When the Spanish dictator Franco died 25 years ago, Juan Goytisolo felt liberated. "I discovered that my real, tyrannical father was Franco," he says, "my mother was killed by his bombs, my family destroyed, and he forced me to become an exile. Everything I created was a result of the civil war."
Yet for the child of the 1936-39 Spanish civil war, whose books were banned under the victorious Franco regime, liberation came too late. He was living with a Frenchwoman and moving between Paris and his adopted land of Morocco. "It would have been impossible to have a third life in Spain. I love Spanish culture but hate Spanish society; I can't live there."
For 45 years, the expatriate Goytisolo has been both widely acknowledged as Spain's greatest living writer and its most scabrous critic. In some 30 books of fiction, autobiography, essays and journalism, he has turned the Spanish language against what he derides as "Sunnyspain", flaying the "Hispanos" while excavating their culture's Moorish and Jewish roots, suppressed over the centuries. He is passionate about Islamic culture (he speaks Maghrebi Arabic as well as Castilian, Catalan, French, English and Turkish) and castigates European insularity from a vantage point across the Gibraltar straits, siding with pariahs and heretics the world over who have been driven out and glory in a treasonous revenge.
His friend, the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes, likens Goytisolo to the Irishmen Swift and Joyce: "exiles condemned to live with the language of their oppressions, digest it, expel it, trample on it, and then resign themselves . . . " For another admirer, the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, Goytisolo's books are "unsettling, apocalyptic . . . a strange mixture of pitiless autobiography, the debunking of mythologies and conformist fetishes, passionate exploration of the periphery of the west - in particular the Arab world - and audacious linguistic experiment".
His translator Peter Bush, director of the University of East Anglia's centre for translation studies, believes no other Spanish writer matches his "intellectual reach, constant invention of language and unusual absorption of other cultures - or stands on a par with the best of the Latin American writers, like Márquez and Julio Cortázar. Although he writes novels in an avant-garde, provocative, modernist style, there's always a political urgency behind them. His keen sense of history comes from his own life."
Goytisolo lives in Marrakech, in a beautiful old house in the medina. Now aged 69, a small, rather frail figure, he is an habitue of the Café de France on the main square of Djemaa el Fna, the pulsing heart of the Moroccan city. Though growing hard of hearing, he revels in its constant drum beats and human murmur which echo in his courtyard, shaded by orange trees.
He is known as austere but has a surprising warmth and an impish humour, punning "Rimbaud" and "Rambo", or laughing at his own incompetence with gadgetry. Young children - the sons of brothers who have worked for him for almost 20 years, play delightedly with a tortoise at his feet.
His new book, The Garden Of Secrets, is published next week in English. Hailed by Fuentes as "one of the very finest novels in Spain of the last 10 years", it returns to the civil war era that haunts much of Goytisolo's fiction. In 28 tales - one for each letter in the Arabic alphabet - it probes the fate of a fictional friend of Lorca, the great Spanish poet and homosexual, held by the fascists in a north African jail as "a red, a queer and a poet". The author's lifelong skewering of Catholic, nationalist Spain has been bound up with his bisexuality and an avowed quest for political, moral and sexual freedom.
His masterpiece two-volume autobiography in the mid-1980s, Forbidden Territory and Realm Of Strife, broke ground in Spanish letters with its introspective sexual and emotional honesty. It traces his life up to the mid-1960s, when he ceased to be merely "a writer of my generation" producing conventional, neo-realist novels, and struck out on a path of risk and experimentation.
The gay US writer Edmund White says: "Goytisolo made sacrifices for both his literature and his politics. In a culture that now is evolved and permissive, but was then full of macho uptightness, his autobiography brought a note of total frankness. Homosexuality challenges the exploitation of women and role playing, the silences of personal life."
Guillermo Cabrera Infante, the Cuban novelist, sees his friend as a "picador: a frank and solitary writer on a crusade for truth. He's pugnaciously honest about his personal life, which is not easy in Spain. He doesn't kow-tow or buy the official line - Franco or post-Franco - and he doesn't belong to any Spanish coterie or club. He's an outsider - his own man."
