workshop and an undergraduate seminar called “Hybrid Nonfiction Forms.” I’m teaching several memoirs there, all using very different approaches to the form. (My chosen writers include Allison Bechdel, Richard Rodriguez, Adrienne Kennedy and Osip Mandelstam). I’ve taught personal essays, but this is the first time I’ve really immersed myself in memoir.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. The aftermath of a book is very strange. You’re detaching from it, testing new ideas; feeling out what questions, challenges are still haunting you, and what form you might use to pursue them. That’s the state I’m in now.
— Interviewed by Eve Glasberg