The Past Is Never Dead: Maurice Carlos Ruffin and Michael Gorra on the ‘New South’ and Whether Faulkner Still Belongs There
In Conversation with V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell on Fiction/Non/Fiction
In this week’s episode of Fiction/Non/Fiction, co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan are joined by acclaimed novelist Maurice Carlos Ruffin and Pulitzer finalist in Biography Michael Gorra for a conversation about whether demographic changes are finally making the South new. We Cast a Shadow author Ruffin muses on what racial equality looks like in a futuristic South, and ponders whether political compromise can stabilize the oppositional nature of the United States. Then Gorra discusses his book, The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War; and considers the intricate set of limitations that come with writing from multiple fictional perspectives.
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This podcast is produced by Andrea Tudhope.
With Maurice Carlos Ruffin
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Maurice, your book [We Cast A Shadow] depicts a near-future America in which dangers for people of color, and specifically Black people, have gotten much, much worse. It’s set in an unnamed Southern college town and your narrator, an unnamed African American father, goes to great, great lengths to try to save his mixed-race son from American racism. The dial of everything is just turned way up. How did you decide to imagine that version of the future through fiction?
Maurice Carlos Ruffin: I think it’s a few things. When I started writing it, actually, the book was not going to be about that at all. It was more about economic issues and my narrator trying to help his parents survive in Great Recession-era America. But then Trayvon Martin was murdered. And that really made me revise my thinking on it. I just wanted to explore what was going on, but I wanted to explore what was going on through the lens of: Where’s it going to go next? I think I understood intuitively that whenever there’s a movement towards equality, there’s always a reaction from “conservative” people. We had Barack Obama in office, we had an era of—it seemed like improvement in race relations; things sort of calmed down. And it just seemed like things were going to get a lot crazier a lot faster than in the past. So I speculated—well, if I fast-forward a few decades, where’s it going to go if we don’t correct some of these issues? And frankly, as I was writing it, I was doing a lot of research on the way that minorities are treated in various countries around the world—whether it be places in Europe, places in Africa, places in Southeast Asia—and looking at how similar a lot of these things were. Even now, after the books have been published, thinking about Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, where she talks about how the Nazis went to the American South to get ideas on how to oppress Jewish people, and reminding people in Germany—it’s all very connected.
Whitney Terrell: In my imagination of the book, the setting is New Orleans, right?
MCR: More or less. I think anybody who’s familiar with the city will recognize it. But people who don’t know New Orleans—they can see it, it’s almost any American city, but it’s definitely a southern city. I was using some techniques from writers like Colson Whitehead, like he did in his book The Intuitionist, and Lolita by Nabokov, where sometimes you don’t really know where they’re at or when they are, and that sort of adds to a sense of, “wow, this could be happening right now or could be happening 100 years from now.” I love that effect in a story.
WT: The thing that’s interesting about your book, which posits this South where racial attitudes have gone backwards. I heard a really interesting podcast the other day from FiveThirtyEight, where they were talking about the possibility—FiveThirtyEight, the polling site that is run by Nate Silver—that reliably progressive and Democratic states in the upper Midwest, like Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, are actually trending in the direction of the Republicans because the Republicans are advancing this, like, “We only care about white people” platform and there are many more white people there, right? Whereas the South, which has been reliably Republican for many, many years, is actually becoming increasingly diverse, and so the directionality of the voting is tending Democrat there. Virginia is already a Democratic stronghold at this point, and North Carolina is kind of on the edge; Georgia almost elected Stacey Abrams. I wondered where you think things are headed in the South right now—not in your terrible future that you’ve imagined for us. But now, as a voting bloc coming forward in this election.
MCR: The thing about it is that everything is provisional. I think it is true that the pandemic, for example, has accelerated the tendency of people to not work in offices. I spent over a decade working as a lawyer in the 30th and 40th floors of various buildings. Some people are saying that now, because you don’t have to live in a city to make a living, people may go to suburbs and exurbs and they may go to rural areas like Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee. We’ve already seen that with Florida somewhat, with Georgia somewhat, as you mentioned. And so it’s possible that we may see another reverse—we’ve seen it in the past—where if you were a Republican in the Lincoln era, that meant you were for equal rights, civil rights, right? And it reversed between the 30s and the 60s, and by the 1970s, if you were Republican, you were for segregation. You liked George Wallace, you liked Nixon. These things go back and forth, and these alignments are part of the way that we Americans think. We’re very oppositional. This is a nation that really likes the fact that when you go into court, often it’s a “winner take all” system.
