A few pages into Darryl Pinckney’s latest novel, Black Deutschland, I added him to my bucket list of brilliant writers I wanted to have a conversation with. Throughout my teen years, James Baldwin was at that top of that list, only falling off in 1989 when I learned, belatedly, of his death two years prior. Like Baldwin, Pinckney is the kind of writer whose fiction makes you feel that, as a writer, you can and should create imperfect characters whose stories reflect the truth as you’ve lived, witnessed, and suffered through it.
In Black Deutschland, the main character’s imperfections are well-documented. When the novel opens, Jed Goodfinch is a twenty-something Black American who moves from Chicago to Berlin in the 1980s, fresh out of rehab, in search of love among the “white boys who wanted to atone for Germany’s crimes by loving a black boy like me.” The Wall has not yet come down, and AIDS is a growing danger. But Jed is smitten with The Grey City, his embrace of it fueled by Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, set in the decadent last years of pre-Nazi Germany.
Pinckney, who is also a playwright, essayist, and long-time contributor to the New York Review of Books, is the author of five books and three plays (in collaboration with experimental theater director Robert Wilson). Here below is that conversation I wished to have with him. In it, he talks about the long history of black people seeking solace abroad, the fate of the black protest novel, and how he defines “home.”
The Rumpus: Black Deutschland is lush with historical, cultural, social, political, and sexual themes, yet you’ve said that if you taught it, you’d teach it as a book about Berlin. Does the book wear many hats, like James Baldwin’s novels, such that how it’s read depends on the reader?
Darryl Pinckney: You want readers to discover different things in your work, maybe even things you were not conscious of having put there, but what made Black Deutschland such an intense pleasure for me to write was that it came firstly from my love for Berlin, my nostalgia for the Berlin I knew only briefly. Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories gave me an idea of the city that I never got over: a place of personal liberation. Isherwood’s Berlin was also Hitler’s, Jane Kramer once said, and this kind of contradiction runs through the city’s history. Everyone hanging out in West Berlin in the time of the Wall recognized that we were in a special, artificial place, this weird zone of freedom surrounded by unfreedom.
Many assumed in the 1980s that the division of Germany was permanent. Who knew that the Soviet Union was exhausted? And so Berlin was also an innocent, out- of-it place for strangers, foreigners, a somewhere not everyone wanted to bother with. Yet the film, stage, music, and literary scenes were alive. I tried to evoke a sense of what this Cold War frontier town was like back then.
Rumpus: As you know, there’s a long history—including a literary history—of black Americans seeking a respite or escape from racism abroad. You’ve written two novels featuring Black expatriates in Europe, and you currently live in both the US and the UK. In Black Deutschland, Jed romanticizes being “the Negro in Europe.” But for him, his cousin Cello, and others, the expat life is no racial panacea. What, in your observation, are the peculiarities of European racism? What is the persistent allure of Europe for Black Americans, despite this?
Pinckney: People from Europe and people from Africa encountered one another long before the invention of “Europe” and “Africa” and “white people” and “black people.” But let us skip forward in the history of such constructs to the nineteenth century. We have the travel writings of Nancy Prince, who witnessed the terrible St. Petersburg flood of 1824. (This was also Pushkin’s time and Pushkin flaunted the fact that he had a black great-grandfather. His enemies had expected him to be embarrassed or ashamed, but Pushkin was of aristocratic birth and his black ancestor had been famous as the favorite of Peter the Great. Pushkin’s first attempt at a long prose work was an unfinished novel about his life.) When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in the United States in 1850, by which law white people who helped black people to escape slavery were themselves liable to punishment, some notable black abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown took refuge in England for brief periods. Brown in his travel writings left an account of what a shabby figure Thomas Carlyle cut on a London omnibus, his revenge for Carlyle’s nasty essay, “On the Nigger Question.”
After the Civil War, after the collapse of Reconstruction, black Americans who could get to Europe regarded it as a haven. In the 1880s, Charles Chesnutt’s law firm in Cleveland, Ohio, offered to set him up in Europe, where he could live free of the discrimination that was then being written into American law. But Chesnutt wanted to stay in the US and win acclaim as a novelist.
