The Go Read committee must abide by certain criteria when selecting the annual Richmond-Henrico-Chesterfield-Hanover community discussion book, but nothing ranks higher on their list than an author who isn't dead. Sure, universal themes and a Virginia connection are great, but a living author willing to interact with his readers truly brings the book into the heart of the community. William Henry Lewis, author of Go Read's 2006 pick, "I Got Somebody in Staunton," has already spoken at Virginia Union University and led small group workshops at several Chesterfield County schools, keeping in line with his belief that cultivating creativity in others is how a writer earns his keep. An alumnus of the University of Virginia and currently a professor at Colgate University in New York, Lewis has been described by Go Read project coordinator Susan Davenport as "young, hip and creative the perfect person to reach not just students, but readers of all ages." A finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, among other prestigious prizes, Lewis is currently at work on a novel. Style spoke with Lewis about the three R's: reading, racism and Richmond.
What sort of impact do you hope your work has on teenagers?
I suppose I'm very interested in how these stories are about remembering things in different ways. The most tragic thing that can happen is forgetting. My generation and the one after mine, we don't remember things we should remember. That people are having a debate about slavery in state legislatures, that the Virginian legislator [Frank Hargrove] said "Just get over it" tells me there has been a disconnect because of a lack of personal connection. My stories are an encouragement to not forget. I'm so worried these days about politicians reducing big issues to simple phrases and bullet points. The book deals with spiritual and emotional issues that are complicated and don't have just one simple answer.
How many of the stories reflect your own experience?
I would say very little. Very little is autobiographical. None of the first-person narrators are me. There's not much similarity for me, but I do draw from the experiences of people that I know and the people that I've witnessed.
In the story "Potcakes," Carlos tells his Bahamian girlfriend, "I love how articulate you are," and she says, "What did you expect?" How typical is this experience?
That's a very important line to me. That's one of those where in a way, my real life does pop up. A 10-second flash of my life. I do want that line to resonate, and I don't know if it does for many people. Here's an African-American in a country of African descent, but he's really more American than African. People think that if one doesn't speak English the way they do, it isn't proper. Kids in the Bahamas have been told they're not smart, but the queen's English is just another dialect. Learning standard English doesn't mean you're more or less intelligent. We get outside of the U.S. and realize we don't know much. I wanted that moment to be reflective of Paul Bowles a Paul Bowles moment for a black American. In some ways, he thinks his oppression has made him more knowledgeable than her, but it really hasn't.
A lot of your stories play with the idea of stereotype; for example, Donald in "Crusade" is not who everyone else thinks he is. Is this intentional?
Well actually, no, it isn't. I didn't set out to defy stereotype. I had as my directive an essay from Ralph Ellison's "Shadow and Act" about how people of African-American descent are depicted in literature as not really human, like in Twain. I find it a huge disappointment that the American public would accept that. I thought to myself, if I'm going to write about anybody black, white or from any country the story has to understand how they are as a human being. John Updike says that you must create characters, not caricatures. I'm conscious that I'm creating artificial characters. I pushed to make them as human as I could in each story. The byproduct is that people think a black writing about blacks is trying to defy stereotypes. I guess that's the byproduct without me thinking about it.
How did you experience the racial climate when you lived in Virginia?
Well, nothing was new to me because I grew up quite a few years in Tennessee. On a gut level, I really love Virginia. I love the land very much, and a lot of the people I very much appreciated as well, but there were a few moments when I caught a sense of racism. I used to drive a wine delivery truck in the Fan, and making a delivery to the Commonwealth Club was like a time capsule back to the '50s, very much a reminder of the way things used to be. Also, I came to speak at a conference about Southern literature for U of R on Monument Avenue. I arrived a little late, and someone asked if I was from the cab company. That was a strange moment. Why else would a black man be walking into a house on Monument Avenue? It was not so much overtly racist, but it was not outside of the racist mindset. Then that same person was the moderator the next day. It was a painful but a funny moment.
What else do you want to get across about your writing?
I strongly hope that people don't see this book as only African-American fiction. By no means do I run from that, and I do hope I can add to African-American letters. Recently I gave a lecture in Philadelphia, and I was alarmed because people said that they had never encountered anyone like my characters. I thought, of course you have. You have an uncle, you have a mom I hope people don't make these discussions only about race, but about gender and culture as well. S
Lewis will have a reading, signing and Q&A at St. Paul's Episcopal Church at 815 East Grace St. on Thursday, Feb. 8, at 7 p.m. Admission is free, and the event is open to the public. For more information go to www.goreadrichmond.com.