In Conversation with Jodi Picoult
Small Great Things
Talks / Lecture
The latest novel by No. 1 New York Times bestselling author Jodi Picoult tackles some of the most profoundly challenging yet essential concerns of our time: prejudice, race and justice.
Transcript of ‘In Conversation with Jodi Picoult’
Speakers: Cathy PIlgrim (CP), Andrea Ho (AH), Jodi Picoult (JP)
Location: National Library of Australia
CP: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. It’s wonderful to see so many of you here tonight. Welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m Cathy Pilgrim and I’m privileged to be the Assistant Director General of the Executive and Public Programs Division here at the Library. As we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land we are now privileged to call home.
I am delighted that so many of you have joined us here tonight to hear from one of America’s bestselling authors, Jodi Picoult. I am sure all of you are here because you love reading her books, the last eight which have debuted at number one on The New York Times Bestseller List. Jodi has sold an estimated 40 million books across 35 countries and five of her books have been adapted into films. Those figures are just staggering, aren’t they? You may not know however that Jodi serves on the Advisory Board of VIDA, Women in Literary Arts, a research-driven organisation with the goals of increasing critical attention to contemporary women’s writing and to foster transparency around gender and racial equality issues in contemporary literature culture. Jodi is also a member of the Writers’ Council for the National Writing Project which recognises the universality of writing as a communication tool and helps teachers enhance student writing and she is a spokesperson for Positive Tracks, Children’s Hospital which supports youth-led charity fundraising through athletics. I actually don’t know how she gets the time to write. In her new novel, Small Great Things, Jodi tackles some of the most profoundly challenging yet essential concerns of our time, prejudice, race and justice. These are issues that have taken on tremendous significance in recent months as we watched the US presidential campaign reach its conclusion last week.
Joining Jodi this evening is Andrea Ho, Editorial and Operational Manager for Triple 6 ABC in Canberra. Andrea has worked in radio all over Australia for more than 20 years having been bitten by the radio bug as a student in her university days. In 2015 she was awarded a Fellowship by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust to investigate practical strategies for improving cultural diversity in broadcast media. So please join me this evening in welcoming to the stage Jodi Picoult and Andrea Ho.
AH: Jodi, lovely to meet you, thanks for the flowers.
JP: They’re so pretty, they’re gorgeous.
AH: It’s good to have you here. Small Great Things, your latest novel ... look at this audience, by the way, I wonder if ... just seeing that you know they’re all here from Canberra. I wonder if you might say what you did this afternoon, you went for a bit of a walk, what did you see?
JP: I forgot the name of the preserve again, where am I ... Aranda, I was in the Aranda Bushwalk and I was out with my new friend and ... Karen who is an Australian author ...
AH: Karen Viggers, you’d know her from Triple 6 ABC Canberra.
JP: I didn’t want to mispronounce her last name, Karen Viggers, my new friend who brought me two dogs and introduced me to a bunch of wild kangaroos with joeys, it was awesome.
AH: Now you see, the bush capital where good ... plenty of things, kangaroos included. Jodi Picoult, Small Great Things, it’s very new and I know that you’re all here because you’re fans but I wonder how many of you have actually read this novel.
JP: Well done, Canberra, nice.
AH: Actually that’s pretty good, about oh nearly a quarter of you, I think. How many of you have read a Jodi Picoult book? Yes, of course, all of you, of course. Alright well the thing I would say about that is that ... is that we’re going to conduct this chat tonight with no spoilers because we all know the Jodi Picoult novels have a little twist or a little kick in the end and so what we need to do tonight, when you’re asking questions a bit later on, is not to give it away for all the other people in the audience who haven’t read yet and who are going to be buying this evening and having their novel signed by Jodi so that’s something I’d like you to think about but the themes in the novel, well we can’t go past the big things. Jodi Picoult’s new novel deals fairly and squarely with race so for those of you who haven’t yet read it it’d be fair to start summing it up by saying an experienced middle class African American nurse finds herself face-to-face with a white supremist family in the birthing ward of a major hospital. Would you like to hear what happens next?
