Interview: The Rap

ERNEST BRAWLEY is the acclaimed author of three novels, including the incendiary prison novel The Rap, originally published in 1974 by Atheneum and brought back in print and in digital format by Roots Digital Media in 2015. We were thrilled to have the opportunity to ask the Brawley about writing, his unique use of language and about the writing of The Rap.

Roots Digital: How did you develop the unique, rhythmic, lyrical, rapping writing style we enjoy in The Rap? Many writers struggle to find their unique style. Would you share with us how you came to yours? 

Ernest Brawley: As a kid, I spent hours listening to my grandfathers. They could not have been more different, but they were both natural storytellers with a lyrical, almost poetic, old-timey way of speaking in their different languages. I’ll never forget my drawling Louisiana grandpa’s outrageous tales of life on his father’s plantation, his escape from the local sheriff on a stolen horse, and his adventures in the Far West of the early twentieth century. Nor will I forget the magical tales, delivered in the uniquely melodic Norteño dialect of my Mexican abüelo, whose three hundred mile cattle drive from Ures, Sonora, to Tucson, Arizona, at the height of the Yaqui Indian War, is a family legend.   In my teens I was enamored by the marvelous rhythmic tones of Fats Domino, Big Joe Turner and other Rhythm & Blues greats. And without really thinking about it, I incorporated their rap into my own speech patterns.  Later, I worked in a tomato packing shed with a number of Chicano kids from East LA. Their gangbanger dialect, combining Street English and Street Spanish, was also very cool, hip and rhythmic. So that stuck with me as well. Then in my early twenties, while working as a guard in San Quentin Prison, I was privy to thousands of cell-to-cell conversations between the prisoners in my custody. South Central Blacks and Mexican Mafia for the most part, they killed their months and years inside by rapping to each other in their own unique styles. Their bap-bap-bapping way with words captured my imagination.  During my early thirties, I lived far up at the jungle end of the Manoa Valley, on the island of Oahu. My neighbors were for the most part native Hawaiians, and I found the drumbeat of their Pidgin English infectious. 

Roots Digital: The kind of linguistic mastery of quintessentially American English that your work demonstrates is rare in contemporary American literature. Do you think that Americans today have pride in their language, in American English, in the way that, for example, the British have pride in English, or the French in French language?  

Ernest Brawley: There is no question in my mind that some Americans, especially young people, take pride in at least one unique brand of our American English, Rap Music. And I can think of several contemporary writers who, though perhaps not beboppers like me, obviously take pride in creating literature with the kind of beat and flow of words that makes traditional American prose unique. I am thinking particularly of the novelists Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, and Charles Frazier.

Roots Digital: In your novel The Rap, you’re clearly writing about the state of California, although you called it New Sonora.  Why?

Ernest Brawley: As penniless writer living in Paris, I could not take a chance that the conservative Republican government of California at the time, very much like the one described in The Rap, might sue me for libel. So I invented a state for the setting of my story. I chose the name New Sonora for personal reasons. The Mexican side of my family came from Sonora, Mexico, so California was in a sense our “New Sonora.”

Roots Digital: The Rap, I’m guessing, had to have been inspired by your experience as a prison guard at San Quentin. If there were specific people you knew upon whom you based any of your characters, would you talk about one or two? 

Ernest Brawley: Absolutely. First, the entire Weed family is based on my own family. Their penchant for naming their kids for little California towns is taken from the fact that the Robles clan of light-skinned Mexicans changed their name to Brawley when they briefly resided in the border town of Brawley on their way north. I am very much like the young guard Arvin Weed who impregnates his girlfriend and dreams of escape. My father and two of my uncles really were prison guards, while one of my other uncles really was an inmate in the same prison. And my family really did live in a guard’s cottage at San Quentin Prison. Wasco Weed, who stabbed his father with a knife in the novel, is based on one of my cousins who actually did that. Galliot, the black writer who escapes in the end, is an amalgam of the prison activists Elridge Cleaver, George Jackson, and the writer James Baldwin (whom I knew in Paris). Galliot’s travels about the world are very much like my own. His girlfriend is loosely based on Angela Davis, whom I never met.

Roots Digital: In The Rap, you write of a dance created by the black writer and revolutionary leader, Galliot, who leads How did you come up with Black Fence? Did you witness anything at San Quentin that resembled it? 

Ernest Brawley: I came up with the name “Black Fence” because I knew of a gang in East LA called “The White Fence.” While I was working as a tower guard in the Big Yard, I used to watch a group of black political activists do rhythmic political raps together while a circle of sympathetic blacks protected them from White Power groups. However, they did not do a dance. I made that up. I knew that anti-Apartheid blacks in South Africa danced like that, and I thought it might be an effective way for blacks in America to attract their people to the cause.

Roots Digital: You write knowledgeably of Anglo, Black and Latino cultures. You’re comfortable, it would seem, in all of their skins. Would you speak to that?

Ernest Brawley: As for the Anglo/Latino part, my mother was born Helen Bee Wasson, and my father was born Ernesto Robles, so I’ve got both in my blood. My grandparents on one side spoke Spanish, and I do as well. I love Hispanic music, films, and literature, and I’ve lived in Mexico, Argentina, and Spain. For the black part, my two best buddies at San Quentin were African-American correctional officers, my girlfriend in Paris was Martiniquaise, and my fellow Left Banker was James Baldwin. For this reason, along with my early attraction to Jazz and Rhythm & Blues, I’ve always been fascinated by black culture, music and literature. When my daughter grew up, she married a rap artist from Ghana, and my two granddaughters are called black, though they’re actually a beautiful mocha brown.

Roots Digital: Who are some of your favorite writers and how have they influenced you?

Ernest Brawley: My favorite contemporary writer is Cormac McCarthy. I believe his novel Blood Meridian is utterly unique, and the American masterpiece of our time. His writing style is poetic, beautifully cadenced, meant to be read aloud. His vision profound. His irony merciless. His story addictive, hypnotic. I suppose the bee-bop in my writing can be blamed on my youthful fascination with writers and poets of the Beat and Post-Beat Generations, including Jack Keruoac, Allen Ginsburg, and Ken Kesey.  The classic twentieth century writers who have influenced my somewhat “stream-of-consciousness” writing style are James Joyce, “Yes, I said yes I will yes…” William Faulkner, “I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire…” and the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, “Verde que te quiero verde, verde viento, vierdes ramas…” The writer who engaged my interest in the fluidity of time, and the enhanced, amped-up reality where I feel most comfortable as a writer, is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “time was not passing…it was turning in a circle.” Of the classical works of the nineteenth century, Stendhal’s The Red and the Black influenced my romantic tendencies, “L’amour est le miracle de la civilization.” The stimulus for my interest in carnal desire and passion probably stems from Tolstoy’s, Anna Karenina, “If our love could grow any stronger it would grow stronger because there is something horrifying in it.” And my desire for a ripping good story of love and betrayal probably rises from Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady, “She had a certain way of looking at life which he took as a personal offense.”

Roots Digital: You describe a world in The Rap in which the government is exceedingly corrupt. Would you say something about governmental corruption today?

Ernest Brawley: I would say that government corruption in the Seventies was small-time compared to now. The Supreme Court decision in the Citizen’s United vs. FEC case, for instance, along with the creation of Super PACs, has given billionaires such as the Koch Brothers the right to buy elections and collect favors on a scale never seen before.