A young black man named Eddie, driving through the darkness of rural Louisiana, terrycloth wrapped where his hands once lived: with this violent, hectic image, James Hannaham opens Delicious Foods, his second novel. It’s a hell of a hook, yes—questions raised, hearts racing—but from there, the prologue settles down. Upon reaching a small town, Eddie starts a successful business as the “handyman without hands,” and although the terrors of his own past never leave him, he finds some bit of happiness in work and family. Soon, Hannaham leaps into the elaborate story of how Eddie lost his hands, and for 300 pages, the novel grabs hold of the reader by his hair and pushes his face into the most repulsive corners of American life. The prologue, then, seems to do something important: it suggests the possibility of peace.
But Hannaham sets me straight: he considers Eddie a version of the Magical Negro—a character with a long tradition in American fiction and film who selflessly helps white characters (Michael Clark Duncan in The Green Mile, for example). The Magical Negro is usually upstaged by “a middle-class white family living and not thinking about him,” Hannaham says, “so you don’t know what trauma led him to be so incredible.” As for the severed hands, Hannaham considers that mutilation—symbolically at least—“the endgame of discrimination,” something Eddie has to live with his entire life, no matter how his context changes. So where I first saw peace, Hannaham sees only sustained trauma, something you maybe learn to cope with but that never goes away.
In other words, my viewpoint is exactly the sort that Hannaham hopes to correct.
Let me get this out of the way: crack cocaine narrates stretches of Delicious Foods. This fact you will read in every bit of coverage about this book. Crack—affectionately known in the novel as “Scotty”—has a grip on Darlene, Eddie’s mother. When we meet her, she’s a prostitute thinking about a recent encounter, and Scotty’s voice is a smash cut: “Out all the stuff a motherfucker could say, not realizing he had spoke to somebody who gone to college.” This voice is the easiest part of Delicious Foods to talk about: it’s flashy, commanding the reader’s attention. When I quote Hannaham a sentence from the book—Scotty wants to take Darlene dancing in a “heavenly ballroom full of drugs”—he says, “Scotty’s a bit of a cheese ball. He loves too much.”
Under Scotty’s power, Darlene accepts a job with a company known as Delicious Foods, but this turns into hellish captivity, with Darlene and many others forced to work in terrible conditions on a farm. Hannaham first became aware of labor camps like this when the New Yorker published an excerpt of John Bowe’s Nobodies, a work of nonfiction that examines forced labor in the United States. Hannaham realized that he didn’t have to write a period piece to tackle the subject of slavery.
Elsewhere in Delicious Foods, Hannaham tells the story of Darlene’s pre-Scotty life, when she lived with a man named Nat in a Southern town called Ovis. Nat, frustrated by how “the residents of Ovis appeared to have accepted the injustices as inescapable,” becomes an activist, only to meet a horrible end. And what of the killers, who go unpunished? “If he’da been white,” Hannaham writes, “they’d have a suspect by now.”
A sentence like that hits hard for anyone who has spent the last months watching the sad television coverage of Ferguson and Eric Garner, but the sadder truth is that those words would have rung true at nearly any point in the last century and will probably continue to ring true for a long time. Early in Delicious Foods, Hannaham writes about the black residents of Ovis: “the talons of injustice would swoop down soon enough, dismember these men, and be gone.” There it is again, that idea of dismemberment—the endgame of discrimination.
“I’m much more interested in people who have to struggle than people who don’t,” Hannaham says. “I have an opportunity to connect with that struggle. I wish I were Mexican, because I would be able to write a completely different book about the same thing. I hope that a Mexican writer who reads [Delicious Foods] hates it and wants to write a different book about the same subject as a response.”
Hannaham acknowledges that marketing plays a problematic role in the perception of minority writers: “You sell people things by stereotyping.” But he points out that Morrissey has a huge Latin American fan base, even though he seems to have nothing in common with that ethnic group—not superficially, anyway.
“I suppose we relate to emotional experiences,” I say, “more than to superficial particulars.”
“And maybe,” Hannaham says, “it’s time for white folks to have the experience of people of color, where it’s hard to find the stuff you want, so you have to go read the classics, even if you’re insulted by them and they don’t represent you.”
Hannaham and I are talking on the day after the 87th Academy Awards, which received widespread criticism for having an overwhelmingly white slate of nominees. Movies by black filmmakers that deal with civil rights (Do the Right Thing, Fruitvale Station, Selma) often have a harder time reaching Oscar voters than do similar movies by white filmmakers (Mississippi Burning, Driving Miss Daisy, The Help). The rare exception of 12 Years a Slave seems mostly like the Academy’s version of saying, “Hey, we’re not racist. Here’s our black friend.”
Hannaham responds to this situation with weary optimism. For instance, the high ratings for the new television show Empire on Fox give him a bit of hope. “That suggests to me that people are maybe going to hire more black people. That’s one thing that ought to happen, right? One of the problems is that the halls of power are not populated by people of color. Even white people who want to change that don’t know how. They don’t know any black people.”
I ask Hannaham whether he thinks that publishing is at least evolving by publishing more minority writers. “It depends on what kind of book we’re talking about.” He mentions the genre of “street lit,” dominated by African-Americans, and notes that if an author establishes a fan base there, mainstream publishing will sometimes pay attention. “But [publishers] have to be hit over the head,” Hannaham says. “Otherwise, they don’t see it.” Hannaham points out that even Little, Brown, publisher of Delicious Foods, doesn’t have a lot of authors of color on their list—not when it comes to literary fiction, anyway.
At the moment, there seem to be a handful of high-profile novels written by black authors that examine the complexity of racism in America: in addition to Delicious Foods, consider Paul Beatty’s The Sellout or LaShonda Katrice Barnett’s Jam on the Vine or Jabari Asim’s forthcoming May novel Only the Strong. But do four novels even begin to constitute a trend when compared to the thousands of other books published? Or are books like these always there, even if mainstream publishing and media rarely highlight them? Or do these four books actually have nothing to do with each other and are only a cluster I’m creating right now as I try to determine a context for Delicious Foods? Hell, you can even argue that three of those books aren’t even part of “mainstream publishing.”
“High quality black literary fiction is still, to some degree, invisible to the mainstream,” Hannaham says. A Brooklyn resident, Hannaham mentions a local reading series called Sundays @, run by Bridgett M. Davis, whose goal is to create a space for authors of the African diaspora. “She’s been running this series once a month for a couple years and not really repeating readers,” Hannaham says. And when he recently visited this series, tucked away from mainstream publishing, he wondered one thing: “Why doesn’t everybody love these people?”
Benjamin Rybeck is events coordinator at Brazos Bookstore in Houston. His writing also appears in Electric Literature's The Outlet, Ninth Letter, The Rumpus, the Seattle Review, the Texas Observer, and elsewhere.