BEHIND THE MASK: A CONVERSATION WITH SIMEON MARSALIS

Published  January 2018

The Marsalis family has not traditionally been known for its literary achievements, but that’s about to change. Simeon Marsalis, 27-year-old son of Wynton—as well as a former Division I point guard—published his first novel last October through Catapult. As Lie is to Grin is both a convincing character study of a college student and a poignant exploration of race, offering fresh takes on time-trodden topics, and doing it all in just 140 pages. The novel is narrated by David, a Black student at the overwhelmingly white University of Vermont (Marsalis’ alma mater), who discovers the troubling tradition of the Kake Walk, an annual UVM winter carnival that ran until 1969, in which fraternity members paraded in blackface. In a second, interweaving narrative, David explores his own past, focusing on a high school relationship he had with a white Manhattanite named Melody, whose own mixed-race grandfather went to UVM, passed as white, and participated in Kake Walk. When David first meets Melody in Sag Harbor, where he lives with his mother, he lies that he is from Harlem. Later in their relationship, to ward off questions about what he does during the week, he tells her his mother is an addict, a lie that gets Melody’s father, Rick, involved and tangles David in his own deceitful web. In less graceful hands, a story so symmetrical could come off contrived, but Marsalis merges his moving parts masterfully into a resonant piece of fiction. In late November, he graciously took over an hour to talk with me about his book, Paul Laurence Dunbar, cultural appropriation, and mental health. (Special thanks to novelist and Tulane professor Zach Lazar for helping set up the interview.)


Let’s talk about your book’s title first. It’s taken from the poem “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, right?
Paul Laurence Dunbar, yeah. “We wear the mask that grins and lies / [It] hides our cheeks and shades our eyes / This debt we pay to human guile / With torn and bleeding hearts we smile.” Indeed.

Dunbar seems to be making a pretty specific point about hiding pain behind a smile, essentially. Can you talk about how you see this relationship between lying and grinning?
Definitely. I’d say the first thing about that, though, is that a big part of the book becomes about how, historically, we rely on certain characters to form identities. And Paul Laurence Dunbar is very important in terms of Black identity, not only because he’s the first acknowledged poet, but he was also, by today’s standards, a really bad alcoholic, and he beat his wife, and all these things… Yeah, it was quite upsetting being a Black poet in the late 1800s… So one of the main reasons for the title is because [David] has this trip about Jean Toomer and Paul Laurence Dunbar, and really what it’s suggesting is that if it weren’t for these past historical characters, there would be no way for David to identify himself. Directly, it’s that Dunbar’s name replaces the M School, which outside of Jean Toomer is a really famous school for the Harlem Renaissance. Jessie Fauset taught there, and she went on to teach James Baldwin at DeWitt Clinton [High School, in the Bronx]. So the school itself being renamed Dunbar is as much a part of the title… Because it suggests that in a certain way, once Dunbar is calcified as this figure of Black identity, it allows for David to perceive himself in this way. But in the book, I think how the poem directly applies is that first, there’s the connection with the masking of the festival and the masking of Paul Laurence Dunbar, so the Kake Walk becomes a way of masking. But even more than that, what people did in the Kake Walk is they used blackface as a way to have these searing critiques of the American government at the time. So if you go back through and look at some of the skits they had, they were really anti-government. The belief was that somehow, if you put on a black mask, it allows you to tell that story easier. And all of this I’m saying, and I’m circling around the direct question you asked, which is how does grinning and lying play its way in this book. David grins at very specific times in the book, and he’s not just a grinner; he’s not always smiling. At least that’s not how I see him. But there are these specific moments when he does grin, and it gives you a hint into his mental state. For instance, when he’s in Harlem, and he’s walking by the County Cullen library, the first image that he sees is a mansion with a circular balcony. And actually, A’Lelia Walker, who’s Madam CJ Walker’s daughter, had this parlor that they called the dark room during the Harlem Renaissance. And Zora Neale Hurston famously joked that this is where the “niggerati” would meet, at A’Lelia Walker’s tower. And this tower has become the real County Cullen Library. So in the moment, David is overwhelmed by this vision of something from the past that doesn’t actually exist in the present moment, and then he starts to feel unclean. I think what’s suggested is that in order to be a person of color, the grin is the baseline—the bearing it… So it’s always bringing you back to the biggest lie and the biggest grin in the book: blackface performance. When you’re in blackface, you’re always grinning, and the idea is that when you are on the plantation—this is the basic minstrel show premise—Black people do not have issues. Everything is happy because you don’t have responsibilities. It’s only when you become white and you have responsibilities that the world takes on a real quality, and you’re no longer smiling all the time. So in terms of that actual form of expression, this is the lie and the grin. The mask becomes both.