To go to Europe was a personal solution to a mass problem, like passing for white. And it cut across class lines. Black seamen, members of the international proletariat, as someone once described them, stayed in Europe, alongside educated blacks. But we think of American blacks in Europe as a 20th-century thing, one that got going with the end of World War I and the beginnings of the Jazz Age. Black musicians especially decided to stay in France rather than go back to a country that was lynching black veterans who refused to be put back in their places. Blacks in Paris were looking for the same thing that rich white people and white artists were looking for: personal liberation, how to get lost. Black visitors from the Harlem Renaissance were not insensitive to the irony that they were having a good time in what were capitals of empires, metropolitan centers from which issued policies that oppressed black and brown peoples. The rise of fascism in Europe sent most Americans home. Some black American communists who had emigrated to the Soviet Union perished in Stalin’s purges of the late 1930s.
After World War II, Americans were heading back to Europe, black Americans included. Richard Wright moved his interracial family and his Oldsmobile to Paris, to protect his daughters from the American racial system. He—and then Baldwin and other black writers and artists who found their way to Europe—knew that the French were racist, but as black Americans they were exempt, treated differently from the way the French treated people from the colonies, or from overseas France, as the political fantasy of empire had it. Baldwin in particular decided that “there is no ‘away’,” as DH Lawrence said. He spent his life trying to negotiate his will to witness, to be a part of the civil rights upheaval, and his desire for psychic and physical peace, some space in which to reflect. In some ways, Istanbul was even more of a hiding place than Paris.
Black American writers and artists are still going to Europe, hanging out, and the terms of engagement with the Continent have not changed since Langston Hughes’s and Paul Robeson’s time. However, there is considerably less guilt about being able to take time off from the US, and there is not the debate there had been in the 1960s and 1970s about Eurocentrism, being into the culture of societies that had robbed and killed millions for hundreds of years. Now there is the added thing going on that Europeans now realize Europe is not a whites-only continent anymore. The black and brown presence—these are not token populations.
Rumpus: At one point, while back in Chicago, Jed becomes homesick for Berlin. In Berlin, he has a chance encounter with Susan Sontag who tells him that “home” is where your books are. Later, he recalls her telling him that “home is the place where there is someone who does not wish you any pain.” What does the concept of “home” mean to you?
Pinckney: When I lived in Berlin, Susan Sontag was often there for long periods, working on her fiction. We would meet in the evenings in The Paris Bar and exchange pages. She was wonderful to hang out with. She had terrific energy and wanted to go to every concert and see every film and play. She introduced me to my partner, James Fenton. We were in The Paris Bar and she was talking about him and said suddenly, “Look, there he is.”
She really did say to me that home was the place where there is somebody who does not wish you any pain. I put her in the novel, that cameo appearance, in order to set up the last line of the book. Home is that for me: wherever the love is. Nothing else matters. I lived in James Land, I said then. Through most of my years abroad, I felt I had two homes: where I lived with James and where I’d come from. My parents were very much in my life, my parents and my sisters, back in Indianapolis. I went to see them every Christmas.
Rumpus: In Black Deutschland, Jed says, “I wanted to live where authority had little interest in black men,” explaining, in part, his move to Berlin. This line immediately made me think about the US, where of course the opposite is true with regard to black men and authority. Do you think movements such as #BlackLivesMatter will give birth to a new era of protest novels? Why do you think we’ve seen so few black protest novels since, for example, Invisible Man and Native Son?
Pinckney: Black Lives Matter is already finding expression in popular music, film, and nonfiction. It will of course find expression in fiction as well. It could be argued that maybe the satires of Percival Everett and Paul Beatty are as much protest novels as the realism of Wright. Maybe our definitions of protest fiction will expand. But then an expansion has already taken place, in the fiction by writers from other places, places shaped by colonialism, a history not connected enough to the violence of the politics taking place in certain regions—Africa and the Middle East. When did we stop reading Fanon?
Rumpus: Black Deutschland shares themes with your first novel, High Cotton, which is semi-autobiographical. Are you interested in writing a memoir, or are the novels as close you want to get to memoir?
