Today we're sharing a guest post by Thrity Umrigar, author of Everybody's Son, available in hardcover now. In Everybody's Son, the bestselling, critically acclaimed author of The Space Between Us and The World We Found deftly explores issues of race, class, privilege, and power and asks us to consider uncomfortable moral questions in this probing, ambitious, emotionally wrenching novel of two families—one black, one white.
During a terrible heat wave in 1991—the worst in a decade—ten-year-old Anton has been locked in an apartment in the projects, alone, for seven days, without air conditioning or a fan. With no electricity, the refrigerator and lights do not work. Hot, hungry, and desperate, Anton shatters a window and climbs out. Cutting his leg on the broken glass, he is covered in blood when the police find him.
Juanita, his mother, is discovered in a crack house less than three blocks away, nearly unconscious and half-naked. When she comes to, she repeatedly asks for her baby boy. She never meant to leave Anton—she went out for a quick hit and was headed right back, until her drug dealer raped her and kept her high. Though the bond between mother and son is extremely strong, Anton is placed with child services while Juanita goes to jail.
The Harvard-educated son of a US senator, Judge David Coleman is a scion of northeastern white privilege. Desperate to have a child in the house again after the tragic death of his teenage son, David uses his power and connections to keep his new foster son, Anton, with him and his wife, Delores—actions that will have devastating consequences in the years to come.
Following in his adopted family’s footsteps, Anton, too, rises within the establishment. But when he discovers the truth about his life, his birth mother, and his adopted parents, this man of the law must come to terms with the moral complexities of crimes committed by the people he loves most.
From the Author:
I wrote Everybody’s Son after the plot of the novel “appeared” to me, one morning.
In the span of, say, fifteen seconds, I “saw,” the entire novel as clearly as if I was sitting across from it at a coffee shop. In that flash, I knew my characters, their names, their physical appearance and their flawed, complicated lives.
As any writer will tell you, such moments of grace are rare. But when they do happen, all you can do is rush to your computer and write the story down, as if you are taking dictation from some mysterious, otherworldly force. That magical moment when the “angels are talking to you,” a friend of mine calls such occurrences.
That was the easy part. Now, the novel will soon be out in the world and in the hands of readers and critics. So let me address the elephant in the room: This is my first novel that has no Indian characters. Nor is it set in India. I had tip-toed toward this progression with another novel, The Weight of Heaven, which features a young, white American couple as the protagonists. But Heaven was set in India and many of the complications that arise are due to cultural misunderstandings and national beliefs.
Everybody’s Son is a departure from this. The novel is set entirely in America, and has only American characters. And it deals with that most American of topics—race and racial relations—and features a protagonist who is black. Could I, an immigrant from India, tackle this topic, so fraught with danger and promise? Could I walk this tightrope? Would I be allowed to?
A true confession: It never occurred to me that I could not. And so I was a little surprised—and then, miffed—when a few interviewers asked questions about cultural appropriation (always and only in the context of the African-American protagonist). I had fielded some of those questions in my last novel, The Story Hour, where one of the two protagonists is African-American. But there, I was safe because the other major character happened to be Indian.
Some critics have pointed to the Lionel Shriver controversy and asked my opinion about it. But it appears to me that Shriver was being deliberately provocative. I had no such desire. I wasn’t writing my novel to make some incendiary point—I was writing it because I believed in my story and thought it could contribute something useful to the ongoing debate about race and racial relations in this country. I wrote my novel because, as happy as I am to allow others to refer to me as an Indian-American author, I see myself simply as a writer (who happens to have been born in India and lives in America). Most importantly, I see myself as a writer who doesn’t want to tell the same story over and over again but wants to learn, to grow and widen my horizons with each book I produce. And after spending my entire adult life in the United States, it seems silly to restrict myself to only telling stories set in the land of my birth.
Then there was the fact that at the time that I got the idea for this book, the Black Lives Matter movement, born in the waning years of the Obama presidency, was dominating the national conversation. Here was a story idea that could explore the lives of two families, one black and one white, through the eyes of a boy who unwittingly serves as a bridge between those two worlds. I was also excited about this plot line because the novel doesn’t indulge in the simplistic tropes of wicked white racist versus innocent black woman. One of my core beliefs is that life is not lived in the black and white (no pun intended) but in the gray areas. Here was a novel that enacted that belief—David Coleman is an affluent white liberal who commits one unforgivable sin and Juanita Vesper is a poor black woman who commits one terrible mistake. It was important to me to not make either one of these flawed characters a caricature. Thus, the novel examines the limits of liberal piety, while also refusing to make Juanita a helpless victim.
And really, is this novel so very much of a departure from my other work, once you get past the superficial differences of race and nationality? All of my novels, in one way or another, have been explorations of power and how it is wielded, and who uses it against whom. Seen from that lens, Everybody’s Son is simply an exploration of the same theme in a different setting.
None of this is meant to suggest that I undertook the writing of this novel lightly. As a teacher of African-American literature, I have spent years studying this culture. This is what I always tell my writing students: By all means write what you don’t know. But also make sure that you learn everything there is to know about what you’re writing about. It is incumbent upon any writer to educate herself about her subject matter.
So, in the end, I hope my new novel will be judged by the same criteria that all novels should be judged by: Are the characters memorable? Is the story line credible? And does the novel help soften our hearts a little, does it induce in us feelings of compassion and empathy, does it make us understand something about human behavior, in all its mysterious, even contradictory, glory?