I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.
March 1, 2021: Maurice Carlos Ruffin
Maurice Ruffin’s debut novel, We Cast a Shadow, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the PEN/Open Book Award, as well as being long-listed for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. This novel, which hits racism head on, is as funny as it is full of heart. The narrator declares in the first sentence of the book that his name is not important.
Which causes the reader to ask what is.
The narrator is a Black father of a biracial son who has a birthmark on his face. What the father wants more than anything is to give his son a good life, and he knows that the surest way to do this is to wipe out his son’s Blackness–to give Nigel “a normal face.”
But Nigel’s birthmark has darkened over the years, going “from wheat to sienna to umber, the hard hue of my own husk, as if a shard of myself were emerging from him. It was the reason I encouraged Nigel’s love of baseball caps. Anything to keep the birthmark from blackening.” Against his wife’s wishes, the narrator sneaks Nigel skin-lightening cream.
His mother says, “You losing yourself. Your heart. Your roots.”
But who can blame the father? We blame the father. Like his mother, we want to say, stand up for your Blackness. All the while knowing, he’s right about the world we live in, the world that every day we have a hand in creating. Who can blame the father?
“Mary held her hand out to stop me from talking. This shouldn’t have worked, but I found that I couldn’t say a word.”
The narrator is smart and funny.
“Except for me and half my son, there were no other blacks in our neighborhood.”
The narrator endears himself to us by using expressions like, “my little insurgent,” about his white wife Penny and “the little weirdo,” about his son.
“Nigel loved books made of real paper. Bless him, the little weirdo.”
“This was all strictly verboten in Penny’s presence, of course. But my dove wasn’t around, and I needed a distraction.
Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah says it so well in this New York Times review.
In trying to describe a book like this, it’s easy to imagine settling on “satire that guts American racism” or something along those lines. And it certainly is that. What must not be lost, as is often the case with the reductive labels we stitch to such works, is how love is at the core of this funny, beautiful novel — a father’s love situated firmly in the jaws of a racist society that threatens to swallow everyone in different ways.
Maurice is a New Orleans native, and he is currently the 2020-2021 John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. He is also a professor of Creative Writing at Louisiana State University. In earlier times, Maurice won the Iowa Review Award in Fiction and the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition for Novel-in-Progress. His collection, The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You, will be published in August. x
Stay well and…
Come back on MARCH 1st to read how MAURICE CARLOS RUFFIN spends his days.