2023 Contest: Interview with Nonfiction Judge Jesse McCarthy

Jul 24, 2023Interviews

Su Cho Author photo.

Jesse McCarthy is Assistant Professor in the departments of English and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. He is the author of the essay collection, Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul? winner of the 2022 Whiting Award for Nonfiction, and a novel, The Fugitivities.


Interview by Kanyinsola Olorunnisola

Experimentation is necessary because the art that will make sense to our time has to be invented.”

Kanyinsola Olorunnisola: As someone who is somewhat unfaithful to my genre allegiances, I always feel an almost-vertiginous excitement whenever an established writer doesn’t simply dip their toes in different genres, but actually immerses themselves in many waters at once. And who is a better example of that than you? You are not only a celebrated academic scholar, but you have published Who Will Pay Reparations On My Soul?, a book of nonfiction which won a 2022 Whiting Award, and The Fugitivities, a novel. I am curious: how do you reconcile these different parts of your formal/modal interests as one person?

Jesse McCarthy: The best way for me to begin to answer that question is biographically. I think there are some people who grow up in circumstances where academic life is familiar to them and part of their world. I had an extremely fortunate upbringing, including growing up abroad in France. My parents were journalists, so we had books in the house and my dad read a lot of history, but neither of my parents came from a background that had that kind of connection to academic life. So, the idea of going to graduate school and being the kind of person who works as an academic was never really in my mind growing up. Even after I graduated with my undergraduate degree at Amherst College in 2006, becoming an academic was not an option.  I wanted to become a high school teacher. At the time it was very popular to go do the “Teach for America” program. The American public school system was in crisis, and they needed people to go teach in the hood. It made sense to me because I had had experience teaching in a program called “Books for Boys” just outside of New York City where we worked with youths who were being processed by the judicial system. I really enjoyed working with young people. I figured I would go become a teacher, but the reality of being a high school teacher soon crashed upon me.

I have always been interested in literature, especially poetry. My first love was poetry before fiction. Back in college, I called myself a poet. Hopefully people won’t go digging up those juvenilia. I had always wanted to be a writer in a sort of aspirational way without knowing if that was something I could do. I got to this point where I was living in New York City—a very expensive city—and I had stopped teaching. I was working at a bookstore, still wanting to become a writer, but what I was really becoming was poor. After a while, it just wasn’t working out. My friends encouraged me to go to grad school.  So, I applied and got into Princeton. When I got to Princeton, I spent the first few years of grad school in the library because I felt I had to catch up and figure out how to “become a scholar”. But I never let go of that aspiration to be a writer. I just set it to one side. I would work on my novel when I had the time. I sent it out, but I didn’t hear back.

Around 2014, there was a political context that was emerging. As a young Black man in grad school, I could feel a detachment. The questions began to spring up: Why am I even doing this work? How does this connect to what is happening in the world? So, I decided to try writing for magazines, taking some of my ideas and moving them out of a strictly academic context. I contacted this magazine based out of Chicago called The Point, which I subsequently became an Editor for. Other leftist magazines like The Nation and n+1 gave me the opportunity to write pieces that were not scholarship and were more interested in culture, politics, and the contemporary moment.

I had these different tracks going. What you see in my book is the result of that. I have always had a strong interest in literature itself as somebody who considers himself one with artists who want to figure out how to connect the different modes of expression with what needs to be said.

KO: Considering it took about 13 years for The Fugitivities to go from conception to publication, I am curious as to your artistic process. Do you find it takes you longer to feel that a work is ready to go out there? Or does life simply get in the way?

JM: Honestly, it was both. The novel came out of two ambitions. The first was the literary question that motivates that novel, regarding form. Because I grew up in France, my literary mind was educated through the French literary tradition, but when I got back to America what I became really passionate about was the Black literary tradition. Part of what I wanted to do with the novel was to synthesize the formal strengths of the French literary tradition—Flaubert, Proust, others—and the Black literary tradition—Hurston, Baldwin, Ellison.

I also wanted to put pressure on what I saw as the ideals and the illusions of people who are in my subject class position. This would not be Black folk growing up in the hood, not the rising Black middle class, but this floating intelligentsia, this kind of transnational cosmopolitan Negro around which there is an aspirational romance that sometimes builds. I wanted to throw it into interrogation.

