Code-Switching: An Interview with James Hannaham

Might a stand-up comedian discuss slavery in America with considerable doses of humor? Happens all the time. A contemporary novelist? Not so much. It is the rare writer who is willing to approach the ...

Might a stand-up comedian discuss slavery in America with considerable doses of humor? Happens all the time. A contemporary novelist? Not so much. It is the rare writer who is willing to approach the topic without the requisite gravitas. In James Hannaham’s Delicious Foods, a harrowing tale of slave labor in the contemporary United States, some of its facts are so vile, horrific, and morally reprehensible that only the humor and beauty of his prose make it possible to get through the novel. Hannaham discussed with Stephen Best some of the challenges involved in writing about the legacies of slavery, including drugs and addiction, and why it made sense to make crack one of the narrators of his tale.

Hannaham teaches creative writing at Pratt Institute. His first novel God Says No, was honored by the American Library Association. Delicious Foods has won the 2016 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction and the 2016 Hurston/Wright Foundation Legacy Award for fiction.

Stephen Best (SB): What inspired you to write a novel about modern-day slavery?


James Hannaham (JH): In graduate school I took a course called “Cultural Tourism, Slavery Museums and the Modern Neo-Slavery Novel,” with a professor named Helena Woodard. One modern neo-slavery novel we read was Dessa Rose by Sherley Anne Williams. We also read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, Cambridge by Caryl Phillips, and Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed. And I think in the back of my mind I felt that a young, black novelist at some point would have to write a book that had something to do with the legacy of slavery in the US.

It’s almost like a rite of passage. I thought that, in most cases, what novelists are yearning to say is that the attitudes of the past have not left us. Films like Sankofa, and books like Octavia Butler’s Kindred are often attempting to say: nothing has changed, these things are still with us.

Later, I came across a nonfiction book called Nobodies by John Bowe. Each chapter takes a different labor-abuse story from around the world and describes it. Many of them are very close to being slavery.

One chapter told the story of a black woman in Florida who was essentially enslaved on a farm in 1992. At that point I was pretty ignorant about how slavery could still exist. And so it really blew my mind. How could it be that the same thing is happening to the same people in the same place, yet everybody is talking about this thing as if it is a thing of the past, as if it’s over and black people should get over it? It was really revelatory to realize that the legacy of slavery is very much like slavery. It hasn’t gone away. It’s just changed, morphed itself. Saying that slavery is over is like saying that drugs are over because they’re illegal. There’s actually more slavery now on the planet than there was when black people were enslaved in the United States.


SB: I have a colleague, who knows a bit about these things, who told me that the largest group subject to forced labor in the contemporary United States is the Chinese.


JH: I hadn’t heard that before. There are so many things about modern slavery that are unfathomable, such that anything you hear becomes instantly believable. So I wanted to deal with the legacy of slavery and I realized, I don’t have to write a period piece. It can be about the contemporary moment. And the book is also my answer to the question, how could this happen? And what would be the effect on the people that it happened to?


SB: You could almost speak of the legacy of “the legacy of slavery” in the sense that there have been so many different and shifting meanings around that phrase. The antiracist writer Anna Julia Cooper saw the legacy of slavery as a psychological inheritance, a kind of trauma and obsequiousness. The racist Thomas Dixon Jr. would invoke the idea of a legacy of slavery to buttress his reactionary explanation of black character as the propensity for criminality and vagrancy.


JH: I was trying to categorize what I think is the most horrific thing about the chattel slavery of the past, and why emotions still run so high about that slavery and the racism that surrounds it. One point that seems important is that it was a family matter in so many cases. Many slave masters created laborers who were actually their children and sold them, making a literal profit from rape. There’s something so vile about that. It’s impossible to forgive for a lot of reasons that still resonate. It’s an insane betrayal of anything that we think of as family. It is morally so reprehensible that it seems unforgivable. (And yet descendants of such people have claimed to be upholders of “family values.”) Two groups are mixing their genetic material, but one group is denied and made to feel that they are less than human: discriminated against, mutilated, dismembered. It’s so Gothic.


SB: Nathaniel Mackey refers to “wounded kinship” as the core of blackness. There is no blackness without that scar.


JH: “Wounded” sounds almost quaint. For me, the word would be “dismembered.” The dick shoved in the mouth, and hung, as a public spectacle.


SB: Which helps to explain the harrowing opening scene of Delicious Foods. Eddie, the protagonist, is struggling to steer a stolen Subaru. He’s struggling because he has no hands. In that first paragraph you write that dark stains cover the terry cloth wrapped around the ends of his wrists. His mother had staunched the bleeding with rubber cables. And then, over the course of the prologue, his dismemberment starts to be leavened with a kind of humor, right?


JH: Right.


SB: The little girl turns to her father and says, “He’s a handyman without hands.” And that becomes Eddie’s trademark: the “Handyman Without Hands.” I smiled inside the first time I read that, right; but I know readers who are not able to get past that first scene.


