Knuckles-to-head aptly describes the impact of Adam Smyer’s debut novel Knucklehead (reviewed on The Critter here). It is an unflinching take down of the bullshit that America expects its citizens, particularly black citizens, to swallow. And America’s cultural dominance means what Smyer has to say through the novel’s protagonist Marcus Hayes, is pertinent across much of the globe.
Author Arthur Nersesian describes Smyer as “an incendiary new voice who announces himself with the force of a Category 5 hurricane”, and author Mat Johnson says Knucklehead is “a literary punch in the face”.
The strength of his debut has seen Smyer fêted in California and invited to Open Book Festival in Cape Town, an invitation he’s happily accepted.
Ahead of his appearances at Open Book, where he’ll be discussing authority, mistrust and blackness, trauma in the novel, flawed male characters, and appears in Writersports, he answers some questions via a series of emails about issues and themes that arise in his novel.
Q: Knucklehead paints a bleak picture of American society. Compassion appears to be in short supply and there’s a looming sense of having to continually drive against the traffic to get to the place containing all the aspirations that media and other people have created for you. And this was the ‘90s. Do you think matters have improved since? Or have dissimilarities been entrenched? Or perhaps its swung both ways in the intervening decades. What’s your take on America’s fulfilment of its promise of equality?
A: We used to ponder the same issue in the ‘90s: whether things were better than they had been. What’s the German word for when things have vastly improved and stayed exactly the same, both, at the same time? There are, to be sure, some events—like lynchings—that have occurred in some form pretty consistently for as long as anyone can remember. I write about that. On the other hand, for a few years during the ‘90s, whenever I was alone with an older black person, I would ask them, “Have things gotten better for us in your lifetime?” I always got an unequivocal “Yes”. Always. Young people in particular (including myself, when I was one) are sometimes fond of declaring that nothing has changed. But they weren’t there. So, based on my observations, I think that the ‘90s were better than the decades preceding. For black people.
As far as whether the current decade is better or worse than the ‘90s, I want to build on the lesson my elders taught me in the ‘90s and assume that a decade that included the reelection of President Obama evidences significant improvement. With the caveat that, as America enters its next genocide (Latinos and/or Muslims and/or women of color and/or…), things may well be on their way to becoming legitimately, undeniably worse.
Your use of the word ‘genocide’ is interesting as it is often a contested term, with those opposed to its use in a context such as you place it (a supposedly peaceful democracy but perhaps more a totalitarian capitalism), arguing that it only applies to state-sponsored killing and persecution of people at the scale of the holocaust, the Bosnian war, or the mass slaughter of Tsutsis in Rwanda. Yet, as an writer, and an attorney, I’m sure you do not use the term lightly. Would you mind elaborating why you believe the USA is guilty of genocide since it was first recognised as an international crime in 1946?
In the interest of not getting stuck in a semantic quagmire, consider my use of the term “genocide” withdrawn. For now. Ask me again, five or ten years from now, what this was.
Toni Morrison states “the function, the very serious function of racism is distraction”. So much time is wasted having to prove your worth within a society which sees ‘whiteness’ as the norm. There’s a sense that Marcus is spending huge amounts of energy moving against this current of discrimination, trying to prove himself. Is his story possibly a caution against getting tied up in this distraction, to better use your energy to work on your internal sense of self-worth?
I think his story is a study in that distraction. Not getting caught up in it is easier said than done. For example, one needs to make a living. One needs to be physically safe. For Marcus, that requires combating white supremacy or anti-blackness from time to time. Not a waste, exactly. But, yes, worrying about what strangers think can be a powerful and draining distraction. To the extent that he does do that, his energies could indeed be going elsewhere.
Another cautionary tale that Marcus embodies is the importance of not losing oneself to the relentless never-ending flood of bad news, because it is too much. It was too much in the ‘90s, and it’s gotten even worse now. People are perpetually overwhelmed and paralyzed. This does not strike me as an accident.
On the presumption of Morrison’s statement, if Marcus wasn’t so distracted by racism, would he possibly have been better able to adjust to life after the trauma he experiences, and make better relationship decisions?
Absolutely. I think that trauma is cumulative. Growing up black in a culture of anti-blackness is traumatic. The things that happen in life to everybody then happen on top of that. So, yes.
Could what we presume to be self-destructive behaviour actually be seen as a sane way of reacting to external circumstance?
Well … I don’t know about “sane”, exactly. I would say that Marcus’ reactions and coping mechanisms are human. Hopefully understandable, even, usually.
Yes, ‘sane’ is not the right choice of words, but definitely understandable, which is why we continue to hope for him, even though there is a certain inevitability, like that of the downward trajectory of the addict, slow and sure like a functioning alcoholic. Perhaps Marcus’s addiction is the exhilaration of danger, the ultra male expression of physicality?
I think that the ways in which Marcus cracks under the pressure of coming of age in the pre-millennium tension of 1990s America are largely dictated by demographics and culture and context. There may also be an element of PTSD. But Marcus uses his words more often than not.
True, there is the threat of violence and the realisation of violence is mostly in Marcus’s imagination.
Yet it’s as if Marcus believes it’s almost more important to be successful at being a man than being a properly functioning person. Is this the toxicity that is contained in the term ‘toxic masculinity’?
