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A Conversation With: James E. Cherry

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A Conversation With: James E. Cherry

Josh Garcia

 

For years I’ve been hearing the name James Cherry. I first heard of him when I was a student at Union University (also his alma mater) and then continued to hear about this guy as a Jacksonian interested in writing. It’s clear that locals are proud to have this Jackson native around. He’s the president of the Griot Collective of West Tennessee, a monthly poetry workshop, and is, upon meeting him, very obviously cool. He has an easy going temperament and a steady, unquestionable passion for the written word. He is the author of poetry and fiction and incorporates poetry, both thematically and elementally, into the pages of his new novel, Edge of the Wind. His novel spans a day in the life of its protagonist, Alexander Van Der Pool, a young, aspiring poet who finds himself in the throes of mental illness. Alex has stopped taking his medication and ends up speeding down a path that that provokes questions of art, race, and, ultimately, how well we understand society and ourselves. James and I met at theCO to discuss Edge of the Wind, writing, and the themes he addresses in his work.


I’ve always thought of you as a poet, and I didn’t actually realize you write fiction until we started talking about Edge of the Wind. I’m curious what it’s like to go back and forth between those two genres. 

I see them as opposite sides of the same coin. For me, the best fiction is poetic in nature. Of course you’re working with two different genres, so structure and content will be different, but they kind of coexist with one another. Of course poetry has a more immediate effect where fiction is more kind of like a distance run. You have a sprint as opposed to a 5K run. But they both use the same elements in that you want the language to be fresh and to make an impact upon the reader. 

Poetry has a more immediate effect where fiction is more kind of like a distance run.
— James E Cherry

Do you feel like you have to be in a different headspace when you sit down to write poetry versus fiction?

Well, for me it generally starts with an image, or I can overhear a conversation. Once something catches my eye or my ear, I pretty much know whether it’s going to be a poem or a story or even a novel. I don’t know if you can teach that. I don’t know how that works, but it’s just something innate that lets me know this is going to be a poem or this is going to be a longer piece. 

We are really given insight into your characters via dialogue. It’s distinctly Southern and very casual. They often talk about ordinary things, but at the same time you’re able to weave in details that give insight into their psyches and their hopes and hurts. How do you write dialogue? Where do you find those voices? 

The whole writing process is really a very magical thing. Once you start with a character, you let the character take you where he or she wants to go. . . . I think by first coming up with a physical description of a character. Where are they from? What do they want? That’s the key to fiction. Your characters have to want something. There has to be some opposition in their way to hinder them from getting what they want. I think once you have that basic foundation, then the dialogue will come naturally. . . . A lot of times the words just come through you out onto the page or on the screen. . . . The dialogue has to be reflective; it has to be realistic. But the most important part about dialogue is that it has to reveal something about the character, and it has to move the story along as well. 

That’s the key to fiction. Your characters have to want something.
— James E Cherry

Alex, the protagonist, is desperate to become a poet and to have his poetry heard. He says, “When I write, I’m not so agitated; things are clearer and relate to other things clearer. When I write, I know where I’ve been and why I went there and how I got to this point.” Could you speak to the idea that poetry and art can have that kind of power in our lives and what that power is like, whether we’re reading or writing, consuming or creating?

Like I said, when I was at Union, that’s when poetry got into me. I was in my mid-twenties, and I was kind of doing whatever guys that age do. But I was in a literature class, and then that's when kind of like an epiphany, more or less, took place. What I’ve found over the years is that poetry is for me like air and water and food and shelter. I mean, when you think about it, there's a measurement in poetry called an “iamb”—a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable. That’s the same rhythm as the human heartbeat. That’s how necessary poetry is to me. I couldn’t imagine my life without poetry. That’s why even in my fiction, poetry seeps through with the way I create narrative and description and that type of thing. So poetry is all around us, is with us all the time. It would be hard to imagine life without either reading poetry or writing it. 

How does geographic place affect your writing and work?

Like I said, I was born and raised in the South. This is the only place I’ve lived in the South. I think storytelling in the South—there’s always been a premium on storytelling. There's something about just living here. You know the whole idea about sitting on the back porch and listening to these stories through generations and generations. But I also feel that race is inseparable from the South as well, and so I write out of my culture. But the themes I express are universal in nature. This is what writers have done before. Look at a guy like Shakespeare, who was British. The themes that he addressed somebody in China could understand because those themes that are universal in nature, that’s what connects us as human beings. So just because someone writes about their culture, that doesn't mean they’re limited or myopic in scope. It actually means they have the ability to connect with other human beings no matter what race or religion they may be. Being in the South, the premium on storytelling and race, for me, they’re connected. You look at Faulkner or Eudora Welty, they wrote about race all the time. Faulkner said that the past is always with us. It’s not even past. 

Just because someone writes about their culture, that doesn’t mean they’re limited or myopic in scope. It actually means they have the ability to connect with other human beings no matter what race or religion they may be.
— James E Cherry

Your novel does tackle race on a number of levels, and on one level your characters have questions about cultural ownership of art. One character questions whether or not a white professor can effectively teach Langston Hughes or if a white musician can play the blues. What are your thoughts on art that stems from black experience, and do you believe we can all share in those expressions? And if so, to what extent do those pieces of work belong to us collectively?