The lie that David tells Melody, which is the central lie of the book, is a form of masking. What is his motivation to tell that lie initially, and then to keep telling it?
This lie that he initially tells Melody is because he hasn’t fully assimilated his own life experience. He doesn’t know what the narrative of his life is. He doesn’t really know who his mother is, and how she has come to the point where she is. So he decides to tell the easiest lie. And it’s kind of ridiculous that this is an easy lie. You have to think about the geography of the actual book and the things that made it difficult to place Melody and David in the same space. The first thing is he’s traveling two-and-a-half hours every week, and he has to come up with a lie that’s good enough for her not to question where he is when he’s not around her. So in this moment, it becomes very immediate what he has to do, which is to make his life inaccessible to her in this way, in order to add intrigue. This is the way that he can actually get into her life and her understanding. And on a second level, what ends up happening and what is developed from the lie, which he does kind of preternaturally, out of instinct, is that Rick [Melody’s father] becomes the ultimate white savior for David. David fulfills all of Rick’s desires about his own race that he has but never felt comfortable sharing… The echoes of what makes this important to the book are the two times the N-word is used. The first time, David is yelling at Melody and telling her to call him the N-word. And then, ominously, he goes back to school where hip-hop is playing in the background and the white kids are moving around their favorite lyrics in concentric shapes. So he’s seeing the effect of this word physically—inside of the physical space—versus just verbally.

There’s a very loud conversation in the subtext about white people trying to pass, whether it’s through appropriating Black music and culture, virtue signaling (in Rick’s case) or literal blackface. Do you see these as different sides of the same coin?
This is the question that David is asking through Jean Toomer. It’s the question David is asking when he’s doing research on the Kake Walk, and it’s the key to understanding why he stops writing his novel. In 1969, in the same year that the Kake Walk is taken away, the school decides to replace it with an African American Literature course. So for David, the question becomes: Is there a way, as Americans, with our diluted pallet based on American entertainment, for people who consider themselves to be white to be entertained with things that they consider to be Black outside of a racist understanding of what that thing is? Is this book you’re reading a Black book, or is it just a book? And if you think of it like a Black book, what does that mean? What does it mean to want to consume something that’s Black? There’s a really good book by Vincent Woodard called The Delectable Negro, and it’s about how racism is, in a way, a weird kind of cannibalistic fear—a sexual, cannibalistic fear. So David’s criticism of Blackness is that there is no such thing as whiteness. Whiteness only exists in opposition to Blackness. There’s no such thing as a white person. In order to form an identity as a white person, you have to form a Black identity. You have to think in these two binaries, but neither of these binaries is true. So the question is: As someone who identifies as a white person, is it possible to be entertained by things that you are identifying as Black, if you have not broken down this binary to begin with? Is it possible, as a white man, to enjoy Black art? In affirming whiteness as a thing, you automatically have to see Blackness as an other, and once you see something as an other, can you be entertained by it without reducing it?

I read your review of the Montreal Jazz Festival [on Catapult.co], where you mention a conversation you were having with your friend, and you basically say that engaging with music whose roots you don’t fully understand is an act of cultural violence.
An act of cultural violence. Indeed.

That’s a hot take.
That was certainly a hot take, but it’s coupled with a later hot take, which I think reaffirms this thing that I was saying in the beginning. The later hot take is that the descendants of colonial powers listen to music that they perceive to have been created by the oppressed to reaffirm illusions of freedom. So not only is it culturally violent, but there’s a reason that it’s culturally violent, and it’s actually functional, this cultural violence. This expression couldn’t exist if it weren’t for the cultural violence, because part of your enjoyment of it is that you are being culturally violent, or that you are not engaging with something—it is entertaining you. You’re not supposed to be taking it seriously. People sometimes talk to me about “cool.” They say, “This is cool” or “That’s cool.” Or they’ll say, “You’re so cool!” Like, “How’d you get so cool?” And I stop them and I go, “Wait. Hold on. Do you realize the word that you’re using?” When we think about “cool,” we think about Miles Davis; we think about these early jazz musicians… Dizzy Gillespie headlined the Kake Walk in 1954. Count Basie headlined the Kake Walk. All these famous jazz musicians headlined the Kake Walk. And the idea is that this is the space they were given to perform. You couldn’t just go to a hall [at UVM] at any time in the year. When you had a Kake Walk, then you could go to Vermont, and you would be inside of a context. And inside of that context, people can view your artwork and they can reduce it. It becomes a larger part of the expression. The idea of “cool” itself is these men who were feeling the full effects of this cultural violence yet still performing, because it was the only thing that you could do to survive. “Coolness” is formed in this cultural violence. So what I was trying to say in that essay wasn’t a race statement. If you were born in the United States, or in any colonial power, you are the descendant of a colonial power. To reaffirm illusions of freedom comes as an integral part of me understanding myself, in order for you to be entertaining.

