“Pestilence on top of pestilence”: In conversation with Naomi Wallace

Call & Response reached out to playwright Naomi Wallace to have a conversation about art, truth, and hope during these dark times.

Naomi Wallace is a playwright and screenwriter originally from Kentucky. Her plays — which have been produced in the UK, Europe, the United States, and the Middle East — include In the Heart of America, Slaughter City, One Flea Spare, The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, Things of Dry Hours, The Fever Chart, And I and Silence, The Liquid Plane, Hard Weather Boating Party, Returning to Haifa and The Corpse Washer. Her stage adaptation of William Wharton’s novel Birdy was produced on the West End in London. Her films include: Lawn DogsThe War BoysFlying Blind (co-written with Bruce McLeod). Wallace is the recipient of numerous awards including: Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (twice), Joseph Kesselring Prize, Fellowship of Southern Writers Drama Award, Obie Award, the Horton Foote Award for most promising new American play. She is also a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts development grant. In 2013, Wallace received the inaugural Windham Campbell prize for drama and in 2015, an Arts and Letters Award in Literature. Naomi Wallace has been called "a dedicated advocate for justice and human rights in the U.S. and abroad, and Palestinian rights in the Middle East," and her writing described as "muscular, devastating, and unwavering."

C&R:  Is there an object or a practice (sacred or mundane) that gives you solace in these dark times? Is there something or someone who gives you hope?   

NW: In the dark times there are always pieces of light, yes?  If one looks only at the U.S. government, the corporate elite, then the lights go out, in terms of hope or solace.  But if one looks at the magnificent struggles in recent years, for example at Standing Rock or thru Black Lives Matter or with BDS—there’s a lot to give us good juice.  Raccoons also give me solace.  Turtles do too and small animals that fly at night.  My three children give me solace, and my partner.  Right now I’m rereading for sustenance.  Buchner’s Woyzeck, Shakespeare’s Othello (with Cedric Robinson as guide).  I’m re-reading James Baldwin’s Another Country and  Audre Lorde’s poetry.  Philip Levine’s What Work is.  Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck.  As well as discovering new books like Nick Estes’ Our History is Our Future and Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide and Empire.  These works are lights in the dark times, lights of learning and remembering.

C&R: Albert Camus, in his novel The Plague, writes: “At the beginning of a pestilence and when it ends, there’s always a propensity for rhetoric. In the first case, habits have not yet been lost; in the second, they’re returning. It is in the thick of a calamity that one gets hardened to the truth–in other words, to silence.” Where is your head, and your heart, in relation to the rhetoric, to our habits, and to the silence that falls when the hard truths of calamity come into focus?  

NW: Pestilence. This word has more meaning that we allow it.  Its origin is Middle English, and then also meant ‘morally corrupting’, not just epidemic disease.  The calamity that befalls us now is rooted in the brutal inequalities of an economic system that cares little for the flourishing of humanity or for preserving the earth’s ability to support us.  So in a sense, capitalism is also a pestilence and much of the world has been dying from this fatal system for decades.  Thru war, thru economic exploitation, thru emotional manipulations.  Now we have pestilence on top of pestilence.  And racial capitalism’s fault lines and lies are exposed even further.  

C&R: What does solidarity mean to you? In your work?  

NW: I work, mostly alone, in a small one room green house in our garden in North Yorkshire.  Thru the windows I talk to the birds, who always have the last word.  I always miss working steadily with other people (which I do only when in rehearsals or co-writing for the stage or screen).  But to write, I usually need to sit alone.  Solidarity for me is with my close friends; we share our writing and critique our weaknesses.  Solidarity in the wider political sense is showing up and standing with those who are in need, who are without, who have been ruthlessly exploited, and yet have the most to teach us.

 C&R: What/who have you read, seen or listened to recently that really blew you away?  

NW: Carl Safina’s Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel.  I grew up on a small farm in Kentucky.  While my father raised cattle, my siblings and I raised anything that needed a little help: ground hogs, raccoons, squirrels, runt pigs.  Our culture teaches us that animals are very different from people.  They are not.  Even fish can tell faces apart. That’s why I no longer eat them, or any of my sentient brethren.  And Bill V. Mullen’s Living in Fire is the new James Baldwin biography and the one we’ve been waiting for.  It explores his anti-imperialism, his queer advocacy, his feminism. And Bach’s Cello Suites (Janos Starker on cello).  And T.J. Clark’s Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come..  Its about ideas of paradise on earth, visions of another world, thru paintings.  I finished a new play some months ago, What Need for Heaven.  I’m still thinking about how we dream up new social relations, new economies, new ways to relate to one another that are not predicated on profit but on love and sensuality and play.

C&R: Does truth still matter in a “post-truth” age? What role does art play in relation to the truth?   

NW: I think I’d rather rephrase this question and ask what role art can play in relation to history.  We know there is not one history but many histories.  But the ones that interest me as a writer are the histories that are repeatedly repressed by the ruling elite, the Masters of War, so that they can control our imaginations, for instance what we believe about ourselves, about who we were and what we wanted.   Does the term “post-truth” mean anything really?  I don’t think so. Its one of those dead-before-born words the mainstream corporate news likes to play with.  Most of the world, the 80% that carry the wealthy on their backs, they know what the truth is about their lives, their work, the lack of dignity accorded to their needs.  If there is a constant truth perhaps it is that people have always resisted what oppresses them, what degrades them.  People have always worked for a world that will give gentle welcome to their children, to all children.  We may not consistently be aware of that work, that resistance, but it is there. Sometimes in strikes, sometimes in marches, sometimes simply in continuing to love against the odds. 

C&R: There is no shortage of apocalyptic thinking these days. But what if we could fill the future with visions of light instead? There is a Sikh prayer that asks, “what if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?” Seeing this dark moment instead as the prelude to a rebirth of sorts,  what would the world look like in 50 years if you could imagine and bring that future into being?  

NW: Well, frankly I’m not that capable of imagining another world on my own steam, so to speak.  When I want to envision a future, I read Robin D. G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.  Or Angela Y. Davis’s Freedom is a Constant Struggle.  Edward Said’s The Last Sky, a testament to the resilience and creativity of a people under years of lock down.Lets hope that in 50 years time, a Green New Deal, democratic and socialist, will be in the works and working.  Perhaps we’ll have built so many libraries by then that we will begin to nest among the shelves of books until we are inseparable.  Until books are our substructures.  And the ocean will be clearing and the air and the sky and we will work for one another’s contentment.  We will all have roofs and satisfying work and the health of the earth will once again be respected and considered with every choice.  And no one will be an outsider or unwelcome.  War will only be in the memory of old books and hunger a noun that has fallen out of use. And we’ll be able to be in our bodies the way we need to be and no one is lesser and no one is ‘normal’ because there are so many ways to transpire.   Is it naive or idealistic to conjure this way?  Perhaps what is naive and idealistic is thinking capitalism and wealth can save us or that individualism is anything more than a construct that makes us sick with loneliness, longing and fear.  I won’t be there for that future in 50 years but perhaps a bird (a few generations down the line) that once ate a beetle that ate me will be there.  I’d like to perch on a book in one of the open air libraries built in every city because in 50 years the books about rain and how rain happens will be made partly of rain.  I look forward to it.

Mural on the Plaza Centenario from Pangea’s Lake Street Arts! Program. Mural created by Goodspace Murals. Photo by Meena Natarajan.

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