by Moss Turpan
Jamel Brinkley’s debut collection of short stories, A Lucky Man, arrived this May from Graywolf Press. We sat down together in Los Angeles and, in the course of our conversation, touched on the nefarious confluence of constrictive cultural norms and an oppressive state, coming-of-age as a perpetual process, and seeing past simplistic understandings of luck.
Moss Turpan: Many of the protagonists in these stories are boys on the cusp of some sort of maturity, and most of the adult protagonists we encounter are preoccupied with their boyhoods, dealing with or examining experiences from that time in their lives. So I wanted to ask you about boyhood.
Jamel Brinkley: I’m interested in the way in which memory—the way that we think about the past—is a re-creation of the past, how the past keeps happening. And so what happened back then isn’t some static thing that explains the way I am now. What happened then is a thing that keeps happening. And I keep having a new perspective on it, and every time I think about it, it’s slightly different. So it’s alive, in the same way the present is alive.
I think of childhood and boyhood as almost like a training ground for what it means to occupy your identity categories. You come up in a family, in a household, and you go to school, and you’re taught in those environments how to be male, how to be masculine, how to be a boy. That’s a powerful training. That’s something that’s hard to shrug off and let go of. It’s interesting for me to see people try to pull themselves out of the way that they’ve been trained, or explore the way that they’ve been trained to be male, and masculine, and what have you.
In terms of my characters in the book, at the same time that they’re going through something in their present that is challenging them, I think this past is something that continually is challenging. You have to revisit it, in that it’s not settled, it’s not static and done. It’s something that’s still active. In a sense, that childhood transition—that whole idea of coming of age—is a never-ending process. And that’s something I feel like all my characters are going through, regardless of their age.
MT: Many of these characters have experienced trauma in one form or another, and are affected by their pasts in that way.
JB: I wanted to be really careful about trauma, because I think trauma is such a narrative that’s attached to black characters, black people, people of color. When you’re dealing with traumatic material, it’s very easy for what you’ve written to be absorbed into an already-existing narrative about trauma stories. But I didn’t want to shy away from that, either. So it was important for me to include or address or allude to that material, but at the same time, to make sure that each story had authentic moments of joy and happiness, so that they couldn’t be stamped as trauma stories.
If you focus on the feeling, that’s more interesting to me—because then it’s not so much about what happened, it’s more about how you, as a human being, are continuing to live with this thing. I want to be true to the trouble of the traumas that people are going through without writing trauma stories, because the crucial thing is just who these people are. Not what happened to them, but who they are.
I like the idea of aftermath stories. A lot of times in workshops, you hear that short stories are about the day that’s different—the character changes, or what have you. But I like shifting the spotlight away from that thing. The thing has happened already, so maybe this day isn’t really different, it’s just an ordinary day, and the story isn’t centering itself on the most dramatic or traumatic thing. This thing has already been assimilated into the person’s life. I like that kind of looking askance.
MT: In the story “J’ouvert 1996,” the main character, a teenage boy, is in the house with his mother and her boyfriend, and he says about his mom: “She crossed and uncrossed her legs with extreme awareness of herself, awareness that Mike [her boyfriend] enjoyed looking at her, delighted that he did, as if she were some other woman and not our mother.” I wanted to ask you about sons being alienated from their parents, and specifically about seeing a parent play some other role than you expect them to play as your parent, and what that means for growing up, for coming of age.
JB: It’s interesting to me what happens to, in this case, boys—what happens to their sense of family, their sense of men and women, when their parents step off the narrow road of being merely a parent. Your mother’s going on dates, your mother’s having a hard time, your mother’s in grief because her sister died and you don’t know what to do—that does something. If your mother isn’t the perfect mother—in control, in command of everything, and focusing her energy solely on you and the good of the household—what does that do to you? What does that do to your sense of what it means to be a man or a woman, or a parent or a child? I think that’s really disorienting. Because we are given this very narrow—unhealthily narrow—notion of what the role of being a parent is. That has an effect on people’s character and identity, and I wanted to show that. I hope these stories will communicate that you can’t put people within these fixed roles. Parents aren’t just parents; parents are full human beings who happen to have kids. But it can be troublesome to see people doing different things than they are supposed to.
MT: In this story, you implicate mass incarceration as the root cause of such a situation. The main character’s father is in prison for a low-level drug offense, which means he can’t play the traditional role of a father, and which is seemingly part of the reason the protagonist’s mother is dating another man.