What do you mean by reaffirming illusions of freedom?
Listening to music that you think is created by people who are oppressed makes you feel free, without any regard for their oppression. The point is that what we are actually entertained by, we are trying to abstract from ourselves.

That’s interesting. I often listen to music whose roots I don’t fully understand, even when I try to, and I think doing so can be a gateway for a lot of people into trying to investigate and more fully understand those roots. So I’m not sure it’s always a bad thing.
I’m not saying it’s bad. I’m making a commentary. I’m reviewing what’s going on. The issue with any of this, though, is that in order for the descendants of colonial powers to really give a shit, we would have to do violence to our own selves. Meaning that whatever money you’re paying to go to that concert, you should be funneling somewhere else. And the bare truth of it is maybe one or two of us will get to the point where that’s what we feel like needs to happen, but most of us don’t. That’s not why we go to entertainment. And that’s the bigger thing: What does it mean that we live in a country where entertainment itself is so racialized? Europeans did not value American art forms because they found that they were just a repetition of European art forms. It’s only when you have the introduction of Native American and African American themes that Europeans judge American art as distinctly American. And in a lot of ways, we have not completed our project. We started that project of trying to figure out what it means to have these identities and these characters in our stories. But this is the hesitation, the fear, the place that we’re writing from: Do we really want to assimilate these identities? Do we really want these identities to impinge upon what we are defining as Americanness, or do we want to acknowledge that they are here, and in a space that’s separate?

“In order to form an identity as a white person, you have to form a Black identity. You have to think in these two binaries, but neither of these binaries is true. So the question is: As someone who identifies as a white person, is it possible to be entertained by things that you are identifying as Black, if you have not broken down this binary to begin with?”

I think a lot of people are afraid of the “white American identity” being replaced.
Right, and that’s a sexual fear. The idea that white identity is going to be replaced is a sexual fear. That your descendants will not look like you. But if what I was saying is true, and there’s no such thing as white identity, how are you possibly afraid that your descendants will not be like you? That is the racial, sexual fear: “We will be procreated out of existence.” The fear is that whiteness, as the American ethnostate, will be replaced by something of a darker hue. That you can mix with other people, and then because you’ve become darker, you’ve become a different thing. It’s an absurdist fear, but it’s very real. People have this fear.

And that theory about sexual fear is from The Delectable Negro by Vincent Woodard?
Yeah, that theory is more about the cannibalistic aspect of it, and about how the fear is actually desire. And this is another thing that [my] book really gets into: this connection between desire and fear, whether it be Melody’s for David or David’s for Melody. He becomes this caricature of Blackness and in a way, that’s sexy to her. This is an old theme. One of the things I’m riffing off of is in Invisible Man, there’s a scene where a white woman wants the main character to rape her. And he writes “Santa Claus has fucked you” or “Santa Claus was here.” And there’s a whole riff on Saint Nicholas in this book. [David] is going up and down Saint Nicholas Avenue. Melody is with him on Saint Nicholas Avenue. And this is what I’m saying about the music. There’s this old adage: “Don’t let your child sleep with a musician.” The idea is that they are onstage, and you do not want them to break the fourth wall. Your fear is that your daughter is gonna go to a rap concert and start smoking blunts with the rappers. It’s a fear of mixing. But when they’re onstage, it’s cool. You can be entertained by this. But for it to become something that’s a part of your identity, that will not do. So that’s what I mean by reaffirming your own feelings of freedom while listening to someone that you feel to be oppressed.

“The descendants of colonial powers listen to music that they perceive to have been created by the oppressed to reaffirm illusions of freedom.”

