Yahdon Israel talks to Michael Salu about moving between texts and images
Photo courtesy of Camille Blake
When black bodies interact in white spaces, you seldom get the sense that you’re watching strangers—but estranged relatives. These interactions have led to the pervasive idea that all black people are somehow related. This is and isn’t true. While many of the black bodies are not related by blood, what black bodies are often related by is the shared understanding that bodies like ours exist in white spaces on a few and far between basis. There is a shared understanding that we are, by virtue of finding each other, the only ones—and if we’re not the only ones; we are certainly one of the few. But between estranged relatives, there’s also a tension.
As comforting as it may be to discover that you are not the only one, family or otherwise, there’s a deeper anxiety as to whom this “other one” really is. Is this “other one” like me or like them? Is this “other one” someone I can actually trust, or do I have to watch this one—black body—like the other white bodies? James Baldwin explains this anxiety in “Alas, Poor Richard” where he writes, “One Negro meeting another at an all-white cocktail party cannot but wonder how the other got there. The question is: Is he for real? Or is he just kissing ass? Almost all Negroes,” Baldwin confesses, “are almost always acting, but before a white audience—which is quite incapable of judging their performance.” This would mean that the only one capable of judging whether a black body is performing or not is another black body. “Negroes know about each other what can here be called family secrets and this means that one Negro, if he wishes, can ‘knock’ the other’s hustle—can give his game away . . . Therefore,” Baldwin continues, “one ‘exceptional’ Negro watches another ‘exceptional’ Negro in order to find out if he knows how vastly successful and bitterly funny the hoax has been. Alliances, in the great cocktail party of the white man’s world, are formed, almost purely, on this basis, for of both of you can laugh, you have a lot to laugh about. On the other hand, if only one of you can laugh, one of you,” Baldwin concludes, “inevitably, is laughing at the other.” Because black bodies understand this about each other—that we each possess the peculiar power to expose one another in white spaces—a silent and subtle gesture is made. This silent and subtle gesture is often a nod which communicates: While I recognize you, I also recognize your performance. I promise to never expose yours if you promise to never expose mine.
Insofar as this is mutually agreed upon, as Baldwin suggests, alliances can happen. We can laugh because we know something about each other that no one else does. This knowledge—if it can happen—is what makes us family. If this mutual agreement doesn’t happen however, it invariably communicates that only one of us has arrived at the punchline. And whether it’s a punchline, a profession, or a publication, arriving alone is no laughing matter. Fortunately Michael Salu—who has served as the Artistic Director for Granta alongside John Freeman—has a lot to laugh about.
Thinking about the tensions that often color the interactions between black bodies in white spaces, I decided to shift the paradigm I arranged for us to meet at The Brooklyn Circus, a black owned heritage clothing boutique in Boerum Hill. And as I hoped, the space alleviated any prospective tensions that could’ve occurred and allowed for a two-hour long free flow conversation about Salu’s tenure at Granta, his relationship with editor John Freeman and their legendary “meatings,” the role art plays in literature, how art informs his writing, his reconnecting with John Freeman in working on the bi-annual literary journal Freeman’s Journal, and ironically enough about how his own essay, “The Nod,” articulates ideas about the journal’s inaugural theme: Arrival. While Salu’s voice resembles the soft rumble of djembe drums, and while most of this conversation took place in Brooklyn, the conversation managed to spill over—at the launch for Freeman’s, his visit to my MFA Seminar Class at The New School, and even over e-mail. This may seem excessive, but when talking to an estranged relative, you forget sometimes that you’re essentially still dealing with a stranger.
– Yahdon Israel for Guernica
Guernica: How did you start working at Granta?
