Wesley Morris: Before this book came out, I remember you saying you were nervous about it being in the world, in the normal ways an author is nervous about a book being out in the world — but also because of the subject matter. In that you were writing about race at a time in which people culturally feel a great deal of sensitivity around a) talking about it, and b) who gets to talk about it.
Sam Graham-Felsen: In a weird way, Trump winning — which I certainly wasn’t expecting when I wrote this book — has made me more comfortable because now I feel like the onus is really on white people to talk about race, specifically about whiteness. He’s pushed the issue to the front and center. Talking about whiteness is something we don’t want to do, because it makes us feel so uncomfortable, but it’s something we have to do.
But I also feel more comfortable now because I spent a lot of time revising the book, and thinking about the ways in which I had blind spots, and doing my best to overcome them. The process of revision forced me to reckon with some of the unconscious biases that I had, that I was carrying around with me and wasn’t deeply aware of until I went through the process of tackling the issue of race head on in the book.
WM: What is a blind spot or unconscious bias that you think you had?
SGF: This is a book about a friendship between a white kid and a black kid. Black-white friendship is a big trope in American cinema, in American literature, dating back to Huck Finn and before. There are so many “buddy movies” and there are lots of tropes that — no matter how well-intentioned you are or how sophisticated you think you are — you can’t help but absorb. One of these “buddy movie” tropes is that the black guy is cool — cooler than the white guy, right?
WM: Yes. That’s only not been true maybe once. Lethal Weapon. Mel Gibson was psychotically cool and Danny Glover was pathologically boring.
SGF: [Laughs]. Yeah. So, in a really early version of the book, I envisioned Dave having a friend who was cool, or least way cooler than him.
WM: Who he thought was cool.
SGF: Right. And the truth is, the Marlon I ended up with actually is my kind of cool person. But Mar’s classmates certainly don’t think he’s cool. To them, he’s a loser, he’s a total geek. And I think once I made the transition of turning Marlon into a nerd, Marlon started really coming alive to me. That’s when I realized, with a bit of horror, that, initially, I was unconsciously mimicking some of these tropes that are out there about the black-white friendship story. But then I was like, ‘Ok, well now I’m not going to do that.’
One way I played with this tension in the book was to have Dave start out at the King wanting a friend, badly, but not a “soft” friend — a “hard” one. And in Dave’s warped worldview, Marlon isn’t friend material because he’s “soft,” he wears khakis and likes an uncool basketball player. But the fact that Marlon steps to a bigger, cooler kid in the cafeteria signals to Dave that Mar’s not as soft as he’d assumed. That’s how the friendship starts out. Once the boys actually begin to hang out, Dave realizes he likes Mar — not in spite of the khakis or because he stepped to Kaleem — but because he’s a great guy and they have a lot to talk about and they enjoy being in each other’s presence. He stops caring about whether or not Mar is cool or soft or hard pretty quickly.
WM: I’m really curious about what made you decide to not only write a book about black-white friendship, but a book that is so consciously aware of how whiteness works in the world. And why you as an author chose to create a character who has no idea — or just a burgeoning, inchoate idea — of what whiteness means in the world. The coming of age in this book is in part, of course, hormonal, but is also about a kid who begins to understand some aspect of what America is actually about.
SGF: First of all, the book is loosely based on my own sixth grade experience. I was one of a few white kids at a mostly black and Latino middle school in Boston called the Martin Luther King School. (And I decided to keep that name for the school in the book because one of the tragic ironies about America is that, often, the least integrated schools in this country are named after Martin Luther King.) So I had some material from my own life — my own very specific experiences with whiteness — that I wanted to work with in fiction.
But in terms of how the book grapples with whiteness… in most American and European literature, the main characters are white, but the whiteness never comes up. They’re just “people” — just a guy or a cowboy or an astronaut or whatever. Their whiteness is never addressed, unless it’s a book about white characters relating with black characters — but even then, you often just get token figures. Whiteness becomes the oxygen that we breathe. And so, I thought, here’s an opportunity to do something different, to directly address it.
Early on, the book is very much about Dave complaining about how hard it is to be white in his setting, and wishing he was, basically, not white, and trying his best to fit in. There is some level of him mourning his own victimization. But the book is about his slow — very slow — awakening to the fact that he’s not screwed. He thinks he is, but he’s not. And it takes lots of small experiences for him to see that. A wordy way of putting this is that it takes lots of micro-non-aggressions. He’s always in the presence of Marlon and his other classmates who are experiencing these microaggressions, and he’s not experiencing them. When you’re not experiencing these microaggressions, it’s very easy not to see them. But because Dave is close to Marlon and sees all of the times Marlon gets snubbed for something and gets targeted unfairly, he can’t help but sense, Oh something’s going on here.
WM: What you’ve done is actually quite remarkable, because at every point in the novel that you’re on Dave’s side, you’re kind of there at Marlon’s expense. For me, the moral balance is always with Marlon, and the book’s experiment, in terms of how it’s structured and its point of view, is to leave you with a character—Dave—who is trying to figure out a way to get to where the reader is. By the end of the book there is this moral dovetailing of where an enlightened reader is and where this kid is trying to get to.
