Don’t Romanticize Science Fiction: An Interview with Samuel Delany
Part One of Adam Fitzgerald's Conversation with the Legendary Writer
Encountering Samuel R. Delany’s work, for me at least, can be described in two phases (more like paroxysms): the first is being so overcome by the true presence of a genius or polymath writer, the endless fertility and ease through which he has made each genre indelibly his own (science fiction, literary criticism, the short personal essay, the queer memoir, the travelogue, journal writing)—in short, Nobel be damned, we are living in the age of Delany’s life-changing, out-of-this-world work and the kind of reader/critic his writing calls into being, well, she may not exist quite yet. The second phase, no less intense than the first, is to refuse trying to categorize his black queer art because what he has done is, in fact, so much more interesting, diffuse and multifaceted than the rhetoric of genius, the confines of genre. Delany isn’t simply, or at all, a master of this or that form so much as he refuses everything straight white literary culture has been trying to niche and market all along.
What exactly is Dhalgren? Devotee Eileen Myles has called the writing “like wriggling through consciousness itself,” where philosophy and sex get all up in each other’s business, where genderqueerness reigns. What is Times Square Red, Times Square Blue? Every writer I’ve ever met in New York City all seems to share my sense that this is secretly (not secretly) the best book (elegy?) ever written for queer city life. What is The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction in the East Village? The closest answers I think of these days for what Delany’s greatness even is, or resists, I find echoed in jayy dodd’s Delanyesque autobiographical poesis: “jayy dodd is a blxck question mark from los angeles” or when, in a recent Los Angeles Review of Books interview, they mention being asked by some dude at a party “Are you a man or a woman?” they responded: “I’m your question.”
In this interview recorded over the phone this past summer as I strolled around the East Village where Delany used to haunt, I got to ask one of my favorite living writers whose very being and work is like a question squared: about his earliest memories of childhood and homosexuality, about Sputnik and desegregation, about the joys and failures of James Baldwin’s fiction, and so much else. This, on the occasion of the first volume of his early journals being published by Wesleyan—In Search of Silence: The Journals of Samuel Delany, Volume I, 1957–1969. I don’t know what to call or how to introduce a writer whose work has made room and space for so much we are only beginning to name in 21st century American Empire, for much we will likely never be able to name.
Adam Fitzgerald: How long has this project In Search of Silence: The Journals of Samuel R. Delany been in the works?
Samuel Delany: The editor, Kenneth James, has been working on it for a good two years. I think he thought he was going to be able to do it in one, but discovered it was a lot more work than he thought. I’m very impressed with the job he’s done, and he’s been diligent about it. It’s one of those things that I don’t think we could have done without modern technology, but he works hard and has done the job remarkably well. The journal notebooks are at the Gotlieb Research Archive in Boston, Massachusetts. They have pretty much all of them, which is to say that they’ve been collecting them since 1968. I’ve always been a little astonished that anybody has been interested in keeping them at all.
AF: How young were you when you discovered pulp erotic writing?
SD: Most people aren’t aware that some of the first things that I ever had published were indeed, erotic writings of my own. They were masturbation fantasies that I wrote down and then hid in the drawer under my underwear from my mother, or my father, but my mother found them. By that point, I was in therapy because of my dyslexia, which was an odd discrepancy between, you know, clearly a very intelligent kid and a total inability to spell the simplest words. And certainly, sometimes I could master them for two days for a spelling test, and then I would be misspelling them again the next day and everybody would wonder how could this happen.
People wondered if my spelling problems were attention-getting behavior, and I started writing down my masturbation fantasies, in my elementary school notebooks. But my mother found this stuff, and she turned it in to the Northside Center, where I was in therapy for this possible attention-getting behavior that manifested itself as dyslexia.
Basically, I had been reading Conan the Conqueror, the Robert E. Howard stuff, and I had been reading Tarzan, and I had been spending a lot of time enjoying them, and I discovered that certain words were forbidden—not universally, but in certain contexts. In certain genres, they were forbidden: “nigger,” “damn,” even things like that. All that I had to do to make these words sexual is to have them uttered in the context where they were not traditional.
