The PEN Ten with Phenderson Clark
In this week’s PEN Ten, Daniel José Older, author of Salsa Nocturna, the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, speaks to writer and historian Phenderson Clark.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
Not until quite recently. I’d dabbled in writing since I was a kid, making up short stories and even comics for friends and family. But it wasn’t until much later in life that I gave thought to professional writing. Even then, I called myself an “aspiring” writer. When others started referring to me as a writer then I decided I could drop the modifier.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
All things Neil Gaiman. I’ll also take that storytelling voice of his. Thanks.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
Cooking and then eating, in that order. I’m not a foodie. My palette just isn’t that eclectic. But I like what I cook, even if it’s the same few dishes. And I need all the proper ingredients when I’m at it. I’ll trek all the way back to the store for that one thing to set the meal off just right. Or it’s just not getting cooked. No half-assness on the culinary productions in my kitchen. Pretty sure this is a habit I picked up from my mother. Probably explains why food is almost always mentioned with detail in my stories. There’s also a metaphor buried in there about my writing habits that I’ll let someone else figure out.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
My first attempts at seriously writing short fiction were all pretty political. I wrote stories where the ghosts of slaves return to haunt the world, where covens of black women use magic to exact vengeance on inequity in the justice system, and one time where white people mysteriously disappear (poof!) off the face of the Earth. None were ever published. Most, I never even submitted. And all were pretty didactic. But they were my most daring explorations, by far.
When, if ever, is censorship acceptable?
We’d probably all have to agree on a working definition of censorship first. When writers think of censorship it’s often Orwellian, with book burnings and authoritarian states shutting down access to information. Then again, tell some guy he can’t spray paint swastikas at a public park and he’s liable to yell “CENSORSHIP!” Hate speech laws have been called censorship. But I see them as protecting marginalized groups and communities from abuse and harm. If that means I accept some form of censorship, so be it. Call it what you want. Fact is, even the most democratic and open societies place limits on speech to secure the public good. And I don’t have a problem with that. Because no law or ideal should be locked into rigid absolutes.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
Tell a compelling story that draws in readers, write characters that inspire empathy, open people up to new truths and perspectives, effectively communicate with words and meaning. That’s a tall order on its own.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
I remember Dubois saying he didn’t “care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.” I empathize with the sentiment, especially as he was waging a war against anti-black racism and white supremacy. But I don’t think every writer can be drafted for “the struggle.” So, I don’t know that writers come with an innate collective purpose. But there’ll always be those who seek to make their works critical treatises on society that cause us to reevaluate long held assumptions, elucidate new ideas, and shake up status quo. And that’s a good thing.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss? (if the answer is no, you can choose to answer this question instead: “Where is your favorite place to write?”)
Never been arrested. But I have been on the opposite end of a police officer’s drawn weapon on at least three separate occasions in three different American cities. I can still recall the feel of a pistol pressed against the back of my head while another officer is yelling “If he moves blow his f*cking head off!” That was in a posh hotel in the French Quarter—in a room I’d actually rented. Each encounter proved to be a “false alarm” or a “case of mistaken identity.” So, no arrest. Not much in the way of apologies either. I’ve sat around trading similar stories with other black men over the years. We usually laugh off our near-death interactions because, hey, we lived to tell them.
Okay, so since that’s a bummer I’ll answer the other question anyway. Where’s my favorite place to write? Ideally, it’s a coffee shop as I sip on some Tanzanian blend and dream up worlds, inspired by the people, interactions, and conversations I get to observe. Used to be this spot in Park Slope Brooklyn called Tea Lounge—I practically lived there. Got just about no writing done. I mean if I churned out a page in three hours, it was a feat. Too many distractions! Realistically? I get more writing done at a desk at home or (more than likely) at the kitchen table. But I still dream of becoming that coffee shop writer. Someday.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
“Yertle the Turtle”—Dr. Seuss. Not a book, but the point remains. Or maybe, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. Okay, I don’t have a good answer for this.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
Not sure there is one. If there’s a line, it’s on what kind takes place. There’s the one we give passive consent to because we’re aware it happens. It’s generalized and takes place in public spaces. And we may even welcome it because it affords us feelings of safety (e.g. the surveillance cameras posted in that empty metro station late at night). Then there’s the kind that happens without our knowledge or consent, that invades our privacy, and targets individuals or certain groups. That kind, we usually have problems with.
Phenderson Djeli Clark is an Afro-Caribbean-American writer of speculative fiction. His novella A Dead Djinn in Cairo was published in the spring of 2016.