|Exposure Territory: Author Eddy Harris Challenges Notions of Race and Cultural Identity|
|News/Features - Literature|
|Written by Mike Schulz|
|Wednesday, 06 February 2008 02:13|
"One of the hazards of telling your tales, recounting this kind of adventure, is that the marvels of them cannot be hidden; they rise to the surface like bubbles and burst with tiny explosions of excitement."
So writes Eddy Harris in his 1988 nonfiction Mississippi Solo, a first-person account of the author's 99-day trek down the Mississippi River. Yet while that sentence boasts a lovely analogy, why would the telling of tales - at least for Harris - be considered hazardous?
"It's exposure," the author explains during our recent phone interview. "You expose yourself - in many ways physical, but primarily emotional ways. People just get a glimpse at you and somehow it's... well, dangerous, because it can be used against you sometimes."
Harris understands these dangers firsthand. Following the publication of Mississippi Solo, the acclaimed African-American author - who reads from his works at Augustana College on February 7 as part of the school's "Lit Wits" series - released three narratives in a similar vein: 1992's Native Stranger: A Black American's Journey Into the Heart of Africa, 1993's South of Haunted Dreams: A Ride Through Slavery's Old Back Yard, and 1996's Still Life in Harlem: A Memoir. And in each one, Harris provided an account of his experiences that provoked considerable controversy and even resentment among readers, and African-American readers in particular.
In his three published narratives post-Mississippi Solo, Harris has challenged his readers to move beyond conventional sentiments, including the notion that black Americans have an instinctive kinship with Africa, Harlem, or the deep South, or those who live there. While Harris' works detail the richness and beauty of black culture in these locales, they also fly in the face of commonly-held assumptions regarding cultural identity, community, and historical background. (In an interview with Salon's David Talbot, Harris stated, "I think it's wholly absurd, the notion that I am who I am because of the color of my skin.")
Native Stranger finds Harris traveling extensively through Africa, and the author describes not only the continent's wonders, but also the starvation and desperation he witnessed, addressing blacks born and raised in America who still consider themselves transplanted Afrikaners: "Africa is not our home."
In South of Haunted Dreams, Harris treks through the American South on motorcycle; one of the author's passages reads: "Slowly I come to realize that I am not the man I once was, not the man who once believed he was who he was from the inside out, that the blackness of my skin is merely a physical attribute like being bearded or being tall. No, I am different now. I have awakened from my slumber."
And in Still Life, Harris - who was raised in a St. Louis suburb, and spent part of his childhood in Harlem - describes the two years in which, as an adult, he returned to Harlem to find a decaying, crime-riddled burg that once housed a vibrant black culture. At one point in the book, the author describes being awakened to the sound of a man beating a woman in the street, and in the interview with Salon, Harris said, "In the few moments of my indecision, I told myself that enough was enough, told myself that I wanted no longer to be black if this is how black men behaved... ."
Harris' reviews have been laudatory; in Black Enterprise, Herb Boyd wrote that Native Stranger "eloquently conveys impressions on the myth, magic, and mystery of the ancestors he desperately wants to know, but cannot, because of cultural differences," and Booklist's Lillian Lewis described Still Life as "a powerful memoir," adding, "It will find a place among other great African-American writings about Harlem."
Yet while the critics raved, readers balked. Harris says, "I exposed myself and my feelings in ways that, as an honest writer, I had to. And yet the results have been less than... ." He pauses and chuckles. "Less than marvelous. I turned off a lot of black readers, and basically raised a lot of stink."
Now, Harris continues, "My reader base is so small, publishers don't want to touch me anymore," and his most recent work - 2005's Jupiter et Moi - only found a publisher in Paris, where the author currently resides. "My agent spent a long time trying to find a [U.S.] publisher," he says, "and nobody wanted to bite on it."
Despite his professional setbacks, however, the author refuses to apologize for his confessional style. "Mostly, I think it's a good thing," says Harris. "It turns out to be some sort of therapy."
In Fact Transformed
A 1977 graduate of Stanford University, with majors in cinema and journalism, Harris began his professional career writing for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, after which he attempted screenwriting in California and, later, Paris. He eventually realized, though, that "writing screenplays wasn't my thing," returned to the St. Louis area, and took a stab at fiction. Several stabs.
"I worked on the first novel," he says (or rather lists), "the second novel, the third novel, the fifth novel... . None of those got published. And then I took this crazy canoe trip down the Mississippi River."
In a 1997 article for Outside magazine, Harris wrote that, prior to his journey, "I'd scarcely been in a canoe before. I'd been camping twice in my entire life." (During our interview, Harris adds, "That may be an exaggeration on the high side.") And he recalls that his impetus for wanting the travel the length of the Mississippi was suicide - "in a metaphorical way," he amends.
