Why a novelist of identity took a wild detour into Portuguese poetry and air disasters
On the Shelf
By James Hannaham
Soft Skull: 208 pages, $28
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In a business that encourages writers to repeat themselves, to stay relentlessly on brand, it’s exciting to see artists take a chance, cast off the dictates of publicity and marketing, go rogue. The results are sometimes catastrophic but often lead to the creation of singular and surprising works. “Pilot Impostor,” James Hannaham’s follow-up to his acclaimed novels “God Says No” and “Delicious Foods,” is one of these singular works, a book impossible to categorize.
In a recent conversation over Zoom, he explained his inspiration. “My husband and I were in Cape Verde and on our way to Lisbon,” he said. “I was on a plane, and I had finished the book that I brought by a Cape Verdean author and I decided to start reading the book I brought by a Lisbon-based, Portuguese author, which was Fernando Pessoa.”
For those unfamiliar with the work of Pessoa, he was notable for concocting “heteronyms” — what we might call avatars — fictional writers who work in a variety of voices and styles and who often review and translate each other’s work. In the early 20th century, Lisbon wasn’t known for having a literary scene, so Pessoa provided it, creating more than 70 distinct personalities. As Hannaham says, “He was doing sort of fragmented identity stuff long before anybody was.”
One of Pessoa’s more famous heteronyms is the sheepherder poet Alberto Caeiro. “The first line of the first poem begins with a lie on his resumé. ‘I’ve never kept sheep, but it’s as if I did.’” Hannaham exhales. “That line struck me as particularly indicative of what our times are like right now. So by the time the plane ride was over, I had kind of conceived of the idea that I would write a response to every last poem in this friggin’ book.”
The resulting book is a collection of rants, philosophical musings, poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, loosely built around the dread of airplane disasters, spiked with collaged images of Lisbon and planes falling apart. It is by turns funny, disturbing, puzzling and evocative.
The Pessoa poems that inspired each piece are credited in the margins, and although his book stands on its own, if you read the two together, the experience deepens and exposes both the gaps and the similarities in how each of these writers sees the world. Think of it as the literary version of Liz Phair’s rejoinder to the Rolling Stones, “Exile in Guyville.”
James Hannaham has made a career out of being unpredictable.
I asked Hannaham if it felt weird to be having a conversation with long dead Portuguese writers, some of whom never actually existed.
“I didn’t mind that so much, because it was really ideas that were the more important part of what I was wrestling with,” he said. “It was probably a better situation to be talking back to someone who doesn’t exist. I mean, isn’t that what we do in our prayers?”
To help himself structure the project, Hannaham created terms of engagement. “I started to make all these crazy rules about how it was going to happen.” he said. “But the main rule was that I made it a daily or semi-daily practice to read a poem, think about how to respond to it, and then write something that was related to it in some way. But that the genre in which I wrote was not going to be important.” Hannaham laughed. “I think there’s still some rules I’m working out, even though the book is here.”
It’s a bold departure from his previous novels: “God Says No,” the story of a young gay man wrestling with conservative Christian life and his secret desires; and the PEN/Faulkner Award-winning “Delicious Foods,” a beautifully written and brutal horror story in which the monsters are systemic racism, crack cocaine and America’s legacy of slavery.
For a novelist on the rise, this unclassifiable book could be viewed as a risky career move.
“It has something to do with all the different types of writing I’ve done,” Hannaham said. “I started at the Village Voice in the design department, and then I started writing articles for various departments there. And I was writing fiction. I mean, it’s just like, ‘Whatever you got, I’m gonna try.’”
Like the poetry of Pessoa and his various avatars, “Pilot Impostor” is bursting with ideas, a swirl of intellectual energy, as if Hannaham were trying to engage with the dead Portuguese author from different, sometimes conflicting, perspectives. What emerges is a sort of argument in fragments, riddled with modern dread, demanding us to look behind the artifice and connect to Hannaham’s vision of humanity. It can be a weird trip.
“The idea of a pilot impostor for me was somebody who had lied about being a pilot and tried to fly a plane anyway,” he said. “You know, people in the cabin having to trust people who were in the cockpit, without ever having met them or vetted them, and this is a little bit what the political situation felt like.” He meant, of course, the reign of Donald Trump, but also so much more. The idea that we are witnessing the death of expertise, that people no longer think critically, informs Hannaham’s writing. In his view, contemporary American society is drowning in a tsunami of phonies, “people brazenly being able to say things that are quite shocking that otherwise would not have been uttered and still get away with it.”
This was particularly true of a writer like Pessoa, who actively played with various identities, sometimes allowing his heteronyms to correspond and criticize each other. This fluid sense of identity — and identity politics — is at the heart of many of the pieces in Hannaham’s book.
“The thing that we call identity politics is about characteristics of people that are really not the whole person, right?” he said. “We talk about, you know, culture and color and class and all these things, but there’s something much more mysterious for everybody about just existing. And that, I think, feels more like identity to the person living it.”
Hannaham, a Black gay man and a cousin of artist Kara Walker, has played with these themes of truth and shifting perspectives before. Several chapters in “Delicious Foods” are narrated by the voice of crack cocaine. Here Hannaham uses Pessoa as a springboard to interrogate the narrative and the narrator and to seek some kind of truth about consciousness.
“It’s really weird to be human and alive and observant and to feel as if identity is reduced to something that’s really only just a hint of what identity is,” he said. “I can deny that what you say about my identity is true, even if it’s true, and that’s legit. That’s like the pilot going into the cockpit and locking the door and deciding to crash the plane.”
Smith is a Los Angeles author whose latest book is “Rude Talk in Athens.”
Mark Haskell Smith on his latest book, “Rude Talk in Athens,” about an obscure ancient Greek playwright and comedy as a form of revolution.
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