John Edgar Wideman’s art of telling

By John Edgar Wideman

The first entry in John Edgar Wideman’s latest story collection, “Look for Me and I’ll Be Gone”, announces the book’s concerns in the title: “Art of Story.” If the scathing provocations from Wideman’s narrator – a version, as is often the case in this collection, of Wideman himself – are any indication, it’s not a gender art at all, or even a very satisfying one.

“Stories dig,” he scolds in the shattered grammar that characterizes many of the stories in this volume. “Even when someone reads or listens or tells a story, it is empty.”

Then again, maybe this emptiness is not a problem: Wideman has always been less interested in what a story tells than how it is told how the narrative shapes our perception of our world. In works that erode the boundaries between fiction, memoirs and essays, Wideman explores the impulses that drive the storytelling itself, returning to some enduring themes and formal means. Those who have read the Homewood trilogy, “Philadelphia Fire” or “Brothers and Keepers,” will find that the ideas of these books continue to haunt Wideman’s work, even as he approaches them with an enthusiasm that only a language master can master. Can art help us resist unexplained tragedies? Or build useful stories out of the absence eroded by racial violence?

Wideman transforms forgotten historical figures into memorable characters, revives and gives voice to the past to make sense of the present. “Whose Teeth / Whose Story” is told from the perspective of an author struggling with a project about the African-American missionary and anti-colonialist author William Henry Sheppard (1865-1927), who worked among the colonial subjects in the Congo Free State. It’s a necromantic act reminiscent of past stories like “Nat Turner Confesses,” from Wideman’s 2018 story collection “American Histories.” For the narrator both evokes and complicates Sheppard’s time in the Congo era’s tales of the helmet, namely, “Heart of Darkness” (a text he insists is still “worthy of reading and studying” despite Chinua Achebe’s famous burning removal of it. ). He can not help but identify a little with Sheppard in his difficult position as a black man trying to operate with dignity under the watchful eye of the white authority.

“I grew up in the north, not the south as S, but his way of dealing with oppression feels pretty familiar,” the narrator explains, noting that Sheppard seemed to have “quietly adapted to the strict color separation that was forced into his region… undamaged by the fact that law and custom categorized him as an inferior kind of human being.It is an insidious destructive statement that continues several stories of emotional erosion in the name of survival.

A fear of what language may – or may not – contribute to one’s survival haunts these stories. “Arizona” takes the form of a letter to singer Freddie Jackson, in which the narrator wonders what coercions motivate artists to produce work. “Let the imagination work between the lines, tell a story for which there are no words, tell for what is always missing,” he writes. In the letter writer’s case, what’s missing is his son, who was jailed decades ago for the murder of a classmate during a camping trip to Arizona. Are there any words to save the damage that cascades down through history?

In confusing tales hovering between Philadelphia and Old Sumer, from a conversation between two doomed chickens to James Baldwin’s coverage of the child murders in Atlanta, Wideman suggests that there is not. “I mess with the rules of their language because I do not trust the language,” spits one of his chickens. “Did not speak substantial evidence of anything. Has never been one of the faithful who believe it is.” But defiant before the slicing knife, the chicken rises from its plate, “gurgling and crackling loud enough to awaken any sleeping soul in Atlanta.” If language can not destroy the slaughterhouse, it can at least help us to fight.

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