**Originally posted on Writers at Large in the Riff section on January 14, 2021, this is an essay in which I interview myself about I story I wrote, Skip the Lake, which examines white complicity in systemic racism through the relationship of two teenage boys.
Thea Temple, founder and CEO of Writers at Large read my short story, “Skip the Lake,” published in the Creative Café on September 1, 2020, and asked if I might “Riff” about. Getting kinda meta, I elected to interview myself. This is what I came up with.😊
(Riff — a phrase synonymous with tune, refrain, groove, sample, jam, strum, noodle — only here “riff” plays with words instead of lyrics or strings.)
Initially, instead of a short story, I imagined a personal essay, some frank response to the racial maelstrom whipping through our country (much like the irrepressible fires burning west). To say I was bothered by the recurring brutality inflicted upon Blacks being murdered across America — too often by policemen, who suffered little more, it seemed, than a slap on the wrist — is an understatement. I questioned what cataclysm had granted the brazen to act with destruction upon their basest beliefs so publicly. But everything I wrote sounded counterfeit, corny: what did I, a 50-year-old white woman, grappling with white privilege and the nuances of its meaning in the wake of so much bloodshed, have to add to BLM?
I’m going to interview myself, which I haven’t done formally. I wonder if I’ll learn anything new about me?!
INTERVIEW ERIN: Hi, Erin. I love your story! And might I add how fresh you look? Not at all as if you’ve been tearing through Covid-era Halloween candy that your husband bought way too much of — massive amounts of chocolate, Smarties, the works — and you ended up with just three Trick or Treaters.
WRITER ERIN: Well, thanks, Erin! That remark may have been passive-aggressive, but I think my therapist will be proud to hear that I’m choosing to take it as a compliment.
INTERVIEW ERIN: Fantastic! Let’s get to it. In response to systemic racism in our country, you wrote a short story about two small-town friends, boys who haven’t seen each other since they were 10, and now they are 14.
WRITER ERIN: Right. And they are at the lake that they always came to when they both lived here, to push each other across the lake on a tire swing. These are boys who don’t have much — small town, maybe rural, run-down, stressed economy. Ultimately this is a story about two boys becoming young men who grapple with growing their friendship past the divide of racism.
INTERVIEW ERIN: Did you plan the events of the story in advance, was it an outline, stream of consciousness . . .
WRITER ERIN: For me, writing is life in question, with discovered meaning as I go. So often, especially if my sense is that it’s probably something shorter — a poem, essay, short story — it starts in my head and I listen. When I let whatever float to the surface, it’s what I’m questioning on a deeper level. Usually not something to which I have much of an answer. So the story is a way to figure out what I think, feel, or believe. I start with a brainstorm of sorts — whatever I hear or imagine.
INTERVIEW ERIN: Why was this the story that floated to the surface?
WRITER ERIN: George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, Trumpism on fire, the ridiculous election. It’s farcical and tragic at the same time because it happens to actually be happening. Much has been stirred up in the Donald Trump era. To the rise, or really exposure — of what has been there like a cancer underneath. A subconscious intensity of prejudice kicked to the forefront with a President who encourages discrimination, KKK White Supremacy, hatred, and intolerance.
I wrote the story before the election, but the election confirmed something I felt as I wrote: as American citizens, we are about half and half on what could not be more important issues. Truly we are a nation divided, approximating Lincoln from over 150 years ago, and further, “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.”
So Michael Brown and Brianna Taylor and George Floyd and the countless numbers of African Americans who have been mistreated — why is this so fundamentally ingrained? Had racism been baked into the structure of America? All these thoughts swirling in my mind.
INTERVIEW ERIN: You wanted to write about racism, but not from your own POV? Why?
WRITER ERIN: My point of view is that of a 50-year-old white woman who has enjoyed white privilege. That’s not my fault, but it’s true. I have lived in a certain safety I didn’t even consciously realize was built to protect me.
As I learned more about systemic racism in an effort to make sense of what was happening, particular books (How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi ), the documentary 13th, and the movie based on a true story regarding racism in the prison system, Just Mercy, all helped me understand the dark, buried underbelly.
I also listened to an NPR three-part series “Summer of Racial Reckoning.” One detail in particular wouldn’t leave me. A woman named Stephanie Square said that while George Floyd had seen his share of trouble earlier in life growing up in Houston, he had turned things around. “All he did was encourage everyone and tell you words like, ‘I’m so proud of you; you’re going to make it; you’re going to be an example to a lot of others,’” she said. This was a man who had been reduced to nine minutes pinned to the ground by his neck under the knee of a white police officer. With witnesses. And other white police officers standing around, watching. Crying for his mother. You know, we’ve all got a mother.
So where is our common shared humanity?
INTERVIEW ERIN: So you just start writing and this is what shows up?
WRITER ERIN: Yep. Two boys who have known each other since they were little, but at 10- years-old, one boy, Johnny, had to move away to live with his grandmother after his dad died. Now he’s back, and they are 14, where they hung out before — the lake is their sacred space — and the narrator is pushing Johnny across the water on the tire swing.
INTERVIEW ERIN: Why did you use first-person?
WRITER ERIN: The narrator character says he is strong in body but not in words, although ironically, he is narrating, so he’s using a ton of words, but it’s all internal. The action of the story is when he pushes Johnny across the lake, and Johnny, mid-air, lets out a joyous whoop and screams the N-word. This is nothing new, but the narrator has always been bothered by Johnny’s use of this offensive word, but has never said anything.
INTERVIEW ERIN: Why do you think the story came to you from the POV of a 14-year-old boy?
