Eleven Visions sat down to interview Eddy L. Harris, author of the critically acclaimed memoir Mississippi Solo. The audio is approx 20 min long, and the written portion below is only slightly abbridged. Enjoy.
“Dreams are delicate and made of gossamer. They hang lightly on breezes and suspend as if from nothing,” were probably some of the most beautiful words I’ve ever heard spoken. “He kept goin’ on and on sayin’ ‘nigga nigga nigga,’ and I finally said, ‘Look if you don’t stop using that word I’m gonna ram this pool cue down your throat,'” were probably some of the most agressive, and they were all spoken by the same man – Eddy L. Harris, author of Misissippi Solo. Eddy Harris paddled his canoe down the entire length of the Mississippi River in 1985. An African American, he went from the headwaters in Minnesota (where there were few to no black people) to the Deep South (where they still didn’t like black people very much). I called him on a hazy Sunday afternoon and asked for an interview. His voice was strange and guttural (not at all what I was expecting). After finishing his book, which documented his epic journey down America’s greatest river, I had thumbed to the back page. A photo. His eyes were quiet, and I was expecting his voice to be as quiet; but, it was raspy and strong, the voice of someone who indeed could ram a pool cue down someone’s throat.
I tried to put him at ease before we started our conversation – a cordial tone, a joviality – I use it when I’m nervous. Futile. He put me at ease with his deep, melodic laughter and caring, baritone voice that moved the conversation forward easily and seamlessly. This man, who had used his gun twice on the Mississippi River to defend himself, turned out to be a careful balance of agression, wit, and love – a writer in all aspects – and I found his answers to my questions fascinating.
Mississippi Solo was your first book, am I right?
It was my first book published but not my first book. I had written 6 novels before that never got published so I had already practiced for a long, long time before I wrote that book. But this was the first piece of non-fiction that I had written,and I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know any more about non-fiction than I knew about canoeing.
Did you know that would be compelling enough for you to get your first publication?
I had no idea.
The year you went down the River, 1985, you described the world as “computerized, mechanized, itemized, formalized and, most dangerously, standardized.” What do you think of the world now?
It’s gotten a lot more standardized, a lot smaller, and a lot more impersonal, partly because of all the computerization. Computers are great because they help us to stay in communication with other people. At the same time, if you go to the bank or buy an airline ticket, you pay more money if you talk to a human than if you buy over the internet. Computers are enabling us to avoid human contact. If you tell your friends you’re canoeing down the Mississippi River, I’ll bet one of them says somewhere along the way, “Well, you gonna take a GPS?” The River goes north to south; you can’t get lost, but people want to know if you’re taking a GPS.
I’m going to read one of my favorite quotes from your book. You said, “A vacation is external. A pilgramage is internal. An adventure combines the two.” Why aren’t there more people going down rivers and going on adventures?
I think people are not that adventurous. People are scared. People are in their own comfort zones, and part of the definition of adventure is stepping out of the comfort zone which is why, going back to the standardization question, McDonalds exists, why McDonalds works. Even when people travel to foreign countries they are looking for McDonalds and Starbucks because they don’t want something bizarre. When you stop off at a mom-and-pop hotel, you don’t know if you’re going to get a bed with bedbugs, a bed with a sagging mattress, or any other signs of comfort. You don’t know, if you go to a mom-and-pop restaurant, if the food is going to be good, or if you’re going to get swine flu or poisoned, or if you’re going to come out with a marvelous meal. So rather than risk the downside to sometimes have the far upside, people want that standardized, Starbucks lifestyle.
You talked about the sterility of the modern River. With its locks and dams it is much more predictable but is also “lifeless” in your opinion. Do you think you’d be singing that same tune if you had to deal with the river that Mark Twain had to deal with?
The River of the 1880s is a river that had life to it. We’ve modified the River so much to the point where we think it has no life, but in fact it does. Hurricanes come and rip up the Gulf of Mexico and send water upstream. Big storms hit the river; floods happen. We think we can control it but we can’t. It’s like having a 2-year-old child. He throws a tantrum, and you’re in a grocery store and you know you’re not the one in control. So I think, yeah, I’d be waxing philosophic and romantic about the River a hundred years ago.
Did you feel, by the end of the River, you had experienced so much of it that it lost its mystery for you?
Well I wanted to stop before long. It was a hell of a long way, and I wanted to stop and get gout. I would never (laughs) say that the River lost its mystery or became mundane. However tiring it was, I never got used to the River. There was always something new and fresh – a new danger, a new piece of beauty, a new marvel, a new something to discover. At the same time now I know that the River has changed. I’ve changed. The River is a living thing. You may have a friend you’ve had since grade school and you think you know this guy completely, totally. And yet he comes home and says, “Gee, honey, I’m in love with another man.” There’s always going to be some aspect of another person, another living thing, that you just don’t know. The mystery never goes away especially if you’re open to it.
