An Interview with Jamel Brinkley

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wildness

Would you mind talking a little about your creative journey? Have you always gravitated towards fiction?

Brinkley

Aside from reading itself, which has always been really important and crucial to me, I’d say that in terms of being creative, I initially gravitated towards poetry and towards inventing scenarios and characters. The latter sounds like fiction, but early on I don’t remember actually writing stories. Instead, a friend of mine and I would play these superhero-based role playing games. Each of us would invent characters, and we would take turns testing each other’s creations. It was kind of a verbal “Choose Your Own Adventure.” We were pretty typical young boys, so most of the scenarios involved superpowers, advanced technologies, aliens, and other things like that, but I also recall us spending a lot of time having each other’s characters go on dates and pursue love interests. I guess we were trying to figure out what that was all about.

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A Lucky Man (Graywolf Press)

wildness

You’ve discussed your process previously—mentioning that you never begin with the ending in mind and that you pay close attention to the sentence level; how does this inform your decisions on the types of stories you want to tell, or the characters that inhabit them? Is it important for you to feel as though you’re part of their journey?

Brinkley

I mainly want to tell stories about the kinds of people I grew up with—family, friends, neighbors—and about people whose conflicted and complicated inner lives are interesting to me. All of the primary characters in A Lucky Man are black, and most of them come from poor and working class backgrounds. Lacking race and class privilege in this country means that you’re going to have to deal with certain significant challenges, and I want my fiction to be true to that reality. But part of why I don’t like to map out a whole story or start with the ending in mind is that I dislike the idea of people being reduced to their circumstances, or of people or characters lacking agency. In literary fiction, plot rarely appeals to me unless the primary engine of its motion is character. I like to accompany my characters as they are confronted with life and try to figure out what the hell they’re going to do.


wildness

Victor LaValle said of your writing: “Brinkley regularly finds ways to pierce through the dramatic and find the subtle and humane lurking within.” Your stories tend to focus on this duality, the performative and the actual self (specifically masculinity), and the fine line separating these often contradictory facets of the self. Where does this fascination come from?

Brinkley

I think I first found the language of the performative when I read the work of people like Judith Butler in college, or Saidiya Hartman in graduate school, but my basic sense of living as a divided or contradictory self is something that I’ve had as long as I remember. I remember feeling as though I was being compelled to perform boyhood or manhood or blackness in certain ways. Charles Baxter has an essay about what he calls “request moments” in which he says fiction isn’t just about what a character wants; it’s also about what demands are placed on a character. Desire doesn’t always issue from an individual in a uncomplicated way. It can be placed upon or transferred to a character. I think life is full of request moments, and the way we respond to such requests is often to perform. One thing that’s interesting to me about the idea of performance is that it’s not always so easy to distinguish between your own desires from those that come from another person or society itself. It’s not always to easy to tell the difference between the performative self and the actual self. Is there a pure actual self? I don’t know.


wildness

In the past, short stories have been seen as a writing exercise as you work your way towards a novel. You’ve discussed how you don’t think this has to be a given, and would like to continue writing shorter works alongside any longer pieces you publish; what is it about the shorter form that appeals to you so much?

Brinkley

To me, a completed short story—not the book or journal that contains it, but the story itself—feels almost like a physical object, something you can hold in your hands, with a form and a shape, with weight and facets, a thing that you can kind of hold up to a source of light so that its subtle features and dimensions can reveal themselves. The process of writing a short story is also appealing to me: puzzling your way through it sentence by sentence, getting the ground under your feet as firm as possible so you can take that next step into the unknown. Finally, I think a collection or anthology of short story feels closer—than, say, a novel—to what living and having memories feel like.

Jamel Brinkley reading at College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University

wildness

In an interview with Crystal Hana Kim (Apogee) you discussed liking the “idea of readers having to be active, [that you] don’t want to do too much hand-holding.” Are you concerned that perhaps readers expect too much, or are you happy to be as expansive with your worlds and characters as you want and to encourage the reader to join you?

Brinkley

I hope that the relationship I envision with readers is one founded on generosity and trust. “Welcome to my world. I think you can handle whatever goes on here.” Also, people have talked about how the idea of “the reader” often assumes that theoretical reader to be white, which can exert a pressure or expectation on a black writer or a writer of color to become a tour guide of their own fiction, exoticizing it by explaining too much or writing ethnic food porn or something. I want to resist that tourist model of writing fiction.


wildness

We really liked your take on messages in your stories: “If there is a message, it’s contained in the moment.” Could you elaborate on this a little more?

Brinkley

Yeah, I just think that many of us get trained early on in our educations to think of a story as having a theme or a message that is somehow extractable from the fiction or poem that “produces” it. Like a story is a machine and the theme or message is the output of that machine. Or like a story can be boiled down to some essence that is a theme or a message. I might revise my statement to say if there is a message it is contained in all the moments. Once you try to give a CliffsNotes- or SparkNotes-style treatment to a piece of thoughtful, well-composed prose or poetry, something essential to the writing and to the experience of reading that writing gets lost or simplified. The entire thing, from beginning to end, is there for a reason.


wildness

You now live in LA, but were raised in New York and studied across the Midwest; how important is it to immerse yourself in the local creative community?

Brinkley

It’s pretty important for me to live in a place that has an active, vibrant literary community. That’s been true of every city I’ve lived in, including Iowa City and Madison in the Midwest. Ideally I’d also have access to visual art, theater, and live music. I can be a bit of a hermit though, so I sometimes feel guilty about not immersing myself more fully in my surrounding creative community, but somehow it’s still a comfort and an inspiration just to know that the community is there.


wildness

What does a typical day (if there is such a thing) look like for you?

Brinkley

I feel like I haven’t had typical day in a while. If things go well, I wake up between 7 and 8 a.m. and get writing done in the morning, or the morning and the late afternoon. Often, I like to read some poetry in the morning, before I write or even eat breakfast. I tend to read prose at night before bed. Random circumstances and my iPhone often cause problems, however.


wildness

Would you say that you’re creatively satisfied?

Brinkley

No, and I sort of hope I never feel creatively satisfied. I mean, I guess there are isolated moments of being satisfied, either with something I’ve created or something someone else has, but I feel like insatiability keeps me going creatively.


wildness

What are you working on at the moment?

Brinkley

I’m working on a few new short stories and on something I hope will become a novel.


wildness

Finally, what are you reading at the moment? Who would you recommend?

Brinkley

I’m reading The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon and How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs, both of which I would recommend. I recently re-read Corregidora by Gayl Jones, which I think is required reading. Tough stuff, but so necessary. I think people should read Other People’s Love Affairs, a beautiful short story collection by D. Wystan Owen. Other books I’ve been into recently: Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy, There There by Tommy Orange, and Terrance Hayes’s new poetry collection. I’m excited to read Useful Phrases for Immigrants, stories by May-Lee Chai, and She Would Be King, a novel by Wayétu Moore. I’m biased, but I think Graywolf’s entire catalog is worth consideration.


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