I do have a slight worry that we are in this second American Civil War where maybe you can’t reconcile things, and we just decide, you know what? Let’s just leave the coast to the blue folks and then take the entire middle part of the country and give it to the red folks. I can’t say that that’s going to happen; I think that we are going to compromise. The problem with some of our compromises is that we give up so many rights, that eventually there are no rights left for certain people, whether they are Black folks or minorities or queer people, you name it. I think the real trick here is that even in the current election, if you are anti-Trump, you’re going to vote for Biden. Chances are Biden won’t give the young Left and be really far-wing Left what it wants, whether it’s defunding police, whether it’s ensuring that voting rights are protected. So if those people are feeling disenfranchised, we’re kind of back where we started. That’s just the way things are here. It is a country where we’re so heterogeneous, where we have to keep on making these compromises, even if it means that some people don’t have any of the rights of the mainstream part of America.
VVG: One of the really enjoyable things about your book for me is all the cool, subtle, historical references and really data-specific things. When I was looking up current news coverage about the Southern strategy, which was an official strategy of the Republican Party, which dates back to the Nixon era where they articulated it and named it and were like, “No, we don’t actually need the nation to come with us. All we need is the South. All we need is the electoral votes of 11 Southern states.” I’m thinking here of a recent Paul Waldman column in the Washington Post where he was like, “that worked for the Republican Party last time around, and I don’t think that that’s going to work this time.” And I really, really hope that he’s right. But I’m curious, considering it’s a speculative future, in certain parts, there are these data references that are very interesting. Can you talk a little bit about that?
MCR: Part of the project was to turn the temperature up to 11. And I think it’s one of the reasons why people debate whether it’s truly a dystopian novel or not. If you’re one of the white characters in the novel, it’s not dystopian for you, for the most part, at least in your personal being. You’re not being tracked in the same way as the Black characters. Literally, every Black character in this city is being tracked by their own personal surveillance van.
WT: It’s like Trump got what he wanted. And this is what, I feel like, the Nationalist Right would like America to be like in the future.
MCR: Yeah, and the thing is, I finished the book before Trump was elected; I finished it in 2016. So this was during the election. I think he had just won the Republican nomination ahead of the convention, but I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. Even to the point where there’s a character in the book running for mayor, who sort of, in my mind, sounds like Rush Limbaugh, but he also sounds like Trump, where he’s like, take the immigrants and put their heads on stakes, and all of this overblown rhetoric, which has become the norm. It used to be the idea of dog whistle politics, and now it’s the megaphone politics, where he literally says, “hey, all you white folks in the suburbs: we’re going to keep the poor Black folks and minorities out.” So now the subtext is just the text. And it shows you that people are willing to embrace that. He has not really suffered in the polls in saying those things; the polls have been remarkably stable. It tells you that people are now going to be outwardly racist and anti-Black and anti-minority as much as possible, and feeling no side effects from that.
With Michael Gorra
V.V. Ganeshananthan: The question we’re asking in this episode is: will the South ever be new, both politically and in literature? On the one hand, we have the very familiar white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville in 2017. But on the other, Stacey Abrams nearly won her race for Senate in 2018, and Virginia is reliably blue, and Georgia and North Carolina seem like they could be headed that way. What would the author of the phrase “the past is never dead; it’s not even past” think about today’s South?
Michael Gorra: That’s a wonderful question. You know, I think there’s one thing, honestly, that I can say he would be horrified by, and that’s freeways. Freeways, strip malls, shopping centers, Walmart—all of that. He wouldn’t like any of that. He didn’t like stores in general. I was thinking about this in response to your question, and Faulkner died right before the University of Mississippi was integrated, right before James Meredith became the first Black student at the University of Mississippi. During the riots around that, one of his nephews was in the National Guard trying to ensure that Meredith was allowed to enroll. One of his nephews was on the other side of the white rioters who were trying to keep Meredith from enrolling. Faulkner, in the 50s, was worried that white people would kill any Black person who tried to enroll at the South’s flagship universities. He thought they should be integrated, but he was afraid of the reaction, so his response to the events was to say go slow, and that was not an answer. You can’t go slow. James Baldwin rightly took him to task for that. I do think Faulkner would like seeing the way in which the South has, in some large measure, integrated the enrollment of Black students at universities—a large Black middle class in Atlanta. I like to think he would like that.
