Lit: A reluctant sleuth searches for the heart of SF

PI Bill Haywood can't keep his shoes tied -- but he is redefining the Black detective genre. An interview with author John Goins

LIT A reluctant sleuth who can’t keep his shoelaces tied as he probes the streets of San Francisco, Bill Haywood is a reporter for a small San Francisco newspaper who finds himself in search of a killer involving the city’s Eritrean community within the backdrop of a city whose black community has dwindled to less than 5%.

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Author John Goins’ protagonist Bill Haywood is the memory of San Francisco’s black community and through his eyes we see a city through the lens of its long term and immigrant communities—a population that anchors the city’s diversity yet, in the current political climate of reactionary rhetoric and jingoism occupies the space between visibility and invisibility. 

In his latest mystery novel, “The Coptic Cross,” Goins weaves a story that gives voice to the city’s communities that are in danger of being erased. His novel is thick with the natural landscape, a quiet gentleman from the south, a rare jar of moonshine, haiku, the SF Giants, the smell of cafés and the sound of jazz.

Published by local publisher Ithuriel’s Spear, the book picks up from where he left of in his first novel, “A Portrait in the Tenderloin,” with Haywood reluctantly drawn in to another mystery involving murder, teetering between a hostile police detective and pesky raccoon intent on destroying his small backyard garden. 

Goins is an African American author originally from Washington DC. He has lived in San Francisco’s many neighborhoods for the last 20 years. His is a voice that is important in present day San Francisco. John was recently featured in a mystery/noir panel at the Howard Zinn Book Fair in San Francisco with fellow Ithuriel’s Spear author Sin Soracco. 

 

Who is Bill Haywood and why can’t he keep his shoelaces tied?

Bill Haywood is a black man who embodies several people whom I’ve known over the years: friends, relatives, people in my neighborhood when I was growing up…trying to survive in a nation that has only wanted us as slaves or servants, but never as full citizens. Bill is aware of this and knows that his very presence, for many, is an affront to their whitewashed, Norman Rockwell vision of America that doesn’t include him. That’s a horrible thing, if you really think about it—to be born in a nation controlled by people who wouldn’t bat an eye if every black person in America suddenly disappeared.

Bill has real anxiety about the future—fear. Like millions of people, he doesn’t have enough money to retire on, doesn’t own a house that is bought and paid for, and can’t rely on social security to pay the rent on his small apartment in San Francisco when he is too old or sick to work anymore. And there are powerful forces that want to strip him of Medicare and social security. What will he do? Will he have to beg on the street when he’s forced to retire? It can wear a man or woman down.

His untied shoelace is a metaphor for all of this. His lace, that becomes loose at the most inopportune moments in the novel, is about insecurity, or to keep it real—a man who can’t quite get his shit together. His fear of the police, of going to prison on some trumped up charge puts him on edge, too. Yet, his search for justice and dignity (for an old friend) does two things in the book: puts him in great jeopardy, and saves him….

“Big Bill” Haywood, the famous labor organizer of the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies), was definitely on my mind when I came up with a name for my main character. And though the protagonist in the Coptic Cross is from a different era and race, I’d like to believe that Big Bill would’ve understood Brother Bill when it came to his antagonism toward the police, fear of becoming homeless, and refugees.

 

Is Bill Haywood biographical?

Yes and no. My first novel, “A Portrait in the Tenderloin,” was much more biographical than this one. There are certain aspects in The Coptic Cross, the neighborhood where Bill Haywood lives, his love of jazz and haiku that are similar, for sure. I also worked very briefly for a small community newspaper in San Francisco, the Central City Extra—a great paper with writers far more talented than I was. I’m talking real professionals who know their business. I can’t say enough about the paper or the people who work there. So, of course, I made Haywood a reporter. However, I’ve always believed that all fiction is, to some extent, biographical, what you think, feel and imagine has to come from somewhere; how you see the world… Your fears and phobias will, if you write long enough and try to be honest, rise to the surface as well. I say “try to be honest”, because being honest with oneself isn’t always pleasant or easy….

 

In the story, Bill Haywood is the target of a raccoon intent on destroying his small patch of a garden in his Presidio Heights home.  He also gets into a physical altercation with a woman.  Both situations are somewhat comical.  Was it important to give your protagonist that self-effacing persona?

 

Haywood is no hero, at least not in the classic sense. He’s a humble man who knows his limitations. No one would ever accuse him of being “a badass.” He’s much more reflective than that, even though he’s spent a good portion of his youth in the streets. He’s not Shaft. If three or four men came after him, our noble protagonist would turn tail and run. But if it were a single man, bigger and stronger, well…. He might get his ass kicked, but he’d defend himself. He would never bully or pick a fight with someone just to assuage his own ego, though. He’s a man who has witnessed violence first hand and knows how ugly it is. Some of the people he grew up with have been killed or gone to prison. Humor is a coping mechanism for him, a way to maintain his sanity. And sanity, for Haywood, is very important. His late brother was a schizophrenic. My late brother was, too. I forgot to mention that glaring detail about myself in your previous question. So, yes, having a protagonist who is self-effacing was very important in the book.

