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Publication: The Kansas City Star - Book Club
Date: John Mark Eberhart
Date: April 22, 2006

It’s not all black and white
Whitney Terrell’s debut novel delves into Kansas City’s racial history

Good advice: Never talk about sex, politics or religion with people you don’t know well.

But there’s another taboo subject in America, one that is argu-ably even tougher to discuss: Race.

Good writers, though, do not fear such subjects. Five years ago, Kansas City writer Whitney Terrell made his debut with The Huntsman, a novel fueled by grudges, betrayals and the scarred racial history of a city and its denizens.

Since then, Terrell has published another novel, The King of Kings County, and is working on a third book. But The Huntsman and its subject matter still bear scrutiny. The book is the current selection of the FYI Book Club.

Terrell recently answered some questions about his life and work.

Q. When The Huntsman came out, you said in an interview that you thought more fiction writers should be addressing the issue of race. Do you think, in the five years since your book was published, they have?

A. I’d modify that statement to specify that more white writers ought to be thinking about race and learning how to incorporate it into their work. There has always been a great tradition of writers — African-American, Latino, Asian or Indian — who have written about what it is like to be a minority in America. I think you can look at a number of writers who are writing terrific fiction that tackles the subject of race from their particular background. But what is more complicated and less frequent is to see people writing outside of their racial background. I think it’s rare because the price of failure is extremely high — the one thing that no writer likes to do is make an ass out of himself while writing about someone else’s heritage.

But I also think that higher bar, that increased difficulty, can tend to push a writer toward better and more complicated work. Several books that I read in the last five years did take on topics like this and I thought benefited from the complication extremely. I’m thinking in particular of Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude or Russell Banks’ novel The Darling or Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. But it still remains rare.

Oddly enough, the place where you do see more daring on the subject of race is in Hollywood, on television and in the movies. Look at the fact that “Crash” won an Oscar. Look at the work Spike Lee has been doing over the years — he’s a director who creates believable characters of all races. I think movies have one particular attribute that gives them an advantage over novels. The director of “Crash,” Paul Haggis, is white. But I never heard or read about anyone asking him whether or not he, as a white director, should be telling the stories of these various racial groups. Whereas after I wrote The Huntsman, people asked me that question all the time.

The reason for this is that a director can ask Terrence Howard to stand up there on the screen and speak his lines. Terrence Howard of course is African-American, and so his presence adds credibility; he implicitly agrees with the director’s and the screenwriter’s take on things. I can’t ask Terrence Howard to personally appear in the homes of my readers.

In The Huntsman , a black character says of a white character, “Mercury Chapman cured me of the dangerous idea that a white man could be my friend.” That seems a cynical statement, and I realize it’s a character saying it, but do you think it reflects real life? Distrust remains.

It certainly doesn’t reflect my own personal experience since I’ve been lucky enough to come into contact with an exceptionally wide range of people, from all kinds of backgrounds, who have been completely open to friendship with anybody — even hermetic and twisted writers. Racial barriers in America are porous; they can be defused. But this happens most frequently through proximity. Just like anybody else, I’ve met my close, lifetime friends in high school, college, at grad school, in my neighborhood and at work.

But I’m not sure my experience is typical. All you have to do is look at the racial makeup of the Kansas City School District versus, say, the Shawnee Mission School District to see that students in those schools aren’t likely to grow up around or make friends with students from other races.

I also think it’s important to note that Isaac Bentham delivers that line. He’s a member of my grandfather’s generation, a man who was deeply scarred by the racial segregation that he experienced as a young man during World War II — a time when the Army, and the rest of American society, was truly segregated. His belief, in my opinion, is the saddest American belief. It’s a lie.

That doesn’t mean that it still doesn’t exist. I think you can find people in both the white and black communities in Kansas City who deeply distrust the other side and who plan to live their lives with no meaningful relationships with anyone outside their racial group. It’s a “dangerous” idea because making friends across racial lines exposes you to the possibility of embarrassment and betrayal. It is safer, in Isaac’s opinion, never to expose yourself in that way.

But, notably, Isaac’s grandson Booker chooses a different path. It isn’t necessarily an easier path — and some of Booker’s white friends end up betraying him just as his grandfather predicted. But I still think he’s a brighter, better character for the effort. His soul faces outward, not inward.

I hope the idea of people writing marginalia in your books doesn’t disturb you. Looking back at my copy, I came across this scrawled observation: “Changes in physical city vs. unchanging attitudes.”

