Welcome to the 5th installment of the Black Men Reading Series for the year 2018! I started thinking about interviewing Rod Kelly Hines a number of months ago after noticing that one of his posts on instagram/bookstagram was numbered 75. “What do you mean by #75?” I queried, to which he replied that it was the 75th book he’d read this year. Further investigation revealed that Rod Kelly had set a goal to read 100 books this year. I wanted to know why?
In Part One of this exchange, I’m pleased to introduce you to Rod Kelly Hines, a classically-trained singer from the same great hometown as me – Detroit, Michigan, yasss! – who currently makes his home in Brooklyn, New York. Here, he talks about how he came to reading, and shares some of his favorite: authors, classical singers, and places to travel.
[Leslie Reese]: How did you became a reader?
[Rod Kelly Hines]: Growing up, I was a voracious reader but limited myself to rereading the same books over and over. My first literary obsession was CS Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, and later Harry Potter, which I still adore today. Those books provided all of the literary nourishment a boy of 10 could ask for! As a teenager, I went through an American Classics phase: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, and The Grapes of Wrath offered me all I needed for a few years. A wonderful English teacher at my high school introduced me to the work of Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin, which completely changed me as a reader. For the next few years, I exclusively read the work of black authors, classic and contemporary alike: Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Gloria Naylor, Zadie Smith, Randall Kenan, Marlon James, Gayl Jones, Thomas Glave, Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, Percival Everett…I could really go on and on!….All this to say that it took quite awhile to become the reader that I am today, which is insatiable, critical, adventurous, and passionate. One of the greatest feelings in the world is entering into the world of a new book for the first time!
[LR]: I’ve been intending to read the work of Percival Everett for some time; and I think that Randall Kenan is an under-appreciated author. I haven’t read anything by him in some time. I have his book, A Visitation of Spirits, but its been a really long time since I read it. What is it that you like about the work of these two writers?
[RKH]: Percival Everett is an author who is grossly under-read, which I think is partially because his work is so varied: poetry, short stories, satire, westerns, mystery, thriller, realism, meta, he really can do it all. But I think most readers gravitate to authors with more consistency in style and genre; the reader doesn’t want to be caught off-guard every time he or she picks up a different book by the same author. I can’t understand the reason for this, because I love the feeling of being surprised as I read, but, anyhow, an excellent place to start with Everett are his two wonderful novels: I Am Not Sidney Poitier and Erasure. The latter is such an entertaining hybrid of a novel (there’s a book within a book), best read knowing nothing of the plot.
Randall Kenan‘s only novel A Visitation of Spirits, is pretty close to perfect I think. It’s unsettling, violent, and dark; the magical/supernatural elements are so carefully interwoven and effected brilliantly. It’s deeply psychological and ultimately transcendent. I definitely need to reread it soon! His short story collection Let the Dead Bury Their Dead is one of the best I’ve ever read, and one nobody has heard of! But it is a truly masterful set of stories all set in the fictional town of Tim’s Creek, North Carolina. Kenan is a virtuoso of dialogue and place-as-character, and he brilliantly balances the real with the absurd to create a wonderful, lyrical tapestry of a rural corner of nowhere.
[LR]: Who or what turned you on to reading?
[RKH]: As far as reading goes, I was very very young when I started, 3 or 4 years old, and it was my mother and grandmother who noticed and encouraged it, buying books they thought I would like until I could determine for myself.
[LR]: Can you remember what it was about The Chronicles of Narnia that really captured your attention?
[RKH]: When I was in the 3rd grade, my class read The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe, which is the second novel in The Chronicles of Narnia. I remember feeling so enthralled by the story: the extraordinary, rich depiction of this magical world with only a door separating it from ours, the wonderful cast of characters who were so skillfully developed, and the deeper message of compassion and forgiveness that is the core of the story. As a third grader, I wouldn’t have expressed my love for the story in those terms, but in retrospect, I know that what I fell in love with then are the same elements that I love in the books I read today (and just fyi, that series still holds up after all these years!)
[LR]: I like what you’ve said here about being attracted to “a deeper message of compassion and forgiveness” even if you could not have expressed that as a third grader. It makes me pause to think about the messages and themes to first hook me as a young reader.
