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John A. Williams: A Writer Beyond `isms.

Written by Robert Fleming Photography by Anthony Barboza

At 76, John A. Williams, considered by many to be one of the finest writers of his generation, continues to produce highly original, provocative works despite the publishing industry's reluctance to acknowledge the talents of a man who has created more than his share of literary landmarks during his lengthy career. Not one to rest on his laurels, Williams refuses to compromise his literary integrity by yielding to commercial pressures, surefire formulas and market demands. He remains uncompromising, bold in his thematic choices, and unafraid to tackle the most challenging of stories. A true storyteller, his writing style was clean, lean, muscular and effortless. As novelist Alexs D. Pate wrote of Williams' most recent novel, Clifford's Blues, the 1999 tale of a black, gay jazz musician fighting to survive in the Nazi death camp, Dachau: "Clifford's Blues is an Ellington riff, which reminds us that John A. Williams is one of America's greatest writers."

A quick look at the particulars of Williams' background reveals a restless creative soul with a lifelong love of books, literature and writing. Born in Jackson, Mississippi, and raised in Syracuse, N.Y., Williams remembers himself as "the kid who always took out four books at a time from the library and read everything he could get his hands on." He was "bowled over" by a copy of Richard Wright's Native Son, totally sympathizing with Bigger Thomas, "who made a mistake and had his life changed by something that just happens."

After a stint in the U.S. Navy, he earned a degree in English and journalism at the University of Syracuse in 1950, and continued to write freelance for a number of publications, including Ebony and Jet magazines, after relocating in New York City four years later. But the going was tough for a young black man wanting to carve out a writing career with a wife and two small children. Still, he persisted, refusing to quit after enduring a storm of rejections, racist editors and insensitive publishers.

"Maybe it was stupidity and hardheadedness that kept me going, but I knew it was something I really wanted to do," Williams recalls. "My first wife, Carolyn, really wasn't supportive. However, her mother bought me a portable typewriter and I was on my way. I used to come down from Syracuse to New York to hang out with writers. Back home, they thought I was odd. My mother wanted me to grow up, get a real job and support her and my younger sister. So I understood what my wife was saying, I'd heard it all before."

Although Williams slowly made a name for himself in journalism, writing profiles and features, it was the writing of fiction that gave him a special sense of accomplishment. "Novels offered a larger stage where I could say more of what I wanted to say," the writer notes. "They gave me a chance to work with bigger themes and characters. I love to observe people and their actions so the novels presented me with a place where I could write them down in the context of a fictional story. I got a lot of my ideas and research from the journalism I was writing at the time."

The publication of his first novel in 1960, The Angry Ones, by a paperback house, Ace Books, lifted his spirits. It was the result of three years of hard work and four major rewrites. Its original title was "One for New York," but was renamed for commercial reasons, much to his dismay. Williams was pleased to be one of a few black novelists published during that period, hearing his work mentioned along with that of James Baldwin, Ann Petry, Langston Hughes, William Attaway and John O. Killens. He met Baldwin in Greenwich Village during those heady times at a bar, talking about writing and publishing. "Baldwin was an excellent writer, especially his essays, and he could have done really great things," Williams notes, "if he had not become a public spokesman for the Civil Rights Movement. But then someone had to fulfill that role."

One of Williams' longest literary associations was with the controversial author Chester Himes, known for his hard-hitting novels and Harlem mysteries, a relationship documented in their ongoing exchange of correspondence from 1957 to 1985. "I first met him at Carl Van Vechten's place," he recounted. "Himes was a solid writer, but I never felt any warmth or love in his books, especially in the Harlem detective stories. His books were like twelve guys sitting around laughing, with their knives dripping blood. He had a short fuse. There was something dangerous about him but the women loved him. He tried to jump on me once, but he calmed down when he saw I wasn't a punk. Still, I liked him, even when he started to talk bad about me at the end."

For a time, Williams wrote articles for national magazines, cranking out features for Holiday, Saturday Review, even spending two years as an African correspondent for Newsweek. An editor at Holiday, known for its fine travel writing, sent him on a cross-country jaunt, lasting six weeks, in a new Ford station wagon to record the national mood. The journey became the basis for his acclaimed 1965 book, This Is My Country Too, which further solidified his status as a major writer.

