M.C. Armstrong is the author of The Mysteries of Haditha, published in 2020 by Potomac Books. He was recently embedded with JSOF in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. He published extensively on the Iraq war through The Winchester Star. Armstrong is the winner of a Pushcart Prize and his fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Esquire, The Missouri Review, The Gettysburg Review, Monkeybicycle, Wrath-bearing Tree, Epiphany, War, Literature, and the Arts, The Literary Review, and other journals and anthologies. He is the guitarist and lead singer for Viva la Muerte. You can follow him on Twitter @mcarmystrong.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The Mysteries of Haditha is both my first book and my ninth. I wrote eight novels prior to publishing Haditha, many of them focused on The Global War on Terror. After spending twelve years working on Haditha, which is a memoir, I would say it changed my life through giving me hope about the literary marketplace and a bridge back to Iraq. I spent three weeks embedded with Joint Special Operations Forces in Al Anbar Province during the second Iraq War in 2008. Meeting so many Iraqis while there changed my life and the way I saw American foreign policy and my own hometown (which happens to be the city where the mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, received his education). Writing and publishing The Mysteries of Haditha made me think deeply about those Iraqis I met and also the ones who might read my book one day. Through Haditha, I met Noor Ghazi here in Greensboro, the Iraqi-American peace activist with whom I now collaborate frequently. Through this book and the relationships that have developed out of it, I feel I have been given a window into the good side of cosmopolitanism—that conviction—or maybe just sense—that we are all citizens of the world.
That conviction slash sense slash hunch informs the novel I just completed, American Delphi. Delphi takes its name from that place in ancient Greece where one used to travel to hear the truth. The oracle at Delphi was a woman named Pythia and, generally, her prophecies were delivered in a trance-like state, perhaps as a function of the psychedelic response to the vapors rising up from the chasm beneath her perch. In my novel, Delphi refers to an app that tells the future. Long story short, Zora Box, my fifteen-year old heroine, discovers that her father, shortly before he died, developed this app while serving in Iraq, and that it may well be the reason he was killed. Upon finding the app and harnessing its powers, Zora is confronted with a difficult question: What are you willing to risk to find the truth? Gandhi argued that truth is God and God is truth, but what happens when we make that principle our mission in life? I suppose The Mysteries of Haditha introduced me to such questions by revealing to me the strange and revealing connections that tether together America and those ancient lands of Babylon. American Delphi is my further exploration of those connections and questions, but just in a new genre.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
In spite of The Mysteries of Haditha being my first book, my first significant publication was “The Seventy-fourth Virgin,” a piece of fiction about a Muslim Trump from the future that was published in The Gettysburg Review back in 2011. By that time, I’d been writing fiction for twenty-five years. It probably all started with Laura Robb, one of those great frenzied grade school teachers who used to climb up on the desks and shout stories from on high—or maybe it started with my father who, instead of reading to my brother and me as children, would often entrance us with improvisational tales populated with characters who seemed a lot like us and if we ever got snoozy in the midst of his myths, he would tickle us (put us in what he called “the mix-master”), which, after awhile, I suppose got us a bit addicted to the pleasures of confabulation.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
The first drafts come quickly, often in a trance that borders on a rush. A novel I’m working on right now, Support the Troops, came to me in about six months, back in 2003. But I’m still working on it right here in 2020. I once had an agent who said that great novels age like wine. You capture the zeitgeist in that rush and then let time feather in the perspective that makes the novel that unique bouquet, that mysterious hybrid species of pleasure and wisdom, philosophy and experience, sense and sensibility.
With Support the Troops, like American Delphi and The Mysteries of Haditha, I took folders full of notes. Each of those books required dozens of books worth of reading. “Read before you write,” the journalist, Seymour Hersh, once said, but I would add to that and say read while you write and read after you write, too. Never stop reading and never stop questioning yourself and never stop jotting down those bizarre sensory impressions from daily life with their metaphorical seeds like “cloppy licks” (as I listen to Yorick addressing her undercarriage behind me in my office). Henry James said that “It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature.” That’s been my experience. You write ten books and about ten drafts for each book and how many published works do you have? One. What would I do without Yorick constantly encouraging me to nurse these delusions of grandeur?