JH: Well, if you couldn’t get past that first scene, you weren’t going to get through the rest of it. I don’t have any problem with people being squeamish. But this was a book that I felt could not adequately address the things I wanted to address if I didn’t address dismemberment as the horrific endgame of discrimination. It’s not just a metaphor. It’s real: the idea that one group starts to feel so powerful over another that they feel like they can literally dismember the other person’s body.


SB: You obviously take the topic of contemporary slavery very seriously, so why the humor?


JH: It’s not just humorous. It’s intended to mix all of those things and fuck your shit up. Because that’s what life does to you. I don’t think that there’s all that much difference between tragedy and comedy. And that’s the line that I’ve … that I’m really interested in walking. Because one of the ways of dealing with horrific things that seem impossible to deal with is to make light of them. That’s one of the only ways you can get through some shit. And it was actually one of the only ways I could get through writing the book myself.


SB: The other major theme in the book is addiction. Darlene, Eddie’s mother, is addicted to crack.


JH: Yes.


SB: You don’t depict addiction as a vice or personality flaw. It’s actually a character in its own right. So I was wondering … I was hoping we could maybe talk about Scotty for a bit. Scotty’s the seductive voice of crack that narrates large parts of the story. How did that character come about? What inspired the literary device of a thing that talks?


JH: I had started writing what is now the first chapter in a voice that was going to be a third-person narrator focused on Darlene, her inner life. And then I decided that I wanted Darlene to be a different sort of person. Somebody who had had opportunities that some other people might not have had and then kind of fell from grace. But once I did that, I still had this voice, talking in a very vernacular, profane, funny way that I really enjoyed. I was trying to find an excuse for continuing to use this voice, even though it didn’t suit the character any more. And so I asked myself, whose voice is this if it’s not hers? And one of the answers I had was that it was the voice of crack itself. There are literary precedents for this. One I might have had in mind is Patricia Smith’s book, Blood Dazzler, a book of poems in which some are narrated from the point of view of Hurricane Katrina itself. It was an audacious choice, but I liked it because I thought, nobody’s going to like this. And then of course I struggled with the question of whether crack had to speak in Ebonics.

<i>Two young slave boys</i>. Photograph courtesy of NYPL Schomburg Center

Two young slave boys. Photograph courtesy of NYPL Schomburg Center

SB: I teach a class called “Rotten English,” about literature in dialect with works by a range of authors, from Paul Laurence Dunbar to James Kelman to Marlon James. I’m really fascinated by how dialect reflects character consciousness, how the deformation of language reflects the work of a mind.


JH: I wouldn’t call it deformation. I think it’s the legacy, or wages, of how the English language has been forced on so many people. English deserves to be transformed by the people it’s been forced on. It has no right to complain about that. And fortunately English is not officially policed in the same way as French. So a lot of really interesting things have happened to transform the English language in various places around the world.


SB: Right. I use the word deformation in that sense—        


JH: Oh, like de-, like de-formation, as Beyoncé would say.


SB: Yeah.




SB: Exactly. It’s not pejorative when I use it in that sense. It’s making it your own.


JH: Like de-slash-formation.




SB: No, open paren-de-close paren-formation.


JH: Right. Yes.




SB: Writing in dialect is this highly inventive, almost modernist enterprise; and there’s a way in which the language works to communicate the live-ness of Scotty’s mind.


JH: I did ask myself—does it really have to talk that way? I mean I wasn’t really thinking, I’m not going to win any NAACP Image Awards for this. I tried a couple of different things. I tried this thing where I thought: well, maybe crack is pretentious. Maybe crack is jealous of cocaine because cocaine hangs out with rich people. And it wants to be more like cocaine. But that just wasn’t as much fun to write and it wasn’t … it just didn’t feel right.


JH: And maybe this was the drug’s voice relative to Darlene, her conception of how crack cocaine would talk talking to her.


SB: Part of the reason this fascinates me is its relationship to code switching. I have an inner voice that’s very black and impish, and gay, that doesn’t always come out. When I’m sitting in a faculty meeting, that’s not the voice I like to use. But it is one of my inner voices. It’s there in the room. So I just laughed when I read that first Scotty chapter. I was like, oh my God! Of course your inner voice is going to speak in this impish black vernacular. Because that’s what we do.


JH: Right, this thing that you normally have to kind of repress unless you’re in a situation where you feel really comfortable. It’s not the way I naturally express myself. But there are things that you can express with that voice that you can’t express with other voices. It was also really important to me to make sure that the two different voices in that book were all equivalently observant and insightful. Because I think that often there’s a sense that there are lots of cultural things that this street kind of voice can’t know. And that to me is complete bullshit.


SB: I felt like Scotty was the more insightful narrator, despite the fact that the other narrator is omniscient. He had a kind of freedom with language; he could put things together and see certain things just because of the way he spoke: “brain dancing,” for example.


JH: I think it’s because we don’t feel an obligation to revere the English language. We can play around with it. We can fuck with it—deliberately. Not even in a malicious kind of a way, but in an expressive way. There’s a lot more play involved in black vernacular than there is in figuring out how to talk to some white person at a job interview.


