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Percival Everett: ‘In the United States, everything is connected to racism’

The great American writer who has been writing satires for 40 years about the racism that he himself has suffered has published ‘The Trees’, an editorial phenomenon about (dead) Black people killing whites

Percival Everett
Percival Everett poses in Madrid's Retiro Park.Yago Castromil

The day is just any day. The future writer is still a kid. He’s playing a baseball game. It’s not an unimportant baseball game, because the kid plays on a team. There are people in the stands. Everything is going as it should until the future writer fails and the coach gets angry with him and demotes him to third base. A worse position. Why? Because the future writer wasn’t exactly playing baseball. No? No. The future writer was taking advantage of the fact that the glove he should have ready to catch the ball is large enough to disguise a book. He hides it from the small crowd by keeping it close to his face. The book he is reading is by Kurt Vonnegut. Breakfast of Champions (1973) is the story of Dwayne Hoover, a used car salesman, and Kilgore Trout, a science-fiction writer with very few readers. In reality, it is a kind of abbreviated history of the 20th century told deliciously and clumsily by, why not, the Creator of the Universe. And who is he telling it to? To some kind of alien.

“I guess that’s when I became a real weirdo, playing baseball and reading at the same time? What was I thinking? I must have been 13 years old.” The speaker is Percival Everett, a stylist of the absurd, both a lover of Mark Twain and Chester Himes, and the author of one brilliant, satirical, yet at the same time modern and postmodern novel after another since 1983. His novels are like little soldiers or lions that are able to laughingly tear apart what racism (born of fear and ignorance) has done to the United States and, by extension, the entire world.

The African American son of a dentist was born in Georgia, grew up in Colombia, and was a horse trainer for “almost 15” years. “I had a lot of routines then. Horses love routines, in fact they can’t stand anything else”, he says, adding under his breath, “me neither.” Everett is a ferocious outsider, a titan of satire whose name, in the world of literature, is already on the rise in the U.S. and also in Spain.

Percival Everett
Percival Everett poses for ICON in the Retiro Park in Madrid.Yago Castromil
Percival Everett
Percival Everett poses for ICON in the Retiro Park in Madrid.Yago Castromil

Humble and generous, with a shy smile and elusive word, the writer, who studied philosophy in Miami and today is a respected university professor, an intellectual — like the battling protagonist of the novel X — he supported his career by playing in jazz bands. Like Kevin in So Much Blue, he paints, and sometimes he doesn’t understand how the world works. “Kevin is on the autism spectrum, and most likely I am too,” he confesses. It’s a fine day in June. Everett is sitting on a bench in Madrid’s Retiro Park. He has just signed a handful of copies of his latest novel, The Trees, a bizarrely hilarious and, at the same time, paralyzingly painful work of noir fiction. Set in the ironically named Money, Mississippi, the rural, lower class, white folk — in other words, white trash — seem to revel in their supreme (and supremacist) ignorance. One by one they are murdered, but the Blacks who are committing the crimes cannot possibly be the killers, because they’re already dead.

“White trash is a victim of itself. They really believe that they’re like Donald Trump. That if they don’t have everything he has, if they’re poor, it is because they’ve not been lucky. They believe it’s all a matter of luck! They don’t see that it’s the system that has failed them. It sells dreams but causes nightmares, but they still believe that they are dreaming, and that if things don’t go as they wish, it is because they haven’t tried hard enough, and they continue within the same logic, as victims not of the system, but of the other. It’s the perfect trap,” he says. He also says that the United States is riddled with racism. That everything that is written and filmed and created has something to do with racism, and if it doesn’t have anything to do with it, it highlights the problem by pretending that racism doesn’t exist. “Let’s think about Friends. It didn’t intend to deal with racism, and yet it couldn’t help but make it obvious. Or was it possible that those people lived in New York in the nineties and didn’t come across a single Black person?” asks the writer, adding: “In the United States, everything is connected to racism.”

Everett, who this year (finally) entered the American Academy of Arts and Letters, believes that things “were starting to go well” just before Trump won the election. Then they inevitably retreated. “Biden is a decent man, but there’s not much he can do right now,” he says. He also believes that the outlook “is difficult” and that the worst thing is that he does not know where the next Democratic candidate may come from. “People individually are wonderful, but as a group they are horrible. Ants and bees know what they are doing, humans don’t,” he says. Convinced that language is everything — “it’s what creates the differences between us” — he believes that the internet is as immoral as the Bible because, in a similar way, “it justifies anything you can think of.” “If you want to kill someone, certain pages of the Bible will tell you not to do it, but others will encourage you to do it, just like the internet. It’s a safe place, and at the same time it’s not.”

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