JP: I’m actually going to be reading from a little bit before that but I do want you to hear the voice of this African American nurse. She’s one of three narrators in the novel. This novel is narrated by Ruth who is an African American nurse with 20 years of labour and delivery experience, by Turk who is a white supremacist and by a woman named Kennedy who winds up being the public defender that represents Ruth in court and she is a white woman as well. But this is Ruth and this is among the first things that you hear Ruth say.
The most beautiful baby I ever saw was born without a face. From the neck down he was perfect, 10 fingers, 10 toes, chubby belly but where his ears should have been there was a twist of lips and a single tooth. Instead of a face there was a swirling eddy of skin. His mother, my patient, had received prenatal care including an ultrasound but the baby had been positioned in a way that the facial deformity hadn’t been visible. No-one was expecting this. Maybe for that very reason she chose to deliver at our little cottage hospital and not Yale Newhaven which is better equipped for emergencies. She laboured for 16 hours before she delivered. The doctor lifted the baby and there was nothing but silence. Is he alright? The mother asked panicking. Why isn't he crying? The OB silently met my gaze and turned back to the parents. In soft words he said the child had profound birth defects that were incompatible with life.
On a birth pavilion death is a more common patient than you’d think. When we have anencephalies or foetal deaths we know the parents still have to bond with and mourn for that baby so I cleaned him and swaddled him the way I would any newborn while the conversation behind me stopped and started like a car choking through the winter, questions no one ever wants to ask and no one ever wants to answer. The mother was still crying when I settled the baby in the crook of her elbow, his tiny hands windmilled. She wore an expression I’ve only seen in paintings in museums of a love and grief so fierce they forge together to create some new raw emotion.
I turned to the father. Would you like to hold your son? He looked like he was about to be sick. I can’t. He bolted from the room. I cornered him in the parents’ lounge. Your wife and son need you. That’s not my son, that ... that thing is not going to be on this earth for very long which means you’d better give him all the love you had stored up for his lifetime right now. When we entered the hospital room his wife was still nuzzling the infant. I took the tiny bundle from her arms and handed the baby to her husband. I’ve thought about my actions, you know, if I did the right thing, if it was my place. When the father started to cry the sobs shook his body like a hurricane bends a tree. He sank down beside his wife on the hospital bed. They took turns holding their son for 10 hours. That mother, she even tried to let him nurse. I couldn’t stop staring. It was the most remarkable thing I’d ever seen. Love had nothing to do with what you’re looking and everything to do with who’s looking.
When the infant died it was peaceful. We made casts of the newborn’s hand and foot for the parents to keep. I heard the same couple came back two years later and delivered a healthy daughter. It just goes to show you, every baby is born beautiful, it’s what we project on them that makes them ugly.
AH: And so that gives us an insight. We meet the most important character in this book and at that point we don’t know anything about her except that she’s a nurse. It’s only a little way in that we find out a bit more about her. Tell us about her as a character and about the three major characters who are here because we’ve said already that this book deals very much with race and class issues, it’s ... they’re probably more prominent in this particular book than they have been in any of your previous ones.
AH: And you’ve started out saying this was a book you have wanted to write for a very long time.
AH: What took so long?
JP: I actually started a book on racism 25 years ago. I had written ... I wanted to write a book that was based on a real-life story of something that happened in New York City when an African American undercover cop was shot four times in the back by a white colleague and I tried and I failed miserably, I could not create authentic situations, authentic characters, authentic voices and I really questioned myself. I questioned whether I had the right to write a story about racism. Very clearly I am a white woman, I grew up with privilege, what on earth was I going to people of colour about how hard their lives are? And I took the book and I put it aside. Over the years I kept coming back to it and playing devil’s advocate with myself. I would say alright, now wait a second, you write all the time in the voices of people you're not, you write as school shooters, you write as holocaust survivors, you write as men, you’re none of those people either so why is this different? Well it’s because race is different and racism is different. It’s really hard to talk about without offending people and so as a result many of us just choose not to talk about it at all.
