ARTHUR FLOWERS IS a novelist, blues musician and hoodoo poet originally from Memphis, Tennessee. His latest work, I See the Promised Land: A Life of Martin Luther King Jr is a unique collaboration between Flowers and Manu Chitrakar, a traditional Patua artist from Bengal; patua art is a form of narrative scroll painting. Flowers, a professor at Syracuse University, will be at Buffalo Street Books on Saturday, February 5, 2011 at 3:00 p.m. to read from the piece. We spoke to him earlier this week.
Q: How did you become involved in writing I See the Promised Land?
Arthur Flowers: I was doing a state department tour of India, one of those goodwill tours, and I was at the Jaipur Literary Festival, which is an extraordinary festival. I did my little performance – I’m a performance poet and a hoodoo-based performer – so I did my little thing and it went over very well. Folks were treating me like I was a literary guru; it was a very amazing experience. Gita [Wolf] the publisher of Tara Books approached me and asked me if I’d be interested in doing a collaboration with a Patua artist on Martin Luther King. And at the time I knew nothing of Patua art, but being asked to do a graphic novel book was interesting to me because it feels very 21st century. And also, Martin Luther King. I’m from Memphis, I was at the marches. Martin Luther King meant a lot to me, because I feel I am a voice of the delta and Memphis, and personally. So I said yes.
Q: How did the collaborative process work?
Flowers: He had done let’s say 10-15 pieces, so they sent me a PDF of what he had done and they sent me the script they’d given him. It was very rudimentary. I said, “Is this for children?” They said, “No, it’s not for children, it’s for adults, but in order for us to get the concept to him, because he’s a tribal artist, and not cosmopolitan, we had to tell it to him in a way that he could appreciate it. He really felt the MLK story and he came up with his interpretations.”
It was interesting because they were very interested in the history of the African American struggle but it was for an Indian audience. So it was two cultures. So for instance, he became very fascinated with the Ku Klux Klan. So he did more Ku Klux Klan paintings than I would have felt appropriate. But you know, you have to go with the flow. And then they had things in the little piece like African Americans learned how to sing and dance in the church, and there were thirty-five paintings of African Americans singing and dancing in the church. So then I had to do my piece. And by now I had an understanding of the Patua tradition, because they had sent me pieces, I had experienced the tradition and I was understanding it was a storytelling tradition. Basically, I had a little more understanding of Tara Books, their mission is to do traditional Indian art forms in a contemporary manifestation. I said, “Well, since he’s doing his traditional storytelling thing, I would love to try to do mine, my African American delta storytelling tradition to make it two storytelling traditions.” I come out of the griotic wing of AA literature, we feel that we are heirs to a literary tradition, and I try to make it work on the page. So I went ahead and did kind of a myth work thing on MLK, an Africa delta storyteller trying to play with the myth. I just wrote out that. And I asked them, “Am I being too down-home? Should I take more of me out and tell it straight?” And they encouraged me, “Do it, do it.” It gave me joy trying to make that storyteller play with Martin Luther King’s life as a contemporary delta storyteller trying to make it significant to the generations. So that’s what the process allowed me to do. Because of the fact that India had responded to a spiritual side of Martin’s life that I don’t experience in the United States, I was able to play with some sides that I really enjoyed playing with.
We had a couple cultural differences. Some of them were very interesting. His idea of the slave ships had Viking prows. I said these are more Viking ships than slave ships. But he’d already painted so many of them. I looked at them and was like, “Okay, I can live with that.” He had this underground railroad that was extraordinary; it had this Indian theme. It was just beautiful. And there was one time where his idea of Martin Luther King’s drum major speech was a little guy sitting playing a snare drum with epaulets. And I said “No, that’s not going to work, I can’t go to the south with this as a drum major.” So that one we had to work with. Otherwise, we just basically let the moment be the moment.
Q: And you’ve been out doing book touring on this, you started in Memphis? Was it well received?
Flowers: Well, yeah, but you know, it was Memphis, it was all the folks who know me and know what I do, and yes, it was very well received and it was a good crowd. I’m trying to do some new performance stuff with it and I tried some things and it went well. They also sent me the scroll, because traditionally what the Patua artists do is they paint the paintings on a scroll and they unroll the scroll while they sing the story. So they asked me, “Do you want us to have him do a scroll of it?” And I said no, but they kept asking me, and I realized they’re trying to send me a scroll version of the novel in the traditional art form. I was like, “Sure, send it!” So they sent it to me; I’m going to try to work it into the act.