Fiction, Truth, and Race

Redwood and Wildfire I took a train down the California coast this week. In the seat in front of me, a woman was reading Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.

I don’t know how popular that book is today, but when I was a teenager every girl I knew read it. White girls, of course. The movie version was made when my father was young, but it was still popular 30 years later when I was in high school.

Most people read it for the romance between Scarlett and Rhett, which is kind of depressing when you realize they are both despicable people. Why should we care what happens to them?

The best thing you can say about this book is that it is an accurate rendition of classic white southern mythology about slavery and the U.S. Civil War. It’s not the real story by any means, but if you want to know what die-hard “the South will rise again” people believe, Gone With the Wind is your book.

Given the current state of affairs in race in the U.S., I don’t think this is a particularly appropriate time to be reading that book (except ironically or as anthropology). The treatment of Black people in it is ridiculous and the glorification of the slave-holding class is despicable. Its time should be long past.

And yet someone – someone white, of course – is reading it right now. I can only hope she is doing so ironically or for research.

Another well-known American novel that I wouldn’t recommend as useful to the current discussion is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a much better book, of course, and provides a good picture of white life in a small southern town in the first half of the 20th Century.

Atticus Finch represents a certain kind of mythological figure held dear by lawyers – the lawyer who does what’s right despite public pressure. But there is some accuracy to that myth. A fine example was Judge William Wayne Justice of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, who made a number of anti-segregation rulings to the dismay of his neighbors in deep East Texas.

Black people and their lives are not well-depicted; despite the plot, this is a book about white people. So while it’s a good book, I don’t think if offers much to the conversation that we so desperately need to have about why Black lives don’t matter nearly as much as white ones.

However, I do believe that fiction can provide some material that will help the U.S. people – particularly its white people – understand what is happening and why the country needs to make some major changes.

That may strike some of you as odd – reading fiction to gain perspective on such a serious issue. After all, many of my fellow writers make a proud point of saying that they “lie for a living.” One of the key definitions of fiction is that it is made up. It may be about something that could have happened, but it didn’t, or it didn’t in quite that way.

I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that writing fiction is lying, though, because what drew me to it in the first place was the core truth I found in the best books. The story may be made up, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Truth can be found in fiction intended as entertainment as well as in deeply serious books. For example, Rex Stout’s novel, The Doorbell Rang, is a completely made up story with the usual three or four murders and a good deal of witty repartee. It also paints a picture of the FBI that might have swayed more opposition to that agency’s excesses than the actual work of serious nonfiction that figures in the plot, The FBI Nobody Knows.

So I think brilliant fiction addressing race – particularly our slaveholding history – can teach us things we need to know and provide a context for the serious conversations we need to have and the changes we need to make.

Below I list four books that I’ve read in the last few years that rise to this challenge. There are many more, but these are books I know can give you something new to chew on.

  • Beloved, by Toni Morrison. If there is such a thing as the “Great American Novel,” this book is my choice for that honor. It gets at the heart of the evils of slavery. It’s a very painful book to read and I’m not sure I will ever be able to read it again, but it changed me in ways I did not know were possible.
  • The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. This book tells the story of John Brown from the point of view of a little boy passing as a little girl, a slave freed by Brown in a Kansas raid. Up until the final pages, the story reads like a farce, but truth comes in funny packages.
  • Song Yet Sung, also by McBride, is more serious, telling the story of slaves escaping from multiple points of view, and laying groundwork for the future. It ventures into the fantastical – as does Beloved – and tells a greater truth because of it.
  • Lastly, Andrea Hairston’s Redwood and Wildfire, a story the begins in the late 19th Century and moves into the 20th. There are horrors here, too – these stories cannot be told without including far too much human suffering – but this book contains lots of unadulterated joy. It, too, has a fantastical side – a strong argument that use of fantasy to tell the truth is very valuable. I wrote about it a few years ago here on the BVC blog.

I hope readers will recommend other books in the comments. I’m sure there are many novels that can help us expand the discussion on race.




Fiction, Truth, and Race — 23 Comments

  1. Some books I’ve read in recent years that made me think about these issues:

    Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes (pubished in the US as Someone Knows My Name) is a historical novel about a woman, Aminata Diallo, kidnapped by slavers as a child, brought to the British colonies that would become the United States and sold into slavery, who eventually becomes one of the voices that brought about the end of slavery in England.

    Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging, is a profound meditation on the “sense of place” of a people who had all common ways of establishing that sense obliterated in slaving posts (like the infamous The Door of No Return on Senegal’s Gorée Island) and the Middle Passage.

    Walter Mosley’s Futureland is a collection of nine inter-related stories set in the same bitterly dystopic future, sharing a cast of characters exploring the many faces of racism and classism in North America from a black perspective.

