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Ishmael Reed Interviewed in The Barcelona Review

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AYÉN XAVI , Barcelona

07/01/2017 01:07

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. And Hispanics are even worse off than blacks. Not a single review will recognize a book written by them. Sandra Cisneros or Rudolfo Anaya, great writers, are ignored by the press. Both have recently received the presidential medals and Obama even told Rudolfo that he had read all his books, but he is an author ignored by The New York Times Book Review and the Anglo-Saxon media that mark the cultural tendencies. We naively believed that when white middle-class feminists took power in cultural circles they would be more inclusive.

Is Spanish culture very powerful in American literature?

Of course, but they do not teach it. Spanish was the first European language introduced in North America, not English. Hispanics have a literary tradition in our country that dates back to the 16th century.

You did not get to know the twenties. What was it that drew you from that period?

The 1920s were a Dionysian period in US life, during which black culture, especially jazz, was very influential. There was a Renaissance, but in the neighborhood of Harlem. Many whites were inspired by black art, including Matisse, Picasso and Stravinsky.


The American writer Ishmael Reed, in an image of 1995The American writer Ishmael Reed, in an image from 1995 (Chris Felver - Getty)


Is Jes Grew, the rhythmic epidemic, a metaphor for what?

Jes Grew (Just Grew) was inspired by an expression I found in an anthology of poetry by James Weldon Johnson. He talks about some songs that come out of nowhere, with no background. I had in mind also the African religion of Haiti, the loas, which are the spirits that remain in charge of the person possessed, there are hundreds. For example, if a loa likes to smoke cigars, his host, the human host, will smoke cigars.

Given the musicality of language, did he write it also possessed by Jes Grew or followed rational schemes?

The book has a structure. My goal was to move forward with amazing transitions, the same way I write poems. And parody popular genres.

What role do secret societies have?

The members of the elite belong to them, they are already captured in the university. So it works, there is a government in permanent shadow, regardless of who gets elected.

What is the political message of the novel?

The development of US culture has been hampered by a false Eurocentrism, so ridiculous that even the majority of Europeans would not. I travel often to Europe, from the age of 17, and still wonder how different it is with respect to that fantasy of American academics. Right now there is a struggle between multiculturalism and white nationalism, that toxic disease that has killed more people than Ebola.

Its text refers to the original stories of religions, such as the Bible.

The Bible is the key document of Western civilization, but I also include references to the Greek and Egyptian religions. Carl Jung has already pointed out the points of connection between Christianity and the Greek religion.

What can you tell us about your strictly musical work?

I have been collaborating with jazz musicians since 1983. There have been three albums that have come out of those concerts we have been giving in Europe, Japan and the USA. Taj Mahal, Cassandra Wilson, Macy Gray and Bobby Womack are some of the musicians who have recorded my songs, and I myself debuted as a jazz pianist on my album For All We Know with David Murray and Ishmael Reed Quintet.

How about Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize?


Until the Nobel laureate will not stop being driven by a Swedish mafia will not have credibility. There should be juries from South Europe, America, Asia and Africa, so that the awards would be based on an international consensus. I was surprised that Dylan, a convicted plagiarist, would receive it. It should have been for DeLillo or Ngugi wa Thiongo. Every time I hear Dylan sing blues, I feel a lot of shame

Tue, 17 Jan 2017