I lived in Harlem. I heard “nigger” all the time—from morning until night on the street—because it was far more common back then than it was as a fallout from the hip hop culture a few decades later. My father, when he would get mad at me, a couple of times called me a stubborn block-headed nigger. I think he was the first person to ever call me a nigger, and it had no erotic charge for me whatsoever. It was just a mark of anger. It was anger and excitement.
At one point he read out loud to me Huckleberry Finn, the whole thing from one end to the other, starting off with a chapter a night, and got into it himself and eventually he was reading me two or three chapters a night. He read the whole book, he did not drop a single n-word, and again, there was nothing erotic about it as far as I was concerned. However, when I discovered that there were things like classic illustrated comics of stories like Huckleberry Finn or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which very, very sparingly used the word “nigger,” somehow there, on a comic book page, the whole thing was extremely erotic. On the one hand, they were the same words that you would see in the literary versions, but because they were in comic books, and you didn’t find these words common in comic books, and they only had space for them because they were imported from the literary genres, suddenly they had an erotic charge.
And so, one of the things I’ve always assumed is that the erotic is a matter of what is forbidden. What is forbidden is eroticized, and it has to be forbidden in this particular context, it has to be forbidden in a particular genre to be eroticized. These things became—these comic books I could masturbate over from the “damns” and indeed even the “niggers” because they were forbidden in that context—even though, “nigger” was forbidden in my house, and when my father would import it in there was not terribly pleased and so I knew it was forbidden. So that’s how all of these things worked.
Anyway, I was saying before that some of my first writing was erotic writing. I wrote down these masturbation narratives that were combinations of Conan the Conqueror, and maybe a little bit of Tarzan of the Apes which also used the word—Edgar Rice Burroughs was profligate with that—and so I put those words in because I knew that I wasn’t supposed to write them, and by putting them there they became highly erotic. I was using language that was not approved.
“One of the things I’ve always assumed is that the erotic is a matter of what is forbidden.”
My mother found them, as I said, and gave them to my therapist, who told me “Oh, your mother gave these things to me.” Apparently, he wasn’t supposed to tell me. A man named Dr. Kenneth Clark, who ran the Northside Center where I was, was writing an article first for Harper’s Magazine and indeed some of these things were published in an article he wrote for Harper’s Magazine, and apparently they got a fair amount of attention, and the editor wanted more of these clips by this anonymous, very bright 13 or 14-year old boy, I forgot how he styled me.
Eventually it was published in a book—the article he wrote became a chapter in a book that he wrote called Prejudice and Your Child. And it’s interesting because what he did—first of all he cut out all the specifically sexual elements and only left the sociological elements, and then he decided that I must have a lot of anxiety about being black in a white school, which I don’t think I did. I really, really don’t think I did. I think I was much more anxious about the sex than I was about the social things—I’d been going to white schools since I was a kid, even younger. I never went to a black school, and I’m a fairly light-skinned black, so no big thing was ever made out of it.
So anyway, this stuff got published, and those are my first publications. My mother came and told me how everybody found it so interesting about this stuff that I was doing. I thought I was writing something forbidden. She almost sort of reversed it: “Oh, this is really interesting, everybody likes what my son is writing.” I think this was the beginning of a whole circle that led to the kinds of erotic writing that I have been publishing since.
AF: It sounds like you’re saying that your mother kind of became proud of what you had considered taboo.
