Jamel Brinkley

The writer on perspective and positions of power

Elliott Holt
Photo: Daniele Molajoli

Jamel Brinkley’s first story collection was the acclaimed Lucky Man. His highly anticipated second collection, Witness, explores the tension between acting and observing. That tension is palpable in "Bystander," a story we published this week about a mother who is forced to accept that she can’t control everything. Earlier this month, I corresponded with Brinkley about perspective, being a witness, and the “collection of villages” that makes up New York City, the setting for all the stories in Witness.

Elliott Holt, deputy editor

ELLIOTT HOLT Anita, the protagonist of “Bystander,” is the mother of a teenaged daughter. What drew you to write about motherhood?

JAMEL BRINKLEY I’ve been thinking a lot about mothers—my friends and cousins who are mothers, and my own mother in particular, although Anita is not based on my mom and does not resemble her. Life can be so incredibly difficult, even cruel, to the children that a mother brings into the world, no matter the lengths to which she might go to nurture and protect them. And gestures of intimacy and care can be received in childhood, as well as adulthood, as violations of one’s autonomy or privacy, one’s individual personhood. A protector is also in a position of power. What are the intricate, small-scale dramas that can occur in the context of these dilemmas? I wanted to put a devoted but rigid and possessive mother and her ungovernable but vulnerable child into the small container of a short story and then see what happened when things heated up.

EH In one scene, Anita’s husband Horace says about their daughter, “If I even thought about talking that way to my parents, they would have slapped the black off of me.” Anita doesn’t like that phrase, but she also doesn’t want to become the kind of dominating mother that Horace had. How does race shape Anita’s conceptions of and struggles with motherhood?

JB I think Anita is quite serious about matters of race, to the extent that she seems to lack a sense of humor about the absurdities of race and racism in this country. She thinks of race (blackness) as a burden, on one hand, and in terms of celebrity ideals, on the other. And her conception of the latter—the life of Dorothy Dandridge—is selective and romanticized. So her way of seeing things makes her especially impatient with her daughter’s disordered eating, her appearance and style of dress, her burgeoning political consciousness, and so on. She has a specific vision of the kind of person Dandy should be, and seems to have a difficult time with the parental experience of finding and expressing joy in the kind of person that her child actually is.

My book engages with, among other things, James Baldwin’s ideas about being a witness.

EH I think of a “bystander” as a more passive observer than a “witness,” and I wondered whether that played into your choice to narrate this story in the third person (whereas “Witness,” the book’s title story, is in the first person). How does perspective in each story relate to the book’s larger ideas?

JB I hadn’t thought about the choice of third person in relation to being a passive bystander. I do think it’s sometimes the case that with an extremely controlling character, like Anita, at the center of a story, first-person narration can sometimes tighten a fist around a story in a way that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to tell. The vital truth, the juice of the story, can get squeezed out—even with close third person, actually. The necessary breaking down of perspective that a story might need may not occur. In this story, it seemed important that Anita be challenged (by her daughter) from the outset and that other characters (her daughter, her husband, the woman by the playground, the doctor) have a read on her.

The story plays with a range of perspectives, different modes of seeing. On one extreme, there’s surveillance, the spying that Dandy rightly accuses Anita of, and on the other extreme there’s the passive observation of being a bystander that you mentioned. I do think this story is about witnessing as well, however. Anita has to witness her own questionable choices as a mother and she has to encounter herself in a moment that she can’t really control, a painful moment in which she is sidelined and becomes a bystander to her daughter’s troubles. My book engages with, among other things, James Baldwin’s ideas about being a witness. In his essay “This Nettle, Danger . . .,” he writes about the ways that being a true witness to one’s own experience is rare, because it amounts to an “assault” on “one’s self-image, one’s aspirations and one’s safety.” I think this story attempts to follow a character during such a moment of assault and to describe with as much accuracy as possible what she feels and does.

EH One of the story’s most striking scenes takes place at a playground at the edge of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, where Anita wanders one afternoon. When another woman—who seems mentally unstable—asks her if she has kids, Anita finds herself lying, denying that she’s a mother. Where did the inspiration for that scene come from?

JB The family’s apartment, which Anita thinks of as a house, is a space that she controls, at least in her mind, although maybe what the story reveals fairly quickly is that her control has always been quite tenuous. When her daughter’s words and her husband’s actions rupture her desired domestic routine, Anita is shaken to the core. The apartment’s “world of feeling,” to use Eudora Welty’s phrase, is changed in a way that she finds intolerable. Instinctively, and then more thoughtfully, the need to get Anita out of the apartment, her need to get out, became urgent. The woman she encounters in the playground may or may not be mentally unstable. I understand why she would come across that way. But for me, what’s more important is that she’s a character who is full of contradiction and exuberance, full of unrestrained, loudly articulated love and admiration for the two children who may not even be her own. In terms of her vernacular playfulness, I sometimes think of her as a distant literary cousin of the Peter Wheatstraw character in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It seemed important for Anita to encounter those qualities, that comet-like eccentric motion, at that point in the story.

EH What role does New York City play, as a place of witness? And what is it like writing about New York from Iowa, where you now live and teach?

JB I get this question on writing about New York a lot. I guess it’s surprising to people, but it feels completely natural for me write about New York, where I not only grew up but also lived well into my adult life. I’ve since lived in Iowa City, Madison, Los Angeles, Oakland, and now Iowa City again, but instinctively I’ve continued to write about NYC. There’s so much, which sometimes feels like too much, that is there. It’s a rich, dense place to investigate questions of climate change, the gig economy, workplace discrimination, deed theft, gentrification, medical racism, and police violence, and to explore the collection of “villages” and ordinary lives that exist and persist and create and triumph and fail in the context of structural and societal inequalities. (In an essay on William Trevor that appeared in Tin House, Yiyun Li takes up the question of “village literature,” asking, “What makes a story in an urban setting still a village story?” Her answer is that in such stories, “life is to be lived out with stoicism despite follies and imperfections both big and small; time moves onward, never stopping for an individual’s tragedy.”) Crucially, I think New York is a place that has a recognizable character and a place that is rapidly changing. It’s a place I know deeply and a place I find utterly mysterious.

Elliott Holt is the deputy editor of The Yale Review.
Originally published:
June 28, 2023


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