James Hannaham has made a career out of being unpredictable. The Bronx-born writer has worked as a journalist, critic, actor, comedian and teacher. His first novel, "God Says No," about a young African American Christian man coming to terms with his attraction to men, garnered critical praise for his original mix of biting humor and emotional realism.
His second novel, "Delicious Foods" (Little, Brown: 384 pp., $26), is even more darkly funny and surprising. The book follows Darlene, a woman struggling with drug addiction, who is lured into working on a Louisiana farm. She and her fellow workers are plied with drugs and alcohol, paid next to nothing, and kept in debt by the farm's unethical and cruel owners. She wants nothing more than to reunite with her 11-year-old son, Eddie, whom she left behind in Houston.
But of course it's not that easy. Not only is she essentially imprisoned by the company that runs the farm, she's in the thrall of Scotty, who narrates much of the novel. Scotty is petty, manipulative and determined to keep Darlene all to himself. Scotty is inhuman, quite literally: He is, in fact, the personification of crack cocaine.
Hannaham spoke by telephone from his home in New York City. He will be appearing at 826LA's Hot Dish Brunch party at noon March 29.
How did you manage to turn a drug into a character?
That wasn't something that I started out with. I was writing about this person who's a drug addict who's having a terrible time. I was writing in this voice, and I thought, "This is kind of a fun, trashy voice to write in." Then Darlene changed; I changed my mind about what kind of character I wanted her to be.
But I still had this voice, and I thought, "Well, who is this, then, if this isn't her misplaced thoughts? Oh, my God, it's the drug." I guess it was a little bit of an idea that was not out of step with my earlier training as a performer in an experimental theater group.
Scotty has this voice that's terrifying, but it's also kind of seductive in a way.
Well, duh! [Laughs.] How do you think crack is going to talk? What kind of character do you think crack is? Sort of self-involved, and kind of a bitch at the same time. What I loved about writing in Scotty's voice is I got the opportunity to ... have a character tell somebody else's story, rather than to have the "I" just talk about itself, which is like every blog on the planet.
I didn't think that hard about what I thought the drug should talk like, or what personality I thought the drug ought to have. But I guess I was trying to empathize on a certain level. And while using that voice, stuff would happen while I was improvising what the drug might say.
There are parts of the book where I found myself feeling a little sorry for [Scotty], then taking a step back and thinking, "Wait a minute, am I sympathizing with crack?"
Why not? Plenty of people do. As Scotty puts it, sometimes that's the primary relationship, and everybody else is two, three and four down the line.
It's a book with a lot of violence and desperation, but parts of it are funny. What do you think about the place of humor in a book like this?
It's always kind of bothered me that people think of serious literature as literature that doesn't make any jokes. Something about that seems fundamentally wrong to me. I'm interested in things that are funny and how they work and what people use humor for in our world. And one of the main things that people use humor for is just to get through really horrible things. In a certain sense, that's kind of what happened with this book. I thought, "How the hell am I going to get through this without it being a total bummer?"
[These farms are] something that I feel like nobody knows about and everybody ought to know about: The fact that this sort of thing has been perpetrated in our modern era, that there are these people who will victimize people who are already being victimized, and spirit them away to these places and make them work for no money, and keep them on drugs the whole time.
Why do you think people are unaware of this problem?
I just think it's too horrible. People don't really want to know, especially because it confirms, and at the same time upends, our suspicions about how our modern life works. We know in the abstract that there are these people who pick coffee beans, but we don't really know as much about the people who sew our clothes, or the people who put together iPhones in China.
It's kind of traumatizing to think you're complicit in this thing you don't want to be complicit in, and yet you are. ... I felt like I had more access to this story as a black American; it has this very palpable link to the chattel slavery of the past, which is that it's pretty much the same thing happening to the same demographic in the same place.
It sort of disrupts this narrative that we live in a post-racial society.
And that anybody who has any trouble with it should just "get over it." Maybe we'll get over it when it's over.