Please welcome Nancy Johnson back to WU today, this time as our newest WU contributor! We’re thrilled to have her with us!
Race has colored every part of my life from the stories my parents told from the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement to my own experience of being called the n-word by a white coworker. During the years it took me to conceive my novel and write it, I encountered the stories of countless black boys and men murdered nationwide at the hands of white police officers and in my city of Chicago at the hands of people who looked like them in their own communities. There were also the stories of the disenfranchised white working class that felt left behind struggling to grasp a new foothold in America. All of these stories informed my understanding of the world and the question of my novel.
The complexities of race and class loomed above me gray and amorphous like a storm cloud and I wrestled with these issues that offered no easy answers. I thought about what I really wanted to know. What was the question that kept me up at night?
Is what connects us in our common humanity more powerful than forces of race and class that divide us?
Over the years I’ve often heard the advice to write what you know. Many of the characters in my novel are composites of relatives, friends, ladies from the beauty shop, the guys who gather to swap stories at my local Starbucks, and of course, me. However, the larger story is all about interrogating what I don’t know through the lives of my characters.
When I worked as a journalist, one of the most important storytelling lessons I learned was to tell the larger story through the narrow prism of one person, one family, or one community. I couldn’t easily get my arms around the socio-political behemoths of race and class. However, I could relate to Ruth, a black engineer trying to connect with the son she abandoned at birth. A woman isolated by her own mother and brother when she left them behind in a dying factory town to pursue her ambitions. I found myself drawn to Midnight, a smart, mischievous eleven-year-old white boy with a dead mother, a sick grandmother, and a father who recently lost his job at the plant.
The lives of Ruth and Midnight intersect in The Kindest Lie, my novel about two people from vastly different backgrounds with a common need for family, belonging, and home. I chose them to bring my story question to life, to put flesh on the bones of my understanding. Throughout my writing of the book, I asked even more questions of these characters: Are we always tethered to our pasts, to the people and places that birthed us? Is mothering innate or learned? How does toxic masculinity transcend race? What are the perceptions we hold about our own race and class status that we hide from the world for fear of judgment? Do our mistakes define us or can we rewrite our own stories?
As I wrote each scene, I returned to my primary question and the secondary ones to make sure every scene addressed them. I tried to get under the skin of these characters who came to the story with their own histories, biases, and truths. I gave them permission to be blunt and politically incorrect. Even messy. For example, Ruth instinctively locks her car doors in a black neighborhood and immediately feels a stab of guilt. Once I imbued my characters with backstories, motivations, and wants, they revealed answers to my ultimate story question. Those answers aren’t absolute and they don’t fall neatly onto a straight line but neither do our lives or the forces that complicate them.
I spend a lot of time thinking about race and sometimes it frustrates me when others can’t or won’t see the world through my lens. Of course, I’ve set up an impossible expectation since each of us comes to our life stories from different vantage points. Still, I have uncomfortable questions I want to ask people on the other side of the racial divide but those conversations in social media often deteriorate into name-calling and rarely produce anything substantive or enlightening.
I believe others are asking similar questions to mine and I recognize that the novel is one place where we can start that dialogue. Ruth and Midnight live parallel lives in many ways in spite of their obvious differences. Shortly after they meet and form a tenuous bond, forces larger than themselves intrude. They’re tested by tragedy and the essence of how they walk in the world.
Writing a novel didn’t endow me with heightened awareness of race and class conflict and how to solve it. I wish it were that easy. Still, I have a new understanding and greater empathy after living with Ruth and Midnight for three years. And in that sense, they’ve answered my questions by sparking new ones.
What are the big questions you’re trying to answer in your novel? Share what you’ve learned in the comments!