What are your favorite genres; and what do you enjoy most about those genres?
[RKH]: I would say that overall, I love “literary” fiction, which can mean so many things, but I am a snob for deeply developed characters and confident, energetic and polished prose. To go a step further, I love realism paired with lyrical writing. Examples of this that immediately come to mind are Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. But, again, “literary” can mean so much: I can read Marlon James’s sprawling, violent masterpiece, A Brief History of Seven Killings and follow it with the dark, brilliant short stories in Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh, followed by the dreamy world of Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and on and on…
[LR]: Besides reading, what else do you like to do?
[RKH]: When I’m not buried in a book, I love to go out to see live classical music concerts: symphonies, recitals, operas. I also love to travel and absorb the cultures and landscapes of other countries (and, of course, the food too!)
[LR]: Do you have any favorite places where you’ve traveled?
[RKH]: My three favorite places I’ve traveled: Marktoberdorf, Germany; Salzburg, Austria and Roatan Island, Honduras!
[LR]: I was hoping that you would bring up your music. I remember one of your IG posts in which you sang something and I could tell that not only did you have a beautiful voice, but that you have had classical training. When people think about Detroit – our hometown – I don’t think they visualize young black men who love to read, have classical training in music, and enjoy the arts.
[RKH]: I was definitely considered by many to be a little odd when I was growing up. I loved being involved in the arts at a young age: I loved to draw, to dance, to sing, to act, the whole gamut, and it felt like something that was very private to me because nobody else that I knew of shared my interests. If you sung, it was gospel or R&B, if you danced, it was hip hop, if you read it was only books that were assigned in school or not at all. I was lucky to have a mother and grandmother who encouraged me to follow whatever passions I held and as a result I pursued everything I enjoyed without shame. (The thing I know now that I didn’t know then is that Detroit does have it’s own flourishing classical arts scene, though it’s incredibly low-key compared to other places in the country).
[LR]: Who are some of your favorite classical performers?
[RKH]: As far as classical performers, that’s easy: Leontyne Price is the end-all-be-all for me when it comes to singing in any genre, but in opera there is no one who comes close before or after her. I feel so sad to think that I was born way too late to hear her live in her prime, but I’m so grateful that she left quite an extensive recorded legacy. Second would be Mr. George Shirley, a tenor who was the first black man to ever sing a leading role on the stage at the Metropolitan Opera. What I love about him is not only his consummate artistry, but the fact that he is a passionate educator who got his start in the Detroit Public School system, and today teaches at University of Michigan. And he’s still singing at 84! The last is the young soprano Nadine Sierra who is making a big splash all over the world with her gorgeous singing. She is like a friend in my head and is so inspirational because she uses social media to invite younger people from all over the world to be more connected to classical music and not feel so distanced from the art form.
[LR]: Is there a particular topic that you would like to engage around reading in general and black men reading in particular?
[RKH]: I would love to offer something that has made me happy as of late: it appears that many readers I follow on IG are very intentionally adding the work of black writers (and other writers of color) to their libraries, regardless of whether these books are truly being read (lol). The reading challenges and hashtags that are created to heighten awareness of books and authors outside of a reader’s own demographic are some of the best things to come out of the “bookstagram” sphere.
Make sure you return tomorrow for Part Two of my Black Men Reading exchange with Rod Kelly Hines. You can read his thoughts about how social media has impacted our reading lives, and how his goal to read 100 books this year came about. Rod Kelly also shares his favorite reads of the year; and the perception of black men that he would like to help change.
Connect with Rod Kelly Hines:
In 1985, in her 193rd performance at the Metropolitan Opera, Leontyne Price (b. 1927) – at age 57 – bid adieu to her opera career with a performance of ″Aida.″ In this moving clip, as she finishes the aria, ″O, Patria Mia,″ the audience salutes her with a stirring ovation.
In an episode of American Black Journal, George Shirley (b. 1934) talks with Stephen Henderson about his family life and music education in Detroit Public Schools, and how wanting to become a music educator led to him becoming the first African-American tenor to earn a contract with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Click here to view it.
Enjoy this trailer for Nadine Sierra’s album “There’s A Place for Us.”