"I had these six novels in my desk that didn't go anyplace," says the author, "and I decided I needed to do something to shake up my life. Either kill myself in this weird way, or not, and come out different. So I took this canoe trip down the river, and sure enough, I didn't die physically, but I did come out almost transformed. Well, not ‘almost' transformed. In fact transformed."
Beginning at Lake Itasca, Minnesota, and venturing south to New Orleans, Harris hadn't initially intended on using his sojourn as writing fodder. ("I was just taking a trip," he says.) But after several days, the author realized that "the trip was so magnificent, so transforming, so interesting, that I had to write about it. I started taking notes and talking to people in ways I hadn't at the beginning."
Not that copious note-taking during the three-plus months was altogether necessary. "For years after," says Harris, "I could've gone down the river and found every spot where I'd pitched my tent. Not now; I couldn't do it now because the river's changed so much. But it was that indelibly imprinted in my memory."
Upon returning to St. Louis, Harris began the process of committing his experiences - including encounters with racist hunters and a pack of wild dogs - to paper. "And since I had never written nonfiction before," he says, "I didn't know what the heck I was doing, so I pretty much just wrote the thing as it happened. I wrote the way I remembered it. And somehow that worked."
The writing, says Harris, came easy. (Asked if any portions were especially difficult to compose, he states, "Not a thing.") Or, at least, easier than finding a publisher for the work.
"Oh, man," he laughs. "Fifty-five rejection letters. I sent it to every agent I could think of. I sent it to every publisher I could think of. I sent it to every publisher more than once, because if one editor rejected it, stupid me, I sent it to another editor. And I finally put it away."
It wasn't until months later, after Harris had moved on to other subjects, that Mississippi Solo garnered interest. "I was a big fisherman," says the author, "and I sent [publisher Nick Lyons] a query letter with this idea about fishing, which he rejected. But he liked the way I wrote the proposal, and he said, ‘We don't want this stupid bore story, but if you have something else one day, we'll be happy to take a look at it.'
"So I dusted off Solo, I sent it to him... pow!" he exclaims. "He said, ‘This is just what we're looking for.'" Mississippi Solo was published in 1988 to critical praise - Publishers Weekly wrote, "Harris is a talented writer; may he continue his adventures" - and new offers.
Laughs Harris, "Some of the other publishers who rejected the thing came to me afterwards, either to buy the paperback rights, or to ask me, ‘How come we didn't get a chance to see this book?'"
And the book's success, he says, made it easier to generate interest in future offerings. "An editor came out of the woodwork saying, ‘We didn't see this book, we wanted to do this book... what are you doing next?' And I said, ‘I'm going to Africa.'"
That's Not Real
"I had been lots of other places," says Harris of his decision to travel to Africa. "All over Europe, Latin America - and I wanted to spend some time in a place that one could say was really black." As with his trek down the Mississippi, Harris hadn't originally intended on using his getaway as source material, but "somebody offered me a contract to write a book about my travels," and Native Stranger was put into motion.
Yet the occasional hardships that accompanied Harris' canoe trip were nothing compared to those the author endured during his months spent journeying from Tunisia to South Africa. In Native Stranger, Harris recounts bouts with malaria, crossing the Senegalese border during a period of ethnic cleansing, and frequent face-offs with those in authority.
"There were some hair-raising moments," he says. "I mean, I was even thrown in jail in Liberia for being a spy. But none of them - I guess because I'm so stupid - none of them struck me at the time as particularly dangerous or even foolish. Even when I had to snatch a gun out of some guy's hand when he was pointing it at me.
"The scariest thing," Harris continues, "was just... my stupidity, I think. Because being an American, having the civil rights that we have, when a cop in America tells you to do something, you don't actually have to do it. I mean, if he asks for your I.D., unless you've done something wrong, you can say, ‘Sorry, fella, I've got a right to privacy here,' and search and seizure, and all that stuff. Not so in Africa. You cannot transplant your American ideals to some other places, so there were many moments where I was just dumb, and didn't realize what I was up against."
Not only was the actual trek more trying than Harris' Mississippi adventure; the writing process was, as well.
"It was harder because now I'm trying to do things," he says. "Before, with Mississippi Solo, I'm just trying to tell the story the way it happened. Now I'm actually trying to guide the reader in certain directions - to think certain things or to see certain things."
And Harris adds that the composition of Native Stranger was more difficult than Solo's because "we're again in this sort of exposure territory - being a black person and talking about Africa, and talking about Africa in ways that aren't necessarily flattering to the black American esprit. You have people thinking that Africa is some sort of homeland, and being an American, I came to this place and I'm thinking, ‘Uh-uh. Sorry. Get me back to St. Louis.'"
