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An Interview with Author Robert Coles

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I am currently professor emeritus at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where I spent twenty years teaching African American literature. Since my retirement in 2009, I’ve transitioned to full-time writer working on projects that interest me. As such, I’ve completed a novel, INTO AFRICA, a nonfiction study, BLACK WRITERS ABROAD, a screenplay, ODE TO FREEDOM, a full-length play, PAUL ROBESON IN BERLIN, and dozens of poems published in various periodicals and journals. Some of these projects were written in collaboration with other writers.

What inspired you to start writing this book?

During my tenure at Hampshire College, I became interested in the life and work of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. Thereafter I traveled to the Russian Federation at least ten times in order to understand Pushkin and the society that produced him. Through these numerous experiences it became obvious that, when taken together, they would make an excellent subject for a memoir. Thus Alexander Pushkin and my experiences in Russia were important inspirations for this book.

Tell us the story of your book’s current title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

The title was easy. Why? Because it articulates what my book is about. From 1997 to 20015 I spent most of my professional life reading, translating, or studying Pushkin’s work, or traveling to uncover new information that would help me understand him better. Indeed the key word here is “pursuing.” I was on a mission to discover and learn and would not stop until my pursuit was exhausted.

Describe your dream book cover.

Probably the best book cover would show a portrait of Pushkin (of which there are many) revealing that he looked like a man whose ancestry derived partially from Africa—mixed race. During his time in the nineteenth century, he would have been considered a black man in the United States and not able to pass for white. In Russia his racial background was less important. My book emphasizes that Pushkin was aware of his African heritage and proud of it. At the same time, he embraced his Russian and Slavonic roots. All these identities helped him to develop extraordinary insight that is reflected in his poems and stories.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

I would use songs taken from Jamaican Reggae, especially musicians and groups from the 1970s and 80s.

What books are you reading (for research or comfort) as you continue the writing process?

I have already read all of the major authors who have written on Pushkin’s racial identity in English—Catherine Nepomnyashchy and Ludmilla Trigos, Lilly Golden, Henri Troyat, Dieudonné Gnammankou, Allison Blakely, David Bethea, Hugh Barnes, Homer Smith, and many others. I would also like to translate and read more Russian sources.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

I am a trained literary scholar (PhD in American literature from SUNY Buffalo, 1979), yet I have always loved creative writing, especially poetry. Since the 1980s, I have written and published over a hundred poems and my Pushkin book, herein described, incorporates some of these poems in the text. I am both a scholar and poet in the same way W.E.B. DuBois incorporates poetry and imaginative writing in his classic work The Souls of Black Folk.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

I’ve always wanted to write since high school. My early influences were Thomas Wolf’s Look Homeward Angel and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Both authors made me aware of the power and beauty in words, and their novels made me want to be a writer. During the process of discovering Pushkin in the 1990s, I met two other writers/scholars, Bartley McSwine and Lilly Golden, whose interest in Pushkin studies was just as strong as mine. In my book I devote two chapters threshing out my relationship with both individuals and how they motivated me.

Where is your favorite place to write?

I like to write in my apartment, preferably when I am alone and without any noise. Oftentimes these conditions are difficult to meet. Lately I have found myself writing on the subway, bus, or sundry public places.

Do you have any writing rituals?

I believe in inspiration. Most of my new poems and thoughts come to me as a result of my reading. It’s important for me to read a lot, especially literature. Often I’ll be reading a line or a page and out of the blue an image or idea will suddenly emerge. When this happens I feel a great rush of energy and confidence. Without reading, I cannot write.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

I hope readers will learn something new about Alexander Pushkin, especially North American readers. One of my motives for writing this book is to make Pushkin more popular in the U.S.A. where he has almost no presence. In Russia Pushkin is well known. Most people there, including children, know at least one of his poems by heart. I am not only pursuing Pushkin for my own interest, but I am pursuing a dream to make his name and presence more visible in the United States.

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