This happened in 1967. That year, the American author Truman Capote, then forty-three years old, published a beautiful essay he titled “Ghosts in Sunlight.” The piece—it’s not very long—describes the author’s experience on the set of the film adaptation of his 1966 best-selling book, In Cold Blood. At one point Capote relates how the actors impersonating the real-life protagonists in his famous “non-fiction novel” unsettled him, rattled him, for there they were, alive and interpreting the thoughts and feelings of men he had known long before, dead men he could not shake. Capote describes this experience as being akin to watching “ghosts in sunlight”—a lovely metaphor about memory and the real converging to make the world something else, and the artist someone else, too. Standing on that film set, the Capote who had written In Cold Blood was a relative ghost to the film being made; he was a specter standing in the sunlight of his former self.
I think I understand something about the anxiety Capote expresses in the piece; I certainly understand when he relates how, at some point during his In Cold Blood process, he’d fall into bed with a bottle of scotch and pass out, the victim of a disorienting emotional flu. Nostalgia is one thing, but making art out of the past is another thing altogether, a Herculean effort in that known and unknown landscape we might as well call the metaphysical. It’s the land where all artists dwell, and that your years at Columbia’s School of the Arts have prepared you to meet head on*; by now you have developed the stamina of Hercules, or Sisyphus, as you do the joyful, maddening, and true work of artists, those sometimes whistling and sometimes wretched builders and destroyers of truth and memory, makers who take from the past—their memories—to create a present that shimmers with veracity and poetry.
I wonder if you, like me, feel, just now, like a ghost in the sunlight, awash in memories as your life shifts from student to professional, and your professors become your colleagues. I’ll pull rank now—but just for a moment—and say that my ghosts are probably older than yours. I mean almost Madonna old, and her 1980s music is there in my reminiscences along with so much more as I recall that the majority of my ghosts became just that during the AIDS crisis, which I first read about while I was a student at Columbia—in 1981 or so. I met those now gone boys at Columbia some time before I met you. In memory they wear what they wore then: Oxford button-downs, and they smoke and gossip in the sun that always makes the steps of Low Library—the very steps you’ve sat on yourself—look like a sketch in a dream. Tomorrow was faraway then. And then it wasn’t.
I see those gone boys and hear their laughter and love them even more as I watch you all now in your sunlight. For your time at Columbia and your life in this particular section of Manhattan is becoming part of your past very quickly now, all the moments of making your self—your artist self—mixed up these final days and hours before you face other realities, other dangers, other hopes, and other presents that are destined to become the past, too. And undoubtedly you will try to make art out of this beautiful ephemera, the merging of the past with the present, because you’re artists, chroniclers of who you are, and who you might be, and who we all are, together.
In order to achieve that—that is, to push further into being the kind of truth-telling artists I already know you are—I should tell you something about myself, so that we are better friends, and you can accurately transform this moment or the next into one of your stories. Let’s begin with my time at Columbia. I loved studying with great scholars ranging from Elaine Pagels to Kenneth E. Silver—I was an art history major in the General Studies program—but I must confess that I wasn’t much of a student.
It didn’t take Elaine and Ken long to suss out that I wasn’t an academic, I was a writer. I didn’t know how to call myself that; that is, I didn’t know what you now know: that there are professors out there, at the School of the Arts, for instance, who can help nurture your voice. So I just bungled along, finding much to love along the way, including authoritative reading lists that gave me a frame to begin understanding not just emotionally, but philosophically and intellectually as well, how the past leads to the present and beyond. By reading I discovered that art-making was a tradition that was bigger and no bigger than myself.
I did not feel crippled by this knowledge; in fact, I was liberated by it: being an artist meant you were connected to other people—ghosts—who had been as moved by the enterprise of creating as you are now; evidence of their love was all the movies and performances and books and dances and music that informed your present so deeply and indelibly, acts of creation that stirred your imaginings to the point of making you wonder: How do I make the kind of film I want to see, write the kind of story or poem I want to read, perform the music, play, or dance that is expressive of the artist I’m meant to be?
In her lovely memoir, Smile, Please, the Caribbean-born writer Jean Rhys says that she considered her writing to be the tiniest stream, one that trickles into the vast ocean that is world literature. But without those streams there would be no ocean, and if there is no ocean there is no shore, and if there is no shore there is no place for our ghosts to gather in the sunlight, those artistic forebears who wave us back to dry land when a project seems beyond us and we lose our way, which is at least half of the time.
As I’ve said, I was a terrible student. Or put in a different way: I was a miserable student, a dropout at heart who didn’t know how to look for, let alone find, what you found: a conservatory-like atmosphere that affords one the freedom and discipline to do one’s true life work. I didn’t come from a world filled with much worldly information, other than how to survive. I grew up in a family of West Indian women who raised their children in what social workers used to call “socio isolation.” First we lived in East New York, and then in Crown Heights, and then in Flatbush. When I stepped through those gates on Broadway, that was all I knew. I was a student at a time when the school was segregated by gender, and also you could smoke in class.
