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The writer John Edgar Wideman—a star athlete and Rhodes Scholar at Penn in the early sixties—was back on campus last spring. In a wide-ranging interview at Kelly Writers House, he talked about the construction of reality, the joys of basketball, the writer’s search for a subject and the mysterious power of faith.

By John Prendergast | Photography by Addison Geary

John Edgar Wideman C’63 Hon’86 was quoted for the first time in The Pennsylvania Gazette in February 1963, when he was interviewed for a story about winning a Rhodes Scholarship his senior year—the first Penn student to have been accorded this honor, the article notes, since 1938. He also won a Thouron award, and was captain of the basketball team and an All-Big Five, All-Ivy selection. He did graduate study at Oxford, and later joined the Penn faculty, teaching English and writing from 1967 to 1972. He is currently a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
    Wideman’s first novel, A Glance Away, was published in 1967. Since then, he has published more than a dozen books. In addition to an honorary degree from the University, his post-Penn accolades include being the first writer to have won the PEN/Faulkner Award twice—for the novels Sent For You Yesterday (1984) and Philadelphia Fire (1990)—as well as awards from the Lannan and MacArthur foundations, the Rea and O’Henry short-story prizes and election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Brothers and Keepers, his 1984 nonfiction book about his brother’s conviction for murder, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, and his memoir Fatheralong was a finalist for the National Book Award. His most recent book is the novel Two Cities, set in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which the Boston Globe called “A masterpiece of verve and feeling.”
    That 1963 Gazette article describes Wideman as arriving for the interview “dressed casually in khaki slacks, a blue denim-like shirt, and green corduroy jacket” and as being a “young man [with] some interesting ideas on competition.” Though he was dressed a little differently—black T-shirt, black pants, black leather vest—the elder Wideman still has some interesting things to say about competition, both as it pertains to the basketball court and in the more cerebral arena of creative work.
    He shared those ideas and others on a visit to campus April 24-25 as the third of three writers featured in this year’s Kelly Writers House Visiting Fellows Program (the others were short-story writer/essayist/poet/activist Grace Paley, who was on campus in February, and the poet Robert Creeley, who had come earlier in April).
    Wideman’s visit to the Philadelphia area actually began with a reading on the afternoon of April 23 at Art Sanctuary, the North Philadelphia arts center founded by Lorene Cary C’78 G’78, author of the memoir Black Ice and the novels The Price of a Child and Pride, who is also a lecturer in the English department (see “Alumni Profiles” in this issue). He spent the following day and a half at Writers House, first meeting to discuss his writing with students in a seminar taught by Writers House faculty director Al Filreis, the Class of 1942 Professor of English, and then giving another reading that evening. To a packed house, he read a new story titled “Sharing,” narrated by a suburban white woman, who answers her door to find a black man—a neighbor she has seen for years, but barely spoken to—in search of mayonnaise. As the immediate mystery—What does he want with mayonnaise?—gradually unfolds, we learn that the two have much in common, not least the recent collapse of their respective marriages. The story, which Wideman said he originally read aloud for a panel on race two weeks earlier at which he appeared with the South African writer Nadine Gordimer, ends on a note of muted hope.
    Finally, on the morning of the 25th, Wideman was interviewed by Cary and Filreis before an audience at Writers House and broadcast live over the World Wide Web. Cary sat next to him at the front of the room to ask questions, while Filreis acted as master of ceremonies, prowling the audience like an academic talk show host to solicit questions from those physically present and reading some e-mailed by people watching the interview online.
    Both the reading and interview are available in their entirety online at What follows is edited from an audiotape of the interview.—JP

Lorene Cary: You’ve written fiction, nonfiction, and in your fiction the names of your own family members appear. They come back, they double, they redouble, as you interweave family stories and imaginative narrative together. Many of my writing students struggle to understand the relation between their own lives—their own experiences of their autobiographies—and their fictions. I’m hoping that you can talk a little about how you approach that question.

