Percival Everett’s new book is an old book. Up to now, only a few (Glyph, Wounded and Erasure) of his more than thirty novels, poetry and stories have been published in the U.K. But, this year London’s Influx Press is issuing I Am Not Sidney Poitier, originally published by Graywolf Press in 2009. The book is the coming-of-age tale of Not Sidney Poitier, who looks like the actor Sidney Poitier and whose life inescapably follows the plots of Sidney Poitier’s cinematic oeuvre, while being not-quite advised by media mogul Ted Turner. Through a hilarious and heart-breaking story of class and race, Everett follows the consequences of the logical principle that from the false premise of identity anything follows.
Everett actively eschews genre unless it is to parody it. His topics of interest seem
unbounded, from post-structural theory espoused by a mute toddler (Glyph), to the American West (Half An Inch Of Water) to retellings of classical Greek myths (Zulus and For Her Dark Skin). With books like Erasure and A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond, as Told to Percival Everett and James Kincaid, he is interested not only in stories but in who is allowed to tell them. Telephone, his latest book to be published in the U.S., has three different versions, explicitly challenging the weak assumption that we as readers can ever have the same experience of reading the same book.
Percival Everett is a cowboy, and not only because he trains horses. He has the gentleman’s softness I associate with the cowboy uncles I grew up wanting to emulate: self-effacing, gracious, and polite, knowing it is actions that count. With me in London and Everett in California, we were coordinating an interview time as COVID-19 began to make our days strange. When the State of California advised elderly people to stay in their homes, he emailed me to delay our phone call so that he could drop off groceries to his neighbours. By the time we rescheduled we, too, were self-isolating. I had to begin our interview by warning that our earnest literary discussion might be soon interrupted by my children singing ‘my bum bum’ as my wife struggled them into their pyjamas.