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Graffiti and Glory Days: The Millions Interviews Adam Mansbach

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In the past couple of years, Adam Mansbach has gone from respected novelist to pop culture lightning rod thanks to a little book he wrote about trying to put his daughter to bed. Having already been a go-to expert for all things hip hop, as well as fiction writing and the politics of race, he unexpectedly found himself answering endless questions about parenting. He’ll probably never escape being known as the guy who wrote Go the F**k to Sleep, but 2013 will put some distance between him and that book with the release of two novels, the first of which, Rage Is Back, delivers readers to New York in 2005, where an old-school crew of graffiti writers attempts to recreate the past.

TM: This is the story of a family and gentrification, but graffiti is the vehicle that carries the book. What made you want to write a novel based on the evolution of New York City graffiti?

Adam Mansbach: I’ve been fascinated by graffiti for a very long time. As a kid, during the time I was coming up in hip hop, you were expected to be conversant with all the art forms — the sonic, the kinetic, and the visual — and to be proficient in at least a couple in order to fully “be” hip hop. I was an MC and a DJ, but I also wrote graffiti. I wasn’t great, but the thrill of it was captivating, and I quickly discovered that graffiti writers were the mad geniuses and eccentrics of hip hop, the guys whose relationship to their craft was the most fraught and intense, the guys who labored in the dark, literally, whose lives were a discourse between fame and anonymity, who used “beautify” and “destroy” almost interchangeably when they talked about their work. And when I first got into hip hop around 1987, graffiti was already being forced off the New York subway trains, which had been its canvas since the beginning. So there was this sense of a death throe, and of guys outliving the form they’d created, which was weird and tragic, even though graffiti had already gone worldwide by then. By the ’90s, you had all these writers living in, and beefing about, the past — who was king of such and such line in ’78, who started writing when, and so on.

TM: How do you square that with graffiti today, especially in terms of how some the original writers, like TAKI 183 and BLADE, have been resurrected and found some mainstream, international recognition? Years ago I met STAY HIGH 149 and he couldn’t believe that all of the sudden people cared about him again, and were willing to pay him to tag.

AM: The death throes I’m referring to were not of the movement as a whole, just of its original conception as an art form inextricably and brilliantly bound to New York’s subway, which gave writers a perfect platform to be seen, incubated a certain set of aesthetics because of the fact that the pieces would be seen in motion, and also fostered a particular kind of competition and ruggedness because of space limits and working conditions. But by the time the buff eradicated the last train pieces in 1989 graffiti had moved into, and back out of, galleries, and had a huge impact in Europe and across the U.S., largely through the book Subway Art and the film Style Wars. In Sweden, for instance, Style Wars played on national TV on a Wednesday night, and by Friday there was a graffiti scene. Guys with the right combination of skill and savvy had already transitioned into art careers, and a lot of other guys got into graphic design and advertising. So the interest in graffiti never really abated, but when the train era ended everybody came above ground and a new era of street-bombing got underway, with a lot of throw-up kings like VFR, JA, and SP ONE getting big, new school iconoclasts like REVS and COST doing their thing, and clever muralists like ESPO figuring out ways to piece illegally in broad daylight. But for every writer who made it, found a niche, sold some pieces, there are 100 who have been trying to drive their lives on the fumes of their train reps for the last 20-plus years. You can’t live on the adulation of a bunch of graffiti fans, and for a lot of the real innovators and workhorses of the train era, it’s been pretty rough going, even if their names have made it into some history books.

TM: And Rage Is Back is really more about the unsung heroes, right, the workhorses? The key players are legends in their world but are otherwise unknown.

AM: I knew I wanted the book to be told from the perspective of somebody who wasn’t part of the glory days, somebody who inherited the culture, was born into it, and had a complicated relationship to it. For Dondi, graffiti is old man shit, the thing that derailed his parents’ lives. I wanted this to be about a reckoning between generations, and I wanted to do something exciting, a heist story with plots and setbacks and lots of moving pieces, big stakes and big payoffs. And for the record, everything in here about the train mission is totally plausible. My consultants were people who’ve thought for years about how to pull off something like bombing every train in the system at once.

TM: How did you educate yourself about the New York graffiti scene?

