Saturday, August 8, 2009

New Black Novelist Examines Deceptions of U.S. Racial History


This is a very strange and dangerous country which is always in the process of becoming stranger and more dangerous. This is what Attica Locke is really trying to write about--like all reasonably self aware black writers in this country over the past two centuries. However at age 35 given the increasingly bizarre and horrific social and cultural context of the (post?) modern era we currently "live in" it's crystal clear that this historical challenge is in many ways far greater, more profound, and fundamentally destructive than ever. I sincerely hope that Attica Locke makes the transition in her life and her writing to fully recognize, honor, and critically address these unsettling and disturbing facts. Perhaps this first novel will be a creative springboard that will help her (and the rest of us) eventually get there somehow. In this infantile and fearful society however the truth is that one never knows...


This Thriller’s Cold War Is Racial
Published: July 1, 2009
New York Times

Attica Locke’s first novel, “Black Water Rising,” which Janet Maslin called “subtle and compelling” in The New York Times, is an even better book than its author had in mind. “I intended to just write a slick little thriller,” Ms. Locke said last week, stopping in New York at the end of a book tour before heading home to Los Angeles. “But then my unconscious led me to the soul of the book, and it got a lot better.”

That soul has to do with the history of race relations in America, especially in Houston in the early 1980s, the novel’s setting. Oil money is again pumping through the city, politicians are making deals right and left, yet it’s still the Jim Crow South. Jay Porter, a struggling black lawyer and the protagonist, is more than casually wary of the police and keeps three guns handy just in case. But then no one completely trusts anyone here. The book cleverly replaces the kind of cold-war paranoia that used to animate thrillers with racial paranoia instead.

Jay, who before going to law school was a student radical and civil rights activist, is partly based on Ms. Locke’s father, Gene, who is now running for mayor of Houston but was an activist in the ’60s and, for a while, an associate of Stokely Carmichael. Family lore has it that Ms. Locke’s mother transferred from the University of Texas to the University of Houston because she had admired Gene Locke’s picture in the paper.

Ms. Locke has an older sister, Tembekile, who got her name from Miriam Makeba, then married to Mr. Carmichael. Ms. Locke herself is named after the prison in upstate New York, where the 1971 uprising made a great impression on her mother. “This was a time when naming was so important in black culture,” Ms. Locke said. “And I think my mother named me that because she wanted to remind me to be able to say no and to stand up for myself. But mostly I stood up for myself by demanding to go to the mall.”

Ms. Locke, who is 35, said she thought of herself as being born at the tail end of the civil rights movement, when her parents turned themselves into what she called “professional Cosby people.” “I’m amazed at how gracefully they made the transition,” she said. “It wasn’t that their politics had shifted, but they had two kids to raise, and in some ways the country had shifted. They just rolled with it.”

But nothing in their parents’ struggle had emotionally prepared the Locke children for life in an integrated America. “As a 5-year-old I went to a mostly white school, and for a young kid that was really very confusing. I did a lot of scanning to know whether I was safe, and I think I always had a low level of agitation. Jay’s level of racial paranoia is really my own.”

Another trait she shares with Jay, she said, is his tendency sometimes to put his head down and just do what it takes to get by. “That part of him that doesn’t want to show up — that’s me as a writer,” she said.

After graduating from Northwestern University, where she studied film, Ms. Locke dreamed of becoming a director. In 1999 she was a fellow at the Sundance Institute, where for a while a movie she had written about a murder in East Texas attracted considerable attention, she said, until someone decided that it was a black film, and black films don’t sell in Europe.

So she became what she calls a “hired gun” for the studios, and for the next 10 years she worked very successfully as a screenwriter — if by success you don’t mean that your scripts actually get filmed. “It’s sad how I came to love the movies less and less,” she said. “The culture of script development and moviemaking in the studio system is not a fit for my spirit.”

Finally, in 2004, she had a dream. She dreamed that she was living in a film commune, and on the night of a big premiere it was her turn to sweep. She instead handed her broom to the head of the commune, no less than Marlon Brando as he looked in “On the Waterfront,” and told him she was through.

“Within months I was writing a novel,” she recalled. “I knew I could construct something that moves. Screenwriting had taught me about pleasure and plot.” She took out a second mortgage on her house, and in less than a year she had completed a first draft. “It was liberating,” she said. “I didn’t always know what was going to happen, which is the opposite of working as a screenwriter, where everything is so plotted.”

For the time being she intends to keep a toehold in screenwriting, she added — she is working with Taylor Branch on a three-part mini-series based on his biography of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — but novel writing seems more congenial. “This has stirred up a lot of stuff, and there’s a feeling now of being home,” she said.

The beginning of “Black Water Rising” — an eerie boat ride on a dark Houston bayou when a shot is fired and a woman is attacked somewhere onshore — is based on something that happened in Ms. Locke’s childhood. For the rest, much of which takes place before she was born, in a Houston vastly different from the one she grew up in, she had to rely on imagination, family recollection and repeated questioning of her father.

“I think this book could only be written by someone my age,” she said. “It’s about a country in transition, moving from being a segregated America to an integrated America.” She added: “If you think about it, there have been three great moments in the psychic history of race relations here. The first was Emancipation and Reconstruction. The second was the civil rights movement. And the third great moment we’re living in right now.”