FROM LAWYER TO LAUREATE: THE MANY LIVES OF MAURICE CARLOS RUFFIN


Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s debut novel is both funny and distressing, often at the same time. Using satire to throw race relations into sharp relief, We Cast a Shadow is endowed with a particular blend of foreboding and derangement that encapsulates present-day America. It’s also a bit scary, set in an indeterminate point in the country’s future that feels eerily near. At a time of widespread unease, a militaristic police force wars with a radical sleeper cell and mansions along “the Avenue of Streetcars” are patrolled by machine gun-wielding security personnel. White supremacy is pervasive, as is racial oppression.

“A dark-skinned child can expect a life of diminished light,” the unnamed narrator, a lawyer equal parts enterprising and unhinged, tells us. As a Black father to a biracial son with a birthmark gradually expanding on his face, he’s desperate to protect his child. His solution seems to be a drastic one: turn his son white.

I recently sat down with Ruffin for a lengthy tête-à-tête. A native New Orleanian, the 41-year-old author’s background as a commercial litigator and trial attorney no doubt contributes to his skills as a conversationalist. As a storyteller, Ruffin appears at ease. His award-winning short stories and essays examining race and politics in New Orleans are among the more poignant written works confronting the city in its post-Katrina amalgamation. Starred reviews, appearances on multiple “must read” lists, and a recent designation by The New York Times as one of the preeminent “black writers of our time” point to Ruffin’s We Cast a Shadow likely being one of the more talked about novels of 2019.


We Cast a Shadow is your first novel. How did the writing process differ from the short stories and essays you’ve written?

I’m a novelist at heart. I think that everything I’ve done, whether it’s short stories or essays, was in service to becoming a better writer so I could make something as big and expansive as a novel. Short stories, to me, are harder to write than a novel because there’s not much room for error. Your story is correct or it’s not correct. With a novel, there’s more leeway. In a short story, it’s almost like you’re answering a question, whereas in a novel you’re experiencing someone’s life. And that expansiveness allows me to explore a lot more, be more discursive, and tackle bigger issues. With the essays, I think a lot of that writing helped me figure out what was important to me as a writer, what kind of issues I wanted to think about. It clarified things. I couldn’t have written any of my essays without having read a lot about America, white supremacy, gentrification. Those things all fit into the background ideas that are in the book.

The book features a medical procedure that turns people white and a Black, anxiety-ridden father with a biracial son. Can you talk about how you arrived at this storyline?

It was a long process. I discovered this character’s voice maybe a decade ago. It took me awhile to figure out what story  would serve him, what story would honor him as a character. This is a Black man, in America, trying to live the American dream. It’s inspired by the narrator from Invisible Man. I encountered [Ralph] Ellison’s character in that book when I was 18 years old, and I remember thinking: this guy, this book, speaks to me as a young Black man in a way I’ve never had anything else speak to me. It seems so honest—it seems so realistic, that even though it’s 50 years old I could still see what he was talking about all around me, constantly, in my own life. So this book was my attempt to try to apply what Ellison did. I think the narrator in my book is in some way a descendent of the Invisible Man character. His problem is a very simple problem: the American dream is about the pursuit of happiness. For Black folks specifically, that’s complicated by racism. So the question is: what do you do? How do you get around it? Can you get around it? That’s what he’s dealing with in this book.

How much is this character a reflection of you? It seems like his politics and demeanor are quite different from yours, but you share experiences.

I think I thought of him almost as a Jekyll and Hyde version of myself. He’s like my Hyde. [laughs] I shouldn’t say this, but he’s like my worst Kanye version of myself. It’s almost as if I wanted to create a version of myself that I couldn’t stand behind. I love him as a person, as a character, but I think his circumstances have caused him to make a lot of choices that I would not ever make in my own life. And yet, he’s making those choices out of love—which I understand, totally. So in the Venn diagram, where love is in the center, that’s where we connect at. But on my side of things, I could never see myself doing the kind of damage he does to his loved ones in the name of his mission to “fix things.” I think that he’s more ruthless and aggressive in terms of what he’s trying to carry out: ultimately, to create a better life for his family. I don’t know if I have the heart to do some of the things he did.

