Writer as Fighter
Ishmael, the son Abraham and Hagar, stands next to Isaac in Western history as the rejected, expelled and cast away heir of a noble and pure lineage. The “wicked” and unwanted one initially envious of his brother, but ultimately penitent and reverential. However, in Islamic theology, Ishmael rightly takes his place as the forefather of the Arab tribe; the one who selflessly allowed his body to be sacrificed according to God’s will. The one who rebuilt a new foundation of the Kaba [the black cubed stone in Mecca which Muslims face while praying] with his father Abraham using the old foundations laid down by Adam. A forgotten, controversial but essential pillar of history binding divergent cultures in his own unique way while reminding them of their shared traditions and commonalities.
When hearing Ishmael Reed’s name for the first time, most immediately quote the famous passage from Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael!” It’s a knee jerk, automatic reaction. I’ve seen this happen dozens of times; each time the person chuckles at their own presumed wit. The name, as used by Melville in his classic novel, warrants further examination. Ishmael, also referring to one who is “exiled,” orphaned” and “alienated,” serves as the novel’s omniscient narrator, meticulously describing his environment and the actors within them, many times with an incisive analysis of their temperament, characteristics and foibles. Even though he belonged to the crew, he stood aside – both literally and figuratively – to obtain a clearer, more accurate and diverse perspective of his surroundings. It should be of no surprise to those who haven’t read the novel to discover he’s the last one standing.
Ishmael, being the genetic forefather of Islam, penetrates the psychology and mindset of Sufis, those oft misunderstood, unorthodox yet wise spiritual detectives. Farid-ud Din Attar, the celebrated 12th century Sufi Muslim poet and author of the allegorical poem Conference of the Birds, expounded on the methodology employed by Sufis who use satire to comment on society. He likened them to actives members of society who must step outside the circle to gain a clearer, panoramic vantage point. Although this relative positioning greatly increases one’s vision, it inevitably yields a quasi isolation of sorts. A necessary burden and pain, however, to accurately observe the ills and warts of society – to see what others cannot or are unwilling to see about themselves. The satirist goes a step further; like a brazen daredevil he bluntly points to the society’s warts and holds a mirror to their face forcing them to confront uncomfortable truths and realities once hidden underneath layers of hypocrisy.
I first met Ishmael Reed in 2001 at U.C. Berkeley. An undeclared senior without a clue, I stumbled upon a “Short Fiction Writing Seminar” offered by three English professors: one of them being Ishmael Reed. Not knowing any of them, I asked an English Professor, “Which one of these should I apply for?” After telling me the styles of the other teachers, he explained Reed this way: “He is more hands off. He doesn’t employ as rigid a structure as the others. He lets you do it more your own way. You have more freedom with how and what you write.” I was sold. I didn’t know this Ishmael person, but oddly his name sounded so damn familiar to me. I kept saying, “I know I’ve heard this name before but where?” Also, I just liked the name: Ishmael. So, based on liking a Biblical and Quranic name and given the opportunity to express myself without authoritarian intrusion, the decision was made.
Obstacles, of course, presented themselves. It seemed you had to “try out” for these prestigious, elite classes and submit an essay along with a 12- 15 page writing sample. The only sample I had which was remotely close to that length was a 10 page absurd, scatological play written in the vein of Rabelaisian, grotesque realism. It was called “All this for an Ass?” omnisciently narrated by The Moorish Jester. The lead characters were two egotistical, aristocratic nobleman named Vienerschneitz and Cockenblock anxiously awaiting the arrival of Gerf, the simple peasant boy with the simple task of collecting the annual taxes – a plebian tribute to the gluttonous rich. Along the way, Gerf, being a simpleton, trades the ducats to a local Gypsy named “Conchita the Gyspy” for an “ass.” He arrives to royal court with an “ass” in lieu of the ducats; naturally, hilarity and chaos ensues.
