Ralph Yarl, Defunding Libraries, and (Re)Writing Kansas City: On Crafting New Narratives in a Divided City
José Faus, C.J. Janovy, and Desideria Mesa in Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Visual artist and poet José Faus, journalist C.J. Janovy, and writer Desideria Mesa, join host Whitney Terrell live from the Unbound Book Festival in Columbia, Missouri, to discuss Kansas City’s literary legacy and its future. The group focuses on new book ban legislation, as well a white homeowner’s recent shooting of Black teenager Ralph Yarl, who mistakenly knocked on his door.
Mesa reflects on the Mexican boxcar community and how that history is still relevant and present in the city today. Faus talks about the Latino Writers Collective and The Kansas City Defender, two prominent Kansas City literary forces. Janovy discusses recent legislation restricting the rights of transgender people in Kansas and Missouri and a vote by the Missouri House of Representatives to defund libraries. Each author reads a short section of their work.
Check out video excerpts from our interviews at Lit Hub’s Virtual Book Channel, Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel, and our website. This episode of the podcast was produced by Rachel Layton and Anne Kniggendorf.
From the episode:
Whitney Terrell: I feel like all of you are representing new ways of thinking about what has been a really monolithic literary tradition. We’re talking about white cisgender men, right, but now, there’s going to be a different world for Kansas City. Kansas City is much more diverse, and it has always been diverse, but it’s allowing diversity into the literature, into power, in some ways.
Anyway, so speaking of older issues, and an old way of thinking about race in Kansas City and racism, most people are going to be familiar with Ralph Yarl’s story. On April 13, he was picking up his twin brothers, and he rang the doorbell at the wrong house in North Kansas City. He’s Black; he’s 16 years old, and an 84-year-old white man, Andrew Lester, shoots him twice through a glass door. Miraculously, he survives, which I’m very thankful for. I’m sure we all are.
The shooter, Andrew Lester, is taken into custody and then pretty quickly released by the Kansas City Police Department. Four days after the shooting, local prosecutors say they haven’t received a criminal referral from KCPD. Later that day, word comes out that Lester will be charged with first degree assault, which is basically attempted murder. How does this fit within this traditional literary framework? This area that you were talking about, that we’ve been attempting to define?
Desideria Mesa: Sadly, in a lot of ways. One of the things I recognized when I was doing my research, especially in regard to my family, the Mexican community, the boxcar community down by the river bottoms, for example, in the early 1900s, obviously, you know, race was a huge deal at that time, to even be able to purchase property if your skin was darker at all. I think about that, and I think about this story today, with Ralph, and how a lot of the same narratives with race, with women’s rights—there’s so many things—that have not changed.
That’s what shocked me, when I was reading the articles and the editorials from the Kansas City Star of what was going on at that time. Honestly, I look at that, and it just tells me that there’s so many stories that we have left to tell. I really hope that we can change the scene with Kansas City stories and begin celebrating people’s backgrounds and different cultures, and turn the tide from the stories of violence and really embrace a different narrative.
WT: The reason that story became such a huge national stories, because it’s an easily compressed version of fear of the “other,” a complete unawareness, or unwillingness to admit that you live in a city that is diverse. And when somebody who’s not your race shows up at the door, if you’re a white person, you are afraid, and that is the old metaphor, the old paradigm for the city.
I think many, many white people live that way, right? Partly because of the dominant journalistic voice of television, which showed on national and local news, murder, and mayhem always on the east side of the city. If it bleeds, it leads. So you’re seeing lots of crime stories in the ’80s and ’90s, when I was growing up about gangs on the East Side. There’s all this trouble.
So it turns out that Andrew Lester himself is listening to Fox News all the time. His own grandson said that he was radicalized by that. So the stories that we tell about the city influence the way that people act. I mean, this is an obvious example of that, I would say.
DM: I think that’s what I was alluding to, what it made me think of when I was reading the story. I actually know an older woman, she’s in her 70s, and I was very close to her. We went for a walk one day, and there was a Black gentleman that came toward us and she grabbed my hand and walked to the other side of the street and every time we’d go for a walk, she would do that. She’d pull me to the other side of the street. She’d be in fear immediately because of how someone looked and she would mention news stories all the time.
That’s what I’m saying, the narrative surrounding people of color, in particular, is always violence. They’re always the villain in a story, or in the news. I can’t say I know the man’s mindset that committed that, but I mean, I do think that it has a lot to do with culture and narratives.
Whitney: I want to point out that in your novel, your main character is also writing for The Star, so she’s contributing to that dominant voice.