But you share his anxieties?

“Writing this book, I had a few rules I relied on. One of them was that the narrator was telling the story. I didn’t outline the book. I didn’t prescribe what had to happen. I basically said, ‘Ok. I’ll listen to you, friend. Tell me your story.'”

Oh, absolutely. I would say that his anxieties are my own, turned up to eleven. I think I get through life like a lot of Black folks: by having a double consciousness and just putting a lot of issues on the back burner so I can go to work, kiss my wife, be with my friends and family, that sort of thing. Whereas with him, it’s just always in the forefront. He can’t put it down. He’s totally obsessed. I think for most people we have to take steps back sometimes, otherwise we’ll go crazy. And maybe he’s actually going crazy.

That’s actually what I started to consider the further along I read in the book, that maybe he’s more out of control than I originally thought. He obviously cares about his son a great deal, but he talks about the operation as a way of healing him, as if his Blackness is a malady or scar. I’d like to hear you talk about the significance of this father’s struggle to show affection for his son.

Maybe if he were to show conventional affection, he wouldn’t be able to carry his mission out. One of the things that’s happening in the book is it’s trying to be honest about the way America sees Black people. I think that any stranger looking at race relations in America could see that there’s a criminalization of Black people—that if you have dark skin, if you’re of African descent, America will look at you as a man or a woman and say you’re either dangerous, or you’re inferior, that your value is lower. I think for him, he’s seeing that and having a reaction to it. And this reaction is, “I can’t love anything about my son that’s Black. But once he’s white he’ll be perfect. He’ll be safe, and he won’t be seen as a criminal, an idiot, or a danger.” After that point, I think he thinks they can all look back and love each other in a more wholesome way.

You once wrote, “I’ve never liked the South. I don’t hate the place where I was born and have always lived. I’m not even bitter about it. I’m just not much of a fan.” I’m interested in hearing about why you decided to set your novel so firmly in the South.

In that quote, I don’t say I hate the South. I think I love the South. I love New Orleans. The way I look at it, we’re part of a family. It’s almost as if in America there’s two tribes: There’s the South, then there’s everything else. Like with your family, it created you, and to hate your own family is to hate yourself. You just can’t avoid it. I do think the narrative that I was raised with, like a lot of us, is that the South is so bad in comparison to the rest of America in terms of race. But if you look at history, look at laws, look at policies, racism is an America-wide problem. I can’t let the North off the hook for racism when there were all these housing covenants that still exist today in Chicago, all these policies that involved red-lining that exist in New York, gentrification out west in California… I guess what I’ll say is the South is difficult because it has been so ugly and so dark. And it had slavery, which was also in the North. But I think I understand the South, at least. When I look at some of the darkest areas of the South, like Mississippi, I’ll just say it, I have a lot of problems just passing through Mississippi sometimes. But my friends who live there, like [University of Mississippi English professor and writer] Kiese Laymon for example, when they describe their will to fight racism and anti-Blackness, and I see what they and their ancestors have done in places like Jackson, Vicksburg, Grenada, or Oxford, it gives me a sense of pride. The South’s story is also a Black story, and anyone who says it’s not is lying. And that’s why I can’t hate the South, because if I did I’d be hating my people.

Do you feel like what you’re describing is also happening here in Louisiana?

Yeah, absolutely. When it comes down to it, one of the things about being a Black person in America that I’ve come to understand more as I’ve grown older is the fact that you have these people who wanted a white ethno-state, and they just want to erase the entire timeline of Black history from the founding of the country to the present. So what does that mean? You get rid of jazz music, hip-hop, gospel, the blues, so all of a sudden you don’t get to have any American music because you can’t have rock’n’roll, or electronica, or Britney Spears. So then what do you have? Banjos? No. African slaves were playing banjos back in the day. If you extrapolate that line of thinking across everything—whether it’s food, culture, fashion, architecture—you don’t have Louisiana at all. There are people who fought for our rights in this city, people like Israel Augustine and, more recently, the people who fought to take the statues down. Again, I have pride in that. I respect that. And I think my own role as a writer is I get to view it all with a wide lens, to condense it down and give it back to the community at large.

