In a cream knit jumper, dark pressed jeans, and a spotless pair of umber boots, Ekow Eshun looks more like Omar Epps’ stunt double than a cultural critic, when he enters. I have come to do an interview with a personal interest in that contemporary triumvirate – culture, race, writing – but little personal knowledge of Ekow’s journalistic work.
His biography lists the greatest hits: educated at Kingsbury High School then LSE; freelancing for three years before becoming Assistant Editor of The Face, then editing Arena; currently writing for The Observer, The Sunday Times and Sleaze; will publish his first book, Black Gold of the Sun, in March 2005. But biographies leave so much to the imagination: how did Ekow get into writing? How do aspiring writers get into journalism? How did Ekow ascend so quickly? What’s the view like from the top?
The LIP: Why did you go into journalism?
Ekow Eshun: Before I ever started writing for anyone, I’d read loads of magazines, loads of newspapers, watched TV. And I’d get quite vexed because it seemed to me there weren’t any voices like mine represented. For a start, there weren’t many black people involved in magazines and TV, and also there wasn’t me involved. In a pretty egotistic way, I thought I’d rather be writing than having someone else taking up the same space, than having someone else writing about the things I was interested in. So one of my first incentives, really, was just to have me instead of someone else occupying the space. And I think that’s ok.
The LIP: How did you get into journalism?
EE: The first story I ever did was on Kickers shoes. I noticed a section in The Face called ‘Intro,’ which had only little pieces. This was pre-email, so I sent my story to the section editor, who liked it. I talked to her on the phone about the best way to get a gig and went from there. I freelanced for three years, starting at The Face as a staff writer then moving onto Assistant Editor. The Face and Arena were owned by the same company, so I literally went from one office to the other.
The LIP: Most immigrant parents (like mine) want their children to become doctors or lawyers. How did your parents react when you said you wanted to write?
EE: (laughing) It’s always been quite hazy. After I went to university, I didn’t do a law degree; I read history at LSE and they were quite happy with that. They were slightly concerned when I said I wanted to write but they pretty much left me to myself.
The LIP: What do you think about the common claim that black writers should write about ‘black’ issues?
EE: I think it’s absurd. No writer should be bound by his own experience; each is entitled to freedom of expression in the full sense of both words. At the same time, not being bound by experience does not mean being blind to experience, and that’s the crucial distinction. I think the deeper you get into your own sense of identity, the more nuanced, the more complex it becomes.
The LIP: What advice would you give to an aspiring journalist, black or otherwise?
EE: Five things come to mind. (1) Tell a story, (2) Secure your reader’s imagination, (3) Read, (4) Cultivate your obsessions; (5) The Truth hurts.
The LIP: What do you mean by that?
EE: Joan Didion’s written an excellent book called Slouching Toward Bethlehem. In it she says: ‘A writer is always selling someone out.’ I think she’s right. As a journalist, you’re involved in this business of truth and lies, really. Stories aren’t the truth – if you want, they’re lies; they’re fiction. But at the same time successful stories have a kernel of truth to them, even if they’re completely made up. The resonance they have is an emotional honesty.
The LIP: Can you give an example?
EE: Some years ago I went to Minneapolis to interview Prince at Paisley Park. We sat down and kind of talked for 40 minutes and it was all good. It was only afterwards that I realized or I came to realize that I couldn’t actually trust a single word he’d said.
What had happened was that Prince and his wife had just had a baby the same week I interviewed him. During the interview, he didn’t talk about the baby at all, but about how he was having the best time of his life. That same week Prince’s baby was dying of a rare condition, and had died by the time I got back to London. He didn’t mention anything about it.
In a way, that was his prerogative. But at the same time it struck me as weird. On the one hand, his baby is dying and on the other, he claims he’s having the time of his life. Those things didn’t fit together, and the whole thing felt false. So, what I wrote about was my own feelings about that strange contradiction. Whoever Prince was, whoever Prince is, I hadn’t really quite seen him then. I ended up with possibly the sense of selling someone out but also an honesty in terms of writing. That’s all you can do as a writer. That’s all you can aim for.
Ekow Eshun’s Black Gold of the Sun will be published by Penguin in March 2005