Category Archives: In Lickskillet
The flag blocks the view for other drivers, an obstruction to traffic. The truck too seems too large for Charleston’s streets. They are heading downtown to join the Confederate Day of Flagging. A few weeks ago, the South Carolina Secessionist Party organized a “flagging” of Charleston during the Southeastern Wildlife Expo and parked this same truck atop a garage overlooking Marion Square. The flag drew the ire of local activists, and by the day’s end, the city of Charleston had released a statement disallowing flags or banners of any kind in parking garages. But groups like these were not stupid, not as stupid or clueless as I once believed. Before they drew attention for their stunt at Marion Square, they had spent the past few years posting men on the corner of Battery Park in south Charleston, and there they took turns carrying the flag. I used to work downtown in a restaurant and would see them every Saturday morning when parking my car along the Battery. They were still here, still dedicated to their cause. Years ago, when writing my first book, I interviewed several people like this. I wanted to know why people still fetishized the Confederate flag, while disavowing their connections to white supremacy.
We’re not racists, they said, we just don’t like how things are going.
And how are things going? I had asked in my initial interviews.
The answers were often the same. The president was black. Mexicans were taking all the jobs. Muslims were infiltrating the US government, and they were always planning an attack. No, not New York. Here, and here! In Jackson, Orangeburg, Sparturnburg. They would blow up the water tower, the local factory, the beach boardwalk.
I pressed these people, didn’t they think these views were racist?
No, not racist, not them. They were, in their words, only pragmetists.
I wonder if I spoke with the same people today if they would bother brushing off that title of “racist,” or more suitably “white supremacist.” I wonder if the Confederate flaggers, their trucks too big for Charleston roads, their stars-and-stripes banners blocking traffic, fluttering in the breeze as the truck presses forward, a mechanical roar escaping its hood, if they identified as “white supremacists?”
When the hate crimes began, which are– maybe we agree– more heinous than the Confederate flagging, we asked ourselves, “But where did these people come from?” Were they not living in the woods somewhere, toothless hicks? How did they move from white-sheets meeting to Facebook groups? How did they gain such prominence and why have we been sitting around waiting for it to just stop, as if it will “just stop?”
The problem, I think, is we fundamentally misunderstand what white supremacists look like, who they are, and how they are radicalized. In fact, I published a book in February 2016 that absolutely mischaracterized white supremacists, and one year later, after re-reading the book I wrote in high school, I am rethinking how to approach this concept.
But in writing about these people at all, had I somehow given them a platform? Does the desire to “understand” what makes them tick normalize their beliefs? Writing a novel, after all, is almost always an act in empathy. In order to write about these characters, I had to empathize. I had to think hard about what they cared about and how that motivated them. I assumed they cared most about family, that misplaced fear of immigrants and other races somehow fueled these people? Of course, these are underlying motives, but in construing them thus, I painted them as passive actors in a system they could not control rather than humans with agency and choices. White supremacy, especially the organizational variety, is not an ideology ones falls into. It is a choice, is it not? Or at the very least, conscious decisions play a crucial role in the person’s construction of the self.
In early 2016, we were still arguing about Hillary Clinton accepting $675K to speak at Goldman Sachs; progressives named Bernie Sanders’ candidacy as a “dangerous moment,” fearing the rise of social-democratic programs like free college tuition and universal healthcare. These were simpler times, when Donald Trump’s presidential campaign amounted to an amusing circus-like sideshow and white supremacists were visible only on society’s fringes. In fact, Ted Cruz had just beaten out Trump at the Iowa caucus, and liberals everywhere were scoffing at the absolutely bombastic notion that someone as unqualified and self-centered as Trump might ascend to the presidency. This was the world as-is when the book came out, and even then I still spoke– in lectures, readings, and Q&A’s– about how to construe white supremacy.
The reality, of course, is that the project of white supremacy permeates every aspect of our lives: public schools punish young African American students in a manner that funnels them into the prison-industrial system, job markets still favor white employees despite what affirmative-action naysayers might suggest, and the beauty and art industries continue to uphold whiteness as a standard. I was, of course, aware of the greater spectre of white supremacy, but I had been writing about a more visible and visceral racism– not the kind that is systematic and pervasive, but rather the human-embodied variety. In my first book, white supremacists wore white hoods; they feared the rise of immigrants; they manufactured and distributed meth from their trailer park homes; they committed hate crimes. This brand of racism I viewed as marginal, a vestige of Jim Crow era Confederate-loving Southerners still lurking in the backwoods. But I was wrong, because they were not some peripheral population. They were America.