The monument controversy is sort of written into the book. For people living in present day New Orleans, there’s a lot of Easter eggs throughout the novel.

“I get through life like a lot of black folks: by having a double consciousness”

Nabokov was really good at Easter eggs. My first copy of Lolita was annotated. Plus, I’m from geek culture. I love comics. I love sci-fi. And if you’re into that stuff, everything is like interrelated content. You can’t avoid it. So I wanted the book to be able to be enjoyed by a general reader; but if you want to delve into anything in that book, it’s like I could have footnoted every page 20 or 30 times… I’ve enjoyed that experience as a reader. I wanted to recreate that experience, because my favorite writers have done that in their books.

Like who else?

Definitely Junot Díaz. Toni Morrison is way more subtle with it, but her writing is just full of all these meta-analytical points that you have to really think hard about. Ellison does it some. I was surprised that Melville, way back in 1850, did it with Moby Dick. And Hawthorne, he has a story called “The Birthmark.” It’s about a lady with a birthmark who meets an inventor. And in the story the inventor wants to get rid of the birthmark, because he thinks she’s the most beautiful girl on the planet, except for that birthmark. Hawthorne was great at symbolism that was very clear, but also had a lot of varied meaning to it. I admire that in writing.

Was it the Hawthorne story that inspired the birthmark in We Cast a Shadow?

It’s one influence. Also, Toni Morrison does it in Sula. The main character, Sula, has this birthmark that changes shape throughout the book. It’s a snake, or a rose, or a spot. I was fascinated by it.

There’s a fair bit of absurd, Kafka-esque scenarios throughout this book. And, from what I can tell, you’re also drawing heavily from lived experience. It’s satirical, but it also feels deeply personal. What did your decision-making process look like while structuring this book?

I didn’t have one. Writing this book, I had a few rules I relied on. One of them was that the narrator was telling the story. I didn’t outline the book. I didn’t prescribe what had to happen. I basically said, “OK. I’ll listen to you, friend. Tell me your story. Always tell me the most interesting parts, omit the most boring parts, and move it along as quickly as you can.” And he’s a good storyteller.

So as you were writing this novel you were surprising yourself?

Over and over again. Some of the most elaborate scenes in the book are not things I set down in a diagram. He just said them. And I was like, “Really? That happened? How?” And he’d just lay it out for me. It was like a seance.

How did the book change throughout the process of writing it?

This book took me about four years to write. I started in 2012, the Obama era. When I say that now, it makes sense to us, because we’re in the Trump era. We can see the difference between what things were like back then and what they’re like now. At the start of the Obama era we said, “Oh, race is dead. We’ve solved these issues.” There’d be a few blow-ups here and there, but then Trump taught us that no, actually these flare-ups are not aberrations—they’re part of a disease, part of the American body politic. At some point in the writing of this book, which I finished before Trump was elected, I decided to think about the future of America, and in thinking about that I knew what the diagnosis was: white supremacy. What’s the prognosis? What does that lead us to in 20, 50, 100 years?

While it’s never openly stated that this story takes place in a near-future New Orleans, it sure seems a lot like a near-future New Orleans. You allude to place without naming it. Why?

New Orleans is such a strongly defined place in the world consciousness, so people have a lot of ideas about who we are, what we stand for, and what makes us us. But it’s all branding. I often say that New Orleans is an imaginary city. It’s like Disney World; it doesn’t really exist. People come down and expect a certain experience, and people who are from here and work in hospitality or service, they’ll provide that vision for you. But the real New Orleans is very specific, and I think I didn’t want to get into the trap of creating a city that was so specific that people would be like, “Oh, you can’t take a left on that street and end up on this corner.” I wasn’t concerned with that. Writers like Nabokov and Colson Whitehead have written books where they’ve played with time and space, so you have a very strong impression of a possible city. But not naming it, you get to do what any writer does: act like a demigod, create your own city, your own experience, so that the characters and the subject are foremost and the city is sort of secondary.

