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Percival Everett: ‘What’s amazing to me is this denial that this history belongs to all of us’

The veteran novelist, whose book Erasure became this year’s Oscar-winning American Fiction, on why he decided to retell Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The veteran American novelist Percival Everett’s new book, James, a recasting of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, told from the point of view of the slave Jim, seems an inevitable response to the racial and linguistic issues raised by the original. The only real surprise is that it hasn’t been done before.

“I started researching to see if anyone had written this from Jim’s point of view,” Everett tells me from his office at the University of Southern California, where he is a professor of English, “and I was surprised to discover that no one had. And then I realised, well, I hadn’t thought of it either. So it did sort of feel inevitable, and I just decided to do it.”

The publication of James marks a resurgence point in the 67-year-old author’s long and prolific career as a novelist, short-story writer and poet. Several of his titles, including the Booker-shortlisted The Trees, are being reissued this year in paperback by Picador. Then there’s American Fiction, Cord Jefferson’s film adaptation of his satirical postmodern novel Erasure, which won this year’s Oscar for best adapted screenplay. There’s much to discuss. What was Everett’s first encounter with Twain’s novel?

“The first time I read it, as a kid, I had an abridged version, and I can’t remember what was left out of it. I don’t even know if the word ‘n*gger’ was in that novel. But the story was just an adventure. I remember not having liked Tom Sawyer, so I can’t say that I was overly impressed by Finn the first time I read it, though I was impressed by Twain, and reading Roughing It and Life on the Mississippi, which I thought were really quite funny and kind of wonderful.


“And later I came back to Huck Finn in high school, and being a black teenager, well, yeah, the depiction of Jim was somewhat problematic, but I recognised that it was an adolescent America trying to come to terms with itself, with the contradictions of racism and decent behaviour. So I appreciated the humour and the vernacular. And of course the novel is just so persistent and iconic in our culture.”

Everett’s depiction of Jim dramatises the doubleness imposed by the colonial condition. In order to survive, the slave learns to say one thing but infer another, so there’s a constant signifying or coding going on. His speech must serve two masters at once. A key line from the book: “Safe movement through the world depended on mastery of language, fluency.”

“I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie 12 Years a Slave. It’s a beautiful-looking movie, but it has a glaring problem for me, and that is about language: the black man who is living a free, idyllic life is kidnapped and taken away to a southern plantation where he’s plopped down with slaves, and he understands everything they’re saying. And that’s where I have a real problem. He wouldn’t be able to understand anything they were saying, for exactly the reasons you just stated. In depictions of slavery in American cinema and literature, that part of their humanity has been excised.”

And while there are surprisingly comedic elements in how Everett portrays Jim’s predicament, there’s also a palpable rage that an intelligent man would have to pass himself off as a buffoon in order to outwit his oppressors. In the most bitterly funny episode in the book, Jim joins a minstrel troupe, aided by a light-skinned black man who manages to pass as white. The ironies abound: Jim is required to apply blackface in order to pass as a white minstrel burlesquing diasporan African-American music.

“Once I embarked on that scene, the layers of irony just ... I didn’t have to do any work – they pile up organically, that he would blacken himself more to appear a white guy pretending to be black, and the make-up is applied by a black man who is pretending to be white. That is my favourite scene in the novel. I knew that I had to include Daniel Decatur Emmett in the novel – he had a minstrel troupe that travelled around, and so it just happened.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, minstrelsy is often omitted from official histories of what are regarded as credible or authentic forms of American roots music.

“You’re absolutely right. In fact it was the American folk music. It’s the music on which Dvořák, when he was visiting the US in the late 19th century, drew to write the Symphony from the New World, which is such an incredible piece of music. In fact, he stated at the time that any serious American music would come out of Native American and African American melodies. And of course some did, Gershwin and Ives, but because it did they were relegated to a sort of a back room of serious music, not really considered classical composers.”

At one point in the new book’s narrative Jim steals Emmett’s book of hokum songs – based on African-American field hollers and spirituals – not because he has any interest in the compositions themselves but because he needs the paper to write on. It’s a wry inversion of the usual cultural appropriation arguments. What’s Everett’s take on the British blues boom of the 1960s, acts such as the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, who enjoyed a degree of success that the music’s originators never could?

“Well, it’s just the way of the world. It’s hard to begrudge the success of those young people at that time for loving that kind of music. It did bring attention to, within this culture, the music that was being ignored. It’s very likely that Lightnin’ Hopkins and BB King and Muddy Waters wouldn’t have had as much attention as they did without the success of the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, but is it fair? Well, who knows what’s fair? John Coltrane died penniless, and Michael Jackson died with millions of dollars. The one that might be the most problematic is Elvis Presley’s appropriation of the music, but in some ways, even there, he doesn’t come by it dishonestly.”

Did he see Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic?

“I watched it on a plane, I was probably drifting in and out ... I do remember the attempt to align Presley’s childhood with black characters, sneaking out to listen to the juke joints and stuff, which seemed a little disingenuous, the way it was portrayed, but I’ll have to watch it again.”

The distillation of experiences to just a few and then calling them representative, that’s what’s so racist and classist

There’s a passage in James where the protagonist, who is highly literate in his interiority but has never written anything, steals the materials required to spell out his first words. It feels like a birthing scene. What are the tensions between oral and written culture, between books and blues songs, murder ballads, ghost stories?

“Well, Socrates believed that things should never be written down. There’s always been that tension, the thought that writing things would get in the way of thinking, and sort of suspend the need for memory. I was asked by a Plains Indian friend, a Cheyenne man, to record a ceremony one time, and that’s an oral tradition. He lived on another reservation with another people, and the tradition was for him to pass the information, the knowledge, as he called it, on to someone from his tribe, whom he would choose. But no one was going to move to the reservation on which he was living without knowing whether or not he would give them the knowledge, and so he was afraid that this would be lost and asked if I would transcribe it.

