Novelist Visualizes Houston's Past, And Its Future Author Attica Locke's novel Black Water Rising is a murder mystery set in a racially divided Houston in 1981. As part of NPR's look at the Houston of 2009, NPR's Steve Inskeep and Locke take a boat ride down the Buffalo Bayou — the scene of an eerie episode in her youth.
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Novelist Visualizes Houston's Past, And Its Future

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Novelist Visualizes Houston's Past, And Its Future

Novelist Visualizes Houston's Past, And Its Future

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The city of Houston, Texas began growing from this spot where I am now: Allen's Landing, which is named after the brothers who founded this city in 1836. It's a boat launch on Buffalo Bayou. This river runs in a deep channel lined with trees and sometimes purple flowers 30 feet or more below street level. Here at the water's edge, you can see downtown highway bridges crossing overhead. High above you see skyscrapers. Houston native Attica Locke told me that being on this bayou feels like being underneath the city.

Ms. ATTICA LOCKE (Author, "Black Water Rising"): It's picturesque, but it's also a little creepy. You know, there's legends about alligators and all kinds of strange creatures down here. And as a kid, I was not one of those kids that, you know, gets a stick and goes exploring a bayou. I would rather see it from afar.

INSKEEP: Attica Locke agreed to take a closer look with us. The bayou plays a role in her novel, "Black Water Rising." It describes Houston as it seemed in 1981 to an African-American lawyer. Attica Locke's real-life father happens to be an African-American lawyer and now a candidate for mayor of Houston. So we started to talk about it as we boarded a rented boat. The pilot pulled away into the muddy water and weaved between the concrete pilings of the bridges.

Ms. LOCKE: It's kind of emotional for me to be down here.

INSKEEP: Why's that?

Ms. LOCKE: You know, I wrote my book from a really long-ago memory of being on a boat like this when I was a kid. The part of me that's a chicken, it's the part of me that's still scared to come down here. I mean, maybe if you guys hadn't even invited me, I might not have done this again.

INSKEEP: What do you remember about that boat ride when you were a kid?

Ms. LOCKE: You know, it was late at night, we got far away from downtown towards where we're going now into a part that's not well-lit. There were no buildings, it's all brush. And we heard a woman screaming for help. And it was so black outside that we could not tell where the sound was even coming from, because as you can see, we're below the city, so the sound was kind of over our heads in a way.

And then we heard a gunshot. And I very vividly remember an argument between my father and his best friend about what to do. My father's first instinct was to protect his family, to protect his daughter and his wife. And my dad's best friend said, no, we've got a moral obligation to stop this boat and help this woman.

INSKEEP: I guess that's construction noise up there, although it sounds like a sea monster, doesn't it?

So you settled that by going on. They did not stop the boat when you were a kid.

Ms. LOCKE: No, we called the police and that was the end of it. So whatever happened with that woman, who she is, what her story was, was never discovered for us. So, you know, the book takes that incident and says, well, what would have happened if somebody would have jumped in this muddy water and tried to find some woman who was in trouble.

INSKEEP: And the main character is a man like your father, an African-American lawyer.

Ms. LOCKE: Uh-huh.

INSKEEP: Who continues to have variations on that same dilemma, doesn't he, because he's wondering should I go to the police with what I know? What happens and what got you thinking about that?

Ms. LOCKE: You know, he's really struggling with a lot of kind of paranoia. There's a way in which he so owns the script for what it is to be a black man in, you know, in 1981 Houston, Texas, it so informs his life that he does not feel free to do what a normal citizen would do, which is go to the police and say I heard this thing. I pulled this woman out of the water. I think she was involved in something. I don't know what to do.

Because of who he is, because of his race, because of the time in which he lived, I don't think he feels free to do that. And here's the thing, the character Jay Porter is really representative of, you know, my parents' generation. I have always said that I kind of came at the end of something. I came at the end of my parents' marriage and at the end of a movement. I was born in '74. A lot of their activism, what had defined their lives, was kind of falling apart.

And I think the book in some ways was my attempt to understand the people who raised me, people who were transitioning out of, you know, this kind of heady political activism into the Reagan '80s. I was born in that trans - to me my whole life is the transition from a segregated America to an integrated America.

INSKEEP: Well, you choose a way station on that transition from segregated to integrated, 1981. What was Houston like then?

Ms. LOCKE: My memories of it are as a girl. Houston had its first woman mayor in 1981. It was flush with oil money. I don't think anybody had a clue that it was all about to fall apart. There was this kind of almost arrogant adolescent energy about: look how great we are.

And some of it was just true. I mean people were down here filming "Urban Cowboy" and driving Cadillacs and Jerry Hall was at the center of the world. You know, it's kind of a fun time, but underneath that, you know, there were still ugly racial problems.

INSKEEP: You know, you write about this young man in 1981 who is struggling to deal with an unhappy past and a difficult past and has trouble getting beyond it to deal with the here and now. Do you feel like Houston itself has gone through that process of trying to deal with some difficulties in the past and get into the now?

Ms. LOCKE: I think it is, in as much as the whole country is trying to figure out what to do with its past. My hope for the city, as it would be for the country, is that there would be an ability to hold a contradiction, that you could both hold the ugliness of the past with the optimism of a future, that they could both be true.

One of the tragedies of Jay Porter's existence, the character in my book, and he's actually painfully aware of this, is his inability to see the world as anything other than black and white. And I think what you see in a Houston today, in 2009, is it's not really black and white. I mean even by the time I went to high school, you know, I went to a high school that, you know, there were kids from Vietnam, Greece, Korea, the Philippines, I mean it's a very racially diverse city. And I feel that that's one of the ways in which Houston has grown.

INSKEEP: Has your father read the book?

Ms. LOCKE: Yes, he has. Well, it was written by his baby girl, so of course he thinks it's a masterpiece. (Laughing) But both my parents have read it. My father, he didn't really know what I was doing, 'cause I told him a while back, Dad, I'm doing this thing and I'm telling you this because people are going to think that you're Jay Porter. And I know you're not Jay Porter. You're going to know you're not Jay Porter. And he was really gracious about it.

But I think he's very - as a man who is completely in love with this city, I think he's very moved by the book. And I also think the part of him that - he said after he read it, what did he say? I guess I'm going to have to sit with some of these feelings again.

INSKEEP: Attica Locke, author of "Black Water Rising," spoke while cruising down Houston's Buffalo Bayou. You can learn more about our stories from Houston at

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INSKEEP: From Southern California and from Houston, Texas, this is NPR News.

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