In 'Heaven, My Home' Attica Locke Shows A Part Of Texas We Don't Usually See
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Novelist Attica Locke writes, quote, "My bloodline runs along Highway 59 in East Texas," unquote. Highway 59 is a north-south route many African Americans traveled during the Great Migration, seeking opportunity in northern cities. But Attica Locke's family stayed. So did the family of Darren Mathews, the main character of her last two novels. The latest one is called "Heaven, My Home."
Darren Matthews is a black Texas Ranger investigating the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. Set during the first weeks of the Trump presidency, the novel is about the tangled and complicated relationships of black and white families in East Texas dating back to slavery. In "Heaven, My Home," Darren Matthews is sent to Caddo Lake, an immense body of water, to help investigate the disappearance of a child. The missing 9-year-old is the son of an Aryan Brotherhood captain who's doing 20 years on drug charges. Matthews is conflicted about what it will mean to help find this boy. Will he turn out to be like his father?
Erica Locke's first Highway 59 novel "Bluebird, Bluebird" won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2018. She's written three other novels and has been a screenwriter and producer on the TV show "Empire" and the Netflix miniseries "When They See Us." She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Attica Locke, welcome to FRESH AIR.
ATTICA LOCKE: Hi. Thank you for having me.
BRIGER: I really love the new book. I'd like you to read, if you will, a passage from your new book "Heaven, My Home," and if you could just set it up for us, please.
LOCKE: Well, sure. This is a scene with our main character from this book, and the first book "Bluebird, Bluebird," Darren Matthews. He's a Texas Ranger. It is December of 2016. He's been going through a lot of stuff with his wife. He's had a bit of a drinking problem in the last book, and we find him now having been pulled off the road and being deskbound as a concession to his wife so that their marriage kind of levels out. And then also, we find him at this point in the story sitting around with a bunch of other Rangers of color talking about what has been going on since Donald Trump was elected.
(Reading) One by one, they each acknowledged that something has shifted in the past four weeks not just in the world at large, but on the job, too. They were dealing with things they'd never seen in their lifetimes, stories they'd only heard from the older men in the department - church burnings, the defacement of a mosque in Bryan, black and brown kids shoved in lunchrooms, spit on in gym class, a Mexican woman currently in critical condition after she was attacked in front of her husband and three kids.
Buddy spoke of a hotbed of trouble near Jefferson in Marion County. He might have even mentioned a missing kid out that way, but Darren might have remembered it wrong. Things got a little fuzzy after that. He managed to go an hour before switching from beer to whiskey, but the slide was fast. It made wax of his spine, the liquor did - made everything go soft at the edges, melting away all the departmental talk, all their tales from the field of which Darren had none. He was landlocked in Houston at the office these days, bored in a way he was scared to admit to himself, afraid the word hit a deeper truth as blue as the record that was playing.
Darren was depressed, sick with a rage that was eating him from the inside. Daily, he marveled with befuddled anger at what a handful of scared white people could do to a nation. He never again wanted to hear them question the point of rioting in Ferguson or Baltimore or Watts or Detroit, for that matter, hear them wonder why black folks would torch their own neighborhoods because, in an act of blind fury, white voters had just lit a match to the very country they claimed to love simply because they were being asked to share it.
And that's the bit that stung, the hurt that cut bone-deep. After years of being lulled into believing that the universe bent towards justice, he saw how little his friends and neighbors thought of his life, of his right to this country. After Obama, it was forgiveness betrayed.
BRIGER: So what inspired you to create the character Derek Matthews, this African American Texas Ranger working in East Texas? He's investigating the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas right around the election of Donald Trump.
LOCKE: This whole book series, for me, was about Highway 59. It was about place before it was about a character, before it was even about stories. I come from - both sides of my family, my mom's side and my dad's side, all come from little towns along Highway 59 in East Texas. And I grew up riding up and down this highway to visit family my whole life, and there is a sense of this highway being kind of in my bones.
And I really wanted to tell a story, or a series of stories, about this part of Texas that people don't always think of. They think of Big Sky Country and the West and the Southwest. They don't always think of the craggy East Texas piney woods, and that's what I wanted to write about. So I had the idea for a book series of new stories. Every book would be a different story in towns along this highway.
But he was presented to me by an editor, by my book agent. Well, that's great, but, you know, kind of the trope of the genre is readers are going to want to hang out with somebody for a while, so what's a character that's going to kind of take you into all of these stories? And I had to think for myself, who is a character that can move along Highway 59, which goes from Laredo to Texarkana? Who is that, you know? And it became quickly quite obvious it had to be a Texas Ranger because their job is literally to range. They have freedom of movement.
