Silent Interviews: On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics.
Although he writes in a genre vigorously pursued by relatively few African American literary critics and scholars, it should no longer be a secret that one of the most productive African American authors is Samuel R. "Chip" Delany. Albeit the paraliterary form of science fiction is his chosen discipline, within this realm Delany reigns. For thirty-four years Delany has been on a roll, publishing more novels than Ishmael Reed, more collections than Alice Walker, more critical texts than Toni Morrison, and almost as many autobiographical accounts as Frederick Douglass or W. E. B. Du Bois (with time remaining for future life histories). Since the advent of his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor (1962), to the publication of his latest, The Mad Man (1994), Delany's productivity has been unmatched. He has been a writer of science fiction first and foremost, winning both the Hugo and the Nebula award repeatedly; but he has also been an editor, educator, comic book writer, featured speaker, poet, and literary critic. Silent Interviews (1994) augments his position as a critical theorist.
In three-plus decades, Delany has generated eighteen science fiction novels and three collections of science fiction short stories. When in the 1980s he turned his attention to sword-and-sorcery fantasy fiction, he produced the multi-layered, wonderfully complex, intellectually challenging, and richly rewarding interconnected Neveryon cycle of novels and shorter tales. The four books comprising this series--Tales of Neveryon, Neveryona, Flight from Neveryon, and Return to Neveryon (also called The Bridge of Lost Desire)--unveil sophisticated examinations of the movement of a barbarian, preindustrial society as it slowly evolves to a market economy and moves from barter to a cash system. Along with this development Delany investigates slavery, political intrigues, the power of signs, and an emphasis which could be called "womanist mythologies."
Delany has also published three volumes of criticism focused on the "language" of science fiction--The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (1977), The American Shore (1978), and Starboard Wine (1984)--which offer the reader a rare treat: insight into the mind of a working writer who defends and critiques his genre while offering informative and incisive commentary on the form, its practitioners, and the academic criticism that sometimes considers science fiction a fit subject. Two additional extended critical essays, Wagner/Artaud and The Straits of Messina, also fall into this category. In Delany's critical books, we gain insights into his life as well as his perceptions on art, authors, books, language, structuralism, etc. Frequently, Delany frames responses to questions or comments through personal history as recorded in the journals he has kept since childhood. A snippet from "Shadows," in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, bespeaks a certain precocity regarding reading habits:
When I was thirteen, somebody gave me [Jules] Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues
Under the Sea as a book that "you'll simply love." At page two hundred I
balked. I never have finished it! I did a little better with From the Earth
to the Moon, but I still didn't reach the end. By the time I was fifteen,
however, in my own personal hierarchy, [H. G.] Wells and Verne were
synonymous with the crushingly dull. Also, I had gotten their names mixed
up with something called Victorian Literature ... and I decided it was
probably all equally boring. I was eighteen before I began to correct this
Several entries later, shifting from childhood reading preferences to contemporary recollections of favorite writers, Delany also confesses, "I have never read a whole novel by Philip K. Dick. And I have only been able to read three short stories by Brian Aldiss ... end to end. It would be silly to offer this as the vaguest criticism of either Dick or Aldiss. It's merely an indication of idiosyncracies in my own interpretative context ..." (69).
Another segment from that same essay moves from revelations of reading habits toward textual explication through definitions of science fiction as part and parcel of a "metonymic process." Here he posits that the good reader will observe "the functional nature of the adult episteme," or at least heed the generative power of metaphor and image embedded in the webbing of a good science fiction text (77).
Delany's two memoirs recalling his childhood and youth, the extended essay Heavenly Breakfast (1979) and the larger, more graphically detailed The Motion of Light in Water (1988), push the envelope of frank self-revelation. Both texts show Delany in the process-of-becoming. He depicts himself as the young and brilliant black Bohemian: rebellious, defiant, troubled, yet free to explore both the boundaries and the interstices of family, race, art, music, language, philosophy, sexuality, narratology, and human interaction, from the intensely personal to the professional.