So now fast-forward to 2012. Again I come across another news story. This comes out of Flint, Michigan. It’s the story of an African American nurse with 20 years of labour and delivery experience who delivers a baby and in the aftermath the baby’s father calls in her supervisor and says I don’t want her or anyone who looks like her to touch my kid and he pushes up his sleeve to reveal a swastika tattoo. The hospital put a Post-It note in the baby’s file saying no African American personnel to touch this infant. The nurse wound up suing the hospital, she settled out of court, I hope she got lots and lots of money but it made me wonder what if? What if that became the centre of my book and what if I could push the envelope? What if that nurse was the only one alone with the baby when something went wrong and she had to choose between following her supervisor’s orders or saving a baby’s life? What if as a result of that she wound up on trial defended by a white public defender who like me, like many of you would never consider themselves to be racist and what if I could tell the story in those three points of view?
A white supremacist dad, a public defender who’s white and the African American nurse as they all began to examine their beliefs about power, privilege and race and all of a sudden it was like the lock twisted and I knew that I was going to finish this book, I was going to be able to do it. And it was because really two fundamental things had changed, I had changed my focus and I had changed my audience. I was not writing a book about racism to tell people of colour how hard life is, that’s not my story to tell, it never will be and frankly there are many wonderful authors of colour doing it every day without my help. I was writing a book to people who look like me, people who can very easily point to a white supremacist and say that’s a racist but have a much harder time pointing to themselves and saying the same thing.
AH: You use that exact premise in the book so we meet Ruth and later on we meet Turk and we meet Britt and they’re the parents and the very sad thing that happens with their baby and there you go, that’s the arc of narrative of just beginning there and no spoilers here so we’re not going to talk about how the book ends, you have to buy the book and find out, read it for yourself but for the people who have read it what’s the reaction been like for you to bring out this book? And I mean we also don’t release books, you don’t write books in vacuums and we don’t receive them and read them in vacuums either and I can imagine that in your tour so far there’s been quite a lot of discussion with you about the United States’ election and we will get there eventually, don’t worry but you know it’s ...
JP: I really feel like the reason ...
AH: That was a visual joke, for the tape.
JP: Honestly I’ve been talking so much about this election I feel like an ambassador, not a writer so ...
AH: Well we’ll get there eventually but the point being of course that the election itself also was not in a vacuum, it exists in the context of America’s ...
JP: Right. And if I ever needed any proof that this was the book to write there it is.
AH: So what have people’s reactions been to you?
JP: So honestly I expected more pushback than I have received but to be totally honest I thought there would definitely be some people of colour who said you have no right to write this book and I have yet ... actually not found a single person of colour who’s said that. What they tend to say overwhelmingly is wow, you did your homework, you did your research, you heard me, you listened and thank you for broaching this topic. Now let me tell you about some microaggressions that I have faced, some things that have happened to me as a person of colour in the United States so it’s very much many confessionals. When I was on tour in America at every event we would have someone stand up. There was for example a young black woman who stood up and said I’ve been her favourite author for 10 years and she was crying and she said I just never imagined your main character would ever look like me. And another woman who was an American sign language interpreter and was assigned to sign at a white church. She was in the front row and she was sitting across from an elderly white woman and the white woman said out loud, can you make her stop? I can’t look at her black face. And because it was her job she had to sign that. And then come back the next day to work. And you know those are two of a million that I could tell you about ... well, hundreds.
The white response has again been really very positive and very humbling because these are the people who were like me who may not have talked about race or may have thought that they were race-aware but really weren’t and I think that reading this book has been very difficult for them and very eye-opening for them and in fact I was reading a letter today to my publicist and our sales rep talking about how ... this was the quintessential letter and I’ve gotten hundreds of these saying I’m a white person, I thought I was being kind, now I see that I was really being condescending and there are times that I saw something happening that was definitely a racially motivated incident and I turned away ‘cause I didn’t want to worked up in that mess and now I can’t unsee what you’ve taught me in this book and I’m going to do better. And that is wonderful, that’s why I wrote the book, the book was to really make white people understand that you are part of the problem of racism and you know and that’s among the thing ... the many things I learned. The only pushback I’ve received from this book I swear has been from a few white men and they’ve written to me ... they’re not brave enough to come to my events and say something in public so they’ve written to me and they say okay, okay, okay, totally understand what you’re saying here but you can’t tell me there’s not reverse racism and you can’t tell me that you know that my experiences are valid, I had an African American man come up to me and just start yelling about something I had nothing to do with. And so I found myself in this very bizarre position if giving private racial justice tutorials by email and I do, I write everybody back and I would explain well here’s why reverse racism isn’t a thing you know and here’s why maybe that man might have yelled at you and what you could do the next time that happens and you know who knows if they’ll listen to me but it’s certainly worth having the conversation.
