Melvin Dixon


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(1950–1992), novelist, poet, educator, scholar, and translator.

Born in Connecticut, Melvin Dixon earned his BA at Wesleyan University (1971) and his MA and PhD at Brown University (1973, 1975). His first book, Change of Territory (1983), a collection of free-verse poems, reflects his interest in his family's southern roots and his experiences—including a visit to Africa—while he was living in Paris in the mid-1970s. For Dixon, a change of territory affords new perspectives and new or enlarged identities, themes mirrored in the book's four-part structure. The opening poem, “Hungry Travel,” focuses on his parents’ departure for Connecticut from North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. Other poems expand the poet's concept of kin to include literary influences such as Jean Toomer, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and Robert Hayden. The long poem “Bobo Baoulé,” which comprises part 3, emphasizes racial ancestry as it recounts the enslavement of a young African, then leaps forward in time to one of his descendants, who has returned to Africa with the Peace Corps. The book's closing poem, “Hemispheres,” with its imagery of roundness, also highlights this pattern of departure and return, in this case the poet's homecoming—though the poem anticipates further travel as well, ongoing journeys of external and internal exploration.

Dixon's first novel, Trouble the Water (1989), winner of the Nilon Award for Excellence in Minority Fiction, also employs the journey motif as it examines the burden of the past that haunts its protagonist, Jordan Henry, who returns to his childhood home. Set primarily in rural North Carolina along the Pee Dee River, the book traces Jordan's efforts to free himself from his grandmother's expectation—which led him to flee to the North at age thirteen—that he will avenge his seventeen-year-old mother's death in childbirth by killing his father. Dixon's complex interweaving of past and present, his skillful handling of a varied cast of characters that includes the Haitian conjure woman Mam’Zilie, his poetic evocation of the forces of nature, and his powerful use of water as an archetypal symbol—all make this first novel far more than yet another example of the southern gothic tradition. Although the climactic confrontation between Jordan and his father is somewhat contrived and the resolution of the conflict occurs too quickly and easily, Dixon effectively addresses moral issues that transcend the particulars of Jordan Henry's life.

Dixon's second novel, Vanishing Rooms (1991), is set in New York City's Greenwich Village. The book has frequently been compared to James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (1956), for not only do both books deal with homosexuality but Dixon has acknowledged the profound influence Baldwin's writing had on his own. Unlike Baldwin, however, Dixon focuses on an interracial gay relationship, one shattered in the opening chapter by the brutal murder of his African American protagonist's white lover. Dixon's use of three first-person narrators—Jesse, the protagonist, a dancer; Ruella, another member of the dance company and the person to whom Jesse turns when Metro is killed; and fifteen-year-old Lonny, one of the four white teenagers responsible for the murder—demonstrates Dixon's mastery of style, tone, characterization, and narrative technique. This use of multiple narrators is also meant to suggest, Dixon has noted, the social and political dimensions of racism and homophobia, problems that cannot be solved on an individual basis. Among Dixon's major achievements here is his sensitive portrait of Lonny, who unexpectedly evokes the reader's sympathy and understanding despite the violence he has helped to provoke. While Jesse must confront the racism that undermined his relationship with Metro, Lonny comes to recognize that he himself might easily have been the victim of his friends’ savagery. The novel's graphic scenes of sexual violence, including Metro's murder and the gang rape of the imprisoned Lonny, are deeply disturbing, but they testify to the horrifying consequences of racism and homophobia. In Dixon's highly imagistic prose the voices of people like Jesse and Lonny are heard for almost the first time in American literature.


Subjects: Literature.

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