Perhaps for that reason, Goytisolo has won none of the country's big literary prizes, and has never been a member of its Royal Academy. He can still shock with a novel such as Carajicomedia (A Cock-eyed Comedy), now in its fifth edition since publication five months ago in Spain; it's a Swiftian satire on the Catholic church and its powerful secret society, Opus Dei.
Through his journalism, too, he keeps up an abrasive dialogue with post-Franco Spain. In 1998 he was declared persona non grata by the mayor of the south-eastern boom town of El Ejido for denouncing the conditions of African migrant workers, and is proud to be an "honorary Gypsy" for his defence of another embattled community - "still classified as immigrants after five-and-a-half centuries". A collection of his roving reports for the Madrid newspaper El País is due out in translation this autumn.
Goytisolo was born in Barcelona in 1931, the third of four children, of "exemplary bourgeois stock". His Basque-descended father was an executive in a chemical company, and suffered from pleurisy. The family spent the civil war years in a mountain village in Catalonia, but when Juan was seven his Catalan mother, Julia Gay, was killed in a Francoist air raid during a visit to Barcelona. His father, who hated communists, remained loyal to Franco and was imprisoned by Republicans, the family "caught in the crossfire of both sides".
After the war, Goytisolo was a "mixture of orphan and street urchin". His father forbade his late wife's parents from speaking to them in Catalan. Goytisolo, who writes in Castilian, the official language of Spain, says: "I only learned Catalan in France in the 60s. But I was always on the periphery of Castilian; I have the freedom of someone not in the centre."
There were literary antecedents on his mother's side, and his elder brother José Agustín, who died last year, became a poet; his younger brother Luis, a novelist. When Goytisolo was about eight, he was sexually molested - "fondled, not raped" - by his maternal grandfather. Yet more than the trauma, what emerges from his autobiography is compassion for the repressed homosexual grandfather who had been forced out of jobs and was mercilessly humiliated by Juan's virulently homophobic father, who made the penurious old man and his wife move out, though they all dined together every day.
"I'm against pederasty, obviously," says Goytisolo. "I was a child and it was not agreeable to me; my grandfather wasn't responsible for my later sexual life. But in my 20s I assisted in his petty persecution, and it was very cruel. In the end, I felt pity for him."
His grandmother became senile. "My mother was killed; her sister and mother died in psychiatric asylums. Recently my brother discovered some beautiful poems my aunt wrote in her 20s. But my family never talked about her. Women were also the victims of this family."
Goytisolo's belief that Catholic morality spawned his grandparents' "secret tragedy" spurred his drive to flee the "castrating rather than sterile" values of the Barcelona middle classes His agnosticism, Marxist leanings and sexual ambivalence put him at odds with his father, who was, however, spared the pain of his son's "coming out" by his death in 1964. "I was contrary to all his expectations; he was very Catholic, a monarchist," Goytisolo says. "But I saw a beggar here in Marrakech who had the face of my father when he died, and I was very moved."
He was schooled by "ignorant, small-minded Jesuit priests", so calls himself an autodidact. He studied law in Madrid and Barcelona, and in 1954 published his first novel, The Young Assassins, to acclaim. Repelled by anything Spanish until he was in exile, he read European and American literature. But he soon fled a milieu where he felt alien and hamstrung by self-censorship. He moved to Paris in 1956 and, as a reader for the publishers Gallimard, became a conduit for writers of the Latin American "boom", including Fuentes, Cabrera Infante and Manuel Puig.
His wife-to-be, Monique Lange, was a secretary for a translation agency who later became a novelist. Lange, who died in 1996, had a four-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Carole (whose godfather was William Faulkner). The couple began a lifelong "open" relationship - each accepting the other's affairs - reminiscent of their friends Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.