In order to better understand how the visibility and saturation of white supremacy groups have evolved in the past few years, allow me to explain some details about my book, why I wrote it, and how I understood racism at the time of its writing.
In Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, published by PRA Publishing in 2016, a corporate lawyer and his son move to the mid-sized town of Lickskillet, so that the lawyer might defend a man accused of lynching the black ex-mayor. The novel is a satire about race, southern tradition, and backwoods upbringing, featuring a broad cast of characters who include drug-addled idiot savants, half-black soccer players, a trailer park genius, an ultra-rich sadist, a self-conscious granddaughter of a rock music mogul, and a boy who pretends to be someone new in each city he visits.
As the book evolved, I brought in new elements. I have a bad habit, even now, of weaving new narratives into already existing ones– a tendency I adopted from the post-modernist forms of fiction I read throughout my late youth. I began writing the book when I was sixteen years old, after a few years writing manuscripts set in exotic locations. I wanted to write about the South, with a capital ‘S,’ and because I had met the sons and daughters of white supremacists in my high school years, these characters became an integral part of the book’s plot. In the book, the group is named The Knights of Southern Heritage, and their main creed is to preserve the family-oriented, Christian values of the American South.
Family-oriented. Christian. Traditional. Alone, these words might seem innocuous, but they are the subtle signifiers of white supremacy. By promising to uphold family values, white supremacist groups do not mean to preserve families and contribute to education policies and fund agencies aiding single mothers; no, they mean they stand against LGBT rights. The phrase “Christian rights” too seems positive, but these groups are not seeking religious freedom for themselves but rather religious suppression for others. “Religious freedom” for these groups means the liberty to impose their religious will on others who might not share their beliefs. Harkening back to “traditional” values too is a vague precept– what is meant by traditional? Perhaps the nostalgic good-heartedness found in Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show? Sadly, no. Traditional here is coded to mean “white” or “controlled by whites.” By evoking seemingly empty phrases, white supremacist groups may fly under the radar; they may defend their actions as justifiable by cloaking them in euphemistic language.
I made a lot of mistakes in writing Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, and the biggest mistake was painting white supremacists as marginalized people. They were poor, white, desperate. By the book’s end, I made a point of [spoiler] revealing that it had been a member of the elite rich who had murdered the black mayor, not the racist hick who had been first accused. What point had I hoped to make? That just because a man was racist, he might not be guilty of a hate crime? Sure, that’s fine, but it misses a bigger point, one I outlined earlier– white supremacy does not rely just on the individual actions of racist people, but rather the collective passivity of an entire white community.
I began writing Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County in 2010, and it was not published until 2016. In the time between writing the book and its publication, police and citizen brutality against black Americans had become a national talking point. Trayvon Martin had been murdered for walking through the wrong neighborhood. Eric Garner had been choked to death for selling cigarettes. In the year leading up to its publication, I lived in Germany; back home in Charleston, a police officer shot Walter Scott in the back and then planted a taser on his boy. A white supremacist, fueled by an online community, walked into a the Emmanuel AME Church one block from where I had lived and took nine lives. And all this time my ideas about white supremacy, about what constituted racism and its prevalence, shifted dramatically.
Because when I tell people today my book references a lynching, no one bats an eye. It is the opposite of shocking; it is expected. In fact, I was tremendously worried talking about the book because it inadvertently exploited black death in a way I had never before considered. In writing what was essentially a satire, I had resurrected the ghost of black trauma, the ghost of black death, the ghost in a white sheet. Not only does white supremacy operate as a systematic oppressive force in American society today, it operates also as a proactive force.
Last week, gravestones at an upstate New York Jewish cemetery were vandalized (likely by white supremacist groups). Two days ago in Kansas, an Indian man was shot dead by a white man who believed him to be Iranian. Today in South Carolina, another Indian man was shot outside of his home. Hate crimes have been steadily on the rise since November, and while it is popular to link this rise with Trump’s presidency, the acceleration of hate crimes has been ongoing before Trump came onto the scene. What his rhetoric enabled, however, is the normalization of hate.
