Notes on John Edgar Wideman’s Fanon

By HBW Contributor:  Jerry W.Ward, Jr., Professor of English at Dillard University.

John Edgar Wideman is arguably one of the most serious living writers in the Americas, and one might dream that the Nobel Prize folk will recognize his value.  Remembering where the wealth that finances Nobel Prizes came from, one might decide to kill the dream and return to the more noble space where genuine respect for Wideman’s achievement can breathe.  Too often prizes are harbingers of the oblivion that conquers momentary fame when media enthusiasm dies, the trinkets of a trickster named Success.  Wideman has earned respect by virtue of his unrelenting efforts to master the language of language and his being a master teacher of how it should be done.  He has certainly shown us in his fiction and non-fiction how to manage tragedy without giving ourselves over the consolation of insanity.  He gives to us what Matthew Arnold gave to his generation in the poem “Dover Beach”: relentless determination to deal with what is actual rather than the artifice of the real.

             Beginning and established writers can learn from his unpredictable prose. As James Coleman concluded in Blackness and Modernism: The Literary Career of John Edgar Wideman (1989), Wideman is “exemplary in his quest to reshape his focus and change his intellectual direction in order to make his work more relevant to black people while he expresses his creative self” (143).  Considering the modifications of his creative self that have occurred within the past two decades, it is more accurate to conclude that he continues to experiment with making his work more relevant to readers of the world. He has thrown Success into the briarpatch where it belongs.
            From one angle of reading Fanon is an installment of Wideman’s intellectual and experiential autobiography.  Fanon distills elements of Brothers and Keepers, Fatheralong, Hoop Roots, and God’s Gym. In the fictional letter to Frantz Fanon that opens Fanon, Wideman’s narrator makes a jewel-hinged statement:
Fact and fiction need each other, don’t they.  You can’t have one without the other.  I wasn’t wrong.  Just naïve.  Writing fiction marginalized me as much as I was marginalized by the so-called fact of my race.  Your witness, Fanon, of the separate domains of settler and native, black and white, your understanding of how that separation exploit’s the native, appropriates the native’s land, and stultifies the being of both settler and native, taught me how divided from myself and others I’ve become. (5)
In a few transparent sentences Wideman gives specificity to the imagined problem of twenty-first century intellectuals.  But the phrase “reading Fanon” directs thought to Wideman’s daemonic project in his following  “Frantz Fanon in the Grove Press translations of the original French publications of his work” (229), the paradoxical possibility that he is linked to and separated from such literary ancestors as David Walker, W. E. B. DuBois, and Richard Wright, the gentlemen who did fear debates between  God and Satan.  Cartographers  of  unstable psychoanalytic territories. The blues is alive and well.  And Wideman has the grace that eludes soi-disant public intellectuals.  His reading and transmutation of Frantz Fanon the historical person segues into the creation of Thomas, his alter ego, who receives a head in a box and a message on an index card:
We must immediately take the war to the enemy,
Leave him no rest, harass him.  Cut off his breath. (17)
The message is a quote from Fanon, but in it one might hear the voice of Aime Cesaire either in Return to My Native Land or Discourse on Colonialism.  Wideman’s insertion  of a referential political assertion into the aesthetic context of a fiction is a brilliant use of metonymy, complicating a reader’s interpretive transactions with the text of Fanon.  And unlike Gabriel Garcia Marquez, with whom he has subtle filiations, Wideman does not have to resort to magic realism to enthrall us.  By casting Fanon as metafiction,  Wideman invites us to return to the uncanny in his book and in Fanon’s mind.  Ultimately, we are convinced that Wideman is at one with Fanon, both of them possessed by the desire
That the tool never possess the man.  That the enslavement of man by man cease forever.  That is, of one by another.  That it be possible for me to discover and to love man, wherever he may be. (Black Skin, White Masks 231)