Featured Fellow: Clifford Thompson

This summer Clifford Thompson released a new memoir called Twin of Blackness. We spoke with him about the current conversation surrounding race, the state of the essay, and the relationship between his writing and his teaching.

The title of your new memoir is Twin of Blackness, which refers to the complex role your race has played in your life and your sense of self. Why did you choose this title?

The chapters of the memoir are separated by what I call Interludes, brief passages of reflection. The book begins with a Prelude, which inspired the title: "I have come to think of blackness as my twin. The proof is that we came along at the same time: 1963, the year of my birth, also brought the March on Washington and Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech. I feel toward blackness the way one might toward a twin. I love it, and in a pinch I defend it; I resent the baggage that comes with it; I have been made to feel afraid of not measuring up to it; I am identified with it whether I want to be or not-and never more than when I assert an identity independent of it."

After the death of Eric Garner last year, you wrote for The Los Angeles Review of Books about participating in the protests while also feeling like you were caught between the two sides, neither of which you identified with completely. Where do you see yourself in the current, wider conversation about race?

I should start out by saying that of the two sides you mention, those outraged by yet another senseless death of a black person at the hands of police and those who suspect the victims in these cases must surely be guilty of something, I was-I am-much closer to the first than the second. That said, I reject the notion that my skin color must dictate my responses to events or my views of other people, and it is that rejection, as I wrote in the LARB essay, that has often made me feel that my views are not represented in anything I hear or read. I was raised to believe above all else in the importance of evaluating everyone of every race as an individual, and while the events of the past couple of years have led me to take another look at that belief, I have never abandoned it. At the same time, the things I have read and witnessed lead me to understand a black anger that does not always stop to consider the individual views of those with white skin. Mass incarceration, police brutality against blacks, employment/housing discrimination-these things are real and abhorrent; anger is real and justified-not only justified but correct and necessary; hatred is real and understandable. The trick, I feel, is to embrace anger but reject hatred, and to direct our anger at the right things and the right people. That can be a lonely path, but I feel it is the right path.

Your essays often mix elements of memoir and criticism, and it feels like a lot of writers are blurring these categories lately. Do you think these divisions are becoming less relevant? In your view, where are we now when it comes to the form of the essay?

I think there will always be a need for criticism that attempts and purports to be objective and divorced from the writer's personal considerations. But I think that essays combining the personal with the critical/journalistic are also valid and potentially very, very interesting. At Columbia I designed and taught a master class called "Unique by Definition: The Personal in the Critical/Journalistic," and the assigned reading I chose included pieces that date back to the 1970s and earlier. I mention that in order to say that I don't feel the mix of personal and critical is a brand-new form. I think the big departure can be traced to New Journalism, if not even further back. In terms of where we are with the essay, I think what's new, in the main, is that the form is receiving more attention, as an art form to compare with fiction or poetry. That's a good thing.

How does your teaching fit into your writing practice?

It's been said that the best way to learn a subject is to teach it. I've been writing for many years, and I started teaching pretty recently, and what I've found interesting is the necessity of giving intellectual consideration to areas in which I previously operated mostly by instinct and intuition. An example in plain English: at Gotham Writers I taught two sessions of a course in memoir writing. The irony is that I was hired to do that mainly because I had gotten a publisher to take on my own memoir, but it was only when I began to teach that I thought about the lessons I was giving others in relation to my own writing. Had I practiced what I was preaching? As it turned out, I had for the most part, but I would probably have benefitted from teaching the course before I wrote the memoir... only I wouldn't have been hired to do it.

Interview by Molly Long