Interview with American Writer, Timothy Brennan

Photo: Timothy Brennan

Photo: Timothy Brennan


Timothy Brennan was born in Milwaukee, studied jazz piano at the Wisconsin conservatory of music, was a frequent contributor of op-eds to the daily newspapers, and worked as the director of an artists colony (The Summer Street Studio).  After graduating from the University of Wisconsin – Madison, where he studied with the social historian, Harvey Goldberg, he moved to New York’s Lower East Side where he lived for twenty years. Before attending graduate school, he worked with political prisoner support groups, immigrant communities in the Bronx, covered the last great miners’ strike in the late 1970s in West Virginia, and worked in an auto plant in Metuchen, NJ before getting a scholarship to Columbia University. There he studied with Edward Said in the 1980s, getting his PhD in 1987.  In recent years, he studied classical piano with Woobin Park, one of the students of Lydia Artymiw.

His work has been reviewed in the Los Angeles Times, The Times Literary Supplement, the Christian Science Monitor, the Independent, the Jerusalem Post, the Times of India, Critical Inquiry, American Book Review, and other publications. In 1989, he received an award from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals for his special issue of Modern Fiction Studies titled “Narratives of Colonial Resistance” (1989). Professor Brennan is a recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the McKnight foundation, He was Director of the University’s Humanities Institute between 2002 and 2004, and has chaired the Sociological Approaches to Literature Division of the Modern Language Association (MLA), and currently is a member of the MLA Delegate Assembly. For five years, he was the editor of a book series at Cambridge University Press: “Cultural Margins.” You can find more about him here:

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a specific genre of writing you are often associated with?

Timothy Brennan: I suppose “criticism” or “cross-over non-fiction.” But I am interested in ideas that fit specific situations. Genres are just a way to allow people to find their way around ideas in a familiar frame whose rules they know, even if the ideas themselves might be new. Given the occasion, I have written in a number of different genres that include translations of poetry; CD liner notes; op-eds for newspapers; visual/text collaborations with artists, dialogues, and signed essays for encyclopedias.

Criticism is primarily an attitude and a social function more than a genre, really. The critical attitude, I think, is one that holds that all ideas derive from material and practical experience, and that the “real” must be one’s starting point — that it cannot be invented or wished away — but also that reality can be more than it is, can be refashioned, and that we have a choice.

Geosi Gyasi: The synopsis of your book, “Borrowed Light”, states that, Borrowed Light makes the case that the 20th century is the “anticolonial century.” How should one interpret the term, “anticolonial century”?

Timothy Brennan: The usual portrait of the 20th century is rather grim. It is typically billed as a horror show: the rise of fascism, Stalinism, two devastating world wars, nuclear weaponry, new technologies of media manipulation and surveillance, the petro economy’s ecological devastation – one long nightmare. Instead of being taken as a sensible caution, this drum beat of negativity has just made most feel hopeless and overwhelmed, which is perhaps why it takes this form, and why so many liberal scholars and media experts continue to embrace it.

But this picture is very one-sided. The early 20th century, after all, saw revolutions in Mexico and Russia that changed immeasurably the ability of Europe and the United States to dominate the rest of the world. They were followed, mid-century, by revolutions in China and India, and later throughout Africa and other parts of Asia and Latin America. The Mexican and Russian revolutions sent shock waves throughout the world, prompting popular movements in the periphery, who were directly, and enthusiastically inspired by both. Nothing like this anti-imperial spirit had existed anywhere before this period.

It is true that we find individual voices of conscience, perhaps, in early centuries protesting the colonial enterprise: De las Casas very famously, the Abbe Raynal, Eduard Douwes Dekker, R. B. Cunninghame Graham) but it was only in the 20th century –and the revolutions I mentioned were defined by this very feature – that we find a full-fledged anticolonial sentiment programmatically expressed.

