The Interrogative Mood: Questions with John Wakefield

The following questions are taken from Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood.


Are boys meaner than girls, or vice versa?

I think both sexes are equally capable of both good and evil.

Are you more troubled by a lie or by a theft, or are they the same metaphysically?

I don’t think they are the same metaphysically; the first relates more to epistemology and the second more to existentialism (and of course possession). Both a lie and a theft can be harmful to varying degrees depending on the quality of the lie or the theft. I am troubled when one person harms another, so the degree I am troubled by a lie or a theft corresponds to the degree to which it causes harm.

At what age would you say your character was set—that is, when do you think you were you?

Probably 35 or so, but I’m still setting, still becoming.

Would you like to send a love letter to anyone?


Have you decided which historical moment you would most like to have witnessed with your own eyes and ears?

It is more than a moment, and it is pre-historical: I would like to see how and when language evolved in our species.

Was there ever enough time?

Never. I have always wanted to do more, and nothing I do is ever as polished as I want it to be.

If I say to you that in my view all people fall into two camps, those fundamentally afraid of things and those fundamentally not afraid of things, would you think me radically overstating or oversimplifying?


What national cuisine strikes you as the best?


What are the top three things in your life you wish you had not done, or done differently from the way you did them?

1. I wish I had not confessed my so-called sins to my church leaders and been excommunicated as a result. The reason is because my personal life was never their business, and it broke my mother’s heart. I wish I had instead left the church on my own terms.

2. I will refrain from stating the other two things I wish I had not done, because doing so would feel too much like a confession.

What to your ear is the best-sounding language?

The language of compassion.

If you were offered a lecture about Descartes or about Alexander the Great, which would you take?

I would choose Descartes because his ideas have influenced the branch of linguistics that interests me most.

Does integrity lie in failure?

No. Integrity lies in admitting one’s failures to one’s self.

Does your tolerance for people about you increase or decrease as you age?

Both. I have grown more tolerant of benign cultural differences, but have grown less tolerant of ethnocentrism and irrational beliefs.

Do you want something said of you, or nothing said of you, when you go?

Whichever does most good to those doing the talking and the listening.

What are three basic things you need to be content in life?

A good companion, some ice-cold beer of my own choosing, and an interesting topic.

If you could be instantly fluent in a language you do not now speak, what language would it be?

Navajo, so I could have linguistic intuition for a polysynthetic language and so I could hear about the genocide of the Navajo people in the words of the survivors’ own language.

If you were now thirteen again, what would you do that you did not do when you were thirteen the first time, and what would you not do that you did?

I would diligently research and write a report on the Bay of Pigs invasion, rather than ignore that school assignment the way I did.

Is there anything you’d like to ask me?

What was it like before the big bang?

Tammy Ho: Which one?


john wakefieldJohn Wakefield is Assistant Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature. [Click here to read all entries by John.] [The “Interrogative” series]

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