Pinckney: I am trying to write a memoir about the friendship between Elizabeth Hardwick and Barbara Epstein, two of the founders of the New York Review of Books. They lived a few doors down from each other on West 67th Street. Their apartments were even of the same design. I was able to become a writer in large part because of my father and my mother and these two wildly brilliant women. I heard and saw so much in their homes. I met such interesting people at their dining room tables. I first saw Susan Sontag when she came over to Hardwick’s to watch a Rolling Stones concert. Barbara was there as well. My parents adored them; they dug my parents in return. I still feel close to their children though I don’t see them as much as I used to. It will be largely about the 1970s. I am so lucky to have known New York in that time.
Rumpus: “Psychological damage is the only real heirloom in black families.” You observed this in 1977 in your very first essay for the New York Review of Books, a review of Stephen Birmingham’s book about the black American bourgeois social practices, Certain People: America’s Black Elite. What led you to this conclusion about black families? Does this still hold true today?
Pinckney: That is a fancy-sounding line from a twenty-three-year-old, nothing more. I am surprised Barbara [Epstein] and Bob Silvers, the editors, did not challenge the line back then. It is, of course, not true.
Rumpus: In that 1977 essay, you describe black life as “complicated, fragmented, disturbing to contemplate.” What aspects did you find—do you find? —disturbing to contemplate? How have you addressed them in your fiction?
Pinckney: That line is still true—black history is to me American history. It is personal, because I can connect what was going on in my family to every social era I read about. And people in my family wrote. Autobiography, sermons, poetry. [Poet and folklorist] Sterling Brown’s father and a maternal great-grandfather of mine were brothers. How race affects one and how this long, long history of stupidity and spite has messed one up are questions one can spend a lifetime trying to think about. Oops. Look. I have. My life has gone by. I am still without convincing answers.
Rumpus: Both your novels satirize upper-middle class black families (though notably less bourgeois in Black Deutschland). Black Deutschland swings from heartbreak to hilarity and back. Did you make that craft choice to balance out the disturbing aspects of black life, or did the comedic elements emerge organically?
Pinckney: I don’t think of High Cotton and Black Deutschland as satirical in tone, really. People describe High Cotton as being about the black bourgeoisie, but to me it is about another black tradition, one not necessarily bourgeois. It is about black education. The family in that novel is not rich, they don’t keep the social calendar of the bourgeoisie. But they are educated. My father’s paternal grandfather—a minister in Augusta, Georgia who had been educated at Morehouse College when it was still called The Atlanta Baptist Seminary, and his wife-to-be at the Female Baptist Seminary—knew people in the Peabody Fund, a philanthropy having to do with black education in the South. This was before World War I, when lynching was rampant. He used his influence with the Fund to get his sons out of the South. One went to Boston University, another to the University of Chicago, my grandfather to Brown, another to the New England Conservatory. The youngest didn’t get out, for some reason. The daughters also not: they went to colleges in the South, like Hampton. No one thought in the same urgent way about their vulnerabilities as black women in the South. They became teachers. And remember teachers had no status in America, not then, not now. High Cotton was meant to be about that motive, that history. Getting out by way of education.
The narrator of Black Deutschland looks at his family with a certain tone. His is the tone of a loser. But, again, the family is not in the swim of things. They are misfits. Don’t quite belong or fit in with the black upper class of Hyde Park. To me, Jed is descended from those floating, lost urban characters in nineteenth-century Russian literature. Talkative clerks losing their minds right in front of us.
Rumpus: In your essays and books, you’ve challenged the notion of a singular black narrative tradition. What advice do you have for emerging black writers who feel they must write noble characters or “racial uplift” stories, or who otherwise feel confined by a limited set of narrative choices?
Pinckney: We have maybe outgrown the need for that kind of propaganda. One-dimensional characters are not in themselves interesting. If you’re bored, your readers will be bored. If you’re faking it, you won’t get the kind of readers you want. There are so many obstacles to writing, don’t add to them, to the inhibition. You write to honor the literature you care about. If your family or your people are looking over your shoulder, change your seat or push them away. Ask them to trust you with the truth. Stay real; stay true to yourself; keep faith with your project. Let Melville be the one looking over your shoulder.