And then what I had to do was confront the parts of myself that were very ambivalent/unconfident, not sure I wanted to do - write anything about a cop. I don't quite see the world through the eyes of the establishment. I typically see the world through the eyes of outsiders. So it was a conundrum for me to figure out how to write this character, and I kind of found my way.
I read a book called "Ghettoside" by Jill Leovy, and it was a pivotal read for me and a pivotal read in terms of what it meant to write a black law enforcement officer. And "Ghettoside" predates language like Black Lives Matter, but there is a black cop in that book who is saying that, yes, we all talk about the overpolicing of black life, but the other story of the founding of this country is the underpolicing of crimes against black life, and I'm going to wear a badge and stand up for black folks so that they are protected and crimes against them are prosecuted fully.
BRIGER: So Darren's sent to Caddo Lake to investigate the disappearance of this 9-year-old boy Levi, who's the son of a captain of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. This guy is serving 20 years in prison for drug-related charges but not for the murder of a black man, who was a father of two. And Darren has some real conflict about how he feels about this boy. He thinks to himself, you know, what's going to happen if I save this boy? Like, is he going to grow up to be like his father? Will I see him in 10 years with Aryan tattoos on his neck? Or, you know...
BRIGER: Is there a chance that his life could turn out differently?
LOCKE: Well, that's the fundamental question, and I think I was asking myself that on the other side of Trump's election. You know, I'm 45, and the - basically, the course of my life has looked a very particular way. Every - I live on the other side of the civil rights movement. All of my understanding of everything and race in America is post-civil rights movement. So it has always kind of looked like this slow march, difficult struggle - sometimes violent, sometimes heartbreaking, but a march toward justice and equality.
For the most part, over the course of my life, it has looked like we were living King's dream, and Obama seemed to be a kind of culmination of that - not the endpoint, but a beginning of seeing a really different way this country deals with race. The election of Donald Trump so fundamentally shifted that narrative for me that I just felt kind of lost in a lot of ways, and I started realizing I'd been walking around thinking that, essentially, racists were all going to kind of die out. But I realized, oh, no, they might be regenerating. It's possible that this is being passed on into other generations. And I started asking myself this question of whether or not that process could be stopped. And so finding this missing child in this book becomes a metaphor for can the child literally be saved, but can he be saved from the racist thinking that is around him?
BRIGER: And so Darren, when he's thinking about this white boy, Levi, he's also thinking about himself and what he was like at 9. And he also didn't grow up with his father, and he was actually very distant from his mother and was - and grew up with some very supportive uncles. And he kind of wonders, you know, what his life would have been like without them.
LOCKE: Yes, he's able to feel compassion for this child at the same time as a kind of fear that what if I get this wrong, and I end up saving this kid only for - because we find out that this child is starting to act out the stuff he's seeing around him.
LOCKE: His mom is living with this wannabe Aryan Brotherhood guy. And the kid is starting to do things like spray-paint epithets on walls and, you know, not be kind to black neighbors. And there's a sense of, well, my God, if I save this kid, is he going to be - is it safe to save him, in a - almost in a way - in a strange way. And, you know, I had finished this book before I realized where this child came from in my psyche.
Around the election - my daughter's 12 now. But in 2016, my daughter goes to a super, super, super progressive southern California school. And there was a white kid there that called a black kid the N-word, and I was simply stunned that I had fallen into this kind of lull that I was in southern California. I was in this progressive state. I was in this progressive school with my child. How did this word find its way into her life?
And my reaction to it versus my daughter's reaction to it were completely different. My daughter - well, let me start with my reaction. I was furious. I was hurt. I was enraged. I was like, I don't want to have anything to do with this kid. I don't want to have anything to do with this kid's parents. I don't want them to sit next to me at back-to-school night. I don't know what to do with this. Whereas, my daughter's reaction - because her relationship to the word is different. She knows it's wrong. But she also was able to see that child in a larger context - was stuff going on in his home. She said, Mommy, I kind of feel sorry for him. I don't know what's going on or where that came from, but I feel sorry for him.
But I was not willing to forgive. And I was very uncomfortable that I, the adult, was not willing to forgive this child. And it's - we probably had 20, 25 dinner table conversations about this. And I knew that the child ultimately felt a great deal of remorse. And it was up to me to be the bigger person and to potentially forgive this child for this and to not put on what he did, what that word means to me and what it means to me when I was called that word at that age. I was called the N-word at about 9 and shot with a BB gun.
