Darryl Pinckney: On His Novel ‘Black Deutschland’ and the Complexities of Gay Desire
Author: Frederick McKindra
March 10, 2016
“It used to be that if you told your parents that you were gay, they imagined you were living these aimless nights of danger. Now you tell your parents that you are gay, and they want to meet your boyfriend.”
Jed Goodfinch, the narrator of Darryl Pinckney’s novel Black Deutschland, lives in precarious proximity to many hazards. His black gay identity and the dampening effects of alcohol addiction have led to a series of personal upheavals. A wayward expatriate, Jed discovers that Berlin offers a sore a consolation from the Chicago of his youth, though there are adventures to be had there—namely, the straight white boys he desires.
Here, Pinckney unpacks what drew him back to fiction, the treatment of so many desires that dare not speak their names, and gay subjectivities, both then and now.
Having worked through the Berlin Stories with you as one of your students at the New School, I felt pretty prepared for this novel. I wonder if you could describe the influence of Isherwood’s Berlin Stories on this project.
Isherwood is a catalyst for the narrator more than he is a model for me because the Berlin Stories are very different from what Black Deutschland ends up doing. Just from the point of view, Berlin Stories are clearly written soon after they’ve happened. Black Deutschland, on the other hand, is a long look back. Isherwood’s narrator has no homestead, no family, and in Black Deutschland you have the narrator going back and forth between past and present, and grappling with familial relationships. But Isherwood does serve as a point of reference in the book, and [also helps the narrator] locate a kind of homoerotic fantasy in Berlin.
Literary culture seems somewhat familiar with the black expatriate experience in Paris, but maybe not the black expatriate experience in Berlin.
I think that’s true because it’s Paris, and music, and personal liberation, and [because of] Wright and Baldwin. It’s mystique and the glamour. Not to mention the white Lost Age, the Jazz Age, will always be with Paris. Because of Franco and maybe the Spanish Civil War, nobody went to Spain. And because Germany lost its colonies, nobody thought of the black presence in Germany, the way you do in London, or even in Paris.
It was really interesting to read this book in the context of Margo Jefferson’s Negroland because there’s such a rich history in books book of black upper-middle class-ness. There was an overlap between one of the hospitals you mentioned and one where Margo Jefferson’s dad worked.
Ah. Provident Hospital. These things are very famous in black America. The Rosenwald Apartments, where the narrator’s mother grew up, did go very downhill and are abandoned now. Urban America was very boarded up in the 70s and especially the 80s.
Whenever I’m reading your work, I feel there are dual pressures to present histories from disparate parts of yourself. I feel like there’s the gay life that’s happening on one end of the spectrum, and then there’s this rich black history on the other end. I wondered if you feel a tension between the two as you write novels.
I must, because I recognize them as elements of my own story that I did not reconcile. The black America that I come from is very straight, achievement-oriented and family-oriented.
I felt like it was really interesting, seeing that there were so many departures from black orthodoxy in Jed’s family.
Jed’s parents were kind of failures in that world. They were not social successes. The mother has her social causes instead, and an implied radical background, and the father’s just slightly lapsed bourgeoisie in a way. As the son of a teacher, he wouldn’t have cut a figure in Chicago at all. The black Chicago, the black family represents one thing, and the white world of that kind–that bohemian world–is personal liberation.
Did you discover anything about reconciling the two, or are we still seeing those two things sort of tearing Jed apart in the novel?
He kind of couldn’t belong to either, partly because he couldn’t belong to the latter or the former world. You sit and grow old in this bohemian milieu and what happens? You’re the old freak sitting there in the café. It’s not a destiny; it’s a mistake.
I thought it was interesting that Cello, Jed’s cousin, a black woman who’s been somewhat successful in Berlin, operates as a foil to Jed. She’s also on the perimeter, but she’s still someone we get a lot of access to.
As someone who’s trying to get away from it all, she succeeds because she’s actually integrated into German life. She’s a wife and a mother. I saw one review that said Cello and Jed have an inferiority complex because of race and it sort of took me aback. I hadn’t thought of it like that. They have a complex because of race, but not “inferiority.” Jed’s anxieties are entirely male, not black.
What were the things you discovered about the desire that bedevils so many gay black men looking to escape into this white straight male fantasy?
I don’t know. Jed says he doesn’t really want to talk about it or think about it. But I think it is who can be your champion, or your knight, in this zone of personal liberation and privilege. You want normality to be in favor of your eccentricity. You want normality to protect it. So it’s got nothing to do with wanting what Cleaver said, “….wanting to have white babies” or anything like that. It’s just sort of saying, “Be a wall for me.” It’s just a kind of abdication, and you never succeed entirely because in that situation there is no real way to succeed.
What do you think your critical work between this book and High Cotton contributed to the writing of this book?
For a long time, I was engaged in the writing of a book that I still haven’t finished. I just wrote too much of it in the wrong way, a book about African-American Literature in the 20th century, examining nineteen writers but looking at them in the context of what was happening at the time. So there was a lot of reading, but I look back and some of the pages are so dead with sheer summary, because I’m talking about things that are obscure but I’m talking about them in a way that makes them seem even more dead. It kind of went into abeyance, and then one year it looked as though I had no teaching coming up. I explained my situation to the publisher, that I should write Black Deutschland. I had a lot of notes and fragments and ideas over the years. And just from having lived in Berlin and from being on the wall that night, it had been on my mind. I lost a lot of years, but I don’t really know how. I lived in England for twenty years, in the countryside, and it was easy for time to go by because I lived in paradise. Writing for the New York Review of Books, it’s rather interesting, and a sort of deep but perhaps closed world. It’s all been interesting, I just can’t believe it went by so fast. In New York, you can do something interesting every night and ruin your life. It’s really hard to make yourself work, especially on something long. It takes a kind of self-belief that’s not always easy to come by […].
