A Book Review and Conversation with Justin Sanders
Justin Sanders, for all the other ghosts
Publisher: DeadNigga Press
2016, 81 pages, paperback, $16
LATELY THIS REVIEWER has not been sleeping well. When I do fall asleep, I have what my girlfriend calls “fever dreams.” I’m not sure that’s a common term, and I’m pretty sure it’s not scientific, but it sounds right: a weak sleep made restless by a pesky thought or ghost from my past. It feels as though I’m being haunted by the world even in my sleep.
But then I wake up. And go about my day.
The characters in Justin Sanders’s new story collection, for all the other ghosts, do not and cannot wake up. They are stuck in a fever that is not a dream, stuck in the haunted and mythically menacing streets of Baltimore, where most of Sanders’s stories are set. The characters’ submersion is total; they dream and wake in the roiling waters made fetid by American history, that swamp that anyone other than white men mostly look back on with terror. But in Sanders’s collection, his characters need not look back (though indeed they do). The ghosts of history still haunt the woods and alleys, bridges and country roads. One can glimpse the past stained on the flags and horses, fireflies and Nikes. Each story in the collection seems to ask: what cities are left untouched by injustice and violence? What square foot of US soil is not cursed by the brutality inflicted on African Americans, on immigrants, on women and children?
Sanders has called his collection “true fiction,” and the stories feel that way. Not only because the unnamed narrator shares similarities to the author (both have an affinity for blank walls and full cans of spray-paint, to give one example), but because isn’t that what ghosts are? True fiction: an imagined feeling or sighting of an actual past. Ghosts, typically, are seen only if one knows a tragedy happened in that house, on that field, under that bridge. Visitors have seen ghosts on the Gettysburg battlefield, taken pictures where faint images of battle-worn Yankees haunt the frame, but how many speak or see the ghosts trapped among the branches of poplars in southern squares where a lynched black body once swung, or where shots were fired in east Baltimore killing a husband, the father of an unborn daughter? Sanders’s narrator proclaims, “This is Baltimore, there are ghosts on every corner.” That’s the thing, ghosts tend only to haunt what history we care to remember. His narrator and characters know that history, but I’m not sure the same can be said for our history books or culture.
The specters that haunt Sanders’s collection are passive but horrifying. Many are horrifying for the fact that they’re true. They have names both real and mythical: George Stinnely (a 14-year old boy, tried, convicted and executed—and later exonerated—for murder; the state sat him on phone books to fit The Chair), Mary Turner (a mother who appealed the lynching of her husband and was in turn lynched; her unborn child brutally murdered), these historical figures mingle on the page with Renaissance painters and Greek myths, all revived to haunt the present—I could go on and on. And yet the horrors visited upon historical bodies, on the deceased, happen again in nearly identical fashion to the living black bodies, brown bodies, female bodies in the present, the present of these stories. The pain continues.
But I don’t mean to scare you away from the collection. Sanders has a touch for the humane that is precise and impeccable. The characters that have had terror visited upon them—and most in his collection do—are not cowed by the experience, are not smothered by the ghosts. Instead, they see in this terrible history a way toward resilience, their skin is thickened, they see the world wide-eyed, without the scales of delusion. Death happens. The world happens. But they must fight back. Many of Sanders’s stories take on sentiments similar to the tales of Greek bards three-thousand years ago: that tragedy has wakes that ripple throughout time but the victim can, in stories, in the end, gain the dignity of a hero. As in the story “One Day as Lion,” where a 13-year-old girl, whose mother is abused by her police-officer boyfriend, finds her revenge.
A cop is killed in East Baltimore. They say he’s stabbed 19 times. In fact it’s 8 times. They say the wounds look like bites. They do. They say it’s a black girl that killed him, a black girl with scars all over her face and her hair pulled in tight dreadlocks that reach down her back and swept the earth.
“She was a ghost,” says one woman. “She only looked like a little girl till you got up close on her, till she wasn’t inches from your face. Then you could see it; see how she was all cracked. That’s what happened to the cop. He had pressed up on her and backed her against the wall. . . ‘A girl like you should be thankful to have any man,’ he was saying to her. . . . And then it looked like she reached up to cup his face but her arm kept stretching. And her limbs grew too long for her body. Her skin chipped, turned like ochre and scale. The sun glinted off her, and I thought it was a knife in her hand at first but then I saw it, saw the light touch her. Her skin peeled back, like bark . . . before it shattered into a menace of snakes.”
Later, as in all great tragedies, Lion dies as a result of her rightful vengeance. Throughout the story there are allusions to the myth of Medusa, raped by Poseidon and transformed into a monster by Athena, but I am reminded too of Daphne’s attempts to escape the sexual advances of Apollo by turning into a tree—only to have Apollo make the Daphne tree into a crown. While the women in these stories lose, the long finger of justice points through the ages at the offending men, despite, in the story, getting away with their crimes. And this is what Sanders’s stories do so well: despite tragedy they arch toward justice, give strength to the wronged; they encompass myths that walk like a passerby, ghosts that give birth to living children and living children who quickly slip into becoming ghosts. The worlds of myth, history and the present are folded one atop the other until the real blazes forth from his stories, illuminating both our shame and our resilience.
