In this interview with poet and novelist Anthony Grooms, I am reminded of the postmodern insistence that every reading of a text is new. The author of the powerful 2001 novel Bombingham, which won the 2002 Lillian Smith Prize for Fiction, Grooms teaches creative writing and literature courses to the fortunate students of Kennesaw State University. I persuaded him to answer some questions about the power of place in that novel and about his current research. His answers do something timeless. They lead us home.
Hickman: Your 2001 novel Bombingham compels readers or at least compelled me to think about not only a specific time period but also about attachment, good and bad, to a specific place. The central character Walter Burke seems in important ways unable to escape from his experience of growing up in Birmingham, Alabama. Is that something universal or perhaps Southern that we should take away from the novel, that are linked to places not of our choosing?
Grooms: Thanks for reading Bombingham. I appreciate it. I don’t take readers for granted.
I never intended for Bombingham to be a novel about place in the sense that many critics of Southern US literature describe it. I am not an essentialist about place. Having said so, I recognize that the place of our growing up—and by place, I mean not only the geography, but the social experience—becomes a foundational part of our psyches. It makes us the adults we are. Whether our childhood terroir, so to speak, is good or bad, it is what we reckon with all of our lives. A poor, rural education, for example, can be overcome—but overcoming it is a characterizing quality of one’s personality. But many people can not overcome such a deprivation in spite of their innate intelligences. What burns me up is that these situations, like Jim Crow, are for the most part manufactured and most often by those who govern us.
Just as I am still coming to terms the Jim Crow in rural Virginia that restricted my ambitions, Walter Burke must come to terms with Jim Crow in Birmingham, Alabama. But having to do so isn’t all negative. A secure footing in your place of origin steadies you as you step out into the broader world. It helps you to see yourself in the panorama of humanity. This is what I am exploring in the research I am presently doing about black American immigrants to Sweden.
Hickman: I do want to ask about your current research but first let me ask how you explain the power of place for us. What led you to recognize it?
Grooms: People are not just bodies, though the physical self is important. We are also, in a sense, a collection of experiences—some we initiate, many are foisted upon us. These experiences, even seemingly insignificant ones, mold the way we respond in life. The power of place, I think, is two fold. On one hand it shapes world view, on the other hand, it creates a moral foundation. This foundation in many cases is what we toil to reconstruct, as we wrestle with the inevitable ironies and misconceptions that are created by the childhood terroir as we step out and explore places beyond that of our childhood. At least, this is how I feel about myself.
Often I have had a sharp recognition of how much I am shaped by place. Most recently, perhaps, when I lived in Ghana and expected that as long as I didn’t speak I would blend in with the hoi polloi, since most Ghanaians are my color. Wrong! I must have given off a thousand subtle signals that I was an obruni, which means “an outsider”—or even more undermining to my assumed identity—it often means “a white man.” Even the heavy way I walked as compared to the average Ghanaian betrayed me as an outsider. When I met other Westerners—white Europeans and Australians—I felt much more at home than with my fellow blacks, in spite of having developed close relations with many. The point being, I come from a Western place, not an African place.
But my very first recognition of what you call the power of place came early on in my childhood. Children, black children—and likely white children too—were keenly aware of white spaces and black spaces, especially those of us who came of age in the Jim Crow years. The experience of the limited school integration program called Freedom of Choice, in which my parents enrolled me, impressed upon me how social expectations shape behavior.
Hickman: How old were you then?
Grooms: I was twelve.
Hickman: There is a tense exchange between Walter Burke’s father and a white police officer on page 264 of Bombingham, the police officer says, “This is my country, not yours.” That same sentiment of territorial hegemony has been expressed by countless nationalists, many of them occupying positions in the apparatus of repression, all over the planet. What inspired you to include that passage?
Grooms: Inspiration is a curious concept for the artist,. I love what Edward Weston the photographer had to say: “Peace and an hour’s time—given these, one creates. Emotional heights are easily attained; peace and time are not.” My friend Raymond Andrews, the Georgia born novelist, used to say that inspiration always came at midnight—in a bar. I can’t say what inspired the passage. I recall that the scene was hard to draft because I wanted to characterize the police man, not stereotype him. Somewhere in the many drafts, he said that line. I was probably thinking about the way black American soldiers were treated until recently, but especially during the World Wars. One of my great uncles was killed by Nazis in North Africa; two others served in WWII, as did my father-in-law. And yet, I grew up with little public recognition of this fact in history books or popular culture. Jim Crow didn’t allow it. In order to maintain the Jim Crow system any semblance of equal citizenship had to be squashed. Whites and blacks alike had to believe that blacks were Americans only by the largesse of whites. Having helped to build our country, we were often told to “Go back to Africa.” The idea still persists. In any case, I wanted some reflection on the idea that even moderate whites harbor an exaggerated sense of privilege on the issue of nationalism. How can they help it? The concept has been inculcated. And people of color are affected as much as whites. Imagine, if you will, what is meant by “an all American look.” Imagine what outrage would occur if Uncle Sam was replaced with a character who looked more like Uncle Ben! This inculcation is a result of the experience of a place—the place being the USA.