It was only then, in the creation of international organizations, that we find intellectuals and activists from the periphery meeting Europeans as equals, sharing ideas, developing programs, and laying out strategies in a common cause.   By the mid-1960s, let us not forget, almost three quarters of the globe was nominally socialist, and there was not a single intellectual anywhere, right or left, who did not suppose that socialism was anything but the likely form of a future world.   This socialism was really just another name for the development of former colonial territories as independent polities (such as India, Tanzania, Vietnam) and semi-peripheral states as newly autonomous ones (such as Russia, China).

Many of the atrocities of the 20th century that make up the “horror show” portrait above were after all the result of this challenge to European and American dominance. The horrible excesses marked the hysterical response of the pitiless major powers actively reasserting their dominance. How else do we understand the dropping of the atom bomb, the carpet bombing in Southeast Asia, the genocidal slaughter in Europe first perfected in the colonies, not to mention the systematic murder – often the work of trained assassins by the CIA or U.S.-trained paramilitary units – of literally millions of people in Indonesia, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, and China in order to exterminate the Left? That the murdered were poor farmers and students struggling for economic and political independence is largely lost in the cacophony of official history, just as is the epithet “communist” which was used to justify their killing is left unexamined. This justification, and its double-edged ironies, are a largely underplayed feature of the illusory (but much touted) victory of the market at the “end of history.”We might mistake my argument above as implying that the term “communist” was a slander, since these were just local peoples fighting for control of their land and resources. But that is not what I mean. I am suggesting that they were communists, and that the term actually means black and anticolonial in the 20th century once one clears the air of Cold War smoke. The fear and loathing of the “communist” is the fear and loathing of non-white peoples demanding their independence from Western rule. We have to ask, had everyone been allowed to choose, what their choice would have been. I think it is obvious that the world would now be socialist or at least social democratic, not neoliberal.   Arguably, then, the 20th century did not just witness a major challenge to the colonial system; it is defined by it.

Geosi Gyasi: As a child, what books were you often found reading?

Timothy Brennan: I can’t really remember all of them – a lot of everything. I do remember the first books I read: Big Tracks, Little Tracks and the more sophisticated Adam of the Road, but there were lots of other things. There were many books around us, because my dad (a lawyer) loved to read. At age 10 or so, I mainly read biographies — the big print 100-page biographies of the heroes of Americana (I remember the volumes on Babe Ruth, John Wannamaker, Knute Rockne, Jim Thorpe, Ty Cobb, and Lucretia Mott). I adored A. B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky, Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac; Saul Alinksy’s Rules for Radicals, but found the Hardy Boys boring.

My parents – who are not intellectuals or academics – had serious books on their bookshelves in the living room – Mann’s Magic Mountain, Camus’ The Fall, a Joseph Conrad Argosy, and a signed copy of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake (a large, leather-bound limited edition with uncut pages, given to my Irish-American grandfather – a complete philistine). In high school, I began to read them. My high school was exceptional. We had a demanding teacher named Mary Ellen Ladogiannis, who introduced me to Homer, Dostoevsky, Rilke, Tolstoy, Hesse, Kazantzakis, and others I cannot remember now. I was steeped especially in poetry by senior year, and read all of the American poets I could find, especially John Berryman, Leroi Jones, e. e. cummings, Allen Ginzberg, and Sylvia Plath. Later, reading Lorca and Neruda, I began to study Spanish. I read the Bible closely – especially the New Testament – and was disappointed by what I found. I read the Notebooks of Leonardo. I read a lot about the history of science, especially physics.

Geosi Gyasi: As an adult, what kind of books are you likely to be caught reading?

