A Conversation with bell hooks and Fenton Johnson

A Conversation with bell hooks and Fenton Johnson

When Appalachian Heritage hosted a conversation between bell hooks and Fenton Johnson in April, the two native Kentuckians spoke to a packed house filled with students, professors, community members, and even a couple who had driven in from Texas specially for the event. After Johnson read from his recently published essay collection titled Everywhere Home, the two celebrated writers began a dialogue that was both thought-provoking and revelatory.

Over the course of an hour, they divulged stories of their parallel lives and identities as queer Kentuckians who left the region for California, and recounted how they each found solace in solitude as writers and individuals. Although they did not know each other until recently, they have since found a connection in the threads of their lives and in their identity as outsiders to their communities.

In this edited conversation, hooks and Johnson discuss defining borders, generational shifts, the current political moment, and the importance of silence in a world of technology in which nothing ever seems to pause.

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bell hooks: Fenton and I have had a very curious parallel Kentucky experience. We both left Kentucky and went to Stanford [University]. We both saw California as a kind
of promised land, and we did not encounter each other even though we were in the same class at Stanford, but serendipitously we have come together at this stage of our life. Fenton has been writing amazing stuff about solitude, about the importance and value of solitude.

Fenton Johnson: [I wrote] a cover essay [“Going It Alone”] in Harper’s about three years ago. I’m supposed to be turning it into a book even as we speak. It will be called At the Center of All Beauty, which is a line from a Frank O’Hara poem. I define solitude very broadly, because I have known people—I’m clear that I’m not talking about hermits, although I respect hermits for what it is that they’re doing—but these are [people] who have a kind of sense of aloneness that is inherent to them.

So many people can manage to be solitaries in marriage. In fact I would say the marriages that I admire and respect the most are the marriages that fall into what the critic Phyllis Rose called “parallel lives,” where two people agree to be solitaries together. Marianne Moore has a poem called “Marriage,” in which one person says to another I should like to be alone, and the other person says, I should like to be alone, too. Why not be alone together? I was going to use Alone Together as the title of this book until I found out that somebody else had already used it.

Then I had another cover essay in Harper’s that…came out [in January 2018] which is called “The Future of Queer,” in which I argue that we all need to become queer because of where the culture as a whole is going right now and that it’s a useful definition.

bh: Yes. Well, I mean one of the ways that we got to be so queer is [by] precisely [recognizing] ourselves as outsiders in the family and the culture that we were raised in, and therefore spending lots of time in our heads, in our imagination, and that’s where we still land. That’s [what seems to be behind your book] Everywhere Home. Everywhere home for us is the imagination, is the experience of writing and creating.

FJ: Isn’t that nice to think of home? I’d like to point out that home is a concept that really only exists in English—it’s a concept that is pretty unique to the English language. In fact I don’t think any other language has the word that we carry that has such richness and associations. In French you can say chez moi, which is “at my house,” but it doesn’t have those kinds of connotations that the word “home” does. Isn’t it nice to think that, in fact, home is a product of the imagination, and as I say towards the end of this collection of essays, “How would we treat the world if we treated everywhere as home?” If we treated the strip mine site and the Superfund site in New Jersey and Love Canal—whatever, take your pick, the Olana River, the Kentucky River. How would we really treat those if we thought of each of those as home rather than home as something that has a border around it?

bh: Both of us left Kentucky in search of a world where we could more fully belong, as outsiders, as queer, as not being like everybody else.

FJ: Yeah. I just read Lidia Yuknavitch[’s] book called The Misfit’s Manifesto…I disagree with some of the things that she says in that book. [But] she has a great moment where she says that those of us who, I would say, are queer—we define the space that includes everybody else, that you have to go to the margins or the borders of your way of thinking. Conventionality is what occupies the big space in between, but it’s the borders that define that, and the people who define those borders are the people who are the edgy, interesting, sometimes dangerous thinkers.

bh: When I thought about [the title of ] my book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, it was precisely that sense of how being an outsider can actually influence the center in ways that are counter-hegemonic.

FJ: I think ultimately what happens over and over again is that the ideas that are outrageous to one generation become the accepted ideas of the next generation. So would you rather be digging your heels in, or would you rather be an agent of change? I don’t mean that as a simple and obvious question because there are certainly values that need to be carried forward in one fashion or another. I have to imagine that many people of the Trump Revolution would see themselves as radical agents of change, but you can figure that one out for yourself. I think it is a matter of character, and it is one of the things that I’m writing about in this book on solitaries.

