John Edgar Wideman’s New Book

I begin this post by stating that I don’t own any John Edgar Wideman books. Nope. Not a one. I’m ashamed, but at least I know who he is and I can name a few of his books off the top of my head. What about Frantz Fanon? How are these two people even related? Well, I don’t own any of Fanon’s books either, but I’ve checked them out from the university library a few times to aid my literary analysis. For those of you who aren’t familiar, because honestly I wasn’t until last year, here is a little Fanon book info for you:

The Wretched of the Earth is a brilliant analysis of the psychology of the colonized and their path to liberation. Bearing singular insight into the rage and frustration of colonized peoples, and the role of violence in effecting historical change, the book incisively attacks the twin perils of post independence colonial politics: the disenfranchisement of the masses by the elites on the one hand, and intertribal and interfaith animosities on the other. Fanon’s analysis, a veritable handbook of social reorganization forleaders of emerging nations, has been reflected all too clearly in the corruption and violence that has plagued present-day Africa. The Wretched of the Earth has had a major impact on civil rights, anticolonialism, and black consciousness movements around the world . . .

Few modern voices have had as profound an impact on the black identity and critical race theory as Frantz Fanon, and Black Skin, White Masks represents some of his most important work. Fanon’s masterwork is now available in a new translation that updates its language for a new generation of readers. A major influence on civil rights, anti-colonial, and black consciousness movements around the world, Black Skin, White Masks is the unsurpassed study of the black psyche in a white world. Hailed for its scientific analysis and poetic grace when it was first published in 1952, the book remains a vital force today from one of the most important theorists of revolutionary struggle, colonialism, and racial difference in history.

John Edgar Wideman, winner of two PEN/Faulkner awards, and author of Brothers and Keepers, Sent for You Yesterday, and Philadelphia Fire (to name a few–the man has a literary society dedicated to his work!) has released a new book for his loyal fans. The New York Times offers the details for this release, but I’m only providing an excerpt:

Wideman, who presents himself as the novel’s narrator, explains that he’s chosen to write about Fanon because there’s “no way out of this goddamn mess.” In this novel’s world, Fanon is the subject because of the senseless slaughterhouse in Iraq, because of America’s overflowing prisons — because, as Wideman’s real but fictionalized brother says in a soliloquy that touches Shakespearean depths: “We’s all one person, all the same body. … I mean, the way it is today the hands don’t speak no more. Squabbling. Fighting. Grabbing. Hands hate each other in a way, you could say. Trying to strangle the one neck they own. People so stuck up in they own little worlds they forget they live in the same body and got to depend on the same two hands.”

People trapped inside themselves are dangerous to other people. This is one theme running through Wideman’s book, caustically symbolized by a frankly imaginary character who gets a decapitated head in the mail and wonders whether he should approach it artistically, practically or philosophically. Indeed, this is not so much a novel about Fanon as it is a tale animated, thwarted, twisted, fractured by the conflicts in culture, politics and the human psyche with which Fanon was obsessed. Wideman’s tale is shattered the way Fanon’s patients, victims of French torture in Algeria, were shattered. (In fact, Fanon treated their French torturers as well.)

Fanon is a novel about a writer — Wideman himself — trying to write a novel about Fanon. Wideman invents a fictional character named Thomas (he of the decapitated head), who sometimes stands in for Wideman himself. He then carries on an imaginary dialogue with the French film director Jean-Luc Godard, cuts back and forth between scenes from Fanon’s life and episodes from Wideman’s own, and at one point even has his wheelchair-bound mother encountering Fanon in the hospital. Such legerdemain might make the book sound involuted in a postmodern kind of way — and it does have occasional claustrophobic moments. But what Wideman has rivetingly achieved, among other things, is to find a path out of the cul-de-sac of self-consciousness that plagues the contemporary novel. (Read full article . . . )


I’m sitting with the last of a glass of red wine in the small garden of a small house in Brittany. I spent the morning of this day as I’ve spent most mornings this summer, trying to save a life, adding a few words, a few sentences to the long letter I’m addressing to you, Frantz Fanon, dead almost half a century before I begin writing to you, writing just about everyday, outdoors when weather permits, sitting each morning in the garden of a house in France, the country you claimed, Fanon, as your nation, fought and bled for, wounded near Lyon in 1944, and then fought against during the war for Algerian independence until you died of leukemia, they say, in 1961, in a
hospital in America, the country I claim as mine. France your country, French your language, though you were born in Martinique, a Caribbean island thousands of miles away from where I sit this evening thinking about you, Fanon, about your short, more than full life, about the fact that sixty-five years of my very full life have passed no less swiftly than the thought of them that just now passed through my mind. Though your story’s extraordinary,it’s also like mine, like anybody’s, just another story, but since I’ve chosen to tell it or it’s chosen me, for reasons I’m still attempting to figure out as I proceed, reasons that may be why I proceed, I know a life’s at stake. Whose life and why are other things I’m trying to figure out.

I intend to say more about this particular evening, Fanon, but first I need to speak to you about the project that’s been on my mind for many years, forty years at least, ever since I read your final book, The Wretched of the Earth, for the first time. Although the worrisomeness I’m calling a Fanon project has assumed various forms, it began clearly enough as a determination to be like you, that is, to become a writer committed to telling the truth about color and oppression, a writer who exposes the lies of race and reveals how the concept of race is used as a weapon to destroy people. I wanted to be somebody, an unflinchingly honest, scary somebody like Frantz Fanon whose words and deeds just might ignite a revolution, just might help cleanse the world of the plague of racism. Over the years I gradually resigned myself to the fact that I couldn’t measure up to your example, and my Fanon project shifted to writing about disappointment with myself and my country, about shame and guilt and lost opportunities, about the price of not measuring up to announced ideals. Of course my perceptions of you changed as I changed and the world changed around me.

(Read more . . .)

Wideman and Fanon actually look alike, huh? Happy reading, ya’ll!


3 thoughts on “John Edgar Wideman’s New Book

  1. Small chunks or large, Wideman’s words always are delicious. Bothersome, troubling, sad, horrifying, depressing and so on so much of the time, but always brilliant.

    Glad it got a mention here — this is a great blog, glad to have stumbled on it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s