“Writing this book has completely changed my life and the way I see the world,” said Jodi Picoult at the recent 13th annual Words Alive Author’s Luncheon.
A record 750 people attended the event at the San Diego Marriott Marquis & Marina to hear the bestselling author talk about her latest novel, “Small Great Things,” a powerful, thought-provoking and timely story in which she tackles difficult issues, including racism, privilege and justice.
Local author Lacy Crawford introduced Picoult and asked her how the book came about.
“About 25 years ago, I was living in New York City and I was very upset about a news story of an African American undercover cop who was shot four times in the back by his white colleagues on the subway even though he was wearing something called the color of the day, which was a wristband that identified him as an undercover cop,” she explained. “I decided I wanted to write about racism and I wanted to use that story. So I started to write it and I failed miserably. I couldn’t seem to create authentic characters, voices, stories that worked within this framework.”
Picoult said she really questioned herself and wondered what right she had, as a white woman, to write about racism in the United States. She put the book away but, over the years, kept returning to the subject.
“I would play devil’s advocate and say, ‘Oh, you know, Jodi, you write all the time from points of view of people you’re not. You write as Holocaust survivors, as rape victims, as school shooters, as men. How is this different?’ Well, the reason it’s different is because it’s really hard to talk about racism without offending people. So, as a result, most of us choose just not to talk about it at all.”
In 2012, another news story finally gave her the framework to be able to talk about it. In Flint, Michigan, an African-American labor and delivery nurse with 20 years of experience routinely delivered a baby, and the father called in her supervisor. He said, “I don’t want her or anyone who looks like her to touch my baby,” and pushed up his sleeve to reveal a swastika tattoo.
“In their infinite wisdom, the hospital put a Post-It note on the baby’s file, saying, ‘No African American personnel may touch this infant,’’’ Picoult continued. “The nurse and several of her colleagues sued. They settled out of court and she got a boatload of money. But it made me wonder, what if this was the story that I wanted to enter into racism with? What if I could push the envelope? What if that nurse was the only one alone with that baby when something went wrong and she had to choose between saving that baby’s life and obeying her supervisor’s orders? What if, as a result, she wound up on trial, represented by a white public defender who, like me, like a lot of people I know, would never consider herself to be a racist? What if I could tell the story from the point of view of the African American nurse, the white public defender and the skinhead father?”
Picoult knew then that she was going to be able to write this book.
“I was no longer writing it to tell people of color how hard their lives are, because they do not need me for that,” she said. “Honestly, there are many fantastic writers of color who can speak to that experience authentically and are doing it every single day. I was now writing it for people who look like me, to say that although we can all point to a skinhead and say, ‘that’s a racist,’ it’s a lot harder to point to ourselves and say the exact same thing.”
That realization led her on a journey she had never taken before, learning everything she could about racism.
“I spent 47 years not talking about racism because it’s hard and messy and scary and, most importantly, because I didn’t have to. That, in itself – that silence – is privilege.”
The audience was riveted as Picoult shared the stories of the women she met at a Racial Justice Workshop. She spent more than 100 hours interviewing these women, many of whom became the “sensitivity readers” for her manuscript to make sure the characters and their experiences rang true.
“I should not and could not have written the book without them, and I’m so grateful to them,” said Picoult.
She also met with skinheads and discovered that the white supremacy movement has actually grown and that its members no longer have shaved heads.
“They look like us,” she said. “And they’re mostly ferreting out online ways to create and incite fear. They’re preparing for the racial holy war and stockpiling weapons in places like New Hampshire, where I live, and North Dakota.”
Picoult said she can’t overstate how much she learned as a human being while doing research for “Great Small Things,” and that fact seemed to perfectly illustrate the importance of Words Alive. With almost one fifth of San Diegans falling into the category of illiterate or functionally illiterate, the organization’s mission is more vital than ever.
“It’s always such an honor to have an author of Ms. Picoult’s distinction joining us,” said Patrick Stewart, executive director of Words Alive. “To connect our mission of making reading matter in our community with artists who, truly, make reading matter globally, really reinforces what we’re all collectively trying to achieve.”