Profiles: Contemporary Writers

Poet Sonia Sanchez and fiction writer James Alan McPherson are two contemporary African American writers whose works are included in the Heath Anthology of American Literature. Both shared their reflections on their reasons for writing with interviewer Linda Bieze, Developmental Editor for English at D. C. Heath.

Sonia Sanchez

"You're so hip. Why do you make us study forms like the sonnet and villanelle?" poetry students often ask Sonia Sanchez at Temple University in Philadelphia, where she holds the Laura Carnell Chair in English.

"It's so that you find out free verse also has form and requires discipline," Sanchez replies.

The interplay of discipline and freedom also characterizes Sanchez's own development as a poet. She was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and, after her mother died when she was a year old, she was raised by her grandmother. "My grandmother was my first role model," she recalls. "She taught me how to read and let me be a tomboy. She didn't put any holds on me but let me listen to and learn from the `women talk' of the women who would come to her home and to visit after making church suppers." Her grandmother died when she was six years old.

To compensate for a stutter she developed, Sanchez began to write to avoid talking. She kept writing "rhyming ditties" when she moved with her father, step-mother, and sister to Harlem. After her sister teased her about a poem she had written about George Washington crossing the Delaware, Sanchez began to hide in the bathroom to write poetry. She cached her finished poems under the claw-footed bathtub.

After she graduated from Hunter College, Sanchez found the freedom to be a serious poet through a seminar led by Louise Bogan, who required her students to write a poem a week in the various classical forms. "I became very disciplined through this seminar and got over the idea, `I can't write until a muse drops on my shoulder to inspire me,'" recalls Sanchez. Following the seminar, she participated for several years in a poetry workshop in Greenwich Village led by Fred Stern.

Sanchez claims poets Gwendolyn Brooks and Margaret Walker as her literary role models. African American women like herself, they have had to fulfill many roles--mother, teacher, writer--"without the help male writers often get," she says. "It's not easy being a poet and raising a family, too!"

She continues to write, she says, "to inspire people to move towards peace, with racial and social justice, with an end to homophobia. I want to inspire younger people to walk uprightly."

This spring she will see three new books published by Africa World Press. Shake Down Memory, a collection of poetry, includes her elegy, written in rhyme royal, to her brother who died of AIDS. Crisis and Culture: Five Speeches by Sonia Sanchez and a combined reprinting of Homecoming (1969), We a BaddDDD People (1970), and A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women (1973) complete her latest publications.

"And I have been working on a novel over the years," she adds. "It's in my guts right now, a book about women trying to find themselves in relationships. It comes from the same ideas that inspired `After Saturday Night Comes Sunday' in Homegirls and Handgrenades [1984]."

About teaching and studying poetry she says, "There's nothing wrong with Shakespeare and Blake and the rest of the `canon,' but there's a bigger world to look at. When I introduce my students to women, African, Chicana, Native American, lesbian, and gay writers, they are amazed, and pleased, and moved. They see that these writers are saying important things about the world. It's time the `canon' made room for all of us.

"The canon is a power issue in the United States, a question of who is in control of the courses. If we want to change the way students think, we have to introduce them to the whole canon."

James Alan McPherson

Fiction writer James Alan McPherson is a professor of English in the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. His latest published book is Elbow Room: Short Stories (Scribner/Macmillan, 1987). He cites Ralph Ellison as his strongest literary influence. "Ellison gave me a working perspective on American culture and the black American experience. He taught me the distinction between ideology and art," says McPherson.

"For my work, that distinction means realizing that the racism of society tends to push you to fight and use your fiction as a weapon," he continues. "But doing so would destroy something essential in your fiction. You should save the fighting for essays, instead."

Writing fiction answers McPherson's need for personal, intellectual, and emotional survival. "I write because there are some things I couldn't say except in fiction," he says, "and I continue to write for personal reasons, not for commercial success." He tries to convey this motivation to students in the Writers' Workshop to awaken them to greater self-awareness.

While declining to use fiction as a polemical tool, McPherson believes race cannot be disregarded in fiction. "There is a tremendous upsurge in racism in the United States today," he observes. "Even the white students at Iowa are writing about racial incidents. I try to tell them that you can't write to expose racism but you can try to put it in a human perspective.

"For instance, I could write about the humor of Americans smashing Japanese cars and then racing home to watch themselves on the news on their Japanese television sets. I think that if you can't see the irony in some of these situations, you lose something essential."

While McPherson admits that he hasn't given much thought to the canon of American literature, he is acutely conscious of the position of black writers in America. "American culture has undermined black writers by making it an obligation to confront racism in our fiction," he asserts. "Rather than being able to assume the fact that we are human, we are forced to protest our humanity in our fiction.

"By contrast," he continues, "when I go to Japan, where my work is well-received, I sense I am respected as a human being. Here in America, I have to keep reminding myself that I am a human being. I think America is about a century behind the rest of the world in accepting blacks as human beings, let alone as writers."

Contents, No. VII