How to account for, much less explain, America’s malaise? Is it that our politics lack imagination, or that our imaginations too easily give into the temptations of ostensibly ideology-free escapism? I’m not even sure these aren’t the same question. I am more confident, however, in stating that American letters needs more novels like Doug Rice’s Here Lies Memory (Black Scat Books). If Jonathon Sturgeon is right, that “the American imperium is alive and well, [and] the imperial self it relies on is still kicking and screaming in contemporary American fiction… [h]ow else to explain why our social novels are curiously antisocial?” then Doug’s novel is decidedly anti-imperialist. Personally, I cannot envision any reader of Here Lies Memory not feeling compelled to connect with the novel’s individual characters and their particular plights. And every reader is going to find that the book’s deceptively slippery, accumulative, incantatory prosody casts a different kind of spell. Some may call that spell “empathy,” others “experiment,” and still others “resistance.” Lance Olsen puts it better than I can: “Doug Rice loves his characters wondrously, keenly, completely, and the result is a novel at once stunningly beautiful, brilliant, fierce, crazily imaginative, and acutely wise about how the ghosts that our memories and words invent are often the last things to leave us, no matter what, how some stay so deep in our skin they become as real as its color—especially those that can damage and mend us most.” To which I will add: by concentrating on how the incommensurate and the kindred alike bind those of us whose share in this nation’s history (from which its mythology is inextricable), Here Lies Memory reminds us that language is an artistic medium, literature is social practice, and that not all story-tellers covet the authority so often assumed by authors.
The following questions and answers were exchanged between August and September of 2016.
Here Lies Memory is subtitled “A Pittsburgh Novel.” While the novel’s action transpires in reference to individual streets, landmarks and geographic features, Pittsburgh is not primarily represented in the novel by means of what most readers would recognize as “description.” And yet the Pittsburgh-ness (if you’ll pardon the clumsy neologism) of this novel is unmistakable and all-encompassing. Pittsburgh isn’t just a city in Here Lies Memory; it is more akin to a cosmos. Generally speaking, how do you conceive of setting, and how would you describe your approach to creating a sense of time and place for this novel?
Yes. I mean your statements within your question are absolutely true. Insightful. I originally conceived of setting in Here Lies Memory differently in the earlier drafts. My first draft of the novel was over 900 pages. In those first drafts there were more “realistic” and direct descriptions of Pittsburgh. I was in Stuttgart when I first started drafting the novel. I was missing Pittsburgh in many ways but also seeing Pittsburgh in Stuttgart. There is this very strange echo between these two cities. So my first drafts of the novel were more nostalgic, a desire to bring into the present what I was longing for. Another part of me wanted to do what James Joyce intended to do with Ulysses, and that is make it possible to reconstruct a 1957-1979 Pittsburgh if anything ever happened to it. I was writing a blueprint of the city and made that an integral part of the narrative. Over the years of revising Here Lies Memory, I started whittling away at descriptions of setting, trying to find only those telling details, the ones that would make this story specifically Pittsburgh without overburdening the story with static moments of memory. The characters in this novel are Pittsburgh, the breath of the sentences are Pittsburgh, the values are Pittsburgh, which is most likely why you refer to the novel’s Pittsburgh as being more akin to a cosmos, and not simply being a naturalistic or realistic description of the city as a place.
The place, the setting, is inside the narrative design and inside the characters. Pittsburgh is not, at least not so much in Here Lies Memory, simply a place; it is a soul, and that soul is forever with us—those of us born in that Steel City. I am always with home, just as Elgin is. When Elgin is in Vietnam, he knows that he will be returning to that wood frame home on Dinwiddie Street, the one that has been in his family for all those years. He knows WAMO is waiting for him. And the knees of The Street Elder? Those are Pittsburgh knees. Experiencing the heat of midday and walking up Perry Hilltop is more of Pittsburgh than merely describing the houses on the way up that hill.
Place matters. Home matters. I write from home. All my work is from home. And that means the city of Pittsburgh, those streets, those rivers. But I needed to weave all of this in the ontology of the novel, not merely in descriptive moments. I think the second novel in this series—Daughters of the Rivers—will have much more intimate descriptions in it. Part of this way of writing Pittsburgh I learned by reading John Edgar Wideman and August Wilson.
