Lightning-rod themes stoke new Colson Whitehead and Jodi Picoult novels

Who are you when you wake up in the morning to a new day full of dread, dreams and doldrums? When you greet someone for the first time? With friends or on the job? When they tell you today is your last day? When you become an empty-nester? When you realize you’ll never have children? When they won’t serve you at the restaurant and follow you around the store?

ABC sitcoms “Black-ish” and “Modern Family” and the FBI drama “Quantico” address these issues weekly. The English rock band The Who asked the question in its 1978 hit. Philosophers, statisticians, neuroscientists, behavioral economists and people made famous just for sharing their opinions ask this question every day via TedTalks. Henry Louis Gates, through his PBS program “Finding Your Roots,” helps celebrities identify themselves by teaching them their histories.

This fall, in their new novels “The Underground Railroad” (Doubleday, Sept. 13, 2016) and “Small Great Things” (Ballantine Books, Oct. 11, 2016) authors Colson Whitehead, who’s black, and Jodi Picoult, who is white, address the concept of identity in painfully convincing stories focused on race and racial injustice.

Despite the racial differences between authors, their novels complement one another.

Freedom minded in the Cotton Era

Whitehead takes a horrific past, when cotton (not oil) determined international business dealings, and cleverly reimagines it. At this time (before Chinese workers are paid low wages to assemble high-demand technology), Africans were rounded up and shipped to parts of the world that needed cheap, i.e. free, labor. For generations, slaves were bred and worked in the fields like livestock and slaughtered in broad daylight.

"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead book cover

From slave catchers like Whitehead’s Ridgeway, a blacksmith’s son, to abolitionists at work behind the scenes, slaves, and escapees, the author uses wit and downright good writing to inform with his own ingenious slave narrative, debunk the slave mythology that says Africans were given better lives and address notions of self-identification in his antebellum “The Underground Railroad”.

Cora’s grandmother knew what it meant to live free until whites captured her, put her in chains, and sold her like chattel. She was no longer a young woman in Africa, she was the property of America. Cora then was a slave because she was born into the labor of the fields, the querulous and competitive slave community, and the insistence that this was her lot in life. Not soon enough, Cora meets Caesar, who may be physically enslaved but keeps his mind on liberty. He is a freeman toiling alongside slaves, living in slaves’ quarters.

Caesar knows he’s free to leave the plantation, though he must do it by cover of darkness with the assistance of an abolitionist and with the promise that if Caesar is caught he will be publicly tortured and inhumanely slaughtered. With the help of the Underground Railroad, a literal railroad created to convey escaped slaves to better lives, Cora and Caesar seek new identities as educated individuals unhindered from dreaming and fulfilling their dreams.

Whitehead’s magnificent, powerful approach so effectively transports readers as to make them briefly wonder if his fictional trains and representations of South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and Indiana are authentic, and, at times, make us question if portions of the novel could be set in present times.  For instance, life in South Carolina with housing and jobs’ programs and educational and health care systems (evocative of current day social programs) seems easy and decent until Cora uncovers signs that the state is performing non-consensual sterilization (reminiscent of modern-day eugenics) on its Negro residents. Coupled with a new work environment that is suggestive of her old life, she begins to question her identity. Is she a freewoman,  damaged goods, or a daughter once loved? Can she be something else, somewhere else?

Talent vs. race"Small Great Things" by Jodi Picoult book cover

Picoult’s “Small Great Things” deals with the disturbing present, a time when it seems justice isn’t being served in the courts but on the streets where black men fear for their lives and police officers fear vigilantes. When enemies operate under cover of darkness. The novel is intriguing though painfully revelatory: We live in tricky times.

Clearly, Picoult did extensive research in writing “Small Great Things” by interviewing a host of African-American women and reformed skinheads and by examining her own belief system. The only questionable character here is Picoult’s Adisa. She is stereotypical at best. Still, using three first-person accounts, Picoult laudably rummages deep into the hearts and lives of characters with dissimilar lifestyles and beliefs: Turk, a father, husband and white supremacist; Kennedy, the white attorney who grapples with her own beliefs; and Ruth.

