“One of the great things about writing fiction is that it can be a springboard. You can use it as a diving board to jump into a conversation.”
After a hectic day, commuting to Toronto and getting a bit lost walking to the venue, it was time to hear Jodi Picoult speak about her newest book, small great things. This book is guaranteed to get people talking about the issue of racism. This author is a dynamic and passionate speaker who speaks from her heart. She thoroughly researches issues that matter and shares ideas through fiction.
Jodi has sold a record 40 million copies of her 28 novels! Her last 8 publications have been number one on the New York Times best seller list. This includes Leaving Time which I wrote about in my original blog, along with a synopsis of my first event with Jodi Picoult. Canadian Living magazine did a fabulous job of sponsoring the event including wine, cocktails and a great “loot bag” at the end!
The author began by sharing the importance of race as a critical issue and spoke of both the US election spawning hate and the Canadian truth and reconciliation commission. She joked that she might just move to Canada on November 9th and noted that she has been a very strong opponent of the Trump campaign as it has “given voice to hate”.
She had wanted to write a book about racism 25 years ago, at a time when an African American police officer had been shot by a white colleague. She shared that she just could not write about it then and how hard it is to write about racism without offending anyone. In 2012 she learned of a nurse in Flint, Michigan who had sued the hospital and won an almost $200, 000 settlement after the hospital she worked for left a post-it note in a chart saying that no black staff were to care for a child. This was at the direction of the father who had rolled up his sleeve revealing a swastika. This experienced nurse had worked for the hospital for 25 years.
Jodi read the first chapter of the novel which is written from 3 points of view: Ruth (the
nurse), Turk (the father) and Kennedy (the lawyer). Knowing that Ruth’s story might not be “my story to tell”, Jodi read everything she could and signed up for social justice workshops (leaving every night in tears). She met a group of women of colour and spent 100 hours reseraching, talking with them and asking them to review and edit Ruth’s perspective. These women shared their hopes, fears, dreams, failures and stories.
The research also included meeting two former skin heads to understand Turk’s perspective. The first man had beat up a gay man and later, after apologies and forgiveness, these men are now friends who share their story. The second former skin head had been sentenced to jail and discovered he had more in common with the African American inmates. He realized that the prejudices he held did not hold true when his Jewish boss did not end up being “cheap”, like he thought, and paid him double for a job well done. One man ended up marrying a Jewish woman and the other helps the FBI track down white supremacists.
Jodi told the audience that much of the white supremacy work is now done on line and how she is constantly blocking trolls from her twitter feed after writing Are You Sure You’re Not Racist for Time magazine. Jodi shared that she would have to take a shower after writing Turk’s sections but she realized that “no one is all evil” and this character had suffered a tragedy – the loss of a child.
“I didn’t talk about racism for 47 years and now I can’ shut up about it”.
Despite all her research, Jodi feels that she is still learning when talking about racism and that it is better to talk about it even when making mistakes and apologizing than to pretend it does not happen. She offered a number of do’s and do not’s including:
- Do not say you are colourblind (insensitive)
- Do not say you have black friends (assumes that friend might be representative of all)
- Do not say I’m a minority too (all experiences are different)
- Do not assume that you need to share your opinion or help but Do ask what you can do to help?
- Do use the phrase “race aware”
- Do understand the difference between equal (same) and equitable (fair)
- Do put yourself in situations where your own skin colour is not dominant and start to feel how others might feel
- Do educate yourself on history – she challenged the audience to learn who Emmett Tills was and how he inspired Rosa Parks (he was kidnapped after whistling at a white woman, beaten, hung, drowned yet his mother insisted on an open casket so others could see the damage that had been done).
- Do not say “all lives matter” which is offensive to those who have been marginalized.
- Do not accept your “old racist Uncle” and say “that is not cool and let me tell you why”
Jodi suggested that the audience consider their reading patterns. Do they read a proportional # of books by authors of colour? She provided suggestions and reiterated how important it is to “read words of someone who has lived through that experience” and that “if you are not reading these, you are missing out”. This made me look through my own list of books from 2016 and in my quest to read more CanLit, I have read many books by people of colour and indigenous writers which I have loved! She has suggested reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates which she has bought and shared 10 copies.
Jodi likes to write about the “things that wake me up at night” and “things that keep me from sleep”. She feels that the “act of writing is like thrashing through a difficult issue”. She revealed that she is very lucky in life, living in a beautiful part of the world, being married “to the world’s best human” and having great kids. This enables her to write about the difficult topics and she described small great things as the hardest book she had ever written.
It was a fantastic evening, well organized by Canadian Living and thought provoking for the crowd. I am looking forward to reading small great things and was very happy to have Jodi sign 4 other books which I had dragged to Toronto on the Go Train. Laura was able to ask her about writing her own memoir and Jodi graciously said that her life would be too boring!
Thanks to Laura who was quick to purchase tickets to this sold out event!