Hickman: I understand that your current project also involves place, or rather being displaced. Could you tell readers more about it?
Grooms: Yes—but place and displacement, of course, are integrated concepts. Even a person who doesn’t move can be displaced, since the world has a tendency to move around us. We deal with it all the time, whether we call it “urbanization,” “gentrification,” or “globalization.
What I am exploring now, though, has to do with immigration. I am looking into how black Americans of the sixties coming from the Jim Crow South, adjust to a life of exile in all white, socialist Sweden. It is not well known that there was a sizable expatriate American community in Sweden in the 1960s and 70s. They were mostly draft dodgers and deserters. A good number of these folks, mostly young men, were black American. Particularly, I have been looking into the experience of Terry Whitmore who was one of deserters who had actually fought battles in Vietnam. He came from Memphis and lived 40 years in Stockholm. Though for most of his life he was a bus driver, Terry was also the subject of antiwar films and the author of a memoir, Memphis, Nam, Sweden. It was through his memoir that I managed to get in touch with him. Another is Sherman Adams who was born in Atlanta. Adams was a sparring partner for Floyd Patterson and later, in spite of having some girth, an artist’s model. He is mostly known as a leftist journalist and political activist across Scandinavia. His memoir, Mitt Amerika (My America) is a moving account of life under Jim Crow. Still, 30 years after its publication it is popular in many Swedish circles.
Hickman: Sherman Adams seems to have lived in the romantic tradition of the intellectual revolutionary. Is that fair?
Grooms: It depends on what you mean by “romantic.” I wouldn’t romanticize it. He was dirt poor all of his life and he died in a jail of diabetic shock after having been accused of being a drunk. All of the stories I’ve heard about him from those who knew him and from newspaper reports and from what I have read of his writings—my reading in Swedish is still developing—suggest that he was a strongly committed activist, perhaps a bit reckless—but unapologetic. He greeted US Ambassador to Sweden, Dr. Jerome H. Holland, also a black American, with a sign that read “White House Nigger.” He got into trouble for that. But, a few weeks later, I was told, he was throwing bricks at the American Embassy. Even so, he seemed to have been a convivial man who had lots of friends.
Hickman: A tragic death is part of the romantic revolutionary tradition. To what extent would you say that Adams or any of the other exiles in Sweden sacrificed themselves for their politics?
Grooms: Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. Yes. Romanticizing the death is a part of the tradition—King, Che, William Wallace of “Braveheart” fame—but then there is the real act of dying! There were no violins, I can assure you. But as someone to be rendered in myth and legend, Adams is certainly an appealing figure. His life story has great literary elements of struggle, passion, and tragedy. In some circles in Sweden he is viewed this way. The person who first told me about him presented him in this light. Part of the benefit of doing research, though, is to cut through the veneration.
I am exploring the toll of exile on these folks. It is important to note that Adams was in a voluntary exile whereas Whitmore and the other deserters, until the 1977 Carter amnesty, faced prison if they returned. Probably, Adams had a better situation in Sweden than he would have had in the US. Though poor, he was allowed to speak his mind and he was somewhat of a darling of the political left. In the US he would have likely been an unknown, just another one of many poor, black men. Still, exile takes an emotional toll on a person in that he is separated from family. It also disrupts the life that might have been in the homeland. Assuming he survived the Vietnam War, Whitmore would have gone to college in the US, but he became a bus driver in Sweden. Exile also requires an adjustment to a new language and culture and it is not always smooth. In fact, Sweden only gave the American deserters “humanitarian” asylum, not “political” asylum. In effect, they were refugees without subsidy from the Swedish government. Many lived in very poor conditions and were taken advantage of by Swedish landlords. What I know about these men from readings and interviews with them is that they were, in fact, very committed against the war, and that they did not take separating themselves from family and country lightly. The gravity of this separation, I think, explains why most of them returned when given amnesty.
Hickman: So what will become of this research on the American exiles?
Grooms: I have several projects in mind. A friend and I have talked about translating Adams for an American audience. But my principal project is that I am writing an historical novel about a young black man adjusting to exile in Sweden. I hope to have it finished soon.
Hickman: Looking forward to reading that!