Beneath the atrium of Harlem’s 92-year-old Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, poet Langston Hughes’s ashes are buried. Kevin Young, award-winning poet and critic, and one of Hughes’s biggest fans, has been the director of the Schomburg since last fall. Young has keys to all the rooms, and, as he unlocks the Scholar’s Center, a pleasant private space, we both acknowledge that it’s perfectly named for us to discuss Young’s new book, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, out from Graywolf in November.
Young tells me that he considers Bunk, which has landed on the 2017 National Book Award’s longlist for nonfiction, to be a follow-up to 2012’s The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, his second nonfiction title with Graywolf. The Grey Album won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and the PEN Open Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism.
“For The Grey Album, I’d been thinking about the good side of lying—lying as a kind of improvisatory act in black culture,” Young says. “Afterward, it nagged at me because there are those other kinds of lies that I think are all around us, and I was fascinated about hoaxes in general. So Bunk became a natural extension of The Grey Album.”
In the 22 chapters of Bunk, Young’s mission is to explore the history of the hoax as an American phenomenon, in areas such as journalism (the Great Moon Hoax of 1835), literature (James Frey, Margaret Seltzer) and identity (Rachel Dolezal). To supplement the facts, he provides a generous 57 pages of footnotes and 24 pages of annotated bibliography.
“It was a hard book to write, in the sense that it required a lot of research, a lot of reading,” Young says. “Even the footnotes are extensive, but that’s because I wanted to get it right. Footnotes are for proving and showing where you’ve been. Also, they’re for the curious––they can then go and find the information on their own. I hope the footnotes indicate the ways that we need to learn how to research, write, and think critically. All those are skills that public libraries, especially, are really invested in, and they provide the resources for an individual to go and do that work.”
An early observation Young made was how certain hoaxes have fostered racism and fed racial stereotyping. “I started to see that history, starting with P.T. Barnum and continuing now with Trump,” he says. “The divisions that are evoked and spoken of are ones Barnum used beginning in the 1830s. That was really strange, writing this history on the one hand but also trying to write about why hoaxes are more prevalent now than ever. What’s in the culture today that makes these hoaxes more predominant?”
Part of his fascination with hoaxes, Young explains, is that once they’re exposed, it seems hard to believe that anyone believed them. In Bunk, he says: “I write about what hoaxers do, but I also want us to think about what believers do. Why do we want to believe a story like James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces? Why did we want to believe that Lance Armstrong really did all these things that, looking back, seemed impossible? And really, it’s we who wanted to be different; we wanted to believe that we could climb that mountain and not do those drugs, and all the things that these figures embodied. But I’m also interested in how many of them, in the end, have to do with power and race.”
Young says that he “wanted to talk about this history that I saw, of this American fakery on one hand, but also the persistent notion people have that hoaxes are really about this murky line between fact and fiction, which I think is totally untrue.” He adds: “I think hoaxes are about these really strong divisions that we persist with. And the more I read, the more true it showed itself to be.”
Though the book is done, there’s little time for Young to relax. In November, he begins as the poetry editor of the New Yorker. And he retains his connection with Emory University, where, before joining the Schomburg, he was curator of both the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library and of literary collections at the Rose Library; he still holds the University’s Charles Howard Candler Professorship of Creative Writing and English, for which he returns, he says, “a few times a year.”
Young’s editors at Graywolf are publisher Fiona McCrae and executive editor Jeff Shotts. For his poetry at Knopf, Young’s longtime editor is Deborah Garrison. “Not many poets have editors,” he says. “She understands how I work and is really thoughtful about presentation. I think all poets want their poems to look a certain way and have this feel on the page. I’ve been fortunate to have been with Knopf, which is very serious about that and has this long tradition.” And, he says, “Langston Hughes was published by Knopf.”
As for Bunk, Young hopes readers “think about both the reasons that we are told these stories and why we choose to believe them—and whether there is something very American about that desire.”