 

Why did you choose to focus on the Eritrean community in your novel?

I chose people from the Eritrean community for many reasons. First, I grew up in Washington D.C. One of the largest Eritrean communities in the United States lives there. Second, the issue of refugees has been on my mind a lot lately. We hear about refugees through the news media all the time, but rarely about Eritreans who are fleeing their country in droves. Eritrea has one of the most repressive regimes on the planet. Think North Korea in Africa. According to Human Rights Watch, Eritrea has engaged in “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations…forced labor during conscription, arbitrary arrests, detentions and enforced disappearances.” And of course, “torture” just to name some of the horrors that their citizens face. The United States tortures people, too, but American Exceptionalism….

In college (I attended Texas Southern University in the mid-seventies), there was a large contingent of Eritreans (Eritrea did not formally exist) who organized protests on campus. They wanted their own nation, separate from Ethiopia. Even though I was born in D.C., where many Eritreans had immigrated, it wasn’t until I was in college that I learned about their culture and community.

There were also Persians at Texas Southern, protesting against the Shah and his dirty, American trained secret police, Savak, at the same time. As a group, they were not particularly religious, and would’ve been stunned, I think, with what later happened in their country.

 

The city’s black community figures heavily in the story.  Is Haywood’s search metaphor for the search for San Francisco’s lost soul?

Yes; and for his own soul, too. Does ethnic cleansing sound too harsh? Or is gentrification more pleasing to the ears? I don’t know why, but when you ask about “the search for San Francisco’s lost soul,” the song, Searchin’, by Roy Ayers popped into my head:

Searching Searching…

We are living in a world

Of “who has what” and “who is who”

But I’m telling you my friend

The answer’s right in front of you…

And Soul is such a rich word—sacred, profane…. Why do I think of pigs feet and chitterlings and the smell of a woman’s hair singed by the hot comb in the morning and grits with salt and butter and Johnny Otis, the coolest white, “black” man I ever heard on the radio, and Saint John Coltrane Church, and Valencia Gardens where a stadium once stood and the Mission Reds, a Pacific Coast League team, once played baseball in the twenties and thirties before the city turned the site into a housing project and Café Babar on Guerrero—Alvin pouring cheap wine at the bar in the front while Julia Vinograd recited poetry in the back where the bleachers were (I was too afraid to read my stuff or be heckled), James Brown on KPOO, Bob Kaufman beaten by the cops, Jack Micheline dying on the train from San Francisco to Orinda…A lunch bucket town of poets who listened to jazz….

 

In the story, Haywood says “The only time you’re not a person of interest is when you’re dead.”  How does the story critique the topic of justice, in particular, in regards to people of color?

 

Well, let’s look at Tyrone, one of Bill’s closet friends in the novel. He’s the one who made that statement in the story. The police think he’s a dangerous man, and they’re right, but for all of the wrong reasons, if you want to live in a healthy society. Why do the cops view him as “a person of interest,” a man who needs to be surveilled? Because he’s a black man who rejects their authority, the power of the State to put millions of black men (and people of color) behind bars for the smallest offenses. And he’s not afraid to criticize the police on his radio show.

Have you noticed how squeamish our liberal politicians are when it comes to police corruption and violence?! How tepid their responses are about it? Cops who murder people, who shake poor people down for money; police departments that confiscate innocent peoples’ cars, their homes on bogus charges. Tyrone, who has seen this, hates the police, and I can’t say that his hatred is unfounded. And it’s not about a few bad apples. The United States has always believed that black people were potentially seditious—a group that needed to be closely watched. Think about being tied to a tree and whipped, or hot tar poured over you and feathered, your tongue cut out for speaking the truth, blinded for looking too hard, hobbled (your tendons cut) for running away, your children sold, your homes and churches firebombed…thrown into cages: acts of terror. In some of our communities, a third or more of young black men are either in jail or on probation. Think what that does to one’s psyche? Terror. And, of course, we know what can happen to you in prison—rape, torture, death. We live in a society that thinks it is okay to laugh about rape in our prisons. Tyrone, a middle-aged man, wants to change that, to walk into Walgreens and not be shadowed by a clerk half his age, or stopped and frisked on his way home from a club. The jaundiced eye of the State drunk on power. Thus, his statement: “The only time you’re not a person of interest is when you’re dead.”

 Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, gives a succinct account of what’s happening in our criminal justice system.

 

You jokingly referred to the “Stink of Zen” at the Howard Zinn book festival.  Zen poetry and philosophy inhabit your story in poems and haikus.  How were you able to avoid the stink of Zen in the novel?

