Life Among Other Men: an Interview with Black Deutschland’s Darryl Pinckney

June 10, 2016 | Published Articles, Writing

Originally published June 2016, on Art21

“It doesn’t always start with a suitcase. Sometimes things begin with the wrong book. Berlin meant boys, Isherwood said. Fifty years after his adventures among proletarian toughs, Berlin meant white boys who wanted to atone for Germany’s crimes by loving a black boy like me.” So begins Darryl Pinckney’s latest novel, Black Deutschland, an account of a Chicago native and reformed addict, Jed, who returns to Berlin with new purpose. “After those few summers of desperate rehearsal, tourist make-believe, I was recently sober and alone in a train compartment about to be locked tight for the border crossing between the fast-driving exhibitionist German Federal Republic and the paranoid German Democratic Republic, with its harsh fuels. I’d left Chicago behind for good. I was inordinately proud of my one-way ticket.” Jed comes to Europe to work for a famous architect. He moves in with his cousin, Cello, and tries to avoid old habits. As the book steers through the landscape of post-war Berlin, Chicago after the civil-rights movement, AIDS, terrorism, and Tiananmen Square, Jed reflects on present and past at once, beautifully reiterating how the illusion of pure, immediate experience filters through memory and association.

Caroline Picard: Much of the book takes place in 1980s Berlin. While the Wall remains in the background for the most part, it establishes a mood of division. For instance, Jed and his coworker/friend Manfred have a tacit agreement not to discuss any attraction between them. Similarly, one would think Jed and Cello would share a sense of kinship, given that they grew up together, yet when Jed is unjustly kicked out of Cello’s house for her cocaine, he says nothing either to her or her husband. What kind of intimacy is possible in Black Deutschland?

Darryl Pinckney: The narrator, Jed, is remembering what he had looked for: his own love story, intimacy with another human being. He sees it all around him—couples, friends—but is cursed by inhibition. That is how he is conceived. Does he understand what he sees, the people he has these passions for? Or is he imposing on them an idea of love or friendship that he got from somewhere else, an idea that doesn’t answer his need? Are people as real or unreal to him as characters in books? Does he have a voyeuristic relationship to himself? I don’t want to cross a line and sound pretentious about my intentions with a given character. In some cases, I am surprised by what certain characters mean or stand for, now that I look at them at some remove. I guess when you are constructing a character on the page in a work of realism, the main concern is with his or her plausibility as part of the whole scene you are trying to create. There must not be any punctures in the reality you are insisting on. Then, too, Jed is the one doing the talking, the seeing, even when the readers are seeing things he maybe doesn’t, or can’t, and so there are things he cannot know about anyone else. In this case, the limits of the first-person narrator suited the general atmosphere of division and restriction.

Jed has come to West Berlin on a mission, to find personal liberation in the time of the Wall—itself another part of Berlin’s Weimar heritage. But compared to the desperate capital Berlin had been in Isherwood’s time, West Berlin in the last days of the Cold War was something of a privileged zone. A cultural center lay between two armies; the rest was sexual fantasy. Even so, Jed can’t make it happen for himself, not convincingly. I thought people would say more than they have about the interracial relationships in the novel. Maybe it says something about the distance between now and the late 1980s. Then, the interracial love story of the black American expatriate in Europe—from William Gardner Smith, James Baldwin’s contemporary, to Andrea Lee—was a way to talk about race in America. Cello has seemingly become integrated into German society. Her children are German, not American, though the novel doesn’t take up what happens to them. Cello’s implied disintegration takes place in Berlin. She didn’t go home. Is Jed unable to establish anything lasting because he’s looking in the wrong places or because he is not present enough within himself to have anything to offer anyone in the first place? What I really wanted Jed to feel like was someone on the move, a little blind here, not so blind there, but maybe moving speedily for no good purpose. Round and round, confined in his head. He doesn’t go home either; he also doesn’t find home. He made a mistake and is living it out.

