“You Can Be a Moon to Their Sun…”

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I heard this interview with author Victor LaValle yesterday that stopped me cold. After listening to that interview, a few of my assumptions about writing seem questionable to me now: assumptions about regional literature, Northwest literature, a writer’s “audience,” and the avenues for developing a “voice” as an artist. I’ll transcribe a few passages below. He is being interviewed about his latest book: The Ballad of Black Tom. The main character in that novel is a bit of a musical hustler. He carries around a guitar and pretends to be a blues musician. That’s his hustle. He works money out of people without playing a note. LaValle’s African-American themes and characters are stunning enough, but he’s also asking some BIG questions about art:

“The hustle of writing as a whole and specifically the hustle of being
a black writer. If you are a southern writer, or you’re a mid-western
writer, if you are a woman writer, if you are a jewish writer. There
are all these hustles that exist. If you play into them, there are
already readers, there are already accolades. There are avenues that
have already been set up to essentially decide that you are already
good at that because you look like someone who should be good at that.
If you look the part, we will overlook your mediocrity. That is
something that is always on my mind. As a black writer, you can
approach avenues that have been taken by geniuses before and because
it looks like what a genius of a previous generation did, you may
enjoy the glow of what that genius did, that secondary light. You can
be a moon to their sun. You can make a whole career off of being that.
I was terrified by the idea of turning into someone like that.
I wanted to funnel that into the book (The Ballad of Black Tom). On
some level, that’s what Tommy (main character) is doing, but of course
I didn’t want to make him a writer who is dealing with exactly that
issue because, at least for me, few things are less interesting than a
writer dealing with what kind of writer they are going to be – in a
book.”

“You can write in that genre and with a literary flair and have some
success with it (he is talking about what he calls black misery – he
calls it ‘black misery porn’).”

And I tried to paraphrase a couple of LaValle’s thoughts that were harder to transcribe:

An accusation: You didn’t bring all the news from your time. You brought the news that people wanted to hear. And that isn’t the job of an artist.

Giving what the market wants or what you think people want to hear is
not the job of an artist.

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