Photo credit: Jourdan Christopher
What led you to write this book?
I began writing this book just after a good friend of mine from high school passed away in the fall of 2015. I had not been in touch with the friend in years at the time of her passing, and I didn’t expect her death to devastate me; after all, we hadn’t really been friends, not in the sense that friends are people who talk, in a long time. But the day I heard the news, my mood dropped. Over the next while, I didn’t want to talk to anyone or go outside or go to work. I just wanted to stay in my room and watch TV, which I didn’t even like doing. Whenever I went outside, I fantasized about sneaking away without telling anyone, about hopping on a local bus to 30th Street Station and then a long-distance bus to some city where I didn’t know anyone. When I began to feel better, I started writing fiction about people mourning in part to process that grief, and after the first day, I found that writing made me feel better. So I kept writing to try to understand grieving and mourning. As time went on, more friends and family members died — too many — and the bouts of sadness kept coming. But between those episodes, I kept writing the book in part because doing so made me feel better and in part to understand the ways in which death brings us back to those we loved, even when our lives have diverged, and to our homes, even when those homes exceed our understanding of them.
You're both an academic and a novelist; are there any intellectual debates that you had in mind while writing your novel?
I think All the Water
is deeply shaped by writing about what we can know about the history of Black people by scholars like Michel-Rolph Trouillot
, Saidiya Hartman
, and others. These texts largely focus on the ways in which historical records limit what we can know of the history of Black people in the Western hemisphere. Logbooks that record enslaved people as monetary values, for instance, tell us little of a person’s life, of their thoughts or of their feelings. All the Water
asks what this limited knowledge of our past means to living people searching to find some trace of themselves in the past and what this limited knowledge provides to people hoping to understand what led them to where they are. Daniel relies on his mother’s stories and uses his imagination to fill in the gaps of what she says because the history that he wants to learn is not recorded, is accessible to him only under certain conditions, and does not provide a fully fleshed-out picture. What he does with that knowledge is, in many ways, the novel’s plot.
In the book, you describe Florida as unique in some ways and as quintessentially American in others. Can you speak more about what Florida represents?
People project a lot onto Florida. People outside of the South often think of Florida as retirement communities, Miami beaches, and bizarre crimes, as in the “Florida Man” meme. People in the South but not from Florida often question your Southern cred if you’re from Florida. I think these projections are often a means of displacing fears about the place one lives. Whenever I talk about moving back to Florida, for instance, my friends in Philly often say they could never live there; it’s too racist. That’s a really strange thing to say for Philadelphians, who live in a city that bombed a group of Black citizens in the 1980s. It’s really strange for anyone to claim Florida is so much more oppressive than their home state, as though any state is some utopia. People displace their fears about where they are onto Florida because they can’t always face up to the fact that they live in a country that is Florida.
The state is those myths, and it’s also more. It’s the most beautiful state in the Union, bar none. Florida’s also full of unique turns of phrases and accents, particularly among Black Floridians, that I prefer to the verse of my favorite poets. Different kinds of life are possible there than other places partially because of the geography and partially because the cost of living is low. And there’s a beauty and nobility to poor Black life in North Florida — one that often made me happier than other places I’d lived and other times in my life when I had more money to spend — that has gone undiscussed for far too long. Inasmuch as Florida tells us a lot about what Americans unconsciously think about their country, the place and its nature and its people far exceed those projections.
Florida and the South more generally are thought of as football country, but you chose to write about track, and sprinting in particular. Why did you focus on track?
If you’re not from Florida, you might not know that Florida is big track country. Many of the top American sprinters come out of Florida, in part because the weather is warmer, so you can hit the track in January when folks in the Northeast are snowed in. And the time in which Daniel is sprinting are also the years when Usain Bolt is breaking world records. Track was cool at that time, so it makes sense that Daniel, a Jamaican, might want to sprint at this time.
But sprinting itself is fascinating. Its language is poetry. When your body gives out, people don’t say you’re tired; they say you died. When you accelerate at the end, people say you kicked. When you kick past someone over the last hundred meters, people say you walked them down. One of my sprinting coaches told us that, when we heard the gun, we better pop smoke. It’s beautiful.
