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What Lies Beneath 

Carl Hancock Rux on Asphalt, war-torn cities and the state of black literature in America

Thursday, Jul 1 2004
Photo by Felicia Megginson

Carl Hancock Rux, the 34-year-old poet, actor, playwright, spoken-word artist and musician, is now also a novelist. Asphalt, written largely before 9/11, is thick with images of and meditations on terror and terrorism, personal and cultural devastation, a post-apocalyptic New York, U.S. citizens living under a near police state, while citizenry of all races tote guns, real and metaphorical, whose bullets are anger and sadness. Music itself — rap, trance, jazz, rock & roll, R&B, techno, industrial — is a major character in the novel, underscoring emotion and politics, allowing Rux to excavate the damaged inner lives of his characters while ruminating on how the world around them feeds their despair and dares them to rise above self and surroundings.

 

L.A. WEEKLY: What inspired such a deeply layered story?

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CARL HANCOCK RUX: Asphalt is a book about what lies beneath the topsoil. I first began to write it around 1998. I was trying to find a way to illustrate how I saw the world as a child — an urban fantasia of beauty and ugliness with pedestrians inhabiting a mystical city of skyscrapers and abandoned buildings. I was born in East Harlem; my mother was a paranoid schizophrenic who remained institutionalized until her death. The identity of my father is still a mystery to me. I was raised by a heroin-addicted uncle and my grandmother, who died of complications due to alcoholism when I was 4. I grew up in the bureaucracy of New York City’s foster-care system; my two brothers and I were all raised by different families. After a brief reunion, my older brother died of AIDS within two years of our meeting.

The familial conflict of the stories [in Asphalt] predominately takes place within a political frame, played out against a backdrop of a city at war. Imagining a city felled by civil war, rebuilding itself as quickly as possible, wasn’t so far-fetched for me. When I was writing Asphalt, newspapers were filled with stories regarding the fight for territory, the depression of war-torn cities, and the ongoing bargaining of peace treaties.

 

As someone who’s traveled the world extensively, what have you observed about people that gives you hope?

I appreciate how personal politics are. When I lived in Ghana, West Africa, just before the first free democratic elections, I was in love with how peaceful and accepting everyone seemed to be, even when openly discussing politics. I was also impressed by their use of natural resources and the cultural maintenance of ancient rituals and spiritual belief systems. In Bali, I developed a profound appreciation for how people communicated with each other, how they seemed to coexist and respect each other’s religions. The community appeared to be one big extended family, and that was what I’d always wanted to see — a community of kindness where no children are without protection and nurturing, and where people come out of their houses and talk to each other. The economic depression of these countries even seemed romantic to me, at the time. But I idealized the peacefulness of these communities. Poverty is not a romantic notion to the children who beg for money in Accra, and violence does not elude peaceful communities. It was a hard lesson to learn, the nature of humanity.

 

In Asphalt, you restore the political and spiritual dimensions to the DJ as shaman. Why make your lead character, Racine — named after 17th-century French playwright Jean Racine — a DJ?

The DJ, as a hero, comes with so many possibilities as a lead character because of his inaccessibility and his tremendous influence over people. Because he is primarily a listener, producing and manipulating pre-recorded sound, he tends not to use his voice to communicate with people as much as he uses records; his vocabulary is an internal one, constructed out of beats and chords. There are characters in the book that talk about the politics of their ghettoized, war-torn reality and some who don’t talk about it as much as they live it. Racine, the DJ, observes it — describes it by juxtaposing Billie Holiday with Mary J. Blige and [rapper] Shyne, because that’s how he understands how the past melds into the present.

 

In a recent New York Times interview, Henry Louis Gates noted, “In 1937, Richard Wright wrote that once the goals of the nation’s civil rights movement are realized, Negro literature as an institution would disappear.”

What does the state of contemporary “Negro literature” tell us about larger contemporary America, about black folk in America, about the achievement of or failure to achieve those political goals — and what does it tell us about itself?

Unfortunately, neither the goals of our civil rights movements have been completely realized, nor has so-called Negro literature as an institution disappeared. Negro literature — or black literature, African-American literature, whatever you’d like to call it — is still relegated to a few shelves in the back of chain bookstores, marginalized and segregated from what is considered to be American literature. It also finds itself trapped in waves of popularity and irrelevance, as well as restricted to rooms of race and culture, thought to be relevant only to a certain populace. I believe in the African-American literary tradition. I’m proud of a vast and eclectic inheritance that spans from Alice Dunbar-Nelson to Toni Morrison to Zane. But these writers should no more be lumped together than Emily Dickinson, Jacqueline Susann and Susan Sontag.

In today’s bookselling marketplace, the success of one popular African-American literary form seems to out-rule the emergence of another. The canon of American letters is still a severely segregated and exclusive club and by no means solely because of the literary industry. The larger problem is how the average American defines identity with an antiquated and inaccurate polyglot of race, sex and class. Who and where you come from and how you look still has so much to do with who you are allowed to be, and how much harder you’ll have to work to be who you really are.

ASPHALT | By CARL HANCOCK RUX | Atria Books | 255 pages | $24 hardcover

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