"The first time I was in love was with Monique Lange," says Goytisolo. "She was a fantastic woman, open, generous; she understood everything." Goytisolo who once described himself as a "typical progressive intellectual and Communist party fellow-traveller", wrote fiction influenced by Sartre's theory of social commitment, while filing bitterly anti-Franco reports for French newspapers. He threw himself behind the 1959 Cuban revolution, partly out of guilt at the discovery that his Basque great grandfather had made his fortune from slaves in Cuba.
"As a child I saw many photographs of his sugar plantation, but I was very shocked by the letters from his slaves. It was the beginning of the revolution, and I visited the village where many of the black and mulatto people had my family name. I even met a Juan Goytisolo." He last visited Cuba in 1967. "I discovered the repression against African religions, censorship and persecution of homosexuals; I felt estranged from the revolution after that."
Cabrera Infante, who met Goytisolo in Paris and travelled with him to Cuba, recalls him as "very shy and serious - though later I discovered his extraordinary sense of humour and irony". He tells how Goytisolo was asked to appear on Cuban TV - on condition that he made no mention of his friend, by then on Castro's hate list - but he talked endlessly about Cabrera Infante's novel Three Trapped Tigers. "He kept his word ,but did what he wanted to do; he has a dispassionate sense of fairness."
Goytisolo finally broke with the Spanish Communists after predicting that Franco's dictatorship would collapse not through their efforts but through the modernisation of Spain. "By the mid-60s, 2m Spaniards were emigrating, and 15m tourists came with their customs and freedom: society was changing. I was right, but it was sacrilege. I found myself banished by Francoists in Spain and attacked by the Communist party in exile. I decided not to write about Spanish politics till after Franco's death."
He knew many writers in Paris, from Camus ("cold and distant") to Hemingway, whom he met at a bullfight. But Jean Genet was his mentor - "moral more than literary". He says of the playwright who could fit all his belongings in a suitcase: "He was alien to all kinds of vanity. Because of him, I discovered I was interested in literature, not in literary life. I try to take my work seriously but not myself." He quotes Genet: "If you know your point of arrival, it's not a literary adventure, it's a bus journey."
Genet may also have been a catalyst for his exploration of bisexuality. Edmund White, Genet's biographer, says: "Genet was absolutely fearless. When they first met, Genet stared at Goytisolo and said, 'You're a fag, aren't you?'. He represented absolute freedom from middle-class morality and total integrity in art." Goytisolo, who loathed "traditional female passivity", had been drawn to the bars and brothels of the Barcelona slums of his early fiction, but hankered for dockers. "My sexuality was never bourgeois or polite," he wrote. "I was never attracted by well brought-up people wearing ties." He saw himself as a masked imposter and yearned for authenticity.
"In Barcelona my only sexual education was to go with [women] prostitutes and men of my class," he says. "But it was not satisfactory. In Spain the model of men I find attractive didn't exist then. But in France I found friends in the Arab coffee houses of Barbès, where I remember being the only European. I tried to learn Arabic."
He found his type in the "rough, sunburned sons" of the Islamic belt, from Morocco to Pakistan. He and Lange were active supporters of the Algerian independence movement, the FLN, and protested against crackdowns on north Africans in Paris during the Algerian war of 1954-62. In White's view: "like Genet and Pasolini, Goytisolo is a gay European drawn to the Third World through his erotic tastes but who ... developed that impulse both through political activism and artistic innovation ... [He] is an apostle of the revolutionary, anarchic power of sexuality, of the desiring body, to break through the sterile confines of class."
In the Islamic world, Goytisolo maintains, "homosexuality is very natural but it's a condition not to be named", and is often signalled not by effeminacy but by exaggerated virility. "I never go to bed with men of Christian origin," he adds. "It's almost impossible, because they've come to an open homosexuality out of a long sickness. I was sick for years, and didn't want to meet people who were also sick."