And then there are all these mythologies about sprinting that fascinate me. People often claim it’s the most equitable sport because you don’t need expensive equipment. People claim it can tell us who is the fastest runner in history because meet officials use newer and newer technologies to get more accurate times. People claim they’re measuring the speed of a “natural human” by drug-testing sprinters. And people claim to measure the abilities of so-called “natural women,” whatever that is, by gender-segregating sprinters and, in the case of IAAF meets, banning women runners who don’t fit their definition of woman. So, people often claim track is an important sport because it tells us what humans from what countries are the best athletes in history. This is all nonsense, of course, but people believe the myth, and that tells us a lot about the ways people think about the world.
And the sport’s peculiar qualities fascinate me. It’s an individual sport — even on relays, once the baton is in your hands, you’re out there alone — but you win meets as a team and you’re only as fast as your teammates push you to be at practice. It’s quintessentially young; you can’t do it past a certain age in the way that, at 40, you can still play pickup basketball at your local outdoor courts. And it’s not about having fun so much as it’s about pushing through pain for the hope of winning a race. I was really interested in this kind-of-individual and kind-of-team, young, deeply masochistic and seemingly pointless endeavor, and why Floridians and Jamaicans are so invested in it.
What is the relationship between Jamaica and the United States in the book?
Much of the story of the relationship between Jamaica and the United States is narrated as uni-directional. Because of its supposedly better government and economy, the United States has shaped this (poor, Black) island. Part of what I wanted to discuss in this book was the reverse: Jamaica’s effect on the States. The United States has been porous to Jamaica for a long time, after all. Black Philadelphians celebrated Jamaican Emancipation Day in the 1840s (and were beaten for doing so), and of course, Marcus Garvey immigrated to the United States, had a huge impact on Black American radicalism, and lived there until his deportation. To my eyes, both countries have shaped each other for a long time.
This is especially true of Florida. The major plantations in Flagler County — my county — produced sugar. That makes slavery there more like slavery in Jamaica, in some ways, than like slavery in tobacco- or cotton-dominated regions elsewhere in the United States. Florida also has a large Jamaican population, which of course attracts more Jamaicans, and a similar climate to the island. So part of what the book tracks is the way that travel — of people, of commodities, and so on — between Jamaica and the States affect both places, and also the way in which these intertwined histories are about places that are similar to begin with.
Prisons and the police appear every 20 or so pages in the book. Why?
The biographical reason is that the prison industrial complex has been a big part of my and my family’s life both in Jamaica and in the United States. I also wrote the book while organizing with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund. That work to abolish prisons as well as the many encounters with both formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones, to say nothing of my family’s and my own history with cops and prisons, ensured prisons were at the forefront on my mind.
But I also wanted to discuss the ways in which prisons and the police shape Black life, even if it’s not at the forefront of the novel, in the Jamaican diaspora and in Florida. I think prisons are as much of an industry in Florida as real estate. They also shape a person’s abilities to relate to another, to feel intimacy, to imagine justice, and to seek and give forgiveness, the latter being one of Daniel’s main drivers in the book.
Can you tell us a little bit about the artistic influences for the book? Do you see this book as part of any traditions?
On the average day, I thought a lot about the poetry of Ishion Hutchinson
, about the tone of Gayl Jones’s Song for Anninho
, about the descriptions in Jean Toomer’s Cane
and Sylvia Wynter’s The Hills of Hebron
, about the diction of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye
, about the albums that Future released after Honest
, and of course about Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight
. I think all of those lurk in the space between words in the novel. There are also works that I tried, and failed, to avoid being influenced by: Walcott’s Omeros
and Homer’s Odyssey
The other intellectual tradition that shapes the book are the body of writings on Black diaspora in general and the Jamaican diaspora in particular. Scholars like Hazel Carby
and Stuart Hall
have written memoir-ish scholarly texts and novelists like Marlon James
and Nicole Dennis-Benn
have described the ways in which their or other families’ immigration occasioned transformations in their race, their class, their sexuality, and so on. Both James’s Times Magazine
essay about his migration to the U.S. and Dennis-Benn’s Patsy
, for instance, describe the ways queer people’s romantic lives are shaped by Jamaica and then reshaped by America after migration. Like these and other works, my novel tracks those transformations and the ways in which Jamaican identities shape Black life in America, knowing that the two are intermixed, that African American is always already a hybrid category, as is Jamaican, as is Black.
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work has been published in the Nation
, and elsewhere. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and is an assistant professor of African American literature at Sarah Lawrence College. All the Water I've Seen Is Running
is his debut novel.