I submitted this insane, over the top, completely ridiculous piece along with a hastily written essay, in pen no less, two minutes before the 4 p.m. deadline outside of the English Department in Wheeler Hall. A week later I found out – much to my surprise – I was admitted.
What occurred on the first day of this 12-student seminar merits some essay space. Mind you, the whole time I kept telling myself, “I do not belong in here. How did I get in this class? These guys are all serious gunners. I’m just a joker. Ok, play cool. Play cool.” Reed hands us a photocopied pamphlet which included the final version of T.S. Eliot’s landmark poem The Wasteland along with his previous drafts, scribbles, rough drafts and notes given to him by an unnamed source.
“Who did Eliot dedicate The Wasteland to?” asks Reed.
I knew the answer but kept quiet. Nobody raised his or her hands.
“Hint: he’s also a famous poet.”
Silence. Then a hand goes up.
(Surprised) “Yeah. Do you know why?”
“Pound was Eliot’s mentor when he wrote Wasteland. He kept reading and editing Eliot’s earlier drafts giving him feedback and criticism. Eliot said without Pound, there would be no Wasteland. So, that probably explains the dedication.”
Reed, taken aback slightly by the fact that I knew this, gave me a nod and a knowing look. Subsequent classes involved Reed asking about historical figures (like Pound), dynasties (The Mughal Empire), and landmark cultural events, such as the Crusades, which went completely over the heads of my peers; but, due to a wasted, non existent, nerd-social life I was able to identify and acknowledge these references in class. Many times Reed and I would also talk about international cinema and popular multicultural icons during the class to the chagrin of some of my peers who asked me, “How do you guys know all this obscure stuff?” Intelligence and competence had nothing to do with this, mind you, just awareness of art, history, and life outside of “mainstream American” culture.
However, things weren’t always this cheery. Being that my last name is “Ali,” I was “first up” when presenting stories. “Do I have to share this story?” I asked incredulously. “Uh, yes” Reed replied matter of factly. “Um, do I have to read this out loud in front of everybody?” Reed just stared at me like I was insane – “Yes!”
The first story ever presented in class was my tale entitled “The Mosquito Story,” which in fact was a theatrical monologue (I had no idea) posing as a short story. It was first person pov of a single, female mosquito complaining about her uneventful sex life and waiting for her first “suck.” (I had read that female mosquitoes must first suck blood in order to lay eggs. Without that initial penetration and drink, they can’t reproduce.) The female voice, as I described it in class, was a “fake ghetto mosquito,” by which I meant one of the many upper middle class, suburban, educated female peers I knew who wanted to act “Street” without ever setting foot on “the streets.” The rest of the class understood, but Reed thought I was making fake of “urban ghetto” culture.
Regardless, the piece was a hit. Reed, much to his dismay I later learned, also praised the piece for its language and wit but he underlined (several times) this telling note on my paper: “Next time, easy on the stereotypes.”
Naturally, I was embarrassed, but later understood where he was coming from. Reed, a savvy and sophisticated listener with a cultivated ear for multicultural dialogue, loathes the cheap use, abuse and commercialization of minority voices by an ignorant mainstream media unwilling to even study or talk to the same ethnic groups they are portraying. With my second piece, “Rotunda and Bulbus’s 50th Wedding Anniversary,” a morbid and over the top “children’s story” about 2 ogres who secretly plot to kill one another on their wedding anniversary, I seemed to have redeemed myself.
This piece was even a bigger hit than the first. Reed told me, “See me after class.” I was terrified. Reason being I had not been to class in nearly 3 weeks due to 9-11. As a board member of the Muslim Student Association of U.C. Berkeley, my life, especially for that academic year, forever changed when the two towers fell. I was no longer WAJAHAT ALI the goofy student and undeclared English major, I was WAJAHAT ALI the goofy student and representative of all things Muslim and Middle Eastern. The MSA took a proactive and educational role in leading many diverse student body groups towards mutual understanding and dialogue through a variety of political, cultural, religious and educational programs. Being a board member, me, and a few other students, were placed unwillingly at the center of the storm.
