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The Best Thing About Fiction

September 22, 2020
NEWS - John Holman
JOHN HOLMAN

White Folks,” a short story in our September 2020 issue, was written by John Holman, who grew up in Durham, North Carolina, just a few miles from The Sun’s editorial offices in Chapel Hill. As an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he intended to major in journalism but fell in love with fiction after taking a few literature courses. A few years later, finishing up a master’s program in English at North Carolina Central University back in Durham, he sent a poem to The Sun. The work struck our founding editor, Sy Safransky, and “Right Here” was published in our March 1977 issue. It was Holman’s first work in print.

Holman was preparing to teach an online class at Georgia State University for the first time due to the pandemic when Sun Associate Editor Finn Cohen caught up with him.

What was it like rereading “Right Here”?

It’s hard to look back at it now and remember myself writing it. I honestly did not recall a couple of lines. I remembered the gist of the poem, but the language, seeing it again — some of it was like reading it for the first time. I guess there’s a little distance from who I was, but at the same time, I’m nevertheless familiar with that person.

What prompted you to send it to The Sun?

Now that’s hard to remember. I knew The Sun was published in Chapel Hill, and I had my own connection there. The magazine was interesting, and fairly new, so I thought my chances of the poem being received well might be good. As I recall, I mailed the poem with a self-addressed stamped envelope. And I was delighted to receive a personal reply from Sy Safransky, saying he would like to publish it.

It was thrilling to see the poem in print. I was always interested in writing, even though I didn’t know whether I wanted to be a poet or a fiction writer or what. It was kind of a practical decision to turn my attention to fiction. I realized that when publications did pay for creative writing back then, it was usually by the word. So I figured I would write more words. [Laughs]

What do you have your students read?

Often I’ll ask them to read that year’s Best American Short Stories collection, and sometimes I’ll put together a packet of stories. This semester I’m teaching a class that is designed to get students to ask questions about why authors make certain choices and how they use certain techniques. I’m having them read a collection of stories by Danielle Evans called Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self; There, There by Tommy Orange; Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison; and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

What is the greatest challenge in teaching fiction these days?

For undergraduates, it’s often that they haven’t read much literary fiction, other than what they’ve read for an English class. They really like fantasy and science fiction, which are plot-driven rather than about the interiority of characters, so it’s hard to get them to appreciate a genre other than what they think they want to write. I’m also finding that grammar isn’t taught in some high schools, apparently. That’s a challenge. The students don’t think it’s important to correct some bad habits.

As for graduate students, they come with good skills. The challenge there is meeting them where they are, figuring out what they’re trying to do, and helping them do it.

How do you get undergraduates to appreciate the interiority of a character?

First of all, I tell them interiority is the best thing about fiction, because that’s what makes it different from TV and theater and film. We get to read another person’s mind, and you can only do that with fiction. Then I show them stories that do a good job of that. I try to point out where the author chooses to render the interiority of a character, and how the language shapes our perception of the character.

In “White Folks” the narrator talks about the nightmares that he had as a kid. Did you have that experience when you were a child? Was it a vivid nighttime imagination?

Yes, it was.

What is your dream life like now?

Vivid. I’ve never been to South Korea, but a good friend who’s from there has told me stories about it. In one dream I walked through streets in South Korea and stopped to sit at a coffeeshop. Out of the window was an alligator in the grass that leapt to catch a bird that flew by. It wasn’t exactly a nightmare, but it was pretty strange.

My friend had told me about how these neighborhoods are stacked on each other in levels. Have you seen the movie Parasite? The parasitic family lived below ground, and went up the hill to, literally, the high life. My dream had those kinds of levels in it, and I went down to the coffeeshop, where the animal life occurred. I don’t know if that was a dream caused by the anxieties of COVID-19, or civic unrest, or what.

The narrator of “White Folks” says to the two boys he’s talking to, “Practically everything was different now than it was in the past.” Is that a sentiment you share?

I think so, in terms of some of the things the story is about, like racial segregation, at least compared to how things were in the narrator’s childhood. Things are different for those boys he’s talking to. I think that’s what that line was getting at. Everything isn’t different — human nature isn’t different — but in some economic and social ways they are, for Black people anyway.

It’s still not quite enough.

No. Poverty is maddening to me, and it causes so much suffering. It’s shocking that there’s so much poverty in the world, and in this country in particular — and that is still along racial lines, largely.

It seems like our society punishes people for being poor, penalizing them through predatory lending or the way law enforcement treats them. If you’re in that situation, it’s hard to get out of it.

And that’s part of the suffering. It reminds me of sharecropping, when you could never free yourself from living an indebted life. To me it results in bad education because schools are less funded in poor neighborhoods. It’s self-perpetuating.

It makes society seem dismal, the more I think about it. [Laughs] But there’s hope, right?

You have to have it. Especially this year.

This has been an amazingly bad year, but I think it’s bad because so many people who have never had it bad are now experiencing it. But then there’s others, like the people we’ve been talking about. For them, every year’s been bad.

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