AN INTERVIEW WITH SAMUEL R. DELANY
Marcel Cornis-Pope: Chip, let me start with, hopefully, a question that is both large enough but also focused enough on what you have been exploring over a good many years now. I'm very interested in your use of science fiction: first, how did you get to choose this narrative mode at the very beginning and then what interesting uses you found along the way. I'm particularly interested in what political and poetic uses you found in science fiction because you've obviously pushed the conventions and undermined the sort of very . . . even the language of traditional science fiction modes, so why science fiction?
Samuel Delany: I really don't have an answer for that, it just kind of happened. I never decided, "Oh, I want to be a science fiction writer." The story, which I have told many times: my wife, Marilyn Hacker, got a job at Ace Books as an assistant editor and would come home, usually pretty disgruntled with the stuff she'd been working on all day. I began writing a novel, while I was at home, for her. Her particular complaints about the material she was working with included the tendency of the female characters to sit around and get rescued constantly without ever doing anything else, and the corresponding over-maleness of the heroes. So finally I decided to write a novel where the main character was a poet and the young lady who got rescued turned out to be pretty feisty in spite of it. After I got about a third of the way through it, and she was sort of reading it every night when she came home, and she said, "You know, this is pretty good, you should submit it," and I said, "Ah, come on. This is basically just an in joke between you and me," and she said, "No, really, you should." I finished it. She took it in and told the editor-in-chief, Don Wollheim, that she'd found it in the slush pile. We put a pen name on it, Bruno Calabro—where we'd gotten that name, I sometimes wonder. But he read it and liked it. And so he bought it. We contracted for it. And after the contracts were drawn up, Marilyn told him, "Oh, that's my husband, incidentally," and he said, "Well, I'm awfully glad of that because I hate the name Bruno Calabro." So I went back to being Samuel Delany, and the book came out, and because I had sold a novel, I just decided, well, maybe I should write another novel in the same genre as the one I sold. And when I got through three-going-on-four science fiction novels, one day it occurred to me, "Oh, I must be a science fiction writer." But I never made a decision to be a science fiction writer. That just happened.
MC-P: Retrospectively, what are some of the advantages of this mode . . .
SD: There are no particular advantages to science fiction and there are no particular disadvantages to science fiction. It is simply a genre like any other. Genres don't solve problems, they don't create problems. I think all of us would like them to. You know, you're a marginal writer working in a marginal genre. Doesn't that mean that the stories you write will be therefore more sympathetic to marginal people? No. If that's what you're interested in and you can write things like that, then they will be, and if you can't, they don't. There are some very, very conservative science fiction writers: the Heinleins, the Jerry Pournelles, the Orson Scott Cards. Just because it's a marginal genre doesn't mean that their ideas are not very straightforward, conservative, political ideas. It's the same kind of, you know, what Gilbert Ryle called a "category mistake." When you see a beautiful painting of a sunset and you think, ah, maybe there is some mystic relation between paint and sunsets. No, there isn't. Somebody who can paint well will paint a nice sunset, somebody who can't will paint a not-very-interesting sunset. You have to be a good practitioner. The genre will not do the work for you.
Nathan Long: Antonya Nelson talks about, talking about the difference between prose poetry and the short-short story. And she said, "What doesn't interest me is the difference between these lines of genre or what they're . . ." What's interesting is that the writers of one genre, what they have to give up, the poet has to give up in order to write in the sort of prose poem, what the fiction writer has to give up to write short-short. When you moved to things like autobiography, did you find yourself having to give up things? Did you find that there was a struggle?
SD: I wasn't particularly aware of anything being given up. I think really, for me, nonfiction is just another mode of fiction where you're just a little bit more rigorous about creating a parallel with things that happen. And in fiction you, if you're writing what most readers recognize as realistic fiction, you have to keep up a parallel between things that happen or could happen, which on the one hand is a very broad category but it's not a category . . . it's not a wide-open category.
MC-P: One of the things that fascinates me in science fiction, particularly more experimental science fiction, is the encounter with the otherness. Just wondering to what extent . . . I mean, I know that's a very important concept to you also. So all these encounters with outsiders—the artist as an outsider, mythologized others, aliens and so on—do you see a particular power or enabling position in the position of the outsider or this position of liminality, or do you see also limitations to this position?
SD: The outsider has a particular point of view. And it is limited. As does the insider have a particular point of view that is equally limited—sometimes it is even more limited. But every point of view has its limitations. There is no place you can stand without having half the world be behind you. And that's the half you don't see. I think the interest in that comes much more from the kind of life I've led rather than from the genre I've chosen to write in.
