The Epic Tussle: A Conversation with Maurice Carlos Ruffin
Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s first novel, We Cast a Shadow, was published this January by One World Random House. His story “The Children of New Orleans” appeared in AGNI 83, and his work can also be found in The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Massachusetts Review, Kenyon Review, and Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, and elsewhere.
Jennifer Alise Drew/AGNI: Random House compares your writing to that of Ralph Ellison. At the close of Invisible Man, after his narrator falls into a manhole, Ellison writes, “I’m an invisible man and it placed me in a hole . . . and I reluctantly accepted the fact.” Your narrator is a lawyer and father who tries to literally prevent his young biracial son, Nigel, from growing up black. They fight about hats and sun exposure, and eventually about the expensive pills and creams the narrator buys to stop Nigel’s facial birthmark from spreading, deepening, and revealing his blackness. Near the end of the book, your narrator is tricked into falling into a manhole, too, but he carries on, unflinching. Why deny him the classic story arc?
Maurice Carlos Ruffin: My only goal with this book was to tell an honest story. I enjoy a tidy arc as much as the next person, but that choice would have been false for the narrator. He’s come to an understanding of the dangers of racism, and he can’t unsee it. That’s why he makes the choices that he does. And we all know people like that: the ones who become obsessed with a worldview and ride with it regardless of new facts. I’ve known plenty of folks like that. I still do.
Tell me about your decision to leave the narrator unnamed, an everyman.
Late in the book, he says he’s changed some names to protect the innocent. I think his namelessness is a way for him to protect himself from judgment and consequences. But it doesn’t really work, does it? He experiences a ton of consequences! To his credit, I don’t think he sees the story he’s telling as being about himself, so he doesn’t want to center himself by giving his name. It’s really Nigel’s story. He could have easily called the book Nigel.
He’s married to a white woman who fails to see the danger her son is in as a black man. As much as the reader—and, at points, the narrator—wants to believe in Penny’s optimism and the ferocity of her love, Penny’s whiteness is an unchangeable divide. It interests me that the narrator’s only other real friend, Jo Jo, is also white. Why not give him a black ally?
Maybe it’s because friendship can be colorblind. He met Jo Jo in college, and they each saw the other as brothers. Maybe they represent the ideal of what relationships between people of different races can be in the best of all worlds. Of course, Jo Jo is also his drug dealer, so that plays a role too! Jo Jo is kind of the narrator’s Walter White from Breaking Bad. You’d never believe this ordinary man living in the suburbs is a pharmaceutical genius. As for allies of his own race, the narrator has Mama, his cousin Supercargo, and others. But there’s a sense that he probably can’t get away with some of the stunts he pulls if those characters see what he’s doing.
He thinks about the question of colorblindness as he’s applying whitening cream to Nigel: “What if I can ensure that my boy is not perceived as a black man? What if he is simply a man?” But, apart from friendship, colorblindness isn’t really possible in Nigel’s world. Does Nigel’s future mirror our own? It wasn’t so long ago that you’d hear people calling the younger generations colorblind, but we don’t say those things anymore.
I think seeing people’s color is such an engrained part of our culture that it was naïve to think it would go away. It’s funny because in painting this futurescape I was mostly able to rely on our past. One of the big lessons we all learned over the past decade or so is that the past never goes away, especially not the racial past. It’s like a counter-melody playing in the song of America. You can’t sing the song without it.
Our racial past is on full view throughout your book. In the opening scene, your narrator dresses as a Zulu chief at his law firm’s annual costume party to compete with the other two black lawyers, who are dressed as “Stepin Fetchit” and “20 to life.” He agrees to head the diversity committee, and engineers a stereotypically racist ad campaign. He joins a shell civil rights organization, the Blind Equality Group. I don’t want to give anything away, but the narrator takes one path and his son takes quite another.
All of the characters, from the narrator and Nigel to Jo Jo and the narrator’s boss, Octavia, are doing what we all do: just trying to get through the day. It’s telling that the narrator is not an activist. He’s not trying to save the world. He just wants to save his kid. The fierce love that drives a parent to protect their child at all costs leads to unpredictable choices. These characters surprised me constantly.
Which reminds me of something you said here a few years ago: that after you left your master’s program, you were “dangerously close to reverting to what [you] had been earlier in life: a writer who didn’t write. Then the voices came.” Whose voice came to you first, and how did the writing of the book evolve? How much did your other work as a lawyer play in?
When I started, there was no voice. It was a flat, third-person POV that sounded like something you would read in an engineering textbook. My law background provided the facts and details. I’ve been to glamorous but creepy parties like the one that starts the book—I initially found that scene disturbing and bewildering. But then the narrator’s perspective and manner of speaking sprouted forth. He kind of took me by the hand and said, “Follow me and I’ll explain everything.”
Why does he spend so much of the book popping Jo Jo’s “plums” (“plums were sometimes called zombie pills due to their anesthetic effect”)? Is he meant to approximate Ellison’s “sleepwalker”?
When people are in pain, they often turn to something to make life bearable. We see it today with the opioid epidemic, and I read somewhere that something like half of all Americans have used medication for depression and anxiety. The narrator could have gone to therapy or taken up gardening, but he chose plums. They alter his perception, which echoes the different perceptions of the characters, with respect to race. His thoughts on race are astute. Maybe he takes the pills so that he doesn’t have to see so clearly.
Are there scenes you were asked to cut from the novel that you still think of as essential?
Nope. The trimming was essential. My editor, Victory Matsui, is a certified genius.
One of the hardest-hitting passages in your book includes the line, “A dark-skinned child can expect a life of diminished light.” When I finished the last page, Pound’s line from the Cantos, “what whiteness will you add to this whiteness, / what candor?” went through my mind. You write about race with candor and allegory, and this, along with where the characters end up, left me thinking we can’t feel good about the state of race in America any more than Ellison could. Do you think literature has the power to change any of that?
I think literature has the power to open people up to the possibility that some things are even more rotten in Denmark than they thought. Look at how Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle spurred food-safety reform, for example. The real issue is that America’s epic tussle with racism isn’t just a hiccup. It’s an essential part of us. It will take the vast majority of Americans joining together to finally put the monster of racism down for good.
Jennifer Alise Drew is nonfiction editor of AGNI. (2/2019)