And, this is important: Throughout the novel I play with the reality of Pittsburgh. There are historical inaccuracies embedded in the memories of the characters as they try to articulate their Pittsburgh and as they try to make their Pittsburgh “real,” not only to anyone willing to listen to them but also to themselves. I recently read Matthew Cooper’s first novel, Ground Lines, and was struck by the accuracy of the physical descriptions of Pittsburgh, especially in the car rides. But another primary factor in the way I work with description has to do with how I move through cities and certainly with the way I moved through Pittsburgh. I only rode buses and walked through the city. I never drove. So my physical and spiritual sense of Pittsburgh is different than that of those who drive into or through the city.
There are numerous events in Here Lies Memory that complicate the comfortable parallelism of the novel’s plots. For example, the “very last book” that Elgin reads, and one he never finishes because he wills himself blind, contains “some boy in the book, pressed into the sentences, a boy missing since dawn.” Surely the resemblance of this story to that of Fred, Debra and their vanished son Lucas is more than coincidental. As the novel progresses, story itself emerges as a character in the novel. Is story an antagonistic force in Here Lies Memory? Or, to paraphrase that question: if story is a culprit in Here Lies Memory, what is it most guilty of?
In the early drafts of the novel, that missing boy—Lucas, Fred and Debra’s son, and the unnamed character in the novel Elgin is reading—had other narratives. Lucas’ story became a fairy tale, and he became a protector of young children and lost daughters on the streets of Pittsburgh. This narrative thread returns in the next novel of this Pittsburgh series that I am working on. (So, I guess you will have your full answer when I finish this next book.)
For Here Lies Memory, Lucas originally was given interlude chapters, each one was one page, a simple appearance and disappearance. In the novel he exists between appear and disappear. And he still inhabits that space and time. But he is not visible, even in being invisible. He is only suggested. He is a possibility. A desire for Fred, for Debra, for Elgin. But he represents a different desire and loss for each of them. I am not willing to explain that away for you. In small part, the novel that Elgin is reading is another one of the echoes between the two narratives. I would hope any reader would catch that moment in Elgin’s reading and connect it to Lucas. But, as I said above, the reader needs to understand how that connection makes meaning.
And you are right to say that story (memory) is a character in the novel. And memory becomes an antagonistic force to the characters. The characters cannot escape the ways that story operates on them, rather than, in the more conventional sense, characters being forces that create plot. The story is indeed the culprit, the antagonism, and story (and memory) is most guilty of slipping away, of always being erased, but also always leaving marks behind on the skin of characters, in their eyes, in their own struggle to speak some truth, in their desire to find solace and love even as they are being buried by loss. In some ways, particularly in relation to this question, the most important people of the story are already gone or covered by shadows before the story opens. Johnny’s father is shadowed and speechless. Lehuong wanted her father to hear the one story she needed to tell him on the stoop of her Sarah Street home. Ai. Clarence. Their love left on a sidewalk of Dinwiddie Street. Thuy. What is left to say of her? Everything and nothing. Just one deep longing that wounds again and again and again with each story that Elgin tells.
You’ve written elsewhere about your skepticism regarding adjectives and the ideology of modifiers. How much (or how little) did your work on Here Lies Memory influence these ideas regarding discourse and narration?
Adjectives typically weaken a noun. This, of course, is not always true, but there are times when an adjective is an evil product of late market capital that does more harm than good, and that tells lies as it (the adjective) seduces you to consume and to pay for something that should be more innocent, less expensive, and more truthful than what the adjective suggests. I am troubled by the proliferation of adjectives, and I do find their use to be a political and economic sign of impending gentrification, where everything is only an investment and nothing actually simply is. It is like planting trees in certain neighborhoods; those trees are not for the people who lived their lives in those neighborhoods, building homes and communities; no, they are for the people on the horizon, the ones about to come in and flip you out of your home, turning your home into a house, an investment, while carelessly over-inflating real estate prices.
The adjective muddies the noun. Be pure. Noun and verb. Be precise. Noun and verb. Find the right noun, couple it with the right verb, and the fictional world becomes vivid. No one can hide their intentions because their intentions are in the movement (noun and verb). And this fictional world is the world in my novel as well as the world of, say, Butler Street in Lawrenceville. Be careful not to sneeze when walking down such streets cluttered by adjectives, the walls will tumble. It used to take a trumpet to make walls cave in; now, so many walls, bolstered only by adjectival suggestion or coercion, are nothing more than empty signifiers.