4 - Where does a work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
My short works, these days, like “The Spotlight Trial” and “Do You Know Ted Cruz?”, tend to be ways of staying limber in between bigger projects. I have a million of what some might call “obsessions” and that’s the origin of most of my prose, long and short. I’d like to say there’s a hard and fast rule here and that the deeper obsessions win the larger projects and the shallower hungers become short stories, but that’s not always the case. “The Spotlight Trial” is the only piece of fiction or non-fiction that I’ve published about the murder of John F. Kennedy, but I’ve been investigating that story since my mother took me to see Oliver Stone’s JFK back when I was fourteen. I suppose a work of prose generally begins for me when I hear the character and start mumbling in his or her voice. Once that speech starts to bramble around my brain, I’m helpless and it’s wonderful.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I’m a performer. Unlike Sartre, I do not believe that hell is other people. I love people. For fifteen years, I’ve been in a rock n’ roll band called Viva la Muerte. If I didn’t like to perform in public—if it made me sick like it did Barbara Streisand—I wouldn’t keep doing it. I adore it. And I like to give readings, especially when people show up ready for a good conversation. Other than a wild jam with an adventurous musician (that sublingual back and forth), I find nothing more nourishing than good exploratory talk with total strangers and curious friends. Readings are one of those rare intimate spaces where such connections can take place. You turn off your phone. You meditate on the writer’s words for a half hour, maybe longer. You listen. You tune your ear to his, her, or their music. And if your muse awakens, you find yourself inspired to ask a question and, thereby, tickle the fragile of the ego of the lonely writer. Whether as fan or author, I think readings are wonderful antidotes to the social media environment where everyone’s talking and no one is listening.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
In many ways, my questions are the questions of my characters, particularly Zora: What happens if I stop salivating on cue to the public relations people at home, at work, and all around me and decide to dedicate myself to truth? What if mission number one is keeping faith with the truth? How bizarre, right, for a fiction writer to dedicate himself to truth. But, to paraphrase Picasso, “Art is the lie that tells the truth.” What’s the difference between truth with a capital “T” and the lower-case variety we encounter every day with tickers of stats and facts? The big T, in my experience, refers to intuition, that sense of the truth and what is hidden. The big T is not found in polling data or “naming names,” and it is not found in the geographical cure. The big T, I find, has something to do with unnaming and defamiliarization, that Poe idea that everything beautiful possesses some property of the strange. The best books I’ve read show me science, insanity, the South, the war, my backyard, my bedroom—or simply a cup of coffee—in a fresh and strange light. The question I’m always trying to answer in my work is what is the question my people are dodging? Write what’s missing—that’s my bumper sticker. When you go to the bookstore and you see the world divided up by genre and class and race and religion and everyone shopping within their own market tribe, ask yourself: What story might bring the tribes together for a roisterous powow? What would happen if I started speaking to a young adult like an adult? What would happen if I allowed my sci-fi characters to have a fully developed or totally dysfunctional sex life like we see in Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles? That basic modernist principle of defamiliarization—make it new—when applied to the genre as well as the sentence, can be so much fun, and can help to tear down some of these walls we see the political economy and our contemporary “common sense” erecting between us.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