John Wideman: Nothing like a nice straightforward, easy question to begin with. [Laughter] So I’ll start off with a simple answer: Life is fiction, fiction is life. The construction of reality is politics at its most basic level. What constitutes anyone’s reality? Well, it’s what you believe and think is important, and so your reality depends upon; how you’ve been brought up; what culture tells you about yourself; what your friends tell you about yourself—and from all these bits and pieces each of us begins to put together some sense of what counts as real.
    As a fiction writer I tend to react against the notion that I should provide a very clear distinction between fiction and nonfiction, because I don’t think the lines are hard and fast. I think that what we call imaginative reality has just as much place in how we see our ourselves and put ourselves together as material reality—and even those two words material and imaginative are always shifting, always changing. Where is someone when they’re saying a prayer? Where are you when you are thinking about another time or another place than your body happens to be, or when you are addressing a lover, a family member who’s not around? These moments when you’re suspended between worlds or shuttling indiscriminately, seamlessly back and forth, in both at once, are as real as any I’ve ever encountered, and I insist on those being part of what’s designated as reality.
    When we’re told we have to observe certain hard, fast lines, we’re being shunted into a way of apprehending the world. I try to stay conscious of what’s arbitrary or self-interested in the lines other people draw. I’m making the argument that these lines are always problematic, subjective. We make political choices as well as formal choices when we call our writing fiction or nonfiction. Why should I allow someone to sneak in a political agenda when they insist on distinctions between fiction and nonfiction that I don’t believe really matter.

Cary: Something that clearly does matter are the ethical choices made in choice of subject, choice of form. [For instance, the technique of using actual names in your fiction.] All forms require choices. What are some of those choices that you make?

Wideman: To answer that question, I have to look back at 30 years of writing, and my writing has changed, I hope, during that period. My opinions have changed as much as my approach to writing has evolved. Right now, the basic rule I follow to keep straight the ethical and moral dimensions of distinctions between fiction and nonfiction is this: I try as much possible, as clearly as possible, to keep the reader informed of what I think I’m doing—even though I know what I think I’m doing is not always what I’m doing. But at least I attempt to let the people know: “Hey, I’m writing this story about my brother, and it’s based on interviews, but the interviews weren’t transcribed. I carried the interviews away in my head and wrote them down, sometimes a week later, and checked them with my brother, got the substance right to his understanding and mine, but I’m responsible, reader, for the words on the page. These are not exactly my brother’s words, but he sort of gave them the OK.” If the reader is given this kind of info, we’re in good shape.

Cary: [James] Baldwin said that in America we give celebrity to our writers and that it’s ruinous—that celebrity is not the same thing as true appreciation or true admiration but is a different thing that can be corrosive. I’m wondering about how the whole issue of writers and celebrity versus appreciation has affected you? As someone who has been writing for a number of years [and] has managed to keep going—who’s not been a flash in the pan, who produces work that allows himself to be seen growing and maturing and changing through the work—you have much to tell us about that.

Wideman: I’ve been fairly lucky because the acceptance of me by a reading public has been very gradual—it’s still, from my point of view, gradual. I’m not a writer who has ever sold enormous numbers of books. I’m a writer who has a substantial readership among university people, for instance—enough of my books are taught in university classes to keep my publishers vaguely happy. The book that sold most in hardback was Brothers and Keepers, and I’m pretty sure it never sold more than fifty-odd thousand copies. Minor league in terms of what’s expected by publishers for megabooks. No work of fiction has come close to those numbers. 
    My first novel was not a big, commercial success. Fine reviews, but they didn’t create the sort of sensation that draws legions of fans waiting in the wings for the next book or critics waiting in the wings to say, “Wideman’s first book was a hit, but this one’s not so good. What’s wrong? Is he washed up?” Dealing with the boom or bust mentality in publishing is terrrible for anybody, but especially for young writers. I’ve had friends wilt under that pressure, friends who wrote a fairly decent first book and then got a huge advance for the second book and it paralyzed them. 
    I began slowly, so I had no fear of a great fall. I never expected the big bucks and popular acclaim. Besides, I grew up poor and knew I better have a day job. So I prepared myself to teach in a university, and I’ve taught my whole writing life, so I didn’t have to worry about what happened in terms of sales. On the other hand, I admit part of me still wants it all. I want critical acclaim, I want bestsellers, but of course I realize that doesn’t happen for most people and the instances of it happening grow rarer.

