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Samuel R. Delany Gives A Very Long Answer to a Very Open Question

In Part 1 of my interview with Samuel R. Delany, I ended the interview with an invitation to address a topic of his interest, rather than mine. The result was an answer that was longer than the entire rest of the interview, one that I felt was insightful and revealing; so much so, that I and the editors of SF Signal decided to present it on it’s own, as Part 2 of our interview with our loquacious Grandmaster. At the end of Part 1 Mr. Delany states “I think, by now, I’ve suggested some answers.” Here now are more answers to that pesky, problematic question that I used to end the interview.


It’s not exactly like the following: but let me talk about something similar. Years ago, I watched a film of an interview, with Derrida where, at the question, “Could you speak a little more about X—” well, with withering chill Derrida explained that the question was simply lazy interviewing and further more insulting to the interviewee besides and not worthy of the interviewer. If you’re going to bother to interview someone, at least do them the politeness of familiarizing yourself enough with their work so that you have some questions to ask.

I had often felt the same about interviews I had heard, throughout my time in academia. That particular question “Could you speak a bit more about . . .?” had only emerged five or six years before I saw the film, and it had swept through the Q&A sessions of various lectures like a thermite flare. The basic reason it had become so popular, I am convinced, was because it was so easy to construct. From somewhere in a lecture you had not been paying much attention to anyway, you picked a term at random, which you remembered and threw it back at the lecturer, asking him or her to say more about it. It was so blatantly disingenuous and intellectually slovenly that, yes, it was angering. It might as well have been baldly declaring, “Hey, I haven’t been paying any attention to what you’ve been talking about, but, here—improvise on this for a while, and maybe you’ll feel that we’re listening to you. Then we can go home.”

Today, of course, that same question has become ineradicable from academic Q&A rhetoric, and I don’t think most graduate students who have taken it over realize how insulting for the first decade of its life many thinkers whom they respected found it. Watching it bloom and spread like academic kudzu, however, I certainly did! That’s why I thrilled so, when I first heard Derrida call someone out on it.

From U. C. Santa Cruz, to Brown and Princeton, from Oreno, Maine, to Waco, Texas; from Colombia and Wesleyan and MIT, and Harvard, from Moscow, Idaho, Rice and Bard, to Missoula, Montana, in Canada and in England, I’d given enough lectures and listened to enough others to know exactly what it meant when it was posed. And, yes, it’s been regularly posed to me. And though, by then, I’d been asked it myself enough times, as much as I resented it, I’d never had the balls to call someone on it the way Derrida had.

Well, as I said, your question is not the same as that.

Eventually, however, like all regularly repeated questions (“Mr. Science Fiction Writer, where do you get your ideas . . .?”), various of us began to realize, hey, however easy, even mindless, the question is to ask, it’s going to be there for a while (as is “Where do you get your ideas?”), so you might as well prepare an answer that doesn’t sound too dumb.

I have a Baker’s dozen nonfiction books critical books, with—if I’m lucky—two more in the works that will come out after my retirement. That means that most topics one is likely to ask me to “speak more about,” probably I can pull up an idea that I’ve already written about, sometimes thirty years ago, fill up some a minute or two with it. And because I’m a little older today, and much less concerned with what people think about me that I might have been twenty or thirty years back, when I first got to the academy, I’m also comfortable saying, “Actually, that’s something I’ve probably not given enough thought to, so I’ll decline to accept your invitation to improvise.” As well—another gift of age, if it’s not simply more use of the same gift, if the question to talk more comes from someone who I think is really interested and because they’ve heard enough of their betters embarrass themselves with such questions believe it’s an okay way to ask about something she or he is actually interested in, I am happy to say, “If you’re really interested in that, go to the library and look up my essay [or essays], P, Q, or R in my volume titled X, Y, or Z. But I won’t go into it now, because that would be another talk. It’s too complicated for a post lecture Q&A.” And, if they push because they’re desperate for a sound bite, I can also say, today, the way, I confess, I was to shy to say it even ten years ago, “No. I’m not going try to answer that here.” And that’s even after I’ve introduced a talk and a Q&A session, as I often do, “I’m willing to take on any topic or anything you might want to throw at me.”