My vision for myself as a writer is probably quite different than that of my three best writer-friends, Andria Williams, Paul Crenshaw and James Tate Hill. But I do see a tradition that yokes most of the writers I know and admire together: The writer speaks for those who cannot. The writer provides a vision of the invisible. The writer speaks up for the voiceless, the censored, and the forgotten. If the writer does have a role in the larger culture, I think it is as an amanuensis for that dirty muted figure in the basement of Ursula LeGuin’s story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” If the writer’s role in the culture has been diminished, and I think it has been, it probably has something to do with many of us picking at the low-hanging fruit and speaking up for ourselves rather than others. Do we really need more backyard and round the house glimpses from the quiet desperations of the blanched burbs? Do we really need another granular vision of alienation from the new Brooklyn? So much of the dominant culture seems concerned with New York, LA, Washington, DC, and the elites who can afford to live in those cities. What if our literature, film, television, and politics ceased yielding so much mental real estate to those places? One of my favorite TV shows, Ozark, is successful, I think, because it leaves the elite coasts and travels to a forgotten region. One of my favorite novels from a few years ago, Stephen Florida, achieves the same effect by traveling to North Dakota and exploring the forgotten sport of wrestling in hilarious and mythical fashion. What Gabe Habash accomplishes in that book through his wonderfully repellant and utterly unreliable narrator is introduce you to a person and a place you didn’t even know you were ignoring, an unknown unknown. That’s what so much good writing does, over and over. Write what’s missing.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
In The Mysteries of Haditha, I begin every chapter with an example of graffiti the Iraq war and labeled those epigraphs “graffiti from the war.” Each of those quotes, like “The enemy is in the White House, not over here” or “Why write? Draw naked chicks”—came from the latrines of Iraq and Kuwait. But one of my editors suggested that I say “graffito from the war,” rather than “graffiti.” I had never heard of the word “graffito.” I did not know graffiti had a singular. Is one piece of zucchini now zucchino? At first I thought the editor’s suggestion preposterous. Then I thought it brilliant for its defamiliarization. I found myself pondering this question of “graffiti” or “graffito” late at night and on long walks. I asked Andria Williams about it and she brought up the issue of zucchini. I loved the debate, the defamiliarization of language in my own head and imagining how that veiling might unveil things for my readers. Would I seem pretentious for using “graffito”? Would pretentious people embrace “graffito”? What would “graffito” do for the reader as the first impression of my first book? I went with “graffiti,” but I adored agonizing over the process—the story—with that editor.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Terrance Hayes, in his gorgeous poem, “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy,” writes, “Not what you see, but what you perceive: that’s poetry. Not the noise, but its rhythm; an arrangement of derangements.” That piece of wisdom from Mister Lighthead slash Hayes is right up there with what my mentor at UVA, George Garrett said to me. Hayes is speaking on the level of the line. Garrett, when I asked him the question of “How do you make it as a writer?” responded with one simple word: “Last.” Garrett’s talking about the big picture. He told me that the young writer is always surrounded by more talented people, bright young men and women left and right. But the ones who make it are the ones who last, which raises the question of what sustains those who do not yield to the temptation of law school, marketing, and suicide? That question takes us back to Lighthead’s answer. If you practice perception—vision, metaphor, and empathy—every morning when you write, writing will become a healthy intoxicant, a nourishing addiction, a form of yoga and prayer. And you will last.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
There are so many genres and each one brings its own challenges. For example, I don’t think it’s easy to write Young Adult after you’ve been doing longform journalism or “serious literary fiction.” When I started on American Delphi, I thought to myself that this will be a piece of cake and maybe even a nice break after Shenandoah, an historical novel about the War of 1812 I recently completed. After all, how hard can it be to perform the mind of a fifteen-year old girl? Well, quite hard, it turns out. I sent the first few chapters of the first draft to my seventeen-year old niece, Hannah, who read me the riot act for the number of “whatevers” I’d thoughtlessly plunked into the voice of Zora Box. Hannah and my friend, Rachel, gave me a good primer on what young American women say and don’t say when it comes to their bodies and their country. I do not think every writer simply contains multitudes from the outset. The multitudes are out there and in order to feel them and emote them you have to talk with them through reading or conversation or research and observation. At least I do. Which is to say, it’s easy to jump from genre to genre, but it’s hard to do it well.