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Percival Everett on his novel retelling 'Huckleberry Finn' from Jim's point of view


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: It is one of the cornerstones of American literature, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain.

Now a new novel takes another look and brings a little-heard voice to the forefront.

Jeffrey Brown speaks to author Percival Everett for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown : A trip down the Mississippi River in 19th century America taken by a young white boy, Huck Finn, and an enslaved Black man named Jim running for his life. Huck told the story in Mark Twain's 1884 novel.

But what if Jim had his say?

Percival Everett, Author, "James": It's only fair.

Jeffrey Brown : It's only fair?

Percival Everett: Yes, Jim, this character, who's become iconic in our literary landscape, has never had a chance to speak.

Jeffrey Brown : In Percival Everett's novel, Jim, or James, does in a voice that is knowing, funny, pained, and deeply humane, expanding the world Everett first found in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

Percival Everett: I read an abridged version when I was very young.

Jeffrey Brown : Yes.

Percival Everett: But when I was a teenager and I read it again, it had a lot more resonance, even though it was also problematic because of the depiction of Jim.

Jeffrey Brown : We joined Everett at New York's renowned Strand Bookstore, where he was signing an enormous stack of his widely acclaimed new book.

I have seen this novel described in different ways, a retelling, a reworking, a response to "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." What do you call it?

Percival Everett: Well, I understand all those designations, but, to me it's — and maybe I flatter myself in saying it — I consider myself in conversation with Twain.

Jeffrey Brown : Conversation?

Percival Everett: Yes. Yes.

I'm perhaps writing the novel that he was not equipped to write, and nor would he even imagine it, because his character is Huck Finn. It's Huck's novel. But he could not occupy the psychic and cultural space that was occupied by Jim.

Jeffrey Brown : Author of more than 30 books, Everett is a famously eclectic and inventive writer, taking on a wide range of genres and subjects, including sometimes race, as in his 2011 novel "Erasure."

Jeffrey Wright, Actor: Why are these books here?

ACTOR: I'm not sure. I would imagine that this author, Ellison, is Black.

Jeffrey Brown : It was the source for the recent film "American Fiction" starring Jeffrey Wright that skewered the mostly white publishing industry for pushing Black authors to write just one stereotypical Black story.

Was that character in "Erasure" at least partly you?

Percival Everett: Well, I have to admit that he's alarmingly similar to me.


Jeffrey Brown : Alarmingly similar?

Percival Everett: I wrote a novel about the Greek God Dionysus called "Frenzy," and it was turned down by a couple of houses. An editor came to me and said: "Well, we turned your novel down."

I said: "Yes, that's cool. I don't mind."

And then this editor said: "Can you tell me, what does Dionysus have to do with Black people?"

Jeffrey Brown : The assumption being that you have to be writing about Black people?

Percival Everett: Well, yes.

And I said: "Would you have asked that of John Updike if he had written this novel?"

But that's the impediment to making art that so many writers of color run into, the expectations of what you can make, and also this notion of authenticity, missing the fact that Black people are as diverse as white Americans.

What I love about this one is, he put Mark Twain in parentheses.

Jeffrey Brown : Yes.


Jeffrey Brown : So Clemens first.

Percival Everett: Clemens first, which I always wondered on.

Jeffrey Brown : Of Twain's novel, Ernest Hemingway said, "All modern American literature comes from one book called Huckleberry Finn."

Everett acknowledges its importance.

Percival Everett: Instead of being a book about slavery, the way "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is a book about slavery, this is a book about an American youth, about America itself being an adolescent, wandering through its own landscape, trying to come to terms with the contradictions of slavery.

That's a pretty remarkable novel. And it's pretty remarkable for its time, when you — when you when you view it in that way. In that way, Hemingway is right.

Jeffrey Brown : In Twain's book, Jim speaks what the author called the Missouri Negro dialect.

In Everett's book, James learns to read, but only in secret. He has imaginary debates over the meaning of equality with the French philosopher Voltaire. And the slave dialect he and all Blacks use is a kind of second language, a correct-incorrect grammar, in James' bitterly humorous phrase, taught to Black children to use in order to hide their real knowledge, their true selves, a survival mechanism in a brutal world of white dominance and violence.

Percival Everett: Any oppressed, enslaved or imprisoned people will find a way to communicate with each other in front of their oppressors where their oppressors have no entry into their language.

That's what we do as humans. That's our — often, it's — it takes the form of humor. Fulfilling expectations is what will allow them to survive in this world. And so the way they speak satisfies the expectations of their oppressors.

Jeffrey Brown : "With a pencil gained at horrific cost to a fellow slave," James tells us, "I wrote myself into being."

Percival Everett: It's the avenue to freedom. It's the avenue to self-actualization. What you can say to yourself about yourself will define you.

Jeffrey Brown : There are passages here that are hysterically funny, laugh-out-loud funny. And then, within another short passage, the horror of slavery comes out.

Percival Everett: My humor, ironically, as a child with shape much by Twain.

Jeffrey Brown : Really?

Percival Everett: Oh, yes. I can cite the sources of my sense of humor, my father, Mark Twain, Groucho Marx and Bullwinkle, my sources.


Jeffrey Brown : Because you read Twain in childhood? And…

Percival Everett: Yes, "Life on the Mississippi" and "Roughing It," I thought were hilarious, and hilarious because the humor resides in his observations, not in jokes.

Jeffrey Brown : But tell me more about this mix of humor and horror.

Percival Everett: If you get someone laughing, then you have removed some defenses. You have removed some walls. And then you can show them the bad things.

To have someone ask themselves why they're laughing, then you have done something even better. I don't go to work with a message or a mission, but I do hope to generate thought.

Jeffrey Brown : Is that how you feel as a writer?

Percival Everett: Yes. I don't have any stake in what people think, but I certainly want to live in a world where people think.

Jeffrey Brown : Given where we started, the conversation that you wanted to have with Mark Twain, what is it that you hope readers will take from James?

Percival Everett: That that landscape was not wandered alone by Huck, that there was another agent there, someone with agency, experiencing this role in a very different way.

That wide-eyed, innocent American wandering through that landscape is certainly attractive and youthful and promising, but he's wandering through there with a victim who has built it for him.

Jeffrey Brown : The book is "James."

Percival Everett, thank you very much.

Percival Everett: My pleasure. Thank you.

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