He prefers illiterate or less educated men. "I had homosexual writer friends, but there's a need to be with someone completely different: social difference plays the same role in attraction for me as gender between men and women." On the dangers of exploitation, he says: "There's always a commercial transaction; there's no love, but there's friendship. I love only Monique; I never fell in love with anyone else."
Lange, who introduced Goytisolo to Genet and found his enigmatic sexuality alluring, is described by White as having been "totally warm, charming and very French, but painfully shy and with a slightly beaten look". Goytisolo's first fulfilling gay sex, with an Arab man in Barbès, prompted an agonising four-year crisis. It was resolved in 1965 by a moving letter he wrote to Lange (included in his autobiography), in which he confessed to being "totally, definitively, irrevocably homosexual". Her response came in a telegram: "An inhuman week. I still love you."
From that time Goytisolo lived part of the year in Morocco, often without Lange, and their focus shifted, he wrote, from sex - though they still had a physical relationship - to "shared values and feelings". "That letter to Monique was the most difficult act of my life," he recalls. "I was afraid her reaction would be to cut our ties. But we kept together in a beautiful relationship. She knew there was no possible rivalry between the men I went with and her. I think she was sad, but she took a strong moral position: it was a kind of victory, to establish a new relationship against social prejudice. It was very difficult. But human beings are more complicated than they're supposed to be by society. We tried to live without lies. Most people I know live permanently in lies; many couples exist because they've both hidden many things."
Lange's novel Les Poissons-chats tells of the heroine's difficult love for a homosexual, and Lange referred to her own husband as "ever absent". However, from his point of view, "it was always with humour and generosity".
In 1978, Lange had a health scare, and they decided to get married. For Goytisolo, the dawn of sexual openness at 34 was a "rebirth". "I felt a free man; suddenly free of ideology, religion, patriotism." He broke with realism in the autobiographical Marks Of Identity (1966), which he calls his "first adult novel". He disowns his previous eight books. From then, all his works were banned in Spain till Franco's death, but were published in Mexico or Argentina.
They have been translated into French, English, German and, increasingly, Arabic; his following extends to Morocco, Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. Marks Of Identity, together with Count Julian (1970) and Juan The Landless (1975), formed a trilogy that shocked with its celebration of 700 years of Moorish Spain and hybrid culture. Count Julian was once described as a "poison pen letter to Spanish society", because it sent up the Catholic cult of virginity. It also attacks Spain's obsession with "purity", which includes denying the Arabic influence on the Spanish language. The book was conceived in Tangier and reveals the subconscious Spanish terror of the Moor. Goytisolo says: "for centuries Spain was a frontier between the Christian and Islamic worlds; anti-Muslim sentiments are very profound. When I was a child, people would say, 'Be quiet, the Moro is coming',. I felt completely foreign to my country. I imagined the destruction of Spanish mythology, its Catholicism and nationalism, in a literary attack on traditional Spain. I identified myself with the great traitor who opened the door to Arab invasion. I discovered that the Franco dictatorship was the result of a long tradition that began in the middle ages."
For Goytisolo, the first modern totalitarian state came with the Catholic monarchy's support for the Inquisition and the later expulsion of Spanish Muslims in 1609. Spain's destruction of its plural culture was the downfall of that state, bringing with it intellectual sterility and delayed modernity - its "long holiday from history".
He says: "The vitality of a culture is in its capacity to assimilate foreign influences. The culture that's defensive and closed condemns itself to decadence." Goytisolo in exile has re-read the Spanish classics he once spurned. "I've spent almost all my adult life outside Spain. I compensate by trying to live inside Spanish culture. Everything I wrote after Count Julian was a dialogue with Spanish literature. I know many writers who want disciples, imitators. But I'm looking for ancestors."
