Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Yahdon Israel, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Ta-Nehisi Coates about his book Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau), which is among the final five selections in the category of Criticism for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
During the winter of the third anniversary of the Chicago opening of “The Glass Menagerie,” the play which turned Tennessee Williams into a household name, Williams wrote “The Catastrophe of Success,” an essay seeking to remind artist that “luxury,” and not privation, “is the wolf at the door and the fangs of this wolf are all the little vanities and conceits and laxities that success is heir to.” Williams’s reminder to artists did not come without a price to himself. Having paid the price of being a “success”—of hearing over and over how much people loved his play, of being waited on hand and foot for every little conceit his mind could invent, of mistaking the chocolate sauce for his sundae as the gravy for his sirloin steak—Williams learned how inconvenient all these expenses were. The expenses of success did not make him a better writer or playwright. They did not deepen his understanding of his work, himself, the people around him, or the world in which we all live. If success had done anything for Tennessee Williams, it sought to isolate him from these very pursuits with the deceptive promise that success and security could be a safe haven from struggle.
But there is nothing safe about the absence of struggle, least of all for an artist. The presence of struggle is necessary, if not a prerequisite, to an artist’s life. Struggle does for artists what oxygen does for fire. Without that struggle, without that oxygen, the fire burning hot in an artist’s heart, mind, body and soul will do more than dwindle; it will surely die. This is the type of death that can take a life without need for casket or burial ground, the type of death Tennessee Williams returned from the grave to warn us about— “Ask anyone who has experienced the kind of success I am talking about— What good is it?”
Watching how quickly NBCC Criticism Finalist Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me has taken Coates from the same virtual oblivion, described by Williams, into sudden prominence, I felt it my personal obligation to take heed to Williams’s warning and ask Coates that very question: “What good is success?”
Yahdon Israel: There was an interview conducted by your friend, Neil Drumming, for This American Life podcast, and he seemed to be a bit worried by how fame and celebrity was changing you and his relationship. Interesting about it: in all the ways he worried about how fame was possibly changing the dynamics between y’all, he hadn’t thought to ask, until the end, if you were ok. You said you weren’t.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: I couldn’t have seen this coming. Over the past few years I have received a lot of accolades. The truly bizarre thing is how unimportant that is to me compared to the work. Do you know what I mean? But in some ways you physically lose yourself. You become an image to other people, which really has nothing to do with what you’ve written.
YI: It’s eerie to hear this because so much of Between the World and Me is rooted in this idea of the black body and its necessity to struggle versus the Dreamers’ need to plunder the black body for the preservation of the dream and it sounds like your body is being plundered in that same way.
TC: I think a strong part of that is so much of our dialogue is obsessed with what white people say about what we [black people] do. So when a bunch of white people start looking at what one black person does, that becomes the conversation. It’s not always said like that but effectively it’s: ‘a lot of white people are looking, that’s why we’re talking about this.’ I know this because for most of my career there were not a lot of white people. I’ve been writing for twenty years so this is a relatively recent development. The change with how people interact with your work—or stop interacting with your work—is fascinating.
YI: You spoke about this on the Another Round podcast. This period of blogging for The Atlantic between 2008-2012 where your comment threads engaged the work. Now those interactions seem to be different. As a participant-observer it seems as if people, some people anyway, aren’t looking to engage as much as they’re hoping to correct you just so they can go back and say “I corrected Ta-Nehisi. I corrected a genius.” So once again you have the plundering of the body. This moment where someone gives you something you didn’t ask for, but takes something more precious.
TC: There’s this whole tradition from the 90s in which people in the academy wrote books. Then they went and they talked—and they got quite a bit of celebrity from that. So then there’s this idea that I am out of that. It becomes more about celebrity. This is really what you’re talking about: ‘how you interact with celebrity.’ An actor, or really an actress, who shows up in a role and it becomes what her face looks like—or did she gain weight? —everything except what she’s thinking about when she goes to work. It’s pretty much the same thing here. This happened with Between the World and Me. It became not ‘what is this book? Does it have any significance? Is it worth anything?’ but ‘Is this over-hyped or not? Is he James Baldwin or not?’ That’s what it became. It’s sad.
YI: To the question of Baldwin and using The Fire Next Time’s open letter approach as a model. It made me think about intimacy being as much a public act as it is a private one. So black bodies being able to own and exhibit this intimacy in public, as well as private, is revolutionary because that intimacy was historically forbidden. Did this inform your hand in writing the book?
TC: You know what it was? I just really wanted to focus it. When me and Chris [Jackson] were going back and forth over the book, the problem was I had a version of it that isn’t too different from what’s out there now, it just wasn’t focused. At least it wasn’t focused enough. It didn’t really have the intimacy. In that way the intimacy did become a part of it. But for the most part, it was a literary device.
