Nina Simone on racism, art and violence

“It's a lot of hell, a lot of violence, but I feel more alive now than I ever have in my life.” – Nina Simone

Blank on Blank is a Youtube channel full of animated versions of real life interviews. This time the chosen one was a little known interview with Nina Simone conducted by Lilian Terry in the 60s. This interview was aired on Italy and now we have access to Nina Simone talking of all things related to her life as an artist, mother and black woman.

Nina Simone

When Anne-Marie Willis says that "we design our world, while our world acts back on us and designs us” the most obvious examples are those we already consider related to design, among these the fashion world is a good example, specially when Nina Simone talks about it:

“I love clothes. Yes, I do. I mean, if you come out and you look the way you want to look, you will create a mood before you open your mouth. And sometimes that can be enough to get your audience exactly in the groove, where you want them.
Like last year, I wore the same gown for a year, everywhere I went. I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way. I made it easier for me.
So when came on stage, the illusion was that I was actually naked. I loved that. It always kind of shocked people enough that they became mine immediately.”

Nina Simone

The interviewer asks about the last song she interpreted in her show. “The King of love is dead” was composed by the bassist of her band, Gene Taylor, one day after Martin Luther King was assassinated. In this music, as Nina Simone says, the climax is also it’s end. After questioning what would happen after his death the music ends. This musical interruption represents the fight for equality at the USA, a question mark after a bigger movement.

Even amid segregation and seeing people die due to the color of their skins, Nina Simone still found reasons to be optimistic. Not because she see the world as good, but because she knew her fight to be right and worth the efforts.

“It's a good time for black people to be alive. It's a lot of hell, a lot of violence, but I feel more alive now than I ever have in my life. I have a chance to live as I've dreamed.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think that your child will be living through the revolutionary years?
I don't know, love. Whatever it is she's going to have pride in her own blackness. She's going to have a chance to be more than just somebody who's on the outside looking in. Like it's been for most of us, and my parents before me, but she may see more bloodshed than I've ever even dreamed of. I have no way of knowing that evolution. The cycle goes round and round. It's time for us."

We who are alive to see the future she couldn’t predict know that the blood still flows and racism is still a problem. However, if we try to be a little more like Nina Simone, strong and somewhat optimistic, then maybe something will console us and things can keep getting better.

See the animation here:

With Virginie Despentes: Healing by writing, feminism and rape as a subject for men

“Rape, it’s like a dark place without language for men. It’s like night.” – Virginie Despentes

Virginie Despentes is a french writer and filmmaker we desperately need to pay attention. His book “King Kong theory” moves through theory, manifest and her memoirs where, just like his other movies and writings, she deals with feminism, gender violence, prostitution and stereotypes.

In an interview to the Broadly channel, Virginie Despentes talks about her career, feminism, and her own experiences with prostitution and the time she was raped:

“When I was raped more than 30 years ago, if you were raped, you couldn’t, you would find yourself pretty much on your own. Hearing kind of, “It’s a shame, you should have died. You will never be the same again, you will never recover” which is not really helpful. It would be difficult to find some tools to get out of the trauma and make something out of it.”
 Virginie Despentes

Virginie Despentes

In a speech resembling that of Hilda Hilst about being a writer and the importance of writiing, Despentes tells what his book became both for the readers and for her:

“I never thought that writing was something that helps you heal but I think I changed a lot after having published King Kong Theory. King Kong theory here in France was read by many women and I’ve connected to many, many women. So I suppose something about healing did work here.”

Chimamanda Agozie brings our attention to the problem of gender expectations and the behaviour taught to boys and girls in our society. But Virginie Despentes point to an important aspect, the fact of these expectations create such a distance between man and the debate about rape that there’s no vocabulary for men to deal with thoughts and behaviors around this subject:

“I want to see men, really, I want to see men gathering and please, try to understand what’s going on with you, how can you be a rapist? How can you prevent it? Because we can’t. Rape, it’s like a dark place without language for men. It’s like night. If you bring some light here, I think it could change things.”

Despentes summarize the problem of gender inequality in one question:

“But I’m generalizing, sometimes, about men. I don’t hate them, but I like to be able to treat men like we are treated most of the time. I feel comfortable with that. If we think rape is important and if you’re really taught that you’re entitled to kill a man if he wants to abuse you, I think it changes the whole thing. But do we think rape is that important that we can allow women to kill men? That’s an interesting question in my opinion.”

It’s in this dialogue immersed in comprehension, knowledge and pragmatism that Virginie Despentes teach something to all of us.

Still around the problems faced by women, it’s always important to remind what Lygia Fagundes Telles has to say about the beginning of her career.

You can watch the full interview, in english, with Virginie Despentes below:

A clumsy question and Faulkner’s powerful answer

“But as—about reading, any experience the writer has ever suffered is going to influence what he does” – William Faulkner

Photo by Ralph Thompson.

60 years old William Faulkner had some clues on the importance of his works and what would be his legacy when he accepted to be the first writer in residence at the University of Virginia. He wrote while he was there but he also had a lot to say. For his interviews and seminars he even accepted to read again some of his works, something uncommon for him who believed authors had no need to revisit their own books.

The two stays in 1957 and 1958 generated a lot of content, both from the author and the academics. In the website dedicated for this period it’s possible to hear Faulkner talking art, literature and even his hesitations towards cinema.

