My new novel, Welcome to Braggsville
, is a satire about four college kids who perform an "intervention" at a Civil War reenactment, and quickly discover that even the best of intentions can cause a world of hurt as they find themselves caught between the academic theories that have stoked their indignation and the harsh realities of race in contemporary America. As a writer, I tend to avoid the autobiographical, but, sadly, the comedic elements aside, this novel is inspired by one true event, a situation I could not have imagined, even if I were to crack my brain straight into a frying pan (like that famous breakfast commercial of yesteryear).
This event is one that required little remembering because it had always troubled me deeply. As my character Quint might say, it burned like a boil on a bunion. Now that, folks, is a real hive of discomfort.
Here it is: Near Bradenton, Florida, in the earliest of the '90s, there was a K3 rally. Lest ye be confused, a dash of disambiguation: This was not the Bosnian skating club (Klizacko Koturaljski Klub), the fraternity at Dartmouth (Kappa Kappa Kappa), or the women's philanthropic association (Kappa Kappa Kappa, Inc), but the fraternal organization who kept the Bed Bath & Beyonds of yesteryear delightfully flush through the sales of pillow cases, the K-cubed for whom not a single K stands for kreativity, sartorial or otherwise. Yes. You know who I mean.
This rally attracted two counter-rallies comprised of two tribes of humans that K-cubed would rather eat than seat: a collection of African American protestors and a Gay rights activist group.
This is not a joke: What do you get if you put K-cubed, a Gay rights activist group, and that particular Af-Am group in a blender? This is not a punch line: A carnival of absurdly unsettling alliances that re-coalesces as an anti-gay rally. Yes. Quite the recipe, I know. Over the course of the morning, K-cubed and that particular Af-Am group joined forces to taunt the gays like some macabre Wonder Twins. This has always troubled me for reasons obvious, and for reasons difficult to articulate beyond metaphor, namely that, forget strange political bedfellows, hate is a tenacious double-sided metallic Velcro.
This raises my predominate concern: What should I write about? If I am writing contemporary literature set in contemporary times, the answer feels obvious to me, but I know it's not really that simple. There must not be mandates on topicality or relevance in art or it ceases to be art and we risk descending into the type of society that conscripts artists to produce propaganda for the ruling class. To take the opposite tack, however, gives rise to a dilemma you might call the Seinfeld dilemma or that a contemporary HBO viewer and/or pop culture critic might have called the Girls dilemma until that show finally introduced a black character. Those criticisms are tricky because, let's be honest, not every white person knows a person of another race. America remains painfully segregated, socially and economically, and it's not literature's job to fix that. But what does it mean if literature ignores it?
One can easily move through this society and have few interactions of significance with black people. It is hard to do the same with white people. Try going a month without the man. You'll feel like one cold turkey. And so, in a union that some of us have long known is less than perfect (as Ferguson, the college rape cases, income inequity, etc. demonstrate), I find it difficult to evade the contemporary social thorns and brambles constantly at my hems.
And their prickly message is this: The only way to ensure that civil rights advance at a humane clip is by the active participation of those who are advantaged by disadvantage. In other words, no traditions of oppression — be they patriarchy or racial discrimination or the anti-instant coffee brigade — can be dismantled without the active engagement of its beneficiaries. Ultimately, men must acknowledge gender discrimination, heterosexuals LGBT rights, etc.
But what has this to do with writing? Precisely nothing. What has it to do with being human? Precisely everything. What has being human to do with writing? Precisely everything. [What!? You thought Fox had a patent on pretzel logic?] Beginning writers are liberally seasoned with maxims such as: you must love language; you must love sentences; you must love words. For me, I must first love people, others and myself, because this is what I write about: people, other humans wandering or running through or hiding out in this same emotional labyrinth, at times slamming their soul, as do I, against a bag of bones. This is where every story starts for me, and Braggsville is no exception because in literature, as in life — silence suggests consent, and in a world where writers are jailed, tortured, exiled, executed, and humiliated for their words, to do any less feels a squandering of my freedoms here in America. Scott Turow once said something like, "You cannot write about America without writing about race." I would add to that women's rights, gay rights, immigration, the environment. I can't turn on the TV without seeing stories about it all, can't turn on the radio without hearing stories about it all, can't open the newspaper or a news magazine without reading stories about it all, so how can one of my characters? It is part of our collective consciousness, and to deny it is to effect a spiritual lobotomy on my characters.
So am I truly avoiding the autobiographical? Maybe not as much as I would like to think.