“ghosts on every corner”: An Interview With Writer Justin Sanders

By Wendy Trevino |

“Haunting raises specters, and it alters the experience of being in time, the way we separate the past, the present, and the future. The specters or ghosts appear when the trouble they represent and symptomize is no longer being contained or repressed or blocked from view.”

—  Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination

In for all the other ghosts, writer Justin Sanders traverses time and space in order to capture the colonial, patriarchal and racial violence that is foundational to the everyday experience of Black men and women in the United States. Published in May 2016, this debut collection of short stories – what Sanders calls “true fiction” – centers the city of Baltimore, MD from which America’s entire history of brutality against Black and indigenous people seems to emanate. It is here that this history repeats itself again and again, like a broken record.

While set in present day Baltimore, the characters populating the interlocking stories that make up this collection span the globe and recorded history. Put another way, Sanders’s Baltimore is haunted. La Malinche rides the subway, while reflections of unnamed, murdered Black women stare back at anyone who looks long enough at the Pataspco River, but the city is haunted no less by those characters surviving the present. As the narrator proclaims, “This is Baltimore, there are ghosts on every corner.” They will not be contained. They will not be repressed. These “ghost stories” leave readers with a Baltimore in which, at any moment, even justice might be resurrected.

After the murder of Freddie Gray and the subsequent riots and protests that took place in Baltimore, Sanders’s for all the other ghosts has a particular resonance. I recently interviewed Justin, hoping to get at some of the reasons behind this. Here are some of Justin’s thoughts about Baltimore, anti-capitalism, writing, “true fiction” and “false history.”

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WT: The cover of your short story collection for all the other ghosts features an old photograph of a crowd of white people standing on a bridge, from which nooses—which seem to be drawn onto the photograph—hang, and in the bottom left-hand corner it says “true fiction by Justin Sanders.” Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by “true fiction” and about the relation of this “true fiction” to the history in which the photograph figures?

justinsandersJS: “True fiction” — I think describes all the stories:, there are parts based on fact and some parts that are based on perspective. I think it’s part of my job as a fiction writer to constantly question the nature of the stories we tell. True fiction I think speaks to the idea that there’s a false history created just by the stories we know versus the stories we don’t.

So like the cover photo is taken from the postcard of Laura and L.D. Nelson’s lynching. To try and avoid death profiteering, I took their bodies out. I’ve been researching lynching photography and postcards for years now and I know a lot about the story of Laura and L.D., I know that L.D. was 13 years old at the time and charged with murdering a sheriff’s deputy. I know that Laura was raped before she was hanged. I know Laura and L.D. were bound and gagged with two sacks. I know there are claims that L.D. was castrated before he was hanged. I know there are reports that Laura Nelson had a baby with her that day who survived. I know all that but I don’t know anything about the 40 or so men on the bridge who were responsible. It’s a form of erasure –is I guess that’s how I see it. And the story that gets created in that erasure is one where no one was responsible for her death.

It’s similar to the experience I had creating the cover. Previously whenever I looked at these photos all I’ve been able to focus on has been the bodies. But with the body out of picture I was suddenly able to focus entirely on those men on the bridge.

WT: Baltimore figures prominently in this collection. To me, it’s like a character you develop throughout the book. How would you describe the role Baltimore plays in your writing and in these stories?

JS: I think place is an equal part of character. I’m Baltimore born and raised so that shit’s in my bones like. I love my city and I try to rep my city in a way that speaks true about it. To that end, the stories I tell are Baltimore stories., I try to connect those stories to things I’ve learned or experienced other places but for me the focus is very much on how things play out in the streets I know. Bmore is a hard city, historically it’s always been a hard fuckin’ city, so the stories that it breeds are hard—hard people dealing with difficult shit. I think that’s kinda automatic literary bait for any writer but I also think it creates a problem with outsider representation. I want to give an authentic view of this place, ’cause at the end of the day I’m dealing with real people’s lives and real pain and suffering.

WT: One of the things I really enjoyed about for all the other ghosts was the preponderance of strong women characters. When I say “strong,” I don’t so much mean the women are strong, though they are; I mWendy Author Photo.jpegean “strong” as in central to the stories in which they appear—like Oyani and Nefertia in “WND.” Where did you draw inspiration for these women? Are there authors you particularly appreciate for their women characters?

JS: Mostly the inspiration is women I know or have met. Nefertia is heavily based on a woman I knew from my old neighborhood. Oyani is a composite of some students I’ve had. Lion is almost an exact retelling of the story of a kid who attended one of the schools I taught at. Often I wonder if it’s appropriative for me to “collect” and “retell” their stories as such—and I try to be mindful and respectful of their lives.

As far as authors I appreciate, Shashi Deshpande is an author I greatly admire and I took so many lessons from her prose on crafting women-centric narratives.  I think I would be lost as a writer without the work of Kamala Markandaya, Ntozake Shange, Yvonne Vera, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. Though my greatest influence and the writer I always comeback to is The Queen of the South, Zora Neale Hurston. In my opinion she’s the gold standard when it comes to fiction with strong women characters and all of my work is a hack ass version of shit she did first.

WT: Looking again at “WND” and the characters Oyani and Nefertia, you bring the worlds of graffiti and witchcraft together in this really amazing way. Can you talk a little about your thinking behind this? How do you think these two worlds speak to and/or supplement each other?