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I write in the morning and I read at night. The shorter the bridge between dream and page, the better. I like to wake up, tune my mind with whatever book or song my intuition tells me is my tuner, and then turn to my guitar or my computer. If I can keep my cellphone off throughout the morning—if I can sustain a monastic silence through coffee, windowlight, and unmediated concentration—I might just be able to conjure a few good pages. This is the routine, for the most part, but when it becomes too routine and starts to feel mechanical, I’ll go to the woods or into journalism and longhand scrawl. I’ll do a sweat lodge or a Dead show. I’ll write scholarship. I’ll write nothing but night poetry until I feel like the muse is wild and satisfied with my commitment to her mysteries and commands. And then I’ll return to the computer in the morning and that cardinal that always stares at me when I’m on the path.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
As I mentioned above, I’ve always found inspiration in the wilderness and live Dead. But, day to day, when the Rockies aren’t right outside my backdoor (as they were one summer) and the Dead aren’t on tour, it’s the exorcisms of exercise, yoga, and playing live music with my friends that returns me most reliably to the source. I’m a gym rat. I like getting lost in the reps and the sweat and doing laps in the pool. I also have a couple wonderful yoga instructors who resist the American impulse to make yoga just another form of cardio. They organize their practice around poetry and vision and the people who attend their classes tend to have unorthodox spiritualities. Those meditations and the silences and conversations that flow out of them decalcify my mind weekly, although not as frequently during this pandemic. But more than anything, it’s music—listening and playing. I don’t know where I’d be without Viva la Muerte. So many writers treat music like an outsider or a child or an inferior form of storytelling, but I view great songwriting as literature and always try to remember that when poets used to invoke the muse, they would ask her to sing. Music is the source.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I grew up in Winchester, Virginia, a city that used to be the apple capital of the country—orchards everywhere. My friends and I camped in those orchards and drove old beaters down the lanes between those scraggly trees on summer nights when we were teenagers, often throwing each other from the backs of trucks or the roofs of old station-wagons. Sometimes, I would see the Haitian migrant workers picking apples for the Byrd family orchards (same folks who ran the newspaper) and I wouldn’t think twice about race or class. White people owned the orchards and black people were shipped in from poor foreign countries to pick the fruit. That’s just the way it is, right? Of course, those apple trees are all gone now. In Winchester, our grocery stores, like most American grocery stores, carry Chinese apples. Our McMansion neighborhoods are now like tombs for the orchards—streets and complexes named after the apples. But I can still smell that sweet cidery air.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I have a friend named Chris Porter who is an incredible collagist. Whenever I dive into his work on Instagram, I’m reminded of what William S. Burroughs taught me back when I was first getting turned on to literature in high school: Good art cuts up the linear mind. Good art cuts up that mechanical mode of thinking that politicizes and tribalizes, dropping everyone into binary boxes. As Wendell Berry says, “Every day, do something that won’t compute.” I love collage for those reasons, and also because it’s fun, especially if you’re building one with someone else. It returns you to the mind of a child—the way it compels you to use your fingers and answer images with images and put fun sticky words on top of mean or boring words.
Jennifer Orth-Veillon has a fascinating blog about World War I. She asked me to contribute to it last year, and what I wrote about was the cut-up method that most people credit Burroughs with discovering. Although it’s true that Burroughs did popularize literary collage in books like the Nova trilogy and Naked Lunch, there was this World War I era writer named John Dos Passos who was practicing cut-up slash collage twenty years before Burroughs in this trilogy called USA. For those interested in biographical criticism, one thing I discovered while doing research, is that the inspiration for Dos Passos’ ad man character, J. Ward Moorehouse, was Ivy Lee, the uncle of Burroughs. Lee was an actual factual historical advertising agent who got lured into developing propaganda for the American government and the character of Moorehouse is one of the first literary studies in what happens when the wall between state and entertainment breaks down. Before Burroughs developed his avant-garde technique, he was a young man in a family who witnessed, first-hand, what propaganda can do to a man’s mind. Yes, everything is personal. Burroughs cared about propaganda because it was part of his lived experience. Advertising, broadly, and propaganda, specifically, tries to cut into our consciousness in the name of profit and nationalism, anxieties relievable by purchase, fear assuaged by cash. It riddles the minds of aunts and uncles and struggling teenagers. Collage like you see with Porter and Burroughs, on the other hand, cuts into that riddling and helps you reclaim your courage and intuition, that sense of play that’s so essential to good writing and being a brave and fun human being.