WDET Book Club: Author JM Holmes on “Invisible Man” and Identity

Author JM Holmes joins Detroit Today to discuss the impact of “Invisible Man”on Black literature

WDET’s Book Club is back for a third year, and this summer’s selection is Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” a formative work of the 20th century and winner of the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction in 1953. 

Detroit Today’s Stephen Henderson and readers will discuss the novel weekly on-air and online in the WDET Book Club Facebook community. You can follow along by reading three to four chapters a week until the end of August. The novel’s interrogation of power, systemic racism and inequality has never felt more urgent or pertinent than it does today.

Listen: Invisible Man and the exploration of identity. 

 “He’s not writing, at that point, to me, to a Black audience, because I think he knows his audience is a white audience,” — JM Holmes, Author “How Are You Going to Save Yourself”

Click the audio player above to hear author JM Holmes discuss how “Invisible Man” redefined what it means to be a Black American

In this installment, we speak with JM Holmes, author of the story collection “How Are You Going to Save Yourself” and recipient of the Burnett Howe prize for fiction at Amherst College, the Henfield prize for literature, and a Pushcart prize.

Holmes says Ellison’s “Invisible Man” set out to negotiate and re-define what it means to be a Black American. “He wanted to approach identity on his own terms,” says Holmes of Ellison’s work. 

Discussion Points

  • Holmes compares James Baldwin’s intellectual work to Ellison’s more visceral writing. He says as a young person discovering Ellison’s “Flying Home” influenced him stylistically. “It dropped me into a history of literature that I didn’t know I was a part of,” says Holmes. 
  • He says Ellison didn’t want to speak for Black people as a monolith and bucked against the limiting definition society place on Black identity. Holmes says Ellison’s exploration of the idea of shared consciousness in “Invisible Man” was directed at a white readership. “He’s not writing, at that point, to me, to a Black audience, because I think he knows his audience is a white audience,” says Holmes. 
  • On the current uprisings and the Black Lives Matter movement, Holmes says while the public attention has peaked, writers are constantly living and exploring ideas of racial inequality. “For a general white audience, they’re not always paying attention. So when they are, you want to say as much as you can…Their racial attention is short,” says Holmes. 

Keep the Conversation Going 

Respond on Facebook to this weeks’ prompt about chapter 2: 

Why do you think Mr. Norton is obsessed with his fate and its relation to the school?

Further Listening

WDET Book Club: “Invisible Man,” Black Lives Matter and the Politics of Ralph Ellison 

Author Colson Whitehead on “The Nickel Boys,” “Invisible Man,” and Racial Inequity

Detroit Today student producer Clare Brennan wrote this article.

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  • Detroit Today

    Dynamic and diverse voices. News, politics, community and the issues that define our region. Hosted by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Stephen Henderson, Detroit Today brings you fresh and perceptive views weekdays at 9 am and 7 pm.