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Writers@Grinnell Jamel Brinkley Q&A

Jamel Brinkley gave a roundtable talk and reading on Thursday. Illustration by Zoe Fruchter.

Jamel Brinkley’s debut short story collection, “A Lucky Man,” which made the National Book Award Longlist in Fiction, was published by Graywolf Press in May of this year. Brinkley, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, returned to Iowa this past Thursday, where he gave a roundtable discussion and reading at the College. Brinkley sat down with The S&B’s Mira Braneck to discuss the roles of place, intimacy, and gender in his book.

You said at the round table today that this collection is united by place, and the South Bronx and Brooklyn are so consistent and they’re so present in these stories. I was wondering what role place plays in your writing.

Yeah, I think in order for place to be a real thing in my writing it has to be a real thing to the characters. Meaning, I didn’t want the Bronx or Brooklyn to be these cardboard cutouts of like, skyscrapers or brownstones or housing projects. I wanted each of these places to exert some force on the characters, whether it’s a house party in Brooklyn, whether it’s a tiny apartment in the Bronx, whether it’s a swimming pool in the suburbs—all of these places are doing things to my characters and shaping the way that they think and act and respond to each other.

You also mentioned earlier today that people tend to say that this is a book about masculinity, but that it’s about a lot of other things as well, so I was wondering what are some of these other things that the book is about.

I think the book is, in addition to masculinity, I think it’s about brotherhood, it’s about parent-child relationships, I think it’s about vulnerability and intimacy. And of course that has to do with masculinity, right, so there’s a certain version of masculinity that can only conceive of vulnerability as equaling weakness, as opposed to openness of some kind. Or there’s a certain form of masculinity that can only conceive of intimacy as being about sex, right, as opposed to other kinds of closeness that you could have with another person. So with my characters I think I was looking at the way that people are with each other and these relationships and what it means to be vulnerable with someone or intimate with someone, that aren’t about those other ideas but, you know, about genuine human connections. That was really important for me to write about.

I was about to ask about intimacy in this book, and how you see the different kinds of intimacies operating, and what role they play.

Yeah, I think that the opening story in the collection, the idea that the guys have at the very beginning is intimacy as sex with women, and by the end of that story, you know, there’s a very different kind of intimacy, where they’ve been undressed. They’ve been literally undressed, but also metaphorically undressed in front of each other, they see each other in a new way and they see themselves in new ways. But you know, hopefully from there the collection tackles intimacy in different ways, how you could have intimacy with a stranger, the way that Freddy does with Arlene, in “I Happy Am,” or the way that someone who is your more or less platonic best friend can be the love of your life, the way that we see it with Curtis and Marvin in “A Family.” So I think I’m just interested in sort of interrogating or piercing through these set notions about what relationships are, and illuminating the various ways that people of all kinds can be intimate with each other.

Yeah, it’s really refreshing to see different types of intimacy, whether it be sex—there are different types of sex in this book, and then you really explore how sex means different things to different people. But then also, how intimacy is a lot more than sex, and how it’s inherent in all parts of our lives.


It’s really refreshing to see that play out, amongst and between men as well.

Yeah, that was important to me. When I was a kid, one thing I remember from elementary school, middle school, high school, is that the only acceptable form of touch between boys, males, was fighting. To hit. And it wasn’t until later, in college and after college, that I really remember embracing my male friends and having it not be something you give a second though to, or that you sort of shrink from. Just sort of being comfortable around each other’s bodies, first of all, I think is important, but then talking to each other, revealing your emotions, your thoughts, your fears, that kind of intimacy, I think is also something that I did not see when I was very young. You’re supposed to withhold that stuff, right. You’re supposed to pretend you don’t even have those things. Whereas a lot of the friendships that have meant the most to me with other men have been ones in which we’re not afraid to be intimate and vulnerable with each other.

I’ve heard that you need five positive touches a day.


Yeah, so for young men, especially young men that are between [the age of] being parented in a physical way and [partaking in] how we typically view romantic relationships, as involving touching—I can’t even imagine how they must not get touched, in positive platonic ways.

Yeah, exactly. And the interesting thing is you see it in very little kids, very little kids are not afraid to touch each other.

They’ll climb all over you.

Yeah. And it’s great! We sort of get away from that when we get socialized into roles and stuff like that, and of course, you want every touch to be a safe touch.


But it’s striking how much those walls get build up between people, especially between men.

Can you talk about, and there’s a lot of different women in this book, but can you talk about the women in this book?