It’s funny, because although Marcus’ behavior often seems to fit a certain machismo mold, I don’t think his motivations correspond to that mold, that culture. Marcus is an interesting example of toxic masculinity in that he often uses his propensities to physically combat patriarchy. Which doesn’t exactly make him part of the solution, but perhaps it’s something.
Is masculinity toxic, or merely misunderstood? (Bearing in mind the term is not mentioned in your novel, as far as I recall)
No, the term is not mentioned, nor am I intimately familiar with it. That said, yeah, masculinity can be toxic. I say that because it kills a lot of people.
I don’t yet know what your answers to the above are, but my questioning assumes Marcus does display traits of what has been termed ‘toxic masculinity’. But he also gives himself over to the women he has relationships with, and in one relationship, is more victim than aggressor. I don’t have a question here but perhaps you have a comment on it.
It’s a valid observation. I think Marcus is bad at trust. Bad at it both ways. He trusts some too much and others too little. And I think you can mostly see that along gender lines. I mean, usually, the trust he puts in certain women is a good and beneficial thing. Other times, not so much.
Some parts of the book strike me as a strong critique of white feminism. Is that deliberate?
Given that whites are a minority in South Africa, white feminism, although it certainly exists, does not have much traction. Is it strong in the ‘States, or has intersectionality finally begun to make its mark?
I think I could make equally compelling, evidence-based arguments both ways. The same Supreme Court that is being groomed to reverse Roe v. Wade (which secured American women’s reproductive rights in 1973) is also being groomed to reverse Brown v. Board of Education (which, on paper, struck down American apartheid in 1954). But white supremacy may well be the more efficient, effective way for white women to increase their status and power. Maybe they have some decisions to make.
From what I’ve been told, people don’t talk much about racism in America, whereas here it is – for better or worse – part of our daily dialogue. Is this perception accurate? What is the nature and quality of the dialogue on racism in America?
That’s an interesting perception.
Honest talks, in which both sides are listening and desire to learn and grow? Yeah, I guess I would agree that we are not having a lot of those. However, if you were to count conversations about whether racism exists, whether white privilege is real, whether America should apologize for slavery, whether there are legitimate law-enforcement reasons for murdering unarmed black people while consistently taking white mass murderers alive, whether calling the police on black people who aren’t doing anything is a good idea, etc., etc.—that amounts to a lot of bandwidth, from what I have seen.
Honest dialogues can sometimes feel tedious, or artificial. But perhaps progress involves a certain amount of tedium. Sweeping things under the rug has gotten America where it is today.
Is there anywhere (city or state) where you feel more comfortable as a black man, less harassed?
In Oakland, California and Baltimore, Maryland, my existence does not seem to be a surprise or a problem. I’ve been told I would like Chicago. I wish I could include my hometown of New York in this list.
Here’s a potentially difficult conversation: At some point we realise Marcus is an asshole but by this time we know why he is so anti-social and this understanding allows for our sympathy. But how far should our sympathies extend? Could Marcus, despite the rough cards dealt to him (and many people do receive far rougher hands) not have made better decisions? And the difficulty, from a white person’s perspective, is calling out a character such as Marcus for being an asshole without being perceived as racist. Is it possible, and how easy is it to be misperceived?
Given that most people are, at least sometimes, assholes, I think that to describe Marcus that way is reasonable and noncontroversial. While complex characters are not uncommon, what I have not seen a lot of are black characters who are flawed and yet sympathetic.
The lack of flawed black characters in black American writing is a point Paul Beatty raised at Open Book Festival last year in discussion of his novel The Sellout. He said he wanted to challenge the ‘sobriety’ of black writers in America. He mentioned what was almost a tradition of black American writers of creating ‘sober’ characters, as if they need to represent an upstanding image of all black Americans. You, and Paul, seem to have been able to free yourselves from this expectation that your character(s) represent a larger group which, given as this is not expected from white writers, is a racist construction; it is the same racism that sees a Muslim shooter labelled a terrorist and representative of Muslims globally, yet a white man shooting up a school is reported as acting of his own accord in isolation of his race, class, and religion. At the risk of sounding naive or uninformed – for my reading of black American writers has been limited – are there other writers who have helped open up this space for you, or is it still quite new ground?
By no means is it new ground. For me personally, seeing black characters who are allowed to be flawed goes back to Richard Wright’s Native Son. I need to read more Zora Neale Hurston. Walter Mosley has been giving us fully realized black characters for almost 30 years. And, although he wasn’t American, Chinua Achebe was a major influence on me in terms of depth and nuance.
The gun obsession seems satirical. Is it?
It would be difficult to satirize American gun culture.
How has Trump being president affected racial dialogue? Has civil society been provoked?
I think that the current climate is encouraging hateful violent people to be themselves, openly and, I suppose, in the hope that their violence becomes normalized. That seems to be a disturbingly effective strategy. It’s working.
Is civil society mobilising constructively against Trump, or is society merely becoming more polarised?
I think that remains to be seen. I am afraid that my side, such as it is, is more comfortable with claiming moral superiority than it is with winning. I am not hopeful. But I am patient.
Don’t miss Adam Smyer in discussion with other authors on these and other topics at Open Book Festival in Cape Town from 5 to 9 September, where Knucklehead will also be on sale.