AH: How marvellous to be an ambassador. What ... thank you for the work that you do ... with the research that you have to do to get those characters right, what an amazing compliment to be paid for ...
AH: You wrote about me, you told my story, I can’t believe how much you got it right but you’ve admitted to yourself that although you saw what the issue was and you’ve seen it repeated over and over and over in the news cycle you didn’t grow up that way.
AH: You grew up in quite the opposite sort of situation, your lived experience doesn’t include any of the things that happened to Ruth in the book.
AH: So tell me about how you got Ruth and her son and her sister and the community right.
JP: So the research for this book was very all-encompassing. I couldn’t ask all of you to unpack your biases if I hadn’t done it myself so I actually started off by reading a lot of work by racial justice educators so I could have a vocabulary ‘cause I didn’t know it. Then I enrolled in a racial justice workshop thinking how bad could this be? You know I’m a nice person, I’m open-minded. I left every night in tears, every night and it was the stories that got to me, the Asian American woman who talked about her love hate relationship with eyeliner because it was hard to use on her features but it was the standard of beauty she had grown up with.
AH: Having ... any of you who did the conversation here with Benjamin and Michelle Law? We talked about the fact that I got the double eyes and they didn’t. It was just one of those racial quirks.
JP: Right ...
AH: But yes, you have this conversation all the time.
JP: Right. And then the African American woman who very poignantly stood up and said when I walk out the door every day I have to put on a mask, a metaphorical mask so that I am the kind of black woman other people can handle and just once I would love to walk out the door as me. And these are things I have never had to think about, never had to consider. When I finished that workshop I then collected a group of women, African American woman, about 10 of them who overlooked my ignorance about their upbringing and sat down with me for over 100 hours of interview tape. They talked about their hopes and their fears and their failures and their successes and again they brought their stories with them so there was the mum of a new baby, cutest little boy in the world on her hip and she comes in one morning after the shooting of yet another unarmed black man by the police in America and she’s in tears and she said how do I do it? How do I keep my son safe when he grows up? How do I teach him to not be black? There was the young girl who had graduated from Vassar College, a very elite college in the US who took her water bottle that said Vassar on it everywhere and when he was on public transportation she would face it out sitting next to her so that as white people walked by they’d know she was one of the safe ones.
And there was the mum who said to me how often do you talk to your kids about racism? And I said oh you know when something happens in the news and she said mm-hmm, I talk about it every night, it’s a matter of life and death. And all of these things made me realise that I had not talked about race for 50 years, that’s a privilege in and of itself. So these women not only shared their lives with me to help me create the character of Ruth but a couple of them became what are called sensitivity readers so they read the manuscript in progress, they told me when Ruth's voice sounded right and they told me when she sounded totally off and my job was not to get defensive but to say great, how do I fix it? And to listen to them which is exactly what I did and the same happened with Edison, with Adiso, with all of the characters of colour in the book and really it was just scratching the tip of the iceberg, there’s so much more that I could have written about that they shared with me but I only had you know a certain amount of pages, it’s already a long book.
The other bit of research that was also very eye-opening and really was about creating a voice other than my own was to work with white supremacists and I met with two men who were former white supremacists. The first is a man Timzar, he grew up in Orange County, California in a very privileged home, he ran with a very violent crowd of skinheads. One night he beat up a gay man and left him bleeding out in the street expecting him to die. Years later when he got out of the movement he wrote a letter to the Rabbi at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre which is a ... like a museum of tolerance in LA and he apologised to him ‘cause at one point he had written the guy some nasty note or something so the Rabbi wrote him back and said why don’t you come work for me? And he did, he gave talks every day about leaving a life of hate. One day he’s in the cafeteria and he looks up and there’s the man that he beat up and left for dead leading a group, a tour group through the cafeteria. Well their eyes met, they wound up sitting down over a period of months, there were apologies, forgiveness, they are now friends, they spend holidays at each other’s houses and every day they give talks about their experience to different groups.
