A joint interview, part 2
Judge Us Not By the Color of Our Skin, But the Content of Our Books: Interviews On Race, Writing and the Limits of Subject Matter, Jason McCall and B.J. Hollars.
Part 2: B.J. Hollars Interviews Jason McCall
B.J. Hollars: Norse mythology plays a major role in your first book of poems, Silver. Why Norse mythology? Why was this the vehicle you selected to describe your experiences growing up as a black man in Alabama?
Jason McCall: Norse mythology is hopeless. The gods can’t save mankind from destruction. They can’t even save themselves. They can only delay the inevitable and put up a brave fight when the doom comes. They are slaves to prophecy, to circumstance. And, really, that’s where the title of the book comes from. Silver represents being trapped in second place, and it represents how reaching for something more can be a maddening experience.
And in many ways, these are the same hopeless circumstances offered to African Americans. It can seem hopeless when you read the stories about James Watson, the father of DNA, saying that Africans are not as intelligent as Europeans. It can seem hopeless when you see a black president and see that the black unemployment rate is still twice the national average. It can seem hopeless when a black man can still get run over by a car in Mississippi just because some white kid feels like running over a black man. It can seem hopeless when you read the studies about how people with “black” names are less likely to get job interviews. However, despite the odds, surrender isn’t an option. If I surrendered to the ideas and stereotypes surrounding me, I wouldn’t have written this book. I wouldn’t have studied Classics, and I wouldn’t be a teacher right now. In the black community, there’s a belief that we have to recognize that the odds are stacked against us, but we still have to attack those odds with every breath we take.
BH: Throughout, your poems introduce a wide cast of characters—Odin, Thor, Fenrir, Loki, Surtur among others Norse gods and heroes. Why do these particular characters resonate for you? To put it another way, do Norse myths do something classical myths don’t? Are the stories of Greek and Roman gods different?
JM: Greek mythology is a sitcom. Norse mythology is a drama. That’s the main difference. The Norse gods suffer. There are real consequences in Norse mythology. When a god gets his hand bitten off, that god has one hand for the rest of time. When Odin gives up an eye in exchange for knowledge, the eye doesn’t grow back. When it comes to the classical (Greek and Roman) gods, they are as static as the statues of them we find in museums. Sure, you can put them in difficult situations—Apollo and his unrequited loves, Hephaestus and his disability—but they don’t change much at the end. Once you get to know them, they don’t change, and, in a way, we don’t want them to change. Zeus is an easy reference point for the adulterous husband; Orpheus is a stand-in for any tortured artist. Many writers have used Greek and Roman gods to create great art. There’s Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, Nicelle Davis’ Circe, and Ashley McWater’s Whitework, to name a few. Hell, Carl Dennis was one of my biggest influences as I was developing my voice.
But as my writing evolved, I realized those Greek and Roman characters didn’t fit my project. I think the use of persona or allusion should say as much about the writer as it does about the personas or references used in the writing. The Greek and Roman gods are familiar, and I wasn’t in a familiar place when I was writing this book. I was staring into a lot of unknowns, and I wanted to use characters that embraced those ideas of mystery and unfamiliarity.
BH: You’ve previously mentioned writing about your “unhealthy” religious upbringing. In some way, did these “unhealthy” experiences veer you toward the Norse myths
JM: My experiences in the church drew me to studying mythology and religion. When I say it was an unhealthy experience, I’m not making some “opiate of the masses” argument. I respect religion; I respect the power of religion. But some of the things I heard in church just didn’t make sense to me. I heard that white people didn’t have the same soul as black people, and I heard that prayer was the only medicine people needed. I heard the story of Job. I heard the story of Lot’s wife being turned to salt. These messages about God left me with more questions than answers, and the idea that “God works in mysterious ways” was not good enough for me. So my own soul searching led to my interest in other religions and other forms of divinity and salvation. At this point, I’m probably a pantheist if I am anything. I never considered converting to another religion or worshipping another god or pantheon, but studying Norse mythology was another one of my futile attempts in understanding how God works.
