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John Edgar Wideman tells
tale of two cities
March 1, 1999

The age-old artistry of the storyteller held a standing-room-only audience spellbound at the William Benton Museum of Art Tuesday, as award-winning author John Edgar Wideman read an excerpt from his book Two Cities, a novel about the black experience in late 20th-century America.

The book explores timeless themes of life and death, hope and fear, love, violence, the relationship between the sexes and the generation gap - all laced with the cadences of African-American speech. Wideman also depicts the power of the human spirit rising above the violence and deprivation of the urban life he portrays.

Saying he last visited the Storrs campus to see a basketball game, Wideman selected for his reading a chapter titled "Playing Ball."

Before he began reading, Wideman, who teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts, sketched the background of the previous three chapters. "If it's a good book, then every word needs every other word to make sense," he explained.

Set in Pittsburgh, where Wideman grew up, the book explores the relationship between Kassima, an African-American woman devastated by the loss of both her sons to street violence, and her lover Robert Jones, an older man.

In "Playing Ball," Kassima and Robert go to the park on a summer afternoon to watch a basketball game, Robert - an old hoopster - gets pulled into play. Kassima is tormented by the thought that one of the boys on the court could be her son's killer. She also fears that her lover, whom she thinks is too old to play basketball, could die. "She knows he could die. The others can survive anything. Didn't they survive killing her sons."

But Robert is eager to play. "Playing ball's about being a warrior. And how many times does a man get to feel like a warrior round here."

When a group of gang members joins the game, and Robert gets into a fight with the leader, Kassima imagines her lover dead, killed by a bullet - "one more black body on the wet asphalt joining all the others" - and decides she must end the relationship: "I can't love another dead man. I've loved my last dead man. Can't take it anymore."

The character of Kassima, Wideman said after the reading, was inspired by his sister-in-law, whose sons were killed. "It is beyond imagination how she survived with dignity and is still a strong person," he said. "This is an homage to her and her strength of spirit."

Wideman's visit, a Year of Reading event, was sponsored by the African American Cultural Center, the UConn Co-op, and the Creative Writing Program of the English Department.

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu