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Maintaining a tradition in which the body of his fiction and non-fiction interrogates issues of global politics, racialized constructs, sexuality, the private self versus the public human, and human crimes, Thomas Glave authors a new collection of essays. Titled Among the Bloodpeople: Politics and Flesh (Akashic Books), Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Yusef Komunyakaa, writes the Introduction and warns us, “this is deep family business made of pain.” Only four years ago, Glave, who is also a Jamaican-American activist and an O. Henry Award winner, edited Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles. The groundbreaking anthology earned Glave a second Lambda Literary Award and further positioned him as perhaps the most respected gay male Caribbean author.
How do you choose your titles?
The title just seems to come to me after a while. It can take some reflection. I rarely know, although I sometimes know before a book is finished what the title is going to be. But I would say that ordinarily the title comes to me after I have a sense of what the book is. And even when the book is getting ready to go the press to publish, I still don’t know the title. With Among the Bloodpeople, it took me a very long time to get the title although I knew I wanted the word bloodpeople to be in the title. That much I did know but the rest of them, I didn’t know.
Among the Bloodpeople—why that particular title?
As you know, in Jamaica for example, when you talk about blood—here is your blood, this is your blood, I’m your blood—that means family, resolution etc. That’s one sense of family as blood, bloodpeople. I also think of the larger sense of bloodpeople as, one might say, people in the African diaspora—one’s bloodpeople, the extended family.
But at the same time, I think about the ancestral presence of black people and how there is that relationship of bloodpeople with ancestors. One’s ancestors are also family, in a different sense.
Simultaneously, I think about the idea of bloodpeople as all humanity, not only by literal blood (and let’s say what makes up the human body: blood), but also by blood of violence that is being shed on this planet.
You referenced the notion of bloodpeople in a different way when you refer to four writers who have influenced you: Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Nadine Gordimer, and Audre Lorde.
Those people are very important to me for the reasons that I articulated in the writing itself because they have all done important powerful things with their writing and to some degree with their activism in very different ways. I would like to think that some of the things they did are things that I would like to do: Make the lives of other people richer and safer. But also, those four writers did those things in different ways. They helped humanity.
And the act of giving credit to writers, you did it in your other books as well. You gave credit to Assoto Saint and Essex Hemphill. And so you have a history of always giving credit to people who have influenced you and moved you.
I do want to say quickly though that regarding Essex Hemphill and Assoto Saint, that was very different. There is a different motivation there in part. Assoto Saint was somebody who was very close, a friend and a mentor. I want to be very clear about that. And I helped to take care of him when he was dying as he became sicker and sicker. So it was very important for me to acknowledge him for all that he has done for me and so many other people, as well as the fact that he was a Haitian, American, gay, poet, performance artist, all of that. I wanted to feel like I have said something to acknowledge him.
As for Essex, I didn’t really ever know Essex Hemphill but his work was very important to me. But he also died. So many of those people died. And some of them very young. And once that voice is gone, it stays in a different way, but the person is gone. I wanted to do my part to remember them.
In Among the Bloodpeople, you spoke your mind against Jamaican prime minister Bruce Golding who revealed in a BBC-TV interview that he would not permit any gay person to serve in his cabinet. You spoke your mind about repressive traditions at Cambridge University. You spoke your mind in poetry about Middle East behaviors and America’s imperialist relationship to them. You spoke your mind about the politics of race. And you have spoken so much that I wonder—aren’t you afraid that you are perhaps speaking too much, that you might offend certain powerful sensibilities?
No. No. No. Not at all. In terms of being afraid, yes one would be afraid. I was very afraid when I said what I said in Jamaica in that crowd because I could have been killed. I knew that. But I thought this is one time when one does what one has to do. And if indeed I were killed in that moment, I would have been killed doing what I knew was right for people and standing up for what I believe in.
In Jamaica, it has a particular urgency for me for there are people I knew had been killed in Jamaica. There are friends of mine and other people including people like Brian Williamson whom I wrote about in Words To Our Now. He was very dear and he was murdered. So I could not be there reading from my new Caribbean Gay and Lesbian Anthology—I couldn’t be there with that book in Jamaica with everything I had already done and said before, and all the work I had done in JFLAG, and all those people who had been killed, and all the people still working in JFLAG in Jamaica—I could not be there and not say something about what the prime minster had just said a few days before. I would have felt like an absolute coward if I hadn’t said anything. So that was one thing.
And as for the other things that I have said, I would rather know that I am living with a kind of sense of integrity and real commitment to truth and justice. So that I can respect myself so that if I become very afraid I am still doing what I believe. Audre Lorde said at one point something like, “Your silence will not protect you.” So even if you are silent, they will still come for you if they want to. And also, you can be silent and you can be afraid. So it’s better to speak. Even if you are afraid, you are still speaking.