Yeah, I’d love to talk about them. With the exception of Rhonda, in “Wolf and Rhonda”—she’s the only point-of-view character in the book who is a woman, really. You get little hints of Lena in “A Family.” So in that sense, they don’t get point-of-view privilege, in that sense, the women are a little peripheral in a weird way. And I’ve thought a lot about that, when I was writing and putting together the collection, because even though the collection focuses mainly on men, I wanted the women to be memorable and not be objects of desire or these sort of mannequin figures, you know? So how do you do that, how do you write in these women who are being looked at or observed by these men but not have them be reduced to how the men are viewing them. And for me the important thing with the women was to see around the limitations of the main characters, and try to present the women in moments, because they’re peripheral, but present them directly to the readers, so you sort of see them for who they are. So one example that comes to mind is “Infinite Happiness.” Cody is desired by both of the male characters in that story, in a sexual way, but it was important for me to try to get a sense of her inner life. So there’s one point where she’s talking about books, and the library, and how much she reads or the music that she listens to. And it was important for me to get that little glimpse of her, aside from the way that the narrator is looking at her or the way that the other male character is looking at her. So in other words, any opportunity that I had for those women to take the stage, I tried to take full advantage of it. Which was challenging technically, because the book is primarily about men, but I tried to take advantage of the moments where you see them other than the men are seeing them.

Two of the women that I found most fascinating were Sybil and Noamie, from … “No More Than a Bubble.” … That first story, it caught me off guard in the best way, and it totally hooks the reader. I’m just so curious, where did the inspiration come from, and for those women? If you’re willing to divulge.

The basic inspiration came from experiences I’ve had throwing house parties, like the ones that those guys when to in Brooklyn, and … much like that party, tons of people would show up—people we knew, people we didn’t know who just heard about it. It would be all these really interesting beautiful people who would show up. And at that age—I was young, I was just out of college, and it was just the most exciting thing in the world to me. You would fall in love every party, that kind of thing. But the inspiration for those two women, the way I sort of see their journey in the story is first, they walk in, they’re seen visually, and the guys like how they look. Then they start listening to them, and they don’t understand what the women are saying. Which they take as a judgement on the women, like oh, these women are loopy, or whatever. But really every friend group has its own private language, right? And those two guys have their own private language, actually. So one thing I want to suggest to the reader is even though we’re getting mostly these guys’ impression of these women, the women are as rich and as complicated as the two guys themselves, or at least as the narrator.

If not more so.

If not more so. Yeah! Right, exactly, at least as complicated if not more so. And then there’s a sense of guys being on the prowl, which would suggest prey, predator and prey. But these women are in control the entire time, you know? And it just slowly dawns on them that these women are in control. And that’s often what, when I was younger, especially, that’s often when my relationship with women I liked felt like—like they were in control and I wasn’t. And I liked that! I liked that, because there are so many instances where that’s not the case. Or where depictions of women are such that it’s not the case. I wanted them to be powerful, I wanted them to exert control, I wanted them to sort of force these two guys into a situation that they didn’t foresee, that was really important to me.

Yeah, it’s funny, because they’re college age, and like you said, it’s the depiction of women. A lot of my woman friends, especially who are in heterosexual relationships, are totally in control the whole time.

Yeah! Yeah, yes.

And we’re totally portrayed as not being in control. It fascinates me, because it’s so transparent that, especially at this age. … But the age that [the characters] are, it’s so funny to watch.

Right, and part of the power comes from we, [as in] the women, know exactly what you guys are thinking. It’s so see-through, we know it. So that knowledge, that awareness, the awareness that women have to have, just walking around, is one that it grants power, it makes you powerful.

That’s refreshing. So you said at the round table that this book coheres through obsession. So what are some of your obsessions?

Some of my obsessions are definitely brother relationships. I have a younger brother, and like some of the characters, the brothers, in this book, there’s a bit of an age gap between us, and it’s been difficult to always bridge that gap. We’ve sort of gone in and out of times of being close, of being not that close. So just the nature of brotherhood is one of the things that obsesses me. Also, sons and their parents. Fathers, I think, are maybe more prominent in this book, but mothers too. Those relationships. So having father figures, not having father figures, having surrogate father figures, those kinds of things.

Yeah, it’s so prevalent. I was really fascinated by the different types of fathers, like you just described. It’s not just one way.

Yeah, it’s not just one way, which I think is maybe the most important thing. Sometimes we have this very limiting notion about what a family is. The nuclear family. It has to be a mom and it has to be a dad and it has to be kids. And of course we know that actual families look all kinds of ways. It could be mom-mom, dad-dad, it could be a single parent, you know, whatever. … So, just sort of thinking through what it means to have a father or not have a father or have surrogate fathers, I think was super important to me.

What are you reading right now?

Oh, what am I reading right now? I’m finishing a novel called “The Incendiaries” by R.O. Kwon, which is great. I just finished a novel called “There, There” by a writer called Tommy Orange. Both of which are probably going to be on the National Book Award Long List tomorrow, when it comes out. And I’m reading a lot of poetry, I read a lot of poetry, so I always have poetry in the rotation. Terrence Hayes’ new collection, is really important to me.

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