Your question is difficult to answer. And I am sure that my words are not a satisifying answer. At best, I am trying to, like Deleuze, get behind this question, to speak from the tain of the mirror, to see what is being reflected after the fact of the gaze. I do think, however, that there is a connection between this suspicion I have of adjectives and the clarity of seeing into the world around us. I do not much like deflection, sleight of hand, in writing. We are political and must be.
For example, Jean Luc Godard says he does not make political films; he makes films politically. This matters. This is matter. In America, in capital, we plunk an adjective in front of a noun to explain away complexity and to feel good about what we are consuming. Political in front of film suggests other films are not political. I was screening films a few years back and someone accused me of only lecturing on “political” or “ideological” films. The youngster said he wanted to watch films that were only entertaining. I was heartbroken by his comment. He thought the films that entertained him, that he consumed again and again and again, day in, day out, were free of politics. He could not see that they were a politics, are a politics that he simply agreed with, and therefore the politics were invisible to him.
See how the adjective messes with clarity.
So, when Godard suggests he makes films politically, he is arguing that his films are stylistically transforming how we experience narrative and seeing. Look, I mean that, look, the most political action we can commit is to force someone to see the same thing over and over, whatever that is, and convince them that whatever they are seeing, the reality, can never be changed.
The other thing we can do is hide the money. People in Pittsburgh accuse me of being some old man who does not want anything to change. Maybe that is true, maybe not, but I am more interested in what is not being seen. So they will say that the neighborhoods are better with their adjectival construction. But this can only be said if you remain blind to how this “blight” (and that is one powerful adjective—legally—a very powerful adjective) was created in order to empty neighborhoods of families and in order for neighborhoods to decay, to sit empty and rot, and to get people driving past or through these neighborhoods on their way elsewhere to want “better” views, more comforting views, for their tourist eyes. I will stop here, since much of this is connected to my new work.
War is a genre. By which I mean: especially in our day and age, war is not a phenomenon with which the majority of the population has any direct experience. (This despite the fact that war is now pervasive in a way even the “total war” of WWI and WWII was not). Further, war is associated with particular narrative tropes, with particular images and modes of image-making, with particular themes, and with particular attitudes towards resolution and ambiguity. Several of the characters in Here Lies Memory are Vietnam veterans, and the families in the book have been shaped by that war. If there is such a thing, in the same way that there is such a thing as a “war novel,” how might you describe your book as a “veteran’s novel?”
Something happened to America and in America after the Vietnam War. (And why is it not called the American War? Is it simply because of where it was fought as a “conflict”?) I feel it needs to be called the American War because of what became of us after that war. Because of how those veterans came “home” and what they came home to. I do want to be clear: I have no idea what happened to America because of that war, but something changed in this country, something in the identity of the country changed, and a lot of it has to do with race relations, then and now.
That war scarred us, all of us. I am writing these novels because I am trying to see something and feel something that I have not been able to understand. The neighborhoods changed. Dreams of people who stayed behind in America changed. Dreams of those who went to fight in the war changed. The American Dream changed. Nightmares took over the American Dream. There were no safe places to hide away. There was a lot of screaming. I am honestly not sure what to make of all this is, or what it means. I have read history books, novels, psychology books, and so on. None of them answered any of this for me. Maybe Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato came the closest, and a few films. A lot of my friends either dated or were married to vets from Vietnam. And I still see some of the scars in them to this day. For some of them, it was as if they became infected by some pain so deep that they had no words for any of it. A quiet stare or something, but not many words.
Wim Wenders’ work on what World War II did to Germany, and the ways that he filmed the scars that have been left behind in buildings and on streets in Berlin, his home, also affected how I was seeing these neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. I used, in some ways, Wenders’ seeing of the trauma of war in my writing of this trauma in Here Lies Memory. When I was at the Akademie Schloss Solitude my first summer, I saw a lot of the destruction of history still present in and around Stuttgart. The rubble. And I could not understand how a person could live on top of such rubble. But I eventually I realized there is a similar kind of living with this in Pittsburgh; it just appears to not be there. That became the ontology of war for me in the city. How Pittsburgh has been marked by the Vietnam War, and how gentrification is doing all it can to erase those memories. But even before “they” started gentrifying, those wounds from that war were not very visible in the streets, but I felt them. I still see them when I go home to Pittsburgh. They’re still there. Walk up Forbes Avenue, walk down Fifth Avenue in the lower Hill District and try to see what you can no longer see. That is what, in part, that war did and continues to do, which is why so much of the novel takes place in Pittsburgh and not directly in the war itself.