Al Filreis: We’re grateful that you chose that day job, judging from yesterday’s three-hour session with the students in our Writers House seminar. Continuing the theme of politics and history and ethical choices, I wanted to ask you about the presentation of Mallory in Two Cities. As a reader I’m sort of a sucker for World War II vets who emerge in the present day. Here’s Mallory sitting at the edge of participation in World War II, doing a lot of KP duty and getting involved accidentally in atrocities, seeing something that really scars him for life and then emerging into the political scene, where he brings into his mind the MOVE thing as well as Emmett Till’s image and so forth. He becomes a deeply political figure. This follows from your statement about how politics can persuade us without being straight on, and I’m asking you what you think of the politics of Mallory and what Mallory stands for in that book, or how he helps you with history?

Wideman: The nitty gritty, day by day, line by line process of writing remains, to a degree, mysterious—trying to reach the spirits of the characters, trying to 
do whatever I can to make them reveal themselves to me so I can get inside their space and imitate or represent or get them to speak the novel for me. But I also consciously plan a novel’s trajectory, and when I stand way back, I understand Two Cities was about the knitting together of generations, and Mr. Mallory’s role was pivotal. He connects the oldest and youngest males of the community. He’s closest to death, the end, so he’s the closest to the starting over each new generation commences. Young people learn from older people, young people fertilize older people’s thinking—a circle. To me, that circle—maybe among all American men but certainly among African American men—that circle has been ruptured, broken by the facts of history and oppression and economic exploitation.

Filreis: The desecration of Mallory in his coffin is for me a very sad moment in the book, obviously. I wonder if you could speak to the tragedy of a younger generation not respecting the Mallorys? And does that have anything to do with the dedication of the book in memory of your nephew Omar: “We didn’t try hard enough”? Is our not trying hard enough related to the desecration of Mallory and the disrespect of that earlier generation?

Wideman: When Mr. Mallory is thrown out of his coffin into the street, it’s the lowest point in the novel. It’s not only Mr. Mallory lying there. If the scene works, the coffin is a cradle, and inside it you also see Kassima’s sons, who’ve been killed as teenagers in street violence. Mr. Mallory’s old body is their bodies as well, and for me that connection was literal, not symbolic, because the first time I heard of the desecration of dead bodies it was teenagers doing it to other teenagers—funerals in West Philadelphia, in North Philadelphia broken up by gangs because killing somebody wasn’t enough, you had to dis ’em one more time. The revenge stuff never ends. How deep can you go? Gangs terrorize the family, terrorize the funeral. And then the same kind of stuff occurred in Pittsburgh. I saw it almost happen at my nephew’s funeral. So when Mr. Mallory hits the street, he’s a child as well as an old man. In the passage there are words that suggest cradle, words that suggest youth, words that make Mallory seem like a baby as well as an old man.

Filreis: We have a question from Cassie MacDonald, [a member of the seminar].

Cassie MacDonald: This is about Two Cities, and I wanted to say that I love this book for the love that is in it. Do you draw from the Bible much?

Wideman: The Bible is explicitly and implicitly part of Two Cities. My reading of the Book of Lamentations just nailed for me the fact that I had to write Two Cities. My mother reads my books, and she is a very astute reader of the Bible and whenever I use something that either alludes to the Bible or a biblical reference, I always discuss it with her and she takes me seriously. She’ll go back to the passage and think about it and we have conversations about these kinds of things, and I’ve learned a lot from her. The Book of Lamentations is about a group of people who find themselves with their city, their nation, their lives devastated. The Book of Lamentations asks, “How did it happen? What does it mean? Why is God doing this to us?” The catastrophe is almost too overwhelming to mourn. When loss seems past mourning, how do we get our hearts, our souls around it? And that seemed to be a perfect place to begin to write about Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and contemporary America, because how can you measure or weigh the loss, the bloodletting that is still going on?

Filreis: We have a question here from Prentice Cole [W’76].

Prentice Cole: I wanted to commend you for your reading last night and was most impressed with the ability to talk from two different voices [both that of a black man and a white woman], and I wanted to ask you about your experiences in West Philadelphia and University City. It would seem to be so compelling that that experience would have allowed you perhaps to speak from those different voices.

