Writers on a New England Stage: Jodi Picoult’s latest novel an eye-opening exploration of modern-day racism

  • Jodi Picoult of Hanover will be the featured author on Writers on a New England Stage in Portsmouth next Wednesday. Courtesy photos

Monitor staff
Thursday, October 06, 2016

Jodi Picoult just can’t shake this one.
The Hanover best-selling author has written many novels that tackle controversial topics but none of them have affected her as much as her latest, Small Great Things. In order to write a novel with race and prejudice at the forefront, with a black woman as a main character, Picoult’s had to dig deep into her own life, and was surprised by her own “white privilege” and biases she wasn’t even aware she had.

“The writing of this book has made me realize how incredibly blind I’ve been,” Picoult said. “I cannot not see race – in the news, in interactions, in the room. I can’t unsee what I’ve learned, and I can’t stop talking about it.”

And talk about it she will, as her book tour sets out this week. The book’s official launch was in New York City on Wednesday. She’ll be making a stop at Writers on a New England Stage in Portsmouth next Wednesday night. Talking about modern-day racism and white privilege comes with its own set of concerns, but Picoult said she’s ready for it. She said she is fully aware that she is going to hear it from people who say she has no right to write from a black woman’s point of view and others who will call her a race traitor. But any possible blowback will not sway her.

“I do think it is really hard to talk about racism particularly for white people who are scared of offending people and as a result we don’t talk about it at all. And that’s not okay,” Picoult said. “If I have the opportunity to open a lot of eyes, I’m going to do it.”

One of the places she has already talked about the book is at a Southern Independent Booksellers Association gathering, not exactly the most welcoming space for such a discussion. Up on stage, she talked about her journey writing the book and about racism in general. She talked about what she learned and what she could pass on.

“This was like going into the belly of the beast,” she said. “I heard audible gasps at some things I said, but at the end they gave me a standing ovation.”

That was meaningful enough, but then the one black bookseller, in a sea of 200 booksellers, approached her afterward, crying, and said, “You just don’t understand. I never imagined I would hear something like that here.”

She noted that there are not a lot of authors who tackle modern-day racism; the subject is mostly encapsulated in historical tales.

“It’s really hard and scary to write about it in the modern day, and you definitely open yourself up as a target,” Picoult said.

But don’t tell her this novel is timely, tackling race relations at a time when it seems to be in the spotlight nationwide. That negates 200 years of history, she said, attributing the emphasis on racism in our country to the constant news cycle broadcasting daily acts of violence.

“It’s not as though racism has suddenly blossomed,” she said. “This day and age with 24 hour news cycles . . . it just makes these acts of violence seem urgent and sudden, but I argue that it isn’t that I’ve tapped into anything new.”

Picoult said the process doesn’t end for her with this book, and it won’t either with this tour.

“Often I will finish a topic, and I’m ready to move on . . . but I can’t move on from this,” Picoult said. “If you begin to understand, you are rejiggering your mind to everything around you.
. . . It requires a total seismic shift in your thinking.”

To drive this point home even further, she provides a call to action section on her website, jodipicoult.com. She gives her personal advice on how a reader can start the process for themselves, writing on the site, “I am not a social justice educator, so I can offer advice only as someone who is still a work in progress.”

She says everyone has to interpret it within their own lives and what they think they can do.

“Everyone has their own way, and my way is to write a book. For others it may be bringing it up over Thanksgiving dinner. I can hazard a guess that everyone has a really racist uncle; maybe this is the year you go, ‘Hey you really shouldn’t say that and here’s why.’ ” she said.

Picoult added, “Racism can be perpetuated and dismantled by small acts.”

The story

The gripping novel tackles race and hatred through the story of a 20-year veteran maternity nurse who is taken off a patient’s case per the white supremacist parents’ request. When, through a whirlwind of events that’s just another Tuesday in the maternity ward, Ruth is left alone to monitor the newborn, and he tragically dies, it’s not just the prejudices of a white supremacist affecting the situation anymore; it’s in the criminal justice system, in the neighborhood, in the workplace.

To find the authentic voice of a person of color, Picoult’s research took her to social justice workshops and she sat down with a group of women of color who shared their lives with her, often in the kind of minute detail that an author craves. There was the woman who worried about her baby boy and the morning after another shooting of an unarmed man asked, “How do I teach him to grow up and not be black?”

And the young woman who travels on the bus with a Vasser water bottle, making sure to have the word facing outward when she’s sitting, as if to broadcast to those around her, “I’m safe.”

“These women were kind enough to share this with me so I could vet the voice of Ruth in the book,” Picoult said.

This wasn’t Picoult’s first attempt to write about racism in America, according to her author’s note. But the first time, she felt she couldn’t do justice to the topic.

“I didn’t know what it was like to grow up black in this country, and I was having trouble creating a fictional character that rang true,” she wrote.

But 20 years later, still with a desire to write about it, she discovered a news item about a nurse in Michigan being blocked from caring for a patient because of her skin color and a story began to take shape in her mind, according to the author’s note.

The authenticity of the character was extremely important to her, thus the research. She said she has had people of color read it and she thinks they have been surprised by how well and thoroughly she did her research “and to me that is the highest compliment.”

Not only did Picoult painstakingly research and create a black female character, but she also had to create a staunch white supremacist. She said she found two former white supremacists who had been extremely violent men.

One of them, a man in California, had beaten a gay man and left him bleeding in the street before renouncing his past and atoning for his actions.

Part of his atonement was to begin working for a rabbi, talking to people and groups about his past and hate, and how he left hate behind. While serving that function, he actually encountered the gay man he had left in the street years before.

Now those two men give talks to schools together, a powerful message, Picoult said, and have become friends who spend holidays together with their families.

“Now, if they can make that kind of change, doesn’t it stand to reason that you can make a change in your life?” Picoult said.

Besides that, however, it was an unusual experience for Picoult writing from the point of view of the supremacist character in her book, Turk.

“Every time I wrote Turk, I had to take a shower,” she said. “I felt awful, but then after writing him for a while you become immune to it, then you get to a point where it just flows.”

Picoult likened it to how desensitized we can become to the shootings we see on television and other violence in the news.

“You think sometimes how shocking it is someone being shot, a school shooting, but after being exposed to it for so long, we are like, ‘Oh another one.’ In some ways hate is like that,” she said.