Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Q&A with Sam Graham-Felsen

Sam Graham-Felsen is the author of the new novel Green, which takes place in Boston in 1992. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times Magazine and The Nation, and he was the chief blogger for President Obama's 2008 campaign. 

Q: You write that the inspiration for Green came from the question, “Why are interracial friendships—lasting ones—so rare in this country?” How did that question lead to the novel?

A: This is my first novel, but in everything I’ve written, from short stories to essays, I usually find myself starting out with a question — something I’m curious about, feel confused by, and want to try to work my way towards understanding better. 

So it’s true, I started out with that animating question, but, of course, I knew I couldn’t — nor did I want to try to — answer a question as sweeping and general as that, especially in the form of a novel.

All a novel can do is describe specific characters in a specific situation. The situation I was interested in was a friendship between a white kid named Dave from a privileged, middle class household, and a black kid named Marlon who lives in a housing project around the corner from Dave’s house. 

I knew, heading into the novel, that I wanted to write about why the friendship built up so quickly, but also why it fizzled out so quickly.

How would the differences in the levels of privilege between Dave and Mar grate on their relationship? What kind of micro and macro-agressions might Mar face, including from Dave? How would society’s different treatment of Dave and Mar impact the way Dave and Mar treated each other?

These were questions that fascinated me enough to keep me writing, until at some point, I had a draft of a novel.

Q: How would you describe the friendship between David and Marlon, and what do you hope readers take away from their story?

A: I would say that Dave and Mar are two misfits — strange puzzle pieces that happen to match up perfectly together.

Mar doesn’t conform to what the kids at school think of as “cool.” He doesn’t have the right clothes or the right haircut, he doesn’t like the right basketball players, he’s not good at sports, he’s the kind of guy who doesn’t dance at the school dances.

And Dave is a misfit because, first of all, he’s white at a mostly black and Latinx school, which makes him stand out quite a bit, but also because he’s awkward and anxious, and so obsessed with being cool that he’s constantly making faux-pas and embarrassing himself. 

Mar and Dave initially connect because they both love the Boston Celtics. Normally, loving the home team is a very normal thing to do. And the Boston Celtics happen to be the most successful franchise in basketball history!

But in early-90s Boston, the Celtics stunk, and the cool teams to root for were the Charlotte Hornets, the Chicago Bulls, and the Phoenix Suns, among others. So ironically, it’s Dave and Mar’s loyalty to their uncool team — and frankly, uncool city — that puts them on the same team. 

But beyond that, Dave and Mar share a sense of humor — they laugh at the same terrible TV ads, each other’s corny jokes, etc. — and a moral sensibility.

Mar is a religious kid who has a basic sense of empathy for the less powerful (including Dave’s emotionally troubled younger brother Benno); Dave is a secular kid who wants to be religious, and wants to be morally pure, even though he struggles a lot with “sinful” temptations.

Mar loves to be around Dave because he can be his authentic self without feeling judged; and Dave loves to be around Mar for similar reasons, but also because he thinks Mar is a good guy, and he wants to be a better guy, too.

I hope readers connect to this friendship — and that it prompts them to recall their own powerful childhood friendships, and maybe even to pick up the phone and reconnect with someone they haven’t talked to in years :)

But I also hope that readers come away feeling upset at the way institutional racism and segregation put up so many boundaries between kids, and make friendships like Dave and Mar’s so complicated and trying.

It should be so simple — kids should be able to connect, no matter what race, class, or gender they are. And yet, it’s not simple at all, and that’s tragic.

Q: Did you need to do much research to recreate Boston in the early 1990s, or did you remember most of it from your own childhood?

A: I spent a lot of time listening to early ‘90s rap music, but that’s my favorite music anyway, so it wasn’t exactly a chore. I spent some time on YouTube, watching old commercials and clips from old TV shows. And I spent a lot of time with my middle school yearbook.

I actually went to a school called the Martin Luther King Middle School in Boston, which I based the school in the book on. It was pretty embarrassing to see the clothes I wore back then! But it was also useful to see how everyone dressed, all of the different amazing early-‘90s stylings, from Cross Colours suits to ‘X’ tee shirts.

Q: You worked on President Obama’s 2008 campaign. What do you see as the legacy of his presidency when it comes to race relations, and what do you think about race relations in the Trump era?

A: It’s hard to say what the Obama legacy is, because it will continue to evolve and play out in different ways, for decades, if not centuries, to come.

But overall, I am something of an optimist, and I would say that Obama’s presidency was hugely important for race relations in this country. Did he usher in a post-racial era? Absolutely not, and no one I knew on the campaign was ever naive enough to believe that he would.

But his presidency and movements that emerged in his era — particularly Black Lives Matter — have brought race to the forefront of our national conversation. For so long, race had been a topic many Americans wanted to run away from or brush under the carpet.

Now, institutional racism, microagressions, police misconduct, wage and wealth inequality, school and housing segregation are all major topics of national conversation.

I don’t think Trump’s victory stopped this conversation. If anything, the dialogue about race has become even more robust and urgent, now that we have an openly racist president.

There’s so much incredible political organizing and social movement activity springing up, all over the country right now — not only against racism, but sexism, xenophobia, and religious bigotry, too.

It’s a dark time in American history, but these movements actually make me more hopeful than ever that we’ll get through this period of darkness and emerge a fairer and more decent society. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m trying to write another novel — key word being trying. I don’t want to say what I hope it’ll be about, because I don’t want to jinx it. But also working on some personal essays and journalism. In general, just keeping the pen moving and not trying to worry too much about rushing out my next book.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that I’m deeply grateful to you, and to anyone else who picks up my book and reads it. It’s a powerful and rewarding thing to know that readers are spending time with something I put my heart into. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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