The best satire often comes from the worst circumstances. In Ryan Chapman’s Riots I Have Known, a prison riot sets the tone for one of the most waggish novels in recent memory. Barricading himself from an outbreak of disorder at a New York State Prison, a Sri Lankan prisoner known simply as MF live-scribes the event as well as his life to a devout readership of The Holding Pen, his “post-penal literary magazine.” That’s post-penal as genre, not as timeline, among the many winks, nods and nudges Chapman deploys in the book.
A novel as much about the absurdity of imprisonment as it what Chapman juxtaposes with it—flashbacks to a Sri Lankan boyhood, violent poetry confessionals, not-so-subtle jabs at literary culture—the riots in Riots I Have Known take into account the frenzy of media consumption, of the people too eager to stay online to see how everything plays out, and the Kent Brockmanesque ways of reporting on it.
A veteran of the publishing industry, and a Sri-Lankan American, Chapman plays to strengths uniquely his own in this uproarious debut. A wit in person, I nearly choked on the olive in my martini while conducting this interview recently at a cocktail bar.
The Rumpus: First of all, I’m seeing a lot of great press for your debut. I imagine all writers want good things for their first novel, but for so long, you worked, as I still do, in publishing. Both book and magazine. You know this world too well. Knowing the difficulties of bringing a book out, were you prepared for the worst?
Ryan Chapman: It has been a huge joy and, knowing this industry, a huge relief as well to see it get any press. You know how it is; you can care for a book you’re working on, you can tell all your friends about it, and often it goes out dead in the water.
Rumpus: Yours seems to have legs. You’re doing interviews, like this now, and, I imagine, readings and panels. What’s different to you in the way you converse about literature when not trying to market it?
Chapman: I can now tell off-color jokes and not worry it’ll get me fired. That’s a bonus. There’s also the old, unshakeable marketing habits informed by seeing hundreds of novelists’ self-presentation in public. I’ve absorbed the best practices while becoming pessimistic about marketing. So at the risk of self-sabotage my plan is to tamp down those first responses which make the book more “sellable” and try to be messier, more honest. Inevitably I’ll say the wrong thing and people will be like “fuck that guy.” I just hope it’s a couple months out.
Rumpus: Do you see your publishing background as being benefitting you as a writer in different ways? You and I, for instance, both have a particular taste that comes from being on the other side, of hand-feeding obscure writers that slowly and surely start getting some attention. Does being a published writer now give you a deeper appreciation for the work that goes into, say, a great international writer having to start from the ground up with American readers?
Chapman: Sure. I felt that way with César Aira, who I’ve admired since New Directions issued The Literary Conference. It seems there’s a healthy readership for him now, though that may just be anecdotal. As you note, so much work goes into bringing these writers to American readers.
I’m still wrapping my head around having readers at all. And Riots has its share of transgression, which may lead to an awkward conversation with my stepmom.
Rumpus: She wouldn’t appreciate the bunk mate sex…
Chapman: No, probably not. I just want her to buy it and have read just enough to say “Good job.” I don’t know remember how Philip Roth told his mom about Portnoy’s sex scenes, but I’m guessing it didn’t go well.
Rumpus: You bring up César Aira, and your novel is very short, like so many of his and his contemporaries. In Latin America, the novella is still a very strong literary tradition. Another are the novellas that make use of serpentine sentences, sometimes consisting of only a single sentence, and usually done in the form of a monologue, a la Thomas Bernhard. I’m wondering how it and the writers who engage with that practice came to inform your work?
Chapman: Those writers are among my favorites. They share that idea of a crazed monologuing narrator, for which the novella length is a necessity. If you’re inside that voice, no matter how fluid it is, it’s hard to take for four hundred pages. Even Bernhard, the master of the form, even his books can be a slog after a while.
But I do like the idea of a charming/repulsive narrator. And you really want to engage a reader, and not abuse their time. That’s really what it came down to. I also like the idea of a book being read in real time. If someone is telling you their life story over the course of six hours, trying to map that one-to-one engagement was an exciting challenge.
Rumpus: For these kinds of books that utilize that unbroken style, and you see this in Riots I Have Known, I read this in one sitting. I tried to read it in breaks, putting it down after the first twenty pages, but then it lost that momentum for me. It’s like it needs to be read in a single sitting for that hypnotic quality of extended passages to take hold. Were you aware of this when you were writing it? Did you find it difficult to go back in and tweak things otherwise written in a single sweep?
