Ishmael Reed has made a career of taking the canon and blowing it into smithereens. Poet, essayist, novelist (“Mumbo Jumbo,” “The Free-Lance Pallbearers”), the Oakland, Calif., resident co-founded the Before Columbus Foundation in 1976, with the intention of shifting society’s focus to work from outside its white center; “American literature in the last decade of this century is more than a mainstream,” he wrote in 1992. “(It) is an ocean.”
That ocean is in full force in Reed’s latest project (co-edited with Carla Blank), “Pow-Wow: Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience — Short Fiction From Then to Now” (Da Capo, $35). The idea, as the title suggests, is to create “a gathering of voices from the different American tribes.”
Broadly based and often surprising, this anthology features 63 writers, including local heroes Wanda Coleman and Russell Charles Leong, as well as Grace Paley, Chester Himes, Al Young and Cecil Brown. But it is when Reed goes wide that the book is at its best.
James T. Farrell’s “For White Men Only” records a fight between white and black youths on a Chicago beach; the blacks are rousted by the police, but the story ends with one of them declaring, pointedly, “(W)e’ll come back.”
Benjamin Franklin’s satirical “Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim on the Slave Trade” (written in 1790) uses the enslavement of white Christians by Arabs to mock the argument that African slaves were better off in America because they were exposed to the one true God.
Franklin may be the most unlikely contributor to this collection, but his presence is entirely appropriate, a metaphor for the entire book. “Pow-Wow” is big, diverse, messy, all over the place — just like American literature itself.