Novelist Jacinda Townsend and writer James Bernard Short join co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan to talk about the movie American Fiction, which is based on the novel Erasure by Percival Everett. Townsend and Short discuss how the film addresses race in the publishing industry via its central character, Black author Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, who tries to make an ironic point by writing a book exploiting Black stereotypes and finds, to his dismay, that it’s received in earnest and a bestseller. Townsend and Short analyze director Cord Jefferson’s approach and the film’s themes of family dysfunction, freedom in storytelling, and the importance of portraying the complexity of Black lives.
Check out video excerpts from our interviews at Lit Hub’s Virtual Book Channel, Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel, and our website. This episode of the podcast was produced by Anne Kniggendorf.
From the episode:
James Short: Fiona [McCrae], when she was the editor [at Graywolf Press], she used to always say, “we’re punching above our weight.” And they just had this formula that worked. They kept things simple, they kept it small, but their reach was very wide and large in terms of the recognition of the authors. And, you know, Carmen [Giménez], now that she’s taken over the helm, has continued that [tradition] in Fiona’s footsteps. So you’re right, Graywolf is exceptional in that regard. But yeah, it’s nothing quite like what was portrayed in the movie.
Whitney Terrell: Can I say that I’ve met some editors like that from Big Four publishers, in my time? I’ve definitely been in meetings like [the one in the movie], where somebody felt like they were being incredibly insincere. And they were talking about money, right? And they’re flattering someone in a way that is completely irresponsible and grotesque. I think the movie does a good job of that. I think that happens. Jacinda, you’re nodding your head. I want to hear what you have to say.
Jacinda Townsend: My first novel was with Norton. I was never really pushed in any certain direction as far as the trappings of the characters’ lives or anything like that. There was a point at which I was distinctly asked, “Well, where’s the struggle?” And I was like, “There’s plenty of struggle. It’s not maybe the kind of struggle you’re thinking of, and I know what you’re alluding to.”
But yeah, that does happen, right? And I think that it’s funny because those of us who were privy to these kinds of meetings understand that. You know, people can be very blunt. People can be very crass. It shouldn’t be shocking, but it’s often stunning, right?
V.V. Ganeshananthan: So for our listeners who haven’t seen this yet, a quick sketch: In the movie, there are two notable interactions in this category: one with an editor who gets on the phone with Monk and then initially is confused when he sounds like… himself. And then he performs a shift in diction and performs, essentially, to the expectation that what he has written is autobiographical. And then—
WT: Then his agent says that he’s a wanted fugitive, which doesn’t help things.
VVG: And then the other interaction is with a director, played by Seth Cohen of The O.C. the actor Adam Brody. And his name is Wiley. And he is, even much more than the editor, very–
WT: —whose last picture was Plantation Annihilation.
VVG: One of the other things, this movie also portrays the publishing industry just flat out in a way that I so rarely see on screen. Earlier James referred to a moment where Monk is at an event. He’s on a panel and his name placard is misspelled, so he takes the card and adds an L to the Ellison. And it’s exactly that kind of indignity, that kind of tiny humiliation, where people think of the life of a writer as “that’s so amazing.” And you’re like, “Actually, I sit in tiny hotel rooms with five people, and people always leave out the penultimate n in my last name.” I feel like I hadn’t seen these things on screen. I just felt a shudder every time I watched Monk perform, you know? Him not being okay, and then his agent being like, “No, be okay. Be okay.”
JT: But, you know, on the flipside, Sugi, that’s funny. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so glamorized as a writer as when [Monk] is writing, and the characters are talking to him. You know what I mean? And he’s sipping his little drink, and the character’s like “What are you doing to me?” Right? I mean, there was something thrilling about seeing parts of the process actually portrayed on the screen. I don’t know if you guys have seen Origin, but it’s similar in that it is actually a movie about how you tell a story, and that, to me, was completely fascinating. But I agree about the petty indignities that just pile up. Like when he goes to the bookstore and actually moves his books.
WT: After my first book came out, I was at Barnes & Noble in Kansas City… It’s a book about Kansas City, and they didn’t have it. And I was like, “Look, I got a box. Can I just come over there?” And they’re like “We don’t really do it that way.” And I said, “I’m coming over there with my books.” And so yeah, I felt for Monk there.
JS: He didn’t even code switch smoothly. It was like this herky-jerky unbelievable transition from the way he normally walked and talked to this caricature. Did you catch when he walked into the meeting with the director, where they started playing like the blaxploitation music in the back?
WT: But then he orders the Chenin Blanc, which I thought was so funny.
VVG: It’s amazing, enjoyable. And Jeffrey Wright is so good in this movie, it’s like every register of discomfort really. It’s like he switches, but he switches badly. We can see that. And then just under the section that you referred to… So for our listeners, essentially the character that Monk is writing about suddenly appears in front of his desk, and the two characters have a conversation, which is not the way that it happens in Erasure, in which the faux book actually appears in its entirety. It’s an interesting transition, from text to screen, to think about how that works. And what’s represented in that conversation between the two characters is a certain kind of stereotype of Black family dynamics. And that stands in specific contrast to the family that we see on screen—Monk’s family. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that. Because yeah, Monk’s family plays a really large role in the movie, and it’s very interesting.