José Faus: Yeah, and I think the one thing that’s really important to realize is that, traditionally, The Kansas City Star has been the media, but The Kansas City Defender, which is organized very much with an agenda in terms of telling stories that are untold. It’s a group of very idealistic journalists that push the story through their website, on IG. I remember, the aunt of Ralph put an emotional appeal, and said look, this happened to my nephew. It hadn’t been on the news at all, and it was that activism of theirs, putting it up there that, the very next day, people who were following that site immediately said, well, we’re going to go and protest.
Over 300 people showed up to protest. And that I think, to me, I still do believe that that is the one positive in the media’s changing. I think it’s becoming localized, and it’s being driven very much by people who want to tell the stories and really realize they’re not going to show up all the time in a news cycle. But they can devote their time to that story. And that made it a national story.
Whitney: I read stories about this in The Kansas City Defender to prepare for this. Could you talk a little bit more about what The Kansas City Defender is?
JF: Oh God, I’d hate to be the voice for them, but I do know that they are very much centered in community, and talking about stories that are not the things that drive newspapers anymore. You know, most stories are feel-good, give you the crime, and then go into some other stories, they rarely stray from that. They concentrate on the stories and they follow through, and they’ve made some mistakes.
They were called out, I think it was an instance where a guy went to a restaurant, got kicked out, the cops came in and basically used his credit card to pay off the bill. It turned out, he was manipulating the situation. The KC Defender was behind the story and said that this guy’s been discriminated against. But the minute they found out the narrative was different, they came out and very boldly apologized. That to me is, I think, the critical difference.
Whitney: Like at Fox News, you just never apologize.
JF: Exactly. You lose, you win, right? Because you don’t go to trial. Nobody sees the stuff. But I think that’s one big difference.
C.J. Janovy: The Defender is a media outlet, run by Black people for the Black community and its unapologetically Black advocacy. And like Jose said, bold.
Whitney: That’s an example of Rewriting Kansas City. It’s a really clear example. I’m glad you brought that up because without that protest, I don’t think this would’ve become a national story. This is some local Kansas City politics for our national audience, but everyone in this audience should know what we’re talking about, how much does the fact that this happened north of the river in Kansas City matter? I can’t think of a single novel, short story, or poem that is set north of the river. Largely because growth in that part of the city is relatively new. Downtown Kansas City is south of the river and downtown is built right on the river for those who haven’t been there. Then the main growth of the city is headed south of there for most of the 20th century.
But now there’s a part of the city that’s grown up north of the river between the airport and downtown because the airport’s out north of the river about a half an hour. So I feel like Andrew Lester is much more likely to live north of that, someone like him is much more likely to live north rather than in my neighborhood, which is pretty racially diverse. CJ, what do you have to say about that? I mean, how can you talk to us about the geography of this issue?
CJJ: North of the river is suburbs. Kansas City is a very sprawling metropolitan area. It’s sprawled very far in all directions. It’s also, very notably, in terms of journalism and fiction, sprawled west into Kansas. That’s where most of the white flight happened during the ’70s when the schools were ordered to be desegregated. Many of the white families fled into Johnson County, Kansas. Whitney, you’ve written one of my favorite books about Kansas City, The King of Kings County, which deals with a lot of those themes as well, so it’s suburban, it’s sheltered. It’s its own bubble north of the river. But north of the river is also becoming more diverse, as are all of Kansas City’s suburbs.
• The Life and Times of José Calderon • “This Town Like That”
• Unbound Book Festival • Fiction/Non/Fiction, Season 5 Episode 12 – Intimate Contact: Garth Greenwell on Book Bans and Writing About Sex • Fiction/Non/Fiction, Season 5 Episode 13 – Censoring the American Canon: Farah Jasmine Griffin on Book Bans Targeting Black Writers • “In Kansas City, Wrong Door Shooting Reopens Questions About Racism” – New York Times • “Missouri House Republicans Want to Defund Libraries. Here’s Why” – PBS News Hour • Latino Writers Collective • Dan Jaffe • Sharat Chandra • Michelle Boisseau • David Ray • Ernest Hemingway • Langston Hughes • Gordon Parks • Gwendolyn Brooks • William Stafford • Evan Connell • Glenn North • Hadara Bar-Nadav • Anne Boyer • The Kansas City Star • Calvin Trillin • The Kansas City Defender • Emanuel Cleaver II • Quinton Lucas • Richard L. Berkeley • Kansas City (Movie) • Jay McShann • William (Count) Basie • Bennie Moten • Charlie Parker • Strawberry Hill • “ACLU Sues Missouri Over Book Ban Law that Pushed School Libraries to Remove Hundreds of Titles” – KCUR • “Racism and Fascism” by Toni Morrison • “Kansas Bans Transgender Athletes from Women’s, Girls’ Sports” – Associated Press • Westboro Baptist Church • “Caitlyn Jenner: The Full Story” – Vanity Fair • “Local Organizations Promote Understanding of Transgender Residents with Billboard” – The Collegian, Kansas State University