The future you depict leans heavily towards dystopia. How much of this story is exaggeration of the present and how much is extrapolation of what lies ahead?

What I was thinking (and I’m not saying this to be flippant or rude) is that for a lot of people in this country—whether you’re Black, an immigrant, a transgender person—you’re living in that dystopian reality right now. America is the incarceration capital of the world. Louisiana is obviously way up there, second place in the country. There’s a lot of us that end up in prison for dumb things. I’m straight-edge; I don’t do any drugs. My friends will ask, “Why don’t you do drugs?” In New Orleans, if you’re a Black man caught with weed in your back pocket, you’ll go to jail for that. Friends who I’ve met over the years who are white will say, “Going to jail for weed? That’s ridiculous.” Or if they go to jail, it’s not going to be a big deal. I could name half a dozen family members who have gone to jail over dumb drug charges. Some are still there right now. If that isn’t the same as living in a dystopia, where your buddy Jared has some drugs and he has a good time and just walks outside without a problem, but your Uncle Tommy is in jail for 20 years because he just wanted to have a good time one night, that’s dystopian. Many of us are dealing with things like that. When you get into things like wealth disparity, or how “the best communities in America,” often liberal communities, have these systems that are designed to keep Black kids out of their schools, to make sure the bad kids don’t end up there and take away resources, those things are all part of a present-day dystopia that we are seeing right now. It’s a great luxury, I think, if you don’t have to think about those things. But if you are a Black person in America right now, you have to consider those things constantly throughout your life.

The book is receiving wide acclaim. Why do you think people are connecting with it?  

People want truth and honesty. If there was any goal I had in creating this book, it’s that I didn’t want to rely on any mythologies about what America is. I think the narrator, even though he has a lot of issues mentally—he’s on drugs, he fantasizes until his mental state breaks—he understands what’s going on very clearly and he’s not sugarcoating things. He can’t ignore it, and I think he made me as a person in the real world pay more attention to what’s going on. So when I saw what happened to Trayvon Martin, Ricky Boyd, Sandra Bland, or Eric Garner, or when I saw the ascent of President Trump, or when I see what’s happening in Europe with this new fascism, it made me think this wasn’t an after effect or a side effect. This is the main effect. We’re seeing this and it’s real.

What do your friends and family think of your work?  

Well, my mom, first and foremost, loves it. She likes seeing my name on Facebook and stuff like that. The rest of my family, they really appreciate it, too. I think also I’m lucky to be in this city. New Orleans is so small, and there’s a tight literary community that didn’t really exist 20 years ago. My friends are ecstatic. It feels really, really gratifying. To me, my writing is homage to my writing group, my writing mentors, and my peers. It’s like me giving back to them the gift that they gave to me over the years.

You received your MFA from the University of New Orleans in 2013. How important was the MFA experience to shaping your writing?

It was very important. The MFA professionalized me. Early in my process of becoming a writer, I would take months and months to finish a basic story. They make you write three stories per semester. That was helpful. Seeing my peers work, seeing what talents they had that I didn’t have (and vice versa), that exchange of ideas was very helpful. When I got to school, I initially didn’t think I was going to write about being a Black person. I thought my characters would be Black characters (for the most part), but just “living their lives.” That’s a very Obama era idea. I recognized towards the end of school that it just wasn’t working, because if you’re Black in America racism is just part of your life. You can maybe turn it up or down a little bit, adjust the dial, but you can’t avoid it. Trying to create race-neutral works and seeing that that wasn’t possible taught me an important lesson.

Can you talk about what you were doing before you decided to pursue an MFA? I know you went to law school and were successful as a commercial litigator and trial attorney.  

Between 2003 and 2013 was almost all law, with some writing sprinkled in. But the last five years has been a lot of writing, and some law. The present balance is good. Maybe one day it’ll be all writing. But based on my knowledge of self, I can say that I would not have been able to become a writer without going to law school, becoming a lawyer, and being good at what I did as a lawyer.

