When Erin Bartels and I agreed to be critique partners, we knew we had similar writing sensibilities and a commitment to telling emotionally resonant stories. Interestingly, both of our debut novels explore race in America. However, as much as we are alike, we approach the world and our characters from vastly different perspectives: She’s white. I’m black.
Erin’s novel, We Hope for Better Things, which releases in January, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. It takes a compelling journey through the intertwined lives of three women—from the volatile streets of 1960s Detroit to the Underground Railroad during the Civil War—to uncover the past, confront the seeds of hatred, and discover where love goes to hide.
I’m revising my first novel, The Kindest Lie, which tells the story of a black woman engineer trying to reconnect with her biological son. She befriends a poor, 11-year-old white boy. Their mutual need for family collides in one fateful night, exposing the fault lines of race and class in a dying Indiana factory town.
In anticipation of the release of Erin’s debut, we talked about the critique process and how we navigated the weighty, and often uncomfortable, topic of race as we provided our feedback.
Nancy Johnson: I had this huge fear all along about how I would tackle my predominantly black cast of characters. You may think that’s absurd since I’m black. But that’s the thing. I desperately wanted to represent the best of my community since we’re often perceived negatively in literature and media. Then I began to worry that I was over-correcting and villainizing my white characters. You flagged my blind spot on how I portrayed white parents.
Erin Bartels: Yes, I did notice when I read that, while black parents in your book were portrayed as fully three-dimensional, with both good qualities and bad, there really didn’t seem to be any “good” white parents. They were neglectful, inept, or abusive and seemed disinterested in their kids. I flagged it more as an observation than a critique. There are a lot of bad parents out there. But I think what I liked about your black parents was that even if at first Mama seemed harsh toward Ruth, as I read I could see why; I could see where she was coming from and how she thought that it was the best thing to do at the time. She was understandable to the reader.
I think it’s natural for us to make those characters we feel we know better more three-dimensional. One of the things I worried about in We Hope for Better Things was that some of my black characters would feel two-dimensional, that they would seem like they were only there to serve the storyline I had set up. Especially characters in the most historical of my three storylines, the 1860s. I just have zero real idea what life was like for them and research can only take you so far.
And though I’d had three black friends read the book before you did, I was worried that they weren’t saying everything that was on their minds as they read it. You mentioned that you struggled to know what to say and what not to say in your critique.
NJ: Yes! As I was writing my critique notes for you, I kept deleting the difficult parts. I agonized over whether to bring up the problematic white savior tropes. Still, it had to be said. In both the Civil War era and the 1960s, black people didn’t have much agency at all. That’s why I was sensitive to the depiction of white folks rescuing hapless blacks. Also, I wanted to see the black characters fleshed out more, fully realized as characters and not just a device to serve the interests of good white people in the narrative. What were your initial thoughts when you read what I had to say? [Read more…]