In answer to the question above, quite a lot, to be honest. But in writing both my most recent novel A TANGLED MERCY and my earlier novel BLUE HOLE BACK HOME, my hope has been that the stories could generate good and hard and healthy conversations that break down barriers.
I was thrilled when BLUE HOLE got selected as the Common Book for first year students to read and discuss at Baylor University and several colleges, universities and the junior class at one high school, as well as lots of book clubs, because it gave me a chance to watch people talk about difficult issues without putting up the usual walls and classifications we use to cordon ourselves off—and often to quit listening to each other.
I love that about any area of the arts: in discussing a play or movie or novel or painting, we typically drop our labels of Democrat or Republican or liberal or conservative or whatever tags we want to slap on ourselves or other people. We talk about characters and their motivations, about their decisions and their struggles, about what how we felt walking inside that person’s story.
As I wrote the scenes of A TANGLED MERCY’s contemporary timeline that involve the 2015 shooting in North Charleston, SC, of an unarmed African-American man running away from a white police officer, who, it later turned out, had lied about what transpired—captured on a bystander’s cell phone video—I really struggled to imagine the rage I would feel as the sister or wife or mother of the man shot in the back eight times in a clear instance of police brutality (the officer later plead guilty). And I also struggled to imagine the frustration I might feel to be a police officer across town, one of integrity and good relationships with my colleagues of all races, to have a handful of hot-headed, trigger-happy fellow officers erode the public’s trust by treating citizens of color differently than whites.
That’s what is so marvelous about the arts: that we can enter into a story and then begin to discuss the story for itself—grounded in actual events, in the case of A TANGLED MERCY—but without the divisiveness and name-calling that makes people leap onto different sides of the barricades and start shouting at one another. I am so grateful when I hear readers discuss a certain scene, and if I happen to know some backgrounds of their political party or commitments, to watch people of opposing “sides” have a vulnerable, authentic discussion in which they connect in surprising ways—and often end up startled at how much they agree on.
Stories can do that for us, I believe: help us set down our swords and see if we can’t agree on some basic building-block issues: feeling compassion for a person in this situation. Wanting justice if that happened to our family. Laughing at a particular scene together—then weeping together at another. Wanting to change our culture in some way but not knowing how to speak out. Wanting to connect but feeling we’re all alone.
Reading culturally relevant novels in groups or watching films or plays together can be extraordinarily unifying, and promote conversation in ways very different from what happens we when hear political speeches or sermons, or get our separate news from Fox or CNN.
The contemporary climate has also suddenly given new angles on my first novel. I published BLUE HOLE BACK HOME in 2008, and back then when I spoke to college groups who were reading the novel as a Common Book, they marveled at the scenes involving the Ku Klux Klan harassing a Sri Lankan family that moves into a small Southern Appalachian mountain town. It was as if they were analyzing a Model T Ford, making gracious comments about its lines, and finding ways it had led up to their present day lives, but basically letting me know that they lived in a “post-racial” culture, that their generation had “solved” racial tensions and was moving on to solve other areas of cultural conflict. They were always polite and always engaged in the story, but I often felt like Sue the Tyrannosaurus at Chicago’s Field Museum: the students were astounded that the novel could have been inspired by actual events in my lifetime, and the actual appearance in my own hometown of Klan members—so clearly, I must be a gazillion years old.
But in the summer of 2017, just as the novel’s rights were reverting to me, here we were faced as a country by rallies of neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates chanting “blood and soil” and proudly displaying fascist and white supremacist symbols. Suddenly now, this backlist novel loosely based on events in 1979 and ’80 reads like the day’s newsfeed on our phones.