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When I Look At You: Christine Otten on writing The Last Poets

The living room provided a magnificent panoramic view of Harlem; the sun was just setting. Muttering under his breath in a warm, lilting voice Umar Bin Hassan dragged me into his world. “The Last Poets are like a microcosm of black Amerika,” he said. Rarely did a man talk so candidly about his life and about himself; the highlights and the worldwide success, as well as the quarrels between band members, the drugs, the violence, and his struggles to maintain relationships with wives and children. I quickly understood that his poems, however political or socially engaged, were deeply personal. That every image, every metaphor was rooted in experiences that were sometimes gained a very long time ago. How his grandmother’s “You ain’t shit” resonated in “Self-hatred wrapped up in a twisted, demented but well-controlled smile.” (Malcolm, 1993).

The conversation soon turned to his father, Sonny Huling, who had been a brilliant trumpet player (“I can hear him just like that. He crammed all his love into those few rarefied tones and that husky melody”) but also a drinker and he never held a job for more than a couple of consecutive weeks. That is why Umar, the eldest son, had been working since the age of nine as a shoe shiner in the red-light district of Akron, Ohio. “I have always known that there was madness in our family. And possibly also in me. My father was a troubled man. He drank and terrorised us.” Umar looked at me as if to gauge my reaction. Then he told me he had tried to kill his father when he was 11, after the latter had beaten up his mother for the umpteenth time. Umar had bought a knife and waited for him at night but his mother discovered the knife and took it from him. “My father saw Mommy with the knife and walloped her. But when he left he looked at me in a way that said, ‘I knew it was you.’”

Of all the stories he told me that evening this one affected me the most. The palpable hurt, the guilt. I recognized that from my own childhood. Just like Umar’s father, mine had lost his grip on reality and had become confused, not due to racism and exclusion in the way Sonny had, but certainly as a result of poverty and neglect. Both our fathers had suffered from a lack of opportunities and the lack of recognition that ensued. Unwittingly, they had transferred to us their feelings of shame and inferiority. Though not something we spoke of that evening, there was clearly a mutual acknowledgment and kinship. Although I had never tried to murder my father, I did deny him access to our house when I was 15 after he had absconded from a psychiatric institution. “You were always hard as nails,” my father had let slip once. In my ears, it sounded just like I knew it was you. “Demons,” is what Umar called his destructive emotions. That critical voice deep inside yourself that whispers: There is something wrong with you and you will never amount to anything. “Niggers love anything but themselves,” Umar would say later in a poem.

I decided to write a novel about The Last Poets and took the required steps: approach, research, understanding, and finding the words. I wanted to grasp how a brilliant poet and such a loving human being such as Bin Hassan could simultaneously be so destructive as to have left his wife and kids for crack and the streets. I wanted to understand what poverty, racism, and exclusion do to a person’s soul; how self-hatred is passed on. And also how his own poetry, eventually, gave Umar the strength to make his way back. In hindsight, one could easily say that I wanted to understand my father and myself through this undertaking; my own demons. That this was my underlying drive to write the novel. And perhaps it is true. To be honest, I believe it is the other way round: that “understanding myself and my background and father” is incidental (although I do not want to belittle its effect on my life). I immersed myself fully in the stories of Bin Hassan and Oyewole (who I interviewed the next day) as they narrated their personal history in its (political and social) context in the ruthlessly honest and realistic manner of African griots (travelling poets, musicians, storytellers). It was as if I were suddenly divorced from myself, my background, my history; as if tumbling into a different world and time. This had nothing whatsoever to do with being “black” or “white” but everything to do with identification and curiosity; with recognition at a deeply human level, without being able to say exactly why. The narrative of the novel just presented itself to me. I needed to write The Last Poets. “When I look at you it is as if I see myself,” Umar would say at some point. The feeling was mutual. Sometimes you can see yourself better via another, seemingly a stranger from another world, another culture. Literature—fiction—is an excellent vehicle to do so, as you briefly inhabit the thoughts and emotions of another person. You literally get under their skin, enter their mind, live in their world. This intimacy between a writer and their characters, between the reader and the characters/writer/narrator is unique to literature.

 

 

The above piece comes from Otten’s pamphlet De ander bestaat niet (“The other doesn’t exist”), a plea for courage in literature, which investigates what literature has to offer in a polarised and fragmented world.

 

Christine Otten’s book The Last Poets is published by World Editions.