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Q&A with Joyce Carol Oates

Sharing about race, otherness and art in her new novel

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Q&A with Joyce Carol Oates


Prolific doesn’t even begin to describe Joyce Carol Oates. Between her novels, books published under pseudonyms, short story collections, fiction for children and young adults, books of poetry, essays, and memoirs, she has produced about 150 different titles. Its rare to see an author succeed across so many genres, but succeed she does. Throughout her career, which spans more than 50 years, Oates has won scores of awards, including the National Book Award, the Pushcart Prize, the Prix Femina, and the Pulitzer Prize. She is one of the most celebrated names in contemporary writing, and she’s coming to Butler University as part of the Visiting Writers Series on September 28.

On top of her award-winning writing, she is also a revered professor emerita at Princeton. Indianapolis’ own Geoffrey Sharpless, PhD, who teaches at Park Tudor and runs the Butler University Creative Writing Camp, was one of her students in 1978-1979. He said, “Even then she was a superstar in the writing world, and the most famous author I had ever been alone in a room with […] She was always kind, and encouraging, even — I am sorry to say — with work that rarely deserved such a careful reading as she would give it.”

Oates’ writing is often dark, always multifaceted, and sometimes controversial. She’s unafraid to dive into themes of violence and race, which were central to her National Book Award-winning them in 1969 and her 2015 title The Sacrifice, written as a companion novel. As I worked up my questions for Oates, I wanted to focus on her treatment of race, especially in The Sacrifice, which emerged during a time of high racial tension in the U.S. 

NUVO: In The Sacrifice, you write a fictionalized account of the highly divisive late-1980s Tawana Brawley rape case. Why did you choose it?

Oates: I'd originally felt sympathy for the "sacrificial" figure at the center — the rookie policeman who'd been vilified, after his death, as a rapist, with no way to defend himself. I'd thought — how horrible for this young man's family! While working on the novel, over a period of time, I became equally sympathetic with his "accusers" — seeing how, from their perspective, they too were victims/sacrifices in a racist society. I had wanted to write a companion piece to my novel of 1969, them, which is told from the perspective of a white family in Detroit at the time of the so-called Detroit riot.

NUVO: The Sacrifice also deals with issues around police brutality, which is unfortunately almost always tied to race. Were you seeking to comment on this issue as it has appeared in recent events, or were you exposing an earlier example of brutality that may have faded from public memory? Or both?

Oates: My novel was written before recent incidents have come to light, as a consequence of research into the Detroit and Newark riots of the late 1960s. (I had lived in Detroit during the "riot" of July 1967.)

NUVO: You've written about lines of class, race and gender many times, including in The Sacrifice. What draws you to these topics of tension?

Oates: Race relations in the U.S. seem, to me, central to our history.

NUVO: As a white female, how do you prepare to write from the perspective of black characters?

Oates: Writing from the perspective of a "writer" — one is sympathetic with others who may be older, younger, of different races and religions. Some first-hand experience, mingling with people, much reading and imagination.

NUVO: Roxane Gay reviewed The Sacrifice for the New York Times in February 2015, and said, “Difference is treated as caricature, as the speculations of someone who understands the black or working-class experience only through what might be gleaned from an encyclopedia…” Alan Cheuse of NPR disagreed, saying “Put into the context of our national trauma on police and unarmed victims — this raw and earnest work of fiction offers a mix of fiery drama and the cold bone truths of race as we all live it today.” You’ve written about marginalized characters for decades, and have received accolades for that writing, including some of your writing about race. How would you respond to these two very different takes on your recent work?

Oates: It was unfortunate that the black writer Roxane Gay took so territorial an attitude toward the novel. She seems to have pretended that I had never written about race before, in any other works of fiction, and that the novel did not in fact come endorsed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a brilliant black spokesman and cultural critic who read the novel before publication. She seems to have pretended that I am not from a working-class family myself, and that I have not written at length about such distinguished black writers as James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and John Edgar Wideman; that I would not be familiar with the writing of, for instance, my colleague and friend Toni Morrison.

It was a dishonest review, and strangely hostile when you consider that the novel deals with the tragic consequences of white racism in America, and the victimization of a young black girl. Most unprofessionally, in her haste to condemn the novel by a white woman Gay did not take time to read the grand jury report into the Tawana Brawley case, which was one of my primary sources, and so she did not realize that the plot of the novel differs essentially from the historical case: the young girl of The Sacrifice bears only a superficial relationship to Tawana Brawley. She was a true victim — a “sacrifice.”

NUVO: In all of your writing, you don't shy away from writing about the dark side of human nature. Do you see your writing as art that exposes wrong, narrates unfortunate truths, incites people to action against injustice, or all of the above?

Oates: Writing is primarily about evoking sympathy for persons different from ourselves. It is not invariably tragic — it may be comic, entertaining. I doubt that any works of fiction today "incite" people to political actions, as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin once did.

NUVO: Does art have an inherent social responsibility? If so, do you think your writing lives up to it?

Oates: No, art is not obliged to be anything, even "artistic." You have only to explore contemporary art exhibits in museums to appreciate this.

NUVO: What social issues do you see as important today? You've been tweeting recently about evolution. Is that a topic you could see yourself writing about?

Oates: The revolution of consciousness through social media has been an unanticipated consequence — the fact that, today, individuals can post tweets, photos, videos from virtually everywhere — no longer is the media centralized and dominated by powerful interests.

NUVO: What is your next project? Why did you select it?

Oates: My next novel is The Man Without a Shadow—a novel about the loss of memory, narrated from the perspectives of a severe amnesiac and the woman neuroscientist who studies him for decades. It is fascinating material based loosely on several historic cases.

Visiting Writers Series

Where: Clowes Memorial Hall

When: Sept. 28, 7:30 p.m.

This event is part of a food drive to benefit Second Helpings. Donations of dried pasta or rice will be accepted.

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