If I knew clearly what the Vietnam War did to America, to Pittsburgh, to Elgin, to Bob; if I knew what it meant, I would not need to be writing these novels. I could just sit down in a good bar and tell whoever sits beside me the truth of Doug, but I do not have such a truth. That understanding, that kind of truth, escapes me.
As a young writer, you studied with John Gardner. (In fact, Here Lies Memory bears an “in memoriam” to Gardner, among others.) Where do you feel Gardner’s presence—as a teacher, as a maker of fictions , and / or as an aesthetician—in your own novel?
I use John’s books when I teach writing. His way of thinking through character and story and details are very important to me, more now than earlier in my career as a writer. I think the power of the telling detail that John always emphasized is particularly evident throughout the novel; hence, your sense of Pittsburgh as a cosmos. Telling details can do that. The story is not burdened by description, but made vivid by the precise detail. I have worked hard on this for years, and now I see more clearly than before. Clarity can make visible the haunted meanings of Pittsburgh. And John taught me to see in other ways, through other art practices. John painted as a way of seeing more slowly, more intimately. I have used photography in that way in my life. To understand something about the negative space of photography and the negative space that can be made vivid in a sentence. This is the very first work I have ever done that I feel evokes and works with John’s ideas. John’s sense of fiction being moral is integral to my novel. And I mean moral in the way that he meant moral—that is, that the characters, actions, places and so on are organically true to the story, not moral in the sense of simply creating some sort of a lesson. Not morality in the sense of the didactic, but morality in the sense of being honest to story, world, and character.
Speaking as a product of Catholic culture, I find the working class Catholicism of Here Lies Memory acutely affecting. I wouldn’t describe them as triggering words, but “innocence,” “sin,” “desire,” “pray,” “forgive” and the like possess a visceral power, especially as used herein, and as those words are lived by the these characters. For readers uncomfortable with the prospect of an experimental novel with a religious orientation, how would you advise they approach and / or negotiate your book?
Readers will be undoubtedly uncomfortable with this. I, too, am uncomfortable with the way religion exists in my stories. But there is no way to escape such discomfort. Many of the characters, and the narrative itself, make Catholic beliefs vulnerable. All of my writing, all my life, I have struggled with this. Elgin is faced with it directly in the way that he loves Thuy, and in how she brings a kind of Vietnamese Buddhism into his life; even though we do not see this directly in the novel, we sense it, I would hope, by the way he remembers her. It is, as Springsteen has said, so hard to be a saint when you’re just a boy out on the street in the city. And Johnny is this boy, but, like all of us, he cannot control what he is forced to face. Every character struggles with sin, most with being more sinned against than sinning. Their desires are marked as sins, and they feel condemned by this just by being the “boy” Springsteen sings about.
My mother recently introduced me to the priest of her parish as a “terrorist.” She said to him, “This is my son. He’s visiting from California. He’s not a Catholic anymore. He’s a terrorist, Father.” I quickly looked around for FBI agents and others who might report me. She meant to say, Buddhist. But maybe my mother is right, for once. Maybe the way to approach this novel is as a critical engagement, a terroristic approach, to Catholicism and those values. The day my mother made that comment was a day that I had attended Catholic mass with her. I remember looking around at how stern and nearly angry most of the people were, and I thought, on a day when you come together to celebrate your faith, on a day you gather each week to praise what you most deeply believe, why is there so much anger and so much animosity in the faces of those believers? I am not suggesting every single mass or Catholic is like this, but my childhood was mostly this: a lot of sacrifice and begging for forgiveness, and fear of doing anything wrong or right. Simply a lot of “thou shalt nots”.
But sin was always so beautiful, so full of life for me, and for the characters in the novel, who are trying to transform their own souls on their own without the intervention of a God who always judges their actions. The characters are not afraid of being lost, and they trust that. So my advice to readers would be that: allow yourselves to get lost, to be uncertain without fear, and then to trust your own beliefs. The characters in the book see Catholicism through different lenses, and in doing so begin to question what they formerly held dear. I think readers need to be as creative with their lives and with their reading habits as the characters are with their lives. But I would imagine that is the hope of every writer.