His eclectic family tree includes the Archpriest of Hita, a 12th-century "Boccaccio or Chaucer" who mixed Latin, Hebrew, Arabic and Castilian; the mystic St John of the Cross; the Sufi poets; and the picaresque novelists. For him, the Spanish canon has been "brutally savaged" by persistent taboos, such as refusing to admit that Cervantes might have been a "new Christian" - a Jewish convert during the Inquisition. "If you don't take into account the Jewish origins of most writers of the 15th to 17th centuries, you don't understand the drama: it was the first confrontation of intellectuals against a totalitarian state. It's like teaching 20th-century Russian literature as a Golden Age, without mentioning the Gulag."
Nor is the Arabic role acknowledged in the origins of the European novel - he cites Cervantes, who was held captive in Algiers, drawing on the Thousand and One Nights: "Kundera was right to say the modern novel began with Cervantes. Don Quixote combined the western and Arabic traditions."
Goytisolo calls The Garden Of Secrets a homage to Cervantes. He learned that many civil war poets were gay - Lorca and friends on the Republican side, and closet homosexuals among the Falangists, Franco's fascists, who "wrote very bad poetry about the German army and the Aryan ideal". Yet while Franco's side was virulently anti-semitic, its Moorish mercenaries from the Rif were attacked by the other side, the Republicans.
"They weren't able to distinguish between the Moroccan people and poor mercenaries who need to eat. I'm not nostalgic or idealistic; there was always conflict between Jews, Arabs and Christians in Andalucia. But the problem is, they said you can't be Spanish without being Catholic. Always, those who don't speak like you are 'foreigners' who need to be expelled."
When Goytisolo much later returned to Almeria province in southern Spain, where the poverty had shocked him in the 1950s, he found an agricultural miracle fuelled by north African migrants. He likened their conditions to those of Cuban slaves, prompting him to predict today's renewed cries of "Moors out!". He despairs of post-Franco Spain - as newly rich, newly free and newly European. "After the treatment of immigrants and Gypsies, I feel the same way about Spain as I did in Tangier. The problem is the incapacity to embrace the richness it contains." The same goes for "Fortress Europe". Seeing Turkish graffiti in Le Sentier, the Paris garment district where he lived with Lange, Goytisolo's impulse was to take up Turkish classes.
"When I was a child in the 40s, the Catalan language was forbidden. I realised that to have two languages and cultures is better than one; three better than two. You should always add, not subtract. I've tried to be a kind of European with a knowledge of other areas of the world." He revels in the polyphony, diversity, healthful promiscuity and "reciprocal contagion" of cityscapes, which he celebrated in his novels Makbara (1980) - a hymn to sex as freedom - and the darkly funny Landscapes After The Battle (1982). For him, an "urban animal", the "Babelisation of great capitals" is a sign of modernity.
In The Virtues Of The Solitary Bird (1988), the terror of Aids merges with a wider fear of contamination - to "not being of pure blood, pure Christian; being infected by a foreign or alien ideology". He sees Spain's expulsions of Jews and Muslims as a precursor of today's ethnic cleansing, by the likes of Radovan Karadzic in Bosnia and Jean-Marie Le Pen in France. During the Bosnian war, he wrote of the targeting of Sarajevo's library by ultra-nationalist Serbs, who echoed the Spanish fascists of the 1940s, as "memoricide: thousands of Ottoman, Persian, Arabic manuscripts were destroyed to kill memories and construct a new mythology".
In a lecture in Oxford, entitled "We are all Bosnians", he called for intervention. Where, he asked, were the Hemingways and Orwells to defend secular citizenship - "the most important part of the French revolution? I was convinced that after the second world war and the Holocaust some things were impossible in Europe. But I discovered in Yugoslavia that my conviction was wrong; everything is possible."
Since his wife's death four years ago, Goytisolo has lived in Marrakech. "She died suddenly in her sleep. For her it was wonderful, there was no pain. But I wasn't prepared. It was very difficult for me to get used to living in Paris without her; I got depressed. My apartment became a kind of tomb."
He has created an unorthodox household with his friends the Darouzi brothers ("not a sexual relationship; it's family"), and their sons, eight-year-old Rida, and his younger cousins, Younes and Khalid - who he has made his heirs.
