On Percival Everett

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Be on the lookout for “Percival Everett by Percival Everett,” my latest essay forthcoming in The New Inquiry.  

Reading through Conversations with Percival Everett in the process of writing that piece. I discovered a reference to this outstanding primary and secondary online bibliography on Percival Everett compiled by Joe Weixlmann and hosted by African-American Review, LINK. (And, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the secondary bibliography lists my dissertation chapter on Erasure.)

Below is an abstract for my upcoming talk at the NeMLA conference in Toronto on the panel “College in Crisis: Higher Education in Literature and Popular Culture.”  I’m particularly excited about this panel because it’s a rare opportunity for some face-to-face dialogue with other scholars of academic fiction.

“Academia and the Riddle of Race in Percival Everett’s Academic Fiction”

Though his work is often filed under the genre of “literary fiction” Percival Everett’s writing has bounded across an array of literary genres and themes. His first novel, Suder (1983) is the story of a black professional baseball player who is experiencing a batting slump and becomes obsessed with the music of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. Among his other novels are Frenzy (1997) a retelling of the Dionysus myth set in ancient Greece, and God’s Country (1994) an American Western set in the 1870s. In this presentation I will examine Percival Everett’s work in academic fiction, a genre defined by its fictional depictions of universities, students and professors. In his 2001 satirical novel Erasure Percival Everett examines the significance of racial authenticity in black literary and cultural production, and explores broader questions about authenticity, art and cultural politics, while delivering a scathing satire of literary academia’s pretentious excesses. Everett’s novel Glyph, published in 1999 (and recently reissued by Graywolf Press in 2014) features a silent, highly intelligent baby named Ralph who is conversant in literary theory and carries on an interior monologue of insults directed at his parents.  Everett’s 2009 novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier includes scenes set at the historically black Morehouse College, featuring a professor named “Percival Everett” who teaches a class on “Nonsense,” and is critical of the college’s respectability politics. In all of these novels Everett engages, undercuts, ridicules and critiques academic discourses and racial logics. This presentation is part of a book project on academic novels and the politics of the black intellectual, and in this paper I will examine the ways in which Everett’s academic fictions generate provocative conversations about the role of black intellectuals in higher education, and the vexing history of race in American culture and literature.

The Month of Queer Conferencing

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Navigating Normativity UNC-Asheville Biennial Queer Studies Conference  April 2-4

This was my first time in Asheville and it was as picturesque as advertised.  I presented on Samuel Delany’s Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, and, appropriately enough, the title of my panel was “Navigating Normativity: Southern Style.”  After an informal poll at the beginning of my talk I was a bit surprised to find that none of the people in the room (save for one CUNY Grad Center colleague) had heard of Delany at all! Hopefully I provided a good introduction and created a few new Delany readers.

Overall the conference presenters were much younger than I expected, as my CUNY friend also observed. There were more first year graduate students and even undergraduate papers than I expected.  But that was also an opportunity to get a look at the future of the field.  It was encouraging to see a panel full of brave young women from a state school in SOUTH CAROLINA presenting papers on feminism, sexuality and pop culture. They reminded me of myself as an undergraduate when I got my first exposure to professional academic life by presenting at African-American history conferences.

LGBTQ Scholars of Color Conference April 9-10

Next up was the first LGBTQ Scholars of Color Conference organized by CLAGS and hosted at John Jay College.  The main thing I noticed about this conference is that it was overwhelmingly dominated by social sciences and public health.  That’s a good thing.  CLAGS was founded by historian Martin Duberman, and housed at the CUNY Graduate Center, and has been well-represented with queer theorists in literary and culture studies.  During my time at CLAGS I worked under the leadership of a political scientist who worked to add more social science programming. There was much talk at this conference about navigating the sometimes treacherous world of funding and foundations. This is important stuff because I know this kind of quantitative work influences public policy in a way that the humanities, as important as they are, cannot.  There’s a Storify of the #LGBTSOC tweets from the conference here: LINK

Queer Speculations: University of Maryland DC Queer Studies Conference April 17

What was lacking in the humanities at the CLAGS conference I more than made up for at University of Maryland DC Queer Studies Conference.  I presented at this conference in 2012 which was a 70th birthday celebration of Samuel R. Delany and his magnificent writing.  After a day of stimulating talks at this year’s conference I was glad that I decided to return.  I presented again on Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, which Delany had just published before the 2012 conference, and from which he gave a reading that evening.   This was another conference with a lot of digital engagement and Alexis Lothian put together this Storify of #DCQS15 tweets which gives a better overview of the talks than I can give here.