Wideman: I think, again, I’ve been very fortunate. I grew up in Homewood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—a community that was predominantly African American. Growing up, the first, I guess, eight years, nine years I saw only other African American people on a daily basis. White folk we would see when we went to stores and places like that. But then my family moved to Shadyside, which is another neighborhood in Pittsburgh, and there was one street, half of a street, where there were a few black families, four or five. Other than that, it was white—and forgive me for using words that are only approximations. The language hasn’t refined itself to give us neutral terms to talk about Americans of various colors and cultures, and this blackand white is a shorthand which is a pernicious shorthand, but I haven’t figured out a way to make the distinctions myself—it should be a national project, not mine. Anyway, so-called whites and so-called blacks were in a totally different proportion in Shadyside than in Homewood, so I got to hear kids whose families spoke a different language at home.
    Pittsburgh’s always been a very polyglot place. I saw, without knowing I was seeing, different languages, different alphabets on the sides of churches and public buildings as I was growing up. The languages were mysterious to me, strange scraggly writing on stones. Not only did I see it on stones, I heard it in people’s voices. My exposure to other speech communities continued, when I came to Penn, then lived outside the country. For an African American young person to get out of this country and see that things can be stacked in a very different way is a crucial experience. It’s good for any young American. What we have here in our country is not a given; it doesn’t have to be this way. That was such a wondrous thing to discover, and I could only discover it by getting on the outside.

Filreis: You said yesterday at the seminar that you thought about leaving Penn after six weeks or so—

Wideman: Five minutes. [Laughter]

Filreis: Thought about it in five minutes but at six weeks got on a bus and the freshman coach pulled you off. And one of the students [in the seminar] followed it up by saying, “Well, what made you stay?” and you said, “Basketball.” I wonder if you could elaborate a little more. What was different about basketball than being at Penn at large? What was so crucial about that?

Wideman: Well, basketball was my safety zone. It was a sanctuary. I had no doubt I was wanted there, that I had a place there. There was no doubt I could hold my own there. The fact that [the assistant basketball coach] Dick Harter came down to the bus station to pull me off the bus—literally—and say, “Come on back,” meant that basketball needed me. The basketball court offers a kind of democracy. It’s not totally a democracy—in fact, it may be one of the last zones of good, healthy tyranny left. Ask any coach, ask any player.
    The rules are quite simple, and everyone knows them. If you don’t like them, you don’t have to go there. In sports, there’s a kind of openness about things and a really hard bottom line: If you hit the jumper, you can take the jumper. You miss the jumper, “It’s a bad shot, son,” but you know how it works—it’s clear. And some of the best teaching goes on in athletic programs, because you have such a willing constituency and it’s to some degree voluntary. The same way, in my creative-writing classes, people come to me because I’m a writer. They believe I offer something they want, and if you can’t teach in those circumstances you’re pretty hopeless. Sports also breeds a unique comradery. I’ve maintained sports friendships over lots of years.
    On the hoops court, most of the time, what you did counted—not what you said, not the history, the social and economic status you brought to the court, not what you wore before you stepped onto the court, not where you could go afterwards, not who your parents were. You entered the Palestra and the court became a sort of magic square. You go out on it, and you could create your own world.

Filreis: We have a question from Canada, from Ingrid Philipp [CW’69]. She writes: “Dear John, as a late-life beginning writer, I have several unborn stories fighting to come out. Any advice on how to pick the book or the story to write?”

Wideman: One of the most difficult things for any writer is to find the proper subject, and by proper subject I mean a subject about which you can only write at your best, a subject that does not allow you to compromise or be dishonest or do a half-assed job. Basketball was like that for me. I could not go on the basketball court and give a sort of semi-effort. I would rather just not play. My coaches might tell you 
differently—but most of the time I was giving it my best, and I really felt awful if I came out of a game and felt I did not bring my best to it.
    So you have to find a subject which is that deeply felt, which disturbs you, which won’t let you go, which demands the best of you. And you’re the only person who can discover what it is. Sometimes you can only discover it by many fits and starts, and if you don’t have the faculty of determining when the subject matter has backed you into a corner and when it demands your best, then you’re probably not going to be a writer. You may write, you may publish, but you’re never going to do your best work. That’s the struggle, to find what counts for you.
    I keep going back to sport metaphors because sports are so much a part of me, but I think a good player always plays best against the best competition. You have to find a subject that is a good competitor in that sense—it should scare you a little. It should demand the fullest measure of your talent. It’s good to be a little bit frightened—not intimidated, but before a game it’s not bad to have an edge of fear, a fine layer of sweat. You can get in trouble with that edge of fear, and it can keep you from writing the subject you want to write about. If you know your relationship with your mom has always been something you’d rather not look at—you want to get your own life and get away from it—that little edge of fear can keep you from going there for a long time. But the little edge of fear also ought to be enticing: “OK, he’s averaged 30 points a game. He’s All-American. Where is he playing this Saturday? I want to go out to his playground. Guard him. I want to play with the big boy, the biggest boys.”