JS: I guess I’ve kinda always seen them as similar. I spend a good bit of my time running around the city and drawing on walls. Graffiti is, or at least used to be I think, anti-capitalist by nature in how you actively rob value from property when you do it. Witches, the women labeled and condemned as witches, were the anti-capitalists of their time, actively seeking to subvert an industry that was being pressed upon them. So I guess to me there’s always been sort of a latent connection there.

Both of graffiti and witchcraft have a level of ritual practice to them—there’s rules and semantics behind graffiti that outsiders may not be aware of and tagging someone’s name can be a very sacred act. Like anytime a friend, family or crew member, has died I’ve gone out and tagged their name somewhere and I’ve heard cats on the street call it, “the highest civilian honor.” Same thing back in the day, only then you did their name on a subway car so that they rode all city. The idea was very much, “yeah they might buff it out by tomorrow but at least for today the whole city knows your name.” I think that’s very similar to ideas in witchcraft about the power inherent in names and the ability of names to invoke the dead.

WT: Another thing I loved about this collection is the way you pull in “Malinche”—the so- called mother of the Mexican people—and Josefa Segovia (or Juanita)—a Mexican woman executed by lynching after murdering a man as he tried to assault her. How would you describe the role these women and/or the stories about these women play in your writing and in these stories?

JS: The stories of Malinche and Josefa were some of my major motivations for writing the book, and they’re both stories that I return to over and over trying to understand more fully. I wanted to share their stories because I think they both highlight something very ugly in our culture—how things get changed to cast victims as villains and attackers as heroes.

Both of their stories I heard first as myths first. It strikes me that we tend to think of mythology as tales from antiquity, but mythology is created and lived everyday, and mythology has a very formative influence on our culture. With Malinche, I heard that she was the concubine and translator to Cortez and that’s why her name is also used synonymously with traitor. With Josefa, I heard the myth of this Mexican woman named Juanita who killed an innocent white man for his money. Right there I think you can see the living mythology those stories fit in the lineage of—traitorous thieving Mexican women and that’s a horrifyingly common sentiment I’ve encountered in both white and POC communities.

Much later when I was researching and collecting folklore and mythology I came across both of the stories again and realized how skewed the myths were. Malinche was not a concubine. She was sold to Cortez as his slave — and so many of the tellings very pointedly leave out the word, “rape” when describing her situation. Josefa was defending herself from a man who broke into her house in the middle of the night with the clear intent to rape her.

What strikes me is the similarity to the story of Sally Hemmings. She was claimed to have been Thomas Jefferson’s mistress and willing lover. In truth she was 14 when he was 40 something and the slave half-sister of his dead wife. In truth she was his slave and so it’s not like consent was even a possibility. Same as Malinche in that.

They’re all the types of stories that I think we should all know, but instead we more commonly know the myths and we pass on the myth without thinking or examining it further and I think that shit’s dangerous.

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Here, we reprint an excerpt from Justin Sanders’ for all the other ghosts

Publisher: DeadNigga Press

2016, 81 pages, paperback, $16

 

Baltimore 2013

I knew this kid named Lion. She was real quiet. Never really spoke at all. This kid, she was about 13; she had burns all over her, she had them all over her face. I thought she’d been in a fire. I thought that until I was talking with her sister and her sister told me straight. Said their mom was dating this cop. Called him, “a real shiteheart.” Said he used to beat their mom. He never hit them, never laid a finger on them, just their mom. Well this kid, Lion’s sister, tells me one day this cop went to throw acid on their mom’s face except he missed and hit Lion. Hit her as she was walking in the door from going to grab a burger.

“Like glass shattering,” is how she described her sister’s screaming. In my head it always sounds like metal scraping stone, like a knife being sharpened.

One day Lion was at the Walter’s gallery. She liked the large vacant rooms. She liked to draw the statues she saw. She was walking through a gallery with her headphones in and she stopped to look at the statue of a snake.

The painting behind her

When Judith entered Holoferne’s tent he knew his campaign was already victorious. He knew his military was superior. He knew there was nothing to fear ‘cause she was a woman, and not young or a virgin either, so God had no more use for her. He licked his lips when she entered his tent. She told him she had information on the Hebrews.

He stared at her tits while she talked. He grabbed her by the arm and pressed his face close to hers, so close his breath pushed down her throat and his spit clung to her lips and cheek. ‘They will write this up as you seducing me,’ he told her and outside the tent her screams sounded like an animal.

That, I’m pretty sure, is the moment she decided to behead him while he was still alive. During those moments of screaming. Because at one point the screaming isn’t from pain. It’s fury and indignation and promise. It’s a howl. Predators aren’t concerned with the noises prey make. They never think about the ghosts they’re making. They never think about the inevitable day after—which finds Judith telling her handmaiden about the rape. She’s standing in the sun, her maiden next to her, both of them drinking whiskey thick as oil.

[…]

Lion had no idea about Holofernes or Judith or her handmaiden, she didn’t look at that painting for more than ten seconds. She didn’t remember the name of the painter, Artemisia. And even if she had known the painter’s name, she didn’t know that Artemisia was raped by the man her father hired to tutor her—Tassi.

Lion didn’t know that Artemisia testified against her rapist or that Artemisia was tortured by thumbscrews to verify her testimony. Lion didn’t know that Artemisia dreamed of the day she’d meet Tassi again and in her dreams, he was the one who did all the screaming.

Lion didn’t know any of this, but if she did she would have understood. She would have worn a black bandana with Medusa printed on it in support of Artemisia.

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