BJ: You’ve mentioned that these poems sprung from a previous project concerning the mythical John Henry—the “steel-driving” former slave whose industrious spirit and incredible strength helped build railroads across the country. No folklorist myself, I’ve often pigeonholed John Henry as a kind of African-American equivalent to Paul Bunyan, though I struggle to come up with other examples of African-American characters portrayed in myth and folklore. Does Norse mythology have non-white gods? If not, does it matter?
JM: No, there aren’t black gods in Norse mythology. There was actually a funny dust up over the new Thor movie because Idris Elba, a black actor, plays the Norse god Heimdall in the movie. Some white supremacist groups called for a boycott of the movie because they felt the movie was degrading their culture. So yes, the race of the gods does matter to some people. It never really mattered to me, though. That was one of the points I wanted to make with the book. Old traditions change, and we have to find ways to deal with it. My family traditions didn’t give me all the answers I needed, so I had to look for other examples to describe how I was feeling. And some of those examples came from Norse mythology. Some of them came from professional wrestling. Some of them came from history. I guess I could have found some clumsy Egyptian or African equivalent for Odin, Thor, and Balder, but that would have felt artificial.
When it comes to John Henry, he was one of the original characters I wanted in the book, and even though he didn’t make it in the final version of the book, he’s definitely a character I want to visit again. Some legends even place John Henry in Alabama, so that made him even more interesting to me. Thinking of John Henry’s fight with the steam engine is what drew me to Thor. Both of them use hammers. Both of them fight for the common man. Both of them die after battling a monster that spews poison. Those parallels represented a similar struggle against unstoppable forces, so using Thor and other Norse gods felt natural.
BH: In “No Search Engines in Valhalla,” the poem includes many modern era words such as “Google” and “404 errors” alongside “Odin” and the “Well of Knowledge.” What message (if any) are you trying to convey to your readers by bringing these “untouchable” gods into our modern lexicon? Are you humbling them? Drawing connection between the fallibility of man and god?
JM: With this poem, my main point was not to humble gods, but to humble myself and mankind. With the internet and smartphones and Google, knowledge is something we easily take for granted. We’re supposed to be able to know anything we need to know in a manner of a few clicks. With a few clicks, I can find out the population of Brazil. With a few clicks, I can find my great-grandfather’s birth certificate. As a generation, we’ve been trained to think of knowledge as something that’s easy to come by, but during the time of my life described in Silver, knowledge wasn’t easy to come by. Answers to questions like “why did I wake up this morning?” and “why did I end up in the back of a police car?” were not easy to find, and the answers came with a price.
In mythology and folklore, there is always a price for knowledge. Ulysses had to travel through the underworld. Adam and Eve had to give up the Garden of Eden. In Norse Mythology, Odin had to give up his eye for knowledge in one story and hang himself for nine days in another story. With poems like “No Search Engines in Valhalla,” I wanted to point out that there is still knowledge in this world that doesn’t come cheap.
Finally, how do Norse myths speak to the African-American coming-of-age? It seems an unlikely marriage, yet your poems seem to create a close bond. Do you think these bonds might hold strong for other African-Americans, or is the comparison more personal?
It’s probably more of a personal comparison. But the heart of Silver lies in family relationships. There’s my relationship with my parents, and there’s the relationship between the Norse gods and their children, namely the relationship between Loki and his kids. Loki is the trickster god; he’s the hustler. And his children are the ones who run wild and break the world. I write from the viewpoint of Fenrir, one of Loki’s children, a few times in the book. I saw the relationship between Loki and his children as a parallel for fathers in the African-American community. The African-American father is supposed to be the hustler, the rolling stone, the trickster who’s sliding out of jail and into the next woman’s bed. And black children are supposed to have behavior problems because we never had a dad to watch out for us. We’re supposed to be the ones who ruin schools and bring down the property values in the neighborhood. My dad wasn’t at home as much as I wanted him to be, but that was because he worked two jobs while I was growing up. That’s why the idea of Fenrir appealed to me. Also, he eats Odin, and I think that’s cool.
Will every African-American reader agree with the parallels I’ve drawn in Silver? Probably not. But I’m fine with that. One of the big ideas in Silver is my attempt to break away from tradition and find an individual path for understanding the world around me. But at my core, I’m a storyteller. So if readers can’t use Norse mythology as a reference point, I hope they can find some other reference point that helps them connect with my work.