Susan recently announced the latest Diversity Roll Call assignment: “I want us to shift from the importance of representation and focus on how difference or a different perspective changed us in a meaningful way. Have you ever read a book and the character’s perspective opened you to ideas, beliefs or realities that you had never considered? Tell us about a work or an author whose body of work changed how you looked at the world, others or yourself. Have you read ever read a book and had a paradigm shift because of it?”
What’s interesting to me is how long it can take to realize the lasting impact a book has had…the more I give talks and do interviews, the more I realize just how indebted I am to certain texts. I’ve mentioned before that my dissertation was on representations of racial violence; I spent several years combing through actual accounts of lynching, race riots, and rape, and then I looked at African American literature to see how this trauma manifested in poems, plays, songs, and novels. But even before reaching grad school, I read and adored Octavia Butler’s time travel novel, Kindred, and Toni Morrison’s neo-slave narrative, Beloved. But if I go back even farther in time, I think perhaps my interest in racial violence started when I was an adolescent. The only black girl I remember seeing on the cover of a book at my small suburban library was Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I read that book as a child (along with Let the Circle Be Unbroken) and then re-read it in high school so I could complete a creative writing unit using Taylor’s black characters (everything else I read—and wrote—featured white characters). During my last semester of college, I read Beloved in one sitting—even after the power went out due to a blizzard. I didn’t know then what a neo-slave narrative was, but I knew I was hooked; now, as a writer, I try to follow Morrison’s strategy of using frames to suggest terror rather than naming it outright. Remember Ella’s house? A simple wood-frame house where Ella was kept and “used” by white father and son slaveholders…Butler didn’t flinch when detailing the abuse of enslaved women and men, but she also exposed the complex psychology behind making slaves; you have to learn how to follow orders, how to harden your heart so you don’t hurt when loved ones are sold away, how to endure the smaller hurts in order to avoid the truly unbearable ones. As Frederick Douglass pointed out, slaveholders made blacks act as both “a witness and a participant” in the degradation of others; Dana has to get Alice to “offer” herself to Rufus—he wants her to go willingly so he doesn’t have to rape her, but the truth is he’s still coercing her into a sexual relationship; he wants to possess her, and the only out for Alice is to take her own life (which she does). While she served as Rufus’ “mistress,” other slaves on the plantation turned their backs on Alice, and I appreciated that Butler didn’t try to gloss over such intraracial conflicts. A lot of us like to think we’d fight like hell if a white person tried to lay a hand on us, but when Dana’s attacked by a pateroller she can’t bring herself to gouge his eyes out—even though he’s trying to rape her. Butler’s unvarnished realism really impressed me, in addition to her ability to create parallels between the contemporary world and the past. I know a lot of people think of Kindred when they read Wish, and that’s a huge compliment for me—I’m not nearly as good a writer as Morrison or Butler or Taylor, but I’m glad I’ve had those role models to show me how to evolve as a storyteller.