“And it took me a couple of years to say yes, because my fear was that I would be participating in the demise of an oral tradition. I finally did it and just gave him all of the material, my recordings, didn’t keep any of it, to protect it. I still have some worries that I was participating in doing some damage. But I come from a culture where the written word is what’s sustaining – that’s how I’ve grown up – and so for me, for Jim, being able to record his story is important for the maintenance of truth.”

Erasure, Everett’s other book of the moment – albeit 23 years after publication – is radically different from James in terms of style but is fuelled by a similar anger. Its protagonist, Thelonius “Monk” Ellison, is a black intellectual writer driven to fury by subtle marginalisation, while his more successful younger contemporaries achieve fame by peddling ghetto cliches.

“It’s even more insidious now,” Everett says. “Then I could state it and it felt very obvious. And now it really is hard to detect. An example of it would be, a friend of mine is a film director. He had some success with a movie, and it wasn’t about race at all. And he was offered a chance to make a biopic of a black man who had been killed by police violence, the assumption being that, because he’s black, this is what he should do next. And that currently happens all the time – he is inundated with those kinds of offers.

“What’s amazing to me is that race becomes this authentication of a place in the culture, it’s this denial that this history belongs to all of us. For example, my novel The Trees, about lynching, part of the receptance of it is because I’m black, but it’s as much a history of white Americans as it as black Americans. I don’t think a white American can make a funny novel [about that subject] and get away with it, but if the white person wrote a novel about the horrors of lynching, that is valid, because we share that history.”

Erasure was conceived in part as a reaction to books such as Push, the 1996 vernacular novel (filmed as Precious) by the performance poet Sapphire, which some regarded as a masterpiece, others as trauma porn. Monk’s response was to write a spoof named My Pafology under the name Stagg R Leigh and send it to his agent as a sort of protest prank, insisting that he submit it to publishers in order to rub their noses in their own hunger for cultural cliches. The joke is that the manuscript sells for a huge sum and becomes a huge hit. How did Everett feel while he was writing the spoof material?

“Oh, I hated going to work.”

There was no sense of guilty pleasure, or wickedness?

“There probably was, but it was hard to keep it going. And then, of course, the real knowledge I gained was that the work is not the problem; like, Push was not the problem. The problem was, I didn’t have any choices other than Push. There’s plenty of room for all kinds of work in the world. And if anybody’s reading anything, I’m pleased about that. But the distillation of experiences to just a few and then calling them representative, that’s what’s so racist and classist.”

Several directors approached Everett over the years about adapting Erasure for the screen, but the author always declined. What convinced him to hand it over to Jefferson, a first-time director?

“He’s a smart guy, and I really had the sense that he not only understood the novel, but he wanted to make something significant. Some 40 years ago, when I started writing, it seemed like people in the movie business were all my age now, chomping on cigars, just wanting to make money. And whether I’ve been hoodwinked I don’t know, but now it seems I’m running across much younger people, as they necessarily would be, who are of course interested in having dramas made, which requires money, but also in making something special. They talk about art. And this industry, from my experience, now, just feels different from the way it used to feel. There are plenty of Marvel movies out there, but there’s also some young people.”

American Fiction, despite its charms, does suffer from an uneven tone, and significantly softens the spiky intelligence of Everett’s book. The critic and academic Jason England recently took the film to task in an essay entitled American Fiction and the Wet Eyes of the Sentimentalist, published on It’s worth quoting: “Let me do away with any notion that I’m naive about how Hollywood works. A film needs to make money, which requires broadening the potential audience; sacrifices are made in service to convention. I’m well aware. As such, I built in realistic expectations, and even some premeditated forgiveness for American Fiction. Still, I left the theatre stunned by its cynicism and cowardice. It’s one thing for a film to veer from its source material; it’s quite another for that veering to swerve away from the very soul of the original, and in doing so to become nothing short of a moral failing.”

Has Everett read the piece?

“No. I don’t read reviews lately, because I don’t go online. The movie is not a regurgitation of the novel. It’s a different work altogether. And a film that has any kind of commercial appeal, unfortunately, will not be as dark as my novel. On the other hand, it will be more accessible in some ways than my novel, and so experience a different kind of success. Which isn’t all bad. And it might be good. And perhaps in tandem, there’s even more good generated. But it’s like any translation. When someone translates work of mine into German, they’re writing a new book. In order to make My Pafology make sense to a German audience, it cannot be exactly the same; you can’t use Google Translate for that. So that’s a new creation. I can’t minimise the efforts that any translator goes through. And so film is also a translation.”

In American Fiction’s defence, the opening scene, in which a young white student is triggered by the title of Flannery O’Connor’s short story The Artificial N*gger, is right on the nerve. “Listen,” says an exasperated Monk, played by Jeffrey Wright, “this is a class on the literature of the American South. We’re going to encounter some archaic thoughts, some coarse language, but we’re all adults here, and I think we can understand it within the context in which it’s written.”

I ask Everett what it was like to see somebody play him on the big screen.

“It’s not me! I mean, that character is alarmingly similar to me, I agree, but I don’t think of it as in any way autobiographical. The funniest part is, in a bagel shop just a couple of months ago, I was misidentified as Jeffrey Wright. If anybody thinks about me while they’re reading the book, then I’ve failed.”

James is published by Mantle. The Trees, Dr No, Telephone, So Much Blue, Percival Everett by Virgil Russell, Damned If I Do, I Am Not Sidney Poltier and Assumption are all republished in paperback by Picador. Erasure is published by Faber & Faber