Why is that?

I think a lot of us literary types, and painters, dancers, and musicians, we tend to have these grandiose ideas about what art is. The ideas are so big they can’t be contained in your head. Because you can’t contain the ideas in your head, you can’t reduce them to a physical form that others can actually interact with, so you can go through your entire life as an “artist” and produce no work at all. Law school is all hammers and nails. You’re asked questions, and as a result you become tougher and faster and more adept at being direct and clear. So when I sit down to write a story, essay, or novel, I stick with it. I don’t give up. And if I feel like things are fuzzy, I figure out how to tighten it up. I can do that as a result of the law background. And then in terms of the actual impacts of my personal career, working in these downtown firms, working for the oldest firm in Louisiana [Chaffe McCall] and going to events in mansions, that all fit into what I’ve done as a writer since then. My law career has been a huge blessing for me, because as a writer your life is your material. If you spend your life avoiding difficult situations, you’ll have no material to write with. Even though I’ve wanted to leave New Orleans, as early as 2000, staying here has been the biggest boon in my life as an artist.

And you did leave New Orleans for a period, correct?

For Katrina. I was all over the place. I was in northwest Louisiana, Houston, California, West Bank of New Orleans for awhile.

How did being outside of the city change your perspective of it?

I think being away made me understand the value of New Orleans. I didn’t consciously understand why I needed to come back, but I understood subconsciously everything I needed was back here in New Orleans. That’s why I came back.

When did writing take on the most importance?

It’s strange being a writer. For a lot of things in life, if you’re good at it people encourage you very overtly. I think as an artist, people don’t believe it until they see it. For a lot of writers, where you’re not creating paintings or acting on stage, it’s often very internal and you’re all by yourself. A lot of us go without a lot of support for a lot of our lives. It’s a reason why many writers stop, because without support it’s hard to continue. But I think as early as 10 years old, people encouraged me to write. People in high school and college told me I could write. I didn’t quite believe them. I had the good fortune of meeting a fellow lawyer in 2005, a guy named Tad Bartlett who was also writing his own first novel. We formed a writing group several years later, and that was the first of many steps that I think led to me being where I am now. For me it’s not like a specific choice, it’s just been a process of acknowledging I’ve always been a writer my entire life. And being really patient, knowing in 2007 I wasn’t a very good writer, but knowing if I kept on the path I could become very good at it. But I also tried politics. I tried music. I’m what they call a maximalist. My professor at UNO, a guy named Daniel Doll, said there’s two kinds of writers: minimalists and maximalists. Poe and Hemingway were minimalists. Melville, Faulkner, and Toni Morrison are maximalists. That was a clarifying moment for me. I’m totally a maximalist. I like having a lot of things happening, having those plates on a stick and spinning them.

You said in a 2016 interview, “New Orleans is very strange in that it has this great tradition of writers, and yet minorities have very little representation.” Can you talk about that?

People don’t think about this very often, but if you come to New Orleans and ask about the literary scene, at the top public level of it we have Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and John Kennedy Toole, one of my favorite writers of all time. But it’s a very bizarre thing, because New Orleans is majority Black today. It was majority Black when I was born in ‘77. John Biguenet (a professor at Loyola and scholar of Louisiana history), he corrected me on stage when I said New Orleans has been a majority Black city for 100 years. He said New Orleans has been majority Black since the founding. These things made me think about how a culture produces work and what it allows to spring out of it. Louis Armstrong, who some musical scholars say is the most important musician of all time, basically represented America for 60 years through jazz. Without Armstrong there is no Lil Wayne, somehow. There’s maybe no Rolling Stones. And yet with all these musicians and artists in the city, the question is where are the Black writers at? When I think about it, I know that poverty is an issue here for Black folks. I know that literacy is an issue. When I wonder why that’s the case, I think it’s the result of our schools being segregated from the very beginning and still being segregated today. And that’s just one aspect of our society, where the kids don’t have the freedom to receive the knowledge to be able to produce writing. It’s rare that someone can be born into poverty and fight their way out, like say Richard Wright, and create writing that people will want to read. One of my hopes is that when I’m an old man that there will be a lot of Black kids writing novels, writing Afro-futurism, satire, or literary fiction. But at the same time, I’m not responsible for that, because we need a lot of changes to happen before that becomes the truth.

