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Interview by G. Winston James
This February, Simon & Schuster will release a novel by an author named Bil Wright. Bil is not a new writer by any means. His fiction and poetry have been widely anthologized, while his plays have been produced at Yale University, Orchestra Hall in Detroit, and the Samuel Beckett Theater in New York, among other venues. Sunday You Learn How to Box is, however, his first novel. It is an original, gritty, humorous and impressive work, with characters that live well above the page, resonating in our psyches long after the book’s covers have been closed.
Narrated by the novel’s young protagonist, Sunday is a novel about love, forward movement, struggle, and self-discovery. By and large, the novel resists being categorized using terms like “love story,” “African-American story,” “gay story,” or “coming-of-age story.” On some level, it is all of these things, but the totality of the novel transcends these narrow confines and emerges as a story about truth, family, and life in all their dimensions.
Inspired and encouraged by Bil’s work and his generous spirit, I met with him in Manhattan to discuss his history, motivation and craft. I’d known him distantly for years as one of those Other Countries writers, along with Assotto Saint, Donald Woods, and Craig Harris, who simultaneously intimidated and challenged me with their work. Bil is as much an untouchable to me as Essex Hemphill. I was honored to sit down with him as artists, and as friends, and to share his experience.
GJ: Tell me about your history as a writer. How did you begin?
BW: A lot of people say this, but in my case, it really is true that I’ve written for as long as I can remember. I was one of those kids who was told to put out the light because I was writing or reading too late into the night. At that point, I was writing my version of short stories. I didn’t understand the concept of being a writer–as in professional writer. I just liked to write, to put words together to create images or tell stories. Somewhere around junior high I became intrigued by the how-to of poetry, the ability to compress emotions and thoughts in short version, while still trying to stimulate some kind of impact. The understanding that I wanted to write plays came last in my early development as a writer. I was so in love with the performance of plays that it didn’t occur to me that writing them could be as exciting as writing my short fiction and poetry–that I could create what I was seeing on stage through my writing.
GJ: With your background as an actor, and later, playwright, did you approach the development of Sunday You Learn How to Box as you would have a play?
BW: I definitely saw the novel in terms of scenes, or, as I sometimes thought of it, snapshots. I knew where I wanted it to begin and that it should be a series of recollections leading to what would finally be the present–the ending. At a certain point in the novel’s development, I decided I needed to first concentrate on fulfilling the individual snapshots. Only then did I go back to see if they fulfilled the through-line and shape that I wanted to create.
GJ: Who were the writers that influenced you in your youth?
BW: That’s a hard one because I don’t remember the point at which I started what you would call “adult reading.” For a long time as a kid, I was very much an escapist. I was intrigued by the drama of fairytales. What it means to have a witch put a curse on you, for example, so that you sleep for years and no one can wake you up, was a very compelling scenario for me as a youth. To see mice become footmen was, again, an image that it took me a long time to grapple with.
By adolescence, I was still looking for high drama, though I wanted to relate on some level. I wanted to visit worlds that were closer to my own, if only in terms of dramatic impact. If someone, for example, had committed a murder and was being sent away, I could relate in some regard. I grew up in a housing project. I was aware of people being incarcerated at a very early age and then just disappearing. The whole pre-adolescent period of softer novels escaped me and I went straight for the hard stuff.
I’m not quite sure what year it was that I discovered James Baldwin, but that was my first romance with a novelist whom I was aware was still alive and writing. From what I could gather, he was also someone I wanted to know more about because of his lifestyle, as well. I would see strange clips of him on newscasts and think, ‘There’s something really intriguing about this man.’ That was the beginning of my own coming to terms with my sexuality, just on a general level–a boy coming into manhood, as it were, and being intrigued by images of men that somehow called to him.
GJ: Would you say then that novelists like James Baldwin actually assisted you with your coming out and coming to terms with yourself?
BW: Absolutely. I was stunned when I heard him speak, at how articulate he was, that he was a poet. I also think he was an actor, a performer. Physically, I remember being struck by his enormous eyes. He used them. He flashed them. It was a very conscious thing that I was told men didn’t do. In my reading, I knew that women batted or lowered their eyes, but here was a man who performed using his eyes. It was the combination of his ability to captivate me along with his literature, which was psycho/spiritual/sexual and powerful, that so influenced me. His scenes in churches and those about sex were very heightened. What he said about black people was also heightened, stark, dramatic, and to the point. He was in my soul, in my consciousness very deeply from an early age and stayed there.
GJ: Is this ability to influence and to aid people in their own maturation also a part of the reason that you write?
BW: Yes, it is. Absolutely. There were teachers all along in my past. One of those, in a more contemporary sense, was Assotto Saint. He was a real warrior. Not enough people are aware of who he was and what a powerful, brave presence he embodied. He was the person who really encouraged me to use my writer’s voice to speak to people. He was one of the first to anthologize my writing. As much as he was a warrior, he took it on as a responsibility to nurture other people. I absolutely do feel that’s part of who I’ve become. I owe that spirit to people who were braver than I was at a certain point, those people who said, “No. You must.”
GJ: What was your involvement with the Other Countries: Black Gay Expression artists’ collective in New York?
BW: I felt at certain points like the mascot. There was a kind of hierarchy almost–such that I arrived in awe of these people and felt not so much ‘How dare I write,’ but I was timid about bringing out a notebook, opening it, and reading. There was a whole pecking order about who performed, when, and what. I was definitely a junior member at that point
GJ: Do you feel that your involvement with Other Countries and its writers helped to direct your own writing at all, in terms of style or content?
