"To Pull The Veil Away": Samuel R. Delany On Dhalgren
In a year when peoples' lives have been turned upside down by coronavirus many readers have found solace in science fiction. Science fiction has long been an arena where authors can speculate about the future from an uncertain present. One book that feels especially prescient during this moment of crisis is the 1975 classic Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany.
Delany is one of the most accomplished living science fiction writers. He has published dozens of novels, memoirs, short stories, and works of literary criticism since the early sixties. His output is vast and diverse, running the gamut from the fantasy of his Return to Nevèrÿon series to reflections on sex and gentrification in the nonfiction Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. He achieved massive success as a Black gay writer in a publishing world long dominated by straight white men. Delany lives in Philadelphia, and is Professor Emeritus in the English Department at Temple University.
Delany's novel Dhalgren takes place in the fictional midwestern city of Bellona. Something traumatic—it's not clear what—has happened in the city. "There are suggestions of all sorts of catastrophes that might have happened in Dhalgren, and you have to pick the one that makes most sense," Delany told WYPR. "Was it a race riot? Was it a plane crashing into the street? Was it a political shooting? Was it a case of somebody shooting some people in the street from the roof?"
Whatever happened in Bellona, the city is a shell of what it once was. The infrastructure and streets are damaged, fires rage nonstop, radio, television, and phone technology no longer work, and many residents have fled the city. But some people, especially social outcasts, are drawn towards Bellona, where the crisis forces them to find new ways of living in order to survive.
The book follows one such Bellona resident, an unreliable narrator whose memory is so damaged he can't remember his own name, so he is known alternately as the Kid and Kidd. Kidd navigates the city with one shoe on his foot and a notebook in his hand. He meets roving bands of squatters called Scorpions, falls in and out of relationsips with men and women, and tries, but usually fails, to make sense of his strange surroundings.
Samuel R. Delany joined WYPR to discuss his book in light of the current pandemic. Click the player above to hear the conversation, or read the transcript below.
Interview With Samuel R. Delany
Recorded in May 2020. Edited for length and clarity.
Samuel R. Delany: Dhalgren is a novel about a place where something has happened and no one understands exactly what it is, which does have a lot of resonances with almost any catastrophe that might happen to a city where we have to figure out what's going on by the news or some other media.
It was a city that I put right in the center of the United States. And it's an imaginary city, a city that doesn't really exist. Back when I wrote it, people used to say that the exteriors seem to be New York and the interiors seem to be San Francisco. And those were the two cities I had spent some time in so I don't think it was a strange way to read the book because those are the cities that I was writing about, using my experiences of for interiors and exteriors.
Mark Gunnery: So you mentioned that you were in San Francisco and New York at the time that you were working on this.
Delany: I was in a whole lot of cities and there's a list of the cities that I actually was in, but mainly I was in San Francisco and New York.
Gunnery: Got it. You wrote this book over a four year period between 1969 and 1973. What was happening both in the world and in your life that motivated you to write Dhalgren?
Delany: Well, I was moving around from place to place. The other big motivation was that something that was happening in all the major cities that I lived in and definitely in New York and it happened here in Philadelphia where I am now and it happened in San Francisco pretty much every place else. There was at least one large area of the city that had fallen that usually had been lived in by a marginalized group, Blacks or Mexicans or Puerto Ricans or what have you.
In my case, I grew up in Harlem and that part of the city had fallen into total disrepair. People had just moved out of it because there was no living in it anymore. And that's what happened in a lot of places and almost every city had a major area that was like Bellona.
I think that's one of the reasons that the book was as popular as it was with people who were actually in cities because they saw areas of their city just falling apart. That hadn't happened for a long time. The cities themselves were too large to allow things to come in and there was not a wilderness to take it over again. So that's what happened. And so every place became a city with an area that was collapsing.
Gunnery: The characters in Dahlgren move through a city that's been shaken by something traumatic and life altering, and it follows them as they navigate a new strange existence. How did the characters like the Scorpions, for example, adapt to that new reality?
Delany: Frequently, as happened in real life, they moved into the edges of some of these areas and began to take it over. The process was one that happened again and again and again in all big cities and it resulted in these areas that were burnt out. And so suddenly you did have squatters. That's what it is about. The Scorpions are squatters in the ruins of the cities as, indeed are the people living out in the park.
Gunnery: What kind of lessons do you think we can learn from science fiction about relating with each other and how to survive in the midst of a pandemic?
Delany: One of the things that Dahlgren only touches on very briefly is disease itself. There is one young woman who's very sick and stays in this house, but that's about the only place where disease rears its head in Dhalgren.
There are suggestions of all sorts of catastrophes that might have happened in Dahlgren, and you have to pick the one that makes most sense. Was it a race riot? Was it a plane crashing into the street? Was it a political shooting? Was it a case of somebody shooting some people in the street from the roof? And these were the kinds of things that you were reading about happening just before I wrote Dhalgren.
I remember going to visit Denny O'Neil, a comic book editor at DC (Comics) in the Lower East Side and going across the street and there had indeed been riots in the Village and Tompkins Square Park. And we had to ashcan covers over our heads and be escorted across the street. And I wrote about it in essays as well.
Gunnery: Why do you think humans are interested in literature that is apocalyptic, from the Book of Revelation to Dahlgren? What is appealing to us about narratives that have the world that we know collapsing?
Delany: Well, as I wrote about in a couple of short stories, I don't know whether that's the way it works. I think what happens is a lot of the stuff is more cyclical than actually apocalyptic.
The word “apocalypse” means to “apó kalýpto” (“από καλύπτω”), which is to pull the veil away and to see what's really happening. Apocalypse is not about something collapsing. It's about something being revealed. It's about a revelation. In fact, that's why the image of the apocalypse comes in the Book of Revelation at the end of the Bible. You know, that's what it's initially about.
Disease is one of the four horsemen. And there were times in history when various diseases took over and became major problems. Whether it was the black death in Europe, bubonic plague. Everybody remembers, you know, you get bubonic plague and the rats start to die. And I remember the first time I moved into my apartment in the Lower East Side, there was a dead rat lying right outside my window and I thought it “Are we having plague?” No, fortunately it was just a dead rat.