I’ve wanted to work on Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders to build out from my 2013 review of the novel in the GC Advocate.  There’s so much that I didn’t get to in that review (the book is 804 pages long) and several things that I wanted to correct.  I also wanted to write about the digital reception of the novel in online magazines and blog reviews, including responses from Delany himself.  It’s a longer range project that is probably more of a tangent from my main research than I should be taking on right now, but it’s something I’ve been bugging myself to follow up on and get finished.  However, it IS related to the book since there are similarities to Delany’s academic novel The Mad Man, about which I’m writing a chapter.

And so, the month of queer conferencing is done, and I’m moving on to the next phase of research, which is more directly related to the book.  At the Northeast Modern Language Association conference in Toronto I’ll be presenting on Percival Everett’s academic fiction, and participating in a “Creative Criticism” session where I’ll be presenting an autobiographical section of the book, talking about my own “blackademic life” in relation to these works of black academic fiction that I’m writing about.

Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders

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This is the abstract is for a presentation that I will be giving at the upcoming “Navigating Normativity” Queer Studies Conference at the University of North Carolina-Asheville.  I’m posting this version even though I’ve modified the talk a bit since this abstract was submitted.  This is a work in progress that I will also be presenting at another conference soon, so I’ll be posting more about it later.

I’m kicking myself for having added yet another project into the middle of a busy and quite stressful month, but I have absolutely no arguments with reading, thinking through, and talking about this fascinating novel again.

“The Splendor and the Misery: Reading the Body in Samuel Delany’s Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders.”   

The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities, was the proposed title of a sequel to Samuel R. Delany’s popular 1984 science fiction novel Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, a sequel which thus far has never materialized. (The unpublished, perhaps non-existent, book is legendary among devoted Delany fans.)  Inspired by the title of that mythic text, I’d like to explore “the splendor and misery of bodies” in Samuel R. Delany’s writing, particularly in his 804 page pornographic novel Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, published in 2012. Like other Delany novels, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is full of coarse talk about the body. Delany’s writings are often filled with anecdotes about his own sexual experiences with a variety of people whose bodies fall outside of heterosexual norms, and outside of certain normative gay beauty ideals (of youth, thinness, whiteness, symmetry, ability).  The characters represented in his fiction span a broad range of races, nationalities, ages, sizes, genders and abilities. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is full of provocative depictions of race and sexuality, and the characters in the novel often talk about and pursue their desires for racial difference, and use racial epithets as a part of sexual play. One way in which this novel diverges from his prior body of work is that it is not set in the city, but in the rural American South, among a small community in Georgia comprised of black gay men and their admirers known as The Dump, a community founded and organized by a black gay millionaire named Robert Kyle III.  In this presentation I will explore the way that Delany writes about the philosophy of embodiment and the utopian/anti-utopian/dystopian/heterotopian ways of managing and regulating bodies that are depicted and interrogated in his work. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is particularly inventive in Delany’s imagining of a community with formal institutions and services geared toward queer people with active sexual lives, and which provide employment and housing for blue collar gay workers.

I Hotel: A Social Reading

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In the grand tradition of #OccupyGaddis  (on William Gaddis’s J R) and #AutumnalCity (on Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren), Lee Konstantinou has organized a “social reading” of another Big Novel: I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita. On Twitter there’s a running conversation about the book under the hashtag #WeHotel.

The reading started February 1st and today marks the end of the month.  The goal is 10 pages of reading per day which means they’re up to about page 280.

After blitzing through the novel this morning I’m up to 236.  (It was a very cursory reading)

Between teaching, writing, and job-searching I haven’t had much time to double-dutch my way in to this thing until this weekend.  But I wanted to do it, and I think it’s worth making time for.