LOCKE: So for me, the word is connected with violence. It's connected with such ugliness. And I don't know why that kid said what he did, but it - I was feeling that it wasn't quite fair for me to put my entire history of that word going back into the '70s on this child today. It was just - all of that was roiling in my mind. And that's where a lot of this came from, this question of is it safe to forgive folks, or are we - is that - there something dangerous in forgiveness?
BRIGER: We'll get to forgiveness in a little bit. But you were shot with a BB gun?
LOCKE: I was. I was about 9 years old. I was living in the suburbs in Houston. And I was really good friends with this white kid named Blake (ph). We used to play fort together because this was a suburb that still had empty lots. They were still building new houses. And we would play and build forts in these empty lots. And we were just buddies.
And one day, I came out of the house, and he - I - he was just all the way down at the end of the block. And he said, Attica, Attica, come here. And I, like, walked out towards him. And as I got closer, he had a friend that was hiding in the bushes that then popped out and pointed a rifle at me and shot. And I was stunned. It broke skin. I bled. So I didn't understand at first that it was a BB gun. I thought I had been shot.
And I stumbled home bleeding, and my parents went crazy. They were so angry. And it was very similar feeling, I mean, that I just described about my child, but it was Texas in the '80s. They had marched. They had done all these things. How had they arrived at - in this suburban community only for their child to be called the N-word? And I believe that the police were called on this child. I have a vivid memory of sitting in the car while my mother went into this child's father's place of business and basically just cussed him out.
But what I also remember about the time is that neither of my parents, God bless them, ever actually sat down and said, Attica, how are you doing with this? They were so caught up in their own hurt that that took precedence over checking in with their child. And I guess I didn't want to do that this time around with my daughter. So I asked her how it felt for her to hear the word, and I listened to her feelings about it. And that played a part in me being willing to consider forgiving this child because my daughter was not wounded to the degree that I was 30-something years ago.
BRIGER: So we were talking about this ambivalence that Darren Mathew (ph) has with his job as a Texas Ranger. And a lot of that is played out between these two uncles that raised him. One of his uncles, William, who actually died in the line of service as a Ranger, he believes that - well, why don't you - why - can you describe the two ways that these uncles think about the role of law and justice in the lives of African Americans?
LOCKE: Yes. They are two identical twins. I grew up with identical twin great-uncles who were very different. One was a colonel in the Army. The other one was a professor. And that gave me the kind of idea for this.
And what it also afforded me was a way to look at the fracture in the black psyche between a character like William, the former Ranger, who believed that the law is the thing that could save black folks, that if you had more people like him, more people of color wearing the badge, then you could have people protecting black life. You could have people making sure that crimes against black life are prosecuted to the same degree that crimes against white life are prosecuted. Whereas, his twin brother, a former criminal defense attorney, says, no, the law is a lie that was written against us. We need protection from it.
And that kind of polarizing split is inside of Darren's mind. And that gave me freedom as a black woman to write about a black cop because I could play with that ambivalence that I feel as a human being and as an American.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with Attica Locke, author of the new novel "Heaven, My Home." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Attica Locke about her new novel, "Heaven, My Home." It's her second novel about a black Texas Ranger investigating the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas.
BRIGER: In both of your novels, there are these deep ties between these black and white people that live together, next to each other, and there's often a conflict. But that conflict comes out of this really knotty history. And, you know, I don't want to reveal the plots, but like in "Bluebird, Bluebird" you write that the murderer's lives revolved around the black folks they claim to hate but couldn't leave alone.
LOCKE: Yeah, yeah. I mean, you know, I have this kind of crazy theory that and I - you know, nobody at me, as they say on Twitter. But I kind of have this crazy theory that there's - that hate as a thing is - it's not that it's not real, I just don't actually think anybody is born hating anybody. And I'm going beyond just that hatred is taught. I actually think that underneath hatred are odd feelings about - odd feelings of discomfort for some white folks about the interconnectedness of our lives, that it disrupts an American narrative that white men showed up here and kind of just did all this by themselves, that if you really take in, at some kind of deep level, the ways in which black and white folks lives have been so interconnected and that you literally could not have done any of this without black bodies, there's almost a feeling of, well, you've kind of infantilized me and taken away my sense of myself of my, you know, single great man of history theory.
