This interview was previously published in A Choice of Weapons Kongo Square Chat
Hello, it is indeed a pleasure to interview Author, Journalist, Screenwriter, Poet, and dramatist Odie Hawkins. Welcome to A Choice of Weapons.
Odie: Thank you and hello all.
Jaycee: This is going to be a good interview, covering a lot of stuff but I gonna publish our chat in two sections just for length.
Odie: Cool anything you feel is necessary.
Jaycee: Odie over the course of your career you've had over twenty five novels published. That's amazing! Well let's get into all of it. I want to talk with you about Chicago, The Watts Writers workshop, Holloway House, Iceberg Slim, Ghana, and the genre you've created since called Pan Afrikan Occult literature. Is that cool?
Odie: Excellent! Real cool.
Jaycee: Well alright then. Here we go. Odie, you're from the Midwest right, by way of the continent, of course?
Odie: Yeah, the south side of Chicago to be exact.
Jaycee: Odie, what's the first story you ever wrote? Do you remember it?
Odie: No, not really. I do remember how it came about. I was sitting around the table with my three uncles from Mississippi. They were great storytellers. I think that's where I picked it up from because they added color to it. One of my uncles, I won't mention his name, but I don't think he could read or write but he knew how to describe and use what I'd like to call picture words. He was a wonderful storyteller. My uncles told stories; My Father was a big liar! (laughter)
Jaycee: How did you choose writing as a profession?
Odie: It chose me. There is no other way I can answer that. I would have been a storyteller. A verbal storyteller, but well, I was in high school and Dr. Margaret Burroughs, one of my high school teachers, who by the way founded the first Afrikan American Museum, The Du Sable Museum of Afrikan American History in this country, persuaded me to stop stealing and gave me a ream of paper and encouraged me to start writing.
She was a wonderful, stern, powerful lady who took our people back to the continent. When I was Ghana in the 1992, she was leading a tour group. She was eighty at the time. She was full of energy. The group she was leading tongues were hanging out trying to keep up with her. (laughter)
She literally put the pen in my hand. She also taught at the county jails and different places you know....I believe she was in the Chicago public school system for like 30 years. She just believed in giving people a chance you know.
Jaycee: Did you take alot of creative writing classes in school? Did they have those then? Were they available? Nowadays we have writer’s colonies?
Odie: There was a creative writing class at my high school and I took that and well, Dr. Burroughs, encouraged me to enroll in another creative writing class as well led by a girlfriend of hers named Margeret Peterson.
Ummmm! I flunked out! You know how it is. The people in the class were so sophisticated. They smoked and they drank martinis after class. I mean what does a fourteen year have to talk about? I was writing stories about tigers giving birth an sh*t!
The word shit was a big word for me at that time and these grown ups were writing and "then I said to this motherfu*ker, fu*k you!"
I was embarrassed! I hadn't been around so called intellectuals who cursed. I thought they talked intellectually. (Laughter)
They would be like "Odie would you like to come to a party"? "Have you been with a girl yet?"
I was just embarrassed like a fish out of water. Now sex didn't intimidate me. I was born in a whorehouse on the south side of Chicago. I knew sex but this was well different. (laughter)
Jaycee: It sounds just ribald! (Laughter)
Odie: So, well I flunked out! (Laughter)
But now concerning workshops one of things this class did for me opened me up to books about writing. I went and got everything about writing I could get my hands on. I began to read about four books a week. I still do.
Jaycee: Yeah, I read a book by Stephen King on writing and he stated that if you don't have time to read then you definitely don't have time to write.
Odie: Yeah, you must read. That is essential to being a writer and especially to become a great writer.
Jaycee: So who are your favorite writers?
Odie: Oh! There are just too many but I believe the best writers you could read are the Afrikan writers, Chinua Achebe, Senghor, Oyono, The Russians, Doskefski, Pushkin, Turgennev, Gogol, Tolstoy, The Japanese, Tanazaki, Oshima, The Afrikan Creole, (Afrikan American) James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and the Jewish writer Issac Bashavis Singer.
I go from the old to the new. I read everybody! One of my favorites Nikos Kazantzakis (forgive the spelling) (Zorba the Greek) he has a book called "Report to Greco" and of course, Nabokov who wrote "Lolita" and of course.....Speak Memory! About a dude who asks his memory to speak to him.
You know years ago a brotha asked me that same question and he was disappointed that I hadn't basically named a Black reading chart. I read whatever interests me, whatever speaks to my experience. It's like a rapper who only knows rap! No Indian music, no jazz! No Afro Cuban music! No Afrikan music! That rapper may be great but if he doesn't allow any other music into his vocabulary then all he knows will be limited.