Isn’t it possible that changes in the physical city can actually create attitudes? I’m not talking about something as specific as racial covenants, which were used specifically to divide the races in Kansas City — though I have written about those, and they did exist. I’m talking more about the ideas behind suburban planning, the idea of writing extensive restrictions into the title of a property in order to control how future owners use it. The goal is to enforce homogeneity. All the roofs must be the same, all garages will be restricted to a certain size, and the houses will be designed to service the same income class — no bungalows mixed in with the mansions. This is a subliminal message built into the environment. It says, “Being the same is safe and good.”

The built environment of a downtown sends different messages. The emphasis is on public streets and sidewalks, not private drives. Since downtowns are generally the oldest part of any city, it’s too late to institute the kind of zoning restrictions that are applied in preplanned suburban communities. In a concentrated area, you get multiple kinds of use — business, industry, residential, retail. Because the downtown centralizes people, you get a mix of races and income groups, etc.

A city with a dying downtown and busy suburbs sends one message. A city with a vibrant downtown sends another. The redevelopment of downtown Kansas City — and now, increasingly, the East Side — has, to me, been the most optimistic example of our community beginning to open up its attitude on race.

You write books about people separated by race, social and monetary status, geography. Yet you remain an optimist about the possibility of human beings finding common ground?

These are all real problems that you mention. But individuals always resist. They imagine another way to live — something different and entirely at odds with the path that society may have planned out for them. And the language and philosophical reasoning that we, as Americans, can access to resist division is available to anyone. It’s there in our Constitution. It’s there in the rulings of our courts. It’s there in the letters and speeches of our greatest leaders.

Ralph Ellison discusses this phenomenon in his essay “The Little Man at Chehaw Station.” In America there will always be people who don’t know that they’re supposed to be limited by what Ellison terms “family background, formal education, or social status.” There will always be people who choose, through self-education and imagination, to transcend whatever barriers are set in front of them. My optimism resides with those people who teach themselves to transcend. And in Kansas City, as in any American city, they’re everywhere.

The Whitney Terrell file

Born: Oct. 3, 1967, St. Luke’s Hospital, Kansas City.

Current home: Kansas City.

Education: Pembroke Hill, Princeton University, Iowa Writers Workshop.

Family: Wife, Gayle, and son, Morrison Levy Terrell.

Jobs other than writing: Currently the New Letters Writer-in-Residence at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Also was an intern at The Kansas City Star in summer 1991 and has worked as a salmon fisherman in Alaska.

Books: The Huntsman and The King of Kings County.

Next book: In progress and still untitled, part of it will be set in New Jersey.

Excerpts from The Huntsman

The novel’s opening:

For two generations in the city’s life there had not been much comment about its river. The populace moved southward from its banks into rolling hills and finally board-flat prairie, easily corralled, paved, and developed into suburban plots. Iron-gray and sinuous, banks heaped with deadfall and bright flecks of plastic trash, fish poisoned, docks crumbling, stinking of loam and rot, the river seemed an uncomfortable reminder of a gothic past when life had not been so clean.

Protagonist Booker Short has a troubled past:

Other aspects of prison did not adapt so easily to dream. For Booker they inhabited the realm of antidream, things that he knew and stored someplace but whose presence cast no reflection, carried none of the hue and texture of actual memory. In the exercise yard, he’d seen a man separate listlessly from a knot of inmates, the dark slot of a knife wound in his back. … He had fought twice himself: once in the cafeteria when a man with a birthmark accused him of spilling his juice; the second time when he exited the showers to find a prisoner called Trapper trying on his shoes.

Near the novel’s end, the Missouri River comes back into play. Here is Booker, afloat on it in a skiff, recalling persons from his past:

He thought about them most often at dusk, when he took his bath, naked, treading water beside the skiff. Behind him the sun dipped into the smoking river, which at eye level looked like a vast ocean he had set out across, leaving those whom he remembered on a different continent.

About the club

Here’s how The Kansas City Star’s FYI Book Club works:

Every six weeks or so, we announce our selection in the Saturday FYI section, along with an interview of the author and excerpts. Read the book and check back in Saturday FYI a few weeks later for a reader discussion of the book. Want to talk?

To be considered for a Book Club discussion group, briefly tell us about yourself and the kinds of books you like. E-mail us at bookclub@ kcstar.com or send a letter to FYI Book Club, The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108. Be sure to leave a phone number.