BOOK REVIEW / Unforgettable voice for the forgotten: John Edgar Wideman is 'America's leading chronicler of urban black life'. He is also a man whose brother and son are serving life sentences. He talks to Fiammetta Rocco

Click to follow
IN THE middle of last year, as riots charred Los Angeles and America choked on its own fear, John Edgar Wideman boarded a plane and headed West. It was the first time he'd noticed how few black people fly, 'fewer even than flew in the Sixties'. It may not be the most important measure of social failure, but Wideman was on a mission of national and racial diagnosis for Esquire magazine, and he was hoarding every image he could find.

He returned from LA with an ultimatum for the nation: equality or anarchy. Only, because this was Wideman, the ultimatum came in a range of tones: not just black and white, but various shades of grey. His wasn't a do-or-die threat but a plea to all of us to keep struggling to change: 'I'm 30 years older than I was in the Sixties,' he wrote. 'And so is my country, and that much closer to death . . . What's diminishing is the possibility that change, the change that's gotta come, will occur in my lifetime. Or the lifetime of the USA.'

Wideman, it's clear, is not a man who expects change to happen easily or quickly. The slow and sometimes inexplicable passage of life underpins all his writing. The unpredictable growth of children, say, or the swell of pain, are captured frame by frame. Even when he speaks, he does so very slowly, looking down all the time at his hands, as if watching them mould his words into sentences. In his latest book, All Stories Are True, a gathering of 'autobiographical fiction', you feel him groping to understand both past and present. In the section named 'Damballah' he introduces us to his family, starting with his great-great-great-grandmother Sybela Owens, who escaped slavery and settled in Pittsburgh: 'I have written about the women around me,' Wideman says. 'My ancestors, my relatives, lovers. It was a way of trying to make it all make sense.'

In the story that gives the book its title, Wideman's mother stands on her porch, too shaky to go with him to the prison to see her other son, who is serving a life sentence for murder. 'Hug him for me,' she tells Wideman. 'Tell him I love him.' When he later holds his brother, he notices that his arms 'are prison arms. The kind you see in the street that clue you where a young brother's been spending his time. Bulging biceps, the rippled look of ropy sinews and cords of muscle snaking around the bones.'

Though Wideman has an urgent message to impart, his treatment of race is more complex than you might expect. In 'Signs', a black girl at university claims she is the victim of an anonymous hate campaign; later, out of paranoia and fatigue, she confesses to being the real culprit. 'Dear Diary,' she concludes, 'In the end it doesn't matter. Let them believe I did it myself. Everybody's off the hook.'

The urge to tell the stories of those who would otherwise be forgotten is a recurring Wideman theme. In 'A Voice Foretold', he pieces together the existence of a man murdered by the police in a Harlem tenement. There is nothing left of him, or his life, but blood stains and a ripped mattress. Would anyone know this man was innocent, and in love? In 'Newborn Thrown in Trash and Dies', a tiny baby is cast down a rubbish chute and reflects on what her life might have been had she lived on each floor of the tenement building where her 19-year-old mother lives. If Wideman's recent writing is darker than it was a decade ago, it's not without optimism: here is the darkness of a man searching deeper within.

At 50, Wideman is literary father to a group of black American writers including Nathan McCall, Kenneth McClane, Charles Johnson and Bent Staples. Though they enjoy little of the limelight once afforded black male writers like James Baldwin and Richard Wright, and currently given to such women as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, that neglect will surely not last. Their weapon is the memoir, a descendant of the slave memoir whose chief function was to 'bear witness'. Each of them writes with violent clarity about the forces that divide blacks in America today. On one side lies the comparative accessibility of middle-class comforts - the good life, on white terms; on the other is the bald fact that traditional black American life is falling apart. A quarter of America's young black men are in jail or on parole, and in many inner cities murder is the most common cause of death among young black males.

Wideman's own life mirrors the fissure in African-American society today. He was a Rhodes scholar - the first black American to be one in 60 years, his publicity tells us. He is also a man whose brother and son are both serving life sentences for murder. Wideman's (white) publishers are naturally attentive to the neat polarities of his life: it helps them package him. But it also does him few favours: his writing can and should stand up for itself.

Wideman grew up, the eldest of five, in Pittsburgh. His father was a freelance waiter who lived in a black section of the city and sent his kids to school in a white area called Shady Side. 'Home wasn't so much a house, as people, family,' Wideman recalls. His aunts and grandmothers told stories, which he retold at school. 'I mixed them all up: Ivanhoe, science fiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs. The teachers used me to keep the other kids quiet.'

Other men's stories influenced him later: first William Faulkner, then T S Eliot. Today Wideman teaches English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is the only person to have won the PEN / Faulkner Award twice, and has recently been elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Toni Morrison has long praised the 'display' of Wideman's intellect, while Caryl Phillips ranks him as America's leading chronicler of urban black life: 'A master story-teller, a witness and a prophet.'

The fate of his brother - equally gifted and raised in the same tight family - has made him suffer, for himself as well as for his brother's pain. The darkness of his recent writing shows that. His collection includes a story about his son, too, though this last is the weakest in the book and the events that spawned it are not something Wideman likes to discuss: 'It is very personal. No one knows what really happened. Even my son doesn't know. All that was taken into account was that he was black, while the victim was white. It occurred in Arizona, one of the most racist states in the country with some of the most brutal and backward laws.'

Wideman has not given up trying to make these events coherent, and experience has taught him that telling stories may be the only way he can do that. He has begun writing a book based on a trip he made last year with his father: 'Things keep on coming back to me. But I don't know yet whether it's about my father or my son.' Once he's figured it out, we may all learn something.

'All Stories Are True: The Collected Stories of John Edgar Wideman' is published by Picador at pounds 8.99

(Photograph omitted)