Very early in Here Lies Memory, we read: “All the talking they had done in their lives nearly emptied their bodies of words.” Very near the novel’s end, we encounter this passage:
“There are other photographs with someone rubbed out. Not cut out, but rubbed out, like she used as an eraser, didn’t want me to see.”
“She wanted you to see, Johnny. It’s why she rubbed it out. It’s still there for you to see. You see her rubbing it. You see your mother’s thumbprint, her thumb pushing into that photograph, trying to wear it away and trying to save it. And it stayed with her in her skin… She put it into her skin and took it with her, so that it did not stay here, so that it’s not with you…”
How might these two passages be said to delineate the novel’s notions of the embodied?
The body both writes and is written. The body is scarred and releases wounds through whispers. When one character touches another character, the touch remains and becomes part of the character touched. So, for example, The Street Elder’s body is marked, but not ruined, by all those who have touched her. And Johnny remains “touched” by his mother, Lehuong, even though he struggles to remember her in his thoughts, with his stories and language. She is present in his body. The body cannot escape itself once it has been touched. (My advice is to be careful with whom you touch out there. Seriously. The soul of their touch stays with you, and you give your soul over to those you touch and that stays with them.) In that photograph, it is more important that Johnny sees and experiences his mother, her touch, than for him to see what is not there. But in the end it is not that simple. Remember, earlier, Pete was trying to get Johnny to do the opposite and to see what was no longer there beneath that freeway that had been built over and through homes.
There comes a point when our bodies are emptied of language and story, and all that remains is the silent traces on our bodies, but these traces continue to mark us.
Throughout the novel there are moments that make speech, language, story impossible. All we can do is dance. So that moment that Clarence holds on to, the one memory he never shared with anyone in his life, the one memory he never put into a story while alive, but that he eventually loses in his footprint along the Monongahela River, that moment of that one kiss with Ai. All one can hope to say is something like: “this this.” The rest is absence, the fleeting moment before loss. Speech fails, at least honest speech, but the body continues to know.
Kisses, like language, like photographs, always end in loss.
Many of the characters in Here Lies Memory have had their bodies confiscated by language. Here, if anything, the characters are trying to return a freedom to their bodies, an escape, a flight, and sometimes all we have that is true to such a desire is body. Johnny’s mother knows she must leave her body, not merely her stories, behind for Johnny.
If you could cause any of your characters to forget one thing, who would you choose, and what would you allow to fall out of their memory?
I think that desire to forget is what destroys Clarence. He wants to forget he ever had the time he shared with Ai, but forgetting such beauty, such love, such desire, such touch is an insane desire. In fact, it is exactly what drives Clarence into madness in his relationship with Sula. And Clarence cannot admit that he wants to forget Ai. He cannot understand what forgetting does to a man’s soul, to his heart. But he also cannot understand what to do with the memory, so he abuses her memory, and that creates more trauma for him and those around him. If you were to ask this question to everyone in the novel who knew Clarence, they would all say that they wished he would forget Ai. But forgetting a love that deep is a sin, at least it is to me; yet, what Clarence does with how he remembers Ai is an even greater sin. Elgin balances this with his memory of Thuy. For Elgin, I would have him forget that wedding ring he held in his hand that day. Because when he held that wedding ring and looked at the inscription on it, he understood something about humanity that he wishes he had never come to know. I would wish that Ai could forget, or reimagine how she imagines, the way her parents would react to her love for Clarence and his love for her. I think children, daughters particularly, need to trust fathers, but I also feel that fathers have to do a lot to think through their ways for loving their daughters. Certainly Sylvia’s father failed at this, but, again, would you want Sylvia to forget those experiences or transform them? What she is struggling with in the novel is that transformation. She wants to become a pirate. She wants to travel and slip maps into the tiny hands of children all over Pittsburgh. She carries the spirit of her namesake, Sylvia Plath, mixed with the wild passion of Kathy Acker’s Janey, blended with Kathy’s own heart. So with all the hints of what may or may not have happened to Sylvia scattered through her stories and through the narrative, Sylvia needs to remember. Perhaps it would be safer for her to forget, but that would destroy how she created her own desire. (And I would insist, for Sylvia, it is desire, not simply agency.) Bob needs to forget Vietnam or return. The women there whose skin is made of rain call him, but all he does with this calling is write his desire onto the walls of his home and into the bark of his trees, so he must forget Vietnam. And Debra has to forget the child she lost before she lost the child (Lucas) she loses in the novel.
