In many ways I am reviewing myself because I have one of the conversations in this book. For me, this marks the third time that one of my conversations with creative writers have ended up in this series. The other two were Conversations with Ernest Gaines, and Conversations with Albert Murray. Both books were published in the ‘90s.
John A. Williams is one of the most prolific black writers in our short history as Americans. His novel, The Man Who Cried I Am, and his provocative non-fiction book, The King God Didn’t Save, became best sellers. In addition, he was written ten other novels, seven volumes of nonfiction, a play, a book of poetry and an opera libretto. He is also one of the least known American writers.
But before I get to him, I want to say a few words about the University Press of Mississippi’s Literary Conversation series. The University Press of Mississippi was founded in 1970 and is supported by Mississippi's eight state universities.
Starting the Literary Conversation series was a stroke of sheer genius by an unknown person I was unable to identify. What I love most about what they have done is how inclusive they’ve been. Blacks, Jews, Asians, WASPS—the entire American family like Ishmael Reed, E.L. Doctorow, Maxine Hong Kingston, S.J. Perelman and Anais Nin—are all included. I also like the fact that they market their products to universities and public and private libraries all over the world.
The current Series editor is Monika Gehlawat, Associate Professor of English and Director of Graduate Studies at The University of Southern Mississippi.
Over the years, the Press has published more than 1000 titles and distributed more than 2,600,000 copies worldwide, including the Literary Conversations series. They have given the world a great showcase for American writers, and I am damn glad to know that I can walk into almost any major university and public library in the world and find a book, thanks to them, with one of my articles in it.
Who wouldn’t want to be a part of something like that?
As I read the interviews in the newest book from the Conversation Series, a few things jumped out at me. One is that Williams was an unapologetic radical in his novels. Over and over he seems to be saying that blacks should pick up the gun and wage war against whites.
One reviewer even asked him if he had ever been “accused of incitement through your writings at all?”
He answered, “Not yet, but I wish I had. I say that with much pride because I would like to feel that my writings were important enough to in many ways influence the course of not only my country’s history, my people’s history, but the world. I suppose every writer would like to be a Dostoyevsky, a Dickens, a Balzac, a Herman Melville, and to this end I feel that I failed.”
Now I can see why I title my Conversation, John A. Williams: Agent Provocateur. Another thing I noticed rereading the essay I wrote as an undergraduate at NYU and published in my first magazine, the now historic Arts and Letters magazine, Black Creation, and many of the other conversations in the book—was how many times he blamed the media for most of the ills facing this country.
I poop pooped him in my conversation.
It was 1971 when I wrote it. I was in my senior year at NYU, about to graduate with a degree in journalism. I had also successfully launched a magazine, Black Creation, a few years prior that was now a national magazine. Needless to say, I loved being a journalist.
Little did I know that when I got out into the real world, that this business, that I loved so much, was a racist, sexist, nationalistic, tribal business. There was no such thing as American journalism. All you can do is the best you can, as the tribal and racial leaders gave us little to remind us that there as such a thing as an American.
No wonder there was such loneliness in America. There did not exist yet a narrative.
This was what Williams was trying to tell me in our brief encounter—and I was to find out that his message wasn’t pretty.
This book was released with another conversation worth reading, Conversations with Joan Didion.
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