This was not the world I knew, certainly not at home. In order to acclimate myself, I took a great many classes at Barnard. Still, I didn’t give myself a chance to take advantage of the opportunities Columbia offered up because I didn’t know how to: it takes a long time to make it to the welcome table if you’ve been standing at the sink of making do.
Part of what makes your experience so valuable to me is that you allowed yourself this experience, you are graduating with the license or degree you’ve already conferred on yourself—to be artists, to be thinkers, to be. As the artist Kara Walker noted once vis-à-vis her experience as a woman artist of color, it just takes a lot to give yourself permission to get into the studio, to claim that space.
If anything, your education, the conservatory-like atmosphere the School of the Arts has built over the years, has helped minimize those kinds of complications, no matter what your race or gender, and anyway all artists feel “other.” There’s not an artist on God’s green earth who feels, emotionally speaking, that he or she has been invited to the prom. It’s in our DNA—to stand to the left or outside of life’s fray, in our tennis shoes, in our painter’s smocks, in our director’s caps, in our moth-eaten writer’s sweaters, awash in memory even as it becomes that in the just-now past. Your various educators understand the humility of creation, and something more: how to encourage and coax you into greater accuracy. What does your past look like, what does the present say, and what do your ghosts look like in the sunlight?
But enough about you. Actually, I can’t go on without you since, by now, we have become friends, and, like any friend, I am not ashamed to say that I am drawing on your confidence to admit that I loved studying art history here at Columbia because the field involved so many of the things that enthrall me, still, such as cultural production, politics, aesthetics, and words. There was an immediate benefit to this: it gave me a setting in which to understand the society that surrounded me during my time on campus in the early 1980s, a time when New York had, for all intents and purposes, been abandoned by the federal government, and the city felt strangely lawless—Andy Warhol called it a Wild West show.
It was a place where visual artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and theater directors like Elizabeth LeCompte and Andrei Serban and performers such as Steve Buscemi and Anna Kohler and filmmakers ranging from Bette Gordon to Jim Jarmusch to Charles Burnett and writers like Margo Jefferson, Susan Minot, Richard Howard, Elizabeth Hardwick—you will recognize some alumni and past and present professors from the School of the Arts in that list, I’m no fool—were making work that explored New York, which felt, then, like a small exploding Gotham filled with extreme sunsets and light, an intense universe shaped as much by poverty as it was by hope and creativity.
Columbia was part of that. East Campus had yet to be built, and the whole campus, in memory, feels as though it were lit by a thousand cigarettes in the dark. In fact, the first reading I ever gave was at Columbia, at night. I was a student; a friend who lived downtown came up to hear me. During the reading she sat in the front row, eating a hoagie. Afterward, she said I should have something behind me while I read. A video? Some slides?
I offer all of this not by way of aimless self-revelation, but as a way of provoking you to remember your stories about similar incidents in your life, stories about the night, and who smoked what and who was doing who mixed in with outside events, such as the politics of your time, mixed in with the books you were reading, the films you were seeing, the poems you were memorizing, because all of it is your source material. Stories like that girl with the hoagie will end up being the stories you end up telling, take it from me: memory is your greatest ally and your primary source material, because memory is your body as it was in the world and the world as it was and will be; memory is the people you have loved or wanted to love in the world, and what are we if not bodies filled with reminiscences about all those ghosts in the sunlight?
Now and then, the past and the present: didn’t Boris Pasternak teach us that there was no separating the two, not to mention Suzan-Lori Parks in her plays, not to mention William Faulkner, not to mention Billie Holiday in all her succulence and disaster, and didn’t Claude Lanzmann show in his extraordinary 1985 documentary, Shoah, how the past weighs the present down? And hasn’t Kara Walker told us how memory works in America, which she loves like no other place on earth because no other place on earth could have created Kara Walker?
All of these people—Pasternak, Parks, Faulkner, Holiday, Lanzmann—they are you, the you you are about to be. Making something out of remembering, giving yourself that chance—there is nothing like it. In the preface to her haunting poem “Requiem,” the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova wrote of the accuracy one must employ when reporting and remembering:
INSTEAD OF A PREFACE
During the frightening years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone “picked me out.” On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me, her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear (everyone whispered there)—“Could one ever describe this?” And I answered—“I can.” It was then that something like a smile slid across what had previously been just a face.
The artist’s memory is a dangerous, necessary thing. Never disavow what you see and remember—it’s your brilliant stock-in-trade: remembering, and making something out of it. Artists remember the world as it is, first, because you have to know what it is you’re reinventing; that’s a rule, perhaps the only one: being cognizant of your source material.
I’ve never believed, not for one second, that art is created out of avoiding the world and its various realities. If you avoid that, you avoid life, which is your source material, you dishonor all your ghosts in the sunlight, including the person you were when I began this speech, the Columbia boys I knew and loved long ago, the politically oppressed poet who changed a face, and you, dancing with my former self before we part, and you walk proudly into your sunlit hope, ghosts and all.
This essay was originally given as a commencement talk at Columbia University School of the Arts on May 21, 2014. ↩