Author Adam Mansbach on Graffiti and the Paradox of Art and Vandalism

Adam Mansbach.jpg
Matthew L. Kaplan

Berkeley based author Adam Mansbach is best-known for his "children's book for adults," Go the Fuck to Sleep, but he also wrote the critically acclaimed Angry Black White Boy and the End of Jews, which won the California Book Award for fiction in 2008. I spoke to Mansbach during his tour for Rage Is Back, his new novel about the son of a disappeared, reappeared New York City Graffiti artist.

I read your essay in Salon last month, "My year on the bestseller list," which chronicled the highs and lows associated with the unexpected, international success of Go the Fuck to Sleep. How's the book tour going, in terms of shifting the focus to Rage Is Back while benefiting from your bestseller?

The tour so far is going quite well. I'm grateful for the attendance I've had. We've been having interesting discussions about the book, and the issues I'm interested in pursuing, in terms of public spaces and graffiti.

It is funny to shift gears from what is essentially a comedy routine, where I tell a funny story, into something that is ready to be picked about. Also, Go the Fuck is really short. At the same time, people are looking for connections between the books.

Do you see a connection, or do you think people try to force that connection because it is a very convenient way to talk about your work?

In a sense, I think there is a connection. One of the things that interests me is the complexity of paradox, which can be about race or ethnicity or gender, but it can also be about wanting to get your kid to sleep.

I was attracted to graffiti artists because they are people who embrace paradox, between fame and anonymity. There is a paradox between art and vandalism.

Do you speak from experience?

I've been involved in graffiti for the vast majority of my life, since at least age 10 or 11. It was seen as an essential, and contributed to a holistic self, which required proficiency in a few things. You couldn't be into rap without graffiti, and I was really interested in emceeing and graffiti.

You live in Berkeley, but the novel takes place in New York City and Brooklyn, and I'm hearing an accent that was probably formed on the East Coast. What was your research process like?

My research began long ago, before I even thought about writing the book. I soaked up a lot of lore and hung out with writers. I started a hip hop magazine called Elementary when I was in college in New York, and I through that I developed relationships with guys like Alan Ket and Bomb5, guys who were historians of the form. I went back to them and took them to lunch, caught up for a little and then got down to business, asking questions like, what would it take to bomb every subway at once?

These are historians of things erased, from a time when it was not appreciated or accepted art. Now we see the MoMA in New York announcing that they will now collect videogames. Do you think there is less resistance to these art forms?

I think these things are very much in motion, and the canon is always changing. I actually just did a panel at MoMA on parallel notions of literature and graffiti with GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, Ket, and José Parlá. This is a New York Museum, in a city that absolutely erased so much of the history.

When I talk about graffiti having died, I should be more specific. I'm talking about guys who have outlived the art on the subway as a consequence of the city's war on graffiti. They spent $300 million defeating us, which was a coded war on young, poor people of color. After that, though, it flourished worldwide as an art form, and these guys from New York became legends. Imagine being denied the ability to continue working in your own city while kids in Europe are talking about you. They felt like they outlived something they had invented, and not only that, they didn't make a living off it in any way.

Authorities see vandalism, not graffiti.

It isn't the act of vandalism they sought to regulate, but the aesthetic of graffiti. Public space is for sale now in New York, but I had an ad that looked like graffiti and it was rejected. They are criminalizing the act and the aesthetic and it is a larger war. That's what we're seeing in Oakland with the graffiti laws.

A crackdown on public art?

As it so often is. This isn't about what the graffiti is, but what it represents. You're willing to put young people in their place. There's a foundation in Oakland that's able to bring kinds into a world of art, which is phenomenal, but perception doesn't allow space for that art to be graffiti. Graffiti is a police buzzword.

Speaking of kids, your novel is driven by a pot-dealing freshly minted adult who speaks in a "street style" we've seen from writers like Junot Diaz, with totally fantastical elements, like a portal. As a writer, how much planning went into negotiating those very different worlds?

I knew from the beginning that the entire book hung on this shit-talking navigator. His ability to coast is what carries that book from different elements, from the hyper-real to magical realism. I was reading Bolano and Marquez and Murakami. The kind of magic that pops up in their work is found in reality, so I wondered what that might look like in New York City once you took away the framework and the resistance. When some magical shit happens people are like, "Get the fuck out of here." We don't need to understand it, and the character isn't suited for it. Not everyone gets to be a Jedi. He comes back practically destroyed from his spirits.

This is a local paper, so I'd be remiss not ask you a local question: Where do you buy your books?

I'm a big fan of Pegasus in Downtown Berkeley, and that's probably where I most often go. I go there all the time. Rest in Peace, Cody's Books. I love City Lights and Book Passage. I like Wacko.

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Catch Adam Mansbach tonight at 6 p.m. at Book Passage, 1 Ferry Building, S.F. Admission is free.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook. Follow Alexis Coe on twitter @alexis_coe.

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