Do you believe the River has a soul?
This river certainly does. I got to know it pretty well, like an old friend. And I would say, yeah, it does have a soul. You feel the different moods of the River. Whether you call it a soul or an animus, or give it some other anthropomorphic, human trait… when you feel the River intimately, it feels like it has got some human characteristics.
The people you met on the River were complete strangers, yet you often formed real bonds with them. Why is it that, when somebody is traveling, relationships that normally take weeks or months or years to develop can happen in the space of an hour?
I think when you’re traveling, you are touching the desires of other people, and they see in you what they would like to do, and they open themselves up to you. Another part of it seems to be that everybody has a story, and it’s easier in many ways to open up to a stranger than to somebody you know. Partly because the stranger is going to take your story and he’s going to disappear. He’s not going to come back, he’s not going to rat you out. What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas. What happens between me and this stranger will stay with us because he’s going to disappear. And part of it on my side is my openness. I’m a traveler, I like traveling; the reason I travel is to meet new people, and I’m open to their stories and I’m open to that kind of exchange.
In one part of Mississippi Solo, you feel a real sense of lonliness and express a desire for children. Did you ever act on that desire? Do you have kids now?
No, it was more a moment, probably, recognizing that this in fact was the life I had chosen. Not just canoeing down the river but this solitary, solitudinous life with no real attachments. I’ve got friends and family, but really my life is lived Solo. Whether on the Mississippi… Solo, ha ha, or in general. In recognizing that, and reflecting on the life my friends had chosen with their physical successes, I recoginzed [those successes] as good and knew I would never have [them].
Why would you say people are addicted to travel?
I don’t think people in general are addicted to travel. I don’t think most people travel, certainly not most Americans. But I think it’s a way to vacate, a way to empty yourself from the normal – see something new, do something new, be somebody new! – which is why when people go to Tijuana, an extreme example, they let their hair down and go crazy because they can be somebody else when they’re not at home.
Would you say you did that on the Mississippi? I got the impression you were pretty much being yourself.
I was, but that’s me. I am myself when I travel. One of the reasons I travel is to discover myself. The Eddy Harris before that trip was not an outdoorsperson – I’m a city boy. I discovered this new element of my personality. I could leave city boy Eddy Harris someplace and be a different Eddy Harris. And in the same way when people go off to Tijuana, they’re letting their hair down in order to become who they really are as opposed to the facade they put up for normal life.
I have not seen, heard of, or read about another African American who has traveled the River. Would you say it’s a cultural thing, an economic thing or both?
Canoeing the River doesn’t cost any money, so you can’t say it’s an economic thing. I don’t think it’s in the sphere of possibility for a lot of Black Americans. They never think about it – canoeing down the river – or many other activities of that nature. It doesn’t cross their minds, and if it does, not just black people but who can take 2 months out of their life to canoe down the Mississippi River? There’s also another element which comes from the early experience of black people in the Deep South where being in the woods was a scary thing. Evelyn White of the San Francisco Examiner wrote an article that pointed out that the woods are a scary place for black people. For a black person to say, “I’m going out to the mountains or to hillbilly country in Missouri,” is a scary thought because rednecks often to bad things to black people… in the past and maybe still. A few years back there was some black guy walking down the street in Texas who got nabbed by a couple of good-ol-boys, was tied to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged to death. So nature, the outdoors, is not the welcoming place of white pioneers. It is a place where, if you were black walking down a Southern road, somebody could nab you and take you for a runaway slave and sell you to somebody else, or lynch you or who knows what. It’s this place of fear that comes from being alone in the woods.
How much insulation [from racism] did you have because of your personal attitude? Ninety-nine percent of the time people were very open to you. Would you say that was because of the way you came across – you didn’t allow them to view you in a way you didn’t view yourself?
I’m having this same discussion in France. I live in France now and just finished a book about the difference between being Black American and being Black African or black in France. When I have an encounter in France or on the River or anyplace else where I am traveling or in my life, good things tend to happen to me. I attract good things. The evidence seems to point to the fact that these things happen to me because it’s me. It’s got nothing to do with black or white or anything else. The sum total of the experience of my life has brought me to a comfortable place within myself. I think that shows itself on the outside.
I did want to talk about France. I lived in Lyon, France and have quite a few French friends. One in particular, Dimitri, is black with parents from Martinique. When Barack Obama became the first black president of the United States, Dimitri emailed me and said, “You know, that’s really great because in France that would never happen.” I told him I thought France was much more tolerant than the U.S., and he said, “That may be true, but I’m telling you if Obama had run in France, he wouldn’t have won.” What do you think about that?