By 1994, when Silent Interviews appeared, Delany was no longer the Wunderkind, the bright, handsome youth from Harlem who broke down the barriers for blacks to enter science fiction. He had become the wise, attractive establishment figure who had matured with the genre and was, therefore, privy to its history, its stories, its secrets. He could speak with the informed voice of an insider. Moreover, he could finally control what is said. By design, the instructive subtitle of Silent Interviews points to several of Delany's persistent preoccupations, thus laying the trail through the terrain he asks us to travel with him. And although the going may at first seem tough, particularly for those unversed in the rhetorical strategies shaping much current critical theory--the landscape is densely packed with some of the lexical and syntactic gymnastics inhabiting (inhibiting?) modern critical discourse--Delany's inimitable voice is always present to guide the wayfarer through the intricacies of his prose.
Silent Interviews begins with a lengthy explanatory introduction called "Reading and the Written Interview," in which Delany reviews various models of reading and discusses his reasons for reclaiming and correcting, amending, or restructuring several previously published essays. To illustrate a few of the models, he reports that the
romantic reads as relief from the old and release into the new. The
classicist reads for instruction and delight. The poststructuralist reads
for the delight falling out of rereading and the instruction accruing to
misreading. Feminists and feminist sympathizers read alert to ... gender
skewing.... The postmodernist reads for the wild and wacky that
insinuates itself in the crevices and crannies of every text.... (2)
Next, Delany suggests that readers less familiar with the topics of Part I might find it less daunting to place the cart first and start with Part II. The three interviews here are more personal and "approach [the] topics at a rhetorical level that, for some, might make it easier to follow their instructionary thrusts. They form, if you like, a beginners' manual for Part I" (8).
Delany indicates precisely why he prefers the written interview to the traditional transcriptive interview which, too often, subverts the writer's intentions. The errors in transcribing he cites from some taped interviews are at once humorous and sad, and ought to serve as cautionary tales for scholars and critics everywhere. Apart from his concern for garbled thought, knowing that the function of any interview with a writer is to determine what he or she thinks and feels, Delany's best argument for reclaiming his voice and controlling his texts are these crystalline declarations: "Neither my `true thoughts' nor my `real feelings' would exist without writing. Writing has engendered them. Writing has developed them. Writing has stabilized them. Whatever specificity, range, or richness they possess, they have no basic existence apart from writing" (10). This core belief is subsequently reiterated. In concluding a discussion on structuralism/poststructuralism and the "exciting reading" encompassed by the ideological assumptions of Foucault, Derrida, and Barthes, Delany asserts plainly: "But a thinker thinks in words. And the thoughts and the words can't be separated" (249).
"The Semiology of Silence: The Science Fiction Studies Interview" opens Part I. Delany begins with a comment, not a response to a question, and articulates his enchantment with the supremacy of the sentence, as opposed to the word, as the more appropriate model for prose texts. He raises Bakhtin's notion of the word not as "a locus of specified meaning but rather an arena" wherein "all possible social values" may jockey for position. Yet for him the sentence is supreme, for words alone have no support. "The sentence," he concludes, "is more flexible, sinuous, complex--one is always revising it--than the word. It's got style. Yet it holds real danger in its metaphorical compass. The wrong one condemns you to death" (22). The bottom line of this entire discussion, which takes us to considerations of semiotics, is that sentences carry the "codes" of meaning which allow us to react to or respond to embedded data.
The model of codes, and what becomes encoded, molds Delany's responses to the first series of questions raised by Larry McCaffery about the history of science fiction as genre. Delany critiques as "ahistorical" and false those histories tracing science fiction's roots to the seventeenth or eighteenth century, thereby attempting to create a noble lineage for the genre. He argues that it is not until 1926, and what Hugo Gernsback deemed "scientifiction," that the genre as we know it began to develop. From the turn of the twentieth century to just after World War II, "we clearly have the set of codes we recognize today as SF ..." (26).
Although references to "codic conventions" recur throughout this interview, readers who are as intrigued by Delany's discourse about his fiction as they are by theory will find their appetite satisfied. We learn that Dhalgren (1975), Delany's large, social novel depicting violence and decay in urban America, has outsold Gravity's Rainbow; that economic hard times have had a dramatic effect on the publication of SF; and that SF works appearing as a series are often not the linear tales they might appear. In fact, just as these series are reflexive, "self-critical dialogue[s]" (48), Delany's own Neveryon tales fit into the pattern of open-ended fiction that permits revisiting ideas presented in prior work to engage in new critiques of it.