He also heads a Unesco drive to have Marrakech's Djemaa el Fna, where he learned his colloquial Arabic, designated as the world's first "oral heritage" site. Scornful of the "educated but uncultured" Moroccan bourgeoisie who look down on the low-life spinning fabulous tales on the square, he gleams with uncondescending pleasure at the paradox: "The illiterate storytellers were my professors."
The Garden Of Secrets is published on Thursday by Serpent's Tail, at £14.99. Juan Goytisolo will be at the Edinburgh book festival on Saturday August 26 at 3.30pm.
The Library of America
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I was born in Harlem thirty-one years ago. I began plotting novels at about the time I learned to read. The story of my childhood is the usual bleak fantasy, and we can dismiss it with the restrained observation that I certainly would not consider living it again. In those days my mother was given to the exasperating and mysterious habit of having babies. As they were born, I took them over with one hand and held a book with the other. The children probably suffered, though they have since been kind enough to deny it, and in this way I read Uncle Tom's Cabin and A Tale of Two Cities over and over and over again; in this way, in fact, I read just about everything I could get my hands on--except the Bible, probably because it was the only book I was encouraged to read. I must also confess that I wrote--a great deal--and my first professional triumph, in any case, the first effort of mine to be seen in print, occurred at the age of twelve or thereabouts, when a short story I had written about the Spanish revolution won some sort of prize in an extremely short-lived church newspaper. I remember the story was censored by the lady editor, though I don't remember why, and I was outraged.
Also wrote plays, and songs, for one of which I received a letter of congratulations from Mayor La Guardia, and poetry, about which the less said, the better. My mother was delighted by all these goings-on, but my father wasn't; he wanted me to be a preacher. When I was fourteen I became a preacher, and when I was seventeen I stopped. Very shortly thereafter I left home. For God knows how long I struggled with the world of commerce and industry--I guess they would say they struggled with me--and when I was about twenty-one I had enough done of a novel to get a Saxton Fellowship. When I was twenty-two the fellowship was over, the novel turned out to be unsalable, and I started waiting on tables in a Village restaurant and writing book reviews--mostly, as it turned out, about the Negro problem, concerning which the color of my skin made me automatically an expert. Did another book, in company with photographer Theodore Pelatowski, about the store-front churches in Harlem. This book met exactly the same fate as my first--fellowship, but no sale. (It was a Rosenwald Fellowship.) By the time I was twenty-four I had decided to stop reviewing books about the Negro problem--which, by this time, was only slightly less horrible in print than it was in life--and I packed my bags and went to France, where I finished, God knows how, Go Tell It on the Mountain.
Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent--which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it. On the other hand, it is only because the world looks on his talent with such a frightening indifference that the artist is compelled to make his talent important. So that any writer, looking back over even so short a span of time as I am here forced to assess, finds that the things which hurt him and the things which helped him cannot be divorced from each other; he could be helped in a certain way only because he was hurt in a certain way; and his help is simply to be enabled to move from one conundrum to the next--one is tempted to say that he moves from one disaster to the next. When one begins looking for influences one finds them by the score. I haven't thought much about my own, not enough anyway; I hazard that the King James Bible, the rhetoric of the store-front church, something ironic and violent and perpetually understated in Negro speech--and something of Dickens' love for bravura--have something to do with me today; but I wouldn't stake my life on it. Likewise, innumerable people have helped me in many ways; but finally, I suppose, the most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality. (Truce, by the way, is the best one can hope for.)
One of the difficulties about being a Negro writer (and this is not special pleading, since I don't mean to suggest that he has it worse than anybody else) is that the Negro problem is written about so widely. The bookshelves groan under the weight of information, and everyone therefore considers himself informed. And this information, furthermore, operates usually (generally, popularly) to reinforce traditional attitudes. Of traditional attitudes there are only two--For or Against--and I, personally, find it difficult to say which attitude has caused me the most pain. I am speaking as a writer; from a social point of view I am perfectly aware that the change from ill-will to good-will, however motivated, however imperfect, however expressed, is better than no change at all.