The Internet– that wonderful utopia and dystopia– is a source well for much of this hate. Log on to any news article related to race-related crimes or immigration, and you will see the outpouring of hateful rhetoric. What language before belonged only in the mouths of white supremacists– condemnation of migrants as inherent criminals, arguments blaming the black community for the terror facing it, blanket-statements concerning Muslim members of the country as universally linked to terrorist organizations. Recall the comments made concerning protesters blocking highways, calls to run them over. People who we might have viewed before as perfectly normal are now calling for the state-sanctioned murder of those who protest the status quo.
Furthermore, white supremacy has evolved, has worn new masks. Consider, for example, the vitriolic spewing of Milo Yiannopoulos or the neo-Nazi rhetoric of Richard Spencer; these men affix a modern varnish to a stale ideology. White supremacists are not simply handing out pamphlets in neighborhoods any more; they are making memes on the Internet. They are organizing via social media, using the same tools used by those who coordinated the Arab Spring. They are both grassroots and high-tech; they are not just hicks. They are web-savvy and able to spin their own narrative into one about free speech, not about the actual ideas they are trying to spread.
The level of intellectual hoop-jumping one must initiate is mind-blowing: even liberals are defending white supremacists in the vein of “protecting free speech,” when that really means “paying them money and giving them a platform to disseminate their racist notions.”
I finished writing Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County when I was eighteen years old, and little changed after that draft. Some scenes changed, of course, while I worked with the publishing company’s editor, and even more changed on a sentence-level. But after 2012, very little content in the book changed. It is a portrait almost of a young white psyche, blind to the vicious and infectious strain of hate spreading through the United States. And white supremacy is not a splinter ideology worthy of satire; it is a growing political reality worthy of extreme consternation.
In 2016, no longer were white supremacists hiding in the “backwoods” or living in trailers. In 2017, this is even more true. In fact, they are living in The White House.
Nobody likes to be put into categories, most of all writers. But categories—or in the world of books, genres—are very helpful for marketing and selling a book. When querying publishing firms and literary agents, one must identify their genre, which helps the editors and agents decide whether the project will fall into their areas of interest. But recently, I’ve had an extremely difficult time placing my novel in a genre, which should be a good thing because agents seek works that cross several genres, except it seriously curtails one’s ability to market himself.
I could easily make up my own genre: Southern comedy transgressive? Meta-cultural southern teen exploration? Young adult, but not that young, but maybe still in their twenties who like funny but also serious writing?
The problem is, if the agent doesn’t recognize the genre, then she or he cannot place it right? I tried literary, but that
can’t just say that: you need a better phrase.
brand is too broad. While my project has literary elements, it certainly could be explained more descriptively. I tried young adult, but this generally means the books is marketed for teens ages 12-15. My novel is marketed toward older teens and 20-somethings. It, like many New Adult novels, tracks the growth and development of young adults whose identities are forming, who are seriously changing.
So maybe your book is a noir space opera western with thriller-paced plotting, literary aesthetic, and occult elements? Well, you need a better way to say that, a shorter way.
As I’ve been e-mailing literary agents, literary magazines, and publishers, this question has plagued me constantly. Finally I found an age-group description “New Adult” with which to market the novel THE HEATHENS AND LIARS OF LICKSKILLET COUNTY. “New Adult” bridges the gap between the safe and young group of Young Adult (YA) readers and Adult fiction. But because my books deals with characters in between, I think this genre (a relatively new invention of words) is fitting.
Querying agents has so far not worked out, but I am still sending many, many emails all over the country (and the world!) to publish this novel, as well as poems and short stories.
Have you had trouble labeling a piece of work? What genre did you settle on?
J.K. Rowling never attended a school for wizards and witches, or at least that is the common theory. Surely, if wizards did exist, might they be outraged that a simple Muggle speaks for their struggles, their experience? What is an experience, or rather “the experience” of any certain group? Maybe Rowling need not fear backlash from wand-wielding cloak-wearers, but what about writers who write outside of their experience?
Not every crime writer started out as a detective or cop or anything more than a college graduate. Beyond the need for clearly explaining the real world aspects of jobs writers may not have, they may approach a lifestyle they have never approached. Generally, when I pick up a book by Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou, I can expect their depictions of growing up black and female in America to be accurate. Of course, those experiences do not encompass everyone’s experience, but they make a good representative example.
But what about when I write about being a black female in America? Could my words be taken just as solidly as theirs? After all, it would merely be a representative experience, right? The problem arises that I don’t know what it’s like to be black or female, and although I could research “what it’s like” and read endless books, I may never really know. That’s okay: I’ll write about it anyways.
