Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Black writer, white reader

We've all seen interviews with authors where they're asked what writers have influenced them.

Sometimes the answers are surprising, most often not.  I've seen very few interviews with white writers in which they say that one or more black writers influenced them.  A few--not many.

Have you?  If so, let me know.

Black writers sure have influenced me. 

Now, it would be lovely if, as the late African American poet, Robert Hayden, said, "There is no such thing as Black literature. There's good literature and bad. And that's all." That's the way it should be. That's not the way it is.  If not, why would Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage, write, in his book, Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing, “Since the 1960s whites dare not speak on black subjects, regardless of how much research they may have done, because they lack ‘the authority of experience’ that comes from being born and raised black.”  

I can't solve that problem.

I can talk about what African American writers have changed me.

I could start with Lawd Today! and Black Boy by Richard Wright.

Followed closely by

The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. The Big Sea, the Simple books and the poetry of Langston Hughes. Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The Color Purple by Alice Walker.

The Quality of Hurt by Chester Himes. The Sixteenth Round by Ruben "Hurricane" Carter. Beneath the Underdog by Charles Mingus. The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois. The Blue Devils of Nada by Albert Murray. Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin. An American Story by Debra Dickerson.  Jamaica Kincaid's garden writing. Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver.

Recently, let me add Hunger by Roxane Gay.  We Cast a Shadow by--ahem, friend--Maurice Carlos Ruffin.  Heavy by Kiese Laymon.  Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

And a whole sub-genre of books that might not appear on anyone's favorite books list, but do on mine.  Including Pimp: The Story of My Life and Mama Black Widow by Iceberg Slim.  Invisible Life by E. Lynn Harris.  And Succeeding Against the Odds: The Autobiography of a Great American Businessman by John H. Johnson.

Yes, left many out, but this shouldn't just be a compilation, now should it?

In fact, the how and why of the influence will have to come with part II.  But I wouldn't be the writer, or person, I am without having read these black writers.

Let me close with a quote from Toni Morrison's (can't forget her) 1992 book, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, "It is interesting, not surprising, that the arbiters of critical power in American literature seem to take pleasure in, indeed relish, their ignorance of African-American texts."

White writers, say it ain't so.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Books? Yes, we have books.

In the 1960 movie, The Time Machine, there's a memorable scene.

The hero, played by Rod Taylor, is an inventor who lives in late nineteenth century London.  He has built a time machine.  He uses it to journey 800,000 years into the future where he finds a world in which, at first glance, everything is a kind of paradise.  The people are docile and seemingly happy, wearing Roman-toga-like clothes and doing, basically, nothing.  Worry doesn't exist.  Strangely, all their food, in the form of oversized fruit, is provided for them.  By whom?

Taylor, fascinated and curious, seeks to find out more about these people, called the Eloi.  His questions are answered indifferently, in the most monosyllabic way:  "What kind of government rules your world?" Taylor asks.  "We have no government," an Eloi responds.

"Do you have books?" Taylor asks excitedly.

"Books? Yes, we have books." replies another Eloi.

The Eloi leads Taylor to an ancient library.  The place looks like Miss Havisham's house--ratty curtains, dust everywhere.  The Eloi points to a shelf of books.  Excitedly, Taylor pulls out a book.  At last, he will find out about this "civilization." He opens the book, and it crumbles in his hand. So does the next book.  He sweeps his hand across a row of books on the shelf, and they all disintegrate. (The whole scene is fantastic.  Check it out here.)

The Eloi, he realizes, are mindless.  Worse, they don't care.

When I saw this movie the year it came out, I viewed it as science fiction.  I've never been attracted to that genre, but now I see that H.G. Wells, who wrote the book, was a seer.

With the advent of the electronic age, with Kindle, tablets, smart phones, etc., books as actual artifacts are becoming less viable.  Walk onto any bus or subway, and see how many people are reading actual books versus reading from a device of some kind.  Libraries are buying less and less books, more electronic subscriptions.

I led a panel at a literary conference a few years ago in which an editor--yes, an editor--said that books had had a good run, but that run was over.

Is he right?  Will some Rod Taylor of the future walk into the Library of Congress and ask someone there, "Do you have books?"

And will that person say, "Books?  Yes, we have books."

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Thief of Dreams

With every new Donald Trump announcement or proclamation that draws on the worst in us, I think about my daughter.

She’s young, only twenty-six. Her life is really just beginning. She’s at the age where you make dreams about the future, think about the life you will lead, let your hopes and aspirations wander as they will. Anything is possible. All doors are open. This is a moment we cherish for our children and try our best to prepare them for. We had such moments when we were young. They only appear once, and they are glorious, full of exciting uncertainty and potential. In those moments, we can be anything, do anything. Why not?

I had that freedom to dream, that open chance at optimism, when I was young.  Now that I’m not young, I know well how precious that dreaming was.
But every morning I get up to some new haughty, unsettling declaration by Donald Trump that I know must infringe on those freshly minted dreams my daughter and others like her are making. His denial of climate change is possibly the most arrogant of his declarations.  With that, he commandeers the safety and well-being of our planet and its people.