So far, no one has ever pushed me on the point. If they did, though. with a “But why won’t you?” probably I would answer, “Because I’m the daddy”– with all it speaks of male privilege and patriarchy, as well as what comes with age—a certain amount of intellectual self-confidence (and I wouldn’t balk at all at any female professor saying the same thing, or, if it righter, “Because I’m the mommy;” I think it would have the same rhetorical effect; and I’ve already used “Because I’m your faggot uncle”)—and I also have a fairly long non-fiction bibliography to draw on. But the core of it all is the willingness to admit what you don’t or can’t know—and to distinguish that from what you simply don’t want to go into, for whatever reason.

With this as prologue, now I move a step closer to your specific question: a kind of question I have never enjoyed is the questions about my own fiction. For openers, because it’s something you can never be objective about, there’s no objective comment you can make. But like the others, because such questions come again and again, you try to put together answers that are relatively harmless—that is to say, in my case, to deflect the question on to the nearest abstract topic, which is writing itself. And, in certain contexts—such as Readercon, though even there you can’t have any certain idea of how much that context is shared—you can perhaps risk being a little more open.

Only this morning, a long-time SF friend was saying something nice about me on Facebook, and a friend of his, declared that he was surprised I was not being “attacked, boycotted, and generally punished for [my] (not one but) two books describing the rape, torture, and humiliation of young boys, in relentless pornographic detail. It really mystifie[d him].” This lead to a thread that went on for a dozen comments back and forth where both finally seemed to agree that, because I was a nice guy, basically house broken and polite, people cut me some slack—which is probably true.

My habitual response to such things is, first, not to jump in until I have been personally addressed. Which, though it was posted on my profile page this morning, hadn’t yet happened.

Now the other thing I do, habitually, whether the comment involves personal attacks or not, is to leave them up for twenty-four hours, then take them down. That’s how I plan to handle this one.

But because we’re talking here, I believe some far more important ideas are involved, having to do with what art is and its function in society. (Again, as I have written before, I do not hold with the old, but still popular, Platonic idea of art’s major function as the provision models of behavior for the young. That’s why Plato didn’t want poets in his Republic, because he didn’t want plays like Oedipus Rex performed for the people, which showed a man marrying his own mother, having four children by her, and then, when he finds out what he’s done, puts out his own eyes with the pins that hold on the scarf with which she has hung herself. Or, indeed, any of the other tragedies that Aristotle was to defend so eloquently only a generation later.

But it’s Plato’s idea that undergirds the notion that artists should be “attacked, boycotted, and generally punished” for writing books where nasty and unpleasant things occur—especially if the people who do them don’t get punished for them—or are punished insufficiently for them—in the end, which is simply the next step. (The Internet and social media are full of memes reminding us of how many deaths presidents and Nobel Peace Prize winners such as Bush and Kissinger were responsible for, which make the six or seven murders that my anti-hero Hogg possibly committed off stage before the action in his eponymous novel begins—and only one of which we see, and the murder of a man who is as morally reprehensible [if not a good deal more so] as any blown away by Clint Eastwood in any Dirty Harry film.) In my book, at the end, the boys involved are still alive. So are the middle men—though two of the villains are not. And the webs of desire they have been entangled in, both in terms of themselves and the world and each and the other are far more complicated than you usually get in many books.

Now, the fact is here I am not talking about anything that is actually on any page between the covers of my book(s) that might make you like one or dislike it, if you actually read it. Nor have I—at least in terms of my own sense of fiction—given you any “spoilers.” First, if I hadn’t told you this, you wouldn’t be able to judge for sure whether or not this was the case until you closed turned the last page. And even if you know it, until you read them you wouldn’t experience how all this happens and the rhetorical complexities into which the events fall and/or grow out of—that is, the things that give them their weight and value. Other than to assume you are a serious reader, I haven’t told you anything on which you can judge the book either—aesthetically, politically, or affectively.

