What Would You Do to Protect Your Child from Racism?
Maurice Carlos Ruffin on his novel "We Cast a Shadow" and the effects of white supremacy
We Cast a Shadow is about a father’s fierce determination to protect his biracial son, Nigel, from racism. The unnamed protagonist feels certain that “demelanization” is the way to go. To pull it off, all he needs is the resources, which involves obtaining a higher position at the shady law firm where he works. The novel tackles topics such as racism, workplace politics, and most importantly, parenthood.
While Maurice Carlos Ruffin and I have been social media friends for some time, I finally got to meet him in person, and break bread with him, in October of 2018 in New York City. Maurice and I talked about books, life as black men, life as black writers, life in general. It wasn’t a date, but it was the most genuine fun I’d had with a man in a long time!
I’m pleased to have had a chance to ask Maurice Carlos Ruffin a handful of questions about his page-turner of a novel.
De’Shawn C. Winslow: The novel opens with a look into office politics. The characters Riley, Franklin, and the narrator are three black attorneys who all need a promotion that only one of them can have. Do you think we, as a society, are moving toward a place where that sort of competition will no longer be necessary?
Maurice Carlos Ruffin: I wish. It seems that one of the effects of white supremacy is tokenism, which is where the opportunities for success are artificially limited. In a scramble for resources, the players fight each other instead of the game. I don’t see that letting up anytime soon.
DCW: One of the main themes in the novel is father-son relationships—black father-son relationships, to be more specific. You’ve mentioned that Trayvon Martin’s death was heavily on your mind while writing this novel. Was there ever a point when the narrator’s child was a girl? And how might that have changed the narrative, if at all?
MCR: I always try different variations of a story. The narrator at one point had no children. At another point he had multiple kids. Then he had one, a girl. I settled on the son. It was almost a coin toss that made me choose. After all, Black women and girls have the additional oppression of misogynoir to contend with. Look what happened to Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, and so many others. There were some other forms of oppression I wanted to deal with, but that was when I envisioned the book as a 700-page tome with three different timelines!
DCW: The narrator is a bit disapproving of his mother’s fried chicken business because of the long-held stereotypes and jokes about…well…black people and fried chicken. Yet, his mother’s business offers community members (and the narrator) so much more than food. She drops wisdom, left and right, about race relations. What inspired this scene?
MCR: I owned a restaurant for almost five years. My dad had a restaurant back in the 70s. Some cousins had a restaurant. You get the picture. In New Orleans, we have Leah Chase, the proprietor of Dooky Chase restaurant. Ms. Chase literally fueled civil rights leaders who passed through the city back in the day and provided a safe space for them and their allies. So it runs in the blood and in my community. It was an easy, true idea to include.
DCW: I enjoyed reading all of your women characters—even when they weren’t being likable. They’re so distinct from each other. What’s one thing you think male writers need to do to get writing across gender right?
MCR: That women [in my novel] have rich internal lives and motivations that are often unrelated or only tangentially related to the desires of men. That seems so obvious, but we needed the Bechdel test to remind us of it, so I guess it wasn’t that obvious. Characters like Araminta and Octavia could care less whether they are liked. They have higher priorities. Also, I think guys fall for essentializing women to their body parts and accessories as if physical descriptions are a stand in for a soul. It’s time to level-up gents.
DCW: What generally comes first for you? Plot or character?
MCR: For me, character is plot. The person makes the choices, and the choices drive the story. So I don’t care how many pages into a story I am, I haven’t really started it until I know the character. Knowing the character comes from usually dozens, or even hundreds, of discarded pages over an extended time.
DCW: Maurice, tell me a bit about your writing routine. Do you like to schedule writing time, or do you sit and write when the feeling hits you?
MCR: I’m an anti-routine writer. I certainly don’t write daily. The thought of writing every day makes me a little sad. Each day should have some variables, you know? I write when I have a call to write. Sometimes that’s because an editor asked me to write something. Other times it’s just because I feel like it. I guess this is why writing never feels like a grind to me. I do what I love.
DCW: Congratulations are in order! Rumor has it that your next book will be set in New Orleans. Will you tell us what themes that book might cover?
MCR: True. It’s a book of short stories where I present the lives of all kinds of residents of my hometown, which happens to be the most different city in America. I could say we’re the greatest or most European or whatever the visitor’s bureau is saying now, but I think different is more honest. I’ve traveled enough to know that this is truly weird place and that some of these voices need to be heard. New Orleans is literally the drain for much of the country. It’s almost like some of America’s most difficult problems—white supremacy, gentrification, poverty, etc.—get concentrated to a syrup here. I’m never a loss for things to be frustrated by. Yet, I fall in love almost every day because we have so much human beauty. The book reflects all of this. I can’t wait until everyone gets to read it.