AM: I moved to New York in ’94, and started a hip hop magazine in ’95; my partner was a graffiti writer named Alan Ket, who also started Stress Magazine. We met in Tricia Rose’s hip hop class at NYU. He was and is a major figure in the scene, and through him I met a lot of other writers. I’d just try to soak up lore and stories from all these cats; they were like the ultimate New Yorkers to me. Nobody knows a city as well as its graffiti writers.

The book evolved out of my belief that the history of graffiti is a really interesting window on the history of New York. The “War on Graffiti,” first declared by Mayor Lindsay in ’72, and prosecuted by a series of like-minded mayors ever since, has really been a war on young people, especially young people of color. It’s about public space, and who has the right to it. It presaged and ushered in zero tolerance policy, prejudicial gang databases, quality of life offenses, epic incarceration — the whole way a generation has experienced law enforcement and personal freedom, basically.

TM: There is a wild-style manner to the narrative, both in terms of how the story unfolds — the dialogue snaps with the rat-a-tat cadence of ball bearings rattling around in an aerosol can; you describe pieces and tags at length; Dondi, the narrator, possesses pop-culture-rich street savvy and heightened self-awareness — and in its layering. We are reading the book that Dondi is in the process of writing, but you let another narrator hijack a chapter and also manage to slip in a short story. Were you intentionally trying to connect the visual intricacies of graffiti to the book’s narrative structure?

AM: Not explicitly, but it’s gratifying to hear you say that. I knew, from day the first, that the book was going to succeed or fail based on the strength of Dondi’s voice: it’s his show, and his narration had to be funny, captivating, believable, digressive, unpredictable, but still in the pocket. My model, in that, was Russell Banks’s Rule of the Bone. I’d always shied away from first person before — loved to write it, but been afraid that I’d paint myself into a corner doing a whole novel that way since you’re limited to writing scenes at which the narrator is present. It turned out to be incredibly liberating. And making Dondi a kid who’s explicitly writing a book, with no experience doing so, was like free money.

The narrative handoff, where CLOUD 9 takes over for a chapter because Dondi wasn’t there, is something I jacked from Treasure Island. There is a collage element to the book, and that is intentional. Layering and flow and the strategic, intentional use of rupture are tenets of hip hop’s aesthetic DNA, and I definitely wanted to reflect that in the book.

TM: Words are the only tool novelists use to convince readers. Rage Is Back is your fourth novel; your previous one, The End of the Jews, came out in 2008. But in the last two years you not only grabbed the whole world’s attention with Go the F**k to Sleep, but you also co-wrote Nature of the Beast, a graphic novel, and worked on film projects. How has your relationship to visual storytelling changed over the last few years and did Rage Is Back gel because of it?

AM: I’ve definitely become comfortable moving across genres in the past few years. As you say, I’ve been doing screenplays, I did the graphic novel, did the “Wake the Fuck Up” Obama video with Sam Jackson, sold a sitcom pilot to CBS. And my next book after this is a supernatural thriller called The Dead Run that HarperCollins will publish in September. Partly, these are all pre-existing interests of mine, and Go the Fuck to Sleep opened some doors and I took advantage.

I think I’ve always thought visually, as a writer: I envision scenes in space, if you will; I think about blocking and where the light’s coming from and that kind of thing. But it’s also that I really appreciate parameters, and being forced to work within them. My first love was MCing, which means making a statement in 4/4 time over a set number of beats per minute, and making it rhyme.  GTFTS was basically me seeing if I could tell a story in an ABCB rhyme scheme and find 14 words that rhymed with “sleep.” Screenplays are similarly regimented, and writing a thriller is too: push the plot forward, interweave four voices, end each chapter with a cliffhanger. Ultimately, though, it’s all storytelling. That’s always been my passion, and for me the story has to dictate the form. If it wants to be a short story, you’ve got to let it be one, instead of trying to make it a screenplay or a haiku.

I Want to Be a Book: On Becoming A Writer

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The author, his father Lindsay Barrett, and his brother Boma, circa 1982.

In a cool, shaded bedroom in the southern city of Port Harcourt, my mother is lying on her back on the rumpled bed, a book held open over her face, her eyes burning into it. I’m three years old and I want her to love me. I want her to look at me right this moment — to tell me all the time how much I mean to her. I have been perched at the bed’s edge for some time, waiting to be noticed, watching the play of expressions on her face. When she quivers again with laughter I can’t hold back my curiosity any longer, and I ask, “Why are you laughing, Mama?”