Michael Salu: I landed at Granta through an invitation. John Freeman had taken over as Editor and Ellah Allfrey as Deputy Editor. A key part of their manifesto for the magazine was to see if it’s very British and, to some respect, antiquated legacy can be injected with a little twenty-first century vim to help bring short form literature to a wider audience. Both Ellah and I previously worked for Vintage—the literary division of Random House UK—so she was aware of my work. I had worked in house for a few years doing design and art direction for a number of classic and contemporary literary titles and was lucky enough to design books for a number of my favorite authors—Raymond Carver, Italo Calvino, Kurt Vonnegut. Ellah was also aware of some of my other activities around my job, including branding projects (like Curzon Cinemas), working on some music titles like the special edition of Maxinquaye by tricky and a few art projects here and there. This, I think is what convinced them to create a new position for me at Granta. They had never had an Art director before.
Guernica: Do you remember some of your first projects at Granta?
Michael Salu: Amazingly, my first project at Granta was the Sex issue. Given my own proclivity for the nuances of hedonistic and sexual exploration, [partly] through art, it was a perfect way to start. I love to interrogate through image—or pose questions through a subversion of said image—and we came up with a visual that caused quite a stir and went on to pick up a D&AD (Design and Art Direction) award. It was a great way to arrive at the magazine. I was always looking at different ways to get the magazine into the hands of more readers, and the provocative language I started to build with Granta’s visual presence had begun to expand to a variety of areas including promotional films that would riff on the stories within the magazine.
We coined “meatings” derived from a mutual fondness of quality meats and fine wines.
Guernica: How did you meet John, and what were these “meatings” that you and he had?
Michael Salu: John and I soon realized we were quite similar creatures and very quickly developed a rapport. His free association of ideas and theories mirrored my own, so we’d occasionally go for what we coined as “meatings” derived from a mutual fondness of quality meats and fine wines. But it also gave us an opportunity to talk about ideas for the magazine and chew the proverbial fat so to speak. Since leaving Granta, both our friendship and creative partnership have blossomed.
Guernica: You spoke in our class that being the art editor at Granta made you the “John Freeman” of how writing was visually represented in the issues, could you talk more about your duties and how important it was to make sure that the text and image were speaking to each other as opposed to saying two different things—how important is it for a literary editor and art editor to be on the same page? Do you feel like it was what made you and John’s tenure at Granta special?
Michael Salu: It was exactly that relationship between art and literary editor that made our time there special. Now we didn’t agree on everything but for the most part our approaches dovetailed well together. Mostly because we were keen to infuse some urgency into the discussion about how we live today. For over the last thirty years or so, Granta has as much a legacy in photojournalism as it has in writing. I was keen to challenge this vernacular as the role of the photojournalist was changing, and images were becoming urgent and more succinctly linguistic. This is why I moved to publishing artists who were challenging the veracity of both the medium and the profession through their works. Artists like Adam Broomberg, Oliver Chanarin, and Mishka Henner.
John, Ellah and I would often discuss where the interesting dialogues would lie between artists and writers—whom might respond well to whom. The format of the magazine changed a bit within that but we were able to build an interesting relationship between text and image. As art editor I was keen to bend the rules a little, both with reputation and discipline. Artists are often having very similar conversations across the various disciplines through which they choose to excel, but you rarely see them exist in the same pages or spaces. I enjoyed looking for alternative routes through these different works to hold broader conversations around themes. One of the projects I was most proud of during my time there was a rhetorical exercise looking at British identity today (2012). I asked twenty different artists (photographers, sculptors, painters) to submit a single work that represented British identity to them. Works from Yinka Shonibare (MBE), Gordon Cheung, Sarah Pickering and Laura Oldfield Ford sat alongside works from younger and lesser known artists that for me eloquently illuminated its multifaceted discourse.
Language has pervaded all the work I have done.
Guernica: Explain your transition from working on the art end to writing. Is there one you prefer, or do you see these mediums inform one another?
Michael Salu: It’s odd. Though I’ve spent years working with and creating images, I feel most comfortable expressing myself through writing. I’d been in denial about this for many years. At school I was highly lauded as having the potential to write one day, but being a typically rebellious and misguided teenager I opted to study art. Ironically language has pervaded all the work I have done—from my first forays into an art practice many years ago to my work with typography and book design. After producing visual work somewhat invisibly for years, Granta thrust me into the limelight a little so I was quickly required to develop a voice and give opinion on the work I made and published and the issues that cut to the bone. Through panel moderations and talks around culture, politics and identity I gradually gained opportunities to write in my own voice and not that of the brand.