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Recently, as I’ve been finishing my dissertation on post-9/11 soldier-writers, I’ve been thinking a lot about Don DeLillo and the growing community of Iraqi authors who have focused on describing America’s Global War on Terror from a point of view other than that of our soldiers. What DeLillo woke me up to twenty years ago is the same thing I see in Iraqi authors like Ahmed Saadawi (author of Frankenstein in Baghdad) right now in more granular ways: the American idea isn’t the only one out there. DeLillo’s work is decisively and intricately cosmopolitan, even to the point that one sees him questioning some of the problems of the cosmopolitan point of view (like its tendency toward elitism) in novels like Underworld and Cosmopolis. To subscribe to some species of cosmopolitanism, the idea that one has a special responsibility to those beyond the vaporous borders of one’s nation, seems increasingly remedial as we build this globalized world and see America export its systemic racism abroad, but to see one’s self as a citizen of the world means more than just knowing a few facts about China and Russia. Strangely, when you dig into the literature of some of these countries where America has more than just a carbon footprint—like Iraq, Guatemala, Nicaragua, the Congo, Libya, Iran, Pakistan, and Vietnam—you start to learn more about those countries and their customs, sure, but you also begin to learn more about America and some of these complex problems we’re facing, like the war on terror, automation, and climate change. But more to the literary point, in Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, what I think readers will discover is that even the Iraqi idea of evil is now a composite of ideas repurposed from an English novel and an American movie, a beast that is itself a composite of body parts reflecting this collage notion of war and the world.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
At the end of his life, Ken Kesey obsessed over making a movie about his time on the magic bus, Furthur. He made the argument, in an interview, that if Shakespeare were alive today, he wouldn’t be writing literature or drama. He would be telling the people’s stories and the people’s stories are movies. That’s changing. Now, it seems, longform television—that hybrid of TV, movie, and literature’s more in-depth concerns with character—is the people’s choice. So, I’d like to go there and adapt my most recent novel, American Delphi, as a longform sequence. The Delphi saga is poised to be a trilogy, but there’s also an open-ended quality to it that will lend the story to creative input from others who may wish to grow the tale beyond its literary borders. As we speak, I’m working with Naima Said, a Palestinian writer and director with a great Horror film podcast, on building that script. Incidentally, I’d also like Viva la Muerte to one day play Red Rocks, that great natural amphitheater out in Colorado.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
When I was eight and bored in a third grade English class, I took to memorizing the names of the American presidents I could see on a poster that perimetered the room. Upon accomplishing this feat and having my parents show it off as a kind of parlor trick at parties and family reunions, I got it in my head that, instead of being a professional baseball player or a fireman, maybe I’ll one day be one of those men like James Garfield or John F. Kennedy. The delusion of grandeur implicit in such a dream job is obvious to me now and scares me. I canvassed for Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders. Even now, in 2020, I still sometimes get so excited about what America can do that I still entertain the thought of jumping in. But then I look back at Obama and reflect on how powerless he felt, so unable to accomplish his basic goals like closing Guantanamo Bay. I think about how depressed I used to get as I listened to one of my students at North Carolina A&T, an historically black college, agonize over Obama using drones to assassinate people of color all over Africa and the Middle East because, as Obama confessed in his memoir, the “machinery” of war commanded him to do so.
