Ishmael Reed is pulling documents out of his blue nylon bag and examples out of his memory. Articles from the New York Times, The Washington Post. Interviews on NPR, ABC. Exchanges of letters in Ms., the Nation. Here, he says as he offers each new reference -- one more example of the duplicity of government, the bias of reporters, one more clue to the reality hidden behind the obfuscations of white culture. Evasions, secret societies, official lies and inconsistencies are everywhere. Here -- just look.
"I think paranoia is a good thing," the novelist, essayist and publisher is saying. "I think for women and minorities in this country -- they've earned their paranoia. Some of the things they felt were happening, were happening. In the '60s, there was secret surveillance by the government."
He does this part so smoothly now -- defending himself against a charge of paranoia -- because he's done it so many times before. A lecturer in English at the University of California-Berkeley, Reed is a highly praised novelist who for two decades has been writing wild, satirical novels and saying wild, confrontational things. He knows people think he is excessively prone to seeing demons. He knows and he does not mind.
"Paranoia -- someone once called it a heightened sensitivity." He laughs, a sharp gust halfway between amusement and sardonic punctuation.
Reed's heightened sensitivity has found its latest outlet in a play. "Savage Wilds II" is a one-act satire about two female television producers who are so desperate to succeed in their careers that they agree to assist an obsessed U.S. attorney in constructing a "honey trap" to catch -- yes, you guessed it -- the black mayor of Washington.
"This Barry thing, I really studied it in a hermeneutic fashion -- cabalistic," says the longtime resident of the academic world. "I could see what was coming." Sex, drugs, a secret government plan against a black man -- the Barry sting might as well have been crafted for Ishmael Reed. The play is currently being performed by the BMT Theater in Emeryville, Calif., and its Oakland-based author has hopes it will someday see Washington.
"Using fiction, I'm able to speculate and raise questions about the Barry case," he says. "When Marion Barry bragged about his sexual prowess in a Los Angeles Times article -- that's an ancient thing, there's a sexual competition between white men and black men in this society. I thought he would be bagged for that kind of comment. In my tradition, the Afro-American tradition, you raise issues that people may feel uncomfortable with, but they should be raised nevertheless. I think all our great American artists -- Lenny Bruce, for example -- have done this, because I think too often the truth is shielded by protocol."
Reed has been hailed as a strikingly original writer and is routinely listed among the preeminent black authors of his day. His eight novels, which include the highly praised "Mumbo Jumbo" and "Flight to Canada," are part parody, part voodoo, part black vernacular, part comic book. "They call it postmodern," he says, smiling, of the critical descriptions of his work. Personally he thinks his style was formed by the television and comic books of his youth, but if They want to give it any number of fancy labels, he's not objecting -- with the critical tags come invitations to a perpetual round of international conferences and symposiums.
"If they call it postmodern, I get a trip to Italy," he says. "They call it post-structuralist, and I get a trip to France. They call me an African American Writer, and I get a trip to Washington."
But he has received other labels as well: a misogynist, a troublemaker, an artist who sometimes draws with a stroke so broad his works get lost in blots of exaggerations. In fact, his satire can occasionally veer into the merely nasty. But when he reads his work out loud, the giddy joy he takes in his own outrageousness is contagious.
That's how it was last week when Reed read "Savage Wilds II" for about 150 people at the Smithsonian Institution's Resident Associate Program. Dialogue that seems fatally heavy-handed on the page takes on a loopy, comic logic when shot out by the fast-talking author. The Smithsonian audience roared and groaned, and Reed laughed along.
Nobody comes off well in "Savage Wilds II," from the preening, drug-and-sex-hungry mayor to the knee-jerk feminists who set him up. The president of the country, for example, borrows FBI tapes of Martin Luther King's sex life for private listening. But the villain is clearly the U.S. attorney, who is so determined to trap the mayor he has set up a video camera in the mayor's bathroom. ("Yellow toilet paper," one character muses. "I wonder what that means?")
"This is not based on anyone you know," Reed interjected to general amusement while reading a scene between the mayor and his wife. "This is all fiction."
And scatological fiction at that, so don't look for many quotes in this family newspaper. Much of what is funny is the fact that these things are being said by a pudgy, graying author standing behind a podium in the marble-lined Hirshhorn Museum auditorium. This is the stuff of jokes traded among friends. The listeners giggle like children scribbling dirty jokes on the walls of the school bathroom.
"The critics always tell me I shouldn't write plays," Reed says and pauses, a comedian teasing the crowd. Then -- "Which only encourages me to write them."
Score: Reed 1, Critics 0.