"I wanted to carry a shotgun or a pistol, but the editors were against it," he says. "They told me I should leave the guns especially while traveling in the South. When I was in the South and the white troopers would follow me, I'd get out of the car and flag them down, asking for the next gas station. This was the sixties. They were disappointed because they wanted to shoot me."

The years of the Civil Rights campaigns and the Black Arts Movement saw Williams produce some of his finest works, a series of highly accomplished novels, each getting more critical attention than the last: Night Song (1961), Sissie (1963), The Man Who Cried I Am (1967), Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light (1969), Captain Blackman (1972), and Mothersill and the Foxes (1975). The following year, his novel, The Junior Bachelor Society, was published and later adapted for TV as Sophisticated Gents in 1981. Other novels followed, such as his favorite work--entitled !Click Song (1982)--Jacob's Ladder (1987) and Clifford's Blues (1999).

In total, Williams has written 21 fiction and nonfiction books, including a book of poetry, three biographies, a collection of journalism, and edited four major anthologies, the pioneering The Angry Black (1962), and Amistad I and II (1970, 1971) among them.

However, it was his bold novel The Man Who Cried I Am that brought him international attention with its lead character, Max Reddick, a black writer in Europe, who discovers a conspiracy by the American government, code-named "King Alfred," to solve the race problem through genocidal means. "It was the conspiracy angle that made the book so powerful," Williams says. "The King Alfred Plan came from my reading of Hitler's "Final Solution." When you read the particulars of the FBI's COINTELPRO program of the 1960s and 1970s, it reads just like the plan in my book, although I made it up."

The joy of speaking with John A. Williams is to listen to his wise, wry takes on a number of topics, in much the same narrative voice as in his excellent nonfiction book Flashbacks, where he confronts issues of interracial sex, prejudice, bias in the media, South Africa, Israel, the black middle class, the black family and blacks in Europe. He shared with BIBR a few other insights.

On the Black Arts Movement:

Before this time, the literary establishment viewed the sexes differently, most of the writers were male. That changed for black women writers in the 1960s. They wrote in greater number and brought a different consciousness to the issues. They called black men to task and nobody can do that like black women. What the hell! We deserved it.

On history and politics:

History, to me, is the beginning of any writing. It's like the North Star. It serves as a guide. Without it, the writing loses flavor and context. Critics have mentioned my use of history and politics in my work. I want to inform people of what they should know and don't know. Personally, I don't like politics. It has nothing to do with human values. It serves no real purpose, as today's events show. It exists only for power and money. We, as black writers, must address that and that is not being done much today.

On contemporary African-American writing:

I'm sad that more of our writers don't write about the larger social, cultural issues. Writing cute is boring and has no value. I want to see more brass knuckles, more risk taking. Much of what I read is all the same, all from the same formula. One reason the Caribbean writers write so well is because they see this country and the world from another angle, from a larger context. We lack that. Our work suffers because of that.

On the publishing:

Possibly the defects we see in much of our writing comes from editors who want to reflect their opinions in their writers' work. They have no respect for the writers. They disguise their actions as necessary commercially, shaping what will sell. We don't need all of this writing on our domestic situation. We must go beyond this thinking to fully understand our place in this society and world. We underestimate the importance of that and it will come back to haunt us.

On black youth:

Sometimes we think of our race as one and the same. We're individuals. I see it in the young people. They are joyless and limited by this image of themselves. We should truly look at each other objectively, bitch and praise each other. We must accept difference--celebrate it. We're not a monolith--one thing.

Choosing to focus more on writing and relaxing at his cabin in upstate New York, Williams retired in 1994 from Rutgers University, where he served on the faculty as Paul Robeson Professor of English. He lives in Teaneck, N.J., with his wife, Lori, and maintains close ties with his three sons. A two-time American Book Award winner for !Click Song (1983) and Safari West (1998), Williams has not cut back his writing time, working on his memoir, a fantasy novel, a nonfiction on cancer treatment and another book of poetry. As indicated in his latest book, Clifford's Blues, he has not lost his masterful touch and continues to write despite a publishing industry that chooses to ignore him.

"Writing is such a part of my life that I can't ever think of how I could live without doing it," he concludes. And it is that uncompromising old school style, that lust for life, that disdain for the status quo that awaits us every time we open one of his books. What a gift!
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Author:Fleming, Robert
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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