It is an interesting question, because in the end, if any of the characters forget that one thing, whatever it is that they forget, the novel would unravel.
How did you approach the difficulties attendant upon being a white writer who chooses to represent the Black American experience? Are those difficulties more fraught, or of a different order of magnitude, than other differences (i.e., of gender)?
This is an important question and it is not one that I take lightly. I struggled for years with this question. While writing this novel, I experienced more difficulties than I experienced while writing Blood of Mugwump, and working with gender identities and experiences. I felt in some ways that Kathy Acker had given me permission for much of what I did back then. She had given me such permission through her writing and then later in life when we became friends and spoke of this struggle quite often. These stories, the stories from the Black Community, especially Elgin’s and Red’s stories, were very complex for me—aesthetically, emotionally and spiritually. When I was Gardner’s student, I told him many of these stories, but I never wrote any of them. (Most of the stories and characters have an autobiographical source.) And John told me that I should be writing these stories instead of the ones that I was writing at the time. But I insisted that these stories belonged to my friends and the people of the North Side and the Hill District. So I remained silent.
But on one trip home, I walked, as usual, up Forbes Avenue and down Fifth Avenue of the Hill, and walked along the old places on the North Side, and realized that all the people had been disappeared. Once-vibrant places had gone silent. After experiencing that loss, I realized more fully that these stories mattered, and I felt I had to write them. They, in some ways, chose me. At one point, a friend suggested I make all the characters white. And I agreed with her, felt it would be safer to do so. But when I tried, I could not see the stories or hear the voices.
And I felt it would be immoral to write Black characters out of the stories. It would be yet another form of segregation that continues to be played out in city design and gentrification. And Pittsburgh was, and pretty much remains, a segregated city. I know the risks. I hope this novel works in a moral and truthful way to the world of the story. I worked with a variety of narrative perspectives, narrative distances, and so on to discover the most effective way to get these stories told, and in the end decided that I needed to allow the stories to speak from the characters, from stories I had overheard or was told directly back in the day. But for this novel, it simply did not work for me to insert a white character into moments of Red telling stories or Elgin talking to Johnny and so on. All the families in the novel had to have moments of privacy with each other. The story demanded that, especially given the parallel structure of the narratives.
I’ve read Gramsci, I know my role in any given situation is not to speak for anyone. In writing fiction of any sort it is important for the writer to allow the story to speak. I followed this. I recently wrote about this sense of listening more than speaking of or for Black or African American experiences in America. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks more intelligently and more eloquently than I can about the dangers of a singular narrative. I do not think this novel makes a point of any sort about race in Pittsburgh in general, but I would hope that it opens up a discussion about these issues.
And I would hope that Here Lies Memory complicates this discussion about race and gentrification. I mean, in its simplest terms, and this is to simplify it greatly, think of the Seinfeld television show, think of how long it took before an African-American or Black character walked into that show. How was it possible for that show to exist as it did with only white characters? The same with Friends. Imagine the shock that people who only watched those shows got if they ever visited to NYC and discovered that not everyone was white? It is like Woody Allen films that take place in “New York City”.
In some ways the exclusion of peoples of color in these shows creates segregation, and nearly argues for segregation. To me, the heart of these issues that we (whoever is trapped inside this we and (not or) whomever is excluded from this we) have with race have been created by and continue to be made troublesome by segregation. Rodney King and others can ask us to get along, but, from my experiences, the reason we cannot get along is because we remain segregated, and by being segregated we cannot celebrate difference. We can only truly get along by celebrating differences, and by being different with each other. We need to integrate difference.
So, one of the most serious problems with gentrification is not only the way that gentrification displaces families from their communities, while not providing a new infrastructure (bus routes, social networks, etc.), but also by deepening segregation. Notice how many traditionally Black neighborhoods become white when adjectives come marching in. Most gentrification fails to integrate, and only continues to deepen segregation. At least we are beginning to have this discussion about how segregation creates serious problems in terms of racial relationships. (See, for example, this story that recently aired on NPR: “The Problem We All Live With.”)