Sometimes, I think back to a summer when I was twenty and working for a blind lawyer. I was studying the LSATs and was ready to launch a career as a trial attorney and genuinely believed that arc would one day take me to the White House. But cobbling together those documents for that old man and witnessing the zero-sum game of American law—always the winners and the losers—gave me a sinking feeling, a claustrophobia. As the summer went on and I tried to drink that feeling away, I felt like I was being asked to live someone else’s life. There was one day, in particular, when I was speaking with one of our clients who wanted a divorce from her husband. Long story short, she told me about the abuse she’d suffered at the hands of her husband. She gave me the details, as they say—the particulars of his sadism. When I reported back to Joe, the attorney, what she’d told me, I could tell that Joe found my interest in her pain touching but irrelevant. “Immaterial to the case,” were his words. Well, those details—the sensory details of a human life—were not immaterial to me. I wanted to organize my life around them.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
How does one begin to answer that question? Maybe everything depended on my father’s improvised bedtime stories and my mother’s belief that Kennedy was killed by his government and my sister asking me what SHE wanted out of life and this one winter day when I fell through the ice of a lake and my brother reached down and pulled me up. I often go back to those four family contexts. My father showed me the fun in riffing and jamming, making what’s right in front of you part of the story. My mother showed me that the story in the news wasn’t always the real story. My sister would often, half-playfully and half-seriously, ask me when we were children, “What do I want?” She knew that my brother wanted to be a doctor and that I, apparently, wanted to be a lawyer, but as I got closer to law school, her question became my own. There she was, the babe of the family, sitting in her highchair, watching all of us at dinner all those years, talking about all the things we thought we knew and knew we wanted, but she wasn’t sure. She didn’t know. There was a great destabilizing honesty in that, and I think about it all the time. Where do so many stories start? With my sister, Katee, and the confession that’s implied in her question: I DON’T KNOW.
And then there was that day on Lake Holiday. I was four and carried a Captain America matchbox car in my pocket. I carried that car everywhere. My father took my brother and me with him to retrieve a red canoe from the lake and we were told to go sit on the marina while he tied the canoe to the roof of our old gray Oldsmobile with its arcade carpet in the back. We did as we were told and sat above the ice of that lake, playing with our matchbox cars. We positioned them on the ice and raced them and crashed them and made the sounds of motors. But then I let mine go, maybe just to see how far it might travel on that perfect surface. Well, I suppose it went further than I expected. I couldn’t reach it so, without thinking, I stood up and walked out on the ice and I fell through. I remember trying to come up and hitting my head on the underside and feeling a panic unlike anything I’d ever felt before, a claustrophobia and breathlessness that still resonates right now. Miraculously, my brother found me and grabbed my hand. Then that night, as my father was washing my body with warm water in the garage sink and my mother was putting my clothes in the dryer, she found that Captain America car in my pocket and handed it to me. One thing I realized that day was that I’d nearly died and that my brother had saved my life. That brush with death woke me up to something I’m not going to try to name here, but it has a great deal to do with who I am and why I write.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Right now, I’m reading Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden, and if the first fifty pages are any indication, this is going to go down as a great book, so fingers crossed for Virgil Wounded Horse, the narrator. I hope he can guide me through like his namesake from antiquity. Before that I’d say Phil Klay’s new novel, Missionaries. Klay’s one of the authors I’m studying for Camp No, my dissertation, and I loved his first collection, Redeployment, so I had high hopes for Missionaries. But there were moments where my faith wavered, and after I finished it, I remember thinking that those slow uncertain intervals—where the book ceased being a rocket ship and instead created space for the characters to breathe and doubt and ponder things like mercy as a species of injustice—those were the moments that, for me, made the book great. When you take that risk and allow your characters to be human and depart from the linear expectations of the page-turner, you can lose your story, but if you’re sensitive you can go down those rabbit holes and return and your reader will follow you. Would I have followed Klay all the way through if he were not the National Book Award winning author of Redeployment? Did he earn that slack? Would his editors have permitted him those wide berths that gave such shape and dimension to his characters and allowed him to tie together Pennsylvania, Afghanistan, and Colombia? Those extra-textual questions are fascinating to me and get at the root of some of the thornier aesthetic issues of our time: Who is allowed to tell certain stories? How does biography shape destiny in the literary marketplace and in the intimate psyche of the reader and writer?
As far as film, I’ll go with first thought best thought: Mank. James Tate Hill and I watched that the other night and, although I suspect we both liked it for different reasons, I think, broadly speaking, we both were impressed by how original it was. I had never heard of Herman Mankiewicz. I had no idea that he was the man behind the curtain—the author—of Citizen Kane. I thought Oldman’s performance was brilliant. Here’s this “court jester”—Mank—serving up the truth to William Randolph Hearst and corporate Hollywood during the Great Depression. Mank is a truth-teller, but as the Depression approaches and belts tighten, you can see that Hollywood has increasingly short patience with the fool’s wisdom, his critiques of the system. Mank decides to back the socialist author, Upton Sinclair, for governor of California in 1934, and it nearly gets him canceled like so many folks in the American media who dared back Bernie Sanders. Like Oldman’s Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK, Mankiewicz is a man whose story will forever be attached to a more famous man—Orson Welles—the one outsider in Hollywood who dared support the peek behind the Hearstian curtain.