By age five, Ruth knows what she wants to be, needs to be a nurse. She attends the right schools, has a family, and lives out her dream as a labor and delivery nurse for twenty years until the actions of white supremacist parents threaten her lifestyle.  The skinheads announce they do not want an African American touching their child; so a supervisor informs Ruth, who has built her life around providing love and stellar care, and notes the new directive in the newborn’s chart.  Soon though, Ruth is left alone with the baby who ends up in crisis.

The family questions Ruth’s action, and inaction, and Ruth is suspended, no longer able to practice nursing. Is she really being targeted because of her race when she’s done everything right? If she’s not a nurse, who is she? A failed mom? She attended the right schools, marries before starting a family, raises her son to be college-mind, and performs her job with love and professionalism. Perhaps she’s been defining herself incorrectly. Perhaps she’s just black.

At one point in the author’s passionately told “Small Great Things,” a character asks citizens who they are. How would you define yourself? In singular terms? (I am a man.) Or using manifold interconnecting parts? (I am a Detroit-based writer who is nothing without her job.) Who are you?

© Copyright Leslie Green and Wildemere Publishing LLC. 2016



IDENTITY: a series

Scott Norman wearing a uniform and holding a gun in "The Wars of Other Men" by Mike Zawacki.Story 1: Two artists uncomfortable with the “actor” label share their views on identity because they are both so much more.

This story: Jodi Picoult  and Colson Whitehead discussed their novels  at Book Expo America in May 2016. Read about Whitehead’s journey in Publisher’s Weekly. See the BEA Picoult interview on YouTube.

Paintings by Jay AsquiniStory 3: Years after suffering a debilitating accident, a photographer finds new passion.

Story 4: Life, not production, makes an artist.

Coming soon: The advent of digital photography forces a difficult decision.


We’d love to know your views. Comment below…

Love your writing? Get an editor.

Updated

In a folder marked TO DO/READ, I came across a yellowed Wall Street Journal article about “Joy Luck Club” author Amy Tan and her nearly 12-year pursuit for the perfect editor. Whether or not you are an Amy Tan admirer, the WSJ story is a moving portrait of a writer and her relationship TheJoyLuckClub with her editors. The newspaper also provides vignettes of enduring relationships between other authors (Franz Kafka) and their editors.

Why this is worth sharing

The proliferation of self-publishing has many young writers — and those using too many magic mushrooms — believing it does not matter whether they have an editor. Let me assure you, it does.

Fan girl would be the best way to describe my behavior the first time I met (name removed to save embarrassment). I praised his work until he blushed. Clear and concise, his elegantly written columns also evoked emotion. Soon, I became the editor tasked with reviewing his raw copy. The emotion was buried beneath incomplete, disorganized thinking. Turns out I wasn’t just a fan of the columnist’s work, but of his editor’s.

One of the benefits of being arts and entertainment editor at a large metropolitan newspaper was the hundreds, if not thousands, of books publishers sent each year in hopes for a review. A considerable number of those were advance copies and among them were uncorrected proofs. Read one uncorrected proof and one’s belief that highly ranked authors are infallible dissipates.

While reading an uncorrected W.E.B. Griffin novel, likely penned by another author, I became engaged in the intrigue of one clandestine operation by a team of highly trained spies. And then I became confused. Who was this new man suddenly leading the team? After flipping around the book a while, I realized the man was the same character from the beginning of the novel only his name suddenly had changed.  The story was further complicated when a duplicate (though slightly different) chapter appeared. Eventually, I gave up reading and decided to wait for the final edited version.

“I thought I could write my book and it would get published just like that,” laughed Angela Flournturnerhouseoy, author of “The Turner House,” speaking recently at Trinosophes in Detroit.

While shopping her book, however, she learned agents and publishers wanted more than a few revisions. Flournoy spent months in rewrite mode. To maintain her voice, the author refused to make some changes; however, she conceded to others and confessed that many of the bidden modifications made her novel better. Now she is on tour and experiencing modest success as a National Book Award finalist, finalist for the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, short-lister for the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize…

No, she did not win the named awards. The point is, Flournoy is critically praised because she is a gifted writer—who had a good editor.

