In 1993, Wideman published a book called All Stories Are True, and this new collection represents both an affirmation of and a challenge to that claim.
The book's provocations begin with “A Prefatory Note” addressed to an unnamed president of the United States, asking when, or if, slavery will ever end, even with the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (“Slavery as a social condition,” the letter states, “did not disappear….Skin color continues to separate some of us into a category as unforgiving as the label property stamped on a person.” The next story, “JB & FD,” reimagines, often to startlingly persuasive effect, the real-life transactions between the 19th-century black author/activist Frederick Douglass and the militant white abolitionist John Brown, whose bloody scourge against slavery climaxed with the deadly 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. The voices of the two men, in correspondence and conversation, seem to blend in with each other even as they argue over tactics and ideology. Later in the book, Wideman (Writing to Save a Life, 2016, etc.) makes a bolder, riskier move by taking his own crack at the ill-fated insurgent slave Nat Turner’s confessions. In between, there are stories, or “stories,” such as “Maps and Ledgers,” in which the narrator recalls how his father’s murderous act upended his family’s perilous sense of harmony; “My Dead,” Wideman’s grim, haunting tally of “a bad ten months” during which he lost “a brother [and] a niece,” who joined other dead relatives from whom they received names and legacies; and “Williamsburg Bridge,” a digressive, quasi-surreal tour de force peering into the crowded mind of a man who’s both hesitant about and intent on diving into the East River. You can also find tips on storytelling (“Writing Teacher”) and even a review of the 2010 South Korean movie thriller The Yellow Sea that morphs into a meditation on the 2009 film Precious. You might, in other words, find this collection to be all over the place, and yet all of these pieces are linked by astringent wit, audacious invention, and a dry sensibility whose owner has for decades wrestled with what he describes as “the puzzle of how and why and where and who we come from.”
Wideman’s recent work strides into the gap between fiction and nonfiction as a means of disclosing hard, painful, and necessary truths.