There’s a certain character that has difficulty. One discovers that one has difficulty fitting in from the first and that that is somehow contained in historical circumstance, in the moment in history that you’re born into, and then also what the essayist Phillip Lopate calls—a phrase I really love—the “catastrophe of character.” Each of us is subject to the “catastrophe of character,” which is that part of ourselves that we call character, [which] is who we are. It is what we are, and we act out of it.

bh: It’s interesting that we both come from large families. He’s one of nine. I’m one of seven. That sense of being in a community that you haven’t chosen but that seeks to contain you. That’s an experience that I think both you and I have struggled with and against.

FJ: Yeah, I think [it’s] one of the things that’s interesting about Kentucky. I have wandered far, but my mother was alive until June of last year. She died at 101 years old, so I was involved in coming back to be part of her caregiving quite a bit. But I had a friend once who said to me—he’s from Oklahoma, a Stanford friend—“You know, I left Oklahoma as fast as I could,” and once his parents died, because they did, “I will never go back. I have no interest in going back there at all, and yet everybody I knew from Kentucky is always talking about going back. What is that about?” And that’s an interesting question. It’s true. I think one of the things that draws us back is that intensity of connection to place.

bh: My sense of queerness really came from Kentucky and from the backwoods people that were my relatives who had a very particular take on life. I think that that’s one of the reasons some of us return, because we find that grounding in otherness, in being queer—past gay, because it has nothing to do with being gay. So many of us actually got that in Kentucky, got that within those families that were trying both to contain us and at times destroy us. I mean my mother would say to me, “You’re mine, and I’ll kill you if I want to”—that whole sense of possession of self and identity. I always remember that I got smacked for saying, “I don’t have a mother.” There again is that notion of kind of being an alien who’s just giving birth to herself.

FJ: Well, I certainly know that [as the youngest] I was my mother’s acting out of her dreams—she wanted [to leave], she would love to have gone. I asked once what she wanted to do if she hadn’t married and founded a library in New Haven, Kentucky, and she said, “Move to South America and become a tango dancer.” I had gone to California and I’d went to New York, and I took this job at the University of Arizona, and she said, “What are you going to do in Arizona?” and I said, “I’m going to be a professor,” and she said, “Oh, a professor.” That was acceptable.

I wrote an essay called “Catholic in the South”…that opens with a line of tribute to my father. I’ll tell first this little anecdote: I wanted to kind of fact check [the piece]. You know, I had the New York Times [looking] over my shoulder, so I went to my oldest sister, and I said, “Do you remember our father saying this line?” And she said, “Well, I don’t remember him saying it, but it’s true, and if he didn’t say it, he ought to have said it.” The line was: “Catholics are like muskrats. They never venture far from water,” which is really true. Catholics choose water, along the Ohio River, down the Mississippi, along Great Lakes, on the coasts.

Anyway, that essay ends with my writing and thinking of the Catholic Church, and thinking of the South, and I’ve come to understand that this is what they share: “an uncompromising demand that they be accepted on their terms. It is exactly because they demand our loves wholly and unconditionally that we find them so hard to leave behind, that they draw us back in spite of ourselves. In this age of relativism, few places can, and few people do.”

bh: And I keep saying to him that he needs to come on back to Kentucky. Do you think being gay in Kentucky is different [than from other places]?

FJ: Boy, isn’t that a good question? There are certainly people who could answer that question more authoritatively than I. You know, I think one thing. I seriously considered buying my mother’s house because I could, and because my job as the youngest—my father harvested bricks out of old bourbon warehouses that were back in the woods, little family establishments, and my job was…to knock the mortar off of the bricks so we could use the bricks to build the house. And Seagram’s had been using cypress tubs to age the mash in, and they replaced them with stainless steel tubs, so my father took all that cypress and planed it down and made tongue-and-groove paneling for the whole house, so the whole house smelled like the inside of a mash tub for the first fifteen years that we lived in it. There is an enormous stone, this piece of limestone…that was where they would tie up the draft horses. That was our picnic table in the backyard. My mother built a greenhouse [in]1958, to raise orchids and cactus.

