Media Diet: Ishmael Reed

The prolific writer and commentator talks musicians, magazines, and movies


| September/October 1998



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.