JT: There are a couple of things. One moment that stood out for me—that’s so brilliantly acted by Jeffrey Wright—is when Lorraine, who was the family’s maid… How do I tell this without spoiling it? Something happens, and it’s time for her to go. And he says to her, “Don’t you want this apron?” And she says—she, this woman who has worn this apron through the whole movie—tells him, “I always hated that color. It’s just the one your father bought.” And Jeffrey Wright gets this look of realization on his face because he, in some way, has reenacted this on this maid, right? He has prescribed her to a certain class role in his head, even as he says, “Don’t call me Mr. Monk.” The exploration of class in this movie, as apart from race, is really interesting.
I think there is a freedom that Black people are not allowed to have on the page, and consequently, are not allowed to have in people’s minds. And so the class aspect of this movie is about the freedom of storytelling, right? And I think what’s cool about this movie is that in the end, just via the movie, Monk also gets to write whatever he wants to write.
I think what got me about the movie—and the second time I saw it, I actually had to walk out for part of it. I’m not going to spoil it, but I think you all know what I’m talking about, the most affecting part of it. I had to walk out—because at the end of the day, this is also very much a movie about caring for your elders. It’s a movie about family conflict. One of the best lines of that whole movie is: “This family will break your heart.” And so it feels like a departure from the standard Black—you know, whatever we think of a Black family, just gives the movie that much more breathing room, that much more freedom. It’s a wish that I have for Black literature, that it would also have that kind of freedom.
WT: I mean, you see that in the costuming. Jeffrey Wright has always got a really nice Oxford on, man, and he’s wearing a tie. He looks fantastic all the time. And there’s that one scene with his brother where, after an affecting emotional scene, he and his brother are both sitting in a room in their beach house, and they have these beautiful white shirts on, and the brother’s at the piano—which made me think of Monk—and like, the family has a certain aesthetic. That’s the aesthetic of the family, and so I love seeing that portrayed, and I understood it and it felt real. It is real. Anyway, I thought that was an important and powerful part of the movie.
JT: Yeah, and I can’t say this enough for people who haven’t seen it that, in a lot of ways, what stuck with me wasn’t the satire as much as it being a story about everyone’s family dysfunction. You know, family is a stain, right? The movie portrays that idea very well.
JS: And to piggyback off of Jacinda’s last comment, for the scene where Monk is ready to throw Cliff out of the house and disinvite him from the wedding, and Lorraine just comes over and embraces him and says, “You are family, so in all your imperfections or whatever you may imagine, I want you to stay and participate in my wedding.” And that just sort of highlights the point that you made.
V.V.G.: And it’s such an interesting flip because, throughout the movie, we’ve seen the family refer to Lorraine and repeatedly say, “Lorraine is family, Lorraine is family,” and we kind of know subtly—we’re like, “and she’s your employee.” So this is the moment where she gets to say it. And the actress who plays Lorraine [Myra Lucretia Taylor] is tremendous, and also Sterling K. Brown, who plays Cliff.
Transcribed by Otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Amanda Trout.
Mother Country • Saint Monkey
James Bernard Short
“Aqua Boogie” | Blood Orange Review • “Rootwork” | Blood Orange Review • “Flash, Back: Langston Hughes’ The Simple Shorts” | SmokeLong Quarterly
American Fiction (movie) | Official Trailer • Erasure by Percival Everett • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones • Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead • Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead • Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward • The Color Purple by Alice Walker • Thelonious Monk • Ralph Ellison • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison • “The Little Man at Chehaw Station” by Ralph Ellison | The American Scholar, 1978 • The Tuskegee Institute • White Negroes by Lauren Michele Jackson • “The White Negro” by Norman Mailer | Dissent, 1957 • “Dragon Slayers” by Jerald Walker | The Iowa Review, 2006 • “The Hidden Lesson of ‘American Fiction’” by John McWhorter | The New York Times • Origin (movie) | Official Trailer • Fiction/Non/Fiction Season 1, Episode 11, “Annihilation, Adaptation: What’s It Really Like to Have Your Book Made Into a Movie” • Fiction/Non/Fiction Season 2, Episode 11, “Brit Bennett and Emily Halpern on Screenwriting’s Tips for Fiction” •Fiction/Non/Fiction Season 6, Episode 33, “The Stakes of the Writers’ Strike: Benjamin Percy on the WGA Walkout, Streaming, and the Survival of Screenwriting” • Fiction/Non/Fiction Season 6, Episode 38, “Jacinda Townsend on Why Democrats Are Skeptical of President Biden—and How He Can Win Them Back”