The book took me a long time to cook. It took me a long time to figure out how these moving parts would fit together. The first major version of the book took me about five years to write. It was still getting rejected and ignored, but even I recognized that it was undercooked. I needed someone to help me think through how to get it to a hundred percent. That did not happen until 2018 when I met a guy named Michael Barron who at the time worked for Melville House Books as an acquisitions editor. I don’t want to cast aspersions, but for a young white editor, he knew a lot about Black literature, which impressed me. We began talking about the book and he agreed to take a look at it. He got back to me with an offer and I signed a book deal. We did a lot of revisions for a couple of years, with Covid times also factoring in, and Melville eventually published the book in 2021.

KO: A lot of your work is a clear product of a vast, vast scholarship but sometimes there is also, within those pages, Dr. McCarthy, the person, the man behind the musings becoming present within the work itself. How much of your own past and continuous personal experiences inform your writing? Which is the driving force: distant observation or self-immersion?

JM: It can happen in different ways. Sometimes it starts from experience. An interesting example would be the “Notes on Trap” essay. It wasn’t because I had read a book or an article. It came out of conversations I was having with friends about trap music. I found myself conflicted about how conservative I sounded when talking about all these young, up and coming rappers. I had to question my impulses, question why I sounded so old when talking about this music. I wondered if there was a way that I could open myself up to listening to this music on different terms. I decided to listen to the music and treat it seriously as an art object you can think about in a nuanced way. That was the seed for it. It took me two years to write because I couldn’t let go of the subject. I would write these drafts and they were just corny. I couldn’t find the right form. It wasn’t until about a year deep into the drafts that I happened to be reading Sontag’s “Notes on Camp”. Moving away from the traditional essay format allowed me to avoid the overbearing authority of the first-person. I wanted these artists to help me to say what I wanted to say.

But other things genuinely come from reading. I teach at Harvard, and I was once asked to teach a course called “Introduction to Black Poetry”. I decided to take apart those two terms—”blackness” and “poetry”—and center the course around understanding them. Studying for this and learning more about the subject led to the essay “To Make a Poet Black”.

KO: The title of Reparations comes from the Gil Scott-Heron song of the same name from the 1970 album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. Now, I am thinking of another Scot-Heron song from that album, the spoken-word poem “Whitey on the Moon” in which he mocks society’s erroneous equation of technological advancement with genuine progress while the downtrodden in society continue to live through squalor and injustice. What does progress mean to you in a society that tends to view its own trajectory through a chronically materialistic and capitalist lens?

JM: In the late nineties, I was really into spoken word poetry. I had Saul Williams on CD; it was that kind of era. Somebody gave me the Small Talk at 125th and Lenox album on CD. I would play it over and over again. One of the things that’s fascinating is that the recording is from 1970. The first time I listened to it was in the late nineties. Now we are in 2023. But some of the things that he is talking about are just the same things that are going on. For example, we still have entire cities—Jackson, Mississippi; Flint, Michigan—where we don’t have clean drinking water in the wealthiest country in the world in the year of our Lord 2023. At the same time Elon Musk is spending billions of dollars, talking about us going to Mars on his little rockets. A poem/song like “Whitey on the Moon” is about 2023. There is a complete lack of ethical consideration…the notion that you would rather invest money into going to a dead planet than in sustaining the living one that’s your only home. We are stuck with this profound crisis that has to do with people’s imaginations, this fascination with things that don’t make sense. Everyone understands that we have an ecological crisis on our hands. There is absolutely no way we can afford the kinds of resources that billionaires like Bezos and Musk are wasting on projects that nobody wants. The concept is just inane.

The fact that Scott-Heron’s work is doing the work that it is doing in 2023 tells you that he is a great artist, but there is this perpetual unwillingness to recognize the genius of Black art. It’s true of Juan de Pareja as a painter. It’s true of Scott-Heron as a poet and musician. It’s true of trap as a musical form of expression that expresses one of the most trenchant critiques of the way of life of the American Empire.

KO: A recent intellectual obsession of mine is film and obviously film is also one of your primary interests. You reference several films (Gone with the Wind, Get Out, Midnight in Paris) in your book of essays. When you think about black cinema today, with more black filmmakers surfacing and studios being pressured into investing in black stories, what do you think black cinema has to offer the culture in the ongoing conversation about racial liberation?

