“The Wiggle Room of Theory: An Interview with Samuel Delany,” excerpted below, first appeared in issue 65-66 (2006) of the minnesota review. This interview was conducted in writing between September 19 and October 4, 2005 by Josh Lukin, a Lecturer in English at Temple University. You can read the full interview via our online archive, available through Duke University Press.
To many, Samuel Delany is the radical gay black New York critic who has written on the roles of race, sexual orientation, New York City, and semiotics in his life and in American society. He has appeared in documentaries about the city. In 1993 he won the William Whitehead Memorial Award for a Lifetime’s Contribution to Lesbian and Gay Writing and won the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Pioneer Award in 2006. His 1987 book The Motion of Light in Water is a classic of African-American autobiography, and his bestselling volume of sexual memoir and urban sociology, Time Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999), is a staple of queer theory courses. But Delany is probably best known for his novels. Styling himself a Marxist, but deeply influenced by Foucault and deconstruction, his class-conscious and poststructuralist sensibilities are reflected in his science fiction and fantasy works, such as Dhalgren (1975) and the four- volume Return to Neveryon (1979-87).
Lukin Your first teaching gig occurred in 1959, when you taught remedial reading to young Puerto Rican men at your local community center in New York City; you taught your first creative writing class in 1967 at the Clarion Writers’ Workshop; your first university visiting professorship was at SUNY-Buffalo in 1975; you started your first permanent teaching position, a full professorship at the University of Massachusetts, in 1988. You have only spent one year in college, and, if I’m not mistaken, never had to apply for a teaching job. How does that happen to a person?
Delany The process is simple—and probably self-evident. Someone in a university, a dean or a significant portion of the faculty of one department
or another, who is in a position to hire, must think highly enough of your intellectual accomplishments to want to retain you despite your lack of formal education. In 1975 Leslie Fiedler recommended me for a term as the visiting Butler Chair Professor at SUNY-Buffalo. There I met Marc Shell and Murray Schwartz, then both junior faculty. After my term at Buffalo was up, I saw neither for a baker’s dozen years; but during that time both followed at least some of my work. When, in 1987, Schwartz became Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Massachusetts and Marc was hired as chairman of the university’s Comparative Literature Department, they were looking for someone with scholarly interest in some branch of popular culture, such as science fiction, as well as a familiarity with developments in literary theory. Books of mine such as The Jewel- HingedJaw (1977), The American Shore (1978), and Starboard Wine (1984) probably played a large part in their decision to recruit me. So, for the next eleven years, I was a Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
I’ve been lucky enough that this has happened to me three times. Six years ago this process brought me to Temple University.
Lukin You were first “known” in the science fiction field, then as an “academic,” then as a notable voice in the gay world, and perhaps only recently as a writer that a young African-Americanist can study without risking stigma. In each of these milieux there have been occasions when you or your work has been dissed for your/its association with the other ones. Is there less of that now than there used to be?
Delany All writers with any sort of public get dissed from time to time. I never paid too much attention to it. Nor did I ever think there was a great deal of it—when it came along, I tended to ignore it. I’d even go so far as to say that people who like my work, in an effort to show how interestingly controversial I am, make more ofthe dissing than I do—to the point where, occasionally, I think they actually exaggerate the amount of dissing there: a clause about my rampant sexism in a David Foster Wallace article on something else entirely, a sentence in a John Podhoretz op-ed piece praising the Giuliani administration’s handling of the Times Square boondoggle at the end of the 90s and just after, an absurdly erroneous statement in a book on SF about my beliefs about AIDS transmission. And usually within weeks, someone writes, “What are these people on about? Have they actually read the piece in question?” Readers, black and white, who are put off by, say, the particular gay topics I have been handling for thirty years now, are likely to ignore Delany entirely. The same applies to those who don’t take science fiction seriously. For them, the fact that I write it pretty much pollutes everything else I might do. They’re not even going to bother to diss me.