WRITER ERIN: I often write from the point of view of boys. I have two or three plays with boy characters and scenes that are boys between the ages of 14 and maybe 25. I think in part that is because a boy is necessarily “other” — as a female, I know what it is to be a 14 or 10-year-old girl, but I’m never going to know what it’s like to be a boy. I know what it’s like to mother a boy, to like or love boys, and to marry one — there is a forgiveness I have for boys, a softness, that with girls for me feels more wrought and complicated. Maybe because I am one. When I taught school, I was always the teacher who ironically loved teaching the boy with potential who was not performing to his ability, or the troubled boy, the boy who hated to read; I seem to have an affinity. I’m sure Freud would be all over it.
INTERVIEW ERIN: That explains gender, but why the age?
WRITER ERIN: There is something about writing from the point of view of someone young. I think almost automatically as readers we have an inherent sympathy for the kid who does or says something stupid or inappropriate. We do not generally extend this same leniency so agreeably to adults. I also think we tend to read underdog characters sympathetically — we are more primed to forgive or at least understand.
INTERVIEW ERIN: What do we understand about these boys that helps us sympathize?
WRITER ERIN: The narrator is perplexed about whether to hold Johnny accountable for his words and actions or to let him off the hook, because Johnny has always been loyal, a good friend.
In fact, the narrator is in foster care, and when they were younger, a kid in school called the narrator an orphan, and Johnny punched the kid in the face. So, the narrator feels like he owes Johnny something.
In the past, the narrator hasn’t questioned Johnny’s racism, which is certainly easier in the moment — to say nothing — but the story is the question of whether the narrator will continue to be silent.
These boys are clearly not valued. I purposefully made both boys white, because that dynamic is a part of the equation I find central. How does the white person, who can’t understand in any visceral way what it is to be black, help people who are being marginalized?
INTERVIEW ERIN: Does the story answer that question for us?
WRITER ERIN: In a way, I hope so. The narrator realizes he can’t continue to stay silent because his silence is acceptance. The only real action to the story is Johnny flying across the lake, screaming the obscenity, and the narrator finally saying, “You can’t say that.” You can’t say that word. And the moment of truth between them where we wonder whether Johnny will accept this new provision, or will it ruin their friendship.
INTERVIEW ERIN: Anything else you want to say about the story?
WRITER ERIN: I went back to the story and was surprised by a few images and ideas that were in the text that I hadn’t written consciously. I was reading with the idea that I was going to write about why I wrote it. So I noticed right off the symbolism in the beginning of the rope, that the rope was like a noose, a noose to decide the life or death of their relationship. The story also has a line at the beginning and also at the end, of the sun going up and coming down, like bookends, how we are at the mercy of the passage of time and also at the mercy of past actions or lack thereof. So one of the questions that came up for me was what can we change? What can we do in this second and the seconds moving forward?
INTERVIEW ERIN: How is that realization reflected in the story?
WRITER ERIN: The narrator chooses to call Johnny out, and Johnny chooses to acknowledge what he has said and that he won’t do it again. And so their relationship changes.
The story answers the question, “At what point are we responsible for our own action?” — even behavior resulting from something terrible — at some point, we own our behavior.
Viewing that in a positive light, everyone has a voice. Even if you’re poor, young, in foster care, even if you aren’t usually listened to, everyone has a voice. The dynamic reminds me of the Edmund Burke quote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
So the other part of the story is the narrator’s acknowledgement that silence is complicit. One takeaway for the white person wondering what can I do to be helpful is to realize that it is no longer okay just to think racism is terrible. It is now incumbent upon us as people of white privilege to step up when we see racism in any form and to call it out, especially because we’re in a privileged position to do so. To do something about it that isn’t just between our ears.
I also wanted to acknowledge the allure of power in the safety we feel from choosing to stay the same, even if “the same” isn’t “good.”
Near the end of the story, before Johnny has acknowledged his behavior, Johnny offers that his mom made gumbo. This is an invitation. Let’s just be like we are. You don’t have to be mad at me; let’s go home. Johnny uses the idea of home, that they are like brothers, the notion of family as not just biological — to tempt the narrator with love and belonging. The narrator acknowledges that it would be easy and comforting to stay the same. But to stay the same, to stay safe, is to deny emancipation.
You can’t unhear what you’ve heard. You can’t unknow what you know. But the narrator isn’t eloquent. He just says, “You can’t say that anymore.” It doesn’t matter; the power comes from giving the idea voice. That’s the narrator’s victory. Even if Johnny had not said, okay, I won’t do that anymore, it still would have been victory because it’s a change for the narrator from fearful about hurting Johnny to the virtue of standing up for what’s right, even if it means a personal loss, like an important friendship.
First in the story, the narrator is pushing Johnny across the water. But by the end, Johnny has put a hand up and the narrator is helping him stand. The carrot, so to speak, is the gumbo. After an act of enormous bravery on the part of the narrator, and an equally courageous response from Johnny, they get to go home together. They can remain brothers. No lies. They can return to their friendship with this important caveat as part of their relationship. It’s a point of growth for each of them, and hopefully Johnny carries that out to the rest of his world, and the narrator continues to speak about what he believes is right.
INTERVIEW ERIN: Are you glad you wrote it as a short story?
WRITER ERIN: Yes. For me, writing is taking action. It is bringing up the question with no easy answers. There’s a beauty in fiction; I can give a character a thought or a feeling, or a character can figure out what might be moving toward an answer, but the character expresses it for me. I can get out of the way. I can put my words down in fiction and people can read it. Maybe it makes them think in a new way, to question–on their own–implicit biases, what they can change, and what they are willing to acknowledge about themselves. Either way, forward motion in the right direction is the idea.