Difficult question. Our late editor and friend, Francesca Rosa, who practiced Zen for many years, was able to pull that off better than anyone I know. I guess the main thing was not to make too big a deal of it. I’m still not sure how successful I was, but I tried to integrate that aspect of Bill’s character as seamlessly as I could into the story. Zen and Japanese culture is, I’m happy to say, an important part of San Francisco, and Bill, who grew up in the city, would’ve absorbed all of that. In fact, reading haiku and trying (unsuccessfully) to write it was as natural to him as listening to jazz. Yet, again, I’m not sure how successful I was.

 

The barbershop scene in the Fillmore where you described bottles of moonshine—from North Carolina, Texas, Georgia—and the memory of the black migration burning the backs of the throats, reminding the older black generation of where they had come from was beautiful.  What should readers, through your book, learn about SF’s black community?

 

Our resiliency. We know how to survive and make do with the little that we have. Many of the black residents of San Francisco are children of the Great Migration from the South—refugees hoping for a better life. The rest of us arrived later, imbued with the same hope. I’ve always viewed “community” as sacred. My books, I hope, are about grace, humor, hope, charity and the simple desire to live a decent life for oneself and ones’ children, just like everyone else. Let’s get back to the word “soul” because that’s what where talking about—fighting for the soul of a community and a city. The high rents in San Francisco are no joke, and affects everyone. But the black community in San Francisco is creative. The hardships we’ve endured have made us that way. We refuse to leave, to be forced out.

 

What can you say about the times in which the story is told, that allowed you to avoid the stereotypical “machismo” edge that many black characters, especially black detectives exhibit?

The hyper-masculine role in the black detective novel has run its course, I believe. Now, there’s going to be some violence in a murder mystery. Maybe it is only the murder and nothing more. But I wanted to humanize the main protagonist, to give him the kind of flaws that we all have. Sometimes he’s brave. Sometimes he’s scared shitless. He wants to drop a few pounds and not consume so much alcohol. He broods over being a bad son. He can get pretty melancholy sometimes. I think people are ready for that. What we’re really talking about is the whole Blaxploitation genre—more Shaft than Shine, though Shine (the trickster) has outlived his purpose, too, in my mind. I mean, do we really want to see another black buffoon dressed as someone’s mama, or playing the stupid sidekick in another mindless comedy? I tried to create a character that wasn’t one-dimensional and was healthy enough, psychologically, to grow. I don’t think of Bill Haywood as someone’s savior, either. I wanted to place the women in The Coptic Cross on an equal footing with Haywood. Again, getting away from the macho stereotype. I don’t want supermen and I don’t want superwomen in my novels, just human beings. I think many of us long for that at this point in time. The movies and TV are filled with one-dimensional characters these days, unfortunately. The real heroes work at McDonalds and catch the bus home at night, and when money’s short, they skip a meal so their child can have a decent breakfast.

 

 

It seems as if Bill Haywood is straddling two worlds. He lives in a mostly white neighborhood, seems to want to be a Renaissance Man—for example, cooks vegetarian, smokes hashish, maintains a garden and allows errant small mammals to outwit him—yet he mistrusts the police, still hangs out with folks from the “hood” and is frustrated by his lack of professional status. Why was it important to show this dichotomy in Bill Haywood’s personality?

Bill is a complicated man, but not unique. Like many black people, his “double consciousness,” an identity straddling multiple worlds (I’m thinking of Du Bois) is an integral aspect of his character. You can’t separate the man from where he lives. He’s a member of a minority in a large multicultural city. And that group that he was born into has never had a great relationship with the police. Yet, we’re all social animals. For certain personalities, friends are family; and in Bill’s case, that means Tyrone from the “hood.” However, he wants to breathe, learn, and not die young like many African Americans whom he’s known — like his father of a heart attack, for instance. Therefore, Bill’s diet. He’s not a complete vegetarian, but isn’t eating steaks and pork chops every day, either; not that he could afford to.

As for his professional status, Bill does like his job, but the low salary is hurting him financially. But, I want to be clear; Bill isn’t blaming “the man” for his lot in life. He’ll have to decide what to do or suffer the consequences one day. The garden gives him joy. He doesn’t have any kids. The hashish gives him a small bit of relief, too, as long as he doesn’t over-do it. I wanted that dichotomy that you found, (a man straddling multiple worlds) to create tension in the novel, to see how Bill handled it.

 

What does the future hold for John Goins and Bill Haywood?

More writing, every day.  As for Haywood, I’m working on the third book in the trilogy. But the writing is going very slow this winter.

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  • kyoung21b

    Great, fun read and enjoyed the mystery and chance to learn a little about the Eritrean community. For us SF oldsters that hung out in the Fillmore and J-Town it evoked a lot of memories re. jazz, Suzuki rosh, the Giants,… (and since I’m currently hanging on re. rent control, a couple of blocks from Bill Haywood (:-)) I enjoyed the reference to our overpriced local market). Sadly a lot of my black and Japanese friends have fled SF (the loss of Marcus books was another recent nail in the coffin) and the Fillmore is a pale shadow of the pre-redevelopment vibrancy alluded to in the book.