Thursday, March 26, 2015

John Edgar Wideman, Paris Review interview

There’s a phrase that comes up in a lot of your books: “All stories are true.” What do you mean by that, and how does it relate to your work?

The source of that phrase is Chinua Achebe, and Achebe’s source is Igbo culture, traditional West African philosophy, religion, et cetera. It’s an Old World idea and it’s very mysterious. Rather than say I understand it, let’s say I’ve been writing under the star or the question mark of that proverb for a long time and I think it’s something that challenges. You peel one skin and there’s another skin underneath it—“all stories are true.” It was a useful means to point out that you don’t have a majority and a minority culture, you don’t have a black and a white culture—with one having some sort of privileged sense of history and the other a latecomer and inarticulate—you have human beings who are all engaged in a kind of never-ending struggle to make sense of their world. “All stories are true” then suggests a kind of ultimate democracy. It also suggests a kind of chaos. If you say, Wideman’s an idiot, and someone else says, No, he’s a genius, and all stories are true, then who is Wideman? It’s a challenge. A paradox. For me it’s the democratic aspect of it that’s so demanding, and it’s been a kind of guide for me in this sense. I know if I can capture certain voices I heard in Homewood—even though those people are not generally remembered, even though they never made a particular mark on the world—at certain times and in certain places and in certain tones those voices could tell us everything we need to know about being a human being.

If you use your imagination a little bit and think of dance or music as story, then those too fall under the spell of that phrase.