Jaycee: Do you remember the book that turned you on? For me, it was S.E Hinton's The Outsiders!
Odie: Well... (Laughter) The book that did it for me was the Kama Sutra. It made my d*ck hard! And the Ananga Ranga and also Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer Page 9 (Laughter)
Jaycee: When you first went out on your own, did you write from a gut level experience, or did you just absorb the rhythms around you? Langston Hughes spoke of that. He absorbed the energy of Harlem. The sights and sounds, the rhythms of Jazz music.
Odie: Well, growing up on South side of Chicago, I soaked up everything. I'm a Langston Hughes disciple. I think that it's natural to soak up everything around you and then write from that gut level experience.
Jaycee: What was your first published story?
Odie: There were some before this, but the one I can remember was for a French art magazine started by Leopold Senghor called Presence African, called The Great Lawd Buddha. That story has metamorphosed into three or four different stories including a novel but the character has made appearances in several of my novels.
Jaycee: I know that you are a follower of Chester Himes. What is it about his writing that influenced you so....I remember hearing you speak about how you traveled Spain attempting to follow the same route that he took? Kinda like a pilgrimage.
Odie: I know that this may sound like blasphemy but I was always more impressed by Chester Himes autobiography "The Quality of Hurt" than any of his short stories or novels. I never was impressed by Cotton comes to Harlem or the Cotton Ed or Gravedigger Jones stories. I'm not saying he wasn't a good writer, who am I to say that?
Chester's autobiography was just so powerful. He fell down an elevator shaft and ....his real life was just more raw and real than his fiction. Anyway, I was always more drawn to Richard Wright. I mean I know there are people who would mention Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and that's cool let them be given all the accolade's there are and make the money. Some of their stuff though is just unreadable to me. (Laughter) I'm not saying its unreadable or anything like that just some of their stuff to is to me. (Laughter)
I did travel Spain following the landmarks Chester wrote about but when I was there no one remembered him.
Jaycee: Odie, How long had you been at writing by the time you got published?
Odie: About 20 years. I started writing when I was eight. I don't mean to sound flippant or anything. I was published in my high school newspaper constantly but I didn't start getting paid for it until my thirties. I didn't know writers were supposed to get paid. I just sent things, wrote articles about anything I was interested in. Even now, I sent a story to Latin Beat magazine about Chanzo Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie how they started Cu bop! (Afro Cuban Jazz)
I was a late bloomer. No one told me that writers could get paid for things like magazine articles, short stories, proposals, letters, and such.
Jaycee: What got you out of Chicago? The Army or a dude chasing you? (Laughter)
Simon Rodia's Watts Towers
"In 65 they burned the city down! I felt like "Hey, that city is about to be happenin!"
Odie: (Laughter) A dude chasing me...(Laughter) Well, you're not that far off but it was the Army! I got drafted and was in boot camp in Fort Ord, California in 1962. I got out in 1964 and got married to a Sistah with two girls. I had one from my first marriage. We formed a family and we decided to move to where we wouldn't have to buy any winter clothes.
The Watts Revolt happened in 1965 and Black folks burned the city down! I felt that "Hey that place is about to be happening!" I was just reading the signs ya know. There was about to be some money there. We moved out here in 1966. In 1966, I came to Watts and promptly joined the Watts Writers Workshop and that's where it happened for me.
I have to mention my teachers at the workshop. Dr. Louise Merriweather, Harlan Ellison, and my personal mentor John W. Bloch. Bloch had me rewrite the "Ghetto Sketches" for like two years, parts of it. He would say that "Hey! You got a dog in the story, what is the dogs’ point of view? (Laughter)
This taught me how to write a three dimensional story. Around 1967, he, (John Bloch) took me to see his agent who became my agent. The agent, Stew Robinson of Robinson and Weintraub got me into screenplays and radio scripts. He wasn't into novels and such; he was into screenplays and radio scripts, that kinda thing. He got me some television work. Sanford and Son and some others that I wrote scripts for that were never shown.
The Watts Writers Workshop
Jaycee: Now after the Watts Revolt, Budd Shulberg received a grant from the government and started the workshop to mentor writers from the inner city.
Odie: I joined the workshop when it opened its doors in 1966. I was a real carpetbagger but I was in there before alot of other people who came later. Some folks referred to the workshop as the Shulberg Plantation but I came and tried to learn whatever I could get from it.
