Notes from an author: Will Ashon on Staten Island
The lesser-known New York borough gets short shrift from both locals and visitors, but it provided Will Ashon with a revelation that led to his latest book
In July 2017, I was in New York, finishing the research for my book, Chamber Music, a study of the first album by hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan. I say I was in New York, and of course I was, but there are certain caveats. I was staying with friends of friends in downtown Manhattan, but my days were spent in Staten Island, the original home of most of the band’s members.
Staten Island is the fifth borough of New York City, but most visitors to the city go there only for the briefest amount of time. That’s because the famous yellow ferries that chug back and forth across Upper New York Bay dock there after cutting a path past the Statue of Liberty and, on the return journey, offer a wonderful view of Manhattan. The top decks of these vessels, which are free to travel on, are crammed with tourists taking selfies, while downstairs the locals sit reading, chatting on the phone or listening to music.
Most of the tourists never make it out of the ferry terminal at St George, where they wait for the next boat to carry them back to Manhattan. Much the same seems true for a lot of New Yorkers, who perhaps pop across to use the sports fields near the terminal or make a summer trip to the beaches along the East Shore. They have little affection for an area that feels closer — spiritually and geographically — to New Jersey. It’s the only borough of New York to have more homeowners than renters, the only borough to consistently vote Republican and the only place in the whole of the US where I have ever seen a man in an Italian national soccer shirt. Staten Island reminds me of the East London-Essex hinterlands and is treated by the rest of the city with much the same level of condescension.
My reasons for writing about the Wu-Tang Clan were complex, but had partly grown from an understanding about what I was doing as a novice nonfiction writer. A large part of putting a book of this sort together, it seemed to me, was to speak to a lot of people and then make patterns of the best and most interesting aspects of what everyone said, hopefully in such a way that the different elements reflected on and illuminated each other in new and interesting ways. My nonfiction work was therefore a type of collage. Of course, hip-hop itself is a collage form, particularly the early 1990s ‘Golden Era’ of sampling — music that has obsessed and enlightened me for the past 30 years.
I was in Staten Island mainly to walk. I had to visit both Stapleton Houses and Park Hill, the two warring projects where most members of the group grew up. I wanted to go to Morningstar Road, over on the North Shore, where RZA — the group’s founder — had gathered the other prospective members to lay out his five-year plan for world domination. But mainly I wanted to tramp the streets because RZA, on returning to New York in 1991, had done the same, and that was how he’d come up with his plan. According to his book, The Tao of Wu: “In Staten Island, I walked every day for hours… I’d walk from the Park Hill projects to the Staten Island ferry dock, from New Brighton to the Stapleton projects, walking through May, June, July… Those walks were a form of meditation.” So, I tried to follow him, sweating in the heat, and I received my own revelation.
For my next book, I decided, I would make a collage without the thin mortar of my own writing between the quotes. A true collage made up solely of other people’s words. Everyday people like the girl who sold me a Snapple that morning, or the guy sitting on a leather sofa outside his bric-a-brac store, who began chatting to me as I passed. Each block of words would be carefully carved down into the correct shape and then piled up with the effort and care of an Ancient Egyptian pyramid builder. I moved my focus to the UK, and it would take me five years to see The Passengers published. But I took the first tiny steps in the heat of a New York summer as I marched round Staten Island looking for RZA on the least-glamorous streets of that great city. In a funny way, I guess I found him.
Founder of independent record label Big Dada, Will Ashon’s latest book, The Passengers (published by Faber, £14.99), comprises 180 testimonies from people he encountered when travelling around the UK between 2018 and 2021.
Published in the December 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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