So, here I am thinking Reed is going to chew me out for being a habitual absentee. Instead, as we walked through the maze that was Wheeler Hall in trying to find his office, he told me, “You’re a playwright. You’re a natural.” I thought the man was nuts. He sat there telling me he wants to pull me out of the class and give me a special assignment: 20 pages of a play. I begged him to reconsider.
“No, no. You’ll be wasting your time in this class. Listen, you’re a playwright. Write me a play. Write about, you know, about Muslims. Make it about Muslim Americans.”
“But I don’t know how to write…”
“A family. Make it about a Muslim American family. You ever read Long Day’s Journey into Night by O’Neil. Yeah? Do something like that. Ok? Muslim American family play written by a Muslim American.”
What initially began as a 20 –page project I hesitantly took on just to pass a damn class grew into a professional relationship currently lasting 7 years. Reed, so impressed by the initial draft of The Domestic Crusaders, decided to invest his own money as the play’s producer and enlisted his extremely talented and dedicated wife, Carla Blank – a noted theatre scholar and director whose new work KOOL is premiering at the Guggenheim in April – as the play’s director. This 9-11, The Domestic Crusaders will have its New York premiere at the world famous Nuyorican Theater.
What is important, for sake of this conversation, is Reed’s approach to the cultivation of talent and his dedication towards voicing those marginalized voices often portrayed as tawdry, one-dimensional cartoon characters. Reed never intruded on my voice; he never censored my words, and most importantly he never told me to “white wash,” “mainstream,” or “sugar coat” the play’s very honest and very raw dialogue.
“Say it like it is. You know – use the language. Don’t be afraid. Use the Arabic and the Urdu. Keep it all in there. All of the culture and religion stuff, yeah, keep it all in there. Don’t be afraid.”
That is quintessential Reed.
Reed showed us Eliot’s work to drive home the point that even the heavy hitters and knockout artists need guidance, editing, correction and critique. No one embarks on the artistic journey alone; those that do never get too far anyhow. Even the titans need a Pound to pound the work into a prime piece without the fat and unnecessary trimmings. Those that cultivate and guide the voice without speaking for the voice – that’s the proper role of a proper mentor. I was lucky enough to learn that valuable lesson from one of the old school literary Jedi Knights: Ishmael Reed.
Reed loves this T.S. Eliot quote and he mentions it often: “Not all ethnic writers are great. But all great writers are ethnic.”
Reed might not agree with my analysis on his style and character. So, let me donate some space to what others, including him, have said about his idiosyncratic literary approach. A connoisseur of African art, mythology and folklore, Reed likens himself to a Haitian spirit of “Ghede.” Reed, in his conversations with me, said he invites this comparison because Ghede holds a mirror to the people and shows them their demons, the ones they are unwilling to acknowledge.
The sprit, however, goes by many names and forms. One of them is “Papa Ghede,” a dark man sporting a top hat with a cigar in his mouth and an apple in his left hand. He serves as an intermediary between the worlds of the living and the afterlife. His humor is frank, crass and bluntly honest, unadorned with pretentious repression. His gift, or his curse, lies in his ability to know people by their true intentions, thoughts and shapes. He also understands the realities of both “worlds.”
Another name is “Gede Nibo,” an intermediary between both worlds but one who “gives voice to the dead spirits that have not been reclaimed.” Much like those forgotten, silenced, oppressed and muted voices excised from the history books, the narratives, the television talk shows, the radio programs and the textbooks.