Jaycee: Odie, I've always wanted to know how the Watts Writers felt about Shulberg? In the fifties he named names in the House of Un-American Activities Committee. What did y'all think of that?
Odie: Ok, I can't speak for everybody but for the people I know we were so politically unsophisticated it didn't matter to us. I definitely want to stress that point. At the time the artists they showed us were banned, the Hollywood Ten, when I was a member of the writers union and they tried to get us to join this protest or sign this petition.
But Black writers were always banned! Can you name any Black writer that Hollywood banned? They weren't even interrogated! They weren't even known!
I mean they banned Paul Robeson but you know Shulberg may have been doing something political but for us it was a chance to learn how to write a screenplay. His politics were irrelevant. Years later by the time we found out about Kazan and Shulberg it was just excess news. Black folks were always called communist.
If you were protesting and fighting socially, economically, intellectually even religiously the government called you a communist! If you wanted to be free, you were communist. Russia was telling us what to do! Why did we need Russia to tell us that we wanted to vote?
Jaycee: What writers were there from the beginning that didn't get known but are still waiting for their time?
Odie: James Thomas Jackson, Sonora Mckellar, Dean Jackson, so many little people that you only heard their name once or twice. Occye Slaughter, people like that. They might stand up in the workshop. Dee Dee McNeil, who was original members of the Watts Prophets, she's still out there doing it. Singing from San Diego to San Francisco and beyond. There were writers like Ojenke and Eric Priestley who just were not interested in mass acceptance. They never got famous beyond where they were.
"Hey! Lets burn this muthafuck*r down!" "Lets kill Whitey!"
The Writers Guild
Jaycee: Tell me about the Writers Guild. What was that about?
Odie: The Watts Writers Workshop by 1967-68 was in decline. It was targeted by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. Some of the artists were targeted as well. The workshop was infiltrated with spies and agent provocateurs. I remember, there was this one dude who always seemed to suggest "Hey! Let's burn this thing down! Let's kill whitey!" I don't know what happened to Shulberg at that time. It was hard to be called a communist! How could you be Black and Red?
The left wing members of the screen writers guild, people like Harlan Ellison and John W. Bloch let Black writers in through the Open Door Program. They were just people who knew that it was wrong to call themselves the Writers Guild and then deny Black writers the chance to write screenplays. I always felt they were just trying to do the right thing.
Jaycee: What Black writers were a part of the Writers Guild?
Odie: I had a girlfriend at the time Andi Richardson Reese; she's living in Australia now for the last twenty years. She worked on Star Trek! She walked into Gene Roddenberry’s office and said they "Hey! We got alot of Black Trekkies and you got an all White office"! I need to be in here!" They gave her a job. (Laughter) Iceberg Slim was in the Open Door program. He came out of it, well I don't know if he ever came out of it but he was there! This was definitely before "Pimp" hit! Hey! Maybe he learned something.
"Hey! We got alot of Black Trekkies and you got an all White office! I need to be in here!"
The Open Door Program
Jaycee: So where did that take you? The Open Door Program?
Odie: The Open Door program hit the screenplays and the technical aspects of writing a screenplay and television show. People like Al Jenner, Harlan Ellison. The Open Door program was much more structured they weren't like the WWW. They weren't interested in your experiences, the short stories and the like.
Jaycee: I know that Iceberg Slim went to Holloway House did that take you there as well?
Odie: Like most people I was doing four or five things at the same time. I was doing plays at the PERFORMING ARTS SOCIETY OF LOS ANGELES on 89th and Vermont. Community Theatre. I was starting to write novels and Holloway House was the only, the only easy way out at the time. They wanted Black Authors and I wanted them. I had also started writing screenplays for one after another MGM, Warner Bros, Universal, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, American International (AIP).
The screenplay they released was the exact opposite of what I'd written. I wrote something positive and redeeming and they turned it into this Nigga, Yak, Yak film.
The thing for them at the time for the studio since they saw money in the Blaxpoltation era was to buy up Black material and bring it out whenever they wanted to. I got lucky and I wasn't included in the mix. Only one screenplay that I wrote got to the screen. It was called The Monkey Hustle. The screenplay they released was the exact opposite of what I'd written. I wrote something positive and redeeming and they turned it into this Nigga, Yak, Yak film.
Jaycee: Hey now! I loved that film and so does my wife. I am grateful to you for it anyway.
Odie: I still get fifty or sixty dollars from the foreign distribution. The Europeans like it. Maybe I'm too close to the thing. (Laughter)
Jaycee: Where was the Open Door Program meetings held?