Harris, though, states that he's "not at all upset" about his choice to document the more horrific aspects of his African journey, or the book's more controversial passages. "I was in Mali in 2006 and in Senegal in '07, and a number of young people said to me this most extraordinary thing: ‘I wish my ancestors had been enslaved, so that I could've been born in America.'
"In a way it took me aback," Harris continues. "I never expected anybody to actually say it. But it was confirmation for my sentiment, that contemporary Africans - some of them, not everybody - are feeling the same thing. That Africa is such a place of poverty and corruption and lack of opportunity, and lack of freedom in many ways, that people would rather have had their ancestors born into slavery. It's a sentiment that is quite palpable when you're in Africa."
As with Mississippi Solo, the reviews for Native Stranger were glowing - Publishers Weekly raved, "In his mastery of language, glinting irony, poetic prose, and uncanny powers of observation, Harris is the equal of Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin" - but it met a chilly reception from stateside readers, and when asked if he anticipated the ire raised from the book, Harris says, "I had no idea. No idea whatsoever.
"The African reaction was highly positive," he adds. "People said, ‘Wow, man, you hit it right on the head.' [But] black Americans basically said, ‘You can't air our dirty linen that way.'"
Being true to his experiences also cost him support after the release of South of Haunted Dreams, in which, despite the author's climactic assertion that "I think I'm home," Harris was up-front about his fears of being a black man, and traveling alone, in the deep South. ("I went to the South thinking, ‘Oh, man, this is terror territory,'" he says. "Black people in the South? Scares me.") And his popular support dwindled even further after Still Life in Harlem, with Harris' descriptions of how crime and drugs had ravaged his childhood neighborhoods.
"The criticism in Harlem was that I paint an often less-than-flattering portrait," says Harris, "and people said, ‘Well, that's not real. Why don't you talk about this, or why didn't you talk about that?' And my response is, ‘Why don't you write your book?' All these books are designed to make you think and make you see what I have seen, which isn't necessarily reality. It's just my reality.
"What I think it shows," says Harris of the criticisms, "is that, in many ways, readers are looking for confirmation for what they already feel and think, as opposed to being turned in different directions and made to think. And I'm hoping that you'll see something different when you see my South, and my Africa, and my Harlem."
Classifying in the Standard Ways
As an author whose published works have always been more autobiographically than geographically motivated, it made sense that Harris would inevitably write about his upbringing, which he finally did in Jupiter et Moi.
"Being a happy individual," he says, "I can laugh at all these disasters - no readers, and now difficulty in getting published. And I wanted to recognize the why of my happiness, and it comes from my family. This wacky family I grew up in."
Though the memoir - which Harris wrote in English, and which is only available in a French translation - focuses primarily on his relationship with his father, the author states that "it's not only about my father and me. It's about my generation and his. How they, as black people, went through a hell of a lot for me. I just wanted to pay tribute to that."
And in France, the author's tributes to the people and places he's encountered have been notably welcomed; Harris has been awarded the esteemed literary prize the Prix du Livre Poitou-Charentes, and Jupiter et Moi and the author's other books have been acknowledged by France's Centre National du Livre. Though he gives numerous reasons for adoring his adopted city ("It's a good place to travel from, the food is really, really good, the wine is good and cheap... ."), Harris appears particularly grateful for the respect his works merit in Paris - at the very least, says the author, it's easier to find his works in Paris.
"There was a great bookstore in St. Louis," he says, "which is now closed - probably because it was a great bookstore - and they didn't classify in the standard ways. So Mississippi Solo was in Travel, it was also in Biography, it was also in Essay. Here's a buyer in an independent bookstore who's got some sense, and he buys several copies of the book so he can stick it all over the place - so the book can be found.
"But now," he continues, "you've got these massive bookstores where, first of all, you're lucky if your book's there at all, and then if you're a black writer and it's not a brand-new book, it goes into the Black Interest section, whatever that means. Either way you're screwed, because the only people who are gonna see that stuff are people who are already inclined to go there. Nobody's gonna stumble across you."
Paris, though, "is just a great environment for a writer. Especially a sort of... well, I can't say ‘unsuccessful' [writer], because I feel extremely successful, even though I'm not making any money. But for a writer who could use a little boost, morally. The respect that a writer is afforded there is just tremendous. It's not like here, where, in my case, it's all about your last book, or the number of readers you have. In France, it's about your ideas. It's about the work itself. It's about the fact that you are a writer."
Eddy Harris reads from his works at 7 p.m. on February 7, in the Wallenberg Hall of Augustana College's Denkmann Building. For more information on the event, call (309) 794-7823.
For more on Eddy Harris, visit (http://www.eddyharris.com).
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