Now, I would be lying if I didn’t say, coming across some discussion like the above on Facebook, especially on my own profile page, that, yes, there is an urge to say, “Look, you twit, how can you not like my book? I don’t even think you could have read it—and certainly not with any care!” as well as I have an urge to interject all I wrote above, about one possible formal reduction of the reading experience that most of us can recognize as the plot structure that may, for some people, throw some of the aspects of Plato’s argument into question—and using a strategy that is as old as Plato’s student, Aristotle, who formulated them for precisely that purpose, no more than twenty years after his teacher formulated his. You’re going to attack and punish me for a work of fiction! I haven’t condemned you to read it. If you don’t want to, don’t. And I have still managed to avoid saying anything about the book on a level that I feel is more important, today, that either of the two Greek philosophers’ aesthetic theories—though some argue they really are the only ones we have or have ever had; though I think Pater, Nietzsche, Lessing, as well as Heraclitus, Horace, and Longinus begin to outline what we can, if we squint, read as the basis for a more flexible aesthetic that I am more comfortable with than the works of either of the two Greek philosophical titans suggests. But other things as well go on in my silence, things I also find myself thinking: “Hey, you guys are pretty smart. I bet if I explained all this carefully, without using the intimidating short-hands of intellectual tradition—which, if you really understand it, should be easy enough—it would make pretty good sense to you.” And when I go back and read the rest of the thread they generated, and I find myself saying, “Hey, you guys are very smart. That’s a really nuanced discussion of the way sociality and social context interact. That’s probably more interesting—and certainly right now it’s more interesting both to you and me—than anything I was feeling seconds ago, when I first started reading, though I notice at the end the one who first brought it up ends on the note that no matter how nice I am, I should be attacked and boycotted, if not punished, while the other seems to be able to defend only on an ad hominem basis, which is really to avoid the question.

In his late book, The History of the Psychoanalytic Movement (1923), Freud said that the four things you had to believe in if you believed in “psychoanalysis” were: 1) the unconscious; 2) repression; 3) transference; and 4) infantile sexuality. All else—penis envy, the Oedipus complex, and even the various levels of dream work—were all speculation and open to clinical revision through subsequent experience and clinical work. And he went on to say that the fourth—infantile sexuality—and its extension into the sexuality of children in general, would be the most problematic one for some time.

He seems, once again, to have been right.

And—you know what?—I keep all of my thoughts to myself, and acknowledge that they are, just that, my thoughts. But, yes, I do believe in psychoanalysis as Freud described it—and that means that perversions are the opposite of neuroses. (From time to time I’ve taught Freud’s work in connection with both science fiction and comix—as well as literature. Though that doesn’t mean necessarily I have any privileged handle on it.) Another thing that follows from Freud’s work is that all sexualizations follow the same pattern, so that distinctions between normal and perverse are purely provisional and contingent. I have those thoughts that generate my fiction—the negative and the positive—because I am human; and what’s more, I’m the human I happen to be. I’m not someone else, who happens to be much better or much worse. I believe art has to be the place where you can write about or show anything—whether it’s Pierre Guyotat or Kathy Acker or David Wojnarowicz or Violet Leduc or Dennis Cooper or the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, or Corinne Mariaud and writer Vincent Ravalec in France chronicling the nighttime cruising of des hommes qui se branlent, or our homegrown Burroughs or the artists Rex, Balthus, Mike, Leonor Fini, or Gengoroh Tagame—or even my poor renditions of this daydream or that nightmare; one is always turning into the other.

But then, as we humans do, I go on to do something else, whatever it is. I take up the questions in your interview, where, indeed, some of it may slip out, but in an entirely different context.

So now I’m ready to answer you last query as directly as I can, “What kind of question are you never asked”: To which my answer is, “There are a set of questions that always seem to me to be—or at least to begin—as aesthetic bad manners, and, yes, I balk at them, even as I eventually—once I watch others start to come to terms with them—try, indeed, to do so myself. They get their impetus from someone taking the easy way out. The way I learned to adjust comes largely form the street—as well as from summer camp. In summer camp, largely from the white kids around me, I learned to curse. “You taught me language, and the profit on’t is I know how to curse.” And a fouler mouthed bunch of kids you couldn’t find. And in Harlem, on the black ghetto streets where my black friends taught me a whole other set of “bad words” which we used just much as the hip-hop kids today—nigger, and all the other ethnic slurs, though the ones reserved for us clearly were the most powerful. (As they are today.) Harlem was a crowded and condensed neighborhood, and people—all sorts of people—lived shoulder to shoulder. Though I went to school on the very white East Side, I lived in the black ghetto. And by the time I was six, seven, or eight, I knew there were a fair number of men who would come out dressed as women, wearing make-up and nail polish—and my best friend on the street, Johnny, a black kid who lived with his mother but who had no father, as two or three of my friends didn’t, was mad to wear nail polish and lipstick so that, to keep the peace, sometimes his mother would let him. I thought it was strange, but he was smart and fun—and so we were the two who ran away from home together . . . when we were six.