BW: I wouldn’t say “direct” the writing, as much as I would say the same thing about the other writers, like Donald Woods, that I said about Yves (Assotto Saint). These writers challenged me to be an artist and to use my art in the service of community.
GJ: Was writing this first novel something you felt you “had to do” as a next step in your development as an artist?
BW: It had to come out. There was familiar/personal territory that I needed to address as a writer before I could move on. I’ve done enough teaching of writing to know that the cliché “Write what you know” is one that really holds a lot of water. As I considered how to begin the novel, I kept hearing myself say, “Maybe if you weren’t veering so far away from what is familiar to you… Maybe you need to come back and talk about something that is on more familiar ground for you.” I never thought that it needed to be autobiography or memoir, but it needed to rest on ground I was more familiar, if not comfortable, with. A lot of Sunday was not necessarily comfortable for me. I didn’t think, ‘finished book cover,’ but I understood that I had begun the journey, and at a certain point, I wasn’t going to go back. It took me about two years to finish.
GJ: How did you decide on Sunday You Learn How to Box as the title for the novel?
BW: For me, the title resonates on several levels. First, I imagine the concept of “Sunday” and what it means on the most literal level, in terms of spirituality and the day that people usually associate with either resting or worshiping, if they’re Christian. I was brought up in the Christian tradition, so there is a most immediate kind of feeling that “Sunday is Church.” Sunday is even a certain code of behavior, such that you are nicer to people on that day. The irony of what Sunday ultimately means for Louis Bowman is the backbone of the novel because of the power not only of Sunday, but what it should mean to be a child, and is not for him. On another very important level, though, everyone is boxing in the novel.
GJ: In this context of real-life struggle, you’ve created some of the most exceptional characters I’ve ever met. Jeanette Stamps, the mother, is one who stands way out for me. Tell me a little more about her.
BW: I really love the mother, so it’s great to know that other people respond to her in that way. People ultimately go back and forth about who she is and why she does the things she does in the novel. Theater taught me that you have to love the people you create. If you don’t like them, it’s very hard to make them full-bodied characters. Certainly people have responded to her as a full-bodied character. I may not agree with her a hundred percent, but I understand her needs.
GJ: How strongly do you mean to suggest that Louis’s coming to terms with himself and his sexuality are affected by race and class?
BW: My intention was to say that there are very specific race and class implications. The more specific I can be as a writer, the truer what I’m writing is. The situations Louis finds himself in, his reactions to them, and how he is reacted to, are absolutely connected to race and class, and also period. In a very ironic sense, I believe the ’60s were gentler times, so that a lot of the knowledge that comes to Louis does so in a way that is very different than had the story been set in the 1990s.
GJ: There is a sense from some of the more peripheral characters that Louis’s mother allows, if not influences, him to develop as an effeminate boy. I don’t really believe that’s what you’re attempting to suggest, but I do want to hear what you think about the possibility.
BW: I don’t know, as the author, that Louis is actually gay, as we define the term. Though I want everyone to read the book, I would be the last person to represent Sunday as a gay novel because I don’t think it is. I never set out to create a “gay” novel. I would say, though, that Louis is, for all intents and purposes, a big sissy. [Laughter] I think he has a great deal of strength, a great deal of character, a great deal of wit. I think he’s very bright, and I think he’s a big sissy, as we know “sissy” in this world.
GJ: Of course, to some people, “sissy” equates immediately with the term “gay.”
BW: Exactly. I don’t subscribe to that.
GJ: The question of family figures in the novel. What do you see as the role of family?
BW: I think it goes back again to that Other Countries through-line: to the role of nurturing and communicating, on whatever level, that there is a bond, that people are responsible for each other. It can be biological family, or people that you call friends who are really family, but that kind of caring and nurturing needs to exist-that kind of giving license to the other individuals to be fully who they are without judgement.
GJ: Is there a love story in this novel?
BW: Yes, I think there is the beginning of one. Louis has very loving feelings for the character Ray Anthony, in the sense that there is a crush, for sure. As in any loving relationship, Louis is getting back acceptance–you’re o.k. with me; we’re very different, but that’s o.k.; you can walk with me–and that’s important for him. Because of his age, their relationship opens up a lot of romantic feelings. I wouldn’t shy away from that at all.
GJ: What is your view on the recent surge in black, gay publishing?
BW: I am delighted that we are hearing more black voices. Period. I grew up at a time when I had to look for them. Whether I’m reading black women’s voices, black gay men’s voices, black lesbian voices, black hemophiliac voices, I am delighted that they are on the shelves to be shared with the general public.
GJ: Are you at all concerned about your work being categorized solely as black gay writing?
BW: I am a black writer who is a gay man.
GJ: Do you feel like the literary world will treat you in that way? Will it bother you if it doesn’t?
BW: I can’t even begin to think about the way that the literary world will treat me, or I’ll never write another word.
G. Winston James is a NY-based poet and short fiction writer. His first poetry collection, Lyric: Poems Along A Broken Road (GrapeVinePress) was released in June, 1999.
In its fourteen years of publication, Lambda Book Report has published original interviews with over 100 LGBTQ writers, including Edmund White, Rita Mae Brown, Essex Hemphill, Sarah Waters, Bernard Cooper, E. Lynn Harris, Armistead Maupin, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and so many others.
This archive is made possible, in part, with a regrant from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, supported by public funds from the New York State Council for the Arts, a state agency.