Timothy Brennan: This is hard to answer. I assume you don’t mean the varied and regimented sort of reading one does for research and teaching, but the more aleatory things one reads out of pure interest, or precisely to be taken away from the obligatory.   So let me give you an example of the delightful, if obligatory, vs. the aleatory. Last semester I taught a course for the second time called “Poets of Commodities” about economics and literature. It features people like Adam Smith (on “moral sentiments”), Hegel, Marx, Simmel, Veblen, Bataille, Arendt, Debord, Bourdieu, and J. K. Gibson-Graham. So, first off, I had to re-read them, and really pore over them taking many notes. Then, in the name of further preparation, I found myself having to read many people not found on my reading list but highly relevant to the theme, just to expand my horizongs: like Samuel Pufendorf, Karl Polanyi, Christian Marazzi, William Pietz, Deirdre McCloskey and others. But, on the other side of things, I read for pleasure, when I have a little free time, classics.   I’d much rather read philosophy or social theory than novels, either popular or serious.   Some of these recently have been Hazlitt, Tacitus, Lucretius, ibn Khaldun, and Simone de Beauvoir’s fantastic travelogue, America Day by Day. At times I feel guilty for not keeping up with novels, so I read those too when I can (Knausgaard, De Lillo, Perec, Couto, Ghosh, Foster Wallace, but honestly I find it hard to finish them). My favorite poets are mostly not American — Vallejo, Cavafy, Neruda, Faiz, Brecht, Joaquin Pasos, and Julia de Burgos.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you have a hand in the making of the front cover of the book?

Timothy Brennan: Very much so.   The press wanted veto power over the cover of my book, and all I could so was accede.   But when it came down to it, I presented my idea to them and they took it.   It was not me, though, really, but Keya Ganguly – a professor of film and my wife – who discovered the painting on-line and suggested it. We both knew the work of the artist very well, Abanindranath Tagore, whose paintings we have long admired when visiting India. We managed to track down a descendant of the artist, Saranindranath Tagore, now teaching in Singapore, and he happily consented. I worked with the press on the design and color of the lettering.

Geosi Gyasi: What are your main research areas as a writer?

Timothy Brennan: Whatever else it is about, my work is about the colonial imagination and imperial culture – especially the traces of imperial culture in metropolitan intellectual practices.   I am interested in the “margins – especially suppressed, misunderstood, or slandered political (rather than racial or ethnic) identities. The academic field I am associated with, I suppose, is postcolonial studies, although I’ve always found it hard to fit in with its doctrines, which seem to me both derivative (discounting or ignoring its predecessors), or carrying ideological baggage that its predecessors were largely free of. Within that field, at any rate, I have argued for the literary vulgate rather than modernism, to the still untapped novelties of “realism,” and to the philological emphases of Mikhail Bakhtin, Edward Said, and the traditions of critical theory based on the Italian humanist, Giambattista Vico.

A lot of the work I do is meta-critical, and is based on intellectual history. I believe it is urgent to think of political belief-cultures as belonging under the category of “identity” and to recognize that the state is not an obsolete form under globalization, but still one of the most meaningful arenas of political potential.   My work often resembles a sociology of the public academic intellectual in that sense, penetrating the contradictions of the humanist in an unforgiving American political milieu.  So I have written, for example, on the economics of literature, and on the uses of the “literary” in business circles and in neo-liberal commentary: basically, on the affects of the humanities on public life.   My turn to the “vulgate” (as I put it above) takes the form, in one case, of a stress on peripheral aesthetics, which can be found in my writing on neo-African popular music of the Americas, which is involved in part in showing how music bears on literature.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you spend your time as a professor and writer?

Timothy Brennan: Reading and writing, often wildly in a process of multi-tasking, takes up most of my working day.   There is no mystique about writing for me.   It is labor and, in my case, mostly constant trial and error. I love when the first draft is down on paper, and I can then work and rework the prose, cutting and dicing. The first draft flows in a torrent. And only then does the work begin. For that reason, I can write anywhere – in a doctor’s waiting room, on a plane, in a cramped hotel room, it doesn’t matter.   I just need a stretch of time, and for no music to be playing (or birds chirping – I find writing in nature impossible). My days are fairly routine, though, in other respects – the usual family time, vacations, housework, swimming.   I have a very large family (not only my own, but my wife’s extended Indian family) and therefore we have constant visitors or obligations to visit others.   My life is not all writing and reading, then, obviously.   In fact, I stop work every day at 4:00 to play piano for two hours. And my wife (who is also an author and an academic) and I have a strict rule that all work stops at 6:00 so that we can talk together, make dinner together, have a drink, live. We entertain a lot.   And we are constantly traveling – usually some combination of professional speaking and vacationing; or temporary teaching posts abroad.

