Attica Locke's Latest, 'Heaven, My Home,' Explores Race And Forgiveness
NOEL KING, HOST:
The writer Attica Locke has a new novel out. "Heaven, My Home" is about race, migration and forgiveness in Texas. Now, the story picks up with Darren Mathews, who's the same protagonist from Locke's previous novel, "Bluebird, Bluebird." Locke talked to our co-host Rachel about where Darren is in his life when we meet him in this book.
ATTICA LOCKE: He is a black Texas ranger who actually planned to be a lawyer. That was his plan in life. And then the way I put it in the first book, that when Jasper, Texas, happened - the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. - he said, that was my 9/11, that was my call to action, that I could wait and do things through the channels of law and courtrooms and so on, or I can put boots on the ground and become a law enforcement agent in order to do the work of protecting black life.
RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: And where do we meet him in "Heaven, My Home"?
LOCKE: We are in 2016, after the election of Donald Trump. He went through a lot of crazy things in "Bluebird, Bluebird" that have put his career kind of on the line. He's always trying to navigate to what degree black folks can afford to follow the letter of the law and to what degree that justice for black folks has to be kind of improvised in such a way. So he's gotten himself in a little bit of a pickle, (laughter), in terms of trying to deal with a case against a family friend, an elderly black gentleman, who tried to stand up for himself to a white supremacist.
MARTIN: So now he is dragged into a different, yet, it turns out, related case. A boy has gone missing. Not just any boy. The son of a prominent member of the Aryan Brotherhood. What does this mean for Darren Mathews? I mean, what question is he trying to answer for himself?
LOCKE: You know, as I was writing the book, there was so much that was coming out for me about the question of forgiveness and the question of can you afford to sometimes forgive. There's a theme about black folks being the most forgiving people on earth, and it's sometimes said in earnest, and it's sometimes said tongue in cheek. And I think the question that Darren is wrestling with this child is, is it fair then to put the crimes of this child's family and father on a 9-year-old boy? Or can I look to him with hope? Can I believe that the cycle of creating white supremacists can be broken?
MARTIN: He's not wholly innocent, this child. I mean, he's given Darren - there are some things in his past that makes it more complicated.
LOCKE: That's true. And, you know, it took me after - I finished the book before I realized where this came from and where this character came from. My daughter is 12, and my daughter goes to school in California at a very progressive, leftist school. And somewhere around her 6th-grade year, there was a white boy at school who called a black kid the N-word. And I was stunned. And it led to deep conversations at our dinner table about this child and about my reaction versus my child's reaction. Because she was able to say, Mommy, I'm willing to forgive him. I, as the grown up, was holding this kind of rage towards a 10, 11-year-old kid.
And I felt such guilt about that, that why couldn't I be as forgiving as my child? But this question of what to do with a child and whether or not there's a hope that you can somehow stop racism, that you can stop the cycle of it, was the question that I was wrestling with and that I let my main character wrestle with.
MARTIN: As is often is the case in your books, the place is so central. And this is - it's so evocative, your writing of this place, Caddo Lake, in East Texas on the Louisiana border. Just explain what role it plays in the narrative here.
LOCKE: It's everything. And I tend to write that way, that I knew I was going to write about Caddo Lake before I had a story. It's just that evocative to me. It's the fact that there's almost nothing else like it in the country that has this incredible story history. It was steamboat travel into Jefferson, Texas, for the better part of the early 19th century. In fact, Jefferson, Texas, was bigger than Dallas. It was a bustling port city.
And then over the course of time, through changes in the environment, Caddo Lake became impassible for steamboats and Jefferson, Texas, like, dried up. Other cities passed it by. So it was this raw, untamed space that also beautiful, like, pretty steamboats traveled through.
MARTIN: Can you talk about the community that is right near this lake? In your book, it is called Hopetown.
LOCKE: Yes. And in fact, the book itself is dedicated to a town called Nigton, which is where one half of my family is from. It was a freedmen's community in East Texas. And I will let everybody figure out how the name became Nigton, (laughter), and I won't necessarily go into it. And so Hopetown in the book is a freedmen's community that's been there since after the Civil War. But when we meet it in 2016, there has been a kind of encroachment and squatting of white supremacists on this land that has belonged to ex-slaves for centuries.
MARTIN: This is a story about migration in a lot of ways, isn't it? People being forced to flee or, just generally, as it is in Darren's case, feeling unmoored.
LOCKE: Yes. And I think that's where, in a sense, the title comes from. And I think the title is meant to be analogous with a feeling that I think a lot of people of color in America feel. I think there's always this question of trying to pinpoint what home means. And I think for me, I'm trying to constantly pinpoint what it means for me as a black American. How do I - how do I live and love in a place that does not always love me back?
MARTIN: We were talking about how this has so much to do with your ideas of right and wrong, right? How you define a perpetrator, how you define a victim, and where each of us derives our own moral certainty. And this is just a line near the beginning of the book. I just want to read it here.
(Reading) Maybe the rules had to be different.
This is Darren thinking to himself.
(Reading) Maybe justice was no more a fixed concept than love was, and poets and bluesmen knew the rules better than we did.
That's an unsettling concept for a lot of people.
LOCKE: It is, and we're all kind of, in life, trying to do the best that we can. And I wanted to create a character who has a strong moral center, even as he lives these questions out loud. There are very few answers about what's right and wrong in my books, but the characters are living the question.
MARTIN: The book is called "Heaven, My Home," written by Attica Locke. Thank you so much for talking with us.
LOCKE: Oh, my goodness. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.