Arts & Culture / Politics / The Reading Room / Vol. 1 No. 3-4

Tales of Trolls and Queens

Diedra Harris-Kelley Wearing Dreams on Your Shoulders

Image Credit: Diedra Harris-Kelley, Wearing Dreams on Your Shoulders, 1992, oil on canvas, 54″ x 64″

An interview Essay with Victor LaValle

I first met Victor Lavalle in a Dunkin’ Donuts in Washington Heights (NYC) during the time he was drafting what would become his award-winning novel The Changeling. He was writing there, he told me, because it had just the right amount and kind of background noise: Lavalle liked to hear people tell stories in the few minutes it took them to enter the Dunkin’ doors, stand on line, grab a coffee and run. Such folks, Lavalle surmised, are “artists of conversation,” able to win people over in a short time.

I was encouraged thinking about the implications of Dunkin as a perfectly democratic home base for Lavalle’s writing practice, yet, there is a horror inherent to his observation, too: we, the people, might be so quickly persuaded by another.

But horror is Lavalle’s genre, or at least one of the many he taps into regularly. Beyond revealing the dreadful possibilities that mark the modern world, horror as a genre asks us to consider our response to dire situations. What would you do when faced with impossible danger, deranged violence, unmanageable actors and arbiters of fear? And what do you do if that fear stems from something or someone already on the inside?

We live in a time that feels like revelation, we live at the surface, where the subterfuge and glamour, in that old Scottish sense of the word, seems nearly gone. As the nation sits buried in a news cycle that titillates with tales of presidential kink, this sort of surface living should prime us to see more clearly that many Americans live the horror of rights revoked, votes stolen. I returned to that original conversation in Dunkin’ Donuts because it preternaturally speaks to our current moment in profound ways: the long story of democracy’s promise and how easily it can be stolen.

A-Line: What does Horror look like in your work right now?

Victor Lavalle: It’s still monstrous. In this new one [The Changeling],the monster is an internet troll, but he’s also a suburban dad.

A-L: Does he shape-shift?

VL: No. One of the things I like about trolls is that, while there are trolls that are giant and monstrous, there is also another type. This second type looks human. The thing that makes this particular human a troll is a hidden thing: usually a tail or one hidden hoof. And if the aberration is something not quite as much a tail, I can play with what’s hidden. In the case of this book, the monster uses the pictures posted on Facebook. This internet troll and his crew stalks you, finds out where you go regularly, and steals your kids.

Stolen elections, not children, have animated the nation in the nearly two years that have passed since the 2016 presidential election. At some level it is irrelevant whether or not one believes “Russian interference” shifted the outcome of the election in Donald Trump’s favor.

What matters most is the way we are able to see the election as merely part of a larger picture of the U.S. political consciousness embarking on a slow-drift back toward racialized disenfranchisement and white supremacy. The drift has been facilitated by gerrymandering on both national and state levels, validated and allowed to further entrench by the Supreme Court’s 2013 revocation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Herein lies a horror of this nation—that democracy has always been a fleeting promise for so many of us.

Extending this political art-horror, national politics was recently shook by the revelation that Facebook was data-jacked by the information firm Cambridge Analytica. In the days since the whistleblower blew his whistle, we’ve learned that over 80 million user profiles have been accessed in an elaborate scheme to influence voters with personally tailored (fake) news.

It would be nice to think we’ve been trolled as a nation. But, honestly, the algorithm for racism, homophobia, islamophobia, sexism and general xenophobia of the nation’s electorate is both well-known and old. American social media users weren’t fed anything new, merely allowed unlimited access to their favorite food: hate. Trump campaign architects like Steve Bannon and the uber-rich Mercer family tapped into and cultivated the tastes of the majority of white voters to elect Donald Trump, a 70 year-old man from Queens, NYC.

A-L: Can you talk a bit about how you challenge yourself as a writer to create narratives capable of holding the complex racial dynamics of contemporary US culture?

VL: In Devil In Silver one of the things I most wanted to write was a white racist character,the main character preferably, who doesn’t actually understand his racism because he’s never had to learn how to be allied with anyone who is not exactly like himself. That narrative is a journey towards this character’s [Pepper’s]understanding of what ties him to people that don’t look like him.

