By Mark Alpert
This week I did a stint as a driving instructor. My 20-year-old son already has a New York State driver’s license, but he doesn’t have a lot of driving experience, mostly because we don’t own a car. So I found an inexpensive rental car — a Kia Soul, to be precise — and gave my son a few pointers from the passenger seat as he drove across the George Washington Bridge and navigated the New Jersey Turnpike (which was famously referred to as “Murder Incorporated” in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint).
After three days of lessons, my son’s driving skills were much improved. He gained enough confidence to carry on long conversations with me while he changed lanes on the highway and contended with the turnpike’s 18-wheelers. And given the timing of our drives together, in the wake of the horrific murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, it was perhaps inevitable that he would pose the question, “So, Dad, what are you doing to stop police brutality and racism?”
I didn’t join any of the protest marches that crisscrossed New York City this week. I was too afraid of catching Covid-19. And with two kids in college, I don’t have a lot of disposable income right now, so I haven’t made any large monetary contributions to organizations that advocate for police reform. (My son proudly pointed to a $30 contribution he’d made, but he later admitted that he’d used my credit card.) So I began to wonder: is it possible for a novelist to advance the cause of racial justice in his or her books?
My first thought was that writers have an obligation, like doctors, to do no harm. When describing any fictional character — white, black, Latinx, Asian, Native American, whatever — we must be careful to avoid racial stereotypes. Negative stereotypes in novels leave a lasting impression and can reinforce biases in many readers. Just look at the black characters in Gone With The Wind, for example, and consider how the demeaning stereotypes in that book may have influenced readers’ opinions and behaviors in the decades following the novel’s publication in 1936.
Some writers might try to sidestep the problem by simply declining to create characters who have backgrounds that are very different from the author’s. Rather than risk reiterating and reinforcing negative stereotypes, a white novelist might avoid featuring black or Latinx people as major characters. But this strategy seems wrongheaded to me. Do we really want to live a world where whites write only about whites, and blacks write only about blacks, and so on and so forth? Should women avoid writing about men, and men avoid writing about women? Fiction is supposed to be all about empathy and exploration. Shouldn’t we at least make an attempt to understand one another?
I ran into this dilemma when I started writing Young Adult novels. I’ve written four of them so far, The Six trilogy published by Sourcebooks and my latest novel, Saint Joan of New York, which was published by Springer last December. The latter book is a modern-day retelling of the Joan of Arc story. Its heroine is Joan Cooper, a 17-year-old lesbian high-school student who experiences supernatural visitations that are somewhat similar to those experienced by the 15th-century Joan, the famous French warrior and martyr. When I was still writing the novel, someone who’s very knowledgeable about the publishing market for Young Adult books warned me that I might get some irate reactions. After all, I’m a middle-aged, straight man, so how could I tell the story of a lesbian teenager? I would surely make a million embarrassing mistakes.
But I felt confident about telling Joan Cooper’s story because I have a lesbian daughter who was 17 when I was writing the book. I know my daughter well enough to guess what she might say and do and think under all kinds of circumstances, and it was fairly easy to put those thoughts into Joan Cooper’s head. What’s more, my daughter was the first person to read the manuscript, and she made lots of suggestions and corrections that I incorporated into the second draft. She was my “sensitivity reader,” assigned to tell me if anything in the novel was demeaning or careless or just plain dumb. And the extra effort paid off. The book has received some very nice reviews, and an audio version is forthcoming.
I wasn’t as careful with my earlier books. My first novel, Final Theory, featured a black character named Monique Reynolds, a theoretical physicist at Princeton University. Blacks are underrepresented in physics, and so are women, so I thought it would be interesting and refreshing to have a black woman explain the scientific theories in this science thriller. But Monique was stereotypical in other ways, and if I wrote her character now, I would do it very differently.
I think I did a better job in The Coming Storm, which was published by St. Martin’s Press last year. The heroine of that novel is Jenna Khan, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants who settled in Brooklyn, a geneticist who gets into a world of trouble when she refuses to participate in the unethical experiments at her government-run laboratory. Midway through the book, the White House orders a crackdown on New York City, and Jenna gets caught in the crossfire between federal troops and a furious crowd that’s rampaging across Manhattan:
In seconds she reached 88th Street and sprinted down the block, trying to put as much distance as possible between herself and the riot. But as she approached the next intersection she saw an even larger crowd streaming down York Avenue. Hundreds of people ran through the street and vandalized the parked cars, smashing their windshields with bricks and tire irons. Hundreds more thronged the sidewalks and shattered the windows of the stores and apartment buildings… There was an old stone church on the street corner, and Jenna ducked under one of its archways and hid within the shadows. She leaned against the locked door, panting, confused, and watched the rioters hurl things into the bonfire—garbage they’d dumped from cans, side mirrors they’d ripped off the parked cars, armfuls of clothing they’d just looted from the stores. The mob was angry but also ecstatic, ferocious and mesmerized. The rioters hardly knew what to do with themselves now that they’d invaded the Upper East Side, so they did everything at once. They raged and laughed, brawled and clowned, snarled and celebrated. It was anarchic, incomprehensible.
These sentences have come back to haunt me over the past few days. I’m not alone in anticipating that brutality would lead to outrage. Many other writers have foreseen the harsh consequences of the sins committed against our brothers and sisters. So what can we do now? Can we still mend our fractured society? Or is it too late?