For writer Ishmael Reed, 'Fightin' ' words come easy

February 20, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

In this corner, weighing 200-plus pounds, from Oakland, Calif., Ishmael ("Writin' Is Fightin' ") REED!!!

And in this corner, the rest of the world.

Guess who wins.

More often than not, it's Ishmael Reed. In all of America, there may not be a more adept polemicist, a more skilled satirist, than this large-framed, acerbic 54-year-old writer -- or one more eager to join in the fray, whatever the subject.

Here is Mr. Reed writing in his new novel, "Japanese by Spring," about a favorite target, black feminists:

"While the underclass women were getting their subsistence budgets cut by white male politicians, journalists, and think-tank black pathology gangsters, she, being a "talented tenth" aristocrat, blamed the problems of her and her 'diva' buddies on white women and black men."

Ouch -- but that's not all. In "Japanese by Spring," Mr. Reed, who is black, also takes on black conservatives, opponents of multiculturalism, white racists, dunderhead academics and practically anybody else who draws his ire. No wonder the guy titled his last collection of essays "Writin' Is Fightin': Thirty-Seven Years of Boxing on Paper."

And yet there's the sense that in "Japanese by Spring," amid all the venom, Ishmael Reed was having a very good time.

"I sure did," says Mr. Reed, who will be reading from "Japanese by Spring" at the Enoch Pratt Free Library today at 2 p.m. "You're able to get a lot of stuff off your chest. These are subjects I've thought about for sometime, and a manner of answering the TV media for their take on any number of things as well."

In "Japanese by Spring," the fictitious Jack London College in Oakland is beset in a faculty war over multiculturalism. Caught in the middle is English professor Benjamin "Chappie" Puttbutt, a one-time black radical who, in order to gain tenure, has turned into an obsequious toady to the conservative cause. When some black students are beaten by neo-Nazi white students, Puttbutt tells an inquiring television reporter that blacks "should stop worrying these poor whites with their excessive demands."

But when the college is bought by a Japanese group, big changes come. Eurocentrics are told their departments are being drastically cut back and combined into one Department of European Studies. Puttbutt benefits from the change, as the man who had been his Japanese-language tutor now is president of the college, and Puttbutt becomes his right-hand man. It gives Puttbutt a chance to reclaim his old radicalism and to even the score with a few adversaries.

"I wanted to have a science-fiction element -- showing the what-if debate between Afrocentrics and Eurocentrics, and what happens to them when another party intervenes," Mr. Reed says in a telephone conversation from his home in Oakland. "The Afrocentrics and the Eurocentrics have to decide what's important in their cultures.

"And the book challenges some of the presumptions that have grownup about multiculturalism. The term has been co-opted by people who have been engaged in turf wars in the academy and has nothing to do with writing."

Ishmael Reed is no recent convert to multiculturalism. As far back as his second novel, "Yellow Back Radio Broke Down" (1968), he was examining Western culture and seeing antecedents and influences from other sources, such as Egypt. His third novel, "Mumbo Jumbo," which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1973, was a surreal tour de force that depicts the pervasive influence of "neo-hoodoo" -- African-related culture -- on the West.

And he was founder in the 1970s of the Before Columbus Foundation, which has served as a meeting place and forum for writers of different backgrounds. "We were writers -- African-American and Irish-American and Native American -- all exchanging resources and books and learning about one another's cultures," he says. "We never thought it would become so much like an academic tavern brawl."

But he does practice what he preaches. In "Japanese by Spring," Mr. Reed discourses frequently on the Japanese and Yoruba languages, and their cultures. He has been studying both languages for three years.

"Yoruba gives you an idea of how the first generation of African-Americans saw the world," he says. "It's twice as difficult as Japanese, because not only do you have to remember the words but you've also got to remember the tones. But learning the language helps you learn the culture, and the Yoruba and Japanese cultures are very rich.

"For instance, Yoruba sounds like a language that is literally sung. And that legacy has been retained in the way that African-American vocalists sing, in the way they stretch their notes."

He says that, after a quarter-century of writing, he hasn't become cynical or burned out, as many satirists do. Nor does he want for material.

"I read five newspapers a day," Mr. Reed says, "and they give me all the ideas I could possibly want. I'm competing with the surrealism of everyday life. It's more interesting than any novel."

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