YI: There were a lot of reviews with the overwhelming sentiment that you didn’t give enough hope—especially in comparison to Baldwin. But if there’s anything that shows the shift between you and Baldwin—between The Fire Next Time and Between the World and Me—Baldwin comes from a Christian tradition where liberation is thought of as a destination, something that could eventually be reached, whereas you talk about liberation as the journey itself.
TC: One of the biggest influences on Between the World and Me was historian Tony Judt in the way that he dealt with history. If the world was dark, he was going to say the world was dark. He didn’t feel any sort of need to find the light. I guess I just felt like why is part of my mission to find the light? Why do I have to make you feel good at the end? Why is that a part of anything? Why is that here?
When I thought about all the literature I loved, some of it was hopeful. Some of it wasn’t. The other thing is I come out of Hip-Hop. And that [hope] is just not a part of the Hip-Hop aesthetic at all. Nas is saying “Shoot at the clouds/Feels like Holy beast is watching us.” There’s no need to be hopeful after Illmatic. I never quite figured out why I needed to [be hopeful].
YI: But isn’t that the language of Hip-Hop—the language of confinement and confrontation? The whole idea of what it means to be in the hood is that you’re trapped in it. There’s really no other language besides confronting what you’re confined by. To ask someone to say something outside of that is to do what you said in your National Book Award’s speech that you couldn’t do, which is, “enroll yourself in a lie.”
TC: It’s entirely another language. As a writer I remain most interested in our own language [as black people]. Even with the world that’s out there. I was at Howard in the 90s and that was the period where you had all these intellectuals. A lot of them out of Ivy League schools and reading them, the whole style of the writing felt like it was directed towards white people. That was the mode of it. I felt like, that was what I wanted for us. I wanted to bring the way we saw the world, how we felt about the world directly. I wanted to have that conversation out in the world as much as I could.
My idol in this was always Zora Neale Hurston, who I felt was obviously not unaware of racism, and did not write unaware of racism but was so obsessed with the small beautiful worlds of black people. Even with Between the World and Me, that Howard part is so necessary. You need some aspect of the people besides what was done to them.
YI: It’s really been interesting watching you navigate celebrity in a black body, a black writer’s body, considering what the black celebrity means to white people—especially the ones who think they own your body and try to take credit for your success in really hostile ways.
TC: It’s also black people who are obsessed with what white people think too. I’m going to have to find my way out of that. That’s no way to live. The minute you have any large amount of white people looking at anything, the feeling is there must be something wrong. Somebody must be selling something here. One half of us [black people] are suspicious of the attention but the other half of us are frankly envious of [the attention] to be honest.
YI: What do you think informs that envy?
TC: The desire to have the attention of white people. It has certain benefits. Between the World and Me sold a lot of books. When they see a lot of white people paying attention, other writers understand that as money.
In the interview you were talking about in This American Life, Neil [Drumming] was saying “Well you know this person and you know that person and I think you would call those people before you would call me.” That’s what people think. So they see Common or Jay Z shouting out the book and [to them] that means you must be chilling with these people because that’s what they would like to do. That’s what people want: the parts they envy. It’s tough to watch that.
If people would just read my work, I would give the rest of this shit away. Me and my wife been together 17 years. My kid is 15 years old. I’ve been myself for a very long time now, with no desire to be anybody else.
YI: What’s ironic, prophetic even, is how the language you created in the book—about struggling for the self and not the Dreamer because the body is too precious—is now the language you’re living publicly: people plundering your body, the idea of you, to promote the Dream that “You too can be Ta-Nehisi Coates” if you do whatever. Would you say that actively fighting against this particular plundering is your new struggle?
TC: I hope not because I gotta get back to writing. Every minute I’m not writing is knocking me off my writing. Every minute I spend thinking about this I’ve lost something. I’m greedy about this [writing]. We never know how long we have and every minute I spend dealing with some other shit that’s irrelevant, I’ve lost some time writing.
At some point I’m going to have to find my way through this and figure out how to navigate because this can’t continue. It’s not about “Ta-Nehisi Coates” in this [Dreamer] sense. There’s only what you’ve done. There’s only the work. People forget that.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Between the World and Me, winner of the National Book Award. A MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellow, Coates has received the National Magazine Award, the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, and the George Polk Award for his Atlantic cover story “The Case for Reparations.” He lives in New York with his wife and son.
Yahdon Israel is a second year MFA Candidate for Creative Non-Fiction at the New School. He writes about race, class, gender and culture in American society. He has written for Avidly, The New Inquiry, Guernica, LitHub, and ESPN Women's. He runs a popular Instagram page, which promotes literary culture as style with the hashtag "#literaryswag." Follow him on Instagram @yahdon.