SB: Right. That’s why European and American modernists like Gertrude Stein and others wrote in what they thought was a black dialect. For them, it was the epitome of modernist experimentation and freedom.


JH: I’m laughing because it’s so true. It reminds me of my two-word history of 20th-century Western art: “Africa. Interesting.”


SB: (laughs) You’re kidding.


JH: I’m not kidding. It works so often it’s not even funny.


SB: (laughs) Oh my God. I can’t wait to see that in print. “Africa. Interesting.”


JH: Interesting.


SB: It’s so true. So I reread the novel over vacation, and noticed your gift for the lyrical turn of phrase. I’m going to read a couple of the lines that really struck me. One is the moment when they all arrive at the barracks of Delicious Foods, the modern-day plantation to which Darlene has been taken. Jackie, the company “recruiter” (for lack of a better word), points out the “no chicken” area: “She moved her hand in a half circle and went, Chicken, no-chicken. Okay? She clicked on a flashlight and walked into the no-chicken area, like everybody supposed to follow her.” This is a novel about modern-day slavery, and this small gesture introduces the sense that there’s no human measure in this labor camp; that they’ve become nonpersons, truly descended to the level of slavery.


JH: To me it’s quintessentially how the American worker is positioned. You’re not a human being. You’re just not a chicken. There’s no definition for you since you are not a chicken, but since we know you’re not a chicken, we’ll just put you over here.

<i>Old slave quarters. Louisiana, 1940</i>. Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott / NYPL Schomburg Center

Old slave quarters. Louisiana, 1940. Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott / NYPL Schomburg Center

SB: There was another line where you’re explaining why black magic works: “It turned out black magic didn’t work because of spells or potions but because of the fear of persecution and conspiracy that roiled under people’s lives like contaminated groundwater.

That made me think of the novelist Charles Chestnutt and his collection of stories, The Conjure Woman. A conjure woman can turn a slave into a tree to protect him from being sold off the plantation (in “Po’ Sandy”), or a slave overseer can be turned into a mule as revenge for his maltreatment of the slaves (in “Mars Jeems’s Nightmare”). Every time I teach that book, my students ask, how is it that people could believe this?


JH: It relates to a big theme of the book: racism as a curse that you put on somebody else’s body. The black magic theme is also why I chose to set the novel in Louisiana rather than Florida. I thought Louisiana was a much more appropriate setting for a book about people cursing each other in that way. And not only because Louisiana has always had a reputation for more extreme forms of slavery and racism. Somebody alludes at one point to the idea that black voodoo people tend not to pay attention to, but white voodoo works. Because laws are made up of words in the same way that magic spells are. And when white people write some laws on your ass, that voodoo works.


SB: There’s an article by the historian Barbara Fields, and her sister, the sociologist Karen Fields, called “Witchcraft and Racecraft,” about race as a kind of witchcraft—a “racecraft” not because of the irrational superstitions we hold about it, but rather on account of how our beliefs about it structure American society.


JH: Right. Because it’s one of those things that its practitioners deny is there. They question its existence. But it still has an effect.


SB: I want to return to the question of tragedy and humor. I produced a kind of list of things for myself when I finished the novel this time around: slavery, racial violence, trauma, dispossession, dismemberment, nihilism, despair. These are topics one often has to approach with a measure of gravitas, but there’s this delightful mix of lyrical beauty and effrontery. I want to talk more about that mix. When my students write papers, I usually advise them to tell me not what they see in a novel, but how the author has made them see what they see.


JH: Okay.


SB: So I’m going to read the description of when Darlene has her first hit of crack, when she first meets Scotty. You wrote: “It dawned on her that she felt like recently everything in life had twisted her ass out of shape, but right then she seen that her distorted outline was a piece of a puzzle, the last one hanging above what had been a real tough board. I floated her ass above the board on a cloud of smoke. The smoke lowered her down and pushed her in place and something inside her went snap and we finished the puzzle together. It felt so good we ripped all them motherfucking puzzle pieces apart and did that shit again. And the ripping and the doing-again felt just as good the second time. And the fifty-second. And …”

What are you trying to make us see by wedding that beautiful prose to a description of getting high on crack?


JH: Darlene says something about all these things that we think are bad. Drugs are bad. Black folks are bad. Sex is bad. But actually these are pleasures that can be abused or not abused. And I think one of the things that we lose sight of when it comes to drugs is that, you know, drugs are good. People do drugs because they make them feel outside of their problems, outside of reality. And that’s not a bad feeling. But I didn’t want to skip over the idea that, you know, something that can be born in pleasure can become a huge fricking problem, can become an escape that’s ultimately deadly. The poet Stephen Dunn has a line in the poem “Poe in Margate” on “how good self-destruction feels when one / is in the act of it.”


SB: Wow. Really?


JH: I mean up to a point. It’s such a brilliant poem. I’ve heard him read it aloud live and it’s just gorgeous.


SB: I see what you’re saying. You don’t want to ignore or repress whatever pleasure is being—


JH: Problematized. I just want everything to be as complicated as it feels. icon

Featured image: The novelist James Hannaham, 2015. Photograph by Ian Douglas / Little, Brown