The other man I spoke with is a guy named Frankie Meek. Frankie ran a very violent crew in Philadelphia and at one point he was in jail and he realised in jail that he had more in common with the black kids than he did the white kids. He basically would go to Bible study with them, he would talk to them about the girls they missed and the food that they missed on the outside. When he got out his first job was to work for a Jewish man and he had been told his whole life that Jewish people will try to steal all your money, rob you out of what you're owed. So he had contracted with this guy and the night before his contract was up the man called him into his office and he thought here it comes, he’s going to stiff me on my salary and the Jewish man said to him you’ve done such a great job, I’d actually like to pay you double what I contracted you. And Frankie began to realise how many exceptions to the rule did there have to be before you have to change the rules.
They both taught me that skinheads today are very different than the skinheads that we know from the ‘80s, they don’t go around with shaved heads and Dock Martins in suspenders. They basically look like us and they are online presences, they are trying to create fear and incite hate through posts on social media. They work individually or in small cells. They’ll go into communities and make it look like there are many more of them that there actually are so they might leave The Final Call from the Nation of Islam underneath the windshield wipers of all the cars in a template parking lot for example. And they told me that today you can still go into rural places like where I live in the United States where skinheads are stockpiling weapons for the coming racial holy war and you can go to their Arian Independence Day celebrations or their Hitler’s birthday celebrations in the spring where you camp out, you listen to white power bands, you bring the kids ‘cause there are kid games like pin the star on the Jew or a piñata that is an African American man hanging from a noose. You can go target shooting and the targets are of President Obama or Martin Luther King Junior. It’s 2016, someone is making those products in my country.
AH: All of those elements are in the novel and it’s fantastic to get an insight into the writer’s mind and how you borrow unashamedly from the things that you ...
JP: Completely and here's the thing that you need to know about Turk, when you read Turk I cut 80 pages of his narrative, 80 pages, there was so much more I could have said.
AH: In some ways I’m waiting for you to release then the extras because I reckon I might have liked to have heard more from Turk and we were ...
JP: You might be the only person, Andrea.
AH: It’s a matter of life and death, Jodi. And we laugh but not really. What’s interesting about the juxtaposition too of the both of them for me anyway, and I wonder how much of this you intended, was the divide between the city and the country and we see again ... this is something that’s also played out in the United States election ... is that dialogue and it’s interesting to me because it’s something that we have in Australia as well but it does seem very fixed in the way that the American people think about themselves and the more you sort of reflect on it the more you sort of say well yeah, it’s everything from in Superman you know where you’ve got them growing up in the nice honest family going off to the big yeah city where all the bad stuff happens or it’s The Hunger Games or it’s Deliverance. Do you know what I mean? It’s everywhere ...
JP: It’s one or the other.
AH: ... within the American narrative, that’s right and it seems that that’s almost as though that’s the mythology that the white supremacists tell themselves and something that city people almost feel guilty for being is that little bit better off and privileged. The class is very much at the centre of this novel as well.
JP: Right and you honestly ... class and race are so intertwined that it’s a little bit like making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, after you make it, if you pull the halves apart, you can’t take the jelly off the peanut butter and vice versa, it’s still all intermingled. And honestly there’s no way to talk about class in the United States without looking at racial discrimination over a period of centuries.
AH: But what we found here though was that the white people were very much at the lower end of the class spectrum and that’s something that perhaps is not represented terribly well in novels these days, it was the black woman who was middle class.
AH: And that was very interesting to me.
JP: And it’s also very threatening to the white patriarchy of society you know it is quite honestly why we have President Elect Trump. The people who were voting for him were people who feel disenfranchised, white people who feel like their jobs and their stories and their success has been stolen by people of colour and by immigrants when really that’s unfortunately not the case, yeah.
AH: So in a novel like this are you telling us too a story about class?
JP: I don’t think there’s ... yeah.
AH: What do we need to understand about class?
JP: Well I think what we need to understand is that cycles of poverty come about because of opportunities that are not afforded to people of colour as opposed to white people and we all know poverty is a cycle and it’s a very hard one to break. Racism is not just personal prejudice, racism is systemic and institutional and we have done a gloriously good job in the United States of keeping people of colour down because of those institutions and those systems, everything from education to healthcare to jobs you know finance, everything. That’s why when people say this is a class issue, not a race issue it’s a totally specious argument.