Because no one can put their feet in everyone’s shoes. We can do only what we can, right? If I only wrote about bookish middle-class white males from Aiken, South Carolina, I might as well write a memoir. All that Write What You Know tripe, it rings true to a certain extent, but it can seriously mangle creativity. And if you never attempt to replace your eyes with the eyes of another, you’ll never learn their perspective.
I thought about this dilemma while outlining a new story about gay homeless teens in New York. I’m not gay, and I’m not homeless. I’ve never even been to New York, but I still think I can write the story. Of course I’ll do research, just like I did research when Is tarted my newest novel about boxing. I did not know anything about boxing culture or rules or even dress, but I learned. You read and read and talk to people who know what it’s like to be whoever you’re writing. Often, I base my stories off of real-life events or ideas or groups, but I don’t pretend to be an expert in any of them.
Surely, Thomas Harris never ate a single human being before penning Silence of the Lambs.
When I began In Lickskillet, one of the characters seemed to be half-black, half-white. There was no reason for it, but that’s how he looked in my mind, and I didn’t shy away from addressing his perspective. Maybe I was wrong, and maybe I assumed many egregious things, but I tried.
There is no gay experience or black experience, only the stereotypical ideas about such experiences. Either there is only one experience (the human experience) that we can all understand, or there are infinite experiences (meaning none of us will ever fully understand one another). My job as a writer is to try to understand, even though I know I can’t.
What do you think? Should authors tackle difficult subjects they’ve never encountered firsthand or act more like journalists?
Life, I have found, makes more sense with a pen in my hand. Words, not so much the infinite gestures, expressions, and human niceties, I understand. I am the idiot savant of a less poetic age, a philosopher barbarian writing words as if in code, trying to make sense of a senseless society who long ago gave up the ghost of reality.
Stories, they make sense to me. In fact, I’ve devoted much of the past week to reworking, rewriting, revising one such story—the novel I wrote. Maybe in the vain hope that when all is finished, you will like it. You will hold the pages to the sky and say, “My, this beauty overwhelms.”
Until then, I’ll keep getting pelted with the slings and arrows of life, as Hamlet would say—more of less, calculus. Ah, math, you tricky slave to logic and consistency. Just being in the presence of numbers, equations, those foreign mysteries—I feel as fresh as a smoker’s lung.
Tuesday, we received back our exams. I passed, and the fear is over, but before an exam, a fear creeps up. On the cusp of that exam, I felt as if I faced a tragic, untimely death. What will happen? I had to begin, put the pencil to paper. Though I felt as if my very act of taking this exam would kill me. A shotgun poised at my chest.
While words—even German—have a beauty that enlighten and inspire, math has become a high level foreign language class in which I don’t belong, having missed out on the essential vocabulary. This is not merely due to the fact my instructor is Russian, botching every other word with wonky vowels. Instead, math itself has transformed from something simple and concrete into the intense codification of some alien race.
More or less, I would rather play Peek-a-boo with a guillotine than take a math exam ever again. But the weekend begins tomorrow, and I can return to words and only words, quite a solace they be.
Today, I’m getting things done. I mean, done in the sense Larry the Cable Guy would do them.
10:30, and an end to my work looms in the near future. Of course, I have still have two classes to labor through, but I’ve already completed the homework for both, and then what?
I have been editing “In Lickskillet” recently, and I have been reading a lot of novels (and comic books) recently. I have been tearing through text books and calculating mathematical things on my calculator. There is nothing more freeing and sigh-worthy than the rush of completing projects, from finishing what needs to be finished, doing what needs to be done.
The human mind aspires to a perfection it may never reach, but in reaching, we achieve so much. What I’m interested in is the burning. The burning of the mind, as if we’ve stored fat up there and we’re replacing it with tireless muscle. There are those that survive to flick fluff from their ears and cram in knowledge, and I’m obsessed with the flames, the burning of progress that spins its wheels into the future.
Everything we do becomes a mystery we’re solving, not just the stars and the galaxies and the inner-lives of the janitors that scrub our toilets, but everything. From calculus limits to ominously long German verbs to the mechanisms of political campaigns. Whether we’re consuming knowledge of the Kreb’s cycle or the mechanical workings of a motorcycle, we’re burning. We’re lighting scrolls on fire in our own minds, collecting the smoke at the top of our skulls and exhaling it into the world.