SD: Yes, exactly. Of the very fact that an editor somewhere said, “Oh, we’ve got to have more of this, this is so great, this is really great.” I didn’t know what it was great for, but it advanced Dr. Clark’s thesis, which was all about the psychic damage that being black in a white school could cause. Only I don’t think it worked that way; I think what happened is he had to suppress the sex in order to make it fit his thesis. I think if he had quoted a little more honestly, instead of leaving out some of the sexual things out of a sense of embarrassment. There’s no mention of homosexuality, for instance, in any of that, and basically what it was is these were gay sexual fantasies, you know, and they went back to things that I think I could trace almost directly in terms of my father’s attitudes towards heterosexuality versus homosexuality. He was much more likely to pay attention to anything heterosexual that I did than he was about anything homosexual. One of the things that happened very, very quickly is I learned that if I was doing anything as a child that was homosexual, if I could bring it off, if I could masquerade it as heterosexual, it would be okay.
I had a little friend named Raymond Nemi, a white kid who was also a child actor, and he spent a lot of time as the understudy of another child actor named Brandon DeWilde, who is famous for line “Shane, Shane, come back Shane!” Ray was a little blond, blue-eyed. I think he was Polish. Brandon DeWilde’s understudy in Member of the Wedding and Mrs. McThing with Helen Hayes. Ray would come up to my house and we would fool around, and once my father asked “What are you two guys doing up there?” What were we doing? Ray would get on the floor and I would get on top of him and I would hump him. And he was very happy to be humped, he really enjoyed it. That was when we were in elementary school, and not yet in high school.
Ray was a very working class kid in a way that a lot of the other kids were not. He didn’t have to tell his parents that he was coming up to Harlem to play with me. He would call them and say “Hey, I’m going up to see Sam Delany,” and for some reason—I don’t know, maybe because his parents were superintendents in a Park Avenue apartment house and then at night he would turn into a budding child star, he’s one of the few people from Dalton whom I don’t know whatever happened to him: the class motivations kind of pulled us apart. I should look him up. Have I ever looked him up on Facebook? If I haven’t I think I’ll try.
After Ray left, my father said “What are you two guys doing upstairs?” I don’t know where this story came from, but by this time I had it all ready. I said, “Dad, you know those packs of cards that have pictures of women on them—you know, naked women—Ray had a deck of those and we were looking at those,” and he said, “Oh, okay,” and I thought, “It’s alright, I got away with it.”
AF: I mean, it doesn’t surprise me to hear you say that you could imagine what your parents’ attitudes would have been towards homosexuality in elementary school, but I think what I find unique and interesting is that in your early childhood you didn’t have to imagine what your parents thought about sexuality. I know in my own experience, certain subjects were simply never brought up.
SD: Well, homosexuality was never brought up. Actually I think my father probably did. I wouldn’t be surprised about my father because he was from the South; he was from a somewhat more rural setting than my mother was in New York. She was a New York girl, I should say. He had come to the North, and she was a Northern person already, and so they brought two very different attitudes. You know, one could go on forever about the differences in those attitudes. He was hopelessly separate. My mother later told me, “I would have left your father.” There were all sorts of things. He thought, he really thought that sons were important and that daughters were not. When a doctor suggested that my mother have a hysterectomy, he refused to pay for it, and so she had to go to work in order to get it, and he thought it was silly because it was just a woman’s complaint. And he was a very difficult person to live with. He was a very, very good-looking man; all of my teenage cousins were in love with him and he did nothing but complain when he was in his family. He was always on the verge of blowing up at it about something. It was strange as families go; ours was a strange and wonderful relationship. Or it was just strange, I don’t know how wonderful it was. He never slighted me at all. He was extremely eager that I have the best of everything because I was down at this school where there were all these white kids, and he didn’t want anybody saying that I had anything less of the kinds of things that they had. We did not get along. My father and I did not get along well together at all.
AF: Was it traumatic, having to go to therapy, having your writing be seized by your mother, having it published by your therapist?