AH: To me the book is a series of epiphanies, the characters are continually learning stuff about themselves ... all your books are and that’s one of the most exciting things I think, is that you go along learning with them, it’s almost like an after-dinner game of ethics if you like you know how would you ...
JP: It’s the worst after dinner game ever.
AH: Well exactly because you’d go out not speaking to some of your friends ever again after what you find out about them. But to me then it’s interesting too because as they each have epiphanies they help each other with this stuff and I wonder if you might read a little more for us. That passage, for those of you who’ve read the book, where Ruth take ... Ruth, the nurse, takes Kennedy, the lawyer, shopping and I think that this was a nice illustration of how well you captured both experience and language to a lesser degree because you were I think probably very kind to yourself and didn’t go too far down the different kinds of lingo that people use in America because it is an area that’s fraught, isn’t it? But the sharing of experiences perhaps an eye-opener for many people.
JP: So now I’m not Ruth anymore, now I’m Kennedy and ... which means I’m a white woman who is a public defender, an attorney who would never consider herself to be a racist. I mean most of her clients are people of colour as a matter of fact so how on earth could she ever be a racist, right? But Ruth has a pretty magical way of showing her that perhaps she is a racist.
I am starving so I grab a box of caramel corn from a display and open it as we talk only to find Ruth staring at me. What are you doing? She asks. Eating, I say, my mouth full of popcorn. Take some, it’s my treat. But you haven’t paid for it yet. I look at her like she’s crazy. I’m going to obviously when we leave, what’s the big deal? I mean ... but before she can answer we are interrupted by an employee. Can I help you find something? She asks, looking directly at Ruth. Just browsing, Ruth says. The woman smiles but she doesn’t leave, she trails us at a distance like a child’s toy being dragged on the string. Ruth either doesn’t notice or doesn’t choose to notice. I suggest gloves or a nice winter scarf but Ruth says her mother has one lucky scarf she’s owned forever and she’d never trade up. Ruth keeps up a steady patter of conversation until we find a section of bargain basement DVDs. This might be fun, I could do up a whole bunch of her favourite shows and package them with microwave popcorn and call it movie night.
She begins sifting through the barrels of DVDs, Saved by the Bell, Full House, Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. Dawson’s Creek, I say, man, does that take me back. I was absolutely going to grow up and marry Pacey. Pacey? What kind of name is that? Didn’t you ever watch it? Ruth shakes her head. I’ve got about 10 years on you and if there was ever a white girl show this was it. I reached deep into the barrel and pull out a season of The Cosby Show. I think about showing it to Ruth but then hide it underneath a box of The X Files because what if she thinks that the only reason I’m picking it is the colour of their skin but Ruth plucks it out of my hand. Did you watch this when it was on TV? Of course, didn’t everyone? I say. I guess that was the point, if you make the most functional family on TV a black one maybe white folks won’t be quite as terrified? Don’t know that I’d use the words Cosby and functional in the same sentence these days, I muse, as the TJ Maxx employee walks up to us once again. Everything alright? Yeah, I say, getting annoyed, we’ll let you know if we need help. Ruth decides on ER because her mother has a crush on George Clooney along with mittens that have real rabbit fur sewed along the edges. I pick up a pair of pyjamas for Violet and a pack of undershirts for Micah.
When we walk up to the cash register the manager follows us. I pay first, handing over my credit card to the cashier and then wait for Ruth to finish her transaction. Do you have any ID? The cashier asks. Ruth pulls out her licence and social security card. The cashier looks at her and then at the picture on the licence and rings up the items. As we’re leaving the store a security guard stops us. Ma’am, he says to Ruth, can I see your receipt? I start to rummage in my bag so he can check mine too but he waves me away. You’re fine, he says dismissively. That’s when I realised that Ruth didn’t want me to come here with her because she needed help picking out a present for her mother. Ruth wanted me to come here so I could understand what it was like to be her.
AH: How did you get that lived experience just right?
