Aesthetics, Dreams, and Jean Toomer: Simeon Marsalis on Writing “As Lie Is to Grin”

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The complexities of history and the narratives we create for ourselves are impressively evoked in Simeon Marsalis‘s novel As Lie Is to Grin. David, the novel’s protagonist, finds himself dealing with a series of evocative and unsettling pasts, from the unsettling history of the college he’s attending to the winding pasts of the artists he finds compelling. It’s a gripping novel, precisely and evocatively structured. I talked with Marsalis about the creation of the book and its connection to other creative disciplines.

As Lie Is to Grin has a number of bold stylistic choices, from its chronology to the incorporation of a manuscript written by one of the characters. How did you settle on this as the best way to tell this story?

I am not sure. At first, I wrote the story chronologically – what appears (in the novel) as David’s Journal entries were not separated by italics. They were just a part of the narrative. At first, Doris was David’s aunt (not his mother), but all of the scenes with David’s mother were not working. In fact, David’s observation about the way he was writing Doris, “Everything that [she] did conformed to some stereotype that I had not meant to convey when I first sat down to write the story,” was an observation I had while trying to write about David’s mother. Meta. Honestly, I wanted to push the boundaries of the narrative with each new draft. For instance, there were poems that David wrote, which became parts of his dreams, and the decision to add in pictures from Vermont’s Kakewalk archive came after I submitted the manuscript to Catapult. I never stopped editing.

The narrative is divided into four acts — what prompted you to use theatrical terminology for this?

I chose to use theatrical acts because of the way the minstrel show interacts with the novel. On page 138 David points out, “It was evident the alumni and administration either had no idea a Kake Walk was the end of the minstrel show’s second act, or they had no desire to recognize their tradition as such.” I am implying that David’s desire to control the narrative of his own life, by dividing it into chapters, is futile. David may recognize this on page 145, where he says, “I relegated us to minor actors in a greater tribal play…” I was trying to point at the fact that the way he conceives of his story and his character (particularly in the way he presents himself to Melody) is framed by old performances of identity.

David’s narration includes references to a host of writers and architects, with Jean Toomer and Stanford White featured most prominently. What attracted you to both of them, and how did they come to act as poles for different aspects of the narrative?

Jean Toomer was hidden in initial drafts of this book. David would reference the author, but I had not thought about the role Toomer could play until I decided that David was attempting to be a writer himself. I began to think of my relationship to my favorite novels – particularly, the strange way my life informs the way I read and understand literature. Cane was one of the first novels I tried to read as a teenager that I did not understand. I was reading to confirm my suspicion that there was a vibrant black literary tradition stretching back to the emancipation that I did not know about. In some way, I bring this type of hope to every book I read. In the end, my expectations outweigh what is on the page because my desire for the book to give me supernatural insight into the human condition (past, present or future) is impossible and self-serving. Still. I tried to capture all of this in David’s relationship to Toomer.

As for Stanford White, he entered the narrative at (seemingly) random. I went to the bookstore and bought a book about the history of New York (by an early 20th century critic, I believe) that I can no longer find, when I stumbled upon the name, Stanford White. He worked as an architect at the firm Mckim, Meade and White, which designed buildings all over the country. I had just begun to catalog the architectural styles, periods, and dates of erection, so I was surprised to find the name in two different spaces. White was the perfect foil for David’s suspicions about the way race has shaped the American landscape – because of his name and abuse of privilege. Still, the scenes were not coming along until I attended a reading for Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s All-American Boys in the Jefferson Market Library, where I happened to see Stanford White’s name in the atrium exhibit. I went back to the library and looked for books on Architecture. These occurrences drove me to include Stanford’s plight in David’s story.

What are some of the challenges of writing about numerous aesthetic works through the perspective of a specific character?

Some of the challenges of writing about numerous aesthetic works through one character is making sure that you do not lose sight of the narrative. This book is about a young man that is trying to overcome a lie he told, without admitting to the truth. There may seem to be numerous aesthetic categories in the book – but just as the architectural periods and firms seem endless, when you really sit down and add them up, there are not that many. How I arrived at each reference was I walked through all of the places in the novel, after I’d written a draft of the scenes, and looked at things the way I thought my protagonist would have looked at them. For David, the truth about American aesthetics (1776 – ), is that they reaffirm the supremacy of a global white patriarch in ever changing ways. In how the nation derives its legitimacy, in who the nation memorializes in public space, in the type of art that is valorized in private institutions and in the content that entertains us. I don’t think this is particularly profound or difficult phenomena to observe.

Did you always have the incorporation of photos into the narrative in mind when you were writing this book?

The Kake Walk archive was one of the main catalysts for this book, but I had never considered using pictures in my work. Instead, I thought about including them after drafts of re-reading a scene that has been in the story for many drafts. Melody shows David a picture of her great-grandfather surrounded by white men in blackface. I realized David’s experience at Vermont was caused by his fascination with that picture. He is horrified by it. He tries to forget about the image, going as far as trying to convince the reader that he feared he had made his college decision based on false pretenses – as if he had forgotten where he had first heard mention of the University. Also, The pictures in the novel function as moments of truth in an otherwise unreliable narrative. They ground David’s experience in physical reality. At the same time, each image, whether it be the campus buildings, the Adinkra, or photos from the Kakewalk, can be seen as a piece of Melody’s grandfather’s picture.

In your acknowledgements, you discuss the process by which this book was developed. What was the most challenging part of that?

The most challenging part of this process was writing. There are so many ways for a narrative to go. Waking up with the work on your mind and trying to convert ideas into scenes and characters is an endless task. Most of the process involved in getting the book published was serendipity, so I do not think I can count it as “difficult.” I am passionate, persistent and naïve. People like to see hope. I believe this helps my case.


Photo: Chris Buck

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