Author Q&A:
James Hannaham

Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta
(Europa Editions)

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From the author of the PEN-Faulkner Award-winning book Delicious Foods, Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta follows the titular character as she re-enters Brooklyn after more than 20 years in a men’s prison. Over one Fourth of July weekend, Carlotta struggles to reconcile with the son she left behind, to reunite with a family reluctant to accept her true identity, and to avoid any minor parole infraction that might get her put back behind bars.

On her release from prison Carlotta is shocked by the changes she sees in Brooklyn. Is the impact of gentrification lessened when you witness it in real time? 
Obviously, the impact of gentrification exists independently of anyone’s shock at it! But that’s probably not what you’re asking me. I’d say that as someone who witnessed gentrification in Fort Greene more gradually than Carlotta (who is, let’s not forget, a fictional character) did, each successive wave of gentrification seemed to bring new surprises, not all of them unpleasant.

It’s nice when a neighbourhood is no longer a food desert, real estate is desirable, and folks can co-exist at various income levels, but then the economics of our racist country rush in, and it’s all over. I have often said that I will believe racism is over in America when a Black family moves into a building and the property values go up. And I don’t mean some famous basketball player. I mean like Jaliyah Black Woman.

How has the conversation about trans rights and the treatment of trans people changed from when you began writing the book, and did you need to adapt the story to reflect this?
This story was not meant to be “about a trans woman” – it was meant to be about a person, one of whose identity markers happens to be that she’s living as a woman. Another is that she’s a formerly incarcerated person, also that she’s Black, and she’s Colombian, too. But the most important part of her identity to me is that she’s FROM NEW YORK. Which in my mind ties up all of those other identities into a neat package.

And no, there’s an actual conversation now, but all this “conversation” don’t mean shit if nobody’s backing it up with actions and laws. When people – usually academics and people in publishing – talk about “the conversation” they aren’t usually talking about what happens to real people; they’re talking about how academics and people in publishing talk about issues. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say there’s a pretty wide gap between that “conversation” and “people in need on the street”. Which is one reason I wrote the book with the kind of language that I did.

What did switching between third and first person allow you to do as a writer?
It allowed me to answer, in a micro sort of way, certain questions I have about narratives and who is allowed to tell them and why. There were some observations that Carlotta could make that a third person narrator couldn’t, and vice versa. I wanted, as I always want, to even the playing field between the two voices, to demonstrate that they complement each other, and that neither was “smarter” or “more observant” than the other; they were just different, primarily in terms of word choice, and that’s all.

What specific research did you do into the trans prison experience and what did you find out?
There is no singular “trans prison experience” to my knowledge, in the same way that there is no “Black gay experience” or “Blatine formerly incarcerated trans Brooklynite experience.” There are, however, people. One of my major points in writing this book was to reinforce the idea that people are individuals, and that identity politics, for all the political good it can accomplish, does a very inadequate job of describing how it feels to be alive, which is the job of a storyteller, and that attempting to force storytellers to conform to identity politics tropes is bound to create some truly terrible work. Think of Russia after the revolution.

As far as research I read a lot of non-fiction and fiction books, searched a lot of websites, downloaded pamphlets. I am a little sick of this question, so I am going to answer it literally: here’s the bibliography and links to all the websites I visited and pamphlets I downloaded. I can’t give you the places I visited and people I interviewed, but you are free to imagine them. You will note that my research ranges widely; it was never my intention to explain Carlotta to people who weren’t familiar with her world, especially not her LGBTQIA worldview – that’s just a given throughout.

What I wanted to do was direct the book toward the kind of people it’s about, and I felt that everyone else could feel free to look the shit up on their stupid cellphones if they didn’t understand it. The idea was to flip the script on a mainstream world that expects us to strive to understand it and then freaks out when we demand the same.

In what way is the book inspired by Ulysses and why do the classics continue to hold such relevance to modern readers?
It was a process, actually – not something I intended from the outset. I had started writing the story of someone returning from traumatic events in upstate New York, and it occurred to me that by necessity I was retelling the Odyssey, because of the Central New York Military Tract, a gigantic area of upstate New York whose municipalities were named by one Robert Harpur, a classics buff, in 1789. But I figured that everyone and his dog has done a retelling of the Odyssey. I needed something to spice that idea up.

Around that time, my husband, who is of Irish descent, took me to where his father’s side of the family came from in Waterford County, and I brought a copy of Ulysses along because that’s how I roll. So I decided I would use both of them as source material, because writing a novel about a trans Blatine woman wasn’t hard enough. I can’t so much answer the second question except to say that, for better or worse, modern Western culture was planted on a bed of Greek and Roman ideas, so the ideas keep coming up, keep getting positioned as fundamental. It’s the same process by which one could, like me, have memorised the Lord’s Prayer without ever having been a devout churchgoer at any point in life. It’s the aspic in which we’re submerged – perhaps suffocated even – whether we like it or not.

How does Carlotta maintain her sense of humour and strength to keep going following such abuse?
I think it’s a matter of taking life seriously but not taking herself too seriously. And the fact that humour is a way of defending oneself from exactly that kind of thing, and plenty of other unpleasant and mindfucking experiences. She just does. I’m not sure how she does it either, really. Being a fictional character probably helps.

You’re a visual artist as well as a writer. How do the two forms feed into each other?
This is an easier question to answer with regards to Pilot Impostor, the book of responses to poems by Fernando Pessoa that I released last November. I had thrown quite a few images into the book that I just grabbed off the internet, not really thinking much about a day when I’d have to obtain the rights to any of the photos. So I decided I would just draw them. I was an art major as an undergraduate, but my visual art practice is highly conceptual and had so much more to do with writing and words that I forgot I could draw. The drawings came out better than I expected, so I just continued making drawings of air crash sites from photographs for a while. That project has morphed into a different thing, and that thing has continued changing. The borders are always open.

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