SD: I did not like my first therapist at all. He was not a good therapist for me. I liked the first therapist I’d had, a woman named Dr. Greene, but she was a diagnostic therapist. Again, this is the way I think today—anybody who got the kind of student that I was would have immediately said, “Well, this kid probably needs a woman therapist.” I loved Dr. Greene, I thought she was great, but she was only diagnostic. She put me with this guy, Dr. Zeer. He smoked cigars. I loathe cigars. I never found them at all attractive. I had an uncle who smoked cigars and they practically turned my stomach, which probably means there was some erotic component to them, as there are for many guys, but be that as it may, I wasn’t responding to it. He was Cuban and he just had the wrong approach to everything. One of the reasons I had been put with him was that he was particularly masculine, and he was. I was supposed to identify with this, and it was supposed to be a model for me, and all it did was turn my stomach. I would lie to him about everything. I would tell him I had girlfriends, but I didn’t, and that’s the 50s in a nutshell. And he never challenged me on any of this. I never talked about my conception of the sex I was having with a whole slew of boys after swimming in the shower rooms at the Dalton School, which included some very interesting young men.
AF: People often assume that gay identity is stable, ahistorical; that somehow, we can reach into certain authors’ lives and go back in time. Was gay identity even able to be consciously or subconsciously operative for you then?
SD: Certainly not for me. By the time I was ten I knew I was homosexual; the word “gay” was not part of the vocabulary then. I knew I was homosexual. I am a pretty staunch Freudian, which is to say, I think we start off polymorphous perverse, and then we are basically scared me out of one or the other. Most people in this society are scared out of homosexuality, which is why they are “normal,” which is why there is the leaning toward the normal. I think my father definitely scared me out of heterosexuality. At the possibility of any heterosexuality, he would fly off the handle, and what have you. By the time I was eight, seven or eight, I remember being pretty polymorphous perverse. I had a girlfriend with whom I used to neck, and I used to carry on with a couple of little girls, and then eventually he found out, and he stormed and had incredible tantrums, and by the end of that I was scared of women.
I had a couple of experiences not with women but with girls—one girl who was a little older, Joanie Williams, who basically helped traumatize me. I went to summer camp with her, a place called Camp Hill and Dale. It was a black middle class camp that was run by a woman who had no business running a camp. So Joanie got me off in the woods and told me to lay down and started pinching my genitals. I said, “Joanie, what are you doing? Stop it, that hurts.” She said, “No, you like that, you like that.” Someone had told her that little boys like their genitals pinched. She was like nine, and I was perhaps seven, and by the end of that I was scared. I did not think sex with girls was fun. I thought that they’re a little crazy, and they wanted to pinch your fucking genitals hard.
AF: The Journals showcases some of your early poems, and one of them is “The Talking Inverted Blues.” It has the line: “Thus we are faced with the reality / of homosexuality”; about Paul Verlaine you write: “I’m not a Sodomist, man. I’m a Sodomite.” A queer vocabulary was quite available to you as a teenager, it seems.
SD: The poem is a collaboration between myself and Marilyn Hacker. Marilyn was a year ahead of me, and she went to NYU a year early so that I followed her, as it were. She moved into a circle of older young gay men, and so I was there too, and I sort of picked this up. We were both much more interested in things gay than we were in things straight, and that’s kind of how it went. We had two friends—Judy Ratner, who stayed my friend, is still my friend. She was my downstairs neighbor for 40 years, and she was a dancer, and she danced with James Waring, and she was also a child actress (I had a lot of child actors in my childhood). She was in the original production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible; she played one of the little girls who was bewitched in this story of witchcraft in Salem.
F: Your early diaries include quotes from John Donne and Henry Miller. Yet I doubt you were being taught Henry Miller in elementary school. How did you become exposed to that kind of work?
SD: No, although Henry Miller was one of the first dirty books I read. I was 15 or 16 at that point. How did I discover him? Well, when your cousin Dr. Barbara Randall goes to Paris, you give her a list of books that you had heard of and wanted to read: “Please bring me back Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, and I would also like any Marquis de Sade that you can get your hands on, and anything else by Henry Miller.” And so she brought me back Tropic of Capricorn and Black Spring.
AF: But Chip, you were requesting Tropic of Capricorn and Black Spring, you were requesting Marquis de Sade. They seem pretty sophisticated requests for 15!