    Spider Robinson’s Night of Power is not necessarily brilliant fiction, but it is raw and powerful and is, oddly enough, one of his few books that haven’t stayed consistently in print. It’s about a multi-racial family visiting New York City and finding themselves in the middle of an uprising by people of colour. What made it stand out for me at first and subsequent readings is its examination of interracial relationships on a personal level as well as a social and political level – and the best part about it is that it does not shy away from the fact that white people, no matter how well-meaning, usually just don’t get it – and if they do manage to get a little of it, there’s always further to go.

    • Incidentally, our The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-breeding Industry comes out on the Lawrence Hill imprint on October 1st.

      It’s available for pre-order now, in all the usual places, including amazilla.

      • Constance, please feel free to add links to the places where it can be pre-ordered and other details about your book. I’m quite interested in it and I expect others will be, too.

    • Those books all sound fascinating. I’d forgotten about Mosley’s and shall have to look for it. Your mention of it reminds me that his Easy Rawlins books also provide a very good description of the post-World War II racial situations — particularly valuable for those who think the Jim Crow era was confined to the old south.

      I had not heard of the other three. A Map to the Door of No Return sounds particularly interesting because a sense of place is an important concept to me. Is The Book of Negroes/Somebody Knows My Name reasonably historically accurate — that is, was there a woman sold into slavery who was able to become one of those anti-slavery voices? I’m now curious.

      And I’ve never heard of that book by Spider Robinson, in spite of having read a lot of his books. Hmm.

      • Re The Book of Negroes: there were a number of freed slaves who were “adopted” by the British abolitionists, who published their stories as part of the anti-slavery campaign in England. Hill has conflated a number of real people into that segment of Aminata’s life. As far as I know, there is no one person that Aminata is based on, but events and details have been carefully researched and the story, while completely fictional, is to the best of my knowledge truthful at the core.

        Brand is a Caribbean-Canadian poet. I should point out that her book is not fiction, but more of a personal essay by a person from a forced diaspora that broke up families, took away names and histories, who is seeking that sense of place that comes from knowing where you come from in relation to who and where you are now.

        I’ve always wondered whether the haze of obscurity that has settled on Robinson’s book came about because its focus is on racial tensions in the US and it is sympathetic toward those who take part in the uprising. Because Robinson is a good writer, and this book is up to his standard, I have always suspected that the subject matter was perhaps not comfortable for his usual readership.

        The history of racism is a bit different in Canada, where I am from, and our understanding of slavery and post-slavery society is informed by Caribbean influences as much as by the history brought north by freed and escaped slaves from the US. In that context, I’d also recommend Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads, which is set in part during the slave revolts in Haiti.

        • That was my speculation on the Spider Robinson book, too, which makes me want to check it out.

          I love Nalo Hopkinson’s work, but I haven’t read The Salt Roads. It’s now on my list.

        • Indeed, Canadians harbour the smug belief that “Canada didn’t have slavery,” which is complete fiction of course. While technically there was no sanctioned slave trade, there certainly were slaves. Hill’s book was a huge eye opener for many – or, at least, for those who chose to read it.

          One of the main criticisms of the book was that it would be unlikely for a single individual to have packed all of the experiences that Aminata had into one lifetime, but the same could be said for any saga of this scope. As a historical composite, I believe it’s quite accurate and well-researched.

          That said, the ugly underbelly of Canadian racism is more accurately exposed by examining the ongoing systemic mistreatment of her indigenous peoples. From a more historic perspective, there’s also the less-known plight of the Asian “workers” imported to complete the trans-Canada railway; and let’s not forget the Japanese internment camps during WWII…

          • I am quite in agreement with you. Canadian treatment of aboriginal peoples has been and continues to be an international disgrace. The same can also be said of Asian workers brought to Canada.

            Continuing the theme of literature that shows us (i.e., white North Americans) truths about racism, I recommend highly the work (fiction and non-fiction) of Thomas King. Some suggestions:

            Green Grass, Running Water (novel)
            Medicine River (novel)
            A Short History of Indians in Canada (short stories)
            One Good Story, That One (short stories)
            The Truth about Stories (non-fiction, based on a series of lectures)
            The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (non-fiction)

            I’ve been looking for more novels exploring the experience of Asian immigrants in Canada – I’ve read some work by Wayson Choy and Judy Fong Bates, Hiromi Goto and Evelyn Lau (all of them authors I recommend) and have a couple of Larissa Lai’s books in my TBR pile.

            • I love Thomas King. He manages to slip the knife in with such humour that you almost don’t register the deep hurt and anger that lurks behind his words. Almost. But then it hits you, even as you’re laughing. Brilliant satire.

              Kiss of the Fur Queen by Thompson Highway is another heartbreaking but beautiful story.

              • Yes, King is a brilliant satirist. He can shred your colonialist and racist worldview with such wit and skill that all you can do is laugh helplessly and thank him for the evisceration – and the illumination that follows.

                I have Kiss of the Fur Queen in my TBR pile. So many books, so little time. Have you read Drew Hayden Taylor’s short story collection, Fearless Warriors?