MC-P: What about the relationship between the politics of theme and the poetics of form. Do you even consider this kind of dichotomy a useful . . . a lot of debates in, particularly, more radical forms of fiction—for example, in feminist fiction—whether post-modern, innovative modes are useful or not in a sort of effort to defend realism as a mode, as an important mode. The argument was that if you have a radical theme, a revolutionary theme, the form will take care of itself.
SD: The form never takes care of itself.
SD: We would all be much happier if it did.
MC-P: So in that sense . . . clearly you are not satisfied with that kind of dichotomy and that sort of split between, oh, you have a revolutionary form and you can use the traditional modes of fiction. So what is the relationship between poetics in that sense and politics?
SD: Well, I had been speaking before in the group that I was talking about before, about the granularity you have to work, that you have to use in order to work these things. And most of the poetics, most of the politics, the political reductions come out of clichés that are not where the corresponding realities, not looked at with the proper granularity, with a high enough grain on the grid, so that easy explanations are usually easy explanations, and what is easy about them is that they are, you know, ordained by God or nature or they don't need to be questioned. They're not caused, they're just the way things are. And those are the things that tend to produce the conservative view.
MC-P: Which compromises, obviously, whatever revolutionary ideology you may have. If you don't . . .
MC-P: Finally, and then I'll let Nathan try a few questions, what has happened the last decade or so? Why this whole pressure on writers to go back to well-established, realistic modes? When you look at, for example, the difference between the Columbia history of the United States [Columbia Literary History of the United States, published 1988 by Columbia University Press] and the Columbia history of the novel [Columbia History of the American Novel, published 1991 by Columbia University Press], it's amazing, there's three, four years of difference between the two books, and one, still, is pretty open ended, various voices talk about avant garde, talk about the post-modern innovation, etc., the other one totally closing down the avenues, particularly of experimentation at narrative and linguistic levels. And I remember the Ed Cohen essay, for example, on gay fiction—with the exceptions of you, and I forget if there's anybody else who has actually done any work at the level of language—the essay basically promotes a pretty conservative kind of agenda in terms of narrative. So what is the pressure? Why is the establishment so afraid of narrative innovation?
SD: The establishment, I can't speak for. I don't know why they do the strange things that they do. I don't think, and I never have felt, that normative fiction was exhausted. I'm also, as a reader, I'm a great lover of experimental fiction and new forms. I enjoy them. I'm one of the few people who seems to get a charge out of picking them up, paying money for them, taking them home and actually reading them.
Myself, I don't see a fundamental difference between the two. Which is to say, I think all fiction is matter of observation, representation, and then formal arrangement of these representations. And in different kinds of fiction, the formal arrangement is different and the intensity of observation is different. And those are two variables that you change, and you can make a complete grid where any piece of fiction, from the most far-out, experimental to the most normative can be plotted on this grid and something can fall anywhere in between it. And I like to read things that fall all over the grid. I think the forms of normative fiction have the potential of talking about pretty much anything. And they don't. Again and again, they don't. I think lots of forms of experimental fiction have the potential of talking about pretty much anything, and most of it doesn't, either. When it does, I'm a happier reader than I am when it doesn't. And that again pertains to the normative and it pertains to the non-normative. That's just a statistical lean of what people are having more to do with, what people are used to. And, indeed, certainly in the academy, more and more people are becoming used to the non-normative. I don't see anything necessarily good or bad about either of these situations. I think, provisionally, there are things you can say about all of them—it would be nice to see more of this, more of that; you'd like to see a larger non-academic readership enjoy some of the experimental things, and I would like to see the academic readership get more into some of the normative stuff. Which they don't. But these are relatively contingent phenomena.
Now, having said this, when I talk to a couple of my literary friends in the more non-normative areas, they are not terribly happy with my theoretical approach. I once was having this discussion with an experimental writer, Richard Kostelanetz. I presented it pretty much the way I've presented it to you, and I said, "Okay, now what do you think I've left out?" He said, "Everything of interest about experimental fiction." And I think he's right. But I'm approaching it from the point of view of a reader, not the point of view of a practitioner. And his point, for instance, was that experimental writing is largely about extremes, so largely about parasitism. And, for him, parasitism is not a bad word, as intertextuality is not a bad word for people talking about more normative fiction. But the way I tend to put it all—this is the influence of Foucault—produces this vast grid on which everything can be plotted, and once you have plotted the grid, you're not left with anything with too much articulation or any rents, and what have you, which may mean that for a certain kind of questioning mind, of the sort of questions that you're asking, there just aren't any answers. There aren't any answers that someone from my position can give because it's all been homogenized onto my grid there.