SD: You couldn’t read the Marquis de Sade, but you could read Simone de Bouvoir’s “Must We Burn De Sade?” I read that, and in it she said “No, you mustn’t, it’s important that people read him,” so I said okay. People referred to these authors. We may not have had Marquis de Sade, but we did have Jean-Paul Sartre, and we had de Beauvoir, and we had things like Gide’s Corydon, which I read and did not understand a word of. I wrote an article once about how I had misunderstood it in the same way that James Baldwin misunderstood it; in The Price of the Ticket he’s got a review of Corydon, and it just went over his head, as it went over mine. And one of the reasons it went over both of our heads—by that time I was 15 and he was, what, 26 or 27, maybe—was, it’s a Defense of Homosexuality: that’s the subtitle.
We thought “homosexuality” was a disease. How can you have a defense of a disease? Can you imagine somebody writing a book “In Defense of Diabetes”? We just thought, what the . . . ? And then all of this biology, what have you, about animals, what has this got to do with homosexuality? It’s a very checkered, interesting web. Once you get past the 60s and you start realizing—and people start talking about blaming the victim—that argument—once people get hold of how the argument of blaming the victim works, you can then go back and you can read Corydon, and it’s a brilliant analysis of blaming the victim. You have to realize, one, that Corydon is not a single work, it’s part of an entire homophile movement that is going on around the turn of the century with things like The Immoralist and The Fruits of the Earth and Lafcadio’s Adventures.
“We thought ‘homosexuality’ was a disease. How can you have a defense of a disease?”
AF: Midway in the Journals you have a remarkable passage about Another Country. Before even asking you anything else, I want to foreground my position as a young white gay man in the 21st century—
SD: Hi there! I’m an old black gay man in the 21st century.
AF: It feels necessary to be revising our historical memory, but no less necessary to be careful about how we’re revising it. One period of literary-cultural history I’m interested in critically revisiting, open to revising, is described and articulated fiercely by James Baldwin, a black queer writer. I’m also interested in the overlap of that same period by another black queer writer named Samuel Delany. I’m wondering about their parallels.
SD: I made an attempt to get through to Baldwin, and it just didn’t work. It’s described at the end of The Motion of Light in Water. I was 23 and on my way to Europe for the first time. I discovered James Baldwin’s work when I was a very young adolescent. I discovered his nonfiction first, and I thought he was a brilliant essayist. I thought he was an absolutely superb essayist. I started reading some of his fiction: Blues for Mr. Charlie, and Go Tell It on the Mountain, and Another Country seemed to me like a train wreck. Giovanni’s Room had been an interesting novel. I very much liked it. He was a very popular writer. He was extremely popular among black people, but we thought of him primarily as an essayist who occasionally wrote some fiction. Another Country was his big stab at writing fiction, and I thought it was a disaster.
AF: I’ve never felt satisfied with Another Country and still assume that’s my problem.
SD: I think it’s very hard to be satisfied with it. To be honest, I’ve never read the later larger novels although people tell me that they are actually better than Another Country, but I kind of gave up on him as a fiction writer with Another Country. I think I have read his complete essays at one point or other, and I think the essays range from fascinatingly wrong-headed, like the review of Corydon, which is the same mistake I made when I was trying to read it at the same time. I later on taught Corydon on the other side of the 60s, and I think I did a very good job. It was easy to teach because all of the students were familiar with the blaming the victim argument because they had just been through the 60s as well, so they could understand it.
I have more sympathy with Another Country today than I did when I first read it. When I first read it, I just thought this is not a novel: this is just a grab-bag, a bunch of interesting scenes, not a novel. It’s a howl put out by somebody who is not used to howling. To write a novel, I don’t care, you have to have an organizing theme, unless you are trying to do Naked Lunch, and it’s not a Naked Lunch. But as I said I have a lot more sympathy with it. Nobody else had done that. I mean, what other novel made a stab at all that? So he had to reinvent the novel for himself, because there was none there. And I certainly wasn’t doing it. It wasn’t until as late as ’75 with Dhalgren and Hogg that I started to do anything like that.