WBUR in Boston reported on the growing problem of climate anxiety.  I have had conversations with younger people, some of whom have decided not to have children because of the precarious state of our future.  What about the many of us who do have children?    

It’s hard to build dreams, those most delicate of bridges, in such an atmosphere of darkness.  I am so angry at Trump. I am angry at him for many reasons, but mainly I am angry at him for stealing the future.

How dare he. How dare he pollute the ability for young people to plan their futures in serenity and peace and with hope. I’m calling him out for the thief he is.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Reclaiming Hope

A great depression has settled on us.  Not economic, but emotional, spiritual, psychic.  Whereas in the past, if you said the future looks bleak, you could dismiss that as someone's opinion.  That's not true anymore.  I needn't go into the details about climate change, which everyone knows by now, and the dire predictions emanating from scientists.  But it's real.

People do not know what to do.  Anything they think of doing seems futile.  No matter what, the inevitable will arrive, they say.   The has produced a kind a paralysis.  An inability to plan with any certainty.  Why bother?  And worst of all, it has caused the complete abandonment of hope.

Dante knew what he was talking about.  The words he decided to write on the gates of hell in his great poem say, "Abandon all hope, you who enter here."  What could be more devastating and more final than to deprive you of hope?

We have as our head of state a man who in everything he does crushes hope.  We know, in our hearts, that if we had a leader committed to saving us from the sins we have committed as humans in harming the earth, then hope, and its first cousin--optimism--could flourish.

I have talked to people in their twenties who are, quite simply, continually depressed.  They are in despair about the future.  Some have children and do not know how they can assure their children about their lives.  I have a daughter in her twenties.  Every day, I internally apologize to her.  I feel like crying all the time.

I've written about this before, in a post called The Thief of Dreams.  The thief of dreams is Donald Trump.  No person has the right to destroy someone's ability to hope and to dream.

Depression may be the most onerous of human emotions.  Its strength is incalculable.

Right now, right this minute, we are under the sway of this collective depression.  We have to summon all our will to combat it.  How?  We assume strength.  We fight.

With all our might.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

We all need heroes

As a writer, I've had my share of dreams and fantasies. I've long since abandoned some of them--Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, MacArthur Award and various other honors in a galaxy far, far away.

But then there are dreams and fantasies that may be highly unlikely, but not necessarily impossible. One of those is to tell my literary heroes (living, of course) how much they have meant to me. It's hard to describe how intimate a relationship you can have with someone you don't know when you're a writer. Those writers who have inspired you are often the only people who seem to understand what you're trying to do, even though you've never met them. They do, because, by writing, and by writing with passion and dedication, they tell you that what you're doing is worth it all.

Sometimes, they can even rescue you. Which is what happened to me. It was Laurence Wylie who did the rescuing. You probably don't know who he is. He wrote a wonderful book called Village in the Vaucluse about living in the South of France in the early 1950s in the hill village of Roussillon. Today, Roussillon is a hub of tourism, but not back then. Wylie went with his family to see what living in a small French village was like. The result is a sympathetic, fair, compelling and ultimately delightful book that takes the reader through all aspects of French village life, from birth to death. 

So, how did Wylie rescue me? In the beginning months of living in my small village in the South of France, I was lost. I didn't understand a lot of the ways and means of the villagers. They weren't friendly. And they essentially didn't recognize me. I, of course, thought I would instantly become everyone's best friend. There were a lot of books in the house (owned by Americans, it turned out) I was living in, and one of them was Village in the Vaucluse. The landlady recommended it. I read it, and then everything was made plain. I saw my villagers in Wylie's book and understood I was no exception as to how they led their lives. I was fine after that.

When my book about living in that village was published, one of the first things I did was to send Laurence Wylie a copy in care of his publisher. Along with it, I sent a letter explaining how he had rescued me and how his book would live forever because it was true. I had no idea if he was even still alive at that point. It was forty years after Village in the Vaucluse had been published.

Then, one wonderful day, I received a handwritten letter from Laurence Wylie. This, in part, is what he wrote:

"Your letter was important to me because it helped me shove aside a sort of feeling that at 83 my life is dwindling without my having made a difference by living. Your letter made me feel that I had done something, so I thank you."

That was beyond great expectations.

Two years later, he was gone. But his book lives on, and I believe it always will.  

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Richard Goodman's Christmas for the Lonely and the Depressed

Having spent my share of sad, dreadful, double-up-on-the-anti-depressants-Christmases, counting the hours until the fucking holiday was over, I thought I might create a way of not just surviving but actually coping with Christmasand invite you along.

What we're going to do here is to create a Christmas so bleak and desperate that nothing can be as bad ever.  And we'll do it together!

We'll start Richard Goodman's Christmas on Christmas Eve, because that's when things get serious, don't they?  All the happy people are huddled by the fire drinking their mulled wine and saying things like, "Ok, you can open one present--but only one!!!!!"