Odie: They were held all over but mostly at Nick Stewart's Theatre on Washington Blvd.
Jaycee: Nick Stewart, he played "Lightnin" on the old Amos and Andy television program did he?
Odie: Yeah, he did. He took his earnings and started a theatre group, putting on plays and training actors. I want to emphasize that it was the left wing writers who facilitated the Open Door program. The right wing writers felt everything was okay they felt it was okay to have basically an all white union. Could you imagine one group writing for all of America? That would be like having Oliver North speak for you? (Laughter)
Jaycee: Did the Watts Writers Workshop or the Writers Guild teach the writers about publishing and royalties?
Odie: No, the Watts Writers Workshop didn't but The Writers Guild did a little bit. Al Jenner who was a teacher had his mind blown because we didn't know about structure they way television wanted it. We learned about the long form, the short form. There was a woman who a member and she threw some idea out there and it ended up being on the Twilight Zone. You see some of the established writers stole ideas from us. We just wanted to get our stories out. They didn't teach us about the business. You had to learn on your own. They, the White writers were about the business and we, the Black writers were just about the art. We were far behind. What makes a good agent? What makes a bad agent? That's what we had to learn the hard way.
Jaycee: What Black publishing companies were there at the time? Were there any?
Odie: Good question. Other than Ebony who was busy showing how good the middle class was doing, I don't know. I could remember broadsides and poetry journals here and there. Mostly local. Essence was starting up but it was just poetry, not novels or short stories. Third World Press, Haki Madibuthi hadn't come on the scene yet.
I once submitted a piece to the LA Weekly on journalistic apartheid and they rejected it. But the strange thing was they told me why they rejected it.
Jaycee: What's strange about that? I mean what's so unusual about that?
Odie: That's unusual. Most publishers just send a form letter rejection letter. They don't usually take the time to tell you why they are not going to publish a piece. But in their letter they suggested it was "Racist"! They wrote "we (the Los Angeles Weekly) feel that we are a really liberal paper."
Odie: Liberal though they may be they don't seem to notice that there is not one Black jazz critic writing for the paper. We don't have one Jazz critic or one Black restaurant critic. The Weekly does have one film critic in the great Elvis Mitchell.
Jaycee: But what does it matter the color of a critic's skin? They're still critics right? (Laughter)
Odie: In a city this size? How could you not have a resturant critic that's Black?
Jaycee: To be fair Odie, most papers are downsizing entire sections of the paper including staff so isn't understandable that a newspaper, even the LA Weekly might now have but one critic at the entire paper covering the city?
Odie: It's not just a numbers game I'm talking about here. I'm really talking about the scope of the coverage. Black folks eat Thai Food! We eat Ethiopian food! Where are the reviewers of those resturants. It speaks to taste. A Black food critic could share a different insight on a recipe highlighting a different palate. A different range of flavors and the way they are discribed. I mean even our own LA Sentinel; you only see a review of Aunt Kizzies Back Porch.
Black folks go to plays and films beyond what would be considered the stereotypical Black fare. Why not have someone Black to review it? Black folks go to art house films but what insights would a mass audience enjoy from reading a Black reviewers perspective? What jewels are out there that the masses will never know or what's considered great because it hasn't been compared to anything beyond the accepted perameters?
Jaycee: Well, we can always review and write it ourselves.
Odie: Well, I've never looked to the White establishment to make a way. Music, Food, Plays. You got Black plays coming out with no Black reviewers to review it.
Jaycee: I wanted to know do you remember if there were any Black publishing company that went out of business because the white publishers were outbidding the talent once the Black Arts Movement became en vogue?
Odie: This is how I ended up at Holloway House. They certainly were not the high end but they were out there. The Watts Writers Workshop alot of them were poets so they had a much better time getting published.
Stay tuned! Odie and I vibe on Donald Goines, Black Street fiction, Iceberg Slim, the Rise and Fall of Holloway House Publishing, What's a Kosmic Muffin? and The birth of Pan Afrikan Occult Fiction! Listen for the drums and tune in for part two of Kongo Square Chat with Odie Hawkins.
BE Mindful! BE Prayerful! BE Careful!
The opinions and views expressed are the views and opinions of the author and interviewee. They are not neccessary the opinions of anyone associated with Mista Jaycee or A Choice of Weapons, Kongo Square Chat or Odie Hawkins. This interview is the property of the J.C.Williams and may only be reproduced with his written permission. All Rights Reserved.