CP: I love the moment when Jed rides his bike to the Berlin Wall and notices that it has been painted, in a trompe l’oeil style, to disappear into an imaginary horizon. In such instances, the background landscape emerges into the material and psychological foreground of the book.

DP: Jed’s sense of place, the Berlin history he reads and learns from Manfred, his reflections on Chicago as a mean northern city showing how unsuitable the tactics of a southern-style civil-rights movement were—he has recourse to these riffs on history and on historical texts, especially when something emotional is expected of him. He digresses rather than confesses. He evades. My hope is that that historical awareness gives some texture to the narrative. But I also thought Jed as a loser might be unbearable if he whined or got too familiar with the reader. He is looking back over a number of years, an older man talking about the young man he had been, and many things don’t need saying. So he sings another tune here and there. And again, I was trying to stretch my use of the first person by having him step back or step aside in times of narrative stress.

CP: At first, Berlin seems like a way for Jed to escape his American history and redefine himself, but the way that same past bubbles up in his Berlin life actually seems only to augment Chicago’s influence.

DP: I must say I was driven a great deal by my own memory of how Berlin felt: empty and private, populated by phantoms. It was still a city where lots of people had secrets of different kinds. It felt like a big city, but it wasn’t. For Jed, the gay life is a white thing, something he can pursue in a protected environment, in a distant, unreal place where being gay is not an issue. Gay tourism was a big part of the city’s avant-garde reputation in the 1980s. Meanwhile, Jed’s black world is very much a heterosexual world, and it is back in Chicago, that city of responsibilities and confrontations yet to come. What the two places have in common for Jed is his acceptance that life among other men is hierarchical. But better is the city where nothing else can happen, politically or socially, where the individual can be into himself or herself without guilt, where sexual identity can be fluid, where losing the male contest has an erotic reward. Meanwhile, expatriates sometimes make the mistake of thinking time has stood still because they are still going to the same café twenty-five years later. You thought were looking for yourself; that was just an excuse to waste your life hanging out, waiting for life to happen. In the end, Jed is sitting around because he has a feeling for Berlin itself. It runs underneath everything, even the Chicago sections of the book. Jed’s memories of riots also suggest what he is afraid of: a certain frankness about race—what it meant or means—to be black in America, versus being a black American in inhibited, occupied Berlin. The latter, he can handle.

CP: That makes me think about the illusion of cohesion. While reading your book, I was consistently struck by the quick juxtaposition of Berlin and Chicago narratives. Can you talk about the seams between the scenes?

DP: I hope that is not just an illusion. The nonlinear must be coherent according to whatever its rules are, as a way to tell a story. Jed proceeds chronologically, at first. It is only at the end that he loses his battle against feeling and the walls of memory, as the borders in his head around certain things begin to crumble. I used to tell my students that because they had watched as much film as they had read books, the jump cut felt natural for them. For me, it remains a conscious modernist technique—if I can get away with saying that. To cut things up makes it easier to leave things out. Jed omits nearly his entire story in order to concentrate on that season of love that apparently ended for him when the Wall went down. But I’d hoped the seams weren’t so visible.

CP: That feels connected to the interesting societal ambiguities that Jed flows through—ambiguities that seem natural to lived experience but might challenge the conventions that want identities to stay fixed.

DP: Jed is a changing self, or a changed self, a self that has lived through what he is telling us. He may be telling a very narrow story, but presumably he is doing so because it was the time when his life had the widest possibilities and when life itself held the deepest meanings. He remembers that lots of things happened to him in this brief season or could have, and he is full of feeling for the people he knew or merely had been around, sharing a scene in Berlin, supporting one another just by being there—another American, a black American, a black queer American, making up for himself or herself what that meant. And maybe this goes back to the question about cohesion, to how the persuasiveness of a single, constant, coherent self is related to the first-person voice. This is his riff, his dance of song. Jed can go backward and forward and around and around in his head, but it is his voice—one voice. And my hope is that his tone is right, that it appeals to the reader, and makes the reader want to sign up for the ride.