Ishmael Reed interviewed in The Barcelona Review


Essayist, playwright, novelist, poet, editor, songwriter and publisher Ishmael Reed PHOTO/Wikipedia

Although Harold Bloom included his novel Mumbo Jumbo (1972) as one of the titles that formed the western canon, Ishmael Reed (Chattanooga, 1938) had no luck with the Spanish public, which only came a version of Grijalbo in 1975 which reflected the difficulties of translating slang. Now, La Fuga publishes a new translation of Inga Pellisa that reads, this time yes, following the rhythm with the foot. The plot: a strange epidemic invades New Orleans – and then the United States and the world – forcing people to dance possessed, prey to an uncontrollable frenzy that culminates in ecstasy. White secret societies try to stop it. Mainly set in New York’s Harlem of the twenties, the play is a burst of vitality and its major themes are blackness, music and religion. The center of everything is the Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral, syncretic temple ruled by guru Papa LaBas. Reed responds to La Vanguardia via email.

It’s amazing how a book written in 1972 can be so modern, and even postmodern, do not you think?

That’s because I was inspired by musicians, painters, dancers, poets and filmmakers who were creating innovative art in the mid-60’s in New York. The New York Times called it “pioneering work of the graphic novel.” I mixed so many cultural influences because I was very influenced by the painters, who were devotees of the collage.

Have you read James Ellroy or Marlon James? Do not you think that these two authors of different generations follow a path drawn by Mumbo Jumbo?

I did not read Marlon James. I met him last year, when he was given an American Book Award. He is handling very well with his fame. Unlike other black writers who have achieved notoriety, he has not been supported by any little chap. Black novelists who have come to something in our country are usually supported by a small group of whites. At the moment they are mainly white bourgeois feminists or neocons. There are hundreds of black writers as good as those chosen for fame, but they lack a godfather. All important media – right, left and center – have their ethnic representatives, whose job it is to explain to white readers the tendencies of black culture, tendencies not determined by blacks. Ironically, David Simon, who produced the series The Wire, which represents blacks in the same way that the Nazis did, has more power to define the black experience than all black artists, filmmakers and writers together. This is the problem. Others tell our stories.

Do you see yourself as someone who has created a style?

I have a unique style, it’s true. Critics link me to Paul Beatty, Colson Whitehead, Victor LaValle and EL Doctorow. The problem I have with Beatty – Booker’s last winner – is that he often knocks down instead of up. His comic scalpel, his satirical aggression, points to the lower class, the modest, are people who do not have the power to strike back. I follow the example of Dante, who placed the powerful in hell. That’s why I feel, as a writer, an exile, not physically, uh, I live very well in the United States. That is so since the first novel of my trilogy The Terribles, which deals with the selfishness and racism that Ronald Reagan introduced us and whose social Darwinism still hangs over our country and influences politics. Of course, social Darwinism refers only to the poor; The rich are allowed to fail and are always taken out of trouble.

Are cultural minorities marginalized in US literature?

Of course.

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