Not us!!!!  We'll be headed to the New York City subway system. We're going to catch the F train at 34th Street, a particularly crowded, noisy station, at 6pm and ride the train for the next three hours back and forth.  The train will be extremely crowded because of the hour, and I will have arranged to have six out-of-tune street singers perform, without stopping, directly in front of you.

At 9PM we'll get off the subway back at 34th Street.  We will emerge at Herald Square and walk west to the Hudson River.  On the way, we'll dine at White Castle, a hamburger chain known for its harsh fluorescent interiors and for being high on the Board of Health's watch list.

After dining, we'll head to the Hudson River where, if my past experience is any guide, it will be cold and windy and dark.  We'll stand there for two hours, shivering.

Eleven o'clock!  Time to head to the pay-by-the-hour motel I've booked you in just up the way on Eleventh Avenue near the Lincoln Tunnel.  The noise and pollution will keep you up most of the night.  But that's a good thing!  Because you won't need a wake-up call!

Christmas day!  This is the heart of the Richard Goodman Christmas!!!

We'll meet at 5am at New York's famed Port Authority bus terminal!!  Here's we'll enjoy a holiday breakfast of coffee in a Styrofoam cup and stale doughnuts.  Then we'll hop on a bus for a day in Staten Island, in one of the most isolated and xenophobic neighborhoods in New York, if not the worldNew Springville.  We'll knock on random front doors starting at 7am wishing the homeowners, "Merry Christmas!!!  Unless you're Jewish!!!!"  Then we'll sing "The Little Drummer Boy" six times to the lucky person who answers the door.  Those of us who are met with some hostility or even physical harm will be left to fend for themselves.

Time for presents!!!

Each one of you will have been given $3 to spend at the Dollar Store to purchase your gift.  And each of you will have the name of one person in the group who you exchange gifts with.  This ceremony will take place in an empty parking lot.

Time to have our big Christmas meal!!

We're going to a dumpster!!!  This dumpster, located in back of a local high school, will have treats from the two or three cafeteria meals the kids ate!  Chances are, you won't be able to determine what it is you're eatingbut, hey, this is an adventure!!

After our sumptuous meal, we'll take the bus back to Port Authority for an afternoon of pornographic films on Eighth Avenue!!  You'll be able to choose from classics like, "Inside Mrs. Claus," "Rudolph the Rimming Reindeer" and "Bite Christmas."

Guess what?  The holiday is almost over!  But not before we have our holiday toast.  We'll gather at Shaney's Irish Bar on the Bowery, known as one of the last bars for the downtrodden, where you can get a 50cent beer in an unwashed class!!!  What better way to close out our Christmas together.

We'll raise our glasses and make a toast!  "Thank God it's only once a year!!"

So, I hope you'll join me this Christmas for an incredible experience!!  It's just $53, which includes subway ticket and your room at the Tunnel Motel.

Let's celebrate the holiday togetherthe Richard Goodman way!!  No Christmas will ever seem as depressing again!!!

Thursday, November 28, 2019


Thankful for so many things.

I am thankful most for my beautiful daughter, Becky. The best thing to happen to me in my life is being the father of this radiant, brilliant young woman.

I am thankful for being alive. For my good health.  

For light; The English language; olive oil; Thoreau; pencils; walking; kissing; travel; reading; Hemingway; museums. 

For laughing; storms; Paris; writing; birds; learning; the ocean. For outdoor showers; Maine; surfcasting; Henry Miller; Willa Cather; Flaubert's letters.

For peaches; the moon; The Great Gatsby; Southern food/soul food.

For my memory.

For music; M.F.K. Fisher; Giotto; books; Van Gogh; French bookstores; the smell of moist soil.

For the sound of rain; dogs; New York City; fall, winter, spring, summer. For walking in Paris; Ralph Ellison; Velรกzquez; Verdi; back country roads; blues music.

For my sister; snow falling down; road trips; going to sleep when I'm exhausted; tea; kayaking. For Van Morrison; the Italian language; my bicycle; Michelin maps; Francois Truffaut; tomatoes; tall, slim pine trees; Tennessee Williams.

For old docks; going barefoot; women in summer dresses; friendship; work; porches; the songs of birds; Balzac; my body, every supple, practical, miraculous part of it; for water. 

For sight.

For garlic; Cole Porter; West Fourth Street in New York City; John Waters; libraries; the smell of hay; sweat; the Seine; Rome; the stillness of early morning; Pablo Neruda's poetry.

For Langston Hughes; Greenwich Village; warblers; kindness; pastrami; bellylaughs; breathing; Lucinda Williams; the smell of suntan lotion at the beach; dusk; coffee; soft breezes.

For brilliant sunsets; Central Park; Wellfleet oysters; stretching; friends' voices; affection; holding hands with a woman you love; the release of crying; watching my daughter grow up; John Lennon; truth.