According to Yoruba mythology, there is Eshu, one of the trickster-gods, who “plays frequently tempting choices for the purpose of causing maturation. He is a difficult teacher, but a good one.” “Eshu evens out the playing field. Evens the score. Checks you, puts you in your place. Allows you to see your potential, as well as how you so stupidly ruin it on a daily basis.” The following story is an excellent example of how Eshu operates:
“Eshu was walking down the road one day, wearing a hat that was red on one side and black on the other. Sometime after he departed, the villagers who had seen him began arguing about whether the stranger’s hat was black or red. The villagers on one side of the road had only been capable of seeing the black side, and the villagers on the other side had only been capable of seeing the red half. They nearly fought over the argument, until Eshu came back and cleared the mystery, teaching the villagers about how one’s perspective can alter a person’s perception of reality, and that one can be easily fooled.”
In playing the role of Ghede and Eshu, Reed, in his unorthodox, combative and highly unique fashion, first coined and named the term “multiculturalism” before it became named and continuously renamed due to the enormously controversial debates surrounding its questioned academic value and scholastic worth. Reed, along with other ethnic writers, started the “Before Columbus Foundation” to give the “konch” to the silenced tongues. Under the project’s banner, Reed created the highly respected Annual American Book Awards rewarding a gamut of literary and academic voices that might “slip” under the mainstream radar. In fact, the ABA recognized Harriet Washington’s landmark work “Medical Apartheid” before the National Book Critics Circle nominated it as a 2007 finalist. Reed recognizes talent before the talent even recognizes it has talent; he gave Terry “Waiting to Exhale” McMillon the mentorship and encouragement to become a writer when she was still in his writing class. Reed’s colossal work, the Pulitzer nominated “Mumbo Jumbo,” is so influential that Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” took a stop to give it props. When analyzing current affairs, Reed’s pen is on point; he was the first one to label Clinton as “the first Black President,” based on his co-opting of African American culture. Toni Morrison got the credit, but Reed called it first.
Reed says this is all “intellectual combat,” a means for him to use the mind and words as ammunition to battle all the powerful hucksters, shysters, liars, and eloquent hypocrites who speak with forked tongues. He’s a literary pugilist whose words, like a fighter’s punches, strategically dismantle and knockout adversaries with a swift, unrelenting jabs, hooks and uppercuts. And, once in a while, a couple of low blows as well.
Some say Reed is an angry mad man swinging wildly and blindly with fists filled with rage and bile at invisible opponents who have long since left the ring. In essence, they say he’s a shadow boxer taking on demons purely in his own head that are remnants of his overactive, reactionary imagination or hyperbolized manifestations of minor slights and harms foolishly magnified a hundred fold. The opinion and conclusion belongs to each respective viewer and reader, but what must be marveled at, regardless of your viewpoint, is his prolific and sturdy jab – still punching at the age of 70 without signs of slowing. He just co-edited a tremendous anthology of American short fiction entitled Pow-Wow showcasing diverse talent such as Mark Twain, Russell Charles Leong, Zora Neal Hurston, E. Donald Two-Rivers and even Benjamin Franklin
Ishmael, the outcast and the exiled, nonetheless emerges as an important narrator for our times. The Islamic, Biblical, and figurative link – used in fiction, religion and history – to remind us of those unwanted truths and traditions once lost and forgotten. Whether a trickster, a teacher, a satirist, or a pugilist, sometimes the wise ones must stand apart, either alienated by others or by one’s own choice, to pinpoint and diagnose our flaws and demons as a society. And then, use words and wisdom to help us heal.
And so we return to the first story.
A version of the old story goes that Ishmael, the “wicked” one, ultimately relented, admitted his error, and eventually revered and recognized his brother. Another version of the story suggests his brother’s people “rediscovered” Ishmael, relented, and finally acknowledged Ishmael’s rightful status. And yet another version of the story says that Ishmael really couldn’t care less who relented, recognized, admired or acknowledged, and that he simply turned away from all the noise to go do what he knew best.
He was last seen in the ring – fighting.
WAJAHAT ALI is a Muslim American of Pakistani descent. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders” is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at http://goatmilk.wordpress.com/