JB: Yeah, that was a very deliberate choice. It was deliberate to set the story in the mid-to-late nineties, after the Clinton crime bill, obviously after the start of the War on Drugs. I specifically wanted it to be that and not just a context-less ‘dad is in prison.’ No, it’s a very specific context. We know that certain things happened during the Clinton presidency. We know that it had a devastating effect on brown and black families. And it’s important that it was a low-level crime and the father is gone, he’s plucked away from the family. It’s really important if you’re talking about a family where the father is not there, or a quote, unquote “broken family,” to really talk about the reasoning behind that. So that was a crucial detail. I feel like it would be irresponsible for me to write that story, with that father in the predicament he was in, without that context.
MT: Throughout the book, relationships that fall outside of the nuclear family but feel familial seem to be the relationships that sustain the main characters.
JB: Yeah. When I was in grad school, I took this course with an amazing professor, Robin Kelley. He’s a brilliant historian. He was talking about emancipation—how all of the sudden there’s emancipation, and in many cases, there are kids who’ve been separated from their families just kind of walking around. One thing that you don’t often hear about is that other people who were not their relatives would literally just take them in. You see a kid—“You’re now my kid, you’re my son now, you’re my daughter now.” The power of creating new family in a situation where people desperately need it is fascinating. I heard that story years ago, but it stays with me. I think about it a lot. Just the power of that gesture, to be like, “I know a person walking around who needs my help. Not only am I going to feed them, but they’re in my family now. You’re my new son, you’re my new daughter.” The power of forging familial ties that aren’t necessarily based on blood is incredible.
MT: I wanted to ask you about your literary mothers and fathers—the writers you’ve modeled yourself after, the writers you’ve learned from, the writers you’ve modeled yourself against.
JB: One of my first writing heroes is Ralph Ellison. I read Invisible Man over and over, and you couldn’t tell me that wasn’t the greatest book ever. “It’s so profound, it’s epic, it’s amazing.” I just loved it. But I don’t feel like I write like that at all, in an Ellisonian way. He’s very deliberately trying to write into this notion of being an American writer, trying to tackle his American themes writ-large and do things with American symbols that I just don’t really care about. And that book, to me, seems less interested in character than I’ve become. By contrast, the people who I do consider literary mothers and fathers are James Baldwin and Edward P. Jones and Alice Munro and William Trevor and Yiyun Li and Charles D’Ambrosio—all writers I love and who feel really interested in character, really interested in prose on a sentence level. And just kind of fearless.
MT: In what way?
JB: Fearless about writing into sadness or darkness, but on a level that doesn’t feel philosophical. It feels very rooted in the depiction of the characters that are being written about. Fatherhood is a concern of some of those writers—Baldwin, for sure; D’Ambrosio, for sure. Brotherhood, with both of those writers, too. We talked before about writing aftermath stories, about allowing what happens to subsume who it happens to. I got that from Trevor and Li. And from Munro and Jones, I take this resistance to the tautness of the short story form—pushing against it somehow, not being afraid to digress and put the spotlight on minor characters and to delve into the past in a way that isn’t strictly about that story, that’s only there to feed into that present story. The past is interesting in and of itself.
MT: Lastly, I wanted to ask you about luck, which is layered and complex for the characters in these stories. In “Everything the Mouth Eats,” the protagonist is reflecting on his time as a kid in school and says: “He [my teacher] told me constantly that I was one of the lucky ones who would get out of the South Bronx and make something of myself.” There’s a clear sense in which he is blessed with intelligence and deftness in school, but at the same time, he’s unlucky in a whole slew of ways—he’s abused by his father, he’s alienated from his brother. How you were thinking about luck in these stories?
JB: I wanted to hold that word up and examine it from various angles. In some sense, I want that word to be taken at face value. You have characters that, in some ways, are lucky, either because of their circumstances, because they get out, like the character in “Everything the Mouth Eats”—or at the end of “Clifton’s Place,” Ellis gets the girl. But the whole notion that these characters are lucky is problematic, especially when you look at it in the way the teacher said it: “You’re lucky, you’re going to get out.” I’ve been told that myself by teachers. That’s such a messed up thing to say to someone, because you’re condemning the community that person comes from: “You’re from this community, but you’re not like everybody else. You’re going to be okay.” So while I wanted the word to highlight the ways in which these individuals are lucky or unique, I also wanted the word to undercut this idea that they’re exceptional or special. They aren’t—each of them is just a person among other people. And in fact, anyone in this collection, every minor character in this collection, could potentially have a story written about them. I want the title to be read both ways. Yes, authentic, genuine good luck, exceptional circumstances, but also a refusal of that, or an interrogation of that whole idea. In the end, I’m writing about ordinary people who aren’t heroes or special in any kind of exalted, literary way—just ordinary people.