Saturday, October 15, 2016

Jodi Picoult talks about racism, writing and SMALL GREAT THINGS

Racism. Time. Justice. Jodi Picoult really needs no bio (unless you've just arrived from the planet Jupiter). Her new novel SMALL GREAT THINGS is her most controversial--and perhaps, her greatest. I'm honored to have her here to talk about it. Thank you, Jodi!

Why write a book about racism? (I know why, but I want you to tell it.) And why was this one of the hardest books you have ever written?

It’s a topic that weighs heavily on the hearts of people in this country – and heavily on my heart.  But most white people have no idea how to talk about it.  It’s very easy to make a mistake when we talk about racism – or to unintentionally offend someone.  And so, as a result, white people often don’t talk about it at all.  For example, I had been trying to write a book about racism for 20 years, but couldn’t figure out how to do it.  I kept asking myself: why do I have the right to write it?  I grew up white and privileged.  True, I do research.  True, I’ve written about many kinds of people I’m not:  rape victims, cancer patients, school shooters, men – but racism is different.  The answer came in realizing who my audience was.  Yes, I hope people of color read the book and find it resonant.  But I really am reaching out to white people who - like me, like many of my friends - would never think of themselves as racists – but need to think a little harder. Part of my research involved attending social justice workshops and leaving in tears every night as I came to see that I was not nearly as blameless as I thought I was.  I was pretty blissfully ignorant about racism before I began this book, because I had the luxury of being ignorant.  Now I can’t NOT see race, and I can’t stop discussing it.

What surprised you in the writing of this novel? Sometimes I feel that I don’t know what I am writing about until I’ve finished a draft. Is it this way with you?

Two things.  First, racism is often incorrectly defined as individual prejudice.  Yet we could take every Skinhead and ship them off to Mars and there would still be racism. That’s because racism is power PLUS prejudice.  Although it’s easy to see the headwinds of racism – the ways that the color of one’s skin makes it hard for some people to achieve success – there are also tailwinds of racism.  Being white gives us advantages that we prefer to chalk up to hard work or luck.  In other words – if you were lucky enough to be born white, part of what you achieve is as a direct result of what someone else did not because he was born black.  And that, as a white person in America, is very hard for people to accept or wrap their heads around.  Second, that you CAN learn not to hate.  I interviewed two former Skinheads who have renounced the movement, and who acknowledge that even though they still feel anger, they have learned how to channel that anger so that it isn’t targeted at a scapegoat.  One is married to a Jewish woman now; the other helps the federal government find cells of white supremacists that are active on the internet or are stockpiling weapons in rural places for a “Holy Race War.”  So much of their anger came from it being easier to blame someone else for the status of their lives rather than to blame themselves – and now they have taken ownership of those feelings, have worked hard to correct them, and they actively try to foster harmony rather than hatred.  Given the state of today’s current politics, I can’t help but think there are a lot of people who might learn from this.

Can you talk about the title, Small Great Things? I absolutely love it.

It comes from quote often attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. :  “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” For many white people, MLK is the first stepping stone to understanding racial struggles, and I wanted to honor that.  But I also believe that although racism is institutional and systemic, it’s both perpetuated and dismantled through individual acts.  Small great things.  We can’t individually change the world but we can change ourselves and our behaviors.

You’re known for researching every last detail. Was there anything unexpected that you found? And did it change the trajectory of your novel?

Everything I learned was a revelation for me, and part of my own journey to understanding my relationship to racism and how, unwittingly, I might have contributed to it.  I remember one woman of color telling me how shocked she was when she saw a white woman in a grocery store open a bag of chips and give a few to her kid before paying for it.  Although I was sure the woman was planning to pay for it, the woman I was interviewing said that a Black woman wouldn’t be given the benefit of the doubt.  The other AHA moment I had was when I admitted that sometimes, I felt slighted if I said hello to a Black man on an elevator or at a street crossing and he didn’t respond in kind.  It took talking to people of color to make me realize that I had unconsciously made this “all about me” when in fact it was about 200 years of systemic racism.  It wasn’t all that long ago when a Black man who spoke to a white woman could be beaten or hanged for doing so.

What do you want people to come away with from this novel?

