How I set out to write about the revolution, and how it changed me

Here’s the talk I gave at the Lucy Parsons Center on May 3. Thanks to everyone who came out!

For many years now, there’s been a picture hanging above my desk. It’s a picture from some publisher’s book catalog, and it shows a rocket pop, one of those red-white-and-blue popsicles, being held up against a sunny sky. Across the popsicle are written the words “PURE FICTION.”

Before I wrote The One-Way Rain, if you asked me what I believed in, I would have pointed to this picture. From a very young age, I read fiction almost exclusively. I used to come back from the library with a two-foot stack of books and read them so fast I couldn’t remember some of them clearly afterwards. I was also writing fiction from first or second grade. I remember telling my high-school English teacher that I couldn’t wait to be an adult because I would have all the time to write that I wanted, and he laughed at me. He was so right: from my twenties on, I have struggled to make as much time for writing as I can, and the whole shape of my adult life has been determined by that. I work part-time, I have very little cash, and I don’t go out at night because I have to get up early the next day to write.

So fiction was the guiding force in my life, and aside from my personal relationships, nothing else mattered to me as much.

This is not to say I didn’t have politics. I was raised by two Jewish mathematicians in New Jersey, and I came out with solidly liberal values. I believed in mainstream feminism. I believed racism was bad. I believed Republicans were bad. I believed Israel was a very small country surrounded on all sides by enemies. And except for the Israel thing, I retained all those beliefs into adulthood, and I became a progressive.

But none of these values affected my day-to-day life. I was already in the environment that I felt most comfortable in. If I stretched and explored other environments, it was almost always as a form of research, and it didn’t last. I’ll give you an example. I wrote a book that featured a minor-league ballplayer. In the course of writing this book, I did a lot of research into baseball. I read about everything from pitching techniques to the logistics of free agency, and of course I followed the Red Sox, and I got very attached to Jason Varitek, and I read the sports section of the Globe, and I listened to Dennis & Callahan on WEEI. And then when the book was over, I just dropped baseball. I didn’t have any interest in it anymore.

So the next thing I decided to write about was social justice.

My original idea was to write about a freedom fighter: someone who is totally dedicated to her cause and will risk everything for it. Next I needed an environment to put this character in. I settled on a dystopian future where there’s a privileged population and an oppressed population. And I picked white people for the privileged class and Black people for the oppressed class, because I figured America basically operates that way already, so it wouldn’t be that hard to imagine.

Now I had a regime, and I had someone who was part of a revolution against that regime. I fleshed out my scenario by researching both models of repression and models of resistance. I read about Palestine, South Africa, Chile. I read Naomi Klein on the shock doctrine. I read about torture. Then I read about nonviolence, direct action, community organizing, and other modes of non-military revolution. I wanted to know how grassroots liberation movements work, so I came to the Lucy Parsons Center, back when it was in the South End, and the volunteer clerk recommended that I buy a book called Globalize Liberation, which I did and it was extremely helpful.

There was also something else I needed to think about for this book. I grew up in a very white place. I went to majority-white schools, I work mostly with white people, I still have mostly white friends, I’m a very white, white person. And here I was writing a book with a main character who was Black. So I thought I should try to learn a little more about race in America. I read some stuff, and I tried to be mindful of my whiteness while I was writing, and I tried not to be stupid or offensive. If you’d like to buy a copy of the book you can judge for yourself how well I did.

True to form, once I finished The One-Way Rain, I ditched a lot of the stuff I had cared about while I was writing it. I had gotten really invested in nonviolence; I remember I even got into an argument over e-mail with a friend who was saying that sometimes bad people just need to be bopped on the head. But when the book was finished, I found I didn’t care so much about nonviolence anymore. If people who were real freedom fighters wanted to use violence, I figured they should just go ahead. Because that was reality and my allegiance was to fiction.

There was, however, one thing that I didn’t ditch. I didn’t stop thinking about racism. In fact, I started thinking more about it. I started reading more books. I took a training. I started writing these blog posts about racism and white privilege. And I found that, totally contrary to all my expectations, this was something I really believed in. I believed that racism was pervasive in this country. I believed that Black people were at the bottom of a system of resource allocation that was kept locked in place by institutional structures. And the more I thought about it, the more I believed that I was a very deeply racist person, and that I was completely complicit in this structure of white supremacy.

This had never happened before. I had never emerged from a book with a belief system that I didn’t have when I started. And it felt great. Reading and writing about racism and white supremacy was and continues to be very rewarding for me. This might be partly because it’s a constant intellectual challenge to comprehend the full extent of racism’s influence on me and my society. I think it’s also rewarding because I knew, all along, that something was really messed up with race relations in this country, but I never knew exactly how to talk about it. I’m not the first person to quote the following in this connection, but here it is:

What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind . . . You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

Of course, that’s from “The Matrix.” To be fair, I’ve also seen this speech cited by white separatists, so it certainly can be made to serve a lot of different purposes. But it does capture that feeling of rightness that I have as I continue to explore this subject: “Yes—this is what it is.”

At this point I realized I was at a crossroads. I could continue writing and sort of pursue this study of racism on the side—and that wasn’t going to work. I wouldn’t have time for it, I wouldn’t be invested in it, I would drop it. Or, I could make use of this new perspective as I planned and wrote my next book. To be a little reductive, I used to get a clever idea, put it in a book, most of the people in the book would be white, one or two minor characters might be light-skinned brown people, and I was done. Now, as I moved into the next book, I asked myself: How can I include people of color in this book in a central role? How is that going to change the book? Change the plot? What am I going to have to educate myself about in order to write this book effectively? Without being didactic or dogmatic, how can I make this book the deepest, widest-reaching, most thoughtful novel that it can be?

And that’s my story. I set out to write a piece of fiction about a revolution, and ended up changing how I write fiction. This doesn’t affect the outside world very much. It’s a small thing, but it’s big to me. Thank you.

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