Alumni novelist intertwines fact, fiction with ‘keen insight’

Song of the Shank

“I wanted to explore the worst aspects of human behavior,” says author Jeffery Renard Allen.


By Daniel P. Smith, UIC Alumni magazine

In Song of the Shank, Chicago-born novelist Jeffery Renard Allen, a three-time UIC graduate (1986 bachelor’s, 1988 master’s and 1992 Ph.D., College of Liberal Arts and Sciences), places himself squarely in post-Civil War America.

He expertly intertwines fact and fiction in the story of Thomas Wiggins, or “Blind Tom,” a Georgia-born slave and piano prodigy.

Informed by the likes of Toni Morrison and William Faulkner, Allen’s 584-page novel is a project 15 years in the making. It charts Blind Tom’s boyhood to the heights of his performing career, where he remains under his master’s control.

Song of the Shank provokes questions about power and resistance, race and family, limitations and possibilities, social constructs and individual perceptions. A review on the cover of the June 19 New York Times Book Review said, “Song of the Shank brilliantly portrays the story of Blind Tom while providing keen insight into the history of Reconstruction. But at its heart, it also reminds us denizens of never-will-be postracial America of one simple but ¬everlasting essential truth: “Them chains is hard on a man. Hard.”


What inspired Song of the Shank

When I found Blind Tom’s story back in 1998, I was immediately fascinated by the issues surrounding his life — slavery, Reconstruction, music. As I dug further into his life, my curiosity only grew. His life was one of continued enslavement and exploitation. I wondered about his personal agency and to what extent he was aware or resisted.


Tom speaks sparingly and briefly in the novel. Why? 

I wanted to make Tom a concrete, believable character with feelings. At the same time, I wanted to maintain some of his mystery. [His limited dialogue], I thought, would encourage questions about his resistance as well as what enslaved him and what liberated him.


What can today’s readers take from Blind Tom’s story?

I wanted to explore the worst aspects of human behavior, and this story attempts to engage with that phenomenon. Human history is about exploitation, and now, as throughout history, injustice is present in our world, which is what I wanted to investigate in a direct and honest way.

As a novelist, my task is to take an idea, probe different directions and add layers so that we can examine the complexities of particular issues, rather than settle for preconceived notions or easy solutions.


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