I suppose what I mean to say is, the beauty and joy of life is in the striving, the struggle, the progress. Once we’ve finished growing the flowers in our tiny dirt plot, we can admire how they bloom so colorful, but until then we must relish the dirt beneath our nails, the sweat on our lips as we shovel and till and plant.
So, apart from homework and studying, I’ve been editing this novel I have a lot of faith in. Not just faith, but belief– passionate conviction. Right now, I’m still snipping the rotten buds, pricking my fingers on all the thorns I accidentally cultivated, spilling blood onto pages to bring something strange and colorful to life.
And hopefully soon, while I wash the dirt from my raw hands, you can view the blooms that may come.
For fictional characters, identity must be decided by the authors in much the same way identity must be deduced by each individual. We learn about both people and characters through their actions; we cannot look inside others’ heads, therefore taking their expressions of their thoughts as the truth. But in fiction, we can literally show a character’s thoughts. The question is: should we?
A story told from a first-person point-of-view must be approached with caution. How much of what a character says is truthful? From the third-person POV, we have another problem. How much of a character’s inner thoughts should the author reveal? He can tell you directly what each person is thinking if he wants, but if you want art to mirror life, we must reveal characters through their actions, should we not?
In that same vain, we should consider how we judge humanity in general. Can we judge someone based on their thoughts or actions? Obviously, since their actions openly apparent, clear, we can judge them by those, but by what motive they commit certain acts, we cannot say for sure. In fiction, this gives an awfully alluring enigma to characters. We watch them but are not privy to their private musings.
All of this interests me as a human being as well as a writer.
Because the implications are this: Do motives ever justify actions? Can we judge people based solely on their actions? I don’t mean legally, of course, which would be absurd, but in the sense of judging their moral character. Here is a quick excerpt from second part of “In Lickskillet” which I am currently editing that sparked this thought in me:
“You—bastard. You’re Satan, you know that?”
“I’m Lucifer, now, eh? Yeah, I am. I am the Devil. One and only, prince of Hell.” Blaine laughed at that and crossed to the broken window pane, staring out wistfully. “Only, I’m a good guy to me.”
Standing, I crossed to him, blowing my nose on my sleeve, hoping the sand would come out. “You can’t be a good guy. You’re Satan. That’s the whole point of Satan. He’s not supposed to be a good guy. I mean, he’s the Devil. He’s supposed to be evil.”
“Everyone is the good guy in his own story.” Blaine shrugged. “I’m sure if Satan rewrote the Bible, it would have gone a lot differently. Ended differently, too.”
Of course, in this passage Blaine alludes to the general theme of the entire novel, that everyone thinks himself or herself “a good guy.” Our personal narratives cast us as our own heroes, our own saviors. The entire plot centers on the hate crime trial Matthew Pepper faces as chief suspect of a murder; when I first began doing research for the book, it was on the Ku Klux Klan.
Why them, you ask. Well, why not?
I like to learn about things and people I know nothing about and the values and actions of the KKK paint them as monsters in my mind. Then I read an interesting story about the group doing community outreach, and I began to explore how groups as well as people share the dichotomy: we do terrible things, sometimes, but in our own minds, they are moral and just. How does my perception of reality differ from others’, and does this differentiation make anyone else less human? Can we truly label anyone as “un-lovable” because we disagree with them.
Here is a small disclaimer for the book that may explain it a little better:
I began writing the novel when a simple idea crossed my mind. People are not so bad; in fact, most are pretty good. Though it seems like a simple idea, we often forget that. We divide ourselves into groups, cliques, and war zones. We raise up fences between those who are richer or poorer than us, those of a different race, those who do not speak our language, those we perceive as close-minded while by not listening to their opinions we become small-minded. For that reason, I wanted to write about one of the most universally despised groups: Ku Klux Klan.
I think it’s important to realize that despite preconceptions we may have about any certain group of people, all should be treated equally under the law and in our hearts. It is exquisitely painful to accept people who might actually hate you, but that is the price of love.
So, that was my mission. Explore the family dynamics of the Pepper clan, explore how this issue drives a community apart and ultimately unites it. Each story is told from a different point of view, each trying to explain his or her actions. The protagonists, the self-proclaimed “heroes,” they do terrible, selfish things just as we all do. But they also do things we might find redeemable, honorable, and by letting each tell his or her own story, you break the walls of a versus-style plot.
As one character tells Declin (the main protagonist) in the book:
“There are no good or bad people, Mr. Ostrander. Only people.”