                Also, there is a very interesting fantasy trilogy by Cherokee author Daniel Heath Justice – The Way of Thorn and Thunder (Kynship, Wyrwood, Dreyd). A summary of the premise: Once, the whole of the Eld Green was the home of the Folk – the tree-born Kyn, the earth-dwelling Gvaerg, the Tetawi, descended from ancient animal spirits, the clever builders of the Ubbetek, the reclusive, spider-like Wyrnack, the Beast-folk and the Ferals. Then there was an opening of the walls between the worlds, and the Eld Green experienced the coming of the Humans, who have pushed the Folk out of the great plains and forests that were once their home, driving them into a small stretch of forest and mountain; yet even so, the Humans are not satisfied. They want all the land, all the resources, all the power.

                The parallels to the European conquest of the Americas are clear, and in telling the story from the point of view of the conquered and colonised, Justice brings many things home. There’s hope at the end, though.

  2. I loved MARCH, which won the Pulitzer for fiction — it is by Geraldine Brooks. A Civil War novel, it is about Mr. March. You know him. We all do: father of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. LITTLE WOMEN opens with the four of them knitting socks for him while he’s away with the Union Army. As you might suspect from how he is (lovingly! respectfully! but accurately!) depicted by Louisa May Alcott, Mr. March is a complete wuss about slavery and real life in general, and being a chaplain for the Massachusetts regiment is an eye-opener for him. Brooks fits the entire novel into the interstices of the Alcott book, deftly sucking in all the bits that Jo or Mrs. March or whoever confides to us about the pater, and it is damning.

    • Of course it was Louisa who worked on the front lines of the war, so to speak, in a D.C. hospital until she nearly died from cholera. Bronson stayed home. Which isn’t to say that he wasn’t on the front lines of abolition in Massachusetts in other ways, but still, this is one of the reasons I dislike the sort of fiction that March is. It’s all fiction – i.e. lies in this case — and does not provide a better understanding of Louisa Alcott’s work or the life of her father. Yet, people will think it does. While in a certain kind of way appropriates Alcott’s own fiction. Why not write a novel of original characters of a chaplain to Union troops in the Civil War, as there were very many, some of whom were heroic?

      This is a useful essay about this matter, which concerns me, at least, as well as the author, greatly:

      • That’s an interesting essay. I suspect a lot of writers choose to insert “plucky” heroines into history because they love the period but want to write about women who have successful lives despite the environment. I understand that urge.

        It seems to me that March might be very fascinating fiction indeed in that it changes the idealized father Alcott put in her story to something like the real man. Since it is absolutely fiction, based on fiction, it should not be seen as an historical novel.

        An historical novel about Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War experiences and how she lets her love for her father trump his weaknesses in writing her novels would be very interesting indeed. If anyone is interested.

        • Oh, without question it is fiction. Jo, Beth, Meg and Amy are fictional, too. But this is the first time I have ever even been able to contemplate Marmee as a real person. No one would want to have a cup of tea with the mother in LITTLE WOMEN.

          • Totally disagree.

            I knew many a Marmee, and to have one in your life was a fortunate thing, considering everything. As Louisa May Alcott made perfectly clear.

  3. Wow. I check for comments and find a whole slew of books, some of which I’d never heard of and some of which I’d forgotten about. More things to read.

  4. BTW, the essay Constance linked to mentions Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which is also an amazing book. Using fantasy to tell historical stories helps get around the plucky heroine problem discussed in that essay.

  5. Wonderful list to add to the reading pile. I guess I am one of the few people who never read GwtW. I was raised in the northern branch of the family, and never bought the glorious myth of the South before the war. When I finally saw the movie, I wondered how anyone could call it a romance.

    But it’s a fascinating time capsule.

    • I remember both reading GwtW and seeing the film when I was young and very unaware of the history of race relations and slavery in either the US or Canada – and then rewatching the film some years later once I had begun to educate myself, and being horrified to realise that all those noble white men sneaking out at night to ‘right wrongs’ after the end of the Civil War were actually part of the Ku Klux Klan.

    • I read GwTW (at least a good part of it) last year. It’s a very different book to what I expected – Scarlett is a teenager – a stupid teenager, bored out of her skull, trapped by society into not being able to do anything at all; so she pushes boundaries and does silly teenage things and fancies herself in love and is as thoughtless as they come – but I had a lot of empathy for her, because for all the glamour, she didn’t get dealt a good hand in life either.

      The other thing that got me was the sheer contempt everybody (including the author, IMHO) had for poor whites. I didn’t know that ‘trash’ had such a long history.

      • That’s a fascinating perspective on Scarlett. One could do a feminist analysis on her — perhaps she would have done better things with her life if she’d had more scope for her ambition. I’m not sure Margaret Mitchell had any of that in mind when she wrote her, though.

        As for the contempt for poor whites, I think it’s been an issue in the US all along.

  6. I’ve been offline most of the day, but am thrilled to see the interesting conversations that have continued in my absence. More books to look at, more ideas to consider.