In this initial interview, which touches upon a number of topics, we also hear Delany speak forcefully about identity--specifically, his racial, sexual, and authorial identities. Recognizing his marginalization, Delany formulates a superb rejoinder to those white critics who question whether he is "black enough" (or whether it matters that he is black): "Look," he asserts, "I am black. Therefore what I do is part of the definition, the reality, the evidence of blackness" (51).
A portion of the "Toto, We're Back!" segment first appeared in The Cottonwood Review in 1986. Polished and extended, it begins with several theory-driven statements about language, desire, and experience: "The mutual inadequations of language and desire constitute what happens; the mutual inadequations of desire and what happens constitute language; the mutual inadequations of what happens and language constitute desire" (59). The rest of the interview uses this theoretical underpinning to connect all of his replies, though the questions themselves may seem unrelated. Thus, beneath the autobiographical revelations of how Delany learned to read and appreciate science fiction as a child (what happens) is the question of intent (desire). After enlarging his discussion of science fiction to include considerations of the "value" assigned to literature--aesthetic, entertainment, or political--he explains in a sentence (stretched to a labyrinthine paragraph!) that we do not, as readers, "`discover' science fiction. Rather, we are always, however haltingly or indirectly, introduced to it ..." (67). In response to the question of labels, or to whether Delany belongs to any group, his answers are clear and succinct. Although frequently tied to the New Wave SF writers of the mid-1960s, Delany denies the linkage and states that, instead, he was connected to those writers contributing to Harlan Ellison's multi-volume Dangerous Visions anthology.
Two rather loaded questions, and Delany's replies, show a certain toughness and provide the heart for this essay. The first question essentially asks whether his "overt concerns with language and contemporary literary theory" are in any way incongruent as "thematic material" for his fiction. Delany first repeats what is almost a mantra of SF: "Science fiction has often spoken of itself as the literature of ideas." He then extends this figure by observing that science fiction "dramatizes notions of critical theory in much the same way that it dramatizes notions of hard or soft science" (71) and further amplifies the discussion by recontextualing SF in relation to literature:
Now I've always seen literature's enterprise as marginal. And I see SF's
enterprise as marginal to literature. And I see my current enterprise (the
sword-and-sorcery series Return to Neveryon) as marginal to SF.... But really
I don't think our society has a center--nor, I suspect, did it ever.
Centrality was, at best, a stabilizing illusion. At worst it was an
oppressive and exploitative lie. All I think is or was is a system of
intersecting margins; and the progression of margins neither stops nor starts
with literature, with science fiction--nor with me. (71)
The second question poses once again the recurrent and reductive issues of mainstream fiction--race, identity, audience expectations, and the categorizing of nonwhite writers. After noting that the interviewer refrained from any reference to Delany's homosexual identity and indicating that the problem, if any, is the problem of the reader and not the writer, Delany confronts the implicit challenge of the question in explicit and penetrating terms:
The constant and insistent experience I have as a black man, as a gay man,
as a science fiction writer in racist, sexist, homophobic America, with its
carefully maintained tradition of high art and low, colors and contours
every sentence I write, But it does not delimit and demarcate those
sentences, either in their compass, meaning, or style. It
does not reduce them in any way. (73)
I will not deconstruct each interview/essay collected for Silent Interviews. Suffice it to say that, for the followers of Delany's career, reading these interviews and hearing the uncensored Delany is a necessity. What we have here is a working writer who constantly revisits his past and places that past, with its emphasis on books and authors, the realm of thought as it ties to lived experiences, in alignment with whatever intellectual enterprise he is currently exploring. He frames his growth and development as a writer of both fiction and criticism and shows us the trails he has traversed in his journey. For those just meeting Samuel R. Delany, Silent Interviews offers an opportunity to hear a writer's voice sounding over that of his critics, claiming a space for himself and his art. Delany shares with us what pleases, puzzles, amuses, annoys, excites, or exasperates him. He asks us to decode him, to read the signs embedded in his text. Thus I would argue that interspersed among some fairly dense passages are those demystifying, reverberant sentences declaring that here is a writer to be reckoned with; this is a man we must read and respect.
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|Author:||Govan, Sandra Y.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1997|
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