"The critics always tell me to retire," he says.
The audience laughs, dismissing all who oppose this author.
Score: Reed 2, Critics 0.
Reed's relationship with critics has become particularly testy over the past few years, especially following the 1986 publication of "Reckless Eyeballing," a scathing story about two feminists who torment a black male playwright. A number of critics dismissed the book, which appeared around the same time as the film of Alice Walker's "The Color Purple." Because Reed -- like many other African Americans -- was offended by the portrayal of black men in that movie, his soon became a familiar voice in a tense public debate. He was unafraid to criticize black women writers for their depictions of black men, or to accuse white feminists and the publishing industry of encouraging such works out of less than honorable intentions.
"I hate to say this, but we're in a very bland period in American culture because of all the power that white middle-class women have acquired," he told Publishers Weekly last year. "What we have now -- I call it 'Men Stink' literature -- comes from women who grew up in privileged situations; their creative work doesn't have the kind of hunger, the drama, of people who have real problems. These women turn out melodramas in which the women are all good and the men are all bad."
Soon, women were meeting him and saying things like this: "I heard from a friend in Chicago that you hate women."
He doesn't care what friends in Chicago think. "Black feminists in private will say what I say, but not in public. They'll set me up in the newspapers and then ask for job recommendations. It's all a performance. I finally saw it as a performance and decided I can go to town and be the villain to someone's Hulk Hogan -- 'Intellectual Wrestling Mania!' "
Just how much of the public Ishmael Reed is a performance remains open to question. Despite his statements about feminism, through his various literary magazines and publishing ventures he has supported many black women writers. "I was the first to publish Terry McMillan," he says. "I have good relations with Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara."
But he will not stop the verbal agitation. "It's good to raise the temperature, because if you raise the temperature, maybe you'll have a cure."
After all, he has written, God "is a trickster." And God, apparently, created a world full of shifting, fooling creatures. "In our tradition we have a figure of satire -- guije," he explains. "His job is to show each man his devil. He's a trickster figure. He comes from Haiti, but maybe originally from Africa."
Haiti. Africa. Perhaps he now resides in Oakland.
Surely it would take a trickster nature to enjoy so fully the shock with which Reed's opinions are often received. With his books and statements, he pokes at American culture, daring people either to keep up with him or through their defensive reactions to provide him with future ammunition.
But at the moment, Reed the trickster is not in Oakland but in a Washington hotel. The phone rings and he becomes the multicultural czar of California, the man to whom authors of all hyphenations -- African-American, Japanese-American, You-Name-It-American -- turn to seek publication, introductions and other forms of help.
"Just send her out there," he is saying about an anonymous writer. "We can put her in touch with some Native American writers we have in Alaska."
Reed's interest in the varied cultures of the United States is decades old and led to his creation of the Before Columbus Foundation, which honors and supports minority authors, and I. Reed Books, which publishes them. His new magazine, the latest in a series, is called Conch and has a similar goal. "I've found the problem in the United States is that not only are whites not acquainted with black history, but also with their own ethnic history. That influenced the polarization in this city over Barry. Whites didn't know the problems blacks have had with this Justice Department since the '30s."
By now his individual tastes have spawned a bureaucracy that has overtaken him. ("At the Before Columbus Foundation they don't even want me anymore," says the 52-year-old author. "I'm too old.") He often speaks in the plural, as if expressing the opinions of a movement rather than those of a single author. That movement now includes two daughters who write, a 29-year-old fledgling novelist and a 13-year-old poet whose second book is being published by a Native American press.
Much of America is now waking up to the realities of multiculturalism, but it should probably come as no surprise that Ishmael Reed is not satisfied with whatever progress there has been. "The word 'multicultural' has been co-opted," he says. "We think it's interchangeable with multiethnic, but I think what's happening is the well-heeled cultural groups like the opera and the symphony have been co-opting it to receive funds. You get a big grant and get two black students to come to Verdi."
Although Reed is unlikely to publish anything by an underappreciated male WASP, his definition of multiethnic is a broad one. Irish Americans, he thinks, and Italian Americans are often as poorly educated about their past as any other citizens. His social scope is broad, and he intends to broaden his literary reach as well. Reed is now studying Japanese and working on a novel that will be bilingual, or perhaps trilingual, with the addition of Yoruba. How's that for a multicultural experiment?
"I'd like to write a novel that transcends the border," he says. "Many black novelists have gone to Europe. We have a great expatriate tradition. But instead of going into exile in the '60s I thought I'd go into exile in my own country. I went to Seattle and then California."
And so, firmly exiled in his own land, he continues his tricks.