There’s definitely an issue today with white kids listening to hip-hop and not thinking about where it comes from, or where the art ends and the artist begins.
But this is old, too. For hip-hop to become a popular form of music, the first thing that had to happen was Run-D.M.C. had to make that crossover record. Black musicians had to be able to hold a large part of the marketplace, and that means that white people, who hold the critical power in this country, had to be interested. So this is an old story, this one of white people consuming art forms that they consider to be other, and promoting them as other.

Mental health is a big theme in the book. At Octavia Books, you read two passages in which David sees a person who he thinks is insane and tries not to get sucked into his madness. There’s also the scene with the school psychologist, where David talks about his mom as crazy and then corrects himself, saying she’s just “Black crazy.” You’ve obviously got a lot to say about the current state of mental health; but in the book, it’s only mentioned in passing.
The first point I want to make is that a lot of the time, homeless people suffer from mental health issues as well. Homelessness is a state, but there are also other undiagnosed problems a lot of the time. But even beyond their diagnosis, there’s the idea that they’ve fallen out of the sanity of society. But like, no longer does this shit that we live in really make that much sense. David’s overall point about mental health (and thus mine, I guess) is that in a world with so many competing symbols… in a world that is so obviously mad, the sanity we’re seeking becomes a double mental health bind. You kind of just have to smile and grin and bear it, in a way, like, “Everything is normal.” And this is the reflection of sanity. David takes [antidepressants], and towards the end, he says it’s suppressing his ability to feel guilt. This is his biggest fear—that he is being taken away from his actual emotionality on purpose, because this modern world itself is so mad that that is what is necessary. That is sanity here, to deaden yourself and your feelings. And I think this is why he says his mother is “Black crazy” versus just crazy. The distinction that he’s making is that all Black people are crazy, in a way. Or as Dick Gregory would say, “I’m a Black man. I have a right to be crazy,” the idea not being that Dick Gregory feels like he’s actually crazy, but that his everyday experience is insane, maddening… We need to acknowledge that this world, this America we have built, this place that we live, does damage to minority experiences. Majorities do damage to minorities and are then entertained by them. For David, without the acknowledgment that this is the space that you are asking his mother or himself to operate from, that madness is the basic state of being that he has to have in order to survive, you’re putting a false sanity onto him. What does it look like for a Black man to be sane in this place? The second part to that, though, is that in the Black community—at least this is what the statistics say—there is a reticence to acknowledge mental health issues. And it’s a double bind. Nothing is clear. It’s not clear that his understanding of his mother as “Black crazy” is a positive thing. He doesn’t have any type of hold on reality. So yeah, definitely, she is crazy and she is “Black crazy.” But also, mental issues are a real thing, and he should be on antidepressants. And I guess this brings us back to the beginning.

ANTIGRAVITY-JANUARY-2018-Simeon-Marsalis-Book-CoverDavid seems obsessively conscious about the ways in which he reaffirms stereotypes like “Black crazy” in his writing, as well as in his own life. But he’s also worried about “sounding too white” when he writes. Is it possible to make art that isn’t either exploitative or inauthentic?
There’s a really good book by [Argentine novelist] Ricardo Piglia called The Absent City that I recently read. There’s a riff that he goes on throughout, which is that “I can write because I’m English.” It’s this idea that the English perspective allows you to go into different spaces and analyze people that you don’t know. To go somewhere and believe that you can translate someone’s experience. For Piglia, because of the history of colonialism, it’s a very English idea. So I think for David, the real question is: What is Western art? And we can get really dualistic and say “Functional Art vs. Aesthetic Art.” What does it mean to feel like you have space to create something that is not tied to any other experience? Just the aesthetic of the book itself becomes its own self-contained world. This goes back to what I was saying to you before about race and identity, and the false categories of Black or white. As David writes his story, he finds himself characterizing what Blackness is, and comes to feel that he is appropriating Blackness. The reason he makes that statement is because he doesn’t believe in anything that is authentically Black. But when he goes to write his story, he still refers to particular “Black things,” whether it be “Black crazy” or something else… He’s not asking if you can separate Blackness from whiteness; he’s asking a bigger question about American art: Can you be from this place and not write towards your identity? By trying to do this artwork, is he reaffirming the same stereotypes he’s trying to break down?

For more information on Simeon Marsalis and his new novel, As Lie is to Grin (published by Catapult, illustration detail this page from the cover art by Geoff McFetridge), go to Simeonmarsalis.com and Catapult.co.


photo CHRIS BUCK

Leave a Reply

Featured Articles

New Orleans Alternative Music and Culture
FacebookInstagramTwitter