MC-P: On the other hand, if you look at how the culture is actually policing this grid, you have a very different story.
SD: Right. Yes. But I think it's always false to the individual artist to do something that escapes the surveillance of the police. I think there's a lot of correspondences between the criminal and the artist. They're the two people who force the society to change.
NL: Last night you talked about the sort of etymology of the term "coming out" and also its potential possibilities in the future. I'm curious about your views of Eve Sedgwick's The Epistemology of the Closet, how that fits into your idea . . .
SD: I basically think that Eve is one of the good people in the world, you know, and is doing something good . . . there are places where I—and I just can't go into them now because it just, it would require three three-hour seminars—where I do have disagreements with her, and they have to do largely with the functioning, the nitty gritty functioning of sex. I don't know, I may be a bit more sympathetic with a more classical pyschoanalytic approach, perhaps, than she is. And I've certainly never gotten the chance to argue it face to face with her, and I see her as somebody who's fighting the good fight and, you know, go out there and do it. The distinctions between my feelings and her feelings, I think, are probably much more minor than they . . . they may not even be productive to . . . when all is said and done, I probably have more problems with Judith Butler [Gender Trouble] than I do with Eve Sedgwick. Although I have problems with everybody. There's nobody I agree with one hundred percent. I think that's the curse of thinking in the contemporary world.
NL: She mentions similar things about the sort of proliferation of the use of, everybody is using the closet or coming out of it, things like that.
SD: Although that, I rather like the way she uses it.
NL: Yesterday afternoon at Virginia Union [University] you read from a story in which a character said something like, "I'm originating from everywhere."
NL: And many of your characters, in fact, seem to sort of originate from many sources and/or transform beyond what we expect a character in a novel to do. Could you talk a little bit about the origin of that idea in your reading or your life and, also, is that something that you consciously construct or is it, like you were saying earlier today, an inevitable outcome of focusing on something else as you're writing?
SD: Well, the idea is just a standard theoretical notion which was one of the major insights, I think, at the beginning of the literary, theoretical tsunami that washed across the campuses and through the halls of academe in the late sixties to middle seventies, that the origin is always a political construct. The notion of a single origin is always a political choice. Things do not have one cause. Things are caused by an entire multiplicity of things, and the one you choose—"This is the one I'm going to say is originary"—that's always a political decision, and that's always a decision that, that's always a strategic decision. As such, it's always problematic and always questionable. And Louis, the character who comes to this decision back in 1923, comes to it as people back to Spinoza have been coming to it. It's not a, it's not a new idea. Its most recent articulation has been just at the beginnings of theory, with Edward Said's Beginnings: Intention and Method was one of the first books that explored this whole thing. And as he says, you've got to begin somewhere, you have to pick an origin, but you don't have to accept the origin that everybody else accepts.
SD: When I was at the University of Massachusetts, the head of the comparative literature department used to say that the only thorough explanation for anything is a complete explanation of everything else. And I think it's true, when all is said and done. This is the whole, this is the context argument that controls a lot of something like Derrida's Limited Inc., his whole approach to the Austin performative problem. You can't get rid of that problem, that whole nineteenth-century notion that you can cut off everything extraneous and you can find "the essential." By the time you've cut off enough extraneous things, you've cut off the thing itself you're examining. This is why all sorts of logical moves are fundamentally reductive. And Louis has had a—the character in my stories—had one of those epiphanic realizations of this and heck, I originate everyplace, man. I'm always, since I am always turning and going and growing and turning into something else, you know, I read a book yesterday and I say, hey, that's a really neat idea. That becomes the origin of who I am today, one of the origins of who I am today. And why should one privilege my great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather? Why not his wife? Why not any one of the entire tree? We all know that there's an entire tree that goes into creating us and not only is that tree genetic, it is also ideological, it's ideational, it's affective, it's cultural, social, bio-political, all of these things go into this, and Louis has just had a momentary blast of realizing the interconnectedness of everything. And so he's there in the field, he's expostulating for it.
MC-P: You seem to treat, in very similar ways, identity. So in some ways, you have no particular use for it, for the concept. In pragmatic terms, you defend it.
MC-P: It's very much like Gayatri Spivak, for example. Are you moving towards some notion of hybridity or shifting identity or just a kind of cultural notion that applies, very pragmatic notion that applies to particular local situations?