(We were found and brought back by the police that evening.)

One of the things about the cross dressers was the way they spoke. They all but had their own dialect. It was cutting; it was witty. And it and the people who used it were pretty damned brave. Ten years later, at a 92nd Street YMHA reading, Truman Capote had finished and now asked for questions, a man suddenly stood up and demanded belligerently, “Mr. Capote, are you gay . . .?” the little blond guy, in his glasses, paused behind the podium, frowned, then asked with raised eyebrows in surprise curiosity, “Is that a proposition . . .?” and as the audience roared with laughter, and, red-faced, the man sat down, Capote went on to the next question, and I realized that his come-back was not just a queen’s response, but it was a black Harlem queen’s response, that Capote had dragged into the East Side auditorium that night.

And that I was very lucky to be heir to all these language subgroups—literary, scientific, and cultural—that were now mine. . . because I was too young to know they weren’t and histories that led away from me in so many directions.

Those languages subgroups are good to use to face the parts of the world that folk don’t want to face. At least I’ve found all of them a help.

My mother was the one who told me: “Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can never hurt you.” Well, yes, they could—but that is when other people took them more seriously than, perhaps, they should have. But soon I had words to use in the same way that the kids in the summer camp, the black kids on the street, and the only slightly older black transgendered young people (who most mistook for gay) used them. I still do, today even more—all three. Those were the idiolects I thought in (first) and tried to speak in as a child. (And sometimes just practiced the transgender one, in the privacy of my imagination: no, I had no one actually to use it with. Johnny, by now, had moved out of the neighborhood and probably the city. Those are the languages I did not dare mix until I became an adult—on paper as much or more than in the air. The ironies each have at their disposal allows each to do things the others can not. Add to them the range of accepted analytical language, and the music of that linguistic quartet is a great part of what an American writer might be.

I try to write novels with as much linguistic latitude as needed, as I try to write them with as much experiential latitude as I can muster. Now language is always more and greater than my own experience. It has to be, as had to be the potential of sensory perception—if it is to be very useful for dealing with the as-of-yet-not-experienced, whether in reality or imagination. But while the discrepancy has sometimes been wounding, I have survived as long as I have.

No kidding—a mouse just peaked out from between a crack behind my printer and the edge of the bookshelf. I thought he was cute, but I muttered: “You know, Dennis will kill you if he catches you with either his glue traps or his hammer. So I wish you could get out of here to live the rest of your mousey life.” But I’m pretty sure he doesn’t speak English, sadly. I’m weaning Dennis from killing the bees that get in through the cracks in my office window; they never leave this room and just try to get out again, but, like moths, they can’t do much more than follow the light which keeps them bumping up against the glass till they are exhausted, and I’m too old to be constantly letting them in out the window, which is a pain to open anyway because half of its been replaced by plywood since the pane fell out a few years ago—and, if it’s unlocked, it rattles.

(Easily I can hear a bee saying: “You’d let me starve to death, because even though I’m trying to leave, you don’t like a rattle in your fucking window . . .!?!? What kind of a monster are you?” Hey, the world is not a fair place for anyone. But, yeah, like bees in cities, some species have it worse than others in certain landscapes of which, alas, I am a part.) So much for urban ecological consciousness.

3 Comments on Samuel R. Delany Gives A Very Long Answer to a Very Open Question

  1. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) // July 30, 2015 at 7:56 am //

    Thanks for doing this interview and sharing it with us, John.

  2. Jeff Patterson // July 30, 2015 at 12:28 pm //

    SF Signal’s host provider is now complaining that the chassis holding the site’s servers are buckling under the weight…

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