Jodi Picoult’s novel, Small Great Things, couldn’t have been better timed: racial intimidation and harassment have flourished since Donald Trump was elected US President-elect.
The new book has generated discussion about a topic many of us avoid – racism. Of all her 20-plus books, Picoult says, this was the toughest to write.
Picoult, who has about 14 million copies of her books in circulation, is no stranger to controversy. She’s known for her take on modern-day issues and for using her books to draw attention to issues to inspire change. On November 10 Picoult addressed literary lunchers at the Sofitel Hotel Wentworth (predominately older white woman) to introduce her book and its themes.
It was an inspiring talk that increased my understanding of racism. I left feeling inspired – and motivated to work for change.
Picoult was first moved to about racism 20 years ago in New York City when a black undercover cop was shot four times in the back by white colleagues.
“It was devastating to me and I wanted to create a novel based around that,” Picoult said. “I started the book [but] abandoned it because I couldn’t seem to create authentic voices, authentic characters, authentic situations … I wondered, ‘Do I even have the right to write a story about racism?’
“Very clearly I’m a white woman, I grew up with privilege; what on earth could I possibly tell people of colour about their lives?”
Her dilemma would have touched a chord for Australians who recently witnessed a clash at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival. Lionel Shriver, author of We Need To Talk About Kevin, was snubbed by people who walked out of the keynote speaker’s address, accusing her of cultural appropriation for having what they saw as the audacity to argue that one person – in her case white American – could write from the perspective of a different culture.
Over the years Picoult returned to the novel, playing devil’s advocate by reminding herself, “Okay, now hang on a second. You write all the time in the point of people you’re not. You write as holocaust survivors, you write as school tutors, you write as men. You’re never going to be any of those people either, so why is this different?”
“Because race is different. Racism is different,” Picoult said. “It’s really hard to talk about without offending people, so as a result, most of us just don’t talk about it at all.”
Flash forward to 2012. The book still languished in a bottom drawer. Then Picoult came across yet another story, about an African-American nurse in Florida, Michigan with two years’ experience in a labour and delivery ward who delivered a white baby.
The father had called in a supervisor and said, “I don’t want her or anyone like her touching my kid.” The hospital put a post-it note in the baby’s file saying “No African-American people are allowed the touch this infant.” The nurse banded together with other colleagues of colour and sued the hospital.
It made Picoult wonder: what if she pushed that envelope a little? What if she used that story as a seed?
“Instead, what if that nurse was the only one alone with that baby if something went wrong? What if she had to choose between following her supervisor’s orders or saving a baby’s life? What if, as a result of that, she went out there on trial, defended by a white public defender, who like me, like a lot of people I know, would never consider herself to be a racist?
“And what if I could tell the story from three different points of view – The African-American nurse, the white public defender, and the white supremacist father as they all began to face their beliefs about race and power and privilege?”
Picoult changed her intent and she had changed her audience.
“I was not trying to write a book to try and tell people of colour how hard their lives are. The truth is, that is not my story to tell and it never will be my story to tell, and there are plenty of amazing authors of colour doing that every single day.”
Instead she addressed people who can very clearly point to a white supremacist and say, “That’s a racist,” but have difficulty seeing racism in themselves.
While writing the book she read widely and spoke with those people most severely affected by prejudice.
A key moment came when an African American mother asked her if she talked to her children about racism.
“I said, ‘Oh yeah, when something happens in the news.’ ”
The woman replied: “I talk about it every night because [for them] it is a matter of life and death.”
* * *
That was a moment of truth, an epiphany along Picoult’s road to enlightenment.
“I had not ever had to talk about racism before but I realised that that in itself, is a privilege,” she said.
Picoult learned a lot more: “Racism is not just prejudice and that’s why it’s so hard for us to say we’re racists. Racism is defined as prejudice plus power. If you are white, you hold all the power in both America, and yes, in Australia.
“Most of us don’t talk about race … because we don’t have to. [That] is a privilege.”
This resonated with me, having grown up in a country where race issues have for so long been put on the back burner by successive governments. As Picoult said, we whites may credit our success to luck or to hard work, but many of the opportunities we enjoy are there precisely because they are denied to others. As Picoult pointed out, we perhaps owe our opportunity to attend a great college to our parents reading to us every night, while less advantaged kids missed out because their mum was too busy, working three jobs to make ends meet.
“One of the reasons I wrote this book is because fiction is a springboard. Fiction is a way for you to very gently introduce a controversial subject… And I hope that when you read Small Great Things, that’s what you use it for. You use it to start a conversation.”
So, please, pick this book up, read it, learn from it and start a conversation. If you just read one book in your lifetime, please let it be this.
As the great human rights leader Martin Luther King Jnr said (inspiring Picoult’s title):
“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”