— Adam Shutz
Adam Shutz Interviews Justin Sanders
Your book is political. As all great books are, I think. How do you see the role of the writer in politics? Does the writer have one?
I don’t think it’s possible to divest any writer from politics. All writers, whether they want to be or not, are products of political circumstances. Everything we create as writers is informed by our politics. To that end I think the role of every writer is first to be bold in whatever they’re writing. Especially with sensitive shit like politics. I think a writer should be bold in their attempts to make their politics real for their readers. To not do so, or to do so timidly is, I think, a fundamental betrayal of everything we collectively are striving for as artists.
I think the role of the writer is the same as the role of any artist, to offer commentary. For me personally, I see it as my role to offer questions. I’m less and less certain of my own knowledge and “rightness” each day, so I think rather than offer commentary based in what I know or what I think I know, I try to offer my versions of, “but also is it possible,” and “why,” and “what if.”
When reading your book, I was struck by the sentiment that history had leached into the soil and remained there for those inquisitive enough to look or for those who just knew that they were walking on ground where blood had been spilled, that in any square foot of US land we might find the soil cursed, imbued with a profound sadness that most, or most white people, ignore or have redacted from their history. Am I off base in this reading?
I think that’s a very accurate reading. One thing that strikes me is the question of who we allow to be ghosts. If we want to define ghosts as undying reactions to violence and death, well violence and death exist everywhere at every point in history. This country was founded and grown through violence and death, yet seemingly the only traumatic violent histories that we feel are horrific enough to never go away are stories from the Civil War, or early American settlement, or the Victorian era, or from popular white mythology. Even the exceptions, ghost stories about Indian burial grounds and hoodoo slave ghosts, all still center a white narrative. The actual history is never faced because the story then is about a white protagonist overcoming an evil from the past—what’s lost is the actual people who suffered the real pain and death. I wanted to highlight what I feel are those people’s intentionally forgotten stories.
Let’s talk craft for a moment or two. You don’t have a table of contents for your stories. What is the reason for this?
I thought it helped connect the [stories in the] book. I know when I pick up a collection of stories the way I read is to scroll through the TOC and see what titles catch my eye and then I read those stories first. And while I think you can read my book similarly, starting at any story, I definitely wrote it with the intention of it being read straight through. I think the book tells a different story when read from start to finish.
I also thought it spoke thematically to the content—the idea that these events are connected, though maybe not in ways obvious at first.
The narrator of your stories is a consistent unnamed ‘I.’ Do you consider that ‘I’ a character whose consciousness makes the collection unified? Or do you consider each story told by a different person?
Oh, it’s definitely the same character. The narrator is a ghost telling ghost stories throughout. My friend Alex Lokey gave me this description that I love, he said, “It’s like you’re fired out of a gun at the start and you’re seeing all of this stuff in flashes.” I think that describes the narrator’s mindset accurately.
The Jay, Lena and Rhose story line is threaded throughout. How do you see this unifying the collection?
I think that storyline works to unify the past, present, and future. Jay and “I” are characters of the past and those characters deal with stories and relics from the past. Lena is more the present and her narrative is sort of constantly ongoing and replaying in acts of violence against women—the frequent disappearances of women of color that go overlooked. Rhose is the future and her narrative, hopefully, culminates in the ambiguity and indefiniteness that the future holds. I guess hers is really the only hopeful narrative because hers is the only story yet to be written.
Your collection of stories are called ‘ghost stories.’ But the stories in your book are not traditional ghost stories. How do you see them speaking to that tradition?
I’ve never thought of them as traditional or not, but that’s a good way to put it. Because traditional ghost stories speak to fears of the larger culture and those fears are often based on fiction and imagined scenario. My ghost stories come from a different tradition and speak to different fears because they’re based on real shit that happened. I’ve never found old Victorian ghosts scary because I’ve never experienced the fear of my own repressed feelings and the resultant haunting of what happens when those feelings break loose. But I do find the KKK scary because they’re real and they’ve tortured and killed real people. That you can ask any person of color about the Klan and they’ll say the same shows how universally haunted we all are— they’re one of our boogeymen in a very real sense. So I try to tell those stories, and ones similar. Those stories are the ones we want to forget but should never be allowed to, because they haunt us and they should.
I like to work with fear. I think what we fear defines who we are to some extent. A lot of ghost stories use the convention of reckoning. There’s latent guilt in the narratives, like they begin with some crime or atrocity or some horrendous cruelty being committed, and the protagonist might get away with it at first but later, usually just when they think everything is okay, the past returns in some form for retribution. I think that’s connected to how we deal with our history, and I think one of our biggest fears is that one day the bill will come due. That idea should haunt people, it should rob you of sleep, like any good ghost story should.
Justin Sanders is a ghost from Baltimore. His words can be found most recently in his book, for all the other ghosts, and on city walls. for all the other ghosts was published as a thesis project for the MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts at the University of Baltimore. To read more about Sanders see his interview with The Kenyon Review, and to purchase the book visit bmoreghost.com.