On the other hand, I will also say he would not be at all surprised by the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville. I don’t think he would be surprised by the rise of the militia movement. He had an understanding of that sort of deep-seated racial violence in the white people he’d grown up with. He was not sympathetic to it, but he knew it. In some ways, we can’t really say what he would think. We’d have to abstract him completely from his time, put him down in our time—it’s been 60 years since he died. But I think in terms of particular phenomena, we might be able to say he would be surprised at the degree of integration that the South has achieved. He would not be surprised at our current moment—at the backlash against that. I don’t think he’d be surprised at that at all. Not the man who wrote that horrifying lynching story, Dry September.
Whitney Terrell: That was the first story that I ever read about lynching. It wasn’t something we talked about in my family, growing up in Kansas City. That was an incredibly powerful story. I’ve never forgotten it.
MG: That’s a scary story because you get a sense of how one word can set people off. It can make things happen that you don’t anticipate. I think it’s utterly, utterly chilling.
WT: It’s still useful for understanding how police killings are happening now, today, I think.
MG: Exactly. There’s another moment in Light in August that I’ve written about, about police violence and the African American suspicion of the police, where the police are investigating a murder and the sheriff says to the deputy, “go get me an n-word.” Anyone will do it because they’re just going to beat it out. They don’t expect a confession from it, they don’t think that the man they pick up has done it, but they think he will know something. And the police are willing to beat that knowledge out of him. Faulkner has a sort of uncanny understanding of the way that works.
WT: Here’s my high school copy of The Unvanquished. This is the first Faulkner novel that I read—I colored in the title as you can see. It’s falling apart. I went on ahead to read everything because I was moved by him as a writer. But in the book I’m working on now, I have a scene in which a young, Black high school student in the 80s is reading that book. I’m trying to imagine what it would be like for him, and how different it would have been for me. It’s one of the few books that Faulkner set during the Civil War, so I thought that we should start there and talk about how and why you decided to write about Faulkner’s relationship to that war—because that’s what your book is about—and what that relationship can tell us about the South, or America, in general, today.
MG: In some ways I started out to write a book about the Civil War. Not so much about Faulkner—not in its first conception. Very quickly, it became about Faulkner. I was living in Paris briefly: I’m an academic, I was on sabbatical, I’ll confess, it was good. But it was 2010; I was hearing news about the Tea Party. I was reading the Disunion column in the New York Times, which followed the course of the war week by week. And I started—as I was reading Disunion and reading the news about the Tea Party—to see all kinds of connections and echoes, as if that time and ours were fusing together, which is a very Faulknerian thought. And I thought: most of my scholarly works before that had been about British things, Post-Colonial things. Even when I was writing about James, I was interested in James as a cosmopolitan figure. It made me more interested in America, and I realized I wanted to write as an American about America. I saw that as an act of citizenship as much as of scholarship. So the Civil War was the obvious point for that. But I thought: how can I organize that thing? And also, what do I know?
WT: I mean, you’re you’re a Yankee—we have to admit that!
MG: I am a Yankee. I have the full panoply of Yankee prejudices. But I’d always been reading Faulkner. I’ve been reading Faulkner since the moment I graduated from college and was given As I Lay Dying to teach at summer school as a student teacher. And I thought, well, I love Faulkner. And I thought I could put those two together. And then I began to realize that the Civil War seemed to determine everything in Faulkner’s world, but he rarely writes about it directly. And that became kind of an interesting nut to crack.
The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War · Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece · The Bells in Their Silence: Travels Through Germany · The English Novel at Mid-Century: From the Leaning Tower · After Empire: Scott, Naipaul, Rushdie
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Andrea Tudhope and Emily Standlee.