Author Jamel Brinkley has earned some of the most prestigious appointments a young writer can grasp: after graduating from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Brinkley was a Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and is currently a Stenger Fellow at Stanford, a program so competitive fewer than 1% of applicants are admitted.
He’s a stratospheric talent, as evidenced in the nine stories in his debut collection, “A Lucky Man.” Here Brinkley’s characters — all African American men living in New York City — grapple with masculinity, race, ambition, and pride, all while trying to be the best men, husbands, and friends they know how to be.
Brinkley will return to Iowa this Friday, September 14 at 7 p.m. to sit down for a conversation with one of his mentors, Charles D’Ambrosio, at Prairie Lights.
In advance of this event, which is free and open to the public, Brinkley spoke about his childhood in New York, his writing process, and why a solitary profession like writing still requires a community.
Q: You write so well about being young. Tell me about your childhood in New York — how does it influence your storytelling?
A: I was raised in Brooklyn and, for several years, in the South Bronx. During my time in the Bronx, from when I was about seven until I graduated from high school, our family lived in a housing project. The K-8 Catholic school I went to was close enough that my brother and I could easily walk there and back every day. I attended high school in Harlem. I wasn’t out in the streets very much. I did play basketball with my friends, go to their houses to play video games — stuff like that — but I recall being a homebody for the most part.
I think the parts of my childhood that shows up in my writing are the reliance on imagination many of my characters possess, the longing for a broader world they have, and the love-hate relationship with being introspective and private.
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Q: The stories in your collection are wonderful explorations of identity and masculinity. Why are conversations about these topics so important right now?
A: Well I think the #MeToo movement is one big reason we’re taking a close and necessarily critical look at masculinity these days. But I’ve been fascinated by the ways people occupy their racial and gender identities for a long time, probably since I was a boy. Connected to the topics you mention are issues of power and privilege, toxicity and nurturance, intimacy and violation, who gets to speak for others and for themselves.
This isn’t a new or original idea, but it seems clear that the dominant, given notions of what it means to be this or that identity are at odds with how people actually live their lives and experience their bodies on a day-to-day basis.
I hope that the stories in my collection touch on the complexity of identity and experience.
Q: There’s humor in many of your stories (love Omari’s owl mask in “J’ouvert, 1996”), but it’s complicated. For me the humor actually deepens the impact of larger themes like the characters’ need for connection and to be understood. What role does humor play for you in your writing?
A: There’s an idea that an emotion in isolation is not as deeply felt as an emotion placed in proximity to a contrasting emotion. So, for example, you’re more likely to be devastated by the sadness in a story or poem if there’s also joy present in the poem. This idea, which I’m sure I heard in one of my Iowa Writers’ Workshop classes, seems true to me. Tears and laughter together make a powerful combination. The other thing I’d say is that my book is about African Americans, and we have an enduring cultural tradition of facing trouble and tragedy with strength and humor.
Q: I love the rich layering in your stories. What is your writing process like?
A: Thank you! I write first drafts pretty slowly and with many more questions and doubts than set ideas. Because of the uncertainty I intentionally court when I’m writing an initial draft, I steady myself by spending a lot of time trying to get individual sentences right, even though I know they’ll be revised or cut entirely down the line. This process means it can take a long time to get a first draft done. Once I have a draft done and have workshopped it or had trusted readers look at it, I tend to revise one element of a story at a time. So I might have a revision only about the dialogue, and then one only about a certain character, and so on. I think working on one specific thing at a time helps me organize the process of revision, which might otherwise be chaotic and amorphous. Maybe this method also contributes to the layering you mentioned.
Q: Writing is a solitary process, but from your blurbs and acknowledgments section it’s clear you have a vibrant, supportive writing community. Why is it important to have a writing community?
A: Probably to counteract the necessary solitude — at least I think that’s one reason. I don’t think solitude is bad — I cherish it actually — but all things in moderation, right? Being a writer is such a particular calling, so I think it’s important to have a community of mentors, teachers, peers, and students who are all devoted to the same odd thing you’re devoted to. This shared devotion is crucial, just as the range and diversity within your writing community is crucial.
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Without my community I wouldn’t have taken the risk of putting writing at the center of my life, I wouldn’t have learned as much as I have, and I wouldn’t be continuing to learn and grow. It’s thrilling to talk writing with people who are as in love with it and opinionated about it as you are, and it’s nice to have people to commiserate with when the rejections inevitably roll in or when the words just won’t come.
Q: Your collection opens with an epigraph from Carl Phillips. (“The difference between/God and luck is that luck, when it leaves/does not go far: the idea is to believe/you could almost touch it…”) Why did you begin with this?
A: Well, I knew I wanted an epigraph from a poem, to honor the importance poetry has had and continues to have in my life, as a reader, a writer, and a human. I also wanted to use a poem by an African American poet. The lines I chose from Phillips’s poem, “If a Wilderness,” take up the idea of luck, which resonates with the title of my collection, and they present luck as both a hopeful and haunting presence, benevolent and threatening, which I think also resonates with my book and especially its title story. I don’t know if Phillips intended those lines to be read that way — I could have it completely wrong! At any rate, I also like the sensuality and eroticism of his poem, both of which I hope are also present in my book.
• What: Jamel Brinkley will read from his story collection, “A Lucky Man,” and be joined in conversation by Charles D’Ambrosio
• When: 7 p.m. Friday
• Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City
• Cost: Free