It’s quite a place, but then I think about being a single gay man in New Haven…I’ll tell another story which is not a happy story. I was a sophomore in high school or maybe a junior, and the boys were riding around, and part of the fun of that evening was to go find a house where a man lived alone. And because he lived alone, therefore, he must be queer or strange or odd. I’m happy to say I did not join, but the entertainment for the evening was to gather a bunch of rocks and throw it at this guy’s house. I think if I lived alone in New Haven, Kentucky, somebody would heave a brick through my window. I think that would still happen. Am I wrong about that?

bh: Well, it certainly probably wouldn’t happen in Berea, even though we can’t seem to bring ourselves to pass the fairness initiative [that would provide protections in public accomodations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity].

FJ: We all have to mention the current political moment. I was flying through Dallas to come here, and President Trump was on the TV…and there were two people watching…who had a kind of—I don’t know a word to use other than beatific expression on their faces. And I thought, is this the moment that five years from now I will look back and say, “This is when Hitler came to power”? There were people who [were] totally unquestioning, totally under [his] power.

And then, driving from Louisville this morning, there was a lawn maintenance truck, and it was doing the speed limit [and] the police pulled it over. I thought, I wonder if they’re pulling that truck over because lawn maintenance—“we’re going to check the papers of the people in there.” We’re in a moment where they can do that, just to harass those people. I think we all have to get out there and fight. It’s a really critical moment, don’t you think?

bh: Absolutely.

FJ: I want to ask this question: [what was] the process that led your decision to come back?

bh: My decision to come back to Kentucky really had to do with my relationship to my parents and the fact that I knew they were closer to dying than they would ever be to—as my father said, “Gloria, I’m not going up the mountain. I’m coming down the mountain.” It’s always struck me as particularly Kentucky, that his metaphors for his life were about mountains and hills which is where we were raised, you know, the hills of Kentucky. That sense of return. I, of course, have always felt very strongly about my family in Kentucky and how to hold onto that and be an outsider and be a queer person in the world, and it has become easier to be that difference.

I was [recently] inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. What was odd about [the ceremony] and intriguing is that the other [inducted] writers, for the most part, were very into the Confederacy, so that there was kind of this odd blend of the old with a new vision of Kentucky, of the progressive people that I actually believe have always been in Kentucky but that get no play. I mean, my grandparents weren’t people who were reading and writing [but] they lived these amazingly creative lives. You know, my grandmother sold fishing worms. That was her big thing. All of those things are kind of our buried stories of difference and otherness in Kentucky.

For me, one [reason] why I could return to Kentucky is because the rest of the world was becoming as crazy as Kentucky. The things that I was fleeing when I left Kentucky— you know the racism, the white supremacy—all of those things were just becoming the norm in places like New York, or all of these places where…I mean, it’s interesting to think about how gentrification, whenever it takes place in cities, is usually about whiteness, privileged whites moving and pushing out people of color. I think back to the black farmers in Kentucky whose lands were just taken from them by white people who would just show up and burn the house down or what have you. That’s kind of what’s happening in our culture as a whole now. So, it’s like, why should you miss out on the good things in Kentucky because of evil, because the evil is everywhere?

FJ: On a positive note, this is why this place is so important— why places like this are so important—is because the otherness that you describe is the fertile ground for the imagination. And it is the act of the imagination that enables us to understand that the other person whose experiences are so different from my experiences and who looks so different from me, is at heart a human being who wants happiness in the way that I do, perhaps under different language or different whatever, but that the difference, the otherness, is a source of richness as anybody who practices any kind of art form would know. You go to that place to find what it is that’s going to make your work particularly interesting or engaging. [I’m reminded of] that quotation from André Gide in which he says, We’re always trying to find the thing in us that is different and to smooth it out and eliminate it and destroy it when in fact that’s the thing that really makes us who we are. Figuring out ways to cultivate that difference and to encourage that difference, I think, is what places like this are about, [places] like Appalshop [the artistic media collective based in Whitesburg, Kentucky].

bh: That’s why I encourage you to return for a time.

bell hooks (née Gloria Jean Watkins) is among the leading public intellectuals of her generation. Her writings cover a broad range of topics including gender, race, teaching, and contemporary culture across the literary genres and include the seminal Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism and, more recently, Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place. She has taught at Yale University, Oberlin College, and the City University of New York, and has served as Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies at Berea College since 2004.

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