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Limbo

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An African American man confronts a heart of darkness when his family moves from Los Angeles to a small town in Norway.

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Interview with Sean Keith Henry by Raul Deznermio

Limbo opens with a scene on a flight from California to Norway, followed by a car ride. How did you decide to start the novel with so much physical/geographical movement?

Norway is a very “physical” place, and in terms of distance from the US, it is considered too far, beyond where most Americans who travel for leisure might be willing to go. It was imperative that the reader experience Pharaoh’s anxiety as he made his move from one continent to another. And because of Norway’s magnificent topography and Norwegians’ emphasis on caring for their environment, I wanted readers to see the landscape as Pharaoh saw it, and appreciate it. It plays a very significant role throughout Limbo. As Pharaoh is introduced to his new environment, it appears enchanting and beautiful. However, as events change, so does Pharaoh’s depiction of the environment, especially as he observes it from different vehicles.

Very few novels published in the US have prominent African characters. Do you have any thoughts on why this may be the case?

I think very few novels published in the US have prominent African characters because there is a sense among writers here that Africa is still a vast and unknown continent. Africa’s culture is simply too varied and its language too different and difficult. I also believe that three of Africa’s great novelists—Ngugi, Chinua Achebe, and Wole Soyinka—have kept Africa on the literary landscape. It has helped to challenge long held biases in novels about Africa, especially those written by white authors.

The three main African characters are very different from one another—though they seem to get grouped together in the eyes of the Norwegians. At times it appears that the Africans communicate better with the Americans than with the Norwegians. Do you agree . . . and can you comment on this dynamic?

I agree. When they were first introduced, it was difficult and challenging to maintain the three main African characters’ distinctive voices. Not because I was concerned that I might lump them together like the Norwegians or blend their voices so that they spoke as one continent, but because there was so much political bickering amongst them that it was often difficult to keep their arguments distinct from one another, especially when the topic concerned civil conflict and how best to achieve its ends. I believe the Africans communicate better with the Americans than with the Norwegians because the Africans are reminded daily in overt and subtle ways that they are in Norway for a reason and that it makes no difference whether it is to get an education or to seek political asylum. Their stay is temporary.

The description on the back cover of Limbo makes a comparison to James Baldwin. Has Baldwin been an influence on you, and can you cite any other significant literary inpirations?

My first introduction to James Baldwin was as an undergraduate student. I had bought a new copy of Go Tell it on the Mountain, and when the semester was over I had underlined so many passages and made so many margin entries that my copy seemed like it was twenty years old. It was coming apart. That summer I bought all of James Baldwin’s work. I haven’t read all of it, but that is in part because I keep going back to Go Tell it on the Mountain. My instructor, then, anointed Baldwin as the Master of Symbolism, and although I have read quite a few novels since then, I think that anointing still stands. My other literary inspirations are V. S. Naipaul, Saul Bellow, Chinua Achebe, and J. California Cooper.

What made you decide to write in the present tense?

Writing Limbo in the present tense was an easy decision because of my connection to Norway. It seemed like a natural way to tell Pharaoh’s story. I wanted to place more emphasis on a natural, seamless story and not interrupt the reader’s experience with any sort of doubt as to Pharaoh’s veracity.

Will you be traveling to promote your book?

Yes! Yes! I will be traveling to promote my book! I have been invited to read from Limbo (along with Kaylie Jones, Percival Everett, and Nina Revoyr) at the 2004 Calabash International Festival in Jamaica in May.

Are you currently working on another book? If so, can you tell us anything about it?

I am working on another book—however, I never discuss work-in-progress.

Do you feel it was worthwhile to get an MFA in Creative Writing?

I think it was certainly worthwhile for me to get an MFA in Creative Writing. It’s strange, but there is a bond between good Creative Writing programs and their alumni, even long after they have graduated. I feel I can still submit rough drafts or work-in-progress to my professors for constructive criticism.



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