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WYPR Podcast

"To Pull The Veil Away": Samuel R. Delany On Dhalgren

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Samuel R. Delany. Photo by Mark Gunnery/WYPR.

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," Delany told WYPR. "You kind of have to pick the one that makes most sense. Was it a race riot? Was it a plane falling, possibly crashing into the street? Was it a political shooting? Was it a case of somebody shooting some people on the street from a 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 and relating 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. Transcript edited and expanded by Samuel R. Delany.

Mark Gunnery: In 1974, you published the novel Dhalgren. It's a complicated, long, experimental book. One that William Gibson called a labyrinth. It's a book I keep thinking of during the quarantine, because it takes place in a city where something catastrophic has happened and people have had to adapt to a new reality and create new ways of being together to survive. To start, how would you describe the action of the book and its forgetful protagonist, sometimes called Kidd and sometimes called the Kid. What is Dhalgren about?

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.

In the current pandemic that we are in, some people think that the masks are a good thing, some people think that they're not. My partner, when he goes out—I've been in for the last couple of weeks and haven't gone out at all—but he sees some people who are wearing masks and some who aren’t and is kind of confused by that.

And so that's kind of how that goes, I think. But it's easy to see correspondences between Dhalgren and any sort of catastrophe. And 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 seemed to be New York and the interiors seemed 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 for just that, for interiors and exteriors.

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. There's a list of them at the end of the book, but mainly I was in San Francisco and New York.

Gunnery: Got it. So 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. And 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 and pretty much every place else, at least one large area of the city had fallen into complete disrepair. Usually some marginalized group, blacks or Mexicans or Puerto Ricans or what have you, had lived there. In my case, it was the area, Harlem, I grew up in. People had just moved out of it because there was no living in it anymore.

And that's what happened.

It had happened in a lot of places, and every major city had a sprawling area that was like Bellona. I believe that's one reason 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 had gotten too large to allow things—imports, the way Jane Jacobs describes in her book, The Life and Death of American Cities (1961)—to come in, and there was no wilderness to take it over, so it remained urban ruin. Sometimes squatters moved in, which gave the impression that, possibly, a ghostly lumpen population survived there, but mostly it was uninhabitable . . .

Dhalgren is a kind of fantasy, written with that as the background, which gave it relevance.

Gunnery: The characters in Dhalgren 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: Well, they took over, frequently as happened in real life. They moved into some of 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. The result was that these areas were often burnt out—sometimes by absent landlords themselves trying to collect insurance. It could be devastating and, since you did have squatters there, sometimes incredibly destructive, and people began to carry weird stories to the outside world. The Scorpions are squatters in the ruins of the cities as indeed are the people living out in the park.

Gunnery: So do you see any similarities between the world you created in Dhalgren and the city of Bellona and the world that we're in now?

Delany: Less so, which is to say, I think we're learning how to live in our modern cities, and I think we're paying more attention—I certainly am—to what our leaders are actually doing and realizing that we have to be much more responsible towards making the leaders do the right things. And we have the world's most irresponsible leader right now (Donald Trump [45]). And I think, and I hope, that's going to produce changes with the next election. I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Since he likes publicity so much, he's very good at shooting himself in the foot. But that, I think, is the way that goes.

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 Dhalgren only touches on very briefly is disease itself. There is one section where there’s one young woman who's very sick and stays in the apartment building we spend so much time in in §II. But that's about the only place where disease rears its head. There are suggestions of all sorts of catastrophes that might have happened in Dhalgren. You kind of have to pick the one that makes most sense. Was it a race riot? Was it a plane falling, possibly crashing into the street? Was it a political shooting? Was it a case of somebody shooting some people on the street from a roof? These were the kinds of things you might read about happening just before I wrote Dhalgren.

I remember going to visit Denny O'Neil, a comic book editor at DC in the Lower East Side, and going across the street. There had been riots around in the Village, and in Tompkins Square Park. We had to hold ashcan covers over our heads and be escorted by the police across Avenue B—I wrote about such things in essays as well.

I haven't heard of that kind of thing in a long time in actual cities at this point, but there were, you know, big protests and big gatherings and what have you. Sometimes you got protests of thousands, if not hundreds, sometimes hundreds of thousands of people. And that's happened in the streets of New York. And it's happened in major cities. The biggest protests I've seen in the longest time were right after Trump's election. Suddenly there were big protests in the streets. And that was very strange: I’ve never seen that before, directly after an election, in my life—whether I liked the candidate or thought it was a politically disastrous choice, as I did, for example, with Nixon.

Gunnery: Why do you think humans are interested in literature that is apocalyptic from the Book of Revelation to Dhalgren. 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 really 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 part of the image of the apocalypse comes in the Book of Revelation at the end of the Bible. That's what it's initially about. And the four horsemen—and disease is one of the four horsemen.

There were times in history when various diseases took over and became major problems. It was the Black Death in Europe, when we had bubonic plague. Everybody remembers when you get bubonic plague: 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, I thought, “is plague starting? Are we having plague?” No, it was just, fortunately, one dead rat; but the idea went through my head.

You’ll note all the rats have abandoned Bellona, which is perhaps the most unbelievable aspect of the novel, but it was a resonance I just didn’t want to deal with in fictive terms—much the same way I didn’t want to deal with smoking in a city where tobacco wasn’t being delivered daily.

[...]

Gunnery: Well, it was really nice to talk to you.

Delany: Nice to talk to you, too.

Gunnery: Samuel Delany, thank you so much for joining us.

Delany: Thank you for having me. It’s been fun.