Play and the Spirit of Resistance in Writing: A Conversation with Jamel Brinkley

Jamel Brinkley author photo

In this interview conducted by Emily Cordo, National Book Award finalist Jamel Brinkley explores the literary short story form in juxtaposition with his practice of capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art. Capoeira was created by Africans enslaved by the Portuguese; it incorporates dance, music, and acrobatics in order to disguise their practice of martial arts fighting techniques. The literary short story form, likewise, encourages both creative, collaborative play and resistance to the capitalist pressures that influence most other literary forms.

Jamel Brinkley’s short story collection A Lucky Man: Stories was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Story Prize, the John Leonard Prize, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a 2018-2020 Wallace Stegner Fellow, and a Carol Houck Smith Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. His stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, The Threepenny Review, Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, and Tin House, among other places, and have twice been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories.

Emily Cordo: How has your practice of capoeira affected you as a writer? Specifically, is there any overlap between the play of capoeira and the play of writing?

Jamel Brinkley: I practiced capoeira for over ten years, though I’m not as active now.

Regarding the capoeira story in the book, “Everything the Mouth Eats,” one of the things I wanted to do structurally was to mirror, as much as I could, the basic movement of capoeira, which is ginga. Ginga means swaying, or to sway. The way that story moves is that it goes back and forth between the present and the past. The past isn’t treated as backstory, it’s equally a part of the story, just as active as what’s going on in the present story.

More generally, capoeira is like ritualized combat—or the phrase I use in the story is an “antagonistic cooperation.” That’s some of how I think stories work. There is this tension or conflict that you’re cultivating to generate meaning of some kind, in the same way that when you’re playing capoeira with someone, you create something together through this ritualized conflict.

Cordo: Because of its history, capoeira is a movement form with a lot of subtext. Likewise, there is a lot of subtext in your stories. How do you approach the process of developing such a rich subtext?

Brinkley: That resonates on many levels. There is a deep history of resistance in capoeira, which I think is part of what you’re talking about. In stories, there is subtext at the level of dialogue, at the level of action. A very simple action a character takes can have so much meaning because of their history or relationship with another character.

I try as much as possible not to spell things out. I don’t want to be a tour guide of my own stories. I want as much as possible for the reader to be active in figuring out the dynamics of individual characters, of characters in relation to each other, what they’re saying, what they’re doing. That’s all important to me. I try to peel away as much direct explanation as possible so that you’re just immersed in the world and things are happening, and it’s up to you as a reader to figure out what’s happening now, what the history is that informs what’s happening now, and things of that nature.

Cordo: You mentioned the element of resistance in capoeira. Do you see your own writing as embodying that spirit of resistance?

Brinkley: Maybe not in the most obvious ways, but resistance can come in many forms. I remember when I was in college and grad school taking history courses, we would talk about the things that laborers would do to resist without outright resisting. They would slow down on purpose, for instance. In each story, given the circumstances that the characters are dealing with, there are little ways they are trying to resist their circumstances. Whether it’s a teenage boy trying to resist the authority of his mother, or characters in a bar in a gentrifying neighborhood trying to resist the imposition of new people coming in and laying claim, resistance is there.

Cordo: Capoeira is also very improvisational, and you’ve mentioned in other interviews that you’re a discovery writer. How much of a story do you like to have choreographed in your mind before you begin, and how much of it do you like to improvise as the story progresses?

Brinkley: I usually start with something very small. I prefer to start that way. I don’t know very much about the story when I begin. I usually start with something like an image, a place, a scrap of dialogue, a voice—just something that is resonating with me—and I figure it out from there. For example, “Clifton’s Place,” the story I mentioned about the bar, started because there is this bar in Brooklyn that I’m familiar with that’s in a gentrifying neighborhood. That’s all I knew. I didn’t know who the characters would be, what the story would be. I just kept thinking about this bar that had a unique interior and was undergoing change. But because I kept thinking about it, it felt like I could write a story about it.

Or, for instance, I had the experience when I was a kid of being in a day camp entirely made up of black and brown boys, and of being bussed out to people’s private swimming pools in the suburbs. As a kid I very much enjoyed that experience, but as an adult I felt like that was weird, and I kept thinking about it, so I started writing a story about that scenario. I didn’t know what would happen, because there was never a story attached to my experience, it was just a weird thing that happened. I took that basic scenario and found my way into a story. So normally I start with something very small and I inch my way in.

Cordo: Literary slice-of-life short stories may be the ideal form for that sort of discovery writing. You’re a big proponent of the literary short story as a form. Obviously Porter House Review’s launch means we’re betting on the form’s survival, but there are many alarming changes in the market right now—with Tin House and Glimmer Train for example—that make the future of the literary short story seem a bit perilous. Why do you feel that it is such an important form?

Brinkley: I think it’s an important form because it mirrors, for many people, what their lives are like. I don’t imagine my life as a novel. It doesn’t feel that coherent. It doesn’t feel like something that starts and then, the equivalent of hundreds of pages later, ends. My life feels like a bunch of short stories that may have some connection, but often do not, at least not in a direct sense.

Also, I like that you can hold an entire short story in your mind, more or less. There may be bits and pieces that you miss, but it’s nice to be able to hold a little narrative in your mind, in your hands. It’s almost as though you’re picking it up by both ends, and you can cart it around. I like the idea that theoretically—maybe not my stories, because they’re pretty long sometimes—you can read one in a sitting and get a whole experience. With a really good story you can get a sense of the character’s whole life.

The point you make about Glimmer Train and Tin House is a good one; many venerable literary magazines are shuttering or going fully online. If I was going to try to make a case for the literary short story, I’d say that it says something positive to me that short stories arent the most commercial form. They’re not so lucrative. They don’t lend themselves immediately to discussion of a movie tie-in. They access a kind of experience that is going away, because everything else is so commercially based, so dependent on the whims of capitalism. Short stories, or poetry, aren’t profitable in most cases, so they open us up to kinds of experiences that aren’t about being a person in a capitalist society or being part of the world of profit. Short stories retain and open up an important space of imagination.