Ask Ishmael Reed what he plans to do with the MacArthur Foundation "genius" award he won in June, and he sounds like a grassroots visionary just starting out. He'd like to use the $355,000 he will receive over the next five years to produce new plays in community centers and high schools, make a film, and publish books by other writers. Not that any of it would dim his own prolific output as a novelist, poet, playwright, critic, and thorny op-ed commentator on ethnicity, feminism, teen pregnancy, media abuses, the drug trade, and other affairs of the contemporary urban state.
Praised for the "neo-hoodoo" richness of such early books as Mumbo Jumbo and The Last Days of Louisiana Red, Reed, at 60, remains a vibrant and unpredictable artist. His recent projects include a biblical opera set in the inner city, Gethesemane Park; a non-fiction book, MultiAmerica: Essays on Cultural War and Cultural Peace (Viking); and a novel-in-progress about the O.J. Simpson case. He spoke with writer Steven Winn from his home in Oakland, California.
What authors have influenced you?
I've probably been more influenced by poets than by novelists—the Harlem Renaissance poets, the Beat poets, the American surrealist Ted Joans. Poets have to be more attuned to originality, coming up with lines and associations the ordinary prose writer wouldn't think of.
What artists do you most admire?
When I met [jazz drummer] Max Roach, I told him he kept me out of reform school. Sun Ra [the jazz composer] was important, too, and Sonny Rollins [the saxophonist]—people who not only know tradition but embellish it. The '60s painter Joe Overstreet was another. In that kind of milieu you couldn't get away with writing an ordinary novel.
What magazines do you read?
Once in a while I break down and subscribe to Time. The New York Observer is the closest thing to a writer's newspaper. I read Black Scholar, the Village Voice, and the Chronicle of Higher Education, the People magazine of academia. I read Partisan Review to see what intellectuals who are trapped in the 1950s are thinking and the New Criterion for the other extreme of the 1950s.
What films have struck you recently?
The Truman Show reminded me of a slave narrative: The guy gets to the edge of the plantation and finds he can't get away. I loved Bulworth. It's amazing Hollywood would make a movie like that. A lot of African American critics enjoy that movie, although at least one, Donald Pratt of The Washington Post, has complained about the image of black women. He said there ought to be a middle-class black woman, the kind Terry McMillan writes about, driving a Nissan. Which, for me, shows how the middle-class feminist movement has sort of destroyed the left, because it distracts attention from the message of the movie, which is a satire on insurance companies and corporations.
What current trends in the media trouble you?
I'm trying to write about this in my novel about the Simpson case. I've studied the media for about 10 years, and I've come to the conclusion that the representation of African Americans and Hispanics is no different from the representation of minorities in Nazi Germany. In Der Angriff, Goebbels' first newspaper, images of the sexual variety played very well to the countryside. In that case it was Jewish men who were a threat to Aryan women; now it's black men. Today the whites are shown as idealistic, thrifty, and virtuous, and African Americans are shown as the dregs. I don't know what to expect when I pick up the newspaper in the morning. I always think: What have we done now?
Are there any media trends that hearten you?
The Internet. A guy named John Hoberman wrote a book called Darwin's Athletes, and he quoted me unfairly. I tried to respond in the Nation, and they rejected the article. I was finally able to get my response on the Internet, and Hoberman had to reply because the site, Black World Today, reaches 70 countries. The African American view, especially the male point of view, is so often marginalized that we can't answer critics. Pete Hamill wrote this piece in Esquire that scolded blacks and blamed them for every possible thing, including alcoholism. I tried to answer the guy, and of course Esquire didn't print it. It's very difficult for African Americans to reply to Henry Louis Gates Jr. because he's become what a friend calls "the postcolonial voice of the establishment." But with the Internet you can get your point of view out with the world as your audience. It's the most important tool to come along in my lifetime.
What do you watch on television?
Boxing and CNN.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Sometimes I'll write a poem about my neighbors. At other times I'll write something very abstract. I used to write about things in the past and mix them up with the present. Recently I've been writing more about contemporary events—the crackhead epidemic in Oakland, the entrapment of Marion Barry.
What do you want to learn next?
I'm studying jazz piano. I want to know what [New York Times critic] Michiko Kakutani means when she congratulates all these people for being jazz writers. People tend to dismiss jazz as something you can do off the top of your head, but it's very complex. Look at a Thelonious Monk score. I was able to play a little before, but I didn't know what I was doing. Now I know what I'm doing a little bit better.