JM: One thing about film is that it is very capital-intensive. Wall Street in the past two decades has had an increasing influence within the industry, effectively replacing the studio system. For them, getting their return on investment is what’s important. That has historically been complicated with respect to Black film because we just didn’t have easy access to capital. If you wanted to work within the system, you had to get through all the barriers of discrimination. If you wanted to work outside of it, good luck to you. But, we had a sort of breakthrough with the LA Rebellion in the 70s. You are seeing this a little bit now, with Black artists taking ownership of their own tradition. I think we are going to see that over time, slowly, that is going to continue to have interesting effects. I hope we see an upcoming generation of Black filmmakers and producers who are even more adventurous and confident in pursuing their own visions.

Whenever I teach, I try to make sure people have an awareness of some of the extraordinary things that Black filmmakers have done. I like to teach Sarah Maldoror’s Sambizanga (1972) which is a film about the revolutionaries in Angola that was made during the Angolan War of Independence, and it’s a Black woman making this film. It’s a really powerful film, but some people do not even think about the extraordinary context in which she’s making a film about the liberation of a nation while that liberation is still ongoing. She had worked with [Gillo] Pontecorvo on The Battle of Algiers (1966). She had studied filmmaking in the Soviet Union at some point. From her stye, you could tell she was very familiar with [Sergei] Eisenstein. So, she had all this exposure, and she was thinking about how to use and adapt the technology of film for the purpose of emancipation. I am also thinking about the Black Cuban filmmaker Sara Gómez who was working with ICAIC in Castro’s Cuba. What’s interesting is that her films, despite having to be in line with the regime, contain all these subtle constructive critiques on gender and race.  You also have the fascinating Kathleen Collins, a Black filmmaker who went to France and studied the French New Wave. But instead of trying to imitate the movies of those French filmmakers, she took their ideas about film and made a movie about the Black middle-class in New York.

We have such a rich tradition. We can work within the system, but Blackness tends to give those of us who are disposed to that kind of creative cultural work a critical edge. It draws us to work against the grain, because there is a lot to critique if you are Black in the world. You might not be satisfied with creating something that people can eat popcorn with and digest easily. You might want to push the boundaries, and we have a tradition of doing that.

KO: I read that for you, the essay “creates a space for formal experimentation” and that is something we are big on at BWR. Your book is deliciously experimental and ambitious. Do you read/judge other people’s work in that way as well? In terms of ambition? What do you consider a successful nonfiction piece?

JM: I think one of the things I am always looking for in a piece of writing is to be convinced that you know what you are doing. I expect other people to do something that I wouldn’t do, to do something that I hadn’t thought of. Maybe even something I don’t agree with, or that I don’t like. In my approach to literature, I don’t have to like it, but I need to see that the writer is in command of their craft, that they have thought it through. Great artists are always experimenting. They are always doing something new. With time, things become classics but at the beginning they were always revolutionary. Experimentation is necessary because the art that will make sense to our time has to be invented. Every time has to invent its own art. It’s the same way that Shakespeare had to invent a new kind of play for his time. It’s always going to have to be experimental. But the real question is: do you have the confidence, the ambition, and a seriousness of passion? I am not obsessed with learnedness, but people who are good writers are interested in good writing. You won’t find a good musician who is not interested in good music, including other genres. What I don’t accept are people who say to me, “I want to be a writer, but I’m not interested in reading great literature.”  You have to experiment. If you’re smart, you’ll figure out how to do it well, how to have taste. That’s the great thing about experimenting, going back into your own traditions and finding new things in them that earlier generations didn’t see. When I’m reading something, usually you can tell if the person that wrote it has done that kind of work. If they have, I really don’t care what you are writing about. You could be writing about something that I don’t even like but if it’s locked in, I’m about it. We need to encourage it and give you a chance to do it more. That’s always what I’m looking for.

KO: Who are you reading right now?

JM: I am reading a really interesting book called The Grimkes: The Legacy of Slavery in an American Family (2022) by the historian Kerri K. Greenidge. It is about this famous white abolitionist family called the Grimkes. They have been written about before almost exclusively by white historians, but she brings a very different perspective that cuts against some of the narratives that have been built around them. I have also been reading Winston James’ Claude McKay: The Making of a Black Bolshevik (2022), a biography of the Jamaican poet who was very important in the first half of the 20th century. He was a very complicated character who had an extraordinary career. He travelled all over the world. He was really involved in activism and politics. He was also someone who moved through really different phases of his poetry, writing in very different styles. I just think it’s a great piece of cultural and intellectual history.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.