The film is shot in black and white, which initially suggests another time, another Hollywood. But, of course, very little has changed. There continues to be very porous borders between state, finance, and entertainment—DC, New York, and Hollywood. But any number of think pieces or podcasts could touch on that hairy subject. The thing that makes Mank so original and powerful is the way it flips everything via the black and white skins of nostalgia. You go back in time to the good old days of the great white men—Hearst and Welles—but Fincher hardly gives any lines at all to the bloviations of the leading man and the mogul. No, Fincher has hidden in the future in the costume of the past. He is a writer’s writer. His main character is the author and it’s nothing short of magic the way he and Oldman convert this talking head for the working class—this mind—into a compelling embodiment of the elephant in America’s room: our blind appetite for propaganda.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on the second installment of American Delphi and an essay called “Teaching Conspiracy Theories at a Historically Black College.” I’m almost done with the essay, but I’m not entirely sure I want to go out with it because it touches on extremely sensitive material. Over the past twenty years I’ve watched Republicans and Democrats weaponize conspiracy theories as a way of destroying each other. Whether it’s Republicans convincing folks the pandemic is a hoax or Democrats destroying a woman of color like Tulsi Gabbard by suggesting she’s a Russian agent, it’s the same old story from Mank: American propaganda. Meanwhile, our mainstream media continually takes the simpleton’s stance by paternalistically cautioning its readers, i.e. our citizens, away from conspiracy theories. The contemporary “hot take” on conspiracy theories is that they are purely the domain of incels and toothless and illiterate inbreds from the far right.
Of course, this is not the whole story.
Back when I was teaching at North Carolina A&T, the historically black college that educated the mastermind of 9/11, I saw another side. Many of my African-American students would urge me to watch conspiracy theory documentaries and to teach them—to use them to inspire critical thinking. Conditioned as I was by white corporate media, I was initially reluctant to respect my students’ wishes and tastes. However, I felt torn after awhile. I didn’t want to be one of those crusty white teachers who only taught his specialty or simply built a syllabus around the greatest hits from the great white canon. So, after doing a dive into the literature on how a teacher might do this—use conspiracy theories in the classroom—I decided to take my students’ advice and meet them where they lived. And it was transformative. Rather than view the conspiracy theory from the POV of the privileged white kid with an obsession over the assassination of the privileged white Kennedy brothers, I found myself looking at the conversation from the POV of a people who had, historically, experienced actual criminal conspiracy after actual criminal conspiracy, often under the guise of science and criminal justice. Using viral underground documentaries like Zeitgeist in the introductory rhetoric and composition classroom, I came to see the conspiracy theory in a new light. It was not always a place for offering simple answers in the face of complex history. In many ways, it was a place for raising questions, and in a country so riddled by propaganda, good questions, increasingly, can seem more nourishing than answers. But this grows so dicey in the contemporary pandemic moment where we just witnessed Sandra Lindsay, an African-American nurse, as the first person to take the Covid-19 vaccine. Does understanding the murder of Fred Hampton and Malcom X or the framing of the Central Park Five help us understand our country’s growing resistance to official narratives? Yes, of course. But what about MK-Ultra and Tuskegee and the systemic use of poor people and people of color as government guinea pigs? When so many blacks have indeed been unwittingly used as test subjects for government science, how do we begin the urgent and healing conversation that will give national and international science—global health—the credibility it requires to be effective in the coming decades? These are the kinds of issues the essay wrangles with. Like with most of my work, I’m trying to navigate that strange pastoral zone where history and mystery meet and swap costumes. But I’m not sure about this one. What do you think? Should I go out with it?