I’m interested in a lot of the languages that drive our culture. I’m interested in user experience as language or how societal malaise takes root. So through essays and short stories I began exploring some of these things. I wrote a short story in the form of a screenplay that looked at how generations of immigrant disillusionment in the UK might manifest in an inarticulate and somewhat nihilistic protest of the riots that happened across the country a few years ago. Or how the African diaspora can over sentimentalize the concept of Africa when ‘Africans’ themselves don’t have the same psycho-hang-ups and are consequently a lot more culturally and economically progressive. But more recently my texts have been exploring virtual reality in relation to identity and how we predetermine our own dreams, desires and emotions through our own experiences and behavior.
Guernica: Was coming to Freeman’s something you and John were thinking about for a long time or did John just hit you up out of the blue?
Michael Salu: [John] Freeman is always thinking, always brewing something. You can see it in his eyes when you speak to him. They lie still, blue and attentive but swimming within are these synaptic pulses processing and reimagining constantly. You’ll catch that vibration if you spend enough time with him. He mentioned Freeman’s to me last year when it was just an idea. But John being John, it very quickly became an actuality. I’m pleased he saw more for our creative relationship and asked me to artistically direct the journal. This first issue is just really creating Eau de John Freeman. He is a man of words, but also of people and histories and distinctly Americans. I think the style of this first issue gets that across with his and (our) love of the automobile.
Guernica: In addition to telling me about how you and John arrived at the image of the Delta ’88 for the cover and what it says about the issue at large, tell me about your piece in the journal, “The Nod,” and how you think it interacts with this idea of arriving?
We all speak with images. I guess I look at everything sideways nowadays.
Michael Salu: The Delta image is very me. I realize after spending so long working with images, semiotic deconstruction and redeployment becomes second nature. We all speak with images. I guess I look at everything sideways nowadays.
“The Nod” is the kind of liminal everyday nuance that I like to extract and make large with my writing. It’s international, yet also a very private space and you will not see it (or at least not this particular strain of it) unless you’re genetically pre-engineered to be on the inside of it. This is why I wrote the story as an arrival. I’d likened “The Nod” to being like an experience, or a game but one only a proficient gamer will be able to recognize. The story is the arrival of a gamer into this very difficult level, during which he is prepped about the reality of inhabiting this experience. It is also a bit of cultural commentary on appropriation and armchair activism through social media. You may change your profile picture to Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner, but you will never actually walk the streets the way they have, or systematically had your vertebrae stunted. So you will not walk that shrouded walk unless you’re on the inside and you can occasionally nod at another on the inside and that acknowledgement can carry you for a while as it won’t come from the outside.
Guernica: What other projects are you working on? Can we get a hint at what the next issue of Freeman’s is going to deal with, what ideas and images you’re playing with?
Michael Salu: I’m currently planning my first ever feature film script which will look at the solace provided by religion, how religion can exploit the mentally ill, and also how these concepts contribute to the numbing inevitability of violence. You can probably guess what it’s inspired by [Charleston, South Carolina]. The theme for the next issue of Freeman’s is “Family.” I’ve developed a photographic cover style for the journal which I think is a good way to bring out an emotive response to the theme that can set the tone for the journal without trying to summarize the broadly eclectic range of works within, but rather spark that conversation. Through my time at Granta, and now as a partner at American Suburb X, I’m lucky enough to be constantly exposed to great photography so developing this concept shouldn’t be too difficult.
Guernica: If you could compare your relationship to John to any famous duo, who would it be?
Michael Salu: Ha! Jordan and Pippen!
Yahdon Israel is a prolific young writer. He writes about race, class, gender and culture in American society. He has written for Avidly, The New Inquiry, and LitHub. He is currently attending The New School for his MFA in Creative Nonfiction. He also runs a popular Instagram page, that promotes literary culture as style with the hashtag “#literaryswag” and has been featured on BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post for his passion for literature and inspiring others to read.