SGF: The biggest challenge of writing this book was doing it from a twelve-year-old’s perspective. Of course, I, as a human being, wanted Dave to wake up fully, and much more quickly, to his privilege. I personally wanted him to be much more empathic and aware of what Mar is facing. But as an author, it felt very important to me to not make Dave very woke by the end of the novel. He’s twelve. He’s still a kid. He’s really just starting his journey towards awareness.
What We're Reading This WeekGet recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.
WM: Can you talk about “the force” — how you arrived that that particular piece of terminology? The force isn’t just a stand-in for the concept of privilege. Dave uses it about three different ways.
SGF: Probably more than three. An example of the force is when Dave and Mar and Benno are out shoveling, knocking on doors, and none of Dave’s white neighbors answer because Mar is with them. That’s just prejudice, but a more complicated example is when Dave uses the force to describe how his friend Kevin, who is white, won’t allow himself to like Larry Bird. The force is almost like a physical law, where race morphs what would otherwise be ordinary interactions and makes them weird. Sometimes it’s racism, sometimes it’s internalized ideas of what a white person is supposed to do and what a black person is supposed to do, and those things are always tied and tethered to the history of white supremacy in this country on some level — but Dave is not conscious of that. Dave just knows that there’s this weirdness in America that Dave and Marlon are constantly confronting. They can’t just like something. Everything has to be filtered through these rules that society has set up.
WM: Can you unpack a little bit about why you chose that word specifically? While I was reading the book the first time, I went to Star Wars. But by the second time, I was thinking, well maybe it’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough.” Because, in that song, the force has a lot of power, Michael Jackson doesn’t seem to understand what the force is really doing….
SGF: So much of this book is about wordplay. Dave loves hip-hop and that was the music of my youth, the music I still most connect to. Part of what I love about it is that most of the wordsmithing going on in America right now is through hip-hop. Most of the new words being added to our dictionaries are coming from hip-hop. Hip-hop is where the American language is being expanded. And Dave creates his own kid of hip-hopifications of different words throughout the book. Small trophies are chumpstumps. A bad, wet dream is a nutmare. So it felt important to me for Dave to also coin a term that encompassed a lot of his ideas about how race and racism work. The force is the least phonetically complex term that Dave comes up with, but the most complicated, by far, in terms of meaning. In addition to all of the pop culture references — Star Wars, Michael Jackson — somewhere in my head I was probably thinking about the police. Also, just the verb force. Forcing something. Making something unnatural happen.
WM: One of the things Dave keeps harassing his parents about is, Why do you keep making me go to this damned public school? I don’t want to go to public school. I want to go to private school like a proper white child. Why don’t you send me there? So he has this understanding of himself as a white person who should be doing these beneficial white things and resents being put in an environment in which he’s one of the few white people. But also, in the alternative universe of the book, I wonder what happens to Dave if he did go to private school.
SGF: Should I role-play?
SGF: Ok. If Dave goes to private school, he never thinks about his whiteness. Until maybe Trump is elected [laughs]. I think in school Dave would think about which girls he has crushes on, whether or not he’s going to make the varsity soccer team, which are his top five colleges he’s going to apply to — those are his preoccupations.
Part of the dynamic of this book is the struggle between Dave and his parents. His parents are progressive, committed people, who aren’t just sending him to this school because they can’t afford private school. They’re deliberately doing it as a political choice because they believe in integration and they believe in public school. And Dave, especially before he has any friends, questions whether he’s some kind of social guinea pig for his parents’ ideals. That tension is heightened because Dave’s younger brother Benno, who has some emotional problems, actually does go to private school, because his parents believe he needs the extra attention and small classroom environment. So it’s not just abstract. Dave knows Benno goes to a school with a nice lawn and a soccer field and Dave goes to a school that has a concrete slab with broken glass in it. Dave sees what kids with privilege have access to, and he’s like, Why can’t I get this too? A lot of the narrative running through the novel is Dave slowly coming to understand his parents’ decision and maybe even begin to appreciate it.
WM: You were the chief blogger for Obama’s first campaign? What exactly does that mean, and why did you leave politics for fiction?
SGF: My job was basically that of an inspirational storyteller, telling different versions of the, “Yes, we can” story, the “We are not a black America or white America, we are the United States of America” story over and over again for BarackObama.com. I’m very proud to have been a part of that campaign. Seeing Obama walk out on that stage in Grant Park on election night was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. But it was deeply disappointing to see how divided the country was once Obama became president, how persistent racism was and how in many ways it seemed to even get worse in the Obama era. That was very hard for me, as somebody who pushed this narrative of hope and change. I knew the story of my country was far more complicated and contradictory than the one I’d been telling on the campaign, and I started to realize that I wanted to write a novel about race in America.
But more generally, I left politics to pursue fiction because I’m interested in dramatizing complicated issues, rather than pushing a specific agenda. Of course I have a point of view, but I’m interested in pointing out the problem rather than trying to provide some kind of solution. And that’s what fiction does. Fiction is not a set of talking points. I hope this book makes people feel touched and inspired but angry and disappointed at the same time. I hope it leaves people feeling thinking, “I don’t know what answers I got from this, but wow, things are really messed up in this country and I want to ask more questions about how it got this way.”
Photo © Tamar Steinberger