Chapman: It was like being drunk in a stranger’s house at night and trying to find the bathroom. A lot of bumbling around and crashing into things. I knew what Riots needed to be; I really wanted that seamless reading experience. It took several years of writing sentences and then seeing if they could fit within the monologue. And then just rewriting and rewriting until it did.
Rumpus: The book has such humor to it, and humor is such a difficult thing to pull off in literature, because it has to stay funny every time you read it. Did that come naturally to you, or was that something you had to develop within your craft, perfecting it as you developed the book?
Chapman: It came naturally. You know my heroes are Louis C.K. and Bill Cosby.
Chapman: Just kidding. My sense of literary humor came through works like Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness, which confronts difficult subject matter with a light touch. He makes his protagonist a fool, and we’re quickly disarmed.
A part of me regrets not incorporating humor into my writing earlier. It just didn’t occur to me. I even edited the humor section of my college newspaper. Ah well. Once I embraced the comic aspect it became a useful divining rod for the narrator’s voice.
Rumpus: That brings me to the “fool” in literature, which you don’t really come across that often in contemporary American fiction. Why do you think that is?
Chapman: I’m not sure. There’s a self-made performativity to so much of American fiction, and that lends itself to drama. Whereas in Latin American and South American fiction, humor is much more prevalent: it’s a rejoinder to the horrors of the twentieth century. It’s part of the catharsis.
Take a writer like Paul Beatty: The Sellout fits into that mold of the fool. His novel could be seen as a rejoinder to black intellectual thought of the 80s and 90s. And the timing is important. It’s a generation or two removed from the peak of Jim Crow and the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Time allows literature to use humor and satire to interrogate the violence and the struggle from a different perspective.
Rumpus: Right. And while there’s humor in your book, there is also a political bent as well. Not just that it’s conceived as a prison riot, which is a great context for it, but also in the way you have people quoting the news, Anderson Cooper. It almost feels like you had CNN on when you wrote this book. How did that political feed come in and where were you meeting it halfway?
Chapman: I think when you’re in the midst of writing a project, your antenna is up to whatever pressing concerns in the culture would be beneficial to the work. There were other aspects I would have liked to incorporate into the book, other political concerns that just didn’t fit the narrative. I was aware of how easy it is for satire to trip into propaganda.
Rumpus: Your protagonist is a Sri Lankan prisoner, and you yourself are half-Sri Lankan. Sri Lankans are extremely rare in US prisons, I think even the protagonist mentions that. Why was it important for you to weave that into the narrative?
Chapman: In the early drafts the narrator’s race wasn’t addressed. I repeat: in the early drafts of a novel set in an American prison I didn’t think to address the narrator’s race.
My father is Sri Lankan, but I grew up without any Sri Lankan texts or artists. They’re just not well-known stateside, save for Michael Ondaatje. By making my narrator Sri Lankan I could insert a few family stories—and stories from my own visits to the island—with the knowledge his nationality would carry few connotations for American readers. And, in that transgressive spirit, fashion the polar opposite of the “good immigrant” narrative.
Rumpus: If may ask you, as a writer and fellow mixed-race person myself (shout-out to El Salvador), what were the questions of appropriation that came with writing this? Did you ever feel like you reached a point you couldn’t go past?
Chapman: Yes, definitely. There were huge questions of appropriation that bothered me for the first several drafts. Then I decided I couldn’t be hesitant in the book. Reading Paul Beatty helped: I had to go crazy overboard with it. That’s why the protagonist is so monstrous, and the abasement so equal-opportunity.
This might not be the best example, but I remember Dale Peck calling out debut novelists in the early aughts for only writing within their gender and class. In an ideal world, everyone would have the agency to write their stories, and write across these distinctions (as long as it’s done with empathy and respect, which is crucial). It’s a conversation full of landmines, sure, but I often return to Roth’s line about writing as freedom. We’re fortunate to have such strong freedom of speech laws; we should exercise them.
That said: Thank god I don’t write YA.
Rumpus: Thank god for that no matter what the reason. But this story is overboard in a great literary way. You set this in a prison, where the protagonist has barricaded himself in the media lab, and he’s addressing this audience through this prison literary magazine he has called greatly The Holding Pen. How did you background in magazines inform your in-book lit mag?
Chapman: Too well, probably. There’s definitely a lot of tongue-and-cheek references for friends in the industry. It’s an easily pierced bubble: take a few hundred well-educated, passionate people, inject financial precarity, increased competition, and an industry decreasingly tolerant of artistic risk. While this is true of many professions, the publishing and magazine folks also happen to be the best in the country at articulating their anxieties. And, in my experience, the best in the country at managing their anxieties via happy hour.
Photograph of Ryan Chapman by Beowulf Sheehan.