JP: All those women of colour, every single one of them had had that experience. And you know in the United States my moderators in conversations like this, many of them were people of colour, all of them said that scene, oh my gosh, that scene and they’d all had it, all of them. And I remember, I remember when I wrote the scene and Kennedy ripped open the bag of caramel corn and all of these black ladies were like [intakes breath], you would never do that and I was like really? And they said no, absolutely not, never, I mean you just wouldn’t because you’d wind up with security.
AH: It’s interesting, isn’t it? To think about the difference between the two.
JP: Totally, yeah.
AH: So you’ve talked about getting the voices right, that’s fine and you said you haven’t had much blowback about representing characters that are very different from you and even when they’re racially different from you which is the difficult area but how do you feel about the notions of cultural appropriation? And it’s a conversation that for those of you who are literary lovers here you’ll be aware of Lionel Schriver doing the introductory address at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival and she touched on that and what she said was I hope the fad of cultural appropriation goes away soon. And it did cause quite a ruckus at the time, a number of writers of colour got up and walked out and there was you know newspaper articles to ... all the way to Sunday, really. And then ...
JP: ... Shriver went on time.com and dug herself in even deeper hole which was fabulous.
AH: Look, she has a talent for digging herself holes, this is not about her but I think this is about your views.
JP: No but you know what? It is about her and I’m going to tell you why, cultural appropriation is a very real issue. Cultural appropriation is about taking a narrative that traditionally belongs to a group that has not had a voice and a white writer taking over it and writing it. I want you to imagine what it would be like if you had a story that was truly yours to tell and you had been kept out of telling it for hundreds of years because it was always harder to be published as an author of colour and then some white person comes along and writes your story. Imagine how upsetting that would be. When Lionel Schriver gets up at the Brisbane Writers’ Conference and puts on a sombrero and makes fun of cultural appropriation that is wrong. She is not only not taking seriously the real struggle of people who are living in oppression but she is making it all about her. For her to say when is this fad over? When are people going to stop telling me what I can and cannot write is so short-sighted. Look, you should never write somebody else’s story.
When you set out to write, a responsible writer says why am I doing this? Am I writing other, am I writing a voice of colour because I want to profit off somebody else’s pain? And if the answer to that is yes then step away, drop the pen. If however you are writing a story that you feel an audience needs to hear, perhaps an audience that looks like you, which is my case, and you really do feel that it’s best served by having a voice like Ruth as part of the mix then you stop and say okay so how do I do this as best I can? And the answer is you find people who have lived that story, you listen to those people, you mark down what they tell you, you make them your sensitivity readers and when they say to you this doesn’t work you don’t go oh no, no but I meant it like this. You never defend yourself, instead you listen to them and you let them teach you.
And you know that is ... I’m never going to be a black woman, ever. I can approximate authenticity and what I can do is write a book that hopefully will open up the eyes of people who look like me enough that they will then really want to know what it is like to be a person of colour in my country. And should they come to me for that? Absolutely not, they should go to amazing African American authors you know people like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Colson Whitehead and Jasmine Ward and Jacqueline Woodson and Tony Morrison and Gloria Naylor and Nicola Yune and I mean dozens and dozens of other amazing writers. If you’re not reading those people you are missing out on some incredible writing and you’re also missing out on a chance to broaden your mind. If you only read people who look and sound like you you’re never going to grow. So cultural appropriation, yes, it’s real. No, don’t ever talk about it wearing a sombrero. And three, make sure that if you choose to write other ‘cause there is no fiction police, no one sits behind me and says oh you can’t do that, no-one’s ever going to tell Lionel Schriver what not to write but if you make the choice to write it do it responsibly, do it authentically and do it with care and empathy most of all.
AH: And fourthly when you go home and you download the podcast of this evening I’d like you to write down the names of all of those authors ...
JP: And they’re all on my website too, yes.
AH: I am mindful of time and we’ve got a little more time before it’s your chance to ask questions of Jodi and I hope you’ve got a few sorted up and Jodi here has really just taken us into the world of how authors also go about their craft and it’s very much craft what you do. The fact that you spend so much time researching the characters who aren’t like you and you have so many different characters in your books who aren’t like you, how do you find the time and how do you find the headspace to keep all of these characters in there and real? And it’s not like you recycle many characters in your book.