SD: I think identity . . . it's a provisional notion. Like race, it doesn't exist. The problem with identity is simply that there isn't any such thing. Or another way of saying the same thing, I mean it has no ontological status. It has a provisional status that allows language to . . . you can't have language without categories. I think "identity" is a synonym for "category." And categories are arbitrary. That was one of the great Saussurian realization[s], that the sign is arbitrary. And not only is the sign arbitrary in what it can be assigned to, the range of things that you can assign the sign to. There's nothing to stop me from saying that apples are all these little red things on the tree and they're also the little green things and it's a computer. Well, there's nothing, no relationship between Apple computers and apple trees, but they're all apples. The sign really is arbitrary. And the categories that we create from the sign are also arbitrary. And because they're arbitrary, then they serve functions, they allow language to proceed in an efficient manner. When the categories are not useful, language snarls and people argue over [it], and then the next thing you knew, we come up with a new category that's more efficient and allows less snarling. And it is an entirely provisional process. Never is it a matter of finding some inner essence of appleness that both computers and red and green and, you know, crabapples and MacIntoshes share. And the fact is, if you want to make distinctions, there can be distinctions made between two MacIntosh apples. You know, why they should belong in different categories, if that's what you're talking about. If what you need to talk about is apples that have their full compliment of sixteen seeds and some that are deficient and only have thirteen or twelve seeds, and those are the two categories you need, so you come up with a "blah" and a "bleh." You then use that to distinguish between them, and that, if you need to make those distinctions, that becomes an efficient way of talking if the larger context is such where those distinctions are necessary, operative, and useful to make. It's nominalism. It's Foucaultian nominalism.
NL: The strategy that we were talking about, the word "queer" that's often used now collectively and then these multiply dividing letters in the LGBT. That seems two separate strategies. One, queer getting to this place of an umbrella, and the other as the dissection. And it seems like perhaps there's this third strategy that language or categories or identities can be used to point back to identitylessness.
SD: Identitylessness is categorylessness and as soon as something is perceived, it immediately has its category. If nothing else, it is in the category of that which has been perceived. Up until that time I haven't perceived it, then it is in the category of that which I did not perceive before a certain time. In the same way that there is no genreless text. There is no categoryless thing. When somebody like Derrida says the world is constituted by language, that's what he means. That to perceive it is immediately to potentially linguify it.
MC-P: I'm still intrigued by this question whether there is a counter-process to this process of appropriation, the linguistic appropriation by the dominant culture of various lingoes and concepts coming from subcultures or alternative cultures. But I'm interested in . . . there is a process, a reclaiming of some of these concepts and words. I've been thinking, for example, of Skip Gates's book on the signifying monkey [The Signifying Monkey, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., published 1989 by Oxford Press] and how a subculture can reclaim the terms of the dominant culture. Do you see anything like that happening in the kinds of cultures you have moved around?
SD: Okay, well the problem there for me is the notion of dominant and undominant culture. I think to talk about a dominant culture is immediately to get yourself to be complicit in a certain illusory situation. I don't think today there is any dominant culture. I think there are lots and lots of intersecting marginal cultures, and one or two of them call themselves dominant. Or people have taken to calling them dominant. I don't think the straight white male is any more dominant now at this point than anybody else. Because the straight white male divides up into too many . . . there are overweight straight white males and there are underweight straight white males and there are ones who are too old and too young and too fat and too thin. Sure, it is useful to put them in a . . . sometimes it is useful to put them into a category, sometimes it's even politically useful to put them into a category. But again, if you're going to with it at any, at a sophisticated level, you're going to have to break things up into much smaller, into much smaller groups.
Granularity is all, like rightness is all. Sometimes you can increase the granularity so that, to the point where you can't see larger patterns, at which point, then, your granularity's getting in your way. Having said that, I think terms are constantly circulating. I don't think they're ever static. They're always moving around and shifting, if nothing else, like Brownian motion. And at certain times there are certainly roots in which some of that circulation occurs, the media being a prime example. Those kinds of circulations would be much more promoted by media of the sort like The Village Voice or The Gay Press or things like that than The New York Times. Although circulations occur even in The National Enquirer and The Sun. Whenever communication is going on, signs are circulated.
