Sonya Chung: In an interview you did with Bookslut about your first novel God Says No back in 2009, you revealed that you were 40 years old; the interviewer asked “What was the holdup?” and I loved your answer:
“What was the holdup? I didn’t learn to read until 1990. What the fuck do you mean what was the holdup? Actually. . . somebody once told me that the average age for the publication of a first novel is 49. I don’t know if it’s true, but I love that statistic.”
Can you talk about how God Says No — a tragicomic novel about identity, i.e. a black Christian gay man muddling through identity crisis, double-life, self-acceptance—is both a “typical first novel” and, perhaps because you were older and more evolved as a person, a subversion of the typical first novel?
James Hannaham: I don’t think I would’ve written a typical first novel even if I’d been 23 at the time. Even then, people already expected me to do weird-ass, arty things like joining a performance group. I meant for GSN to seem like a typical first novel because of the material that inspired me: clunky firsthand testimonials including magical events that happen to closeted people. I felt as if people would assume a lot of literal connections between myself and Gary, the protagonist, but that I’d set a kind of trap by doing so, a trap designed to free people from the assumption that the typical first novel is always a thinly veiled autobiography; and that if I could do so seamlessly, I would have achieved something interesting. People still think I’m from Florida because of that book, which makes me quietly proud of it. And there are things I have in common with Gary, but not many.
SC: So tell us about the über-Renaissance man thing — actor/performer, visual artist, novelist. How do all these parts of your brain and life work together? Or is there a sequential trajectory to this, i.e. are you becoming “primarily” a novelist, less so a performer or visual artist?
JH: There’s a fine line between “Renaissance man” and “dilettante,” I guess: perhaps the aura of success makes the entire difference? People seem oddly interested in making me choose one “thing” despite the many ways in which these “genres” affect one another in my head, whereas I’m perfectly comfortable trying, at least, to consider them all one thing. “Is not all one?” asks the Buddhist koan.
I suppose it’s funny that I left Elevator Repair Service right at the moment when they started staging novels, though I’m not sure that it means anything for me or for them other than an odd coincidence. There are aspects of performance that still affect the way I write, and while I like performing, I was never any good at memorizing, so the aspects of putting a book out that have to do with performance without memorization (doing public readings, reading the audiobook) are kind of perfect for my “skill set,” as the Millennials might put it.
SC: I’m always just slightly ambivalent when I see a deserving artist’s fringe-ness become “discovered.” On the one hand, it’s absolutely great—for the artist, and also for the world. But it’s also a little like neighborhoods gentrifying a little too much, or Bon Iver winning the Grammy in 2012 and being like, I’ve always thought this award stuff is kind of bullshit, and I don’t know what to do with the fact that I’m here. Is it fair to say you’ve mostly worked and lived in the realms of subversion and alternativeness up until now? And so in going from indie press to big publisher, for example, and with mainstream attention coming to Delicious Foods, do you feel that transition happening for you? Or is this just not something you think/care about?
JH: I wouldn’t have guessed that this book would be the breakthrough, that’s for sure. I mean, more than GSN is the typical first novel, I thought Delicious Foods was the dark, ambitious, difficult, less compromised and strange second novel, a.k.a., the flop, the “cult favorite, ” if it gets that lucky. So I am a little nonplussed. But it’s encouraging.
I guess I don’t really think of myself as “having worked and lived in the realms of subversion and alternativeness” (which you make sound so spooky) since so much of my contact with institutions has been so normal: I went to Yale and the University of Texas, for Pete’s sake. I taught at Columbia. I only have one tattoo and my piercing sealed itself up. I’m built like a meathead linebacker. Could I seem less subversive? But maybe those institutional associations have provided a smokescreen for my true black gay freakiness. It’s just that I don’t think of my true black gay freakiness as subversive, any more than the true white straight Republican freakazoids out in the heartland think of themselves as subversive, even as they’re plotting to replace the government with a bunch of gender normative marionettes and privatize motherhood or whatever. Perhaps that makes it a kind of entitled black gay freakiness. I certainly don’t mind modeling that for whoever wants it.