Thursday, January 16, 1997

An Interview with Alexs Pate

An interview with Alexs Pate, discussing his book Finding Makeba
Published January 16th, 1997, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Notes of a Native Son—and Daughter

By Alexs Pate
Putnam, $21.95

Minneapolis author Alexs Pate doesn’t seem to be satisfied with writing just one novel at a time. Instead, his new book, Finding Makeba, incorporates at least two novels (and maybe three) into a labyrinthine fictional puzzle that, like Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, consists of both story and commentary.

Ben, an African-American writer from Philadelphia (which is Pate’s hometown), writes a successful autobiographical novel, and Makeba, the nineteen-year-old daughter he hasn’t seen for ten years, buys a copy and writes her own responses after each chapter. The novel (Pate’s, not Ben’s) begins with a third-person account of Makeba taking a train to see Ben at a book-signing, and when she arrives to give him her annotated version, Finding Makeba explodes fictionally, personally, and philosophically.

Ben’s novel, like Finding Makeba, is an intense look at the struggles of being a father, a writer, and a black man in America, and Makeba’s commentary works as an illuminating antidote to his one-sided (albeit sincere) account.

Makeba’s importance to the novel came about almost by accident. “I met a young woman who I just got in this conversation with,” Pate says. “She was really very emotional about her feelings about her father who she didn’t know. And she cried, and I went home that day and promised myself that I would keep that young woman’s pain in my book—that, yeah, my story was about Ben and his struggle, but then it really was as much her story as it was his. And so I created the character Makeba. Before she was just a, you know, just someone who he talked about.

Once Pate heard Makeba’s voice in his head, he found an entirely new angle from which to approach the story. He found that two voices, like two eyes focusing on a three-dimensional object, gave the novel new depth.

“So then I started to write her journal and to create her as a character,” Pate says. “Then the question becomes what is truth, you know, how do you tell a story about a family that dissolves like that? The form came from a series of attempts to be as truthful as I could possibly be.”

The dialogue Pate sets up with this structure allows him to present ideas and then examine them from both sides. It would be easy for Pate to make the reader sympathize solely with Ben, because of his role as tortured artist, or solely with Makeba, because she grew up fatherless, but he’s more interested in presenting a fuller picture.

“I think whenever you’re trying to portray a situation in which one person is pretty obviously guilty,” Pate says, “there are two things you can do. You can take a point of view from a character’s perspective that says, ‘Yeah, this is what a fucked-up guy does.’ Or you could say that it’s not really his fault—these are the things that happened to him. Neither one is really true. When you create another character, then you have the opportunity to present a more objective viewpoint of this person, this man who is making these decisions, because you don’t just see what he thought, and you don’t just see what other people thought. You see what happened.”

Along the way, Pate allows himself to write not just about the story, but also about how stories get told and how writers imagine themselves in their work. But the novel never sinks to mere metafiction or becomes so self-conscious that it loses its grip on the story at hand. Pate keeps an eye on the world around Ben and focuses on how these things shape the man and the writer.

“A lot of what I wanted to do was talk about the process of becoming a writer, what does it take to be a writer,” Pate says. “How does the mind of a writer evolve and develop? It evolves and develops under the pressures of day-to-day life, you know, and the struggles of making the correct decisions. And also, the environment in which Ben’s life is lived is a charged time—when you have the Black Power movement going on and the Black Arts Movement happening and you have all these incredible poets and these writers. And connected with all that is what the family needs. So you have this writing that is happening, this arts movement, and I really wanted to explore the way in which Ben came of age as a writer.”

Like Ben, who found himself in the crosshairs of so many conflicting interests, Pate was torn about where to focus the novel. Just the setting alone—racially torn 1970s Philadelphia—is a political statement. With a backdrop of Mayor Frank Rizzo and his proto-fascist police force facing down the African back-to-nature group MOVE, Pate found it hard to rein it all in.

“You’re easily waylaid by the pitfalls of the times,” Pate says. “As you come across the whole issue of MOVE, you want to stop and say, ‘What was that about?’ And then you think, ‘Well, no, John Wideman wrote about that in Philadelphia Fire.’ And you have the whole Frank Rizzo time. I could have spent more on it, but I forsook almost everything to stay on target.”

For those who know where to look, there’s plenty of social comment inherent in Ben’s journey, but the heart of the story, as much as the artistic struggle, is Ben’s search for Makeba’s understanding. It’s a story about how loss and recovery can work together to bring about change. And there definitely are casualties. For instance, Makeba’s mother, Helen, falls into the background, almost disappearing from the story after Ben leaves her.

“Men relate to their children through women,” Pate says. “And that had to be broken so that Ben could relate to Makeba directly. Because when you talk to men who are separated from their children, the issue is not with their children. I just wanted to shift the focus of the story away from Ben and Helen to Ben and Makeba.”

So ultimately the story, painful and complex as it is, offers a kind of balm to those it can and cuts its losses where it must. It’s a harsh story; it’s a humane story; but, above all, it’s a necessary story.

—David Wiley

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