That goes back to the essay in which I wrote about those four writers. Gordimer, Baldwin, Morrison, and Lorde took a very huge risk in speaking out. Nadine Gordimer is a white woman, working in apartheid South Africa working against apartheid.
And I should say to you that at one point in Jamaica when I was working with JFLAG early on, a white South African Judge, a very famous guy name Albie Sachs came and spoke. He had worked on the South African constitution to include sexual orientation and so on. And he has been bombed. His car was bombed by the South African secret police, and they blew off his arm. He came there and met with us and I saw his missing limb. It drove into me—it was very humbling.
First of all, he agreed to meet with us, a gay group in Jamaica. He thought it was very appropriate to do that. This white South African man went to prison, suffered in prison like many people did including Nelson Mandela, and risked his life, lost his arm and was still fighting against apartheid. And I thought, if someone like that can do that, then I can certainly do my part too.
It is particularly striking because as a white person, he could have said, I don’t care, I don’t have to worry about this, I am white in apartheid South Africa. He understood like Nadine Gordimer that just like the black person who is oppressed in South Africa, a white person who is standing on top of them is also oppressed. You can’t hold someone down without meeting that same violence.
So, yes, you asked me, but that is a long answer to your question—if I am afraid—yes, I’m going to say like everybody else, but I think it is more important to really try to overcome that particularly with the desperation that one has seen quite close-up of friends and colleagues being killed.
How do you write? What’s your writing process?
I don’t know. I just do it.
Really, I mean—do you get up in the mornings, have a cup of coffee, then you sit down in perfect silence, or do you have music on?
No, I don’t use music. I spent years trying to develop my concentration and really trying to keep my attention span very solid. It is one of the reasons why I am very careful about how I use particular electronic devices, and how I use the Internet, and how much television I watch, and that kind of thing.
For years, I’ve been very scrupulous about this. It is very important to me to keep my concentration very strong and, again, my attention span. I believe in self-discipline, that you can’t do anything without any real self-discipline and that requires work. It’s like training for a marathon or doing something else that requires typical stamina. Discipline has to be maintained throughout one’s lifetime.
Your work is singular in terms of style, sentence structure, punctuation, and line breaks. How do your hope these stylistic deployments will enhance the messages you are trying to convey?
Really, I don’t. I think my style is just how I hear the language in my head. In some instances, in some of my fiction, the fragmentation of the writing represents the fragmentation of the characters’ psyche. But generally, the way I write is simply how I hear it in my own head. On an intuitive level, I am aware of language and rhythm.
You write a lot about violence. Do you sit down with a certain agenda to write about violence? Is there a certain message you are trying to convey?
I never use the word “message” to myself when I am writing. I just feel that it is my human duty to talk about these terrible things that are happening to people. If I just talked at my university and gave talks in Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa, and collected my paycheck, I would just be a rag dog moving through my life. I would not be caring about other human beings. I refuse to live in that way. For me it would be morally repugnant. I want to be a responsible citizen of the world. I want to talk about the things that are wrong.
If you are a black gay man living in the United States—which basically despises both black and gay men, how can you not think about violence? Our history is embedded with violence. Lynching, rape, 400 years of slavery—that is part of our history. The Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean is filled with skeletons of slaves who jumped overboard during the slave trade. I just have a sensitivity about that.
It just strange to visit various parts of the world in the United States, Latin America, Africa, and Europe where all these different atrocities happened, and now there are shopping malls erected over places where say 200 Christians were burned at the stake in the 1840s, or 2,000 Muslims were slaughtered in 1560, or 24 black men were hanged until their necks broke in 1920. All these places where all these terrible things happened.
I was a student in Guatemala in 1991. In the town over from where I was staying, a man was beheaded by the military police and his head was stuck on a pole in front of the capital church as a warning to all the people fighting against the military regime. This was just in 1991. It’s not writing violence for the sake of violence. It’s more about writing about the world we live in. I find it repugnant to pretend things are much better than they are and ignore human suffering.
What would your advice be to writers who aren’t established as you are, who are afraid, but who want to write boldly about the things that make them afraid? Would you advise them to write or wait until they get to a certain level before they write about those things?
That is a very difficult question to answer because people are so individual, have their own experience. But I think that most important thing is to honor your own voice, know what your own voice is. And if you have something important inside that you need to say, then sooner or later, it will probably come out or else it will kill you. I really believe that if you are an artist and you have something to say that you will have to say it at some point.