S. L. Wisenberg, codirector of the MA/MFA in creative writing programs, attended the Bedell NonfictioNow conference at the University of Iowa last week. Her most recent book is The Adventures of Cancer Bitch.
Collage was on John Edgar Wideman’s mind when he addressed the nonfictionists at lunch Saturday. During his talk he showed one image on a screen, which was hard to make out in the light and in its larger-than-original blown-up form, but it was Romare Bearden’s collage Profile/Part I, The Twenties: Pittsburgh Memories, Farewell Eugene.
Wideman said that his reading would be in collage form, and it included quotes, stories and imaginings of Bearden’s thoughts and life. He burrowed so deeply inside Bearden’s skull, in fact, that I thought that a first-person account of a friend named Eugene was from Wideman’s childhood. Only when I looked up Bearden on the Internet did I realize that Eugene was Bearden’s childhood friend, a sickly white boy who lived above his mother’s brothel. The two boys would look through a hole in the floor above and draw the figures they saw cavorting below. And that was how Bearden started to draw.
Bearden (1911-88) moved to Pittsburgh as a teenager, and attended the same high school that Wideman and his siblings attended. He was an inspiration to another Pittsburgher, the late playwright August Wilson, who said, “In Bearden I found my artistic mentor and sought, and still aspire, to make my plays the equal of his canvases.”
Wideman also read bits from his 2008 book Fanon: A Novel in which the autobiographical narrator says that “Romare Bearden’s collages remind me of how my mother, another one of my idols—a life-saver like Fanon—talks. Her stories fatten and flatten perspective. She crams everything, everyone, everywhere into the present, into words that flow, intimate and immediate as the images of a Bearden painting.”
In answer to a question about writing for the benefit of society, Wideman said he never assigns subject matter to his students. What’s most difficult, he said, is finding material “in which you have a stake.” Otherwise, you’ll never write your best. You could dismiss Madame Bovary as a book about a middle class or upper-middle class woman, but Flaubert makes the book important: “Subject matter is not the issue. It’s what you do with it.” He said most of the time he can’t bear to read stories in national magazines. The stories are all from a particular milieu that’s clichéd and predictable, or else there’s “false exoticism.” The flaws in the “deadening, dulling” stories have nothing to do with the author’s class, gender or race.
Both at lunch and later that night Wideman spoke to a mostly-white audience, and that was largely because the University of Iowa is mostly white, as is Iowa City and the state of Iowa. Moreover, most of the attendees were white, because most creative writers in academia are white, and many of the conference-goers are in academia, and it’s inconvenient to get to Iowa City from the coasts, which is where most writers of color live. My friend Robin Hemley, who founded the conference, makes an effort to get diversity. Former keynote speakers have included Pico Iyer and Richard Rodriguez. And Rodriguez, I remember, spoke about the author he had connected with early on, because of his descriptions of what it was like to be working class. That author was D. H. Lawrence.