Initially, the description of the novel caught my attention:

“Dazzling and ambitious, this hip, multivoiced fusion of prose, playwriting, graphic art, and philosophy spins an epic tale of America’s struggle for civil rights as it played out in San Francisco’s Chinatown from 1968-1977. As Yamashita’s motley cast of students, laborers, artists, revolutionaries, and provocateurs make their way through the history of the day, their stories come to define the very heart of the American experience.”

Reading through the first sections of the novel, I slowly began to realize…HOLY CRAP this is an academic novel!  And not only that, it’s very close in spirit to Ishmael Reed’s academic novel Japanese by Spring. Browsing through reviews I knew there would be some academic content, but now I’m thinking it really belongs in the book that I’m working on about academic novels and African-American literature.  At the very least I’ll work it into the chapter on Japanese by Spring.

(By the way, Susan Choi’s The Foreign Student may be the only other academic novel that I know of with Asian-American characters. If anyone knows of others, please share. At some point I’ll have to go back and do a search through my bibliographies)

Writing about Japanese by Spring also prompted me to revisit theories of Afro-Orientalism, which I first learned about through Bill V. Mullen’s Afro-Orientalism.  While reading through I Hotel I retrieved a library copy of the collection Afro Asia edited by Mullen and the late jazz musician and activist Fred Ho (R.I.P.)

I Hotel is hard to describe, and I’ll have to do some re-reading before I write anything coherent about it.

I’m still not at ease with this whole social reading practice of writing about a book before I’ve finished it completely. But maybe this experimental form of criticism is appropriate for an experimental novel like I Hotel.

The book is organized by years from 1968 to 1977.

Early in the novel I was taken with Professor Chen Wen-guang who teaches at San Francisco State in 1968.  (The first Black Studies department was founded at SFSU.)  Professor Chen is a mentor to the young poet Paul Lin, who in the beginning I expected would be the protagonist of the novel, but seems to have dropped out of the story (again, this is an incomplete reading here).

I also liked the section “Language and Reaction” where UC-Berkeley and San Francisco State are compared.  There’s a reference to Clark Kerr’s commentary about the 21st century university as a “knowledge factory.”  There’s Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio’s famous address directed at Kerr and the administration. There’s the Black Power movement going on.  There’s talk about Japanese, Chinese and Filipino immigration, Communism, Asian-American assimiliation, identity, and gender. And then there was this on pg. 20  in that section:

“One day a black instructor at Institution B, who was also a leader of a black organization, gave a speech that Institution B was a nigger-producing factory and called upon students to Pick Up the Gun! to defend themselves against a cracker administration.”

The line reminded me of Gil Scott-Heron’s novel The Nigger Factory, published in 1972, based on his experiences as a student at Lincoln University, and a scathing critique of the historically black college as an assimilationist institution.  There are definite points of contact between MJUMBE, the black student organization in The Nigger Factory, and the black revolutionaries depicted in I Hotel.

I’ve really just started this thing and I need to do some re-reading and much more thinking about the structure and content of the novel before I say more.

At 10 pages a day it should take 61 days in all to finish, which means the reading should go on through April 3.

In the meantime, here are some links to a few things that I thought about from the first part:

-This is a very rough draft of a talk I gave on Japanese by Spring at a conference on Afro-Asian studies at UPenn in 2011, and in it there’s a little background on the culture wars, multiculturalism and multilingualism.  I’ve finished a much longer and more detailed version of this which is under review at an academic journal right now. (Lord knows when I’ll hear about that.)

-My “Storifying the Academy” post gives some background on the form of the academic novel.  Again, as I read through I Hotel I’ll have to think about how this book works within the genre.

-It just so happens that the African American Intellectual History Society blog is in the middle of a series on Afro-Asian politics. I think these two articles by Keisha N. Blaine provide some relevant historical context to the politics in I Hotel.
“The Deep Roots of Afro-Asia.”
“On ‘Transpacific Antiracism’: An Interview with Yuichiro Onishi.”

-And I’ll have to work hard not to slip up and call the book “We Hotel.”