The interesting thing is, I found some white readers discount the racism of the white characters [Pepper and Dorry] because they actually like them. They think, “I can’t identify with them if they have racist thoughts.”For me, that’s part of the journey. It’s an interesting threshold for people to identify with characters who say or think sexist, racist, homophobic things, unless the story or the book makes a point of correcting the character by having them say something like, “oh man I really learned I should not have been so….” That always strikes me as the false note because it doesn’t require confrontation on the readers part.

A-L: That confrontation between readers and racism has to be the first step in moving us through to something more productive than racial and historical amnesia.

What strikes me most about your work, then, is the intensity with which you approach the question of what binds people together, how community is formed in spite of our differences. It’s useful to think about how you tend to locate many of your recent works in the borough of Queens, where you lived as a young person. The Queens you conjure in your fiction is always diverse in race, ethnicity, and immigrant-status; can you talk about that Queens and its centrality to the worlds you create?

VL: I write against the liberalized idea of how America is suppose to work: where we’re not supposed to notice difference. I think it’s worth pointing out that one of the things that I always remember fondly about my childhood neighborhood in Queens is that me and my friends always noticed how we were different. And we made fun of our differences: the Korean kid, the Persian kid, the black kid, the white kid, the Columbian kid, we made fun of everybody. We didn’t not notice our differences, in fact the point was, we all noticed. We never ignored that reality. But that didn’t mean we weren’t going to play.

I don’t mean to suggest that the place or even my childhood was idealistic or over looked difference, we were radically aware of difference. Remember, Queens is also the place where the white racist characters I write in Devil In Silver lives. So All these realities can exist simultaneously: racism, difference, and community.

Returning to work we’ve already done is the great pleasure of writing. It’s in that light that both Lavalle and I recently revisited our original conversation now that The Changeling is in the world, to think about the moral of the story of these contemporary times.

A-L: In The Changeling a witchy character named Cal tells the novel’s protagonist, Apollo, that “a bad fairy tale has a simple goddamn moral. A great fairy tale tells the truth” (244). Can you give me one “moral” and/or one “truth” about the nation that’s changed since our first meeting in the Dunkin’ Donuts?

VL: I appreciate that the election of Donald Trump has acted as an antidote to the benign (and much less benign) prejudice and racism that so many Americans had been keeping hidden. It’s like they had a piece of gum tucked between lip and gum and they finally got the chance to chew it again. I don’t say this with any sense of surprise—I certainly know the Obama years were no post-race dream—but I’m talking about the white folks who weren’t Tea Party maniacs. The ones who spoke in whispers, and in private, about who they feared and how much they didn’t want to share this nation’s riches. Now they’re the people calling the cops on Black men in Starbucks or Black women taking a nap in their college common room. They feel emboldened, these middle-of-the-road racists, and I’m glad we can stop pretending they were ever neutral in these Culture Wars.

Lavalle opens The Changeling with an epigraph from Stevie Wonder’s 1972 classic recording “Superstition”: “If you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer.” Because we were discussing The Changeling in my course on black speculative fiction, I had my students do a deep analysis of Stevie Wonder’s 1972 Soul Train performance of “Superstition.”

The dissonance among the cautionary tale embedded in Wonder’s lyrics, the dynamism of the funky, synthesizer riffs and low-frequency bass played out in the music, and the exuberance of the black bodies in motion models one response to the horror of the fickleness of the U.S. franchise. The challenge is knowing how to create community worth believing in.

VL: As for the [Soul Train] performance, I remember being a younger man—a teenager—and watching old episodes of Soul Train thinking the people there looked so old. Now I understand they were probably in their late teens and early twenties. You can only think people like that are aged if you’re ten or eleven yourself. Now I’m twice the age of everyone in that room except maybe for Don Cornelius. And what I marvel at now is the beauty of those kids, including the kid playing and singing that classic song. Look at that crowd of afros and naturals. Look at the vitality and the joy. To me, “Superstition” always had an underlying feel of menace or fear, but when I look at that crowd I’m reminded of the sheer inventiveness. The genius of Stevie Wonder, of course, but also the genius of every woman and man—vibrant and vying for attention and ready to dance all night.

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