AF: Many writers from bell hooks to Octavia E. Butler point to the fact that, Thank god there was Samuel Delany there. I’m wondering how consciously you were trying to create, and write, a queer imaginary.
SD: Do you know things like “Aye, and Gomorrah . . . ” the story is from 1967. That’s a pre-Stonewall story. Hogg is a pre-Stonewall novel, at least the first draft is pre-Stonewall. “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” is also pre-Stonewall, and that one got a Nebula award and a Hugo. Which is one of the reasons I have written that if the gay community didn’t exist, the straight community would have invented us because they were desperate to find out about what was going on there. Only they thought they knew, and that was the problem. So unless what you told was pretty much in keeping with what they thought, you couldn’t. It was hard to talk about and hard to get a listen.
AF: I mean, were you aware of the possibilities that science fiction as a genre or a form might allow you to remain a moving target, might allow you a kind of open closet without having to announce it?
SD: I was out. No, I was known to be gay by then. I’ve actually asked people, I said “When did you first know that I was gay?” As soon as “Aye, and Gomorrah . . . ” was published, everybody knew I was gay. Why? Because, at that point, at that time in the 60s, if you mentioned homosexuality, it was assumed you were gay. It’s not that there was no representations; there were not gay characters as secondary characters until after Stonewall. To be known as gay, all you had to do was mention something gay, and it meant you had to be gay, so that even a story like “Aye, and Gomorrah . . . ” was kind of like announcing, “Hey, I’m gay!” And it worked. David Samuelson said that by the end of ’67 he was pretty sure that he had heard that I must be gay.
AF: If we imagine a work of bourgeois realism in 1967 winning a major literary award with gay subject matter, I think we would laugh pretty hard. I say this a little tongue-in-cheek-ly, as I’m not sure how many mainstream awards go to gay realistic novels even now.
SD: Don’t romanticize science fiction. One of the questions I have been asked so many times I’ve forgotten what my stock answer to it is, “Since science fiction is a marginal form of writing, do you think it makes it easier to deal with marginal people?” Which—no! Why should it be any easier? Dealing with the marginal is always a matter of dealing with the marginal. If anything, science fiction as a marginal genre is more rigid, far more rigid than literature. There are more examples of gay writing in literature than there are in science fiction.
“Dealing with the marginal is always a matter of dealing with the marginal.”
AF: How does it feel to be rereading these Journals?
SD: I have gone through the entire text at least twice. I had to when Ken was putting it together. You know, I wish there had been more about my music. I think there are lists of songs, but you’d have to know that they were lists of songs or lists of folk songs that I wrote. I actually used to write songs and I’ve asked him—for the second volume—to include some of the songs I actually wrote. There was a time, and I think this doesn’t come out, when I actually thought about leaving writing and I actually worked with a music group and decided, okay, it’s time to stop. You have to decide, what are going to do. Are you going to do music or are you going to do writing? I thought, what have you made the most money from? And at first I thought, well, you almost made more money from music, so let’s give up the writing and work on the music, so I did for two years and that didn’t work either. There’s a book called The Heavenly Breakfast. I don’t know whether you’ve read that?
AF: I haven’t.
SD: Okay, well, that’s a book about the culmination of my music work with this group that we fooled around with for about a year and then we worked very hard, and then that one kind of blew asunder because Con Edison changed their electrical policy for taking payments of electric bills from small studios, and a bunch of small studios which had been recording the kind of music we were making, which included things like The Lovin’ Spoonful, and some really interesting groups. The Lovin’ Spoonful used to make music with no drums, which, you know, couldn’t be done today. One of our members stayed with music, a guy named Bert Lee who is a friend of mine on Facebook. He went on to be the member of a group called the Central Park Sheiks and he is still making music today. But I stopped and decided, okay, let’s go back to the writing, so I did. And I went back to the writing, and the next thing. I spent five years on Dhalgren.
Read part two of Adam Fitzgerald’s interview with Samuel Delany here