Not so long ago I was a part of a symposium, on new literary history. There were these bunch of questions, eight questions, about fifty writers all were given, and one of them was, "Is there any group that you feel that you are politically allied to?" And my answer was, "Of course!" What are you asking? Are you asking, am I interested in black people because I'm black? Interested in people with beards because I have a beard? With people who are overweight because I'm overweight? Interested in males because I'm male? Or gay people because I'm gay? Or people who were born Episcopalian and eventually became atheist because I was a born Episcopalian and became an atheist? The answer to all of these is, "Yes, and so what?" Everybody is interested in the groups that they, in the categories that they belong to. How could you not be? All you're asking is, am I a human being. But what the question implies—and this is the thing that it's so hard to articulate—the question implies that there are these groups, and we all know what those groups are—they are gays, they are women, they are blacks, they are Jews. And that's it. And that there is this place from which one can answer that question either "yes" or "no." If you belong to a certain, unmarked group, then you can say, "No, I am not interested in all these groups." Well, this is absurd. Of course you're interested in the groups that you belong to. I assume white people are interested in white people because they're white. Why the hell should they not be? It would be absurd not to be. Everybody's got problems. I may even think my problems are more severe than your problems. You may think my problems are more severe, but you can do something about yours where you can't do anything about mine. There's a whole range of responses to these things, again, that if you start looking at the thing with a finer granularity, the question begins to dissolve. And I suppose I'm still one trying to dissolve some of the tensions between those that set that question in a place that it can be answered "yes" or "no" and the tension between the yes or no, the opposition between that yes or no has to be somehow deconstructed.
MC-P: Your assumption, again, is the sort of Foucaultian assumption that we are, sort of, equal, on a grid that allows all these options . . .
MC-P: . . . in that sense, for me, for example, the concept of hegemony still applies, to some extent . . .
MC-P: . . . so, I'm still thinking that the culture still has certain dominant patterns . . .
SD: Absolutely. Absolutely.
MC-P: . . . and that there is, if not the kind of polarization we had during the Cold War with culture and counter-culture, there is still . . .
MC-P: . . . some kind of tension there between them. So from that perspective, I think that the question in some ways is legitimate because wherever we are, in whatever group we are continually re-appropriated by some larger concept.
SD: The problem is, is hegemony an element of one's political ontogeny, or is it a political effect? And I think it's a political effect, not an ontological absolute.
NL: You mentioned The National Enquirer, so I thought I'd ask a tabloidesque question.
SD: Sure, please do.
NL: I think more than anyone I know, your private life, and, more specifically, your sexual life is accessible to the public.
SD: Something of an illusion, which is to say, a vast amount of my private life that really is private.
NL: And this is not only out there, like Bill Clinton's private life, but a choice, to some degree. And I'm curious whether there has been unimagined consequences or unanticipated consequences to this and whether it's actually shaped your identity by having that.
SD: By and large there haven't been, and that's why I've been comfortable doing it. I was talking a couple years ago, I was talking to a class at Bryn Mawr and they had just read Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. And they'd also read Bread and Wine, the graphic novel I wrote about my current partner, partner of fourteen years. One of the young women in the class said, "Well, how can you write things like that about yourself?" And I said, "Well, you know, how is my dignity compromised in any way by saying in a public place that I do things that everybody else does?" That I go to the bathroom. That I have sex. And that I have sex in a particular way. I don't see what this has anything to do with my dignity, in one way. My dignity is inviolate. Catch me out in certain lies, some of which I've probably told, had to tell, and I might get a little red in the face. But I'm not going to get red in the face because, "Oh, my God, he's got a penis!" So how does that make different from anybody else, either at the table or anyplace else? There's something highly artificial about claiming a sense of dignity because we don't mention things that are relatively universal. That's kind of the way I justify it. And I think because they're relatively universal and because people feel that they would look rather stupid saying, "0h, my God, but you said you've got a penis, so therefore, you know, something's really wrong with you," That begins to just crumble as soon as it's articulated.
NL: But what is unique is the willingness to risk that . . .
SD: I think, when all is said and done, it's a non-risk. And in terms of practical response, I'm really trying to think of someplace where it has had some repercussions that are even notable, much less interesting. I can't think of too many.
NL: do you want to plug your new books? Your various new books?
SD: Actually, well, actually I don't like plugging new books on tape, but I will tell you about them anyway because I'm sure my publicist would prefer that I did. In the spring, Vintage Books is bringing back into print The Fall of the Towers, an early trilogy of novels, all in one volume. And they've been doing a nice job releasing some of the early science fiction as well. A new novella, a short novel, is coming out from Bamberger Books called Phallos. Then there is a collection of essays, writings, coming out from Wesleyan University Press—seven essays, four letters, and three interviews about writing. About Writing is the title of the book, and the other is the subtitle, but the subtitle comes before the title, which I thought was just kind of fun. And then the University of Minnesota Press is bringing back into print my autobiography, The Motion of Light and Water, and they're all coming out sometime between the spring and the summer.
NL: Thank you very much.
MC-P: Thank you.
SD: Thank you.