No answer. I cannot understand what she finds so fascinating in that bundle of paper.

I raise my voice. “Mama! Tell me why you’re laughing.” My cry works: it draws her eyes to me. But they are bright with an emotion I know isn’t for me.

“Go and play with Boma,” she says. And then she mutters under her breath: “You’ll understand why I’m laughing when you can read.”

Boma, my younger brother, is a baby. He cries all the time. Right now he is in my father’s arms in the parlor — I can hear him wailing for attention, as usual. When he arrived he took away a chunk of the affection that I thought was only mine, and now this thing, this book that brightens my mother’s eyes and makes her giggle, is stealing what’s left.

I want to be a book. I want my mother to look at me all the time.

I decide to learn to read.

My mother and my father quarrelled over me yesterday. My father is teaching me to read, I asked him to, but yesterday he grew annoyed at my slow progress over the letter X and he smacked my bottom until I screamed for my mother. My mother took me in her arms, she said I was too young and he should go easy on me, that I was learning faster than many my age. He’s old enough — he shouldn’t have asked if he wasn’t ready, my father said before he slammed his study door.

I’m old enough.

Tomorrow I will try to be ready.

In a few weeks I will be four.

Crouched in a closed dark wardrobe, my heart pounding, I’m listening to the sound of feet outside. The footfalls sneak closer, stop in front of the wardrobe, and I strain my ears. I wait fearfully to be caught.

I’m six years old and I have no friends. Everybody loves Boma. He’s playful, friendly, and he’s not afraid of cats. He laughs all the time: a deep rolling laugh that sounds like a toy version of my father’s. He looks like my father too. Everybody says so. Then they ask me whom I resemble, why am I so quiet, why am I such a bookworm? That’s what Priye asked:

“Why are you such a bookworm?”

“Because books are exciting, stupid!” I snap at her. Then I feel sorry. Girls must always be treated nicely, my mother says.

Priye always comes over to play with Boma. She is the daughter of Uncle Sam, our next-door neighbor and my father’s best friend on the street. My father and Uncle Sam are chatting in the study, laughing out loud, and Priye is in my bedroom searching for me. Boma is hiding—we are playing hide-and-seek. I was reading The Snow Queen when Priye came, but after she asked me to join her and Boma in their game, I dropped my book. The Snow Queen makes me cold and sad and lonely. And no one ever asks me to play.

Now I’m crouched in the wardrobe, hoping to be found so I can return to my book.

Boma and I are on holidays with my father in a big empty house in the mid-western city of Benin. I miss my mother, who is back at home in Port Harcourt, and I hope she’s missing me too. My father has taken Boma out shopping, and I’m alone at home. I’m being punished for throwing a crying tantrum. Because my younger brother ran off with my book and I couldn’t catch him.

I’m nine years old and I’m afraid that my parents don’t love each other anymore.

Now I’m lying on my belly in my father’s bed. I’m reading The Old Man and the Sea.

I want to be a fisherman when I grow up. O to roam the seas with a book and a hook!

My mother refuses to buy me trousers. She prefers small shorts in bright colours: pink, lime green, powder blue. When I walk down my street the other boys tease me about the books I’m always carrying. They call me a girl because I read too much, because of my bright shorts and my smooth soft legs, and because I look like a girl. My mother tells me they are unruly little bullies. But still she refuses to buy me trousers. “Nobody bullies Boma,” she always says when I complain. But that’s because Boma never walks around with books. And he can fight.

But I don’t say this. I’m almost 10 and it’s a sin to rat on a brother.

I want to be a pirate when I grow up.

I’m in a classroom of boys and girls all shrieking with abandon. The teacher has stepped outside, and while my classmates rush about I remain seated at my desk. I’m reading a novel: Roots.

The series runs every night on national TV.

My mother’s friend, Aunty Gloria, lent me the book when I told her how much I feared for Kunta Kinte, how disappointed I was that the bad men were winning the good ones. I couldn’t wait to see the good men begin to win. In the fairytales the good men always win.

“Read the book,” Aunty Gloria said. “You’re old enough to learn how the world really is.”

I’m 10 years old.