School segregation in New Orleans is something you’ve talked about before. How do you explain it to people outside of the city?

You know, often it’s my friends who are not from the city that explain it to me. I’ve had so many experiences over the past six or seven years. I remember in 2012, I was at Arnaud’s in the French Quarter, and I was having lunch with friends from Canada, Korea, and California. We walked through this place, seeing this menagerie of New Orleans artifacts. And to me it was just a normal New Orleans restaurant. And to them, they were like, “What’s with all this racist imagery? These symbols of mammys and klansmen?” And I was like, “What are you talking about?” How didn’t I see that? So when it comes to school segregation, that’s another example of that. If you’re from here, it seems normal to you. I assume if you’re a white liberal in New Orleans you don’t want to talk about it, because it hurts. But I also understand, from a very general perspective, that if I was in their position I can’t swear I would be a different person than they are. If you are a white parent, and you’ve been taught to fear Black people, and to hoard resources for yourself and your family, how could you behave any differently?

I wanted to talk about this line from your essay “Fine Dining,” where you write, “It’s when I’m out dining in my hometown that I feel most like a war correspondent covering a conflict that most people are unaware is being fought.”

It’s really like being able to see a ghost. Most people can’t see ghosts, but us 10% of Americans who are Black, we see them constantly. We can see those same Civil War spirits who motivate the actions of people today. Just yesterday, I was eating at an open buffet, and I was grabbing a drink, and this lady was like, “Where’s the water? Is there no water?” She assumed I was one of the waiters. I’ve responded different ways to that sort of thing over the years, and I just shrugged my shoulders. I could see it in her face, the impertinence. She was shocked that this waiter, this Black dude, would not give her a satisfying answer. Those sort of things happen constantly, and if you don’t have this double consciousness, where you can see both things at one time, you can get yourself into some weird situations. The idea of eating out in New Orleans, whether it’s in a fine dining restaurant, a cafe, or a bar—those places are fraught with meaning that I can’t avoid. If I go out to a bar, I know I have to present in a certain way. I can’t just hang outside of the bar and have a good time. I can’t be out super late at night. I can’t carry a gun on me. I have to think of all those things constantly. One time I was at a reading in a bar, and we parked in the lot across the street. All the cars got boots, because the owner of this place was a jerk. And I’m talking to the bartender, and I’m a very level-headed person; even when I get mad I’m pretty calm in comparison to most people. But I could tell at one moment in this short conversation that the bartender was very, very afraid of me. And I wondered why she was so afraid; my level of heat was like 3 on a 15 scale. But it’s because I was a Black guy at a bar, and she knows this can get out of hand. I just stopped talking and walked away. None of my white friends would have this problem.

Do you think white people’s fear is in part responsible for what you refer to as “cultural flattening”?

Yeah. I believe cultural flattening is about trying to create a space for white people where they don’t have to feel guilty or confronted by the truth of what’s going on. Fear is such an ugly thing. If you listen to white supremacists throughout history, they almost always say that they did what they did to stop those people, the Black people, from ruining our lives and being a danger to us. The senator in Mississippi [Cindy Hyde-Smith],  who just won with her public hanging comment, I just happened to randomly hear on a podcast George Wallace saying almost the exact same thing in like 1959, saying that if they had a few more hangings it’d be a lot better for their safety and protection. I think of the white citizen councils in the 1950s. They were all about protecting their families from people who look like me, because they thought we were going to ruin their lives. What you see is people who have those thoughts going out and shooting, raping, or beating up Black folks, doing this because they think they’re in danger, but they’re not. Meanwhile, on my side of the equation, I don’t want to hurt anybody, but I’m perceived as someone who’s going to hurt everybody. It’s a strange conundrum in this country. It’s a very American problem and it just never ends.