Good editors correct, question, push and praise. They aren’t there to silence the inner Man Booker Prize winner. They are the writer’s guide. They are the voice saying, “You can do better. You are better. Yes, you did it!”

Whether taking the traditional publishing route or self-publishing, get thee to a good editor.

Journey to the Center for Fiction

Screen Shot 2015-12-26 at 11.04.55 PMI’ve been traveling a lot recently, back in time to World War II via “All the Light I Cannot See,” “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” and “The Nightingale.” Yet, some of the most enlightening and inspiring trips I’ve taken in recent months have been to New York’s Center for Fiction by way of the web.

No, The Center for Fiction is not a figment of this writer’s imagination. It is an actual brick-and-mortar facility providing dream-like resources to its members.

“The Center for Fiction is the only nonprofit literary organization in the U.S. solely dedicated to celebrating fiction, and we work every day to connect readers and writers… We also feature workspace, grants, and classes to support emerging writers, reading groups on classic and contemporary authors, and programs to help get kids reading. …”

For those who cannot afford the membership fee or haven’t the time or financial wherewithal to drop in on the New York-based facility, The Center for Fiction offers considerable online resources to readers and writers.

Personally, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time on The Center’s “Writers on Writing” page, where Patricia Park shares how a writing class helped her (and now me) learn about perspective (one of my favorite topics) and Teddy Wayne writes about dialogue.

Experts on “The Book Business” offer sage advice and “Essential Books for Writers” helped me find new books for my toolkit.

Overall, a fiction writer and reader can spend hours on the website; unlike social media, though, it’s time well spent.

Inside the writer's mind… Or the reader trying to get inside the writer

In university, literature professors often asked us what the author was thinking. This would infuriate one classmate, who would become one of my closest friends. She would exclaim, “How can we know! He’s dead! No one can know these things.”

Inevitably though, the question would appear on an exam as if we indeed could look into the mind of long-dead, now-revered novelists, short story writers, and poets. Years later, I find myself looking at book jackets for some indication of the author’s persona. What could have happened in her past to make her kill this character in such a brutal manner? How could he craft such a rich, loving life for a little girl?

Now Tim Parks, in “The Writer’s Shadow” on The New York Review of Books site, has posted a thoughtful blog looking at the manner in which we readers try to learn writers. Read on: http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2015/jun/08/writers-shadow-antonio-tabucchi

Poets and Writers Recommends

When I sit down to write, it’s to the perfect music or just-right episode of “Columbo.” By the time I finish, I’ve shut off everything and am left with the sound of distance: Birds in their unreachable place outside my giant picture window; sirens off to assist, though likely too late; leaves rustling; boats bellowing; the cat scratching in her litter box, again; too close sounds of air travel. The apartment is clean when I have a successful day. Or it’s not. I’m showered and dressed, or not.

I’ve read infographics (see below) on writers’ routines and they all are different. We try to mimic them. We try to find our own routines so we can routinely meet our muse in her/his favorite room, chair, sunspot beside the river. Some of us are friends with Habits. For some, Habits find us boring and we him.

Still, I still love knowing what other writers are wont to do: What works for them, what does not.

“Poets & Writers” online is taking that one step further and asking authors to submit what inspires them. The page, called Writers Recommend, also allows us to comment.

One can hope  that by reading what works for them and by communicating with them in this virtual setting we might also be inspired. May this aid you in your quest to find that perfect ___, or at least entertain you as you fall down another rabbit hole.

 

Infographics:

http://www.fastcocreate.com/3028428/infographic-see-the-daily-routines-of-the-worlds-most-famous-creative-people#3

https://podio.com/site/creative-routines

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/12/16/writers-wakeup-times-literary-productivity-visualization/

Books:

“Zen and the Art of Writing” by Ray Bradbury: http://www.openculture.com/2014/05/ray-bradbury-on-zen-and-the-art-of-writing-1973.html

“On Writing” by Stephen King: http://stephenking.com/library/nonfiction/on_writing:_a_memoir_of_the_craft.html

“Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg: http://nataliegoldberg.com/books/writing-down-the-bones/