Paul Vinelli C’00 (in audience): I was wondering if you have a sense of fear in approaching the sacred and the spiritual, and, if so, how do you deal with that?

Wideman: I’ve often wondered about my mother’s religious faith, which in some senses is a very traditional faith: She believes in God, she goes to church every Sunday, she studies the Bible. As far back as I remember, she’s always been extremely devout. I don’t share her religious framework. On the other hand, I have seen its power, and I’ve seen the kind of person it has made her, and I’ve seen her ability to hold together a family that’s been distressed in many, many awful ways.
    I don’t know anybody who deals with crisis—personal crisis, illness, illnesses of loved ones, the incarceration of a son—I don’t know anybody who brings more strength and intelligence to those kinds of situations than my mother. I respect her profoundly, and I know her strength has a lot to do with her religious faith, so, no matter my view of religion, I cannot treat it lightly, I cannot be silly about it. I certainly can’t dismiss it. Religion’s a mystery to me. I don’t understand it. But I know my mom’s way at some level makes absolute sense for her, and so I guess that’s my answer to the question—that I don’t have everything sorted out, but her path is one that continues to illuminate and fortify me, because I’ve been the beneficiary.
    I’m speaking about my mother in particular, but there’s something general about African American culture and tradition she embodies, and it is the culture’s intimacy with a non-material, spiritually rich reality. There is something beyond what we can count and touch and smell and see which exerts a powerful force on what it means to be human and, like my mom, I want to honor, or try to understand a little better, those forces.

Cary: You have a piece of paper there with some stuff written on it. Is there anything we should hear before we close this?

Wideman: This is kind of grim—but not really so grim. It’s about the end and this is the end of the program, so maybe it’s appropriate. I’ve been thinking about a basketball player who is at the end of his career, and he’s doing a kind of tour of his past and of the game, and he’s stopping in cities, but it’s not a triumphal tour like Dr. J’s last run or Larry Bird’s last run—you know, where they have these celebrations at the stadium and people give them Broncos and stuff like that. My guy played at a lower level of the game, and the novel, if it’s going to be a novel, will be about the end of his playing days, about how things end in general for all of us. The narrative will follow his final road trip through America, going from city to city as an itinerant basketball player, trying to make sense of the life that he’s lived. So you have to think of a guy who’s had that kind of life. This piece is part of the novel-in-progress. It has never aired before, so I don’t know what it’s going to sound like:
“Lately, someone has begun whispering in my ear. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead they say gentle whisperers guide the soul on its last journey, spirit voices assisting the naked soul’s passage from light to darkness to light, from invisibility in the body’s cave to visibility as the soul returns to the eternal shining forth that all things are. Calm, certain voices like pole stars in the black night the frightened soul must navigate. I take some consolation from the rumor that such whisperers may exist, but the voice in my ear does not confide helpful or calming things. It seems as lost, as haunted as I am, unable to speak above the muted, breathless murmur of someone in pain, someone deeply unsure, puzzled by the nature of a world, a leavetaking more not less confusing as the body’s end approaches, the soul’s final separation begins. Perhaps that is the way the dead are guided—not by anyone with answers or knowledge of the shifting terrain but by another like them. Is it possible that even in this last formless wandering we may not be alone, that we still hunger for our kind, though what that kind might be eludes us still? Perhaps the unseen companion attaching itself to me seeks nothing from me, understands nothing of my presence, except as we vanish together we’ll learn the other’s fading voice, the other’s doubts. Will they become a source of comfort. Who is this companion, this exhausted being from an exhausted star who has traveled vast distances, a great, incomprehensible life, a muffled sighing I can barely hear.”

Filreis: Thank you, John Wideman.

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