I am so lucky to have a podium of sorts after 20 years.  I have amazing fans who will go with me, no matter where I choose to take them.  You cannot turn on the news today without knowing that a conversation about race is not just timely, but critical.  I hope that for those who don’t quite know how to start talking, this book can be a springboard for further discussion.  And I REALLY hope that they read it before the next presidential election.

I want to ask, if you could go back to young, young Jodi, before you had published anything at all, what advice would you give yourself and why?

Trust yourself.  I never really believed that I would be published, or that anyone would want to read the kind of stuff I wanted to write.  That is not to say my career has been easy, but it certainly has been more successful than I ever imagined it could be. 

What’s obsessing you now and why?
I’m working with my daughter and co-writer, Samantha van Leer, to turn our YA novel BETWEEN THE LINES into a musical, hopefully bound for Broadway.  It’s been two years of hard, wonderful work.  Our Tony award-winning producer brought Kinky Boots to Broadway; our director was nominated for a Tony for Newsies; our creative team is fresh and breathtaking and collaborative.  We just did a week of development at NY Stage and Film and received a standing ovation. Later, a woman came up to our book writer and said she had a subscription to this summer theater series for 20 years and had only seen one other standing ovation.  It was for Hamilton.  J

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

1.     What can I do, as a white person, to take steps toward being more conscious of social justice? 

I break these into Do’s and Don’ts.  DON’T say “I’m colorblind.”  It suggests that you don’t care or recognize race.  DON’T say, “I’m Jewish/gay/female/disabled and have faced oppression too.”  It again undercuts the struggle of people of color by bringing the focus back to you.  DON’T assume you have to be present at all conversations about racism.  There are times when it’s much more important to talk to “your own” – namely, white people. DON’T say “I have Black friends!”  Have you talked to these Black friends about racism?  Because if you haven’t they’re not really friends.  DON’T try to be a savior – it’s not up to you to “fix” Black communities; they have wonderful strong leaders and voices.  Instead of saying, “I can help you, “ say, “Do you need help?  What kind?”  DON’T say “All lives matter.”  Of course they do, but ALL lives can’t matter until the ones that are currently being undervalued or threatened are equal and important.  It’s like going to the doctor with a broken arm and having him say, “Well, all bones matter.”  True – but wouldn’t you rather have a cast on the broken one?  DO understand that there is a difference between Equal and Equitable.  Equal means the same, equitable means fair.  If you had a blind student in class would you give him the same test as everyone else, or a Braille one with the same information?   “Equitable” recognizes that there are obstacles and challenges faced by people of color that white people do not face, and thus a fair path to success for these two groups may look slightly different.  DO educate yourself.  Sure, you know who MLK Jr. was.  But do you know who Lewis Latimer was?  Bill Pickett?  Henry Ossian Flipper?  DO make yourself uneasy – put yourself into situations where you are not part of the majority.  Feeling comfortable is not a right, it’s a privilege.  DO recognize those tailwinds of privilege you have – if you think a person of color is being ignored in a meeting, ask the moderator if you might hear from someone who hasn’t spoken yet.  If your uncle cracks a racist joke at Christmas, take him to task.  DO talk to other people about racism – even when there’s no person of color present.  Part of white privilege is having access to places and conversations people of color don’t – and that’s exactly where we need to start talking about racism and the white person’s role in it.  DO read widely.  One very easy step you can take toward racial justice is to look at your bookshelf and see how frequently you read an author of color.  For every white writer whose book you pick up, try another by an author of color:  Colson Whitehead, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, Ellen Oh, Ta-Nehesi Coates, Sherman Alexie, Sandra Cisneros, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jesmyn Ward, Khaled Hosseini, Lisa See, Christina Henriquez, Nnedi Okurafor, Jacqueline Woodson, Roxane Gay, Cynthia Bond, Helen Oyeyemi, Junot Diaz, Laura Esquivel, Julia Alvarez, Marie Lu, Celeste Ng, Nicola Yoon, Jason Reynolds, Sabaa Tahir, Shonda Rhimes, Issa Rae, Tracy K. Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Zadie Smith, Walter Mosley, Edwidge Danticat, Maya Angelou, Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chang-Rae Lee, Jenny Han, Gabrielle Zavin, Kevin Kwan…shall I go on?


Nicola Yoon.  She writes YA fiction and takes my breath away with every other damn sentence. 

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