I agree completely with it. There are two sides to this coin: [France] is a much more tolerant society. You could even say it’s a much less racist society, and at the same time, Black Americans are well recieved because they are American, not just because they’re black. If you look at the French Parliment, it has not got very many black people in it. The Parliament is pretty monochromatic. When you turn on the television set, [black] news presenters [are] a rarity. There’s not a black presence in the mainstream culture the way there is in America. Because of segregation black people in America had an economic base, but they also had a visibility that black people in France don’t have. And once you have [those things], Proctor and Gamble has to pitch its products to you; and so, on a simplistic level, [they] have got to have black people in their commercials to appeal to black people. If [they] don’t, then General Mills will. [France] does not have that collective, segregated economy that built on itself to the point where [companies] couldn’t ignore it anymore. [America had] a seperate society where [there was an] entire power structure [that] was black, so when the time came for integration (or what looked like integration), black people were already in positions of power; they just had to shift from here to there. France has no way to rectify a situation that was never there; segregation didn’t exist in France; there was nothing for black people to rebel against. And so for now black people are seen as not quite French enough to attain those positions of power. I think Dimitri is right. France [may be] ready for a black president once the guy gets elected, but how do you get him there? There are no high-powered positions in French political structure [for black people].
Are you saying that if there was a charismatic black candidate who was very popular, some of the white population in France might not feel good about voting for him?
I think that’s the way it looks. Racism in France is different from racism in America. Because we’ve had to fight actively against it, we aren’t afraid of it. It’s there, it’s in our discourse. In France, because that system of opression didn’t exist, French people can pat themselves on the back and say, “We’re not racist at all.” And yet once this charismatic black person is in a position to be voted for, then the true nature of French racism might show up. At the same time, Obama’s election here has caused a self-reflection on the part of the French. They’re looking at us and asking, “Can this happen here?” and, “Why can’t this happen here?” I think that will lead to an evolution quicker than we might expect.
You said that being black was a characteristic that you “just had.” Did you grow up in such a way [that] being black wasn’t something your family or neighborhood cared about, or is that totally you?
It’s a little of both. I was 10 years old in an all-black neighborhood, and then we moved to the suburbs in a mixed neighborhood, and then I went off to this fancy dancy school. There are 3 Eddy Harrises – the Eddy Harris from the black neighborhood who never thought about it, [the one] from the mixed neighborhood… where you heard certain comments every once in a while so it [became] a remarkable thing, and [the one] from this fancy dancy hoity toity school where I was one of the only black kids, and [there] the differences seemed to vanish. I was accepted as one of the boys. So those 3 elements weaved together to form this person that recognizes that, yes, I am black and yet I feel all these other elements that detract from my being black that I can just be Eddy Harris in most situations. It’s also a lot of self-reflection in how I want and choose to present myself to the world. Yes, I’m tall and black and balding and I’ve got a beard, but so what? It doesn’t matter to me, and I force it not to matter to other people.
You say you force it not to matter to other people?
Yes, I try to impose Eddy Harris on people, not Eddy Harris who’s black and tall or one thing or another.
Did you attempt that with the two guys who came up to you with the guns [in Mississippi Solo]?
Nope, nope, I tried no reasoning whatsoever because it just seemed like a very menacing situation. I was in Alaska some years after, and I think you said in your email, “I know you don’t see yourself as a badass…” (laughing from both). Well sometimes I do see myself as a badass, and I was in Alaska and shooting pool, and some guy just kept saying, “Nigga, nigga, nigga.” I tried to point out to him that it was an insensitive way to express himself, and he had all sorts of excuses. He kept doing it and wouldn’t stop, so at some point I said, “Look. Either you stop using that word or I’m going to ram this cue stick down your throat. ” So of course he stopped. There are times when reasoning just doesn’t work, and when a couple of guys come out of the woods with guns and you feel threatened… I don’t know how reasonable it was to do what I did (Editor’s Note: Read the book to find out what he did.), but I wanted to extracate myself from what I felt was a dangerous situation.
What’s next for Eddy Harris?
Well I’m looking at post-Obama America. You can’t elect a black president on the first go-around uless you’ve already gotten to a point where you have evolved. The evolution of America has already taken place. So I’m going to travel around the U.S. and maybe the world too because I think the Obama story is a very important one for us to see who we are as a nation, and I think America has come to the point where partly we are recognized as fully American. That’s the next big traveling adventure.
This is a social commentary but it’s also still got that travel aspect. Is that in all of your books?
They all have an element of place. The Paris book, for example, I didn’t go any place. It’s just Paris, but Paris as a place becomes really significant. It is a character in the story. When I traveled in Africa for [another] book, Africa was a character. The South was a character; the Mississippi River is a character. I don’t know if I can escape that pattern; I haven’t yet anyway.
How does somebody who wants to become a travel writer become more successful?
How does one write well?
That’s the mystery portion of the program – I don’t know. First, have something to say. An interesting place is good. An interesting angle is good. And then tell the story the way somebody wants to read it. Mark Twain, in fact, said, “Writing is easy. Just leave out the parts that nobody wants to read.”
You can find out more about Eddy Harris and his books at eddyharris.com.