This sense of danger is a theme throughout your book. That and erasure, but it’s coming from this father, who’s a Black man.

“If I asked the question, ‘You know any black folks?’ to many white New Orleanians, I think for a lot of folks it’s a waiter at a place they eat.”

 

He is on a frenzied pursuit of safety for his child. He wants to get to the promised land. The problem is, we have this myth in America that’s taught in schools that we had slavery, we stopped it, and that fixed everything. That lie is what creates a lot of our problems. If we ever had the truth and reconciliation in America that we’ve seen in places like Germany or South Africa, where people say, “This is the true history. This is what happened. This is where we are now,” America would be so much better off. We have people that literally say that racism doesn’t exist, that it’s not a real thing. Or they say Black folks are just as racist as white folks, or talk about Black-on-Black crime. Those are all ways of ignoring the root cause, and that ignorance has held us back for centuries.

What do you think are some myths of the South that warrant dismantling?

Oh, man. It’s an endless list. To me the most powerful movie in the American oeuvre is Gone With The Wind. To my understanding, Gone With The Wind to this day is still one of the most popular movies ever. It’s one the highest-grossing films of all time. Wondering why that’s the case, I imagined being a white person. Living in America, life is always hard for everybody, regardless of your race. But imagine you’ve been taught you’ve been shortchanged, that if you were born 150 years ago you’d have a mansion, a beautiful spouse, people serving you constantly, all the food you could eat, great clothes, and there’s parties and life was wonderful. That film tells you about the better life you could have had for yourself. And that’s a myth that persists today when people come down to Louisiana and want to visit plantations, even have a wedding there. Because to them, the plantation was not a place where people were murdered, raped, enslaved, and beaten, it’s a beautiful piece of America’s past. It’s like going to Germany and having a party in Auschwitz.

Photo by Claire Welsh

When you think of aspects of New Orleans that are hard for people to grasp, what comes to mind?

I would say it is the sheer segregation in this city. You can live here your entire life and not even pay attention to it. If I asked the question, “You know any Black folks?” to many white New Orleanians, I think for a lot of folks it’s a waiter at a place they eat. Like Marvin Wood, who worked at Camellia Grill for like 25 years, I’m sure to a lot of folks he felt like their friend. But that was his job, and he was dressing up like this slave-era person and entertaining them, making them feel good about themselves. It is so hard for Black people and white people to have a life that is really integrated. I think about my friends today, my fellow writers. I didn’t recognize this for awhile, but I don’t have any white writer friends who were born and bred in New Orleans. It’s because my elementary school was all Black, my middle school was all Black, my high school was all Black. We’re so segregated we don’t really recognize what’s going on. When somebody like me goes to New York or San Francisco and sees it’s not like this everywhere, our minds get blown. Conversely, a lot of times out-of-towners don’t understand the segregation either. They think, “Oh, I didn’t realize it was 1870 in New Orleans.” What we have here is a waste of human capital, a crushing of the human spirit, and the destruction of potential. And that’s all due to white supremacy, which continues apace. It’s probably getting stronger, actually.

As a writer, what would you like to help people understand through your work?  

I don’t consider myself an activist, but I will say that you will never understand New Orleans unless you get out of your comfort zone. You will never understand America unless you make it a point to read outside of what you’re used to experiencing. We’re all in these bubbles now where we look at the same internet sites, the same cable news programs, talk to the same people. And if you want to have an accurate understanding of what is really going on, you’ve got to fight your way out of this paper bag that you’ve been trapped inside of and into reality. It’s tough and it’s difficult, but I think if we start doing that and applying it to our real lives, making sure the schools have real education and that our daily experiences are more honest, when that happens it’ll change everything. That is a kind of revolution that’s not built on blood, pain, or violence. It’s built upon giving us all a chance to live good lives.


Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s We Cast a Shadow is out now from Penguin Press. He’ll be reading from and signing copies of his debut novel on Wednesday, February 13 at 6 p.m. at Octavia Books. For more information visit loweramericanson.com.


illustrations Erin K. Wilson.