A strong wind now blows the scent of sunlight through the open windows of the classroom, and it riffles the book’s pages. Then a shadow looms, the wind is blocked, and I look up. Gogo is standing beside my desk and frowning down at me. I’m worried, threatened by his presence, but I’m not surprised to see him. Gogo has been trying to pick a fight with me for the past few weeks, ever since I scored the highest in the English Language test. He hasn’t succeeded only because he’s the strongest boy in the class and it’s not considered cowardly to run from him. All this time I have been a running target, but now I’m a sitting duck. And I know that he knows it. I lower my eyes from his, and I hear him say, “What are you reading?”

“Roots,” I answer. Then I hurry to explain, my voice soft, trembling, ingratiating. “They show it every night on NTA. It’s the Kunta Kinte film.”

“Give it to me,” he says, and extends his hand.

I don’t like sharing my books, but I hand it to him anyway. Maybe he likes books like me.

No, he doesn’t. He closes the book and flings it across the classroom. It flaps through the open window and falls in the sand outside. Then he bends over my desk and laughs ha ha ha into my face. I feel like crying — I borrowed that book. You must take good care of books, my mother always says.

The class falls silent as I rise slowly to my feet. My face is burning and I feel like peeing. I know Gogo wants me to cry so he can laugh a real laugh, and this knowledge gives me the strength to fight back my tears. I step out of my desk and walk towards the window.

“Stop there!” Gogo yells, and though I flinch at his shout, I don’t stop. I can now hear him coming behind me — he is banging on desktops to frighten me. I reach the window, and then turn around, and he stops five desks away. His face is really, really angry.

“Did you hear me say stop?”

I don’t answer. I hold his gaze.

“Are you looking at me with bad eye? Do you think you can fight me, you son of a–?”

I am shocked.

Gogo has called me a dirty word that means my mother does dirty things.

I am angry too. Bitterness rises inside my mouth, and my hands are cold, my knees tremble, my chest is tight, but my fear is beginning to harden. I did nothing to him and yet he threw away my book and now he has abused my mother. I must say what I must say. I must spit out this bitter taste.

“You unruly little bully,” I say to Gogo. But he isn’t, not really, not little. He’s much taller than me, and he has muscles on his calves, his chest, his arms — the veins in his arms are like the ones in my father’s, it seems to me. Gogo looks exactly like I want to be someday: strong.

But right now, for the first time in my life, I’m ready to fight someone who isn’t Boma — all because of a book. I will be beaten, disgraced, and I know it, Gogo knows I know it, the whole class knows it, they are chanting, cheering me on, goading Gogo, and he lets out a kung-fu howl and charges at me. O Mama! But my book, my mother — I can’t run. I hold my ground until my teeth chatter, until I can almost feel his breath on me, and then my instincts revolt. I leap out his path and raise my hands to shield my face, but nothing, no blows, only a crash of glass and a child’s wail, and when I look up I see Gogo squirming in pain on the sand outside. He has run himself into the window and through the louver glasses. I feel a rush of fear, and then relief, a deep satisfaction.

The bad boy has lost.

My faith in the world’s order is now restored.

I’m ready to go back to reading Roots.

And so I climb out the window and pick up my book, shake off the glass, and go back in to meet the cheers of my classmates, boys and girls, who gather around and pat my back, stare at me with admiration. My head swells with pride.

Behind me, I can still hear Gogo crying.

On a quiet Port Harcourt afternoon, I’m rereading Lorna Doone for the seventh time when I hear a shout. It is Boma. I’m in our bedroom in my grandmother’s house, and there are adults outside so I don’t get out of bed, I don’t interrupt my reading, I hope Boma is fine. My mother is away in Ibadan studying for her university degree. I haven’t seen or heard from my father since he and my mother fought the last time in Benin City. Boma and my books are all that’s left of the home I’ve always known.

I’m 12 years old and I want to be an aeronautical engineer when I grow up.

Then the bedroom door flies open and Boma skips in with a two large shopping bags clutched in his hands. “Toys!” he cries excitedly. “The robot’s mine!” He dumps the bags on the floor, drops down beside them, upends one and spills out the toys. There’s only one father in the whole wide world who would buy so many toys. I tumble off the bed.

In the second bag there are books — a box set of The Hardy Boys, Burning Grass by Cyprian Ekwensi,

Surprise Me!