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Arts and Culture

Everybody's Son explores race, identity, and white privilege

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McLean & Eakin hosted Author Thrity Umrigar Thursday to speak about her new book, Everybody’s Son.

The book follows Anton, a black foster child who is taken in and raised by a white family after his mother winds up in prison.

The novel tackles race, identity, and white privilege as Anton struggles to understand his identity as a black man raised by white parents and uncovers the secrets of his past.

Ben: Very quickly David, the father, works to take over Anton’s life. Talk to me about the initial power dynamic and how it begins to stretch as we move forward.

Thrity: Initially he seems to think, as you put it, his taking over of Anton’s life is a good thing. He frames it to himself with that capacity for self-delusion that all of us have. He really believes that he is doing something in the child's best interest but of course it’s a little self-serving too because he has a void in his own life that he is trying to fill and Anton is the perfect child with whom to fill that void.

What I was careful to do in this book, I mean this is not about racism, per se, but it is very much a book about white privilege. Because it is who David is that allows him to do some rather dubious things in order to claim Anton.

Ben: In writing this book did you have an audience that you imagined? Was there someone that you were writing this to or for?

Thrity: When I write a book what is more important to me than perhaps anything else is to write the most emotionally honest book, the most uncompromising book that I know how. I never want to write a book that caters to the marketplace or caters to what I think readers might want. So the last thing I want to do is frighten myself into softening some harsh truths by imagining the ideal reader out there.

Ben: I ask that question because it feels like a very timely conversation about race and about white privilege and I at times wondered if it was geared towards the liberal white reader who doesn’t have these conversations.

Thrity: Yeah and perhaps they don’t have these conversations because there is a tendency for liberal white readers to think of themselves as being on the side of the angels, being the good guys.

And it’s not just divided by race. There is class privilege too. There is the privilege of people who are educated. I certainly have my own biases and bigotries and it’s always nice for me as a reader to be confronted with those, to be challenged with those. I love books that push me outside my comfort zone. What was important for me in this book was I never wanted to take sides because if I took sides than the reader would be led. It’s called Everybody’s Son because Anton has multiple parental figures in his life and what he has to do by the time the book ends is figure out for himself who he belongs to.

Ben: Were there complications in writing about race and particularly black experience?

Thrity: That’s a question of cultural appropriation that comes up a great deal. Every single interview I’ve done, you know, what am I doing as an Indian American writer writing about the black experience. I’ll point out one interesting thing that I’ve noticed. Nobody has yet asked me by what authority I’m writing about the white experience, because I’m not white either. But somehow, for reasons that are complicated and that I don’t fully understand, that has never… I’ve written entire novels from the point of view of a white couple, protagonists, and that question never came up during those times. It only comes up when you write about African American culture.

So my answer to that is let's flip the question around. Let’s hold off on that question. I ask people to just read the book and judge it on its merits. Have I written a book that is emotionally honest? Have I written a book that has interesting characters? Do they speak in realistic ways? Is there something about the story that makes you wake up the next day still thinking about it? If I have done any of those things I have done my job and than who I am and what my life experience is doesn’t matter all that much.

Thrity Umrigar is the author of seven books including The Space Between Us, which was a finalist for the PEN/Beyond Margins award. She is the Armington Professor of English at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.