Multiple Identities



The 1979 announcement that Duke's English department needed a "fiction writer/Shakespearean" might as well have had my two noms de plume on it. I'd published a novel, Eelgrass, as Joe Ashby Porter, and a scholarly study, The Drama of Speech Acts: Shakespeare's Lancastrian Tetralogy, as Joseph A. Porter.




I began the next year as an assistant professor at Duke, teaching both creative writing and Shakespeare, and my alter egos have continued their separate careers since. The careers have seldom impinged on one another directly; in fact, for a long time, readers of either writer had no inkling of the other's existence.

Under the surface, of course, the two careers have influenced each other immeasurably. While some cross-fertilization has been deliberate-Eelgrass riffs on The Tempest-more has revealed itself to me only in retrospect, especially in recent years, when having each career well under way has invited mulling over their relations. In recent years, also, I've let each writer venture out of his closet to his fellow's readers, and now and again circumstances have conspired in a kind of forced outing. Such happened this past September, with the coincidental publication of two novels-my Resident Aliens, and my ex-student Sid Kara's Life's Only Promise.

A number of Joe Ashby's ex-students have published short-story collections and novels, and a number of Joseph A.'s have published scholarly books. But as far as I know, Sid Kara '96 is the first crossover. He studied Shakespeare with me but not fiction writing-so far as I know, he had no creative writing courses at Duke, or after. Over coffee in the spring of 1996, he talked of his love for Shakespeare and also of his hopes to write a novel. It was easy to be encouraging; he had practical plans for a steady income, and also as I'd seen only his serious-minded essays on Shakespeare. About fiction, I gave him the sort of airy encouragement that can become automatic in a community where such dreams are common.

Flash forward three or four years. Sid e-mailed me that he'd written a draft of a novel, would be in Durham soon, and would like to meet for lunch. At Foster's, we discussed Harold Bloom's recent massive work on Shakespeare, which Sid had already read more of than I. And he talked a bit about his novel, set in the early years of the last century in the infamous Parchman Farm prison in Mississippi. I was relieved to hear how different it sounded from the thinly disguised autobiography with which many writers-me included-first attempt the novel.

I was also relieved, if maybe a touch disappointed, to hear how different it sounded from my own published fiction. Apprentice writers learn by imitation, sometimes of their immediate mentors. Sid knew of my fiction, but I couldn't tell whether or not he had read any of it. The models for his novel seemed to be rather blockbuster fiction and film, perhaps Thomas Wolfe's prose, and perhaps also the melodrama and rodomontade of early Shakespeare. In time, I returned the manuscript with a few suggestions, still a bit airy, for pruning and other revisions.

Flash forward again, now to last spring, when amid the daily screenload of electronic arrangements for the September publication of my Resident Aliens came an e-mail message from Sid telling me that his own novel would be published in September. When I couldn't find his publisher listed in Literary Marketplace, I feared he might have been taken for some kind of ride. But in fact, as I discovered, Sid's publication is not the traditional sort, but rather a new instance of technology-a POD, or print-on-demand enterprise that will turn Sid's database into hard copy on order.

A newspaper article about POD publishers suggests that publication there may amount to what used to be called self-publication, and these enterprises appear to have little promotional apparatus. Joseph A.'s student Sid has thus bypassed the exciting apprenticeship Joe Ashby's students undergo in writing classes, as well as the hurdles that make conventional publication difficult and chancy.

Joe Ashby and his students know vetting. Long before any of our work sees print, it has been through acid baths of peer criticism in the form of reviews, word-of-mouth, sales, award competitions, and reputation. For Sid, the vetting is apparently only beginning with publication. I have seen one reviewer come down hard on Sid's verbal excesses, and there may be more knocks for him to take. If he means to write more, he will need to learn from these knocks, to use them to improve his fiction, as we all must do.

I hope he does so. Despite its flaws, much in Sid's novel is admirable, particularly his full-throttle engagement with race. In New York in September, I read from Resident Aliens to an audience that included Sid and a number of Joe Ashby's ex-students of creative writing. They heartened me, as did the strangers in the audience. I was particularly heartened by the audience's racial makeup, for in my new novel, I am addressing race, if not so single-mindedly as Sid in his.

While I am of English and Irish descent, and three of my Resident Aliens are French or French-Canadian, the fourth is a Native American, and among the major secondary characters are another Native American and an African American. Sid, an Indian American whose parents are from India, has given his Life's Only Promise an African- American central character, and almost all his other characters are black as well.

I take these ethnographic features of our work to be hopeful signs of a time when, at least in the United States, the very category of race is nearing the end of its mostly pernicious use. And I suspect that Shakespeare, writing as he did with foreboding about race at the moment when the category was first installing itself in the European consciousness, may have provided some tonic impetus for both Sid's novel and mine.




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