The Art of Storytelling by John Edgar Wideman

LOOK FOR ME AND I’M GOING Stories By John Edgar Wideman The first entry in John Edgar Wideman’s latest collection of stories, “Look for...


LOOK FOR ME AND I’M GOING
Stories
By John Edgar Wideman

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

“Tales of the tombs,” he growls in the fragmented grammar that characterizes many of the tales in this volume. “Even when someone reads, listens or tells a story, it’s empty.”

Then again, maybe this void isn’t a problem: Wideman has always been less interested in what a story says than How? ‘Or’ What it’s told, how the story shapes our perception of our world. In works that erode the boundaries between fiction, memory and essay, Wideman explores the impulses that drive the narrative itself, returning to certain enduring formal themes and devices. Those who have read the Homewood, “Philadelphia Fire” or “Brothers and Keepers” trilogy will find that the ideas from these books continue to haunt Wideman’s work, although he approaches them with a verve that only a master of language can master. . Can art help us resist an inexplicable tragedy? Or build usable stories from the absences created by racial violence?

Wideman transforms forgotten historical figures into memorable ones, resuscitating and giving voice to the past to make sense of the present. “Whose Teeth / Whose Story” is told from the perspective of a writer struggling with a project on African-American missionary and anti-colonialist writer William Henry Sheppard (1865-1927), who worked among colonial subjects in the Congo Free State. It is an act of necromancy reminiscent of earlier stories like “Nat Turner Confesses”, from Wideman’s 2018 collection of stories “American stories. “For the narrator, Sheppard’s time in the Congo evokes and complicates both the fluffy helmet narratives of the time, namely ‘Heart of Darkness’ (a text he insists is always’ worthy of reading and studied ”despite Chinua Achebe famous scorching go down of it). He can’t help but identify somewhat with Sheppard in his awkward position as a black man trying to operate with dignity under the watchful eye of white authority.

“I grew up in the North, not in the South like S, but his way of dealing with oppression seems quite familiar to me,” says the narrator, observing that Sheppard seemed to have “quietly come to terms with strict segregation. by color imposed in its region. … Unharmed by the fact that law and custom have classified him as an inferior type of human. It’s a devastatingly devastating statement, condensing multiple stories of emotional erosion in the name of survival.

A worry about what language may – or may not – contribute to its survival stalks these stories. “Arizona” takes the form of a letter to singer Freddie Jackson in which the narrator wonders what compulsions motivate artists to produce work. “Let the imagination work between the lines, talking about a story for which there are no words, speaking for what is always missing,” he writes. In the letter’s case, his son is missing, who was jailed decades ago for the murder of a classmate on a camping trip to Arizona. Are there words to repair the damage that follows one another through history?

In confusing stories that swing between Philadelphia and ancient Sumer, from a conversation between two doomed chickens to James Baldwin’s coverage of the Atlanta Child Murders, Wideman suggests there isn’t. “I play with the rules of their language because I don’t trust the language,” one of his chickens spits out. “Language is not substantial proof of anything. I have never been one of the devotees who believe that this is the case. Provocative at the carving knife, however, the chicken rises from its plate, “giggling and screaming loud enough to wake all the sleeping souls in Atlanta.” If the tongue cannot destroy the slaughterhouse, it can at least help us fight.

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