But it is part of the business of the writer--as I see it--to examine attitudes, to go beneath the surface, to tap the source. From this point of view the Negro problem is nearly inaccessible. It is not only written about so widely; it is written about so badly. It is quite possible to say that the price a Negro pays for becoming articulate is to find himself, at length, with nothing to be articulate about. ("You taught me language," says Caliban to Prospero, "and my profit on't is I know how to curse.") Consider: the tremendous social activity that this problem generates imposes on whites and Negroes alike the necessity of looking forward, of working to bring about a better day. This is fine, it keeps the waters troubled; it is all, indeed, that has made possible the Negro's progress. Nevertheless, social affairs are not generally speaking the writer's prime concern, whether they ought to be or not; it is absolutely necessary that he establish between himself and these affairs a distance which will allow, at least, for clarity, so that before he can look forward in any meaningful sense, he must first be allowed to take a long look back. In the context of the Negro problem neither whites nor blacks, for excellent reasons of their own, have the faintest desire to look back; but I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.
I know, in any case, that the most crucial time in my own development came when I was forced to recognize that I was a kind of bastard of the West; when I followed the line of my past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa. And this meant that in some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use--I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe. I would have to appropriate these white centuries, I would have to make them mine--I would have to accept my special attitude, my special place in this scheme--otherwise I would have no place in any scheme. What was the most difficult was the fact that I was forced to admit something I had always hidden from myself, which the American Negro has had to hide from himself as the price of his public progress; that I hated and feared white people. This did not mean that I loved black people; on the contrary, I despised them, possibly because they failed to produce Rembrandt. In effect, I hated and feared the world. And this meant, not only that I thus gave the world an altogether murderous power over me, but also that in such a self-destroying limbo I could never hope to write.
One writes out of one thing only--one's own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art. The difficulty then, for me, of being a Negro writer was the fact that I was, in effect, prohibited from examining my own experience too closely by the tremendous demands and the very real dangers of my social situation.
I don't think the dilemma outlined above is uncommon. I do think, since writers work in the disastrously explicit medium of language, that it goes a little way towards explaining why, out of the enormous resources of Negro speech and life, and despite the example of Negro music, prose written by Negroes has been generally speaking so pallid and so harsh. I have not written about being a Negro at such length because I expect that to be my only subject, but only because it was the gate I had to unlock before I could hope to write about anything else. I don't think that the Negro problem in America can be even discussed coherently without bearing in mind its context; its context being the history, traditions, customs, the moral assumptions and preoccupations of the country; in short, the general social fabric. Appearances to the contrary, no one in America escapes its effects and everyone in America bears some responsibility for it. I believe this the more firmly because it is the overwhelming tendency to speak of this problem as though it were a thing apart. But in the work of Faulkner, in the general attitude and certain specific passages in Robert Penn Warren, and, most significantly, in the advent of Ralph Ellison, one sees the beginnings--at least--of a more genuinely penetrating search. Mr. Ellison, by the way, is the first Negro novelist I have ever read to utilize in language, and brilliantly, some of the ambiguity and irony of Negro life.
About my interests: I don't know if I have any, unless the morbid desire to own a sixteen-millimeter camera and make experimental movies can be so classified. Otherwise, I love to eat and drink---it's my melancholy conviction that I've scarcely ever had enough to eat (this is because it's impossible to eat enough if you're worried about the next meal)--and I love to argue with people who do not disagree with me too profoundly, and I love to laugh. I do not like bohemia, or bohemians, I do not like people whose principal aim is pleasure, and I do not like people who are earnest about anything. I don't like people who like me because I'm a Negro; neither do I like people who find in the same accident grounds for contempt. I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one's own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright. I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done.
I want to be an honest man and a good writer.
(C) 1998 Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. All rights reserved. ISBN: 1-883011-52-3
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