At the same time, I am, however, disturbed by many forms of appropriation. I think appropriation is far more problematic than even plagiarism. What Quentin Tarantino, for example, did in Django Unchained is more than slightly problematic. Telling such a story from his perspective and telling this story by twisting genres as if Postmodernism is merely a playful way of being unconventional in an aesthetic, apolitical manner is simply wrong. Such play with genre and such a position of agency taken by Tarantino does create meaning in ways that go beyond his film text. And Tarantino’s arguing that because he grew up on Blaxploitation films he understands what it means to be Black in the inner city is silly and wrong. In fact, such a statement is insane. All of this belies the reality of Tarantino being Tarantino. Watching Blaxploitation films did not make Tarantino Black, and watching Blaxploitation films will not make you, or me, Black, and it does not give you an understanding of the daily experiences of being Black in America. I have watched nearly all the Blaxploitation films, and I have read many books written by Black authors, and I have listened to many songs written by and performed by Black artists, and I have many Black and African-American friends, but I remain white. The only thing worse than Tarantino’s appropriation is his defense.
With Here Lies Memory, I worked hard at not appropriating Black cultures and not speaking for Black experiences. I did my best to integrate the stories of the two families in the novel. Their stories, their lives, speak to each other on a variety of levels and in a variety of ways. It is possible that people have only a white experience in Pittsburgh. I know people that have isolated themselves in that way and that segregate themselves from difference. I have siblings who have never had a Black person in their homes. I know this, but it was not my experience of Pittsburgh, so when I wrote the novel, Black and white characters and stories integrated, while also remaining segregated in terms of overall narrative design. And that narrative design was also deliberate for this particular story. (The design is different in the novel I am working on now, Daughters of the Rivers.) It would not have been a moral novel were I to only write this novel with white characters. And I will never write a novel with only Black characters. I cannot imagine that world. But to write a novel of Pittsburgh with only white characters would, in my eyes, be equivalent to what Seinfeld did.
What writing are you working on right now, and how is that work being shaped by your experience completing Here Lies Memory?
I envision Here Lies Memory as the first part of a trilogy, but not so much a trilogy that fully connects and develops each novel; rather, I guess, more of a series of three novels about Pittsburgh. Each one explores changes in the city that began in the 1970s, and that are now being realized through gentrification. So characters from Here Lies Memory have found their way into the novel I am currently working on now, Daughters of the Rivers. In some ways I imagine this series to be similar to John Edgar Wideman’s Homewood Trilogy. The novels will speak back and forth with each other. I am still working on the structural design of the series as a whole, as well as the narrative designs of each individual novel. More characters from Johnny’s family are appearing in Daughters of the Rivers, some as ghosts, some as dreams, some as old stories being told to Johnny at the very moment of forgetting. Sylvia is still haunting Pittsburgh, as are Fred and Debra. And, as importantly, the city and weather become even more directly involved in plot design and character. The city remains a character. Memories remain a driving narrative force. I am also working on a small book, a series of street photographs and photographs of the Hill District and the North Side of Pittsburgh, Along with this book, will be poetic stories—historical, imagined, fragmented—of the places and people in the photographs. This book will be a companion for Here Lies Memory.
Doug Rice is the author of Blood of Mugwump (selected by Kathy Acker as runner-up Fiction Collective 2 First Novel Award, 1996), Here Lies Memory (Black Scat Books, 2016), An Erotics of Seeing (Black Scat Books 2015), Das Heilige Buch der Stille (Solitude Press, Stuttgart, 2013, an original book, German translation by Nicolai Kobus), Between Appear and Disappear (Jaded Ibis Press, 2013), Dream Memoirs of a Fabulist (Copilot Press, 2011), Le Sang des Mugwump (French translation of Blood of Mugwump by Heloise Esquii, Desordres Laurence Viallet, Paris, France, 2007), Skin Prayer (Eraserhead Press, 2002), and A Good CuntBoy is Hard to Find (CPAOD Books, 1998). He is the co-editor of Federman: A to X-X-X-X (San Diego State University Press, 1998). His fiction, memoirs and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous anthologies and journals including: Avant Pop: Fiction for a Daydream Nation, Kiss the Sky, The Dirty Fabulous Anthology, Alice Redux, Phanthoms of Desire, Western Humanities Review, Zyzzyvya, Gargoyle, Fiction International, Discourse, 580 Split, and others. He teaches film theory and film history at Sacramento State.