Being black really has less to do with color than it does a consciousness and culture. So if you’re a human being and can identify with anyone that wants to be free, anybody that wants to be respected, anybody that wants to be loved, then you’ll be able to connect with the music. Color is really the least part of being African American. It’s about consciousness, it’s about the culture, and then color is the last thing. Like I said earlier, there’s this humanity in all of us that connects us. So when a black musician talked about his woman who left him or he’s lonely, that’s a very human condition. No matter what race or creed or whatever, you can understand that. You can connect to that. This is one of the things that makes blues music so powerful. Like I said earlier, it’s created by black people, but it belongs to everybody because everybody knows what it’s like to be broken hearted. This is maybe what's so powerful about the music, that it’s able to connect on so many levels. 

You made the point about a white person teaching black literature—that’s not a problem. The problem is the way they handle the material. What I find in literature a lot, especially by some white writers when they're dealing with black life and black characters, a lot of times it's very stereotypical. Even Faulkner, you read some of these people and generally black people are being portrayed as lazy, shiftless. There’s not very much intellectual development in those characters. So one of the things I’m conscious of as a black writer is that. . . .  For me, I’m in the tradition of black writers such as Richard Wright and Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston. Their responsibility was to uplift a culture that at a time was being denigrated. So I’m standing on these people's shoulders, and so now I feel that it’s incumbent on me not to duplicate what they did but to elevate the narrative. 

A character in Edge of the Wind says of writing, “At some point, the work will benefit and will have more impact if you learn how to step back and put some space between yourself and what you’re writing about. In other words, don’t lose the fire that you have, but don’t get burned by it either.” Tell me about your experience as an African American Southern writer. You’re writing within a culture that has so much baggage tied to race. What is it like to write within that context about issues of race?

I think writing was really a lifeline for me because it allowed me to channel a lot of that anger. It allowed me to give voice to the frustration. But what I had to learn, what all artists have to learn, is that channeling and giving voice, that’s just a rant. We’re talking poetry and fiction, so that’s art. You have to learn your craft. For me the challenge was balancing content with craft to produce art. You don’t want your art to be propaganda . . . but by the same token you don’t want everything to be so technically perfect so that it’s cold and indifferent. This is a big quandary for a lot of black writers because they want to get the message out, right, but you still have to pay attention to form and structure. You gotta to be able to craft what you’re saying to make it art and make it acceptable. 

This is a big quandary for a lot of black writers because they want to get the message out, right, but you still have to pay attention to form and structure. You gotta to be able to craft what you’re saying to make it art and make it acceptable.
— James E Cherry

In addition to race in art and writing, Edge of the Wind addresses the effects of racism on the African American community and their mental health, and the novel takes the reader to the extreme that those effects can have in a person’s life. One character addresses this, saying, “What I am saying is that the past has to be dealt with openly and honestly before African Americans can begin to heal themselves.” What do you think that healing looks like? And how, if possible, can people outside of the African American community participate in that healing? 

When I think about racism, it’s more institutionalized. For example, the criminal justice system, right. One of the things I’m seeing now is that people with heroin habits, which is making a big comeback now, they’re actually trying to find ways to get these people to rehab—which they should have rehab. Most of these kids are white. On the other hand, you have the crack problem, which is a cheap form of cocaine. You can get some mandatory sentencing right off the bat. So that’s a disparity that’s built into the system. . . . You and I can get along on a one-on-one basis and that’s fine, but it’s the institutions that actually determine the quality and the course of people’s lives. 

So how is that to be addressed? That’s a good question. It’s so deep now, and it’s so big now. It’s really going to take a radical change. For example, even the banking and financial system, they used to redline neighborhoods to keep African Americans out, so it’s no accident that the majority of people in East Jackson, they’re black. The South Side of Chicago, it’s black. You looks at the Cubs game—I didn't see any black people in the stands. I was like, “Wait a minute. This is Chicago.” But that’s the North Side of Chicago. . . . 

So we have institutional racism, and then we have the one-on-one. The one-on-one, look, that’s minor stuff. It’s the institutional stuff that’s the major problem. . . . These voter ID laws, that’s the same as in the '30s and the '40s. . . . When blacks tried to register to vote back then, they used to make them take a literacy test and ask them questions about the constitution. . . . That’s one way of disenfranchising people, and now in 2016 with these voter ID laws, that’s discouraging people as well. People are pushing back, but yet it’s the same principal. That’s what I mean by institutional racism. 

But this is what you need to consider as well, not only are black lives affected by this, but what is it doing to white people? You’re a human being, and yet it diminishes your humanity to treat somebody like that. We know slavery was bad, but sometimes I wonder about the people who owned these human beings. You know, how did they sleep? How did they rationalize doing what they were doing? So really, nobody wins. 

The thing is today, you don’t have to move to New York to write like it was fifty or sixty years ago. You can write where you are. . . . For me, it depends on the writers themselves and how bad they really want to do what they want to do.
— James E Cherry

What do you think Jackson area has to offer other writers and artists and creative people?

I think this is a good community to write in. The universities here and the colleges, they do an excellent job of bringing in writers of national and international acclaim to our city, so that’s a plus. The public library is also instrumental in promoting literature. The thing is today, you don’t have to move to New York to write like it was fifty or sixty years ago. You can write where you are. Strategically, we’re in between Memphis and Nashville. For me, it depends on the writers themselves and how bad they really want to do what they want to do. 


James E. Cherry will be signing his new novel, Edge of the Wind, at ComeUnity Cafe on Saturday, December 17, at 1 p.m. The Clyde Gilmore Jazz combo will play. To find out more about James or to inquire about the Griot Collective, visit his website.


Josh Garcia is a commercial photographer who landed in Jackson in 2008. With a B.A. in English from Union University in his back pocket, he’s abandoned other adjectives for “home” when describing this city. He enjoys reading, writing, photography, and cultivating community around the dinner table. #INFJ

Photography by Josh Garcia.