The Singular Power of Writing: A Conversation with Thomas Chatterton Williams

The Singular Power of Writing: A Conversation with Thomas Chatterton Williams

Los Angeles Review of Books

Otis Houston
Portland, Oregon

Otis Houston interviews Thomas Chatterton Williams

THOMAS CHATTERTON WILLIAMS is the author of Losing My Cool, a memoir chronicling his experiences growing up in New Jersey as the son of a black father and a white mother and constructing an identity in the space between his love for hip-hop and for literature. His new book, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, forthcoming from Norton in October, explores a further complication in the author’s already fraught self-conception, and the often-contradictory ways in which society views and reifies racial categorization.

The author spoke to me by Skype from his home in Paris, France, where he lives with his wife and two children.

OTIS HOUSTON: You’ve been critical of the ways in which writers conceptualize their identity on the page, and about different ways of thinking about identity in relation to society. I thought we could start by talking about some of these themes in your upcoming book, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, which questions some of the metrics by which we understand race in the 21st century.

THOMAS CHATTERTON WILLIAMS: The book started for me in 2013 when my daughter, Marlow, was born. Prior to that, in 2012, I had written an op-ed in The New York Times kind of glibly and really confidently making the case that my kids would be black no matter what they looked like because it’s a kind of political stance more than a genetic identity.

My wife is French and she’s white, and it occurred to me that perhaps our kids would be kind of white-looking. But the reality of our daughter’s birth really struck me, and I realized that I couldn’t just send her out into the world with this antiquated logic of hypo-descent, which is really the slave master’s logic and reinforces some really bad stuff if you think about it for a minute, even though it has allowed the black community to have a lot of solidarity when they needed it.

We had this very Scandinavian-looking child, and for the first time in my life what I now call the fiction of race was thrust into my consciousness. It’s an experience that most people, black or white, don’t have to have because most people don’t live on the racial margins and don’t see how ridiculous it is to say something like, “My father is black, and my daughter is white, but they have the same smile.” And my daughter is blond-haired and has blue eyes and white skin, but she’s of 20 percent West African descent. Most people don’t actually have these kinds of contradictions. So, her birth really set me down this path. I wrote an essay about it for the Virginia Quarterly Review called “Black and Blue and Blond” about questioning and reassessing things I’d taken for granted, and Jonathan Franzen was kind enough to include it in the Best American Essays, which he edited in 2016…

Read the entire interview here.

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