In 2000, before 9/11, under Giuliani I was busted for smoking on the street with two women. They thought I was a dealer because I had English pounds in my pocket and a mobile phone, and when they arrested me, I passed out. You know, I’d read all this stuff about what happens to black guys when the police get them. It scared the police more than anything, and they put me into the Tombs for 46 hours. I wrote something about it for The New Yorker and I had to tell my parents before it came out. My father chewed me out. He said, “You can get arrested for civil disobedience (which of course I was too afraid to do), but not for being a street person, or doing drugs on the street.” And I found in my parents’ papers letters from the 1980s when he was in the NAACP, saying they should support homosexual rights. This is a guy who played football at Fisk and got kicked out for calling the French teacher queer. I never had the talk with my parents, but I never had to. I’ve been with James [my partner] for a long time, so it was clear. And he himself recognized that freedom as an across-the-board issue. And yet, now that they aren’t here, as much as I miss them, I am freer writing about certain things that I just wouldn’t have had they been around. Not because of them, but just because of me. I’m not brave.
When High Cotton came out, did people assume that that material was autobiographical as well?
Yes, and again, the narrator was nothing like me, he was set up as someone who could naively go from one black situation to another and report. And he had no name, for lots of reasons, and no personal life. I wanted it to be about this particular kind of black story. I understand why Baldwin made Giovanni’s Room a white story…
…Because he didn’t want to deal with the homosexuality in a black context?
Yes, it would’ve been a lot harder. He then did it in Another Country…
Do you think there is some special danger for black gay writers who want to tell that story that the material will be assumed autobiographical?
Yeah, but so what. It is always what you make it. In the end, it’s always someone else’s story, not yours, because the character that you’re making or who’s talking , takes over after a time, and you start to make decisions based on what you think he’s like and where you’re aiming him.
You seem to be working pretty short company these days. Samuel Delany, Randall Keenan…I remember seeing a couple of anthologies of black gay men writing literary fiction, but these days it seems there are fewer works.
We lost a lot of them, but there are some. Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, it’s certainly going on in poetry. A lot of it is going on in poetry…Dante Micheaux…they’re there. And probably I think the fictional drive is finding an outlet in web series that black gay guys are doing. And also, the mainstream is absorbing some of this. So this kind of neighborhood or ghetto thing is kind of gone. We’re not aware of them as a group as much anymore.
It’s an odd thing that as American society becomes more inclusive or accepts the principle of inclusiveness, it doesn’t like blurry lines. It doesn’t really like for you to claim multiple identities, but everyone has [multiple identities]. So in this novel, the narrator “is this” but he dabbles in “that,” he’s “this” but he likes “that.” He’s “this” but he doesn’t do “that.” He’s not everybody’s kind of black guy. So there are constituencies that may sympathize with him, but there are quite a few that won’t. He and Cello never worry about what they’re talking about and that’s another freedom. That this kind of charge of Eurocentrism is gone, and it’s gone because most black writers now have some experience with travel, or Europe.
That brings up another question, because I think that the historical moment in which this novel takes place is really useful for the story that it’s telling. Why did the novel need to take place when it did?
Firstly, because that was the time of my experience in Berlin, and then as a place that’s never going to come back, that particular Berlin of the Wall—the end of it. And then AIDS had sort of re-demonized homosexuality in the States to a large degree. The whole “God’s punishment” sort of thing, getting away from lots of things.
The idea of re-demonization is important for me, to remember that there was a moment where people may have gotten comfortable with the identity, and then the virus comes along and changes all that.
I remember at one point in the late 70s, the phone rang at midnight and I thought, “Oh no.” And it was Elizabeth Hardwick back from dinner all the way down at the World Trade Center, and the taxi had taken her up the West Side Highway. She’d heard me describe the scene of Christopher Street, and the Piers and things like that, but this time she’d seen it. Hundreds and hundreds of boys all over the place. She couldn’t believe it. A madhouse. She was amazed. So there was in the late 70s this explosion of…well…too much. Larry Kramer was right—few wanted to admit it at the time, but people didn’t want to give up the way they lived, or they thought they were being asked to give up gay culture, which was, by definition, promiscuous. And it’s all so gone.
If the novel is describing that moment now, then what is the commentary on what gay subjectivity has become?
There really isn’t. I don’t know if the novel has a specific message about that, and it sort of doesn’t need to. Somehow the city has moved on without Jed, or Cello really. They’re kind of old stories sitting there, like old people in Paris.
Things have moved on…
Next door to me, we have a same sex couple, a gay couple, also interracial, half our age. They’ve got kids. These guys are camera ready. The house is perfect.
The dream! [Laughs]
And one day I saw the white grandparents coming down the steps, and they could care less that their son is gay. They couldn’t care at all that he is married to a black guy. It used to be that if you told your parents that you were gay, they imagined you were living these aimless nights of danger. Now you tell your parents that you are gay, and they want to meet your boyfriend. And so once parents know you are settled, they relax. They’re relieved you’re out of danger. And they’re prepared to spend your inheritance, as long as you’re okay [laughs]. So who knew that it was so important to have the freedom to be ordinary? It used to be that you consoled yourself that this kind of gay world was a very special one, that had its own language and values, and things like that. And elite. And it’s good that that Berlin is gone, because it depended on the un-freedom of lots of people, for you to be privileged and special, to do what everyone else can’t do.
I was curious about the title, because Black Deutschland is so resonant for me. I know so many back gay boys who still conceive of Berlin in some respects in the same way. It’s where you go as a black boy to be desired, that’s where you…
…That’s where they like you.
Yes. I was curious whether you knew that was the way Berlin is still now perceived among some black gay men.
With the stories I hear from young guys like you, the answer is yes.