Conversations with Chester Himes

395789Chester Himes is an author whose work I really love, and this has been sitting on my shelf forever. It starts out a bit disappointing — a bit gossipy about Dick and Jimmy and others. Complaining of this I was reminded that this was pre-internet in French, and what was the likelihood of it getting any circulation?

There was much less need to be cagey in those days.

Still, it is nice to think of Richard Wright and being so generous — once giving Himes $1000 when only asked for $500, giving money to James Baldwin to allow him to finish revising one of his novels and helping him get the Saxton Fellowship. The interviews get better, more thoughtful, perhaps more sober as Himes gets older.

his words stand for themselves really.

I did particularly love some of the details, like this description of his studio in Paris

Himes lives at Saint-Germain-des-Pres, in a top-floor studio on rue Bourbon-le-Chateau. you have to stoop in order to get inside. Nearly everything there is red: the carpeting, a vase of roses, and even an angrily-daubed abstract canvas.
(Francois Bott, 1964)

This was the flat that Melvin Van Peebles moved into. Sweet Sweetback himself.

I love Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones, love the Harlem novels, loved to read this:

I was very happy writing those detective stories, especially the first one, when I began it. I wrote those stories with more pleasure than I wrote any of the other stories. And then when I got the end and started my detective shooting at some white people, I was the happiest. (49)

This also reminded me, in a way that still jars slightly with that understanding of America that I learned in school and somehow no amount of education and experience can quite eradicate completely, of the way that the US is founded on violence and how that runs through absolutely everything:

Cause no one, no one, writes about violence the way that Americans do. (47)

Anyway, you know, there is no way that one can evaluate the American scene and avoid violence, because any country that was born in violence and has lived in violence always knows about violence. Anything can be initiated, enforced, contained or destroyed on the American scene through violence. That’s the only thing that’s ever made any change, because they have an inheritance of violence; it comes straight from the days of slavery, from the first colonialists who landed on the American shores, the first slaves, through the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Indian wars, and gunslingers killing one another over fences and sheep and one goddamn thing or another; they grew up on violence. And not only that, it’s gotten to be so much a part of the country that they are at the place where they are refining the history of their violence. (62)

It reminds me also how many writers moved abroad to achieve a basic dignity in life.

The only reason for going to Paris is just to have a certain amount of freedom of movement for a limited period of time. (64)

Writers of colour, that is.

WIlliams: What about your experience with white expatriate writers?
Himes: I don’t have any experiences with white expatriate writers. (69)

Later Michel Fabre would ask him if living in Europe had changed him?

Of course. Here a Negro becomes a human being. There’s nothing grotesque about a black man meeting a white woman here. There’s nothing unnatural. (127)

and in describing for him why he stayed in Paris and NY (and responding to a question from Miotte about why not NY), Himes says:

France was an escape from racial prejudice in the publishing industry. I believe that America allows only one black man at a time to become successful from writing, and I don’t think this has changed. France seems to be a place where my talent would make me as successful as Alexandre Dumas. (121)

Himes describes the regular get togethers at the Café Tournon, with Himes, Dick Wright to a limited extent, the centre of them Ollie Harrington. John A. Williams, unsurprisingly, carried out my favourite interviews, a long and nicely in depth one. This is my favourite story from it:

Dick was a compulsive conversationalist in the early hours of the morning. When he woke up he had to telephone somebody and have a long conversation. When Ollie wasn’t there he had to find someone else–Daniel Guérin or even Jean-Paul Sartre. But they got tired of these conversations, so he chose Ollie. As long as Ollie was in town Dick would telephone him as soon as he woke up in the morning, whether Ollie was awake or not (it didn’t make any difference) and have long conversations about the CIA and the race problem and all. You know, that kind of conversation doesn’tgo down too well at seven-thirty in the morning. (77)
— John A. Williams 1970

Michel Fabre, following on the heels of this in the same year of 1970, focused on writing:

I think that writing should be a force in the world. I just don’t believe it is. It seems incapable of changing things. (89)

and Himes’ relationship to Harlem:

…most American black people have kept to ghettos for many reasons, but mainly to hide from the prejudice and the arrogance of white people, and because they wanted to be together, for protection, and togetherness. I didn’t do this, and this is part of the reason why I have to explain myself.  (89)

To David Jenkins in 1971 he gives his thoughts on struggle, which he novelised of course, though didn’t in the end finish it:

I have never fully endorsed the black movements, although I have supported both the Black Muslims–I was a friend of Malcolm X–and the Panthers. I don’t think they will succeed because they are too used to publicity, and a successful revolution must be planned with secrecy, security.

Yet there is no reason why 100,000 blacks armed with automatic rifles couldn’t literally go underground, into the subways and basements of Manhattan–and take over. The basements of those skyscrapers are the strongest part of the building…This was the novel I was wring, and I don’t know if I have the energy or determination to finish it. (102)

The last interview with Michel Fabre in 1983 focused a lot on writing, and I always love to know other people’s routines:

I like to get up early, have a big breakfast, and work at one stretch until it’s time for lunch. If the mail is good, I generally go one with my writing. If it’s bad, my mind is disturbed for the rest of the day. I have nearly always typed my manuscripts, without consulting any reference books or dictionaries. In my hotel room in Paris I only needed cigarettes, a bottle of scotch, and occasionally a good dish of meat and vegetables cooking on the burner behind me. Writing’s always whetted my appetite. (130)

Fabre says he’s sometimes been called a ‘surrealist’ writer, which I suppose makes some sense, I quite love Himes’ answer:

I didn’t become acquainted with that term until the fifties, and French friends had to explain it. I have no literary relationship with what is called the surrealist school. It just so happens that in the lives of black people, there are so many absurd situations, made that way by racism, that black life could sometimes be described as surrealistic. (140)

(Fabre, Michel and Robert E Skinner (eds). (1995) Conversations With Chester Himes. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. )

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