In one of these lectures Faulkner reads excerpts from “The sound and the fury”, his favorite. Of course, such a statement wouldn’t go unnoticed and a participant asked him the reasons for this:

Unidentified participant: What is the reason that this book from which you read is your favorite [novel]?

William Faulkner: I think that—that no writer is ever quite satisfied with—with the book. That's why he writes another one. That he is trying to put on paper something that is going to be a little better than anybody else has put on paper up to date, and this is my favorite one because I worked the hardest on it, not to accomplish what I hoped to do with it, but I anguished and—and raged over it more than over any other to try to make something out of it, that it was impossible for—for me to do. It's the same feeling that the parent may have toward the—the incorrigible or the abnormal child, maybe.

Photo by Dean Cadle.

Echoing the position of Anne Marie-Willis about how the world can influence ourselves, William Faulkner points the importance of the most indirect activities for the artist development:

Unidentified participant: Your books have been compared to Bach's fugues. Do you objectively plan out that they're going to have that [...] effect or does it just come naturally?

William Faulkner: Well, it's—it's not quite planned because probably I am not capable of that, but I think that there's too much work goes into—to any book to call it a natural process. But as—about reading, any experience the writer has ever suffered is going to influence what he does, and that is not only what he's read, but the music he's heard, the pictures he's seen, and it wasn't that I went to Bach to—to get myself out of a—a—a jam in the work, but probably what I had heard of Bach—at the moment when I needed to use counterpoint, there it was.

For Jorge Luís Borges the accident that risked his literature would also be denying the meaning of his life if his fears proved real. This passion followed by a profound sense of meaningfulness is also present in Faulkner’s words while answering to a clumsy question:

Unidentified participant: Do you think—what I'm trying[...] . [audience laughter] [...]. Do you—do you think before you write or do you write— [audience laughter]

William Faulkner: Well, I'm glad you stopped there. Thank you. [audience laughter] Did—I think I know what you mean by the stimulus. It's—you're alive in the world. You see man. You have an insatiable curiosity about him, but more than that you have an admiration for him. He is frail and fragile, a web of flesh and bone and mostly water. He's flung willy nilly into a ramshackle universe stuck together with electricity. [audience laughter] The problems he faces are always a little bigger than he is, and yet, amazingly enough, he copes with them, not individually but—but as a race. He endures. He's outlasted dinosaurs. He's outlasted atom bombs. He'll outlast communism. Simply because there's some part in him that keeps him from ever knowing that he's whipped, I suppose. That as frail as he is, he—he lives up to his codes of behavior. He shows compassion when there's no reason why he should. He's braver than he should be. He's more honest. The writer is—is so interested, he sees this as so amazing and—and you might say so beautiful. Anyway, it—it's so moving to him that he wants to put it down on paper or in music or on canvas, that he simply wants to isolate one of these instances in which man—frail, foolish man—has acted miles above his head in some amusing or dramatic or tragic way. Anyway, some gallant way. That, I suppose, is the incentive to write, apart from it being fun. I sort of believe that is the reason that people are artists. It's—it's the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet, because you never can quite do it as well as you want to, so there's always something to wake up tomorrow morning to do. You're never bored. You never reach satiation

Complement your reading with this text by one of the greatest female brazilian writers, Lygia Fagundes Telles, on the role of the writer.

The interview as a tool for aspiring writers

The interview, at least from my utilitarian experience, became an important tool to find directives and discussions that could pass unnoticed by me.

If you, like me, try to write literature, then the lack of people with whom to discuss your efforts is probably a constant. I know that the internet exists to deal with this, but here I’m talking about a more helpful contact that also provides relevant content. Some time ago I discovered that the interviews given by other writers could be a midterm between talk and a more profound reading. There’s this certain informality of the dialogue, but also a lot of good content if you know where to find these interviews. All of this in a shorter format and without making you read an entire book about one theme at a time.

 Rascunho literary newspaper and book

Rascunho literary newspaper and book

The usefulness that I see in interviews is the reason for why I share some interviews here, like the one of Lygia Fagundes Telles or Borges. Recently I won a copy from Rascunho’s book with the best interviews published by them. I’ve read this book so fast that know I can only go after the second volume.

However, both the preface signed by Luís Henrique Pellanda, the book organizer, and my experience reading interviews called my attention to an essential factor that sometimes can go unnoticed: the interviewer. It is not rare to see an interview ruined by lack of ability. In a good interview the knowledge and questions chosen by the interviewer should work together to allow the most interesting answers from the interviewed. 

Roland Barthes already questioned the limits between the author and his works and this also applies to writer’s interviews. The content of the answer must be seen with some distance and that’s why I consider it a different contact than that allowed by books and essays, even when it’s an interview via e-mail. On interviews a lot of writers are hesitant to comment their own books or the avoid to give too many details about characters and creative processes. They make it clear: the interview’s communication shouldn’t complement the written work. Beyond that we must bear in mind the instantaneity of the interview and the difference between the written and the oral answer, even when transcribed. 

The interview, at least from my utilitarian experience, became an important tool to find directives and discussions that could pass unnoticed by me. Clearly, the format, that is usually short, contribute to certain limitations in the approach deepness, although this aspect can be managed outside the interview genre. As a tool it’s a less impersonal reading to be arranged between studies and other harder readings. However, even with the utility I pointed here, I suspect that this is only a minor use of this kind of text.