By Linda Mahal
Photo by Jay Hemphill
JJ Amaworo Wilson is the writer-in-residence at Western New Mexico University. He joined the Stonecoast faculty in 2018. His 2016 novel, Damnificados, won the Hurston/Wright Foundation Legacy Award, the Independent Publisher Book Award, the New Mexico-Arizona Book Award, and the Prix SGDL Révélation de Traduction for the French translation. It was also an Oprah Top Ten pick. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including African American Journal, Justice Journal, Mission at Tenth, A Public Space, IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain, and others. His novel, Nazaré, will be published by PM Press in 2021. Amaworo Wilson, who speaks four languages, has also written a dozen books on language and language learning. For two of these, he was honored at Buckingham Palace in 2008 and 2011. He divides his time between Silver City, New Mexico and Santa Catarina, Brazil. http://jjawilson.com/
You've mentioned elsewhere that your encounter with the real-life Tower of David, an unfinished abandoned skyscraper in Caracas, compelled you to write DAMNIFICADOS. Could you tell us a bit about your creative process in composing that novel, from that flash of inspiration to the initial conceptual or writing stages, and through the revision process? How did you begin? How did you proceed? How did you bring the work to completion?
After seeing the tower, I read articles and watched documentaries about the community that lived there. I knew the book had to begin with the initial incursion, the moment the homeless entered. Then I universalized it and turned it into a Tower of Babel for the dispossessed. Once I had that broken-down, polyglot, rag-and-bone world in my head, plus my main character–my Moses–the story turned mythical. Everything I’d seen and read became entwined in the book–fairy tales, magical realism, strange languages, and all the cities I’d been to. I revised several times before submitting, and then revised again after acceptance.
The outline of major events that precedes each chapter in DAMNIFICADOS immediately transports me to memories of reading epics in translation. Your text delivers on this expectation with cascading allusions to mythology, including to Oedipus Rex. And like Odysseus, the mastermind of war, the protagonist, Nacho, is a storyteller. Is the storyteller the true hero of human survival and liberation, and if so, how?
No. Storytellers bear witness. They’re no more heroic than anyone else. They just have the words to keep the tale alive. None of the great writer-witnesses (Elie Wiesel, Anne Frank, Ariel Dorfman, etc.) see themselves as heroes.
To the English reader, the title DAMNIFICADOS evokes "the damned," but in Spanish, the root is damnificar, to damage, and thus los damnificados are the injured, the harmed, and, perhaps, the victimized. "The damned," strictly translated into Spanish, I believe, would be los condenados. Could you speak a bit about this word, damnificados, how it informed your imagination, your writing, and how it emerged as the title of the novel?
The word came straight from the mouth of the taxi driver who took me away from the tower at 2:00 in the morning. I’d asked him who lived there and he said “los damnificados.” I didn’t worry about etymology. The word itself was too beautiful. The fact that there’s no perfect translation in English is fine with me; I like language that lives on the margins.
The word kept me focused. The story would be about the poor, the stigmatized. And because of the novel’s Latin American tone and background, I thought it justified to use a Spanish word as the title.
For your January 2021 residency seminar entitled Writing as Resistance: A Global Perspective, you've chosen both Primo Levi's If This Is A Man and James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time as essential texts. Levi and Baldwin aren't often discussed together, in my experience, and yet they were twentieth-century contemporaries: they were born just five years apart, in 1919 and 1925, respectively, and they both died in 1987. Of the many texts that you could have chosen to recommend, why these two authors, these two texts?
Levi’s book is a superb depiction of how far humankind can fall. The Holocaust was probably the single most emblematic episode of the twentieth century. And for me, Levi’s is the great Holocaust text.
Baldwin is a consummate thinker and prose stylist. In theory, he was writing about something completely different from Levi. In practice, he wasn’t. All persecution and oppression comes from the same impulses.
Is there something new that you've read during the past year that has reinvigorated your faith in the creative writer as witness, as resister?
Fortunately (or unfortunately), my faith doesn’t need any reinvigorating! But I did re-read several great books I hadn’t read in decades: Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Elie Wiesel’s Night, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. They reminded me of the size of the task ahead for humanity in general, and for writers specifically.
Has your sense of the role of the writer in society changed as a result of the cataclysms of the past year? Has your relationship to writing changed?
No. I don’t think the pandemic changed anything for writers; we’ve always had a close relationship with suffering and death. And while much of society was shocked by the murder of George Floyd, it was no surprise whatsoever to people of my color. It’s been going on for centuries. All the other cataclysms such as economic inequality and environmental collapse have also been around for ages for anyone who cares to look.
What has it been like to be a teacher, a writing mentor, during this extraordinary time?
Not much different from normal. The goals of the writer don’t change: tell a great story, make something beautiful out of something ugly, put the right words in the right order.
What are you looking forward to—creatively, personally, professionally, or politically—in 2021?
I’m looking forward to the preservation of democracy in the U.S., and to vaccines that will save millions of lives. I organize a book festival called Southwest Word Fiesta, in New Mexico, which will take place October 2021, so I look forward to discovering new writers in the Southwest and reconnecting with the literary community there. I’d love to see my Stonecoast students and colleagues face-to-face this year. And lastly, I have a new novel coming out in 2021, called Nazaré.
Can you tell us more about the novel?
Sure. It’s about a peasants’ revolt in a fictional, polyglot city. A homeless boy and a washerwoman cobble together a ramshackle army of fishermen, shopkeepers, lapsed nuns, anarchist bats, and an itinerant camel in an attempt to end the reign of a dictator. Looming over them all is the legend of the giant wave—Nazaré—that will one day annihilate everyone and everything in that city.
The novel was inspired by resistance movements throughout history, including the Cuban Revolution and the Arab Spring. It’s an adventure story, with a dose of magical realism and social justice thrown in. Oh, and a bit of humor, too!
For more information about JJ Amaworo Wilson, visit his faculty bio.