It was an odd summer. Ta-Nahesi Coates published a book, Between the World and Me, that took the form of an extended letter to his son, which was met with adulation (he was the new Baldwin) and contempt (“The Toxic Worldview of Ta-Nahesi Coates” ranks high in the current search results for Coates name). Even David Brooks felt obliged to dedicate one of his New York Times columns to a baby-splitting open letter of his own, in which he mewled, “Is it my job to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?” This grudging respect mixed with befuddled consternation seemed a common attitude among white journalists and reviewers, but I thought I detected in the praise, the condemnation, and much of the ambivalent in-between, an attitude of grateful relief. So this is what black people think. Okay. White people are always looking for the black Pope, about whom one of those automatic and universal descriptors like “spiritual leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics” can be appended, granting a metonymic authority.
The desire for One Black Voice is a white desire; we are the people who are endlessly banging on about the need for a “conversation on race in America,” a pleading invitation undergirded with the anxiety that too many of them might show up for tea. The pleasure of finding just one person with whom we, from our position of cultural default, can agree or disagree, criticize or praise, is one of the privileges of being born into America’s blindingly raceless majority. Only the very powerful can be so petty.
And here I am, a white writer, rattling on about Coates in almost exactly the way I’ve just criticized when the subject of this review isn’t Coates at all. Some things are inescapable, or at least beyond an individual remedy. I was going to say something like, rather than indulging in the leveling impulse to write about The Black Voice, I want to try to write about a black voice. But that’s the confounding thing about Multiply Divide, the new book of essays by Wendy S. Walters: there isn’t one voice, but many.
Confounding books are undervalued. For some reason, maybe because the crasser aspects of politics find their way inevitably into culture, one of our worst insults is “incoherent.” I’m guilty of it myself, I’m sure; we demand that writers speak with a unity of thought and a through-line of argument as if consciousness—theirs, their characters’—is an act of amateur forensics. I’m not talking about difficult books, necessarily, but about books with an unsettled and protean quality, books that aren’t one thing or another.
It’s right in Walters’s introduction. “Some of the essays herein are based entirely on fact: carefully reported and researched, they stand as nonfiction. Others are works of fiction. Some are a mix of the two.” She goes on to list which are which, “to avoid confusion,” and I admit that I spent the first half of the book flipping back to these first couple of pages in order to verify my own suspicions about which were which. Then, in an essay called “The Personal” and called out, in that introduction, as pure reporting, I found myself braking to a hard stop:
In the personal, something about the word “I” intimates youth or, at very least, youthful aspiration. Mishaps narrated in the first person tend to be more compelling for listeners, even though the “I” strives to keep the character distant and somewhat unknowable. Perhaps this is because the “I” always resides in the past, no matter how actively she speaks in present tense.
One looks back with a narrowed focus, a spotlight on the self-imagining isolation in a crowd of potential companions.
She’s precisely, if counterintuitively, correct; the first person, because it purports to be closest to the individual consciousness, is broadly treated as the most personal. That it might instead be the most alienating manner of representing a person, a mind, on the page seems wrong until you think about just how weird it is to pretend that the “I” is actual.
The jacket copy of Multiply Divide compares it to Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which struck me first as wrong—even when her scenes shade clearly into fiction, the cities Walters describes are real—and then, pretty quickly, as very right. There is a sense of uncanny weirdness in her excavation, sometimes literal, of American places. Like Calvino’s Marco Polo, she evokes these urban geographies by displaying the artifacts, some of them human, therein.
I saw the edge of Lake Pontchartrain into which, during the early 1920s, my great-grandmother, Susie, had thrown her wedding ring when she needed to affirm a point that her husband would not accept. On our descent I began to see blue tarps stretched over large holes in people’s roofs.
This, from the opening essay, “Lonely in America,” is a fine example of the way in which Walters, a poet, can be both oblique and direct. Having gone to New Orleans after Katrina to help family recover from the flood and expecting, it seemed, some kind of catharsis, Walters returned to the Northeast “more miserable than when I left.” After a few weeks of almost inchoate dread, she heard a piece on NPR that might otherwise
have floated past me that morning. But something about hearing that Africans are buried beneath a public street in a small, coastal New England town gave me a new context to reconsider what is obvious and how one might learn to live with it.
And so she drove up to Portsmouth and Newport, places made rich by the slave trade even as the historical record uses delicate circumlocutions—New Englanders preferred servant to slave in referring to their own human possessions—to distinguish this land from the South, and found in the slender archeological record of bones and teeth the funerary record of forgotten people. They make her less lonely, maybe, by being remembered.
Other essays wander in and out of the narrative mode. “Chicago Radio” is a pastiche of late-night lonely-heart radio call-ins, medical reports, and items that crop up in local news: odd illnesses and UFO sightings. “Procedural,” a sort of short story that begins as an almost parodic take on CSI-style cop shows and the harried service-economy workers who watch them for release, becomes a murder nightmare that reminded me of nothing so much as the gruesome and grueling descriptive procession of “femicides” in Bolaño’s 2666. “Norway” is a piece of “cli-fi” about a post-warming black migration to Scandinavia.
Between these, Walters comes back to the more mundane ironies of her own life and family. In the first of two pieces on Manhattanville, the New York neighborhood where she lives, she finds herself mistaken for her own son’s nanny, and observes:
My husband is Jewish. I am African American. According to conservative social standards, our son does not qualify as either. We suspected this would be the case. After he was born, my hair grew straighter than it had ever been. The implications of this change, if I paid attention, would make anyone concerned with authenticity anxious.
Walters means to provoke this anxiety, in part because she feels it acutely herself. She writes movingly and distressingly of the collisions between her own demonstrative sensuality and the gross attentions of predatory men—about the unfairness of being so defined by the egregiously incorrect attentions and interpretations of others that it becomes necessary to flatten all the geographic complexities of identity in order to avoid misinterpretation. The undercurrent of depression in so many of these essays has a lot in common—perhaps all depression does—with exhaustion. How hard is it to be just one thing when you aren’t just one thing?
Because Multiply Divide isn’t only journalism or fiction or poetry, because it opens the doors that divide these pat genres from each other, it reflects formally what it takes as its subject, which is the inadequacy of categorization as an antidote to multiplicity—that as opposed, I think, to diversity, our preferred term, which implies the categories but not the fine shading. If too much of the dull conversation about race and identity in America focuses on the combative political question of who does or does not offer a “solution” and what, if anything, that solution might be, Walters’s essays offer instead a provocation: that beyond even geography is geology, and the flood should not be measured necessarily by what it washes away, but by what it deposits; that you can’t build without excavating; that we are, like our eventual remains, composed of fragments.