Geosi Gyasi: Who are your literary influences?

Timothy Brennan: If you mean writers that I see myself in and through, or whose sensibility I share, then Hazlitt, Paine, Gramsci, Baldwin, McCarthy, Lefebvre, de Beauvoir, Said.

Geosi Gyasi: The last time I heard from you, you were in India and then later to Baltimore for a conference. How much impact does your travels have on your writing?

Timothy Brennan: A lot. The rhythms, the type of news in the media, the modes of conversation, the levels of immediacy of experience – they are all so different from country to country, even now in so-called globalization (which has always been exaggerated). It is so easy to be uninformed without even knowing one is uninformed if one never travels. But also, since my travel is usually to give a lecture, what I learn from those exchanges is invaluable, and a large part of any future revision.  I know many find travel distracting, but as I said earlier, I am able to write on the road, in airports, and so on. To be honest, I find being present in another space very liberating.   My ways of thinking and expressing myself might become rote at home. So, working on an essay or a chapter, I find myself cramped and stymied in my prose, like I am fighting myself, and keep stumbling about, unable to say clearly what I mean. Then, after a long flight, I find myself in a temporary apartment in Berlin, say, and something about the sounds, the light coming in through the windows, the quality of ambient speech – whatever – frees me up, and suddenly I know how to put it, and the words just flow out, as though I could see all at once how to explain myself.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the best time to write?

Timothy Brennan: I wrote my first book in New York at a typewriter, entirely between the hours of 10:00 pm and 3:00 am. But that was just to get away from the sounds of the day in a tenement apartment without air conditioning (whose windows therefore had to be left open).   Now it’s different. If I am working over a stretch of days on a piece of writing, which is always painful, I usually force myself to begin in the morning – around 9:00 or so – but invariably there are false starts, impasses, and wandering attention, and I get very little done. In practice, I get most of the actual writing done between 2:00 and 4:00 – after all the procrastination and failures have subsided because of my shame and anxiety at getting little done, and since I know I must break off in only two more hours.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about your book, “Secular Devotion: Afro-Latin Music and Imperial Jazz”?

Timothy Brennan: I moved to New York in 1977 at the height of the salsa’s popularity which was also (and significantly) exactly the time that rap was first stirring in the Bronx. I lived on the Lower East Side for over twenty years – a primarily Puerto Rican, and then later Dominican community whose streets were filled with licuado vendors and traveling disqueros (transient disk jockeys) who would carry huge baskets of old vinyl records around on bicycles with sound equipment and set up little dance parties on the outsikirts of baseball and soccer games on the East River Parkway a few blocks from my apartment. Being surrounded by Latin music made me want to get to the bottom of it.   I did a lot of research in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and, of course, New York.   So the result was Secular Devotion. It’s main argument is that popular music in the Americas is popular in part because it is heavily influenced by neo-African religious practices. That religious dimension survived slavery, and expressed itself as an alternative to the dominant religions “of the Book” and in protest against the disciplinary rhythms of modern industrial labor. Not all popular music is neo-African, of course, but a disproportionate amount of it is, even in genres where it is not obvious – like disco, ballroom, and Broadway.

The other argument coursing through the book is that jazz is not a uniquely U.S. form (although it of course took on uniquely U.S. styles and modes in the 20th century); it is rather part of a much larger Latin complex of neo-African forms, and that American critics, white and black, deny this, preferring to believe that it sprang out of nowhere at the turn of the century. There is a sort of patriotic sublime surrounding jazz that is filled with paradoxes: the fact, for example, that the very music of an oppressed racial group then becomes the major international boast of the country abroad about its freedom, vitality, and equality. Jazz is “imperial” in very specific ways – first, that it is the result of early jazz artists like W. C. Handy and Willie Cornish visiting Puerto Rico and Cuban during the American occupation there in the Spanish-American war; or the mass migration of French-trained musicians flocking to New Orleans at the end of the 18th century as a result of the slave rebellion in San Domingo. Jazz was a major weapon of ideological war as early as WWI, when James Reese Europe was enlisted to form a military band to popularize jazz in Europe. So these, and many other stories, are what I explore in the book by looking at youth subcultures in Cuba, the vexed concept of “world music,” the affinities and contrasts between rap and salsa, and the war of literature on music that is part a larger race conflict. What holds all of these cases together is what I call “secular devotion” – the neo-African religious outlooks that signify as secular in their arenas of reception – namely, popular or entertainment music.