AH: There’s a few who make reappearances but it’s not common. What, do they all just sit there and have a party after dark?
JP: No, they really do. Honestly, th ... this ... I have said this for a long time, these characters ... ideas come to me through questions I can’t answer, things that keep me up at night mostly, things I worry about as a wife, a woman, an American, a mother and if I keep thinking about it it’s probably a great idea for a book and if I keep thinking about it characters kind of pop up like little mushrooms and they do start speaking to me, I hear them very clearly. I have long said the difference between writing and schizophrenia is a pay cheque and you know and they’re very, very real in my eyes so ... and in my ears and I really just ... I sit back and I listen. And there is a point where I kind of shut them up and then I go do a lot of research because then they become much more three-dimensional for me and that’s usually you know my process. And then I let them start talking again.
AH: Why are so many of them lawyers?
JP: You know I don’t know, I think it’s because I ... I have a real problem with the fact that ... I don’t know much about the Australian justice system but in the American justice system if you don’t communicate a certain way it is very hard to get a fair trial and I think that really upsets me. I’m not an attorney, I keep hoping someone’s going to give me an honorary JD degree but it hasn’t happened yet. You know but I think I keep coming back to that. Also because when you do write a trial it is a very natural dramatic conclusion you know you feel it’s snowballing to the verdict. In this case it allow ... I ... the entire trial of this book was so that I could have a moment in Kennedy’s voice to really wave a flag of equity.
AH: It does seem like a nice stage, I think.
AH: Often when we, the readers, get to the end of your books and I mean they're hefty and there’s a lot going on, we feel a bit rung out. Do you feel a bit rung out after writing them?
JP: I do, I do and I mean I ... especially with this book. I mean what I am asking all of you to do is to learn what I learnt which is even though we don’t talk about race doesn’t mean we’re not part of the problem. And that racism is not just prejudice, it’s prejudice plus power which means that even if you took every skinhead and shipped them off the planet there would still be racism here. Why is that? Because of all the people with light skin. In Australia, in America, if you have light skin you have all the power and that is the opposite side of racism and you know it’s very easy of us to see the headwinds of racism, to know that there are ways that racism keeps people of colour from achieving success. It’s a lot harder for us to admit to the tailwinds of racism, the ways that white people get lots of opportunity and advantages just ‘cause we’re born this colour and it could be something simple, it could be that you were rented an apartment because your landlord didn’t want to rent to somebody of colour. Now you may never have known that, that didn’t keep you from getting the apartment, though. You may think you went to a great school because you studied really hard.
Well that could be true, it also could be because your mum was there when you were four years old to read to you every night and instil those educational values. Someone indigenous might have had a mum working two or three jobs who wasn’t there and that kid was always playing catch-up in school. When you begin to unravel that you see that all this luck and hard work you’ve attributed to your success may not actually be quite so much luck and hard work but just a lot of opportunity that other people did not have. And most of all what I hope you take away from this book, like I did, is that when we talk about race we are going to make mistakes, we are going to screw up, I’m going to screw up. It is still better to say I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you, thank you for teaching me that, I’m moving forward than to not talk about it at all because you are part of the problem, you need to be talking about this even in places when people of colour are not around.
AH: And finally I would say there are characters in all of your books including in this one who are not very nice characters, they’re not palatable characters but you always find the core of humanity in them somehow. How hard is it to find that humanity in those characters as they appear to you?
JP: Yeah, I will say that when I wrote Turk, every day that I wrote him I would have to go downstairs and take a shower. I just felt dirty in his head and I hated the fact that I could start typing the N word and it wouldn’t even faze me after a few minutes,that made me feel sick. But something happens to Turk that is in my opinion one of the worst things that anyone could suffer and so you will find yourself feeling empathy for this very awful individual whose hopefully beliefs do not match yours. I don’t believe anyone’s black or white, ever and even Ruth has moments where she does thinks that are unlikable you know and she is by far the shining light in the story. But I don’t think anyone is 100% of one thing, good or evil, I think we are all combinations and I think if you really want your fiction to reflect the world you have to be willing to not create caricatures, you have to create characters.
AH: I think that’s a good time to put you over to our audience.
JP: Thank you.
AH: Now, Jodi, thank you.
[End of Recording]