Geosi Gyasi: I am not sure if “Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right” was your first published book?

No, actually I had published three before that.   My first book, Myths of the Nation: Salman Rushdie and the Third World (Macmillan, 1989), for example, was a study of a group of third-world novelists writing for the metropole, a look at book markets and the politics of taste where writing from the periphery had become, I argued, a kind of political exotic. This was the first biographical and critical study of Rushdie’s work in any language, and a book that appeared before Rushdie was widely known.  The next was At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now (Havard, 1997), a sprawling concept book on the meaning of cosmopolitanism, especially the downsides of that appealing idea in a period of American imperial resurgence. In this book, I laid out the now-flourishing debate over cosmopolitics in literary circles, charting the ways that an emergent world literature reflects the values of the imperial center, and creates an attraction for “otherness” that resembles the literary modernism of the American book markets.  I then did a book-length translation and edition of a Alejo Carpentier’s classic study of Cuban music, Music in Cuba, for which I wrote a very long historical introduction. I explored there the Latin American left intellectuals’ presence in interwar Europe, the way they used the new technology of radio, and their interest in, but also contempt for, surrealism which they took to be a belated return to what they had already invented.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about your writing habits?

Timothy Brennan: I’ve sort of spoken to this already, but maybe another way of putting it is that I see writing and reading as belonging to one another. I am always doing both, and at the same time. I can’t “read” a book without writing in the margins of it, or taking notes on it, or writing something related to it that does not always directly address it. As a result, my essays and books find their origins first in disembodied paragraphs that come out more or less spontaneously from my response to something I am reading.   These paragraph are later developed, expanded, spun out; or they are taken wholesale and interlarded; or they are stitched to something else.   I have huge files filled with “notes” of this sort – stand-alone prose paragraphs waiting for future use, or long quotations from others that I admire (along with my reactions to them in my own voice).   Again, that “response” is not necessarily a critical commentary on what I am reading (although it can be). It might just be something that occurred to me from a wholly different context or occasion, now prompted by they way the author I was reading had expressed herself, or himself. When I wrote my first book at a typewriter, I was forced to move on to the next sentence only after the previous sentence was completed to my satisfaction, since it would be too cumbersome in such a practice to go back for major revisions at the end. It would involve too much retyping.   So it was, more or less, a “single take” kind of writing, and it managed to work.   But now, composing at a laptop, my practice is completely different.   I only really feel the writing has begun in the midst of revisions, and in my case, there are a lot of them, always. I put things through many drafts, and love that process of revision after the painful setting-down of the raw initial text has been completed. I am always working on two or three things at once.

Geosi Gyasi: Has anything changed about your writing over the years?

Timothy Brennan: Yes.   I mean the patterns I have described above are constant, so in that sense, no.   I write a great deal, but always have, even though I always feel like I have not done enough, that others had come out and said less well in print what I could have said (or did say) a decade earlier. But the big difference is that at the beginning I was discovering the areas I most wanted to address, and the original ways I wanted to do so.   Now it is more a question of having the time before I die to express fully what I have already discovered, what is already mapped out, as it were, for me to say, and whose points I already know I want to share.

Geosi Gyasi: Does it come easy for you in finding publishers for your books?

Timothy Brennan: Yes, thankfully. So far at any rate.

Geosi Gyasi: What legacy do you want to leave behind as a writer?

Timothy Brennan: Another way of seeing. A criticism that hurts. Mostly, to be read.



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