And I think that those - there's feelings of a kind of, like, resentment about how interconnected that we are. And I think underneath a lot of hatred are feelings of resentment. I think sometimes it's feelings of envy. I think it's feelings of just discomfort that you - that there's a symbiotic relationship here. That if you deeply acknowledge it, it removes some of your sense of your own power.
BRIGER: You also look at the history of this town, Jefferson, Texas, which I guess, historically, was a big port town. When - it's on the shore of Caddo Lake and when Caddo Lake was a thriving trade route, Jefferson really benefited from that. But the water levels were lowered and the economy dried up, and you describe it as a (reading) like a shrunken down French Quarter but without its sense of humor or even the tiniest hint of debauchery, buttoned up, hemmed up. And then you say later, like it had something to hide. And, you know, there's a lot of tourism in the town, that the tourism is related to the history of the place. So people are capitalizing on the history but it's a whitewashed history, right?
BRIGER: Can you explain that?
LOCKE: Well, I mean, it's a history which, again, talks about the founders of Jefferson. The - it's a - I think I - I think in the book, I described it as celebrating economic prosperity as if it were bloodless, like, not taking into account the fact that, you know, slavery was underneath a lot of this economic prosperity. And everything is shaped around the antebellum romance of what was - both what was in terms of Jefferson was bigger than Dallas for a period of time, what was in terms of the pretty steamboats and the beautiful, old hotels and presidents who visited - but without really considering that everybody else was not - everybody else's take on the history would not be that. There are people for whom their take on what Jefferson was would be completely different based on who they are, and I'm one of those people. I don't have a sense of reverence for "Gone With The Wind." I don't have a sense of - I don't want to ever see a Civil War reenactment. That's not something I'm going to go to. I never went to any ghost tours while I was there because the way the ghost tours were described, it all sounded like the ghosts were all of these antebellum women wringing their hands, walking in, you know, on the upper levels of their beautiful homes. There's never, like, anything interesting. Like, what if there was a slave ghost in one of these ghost tours? That would be interesting. I would pay money to see a slave ghost show up. That's interesting to me. But it all seems so kind of packaged as this kind of pretty - look how beautiful Jefferson used to be. And Jefferson is pretty to look at, but there's a weird kind of coldness to it because it neither honors or acknowledges the roughness, the violence behind its former economic prosperity. And there's just kind of a sadness about the fact that all that stuff is gone, and you're just selling what we were, not what we are.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Attica Locke, author of the new novel "Heaven, My Home." We'll hear more of the interview after a break, and I'll talk with writer, director and co-star of the new satirical film "Jojo Rabbit." Set in Nazi Germany, it's about a 10-year-old boy who's being indoctrinated by the Hitler Youth Organization. The filmmaker, Taika Waititi, is from New Zealand. He's part Maori, part Jewish. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARCUS PRINTUP, HERLIN RILEY, REGINALD VEAL, VICTOR GOINES AND WYCLIFFE GORDON'S "MR. MANN (INSTRUMENTAL)")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the conversation our producer Sam Briger had with novelist Attica Locke. Locke's latest book, "Heaven, My Home," is the second in a series about a black Texas Ranger named Darren Matthews investigating the criminal activities of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. Locke is from Houston and has long family ties to East Texas. Her novels reveal the history behind the current racial conflicts her characters face there.
BRIGER: Well, you've been thinking about these questions about history for a long time, and I think your second book was inspired by a wedding that you went to on a plantation.
LOCKE: Oh, yes. I did. In 2004, I went to a wedding at the Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, La. And it was the weirdest thing I'd ever been to in my life. I knew the invitation said plantation, but I'm from the South. So I thought, oh, oh, yeah, there's going to be a lot of ceiling fans and a balcony.
LOCKE: And it's just going to be plantation-esque. I didn't know that it was a literal plantation.
LOCKE: And I was not emotionally prepared for that because I had never engaged in this kind of antebellum historical tourism. I don't think I ever would have gone to a plantation if I had not been accidentally driven to one (laughter) because I was bussed into this wedding. And what was so hard about it for me is that when you ride up to it from New Orleans, you're riding through abject poverty in rural Louisiana. You're riding through all of this black poverty. And then, out of nowhere, this majestic house just kind of shoots up out along the Mississippi. And it was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen in my entire life, and I hated myself for even acknowledging that. I was so roiled up with contradicting feelings. I was so angry at its beauty. When the bus that drove all of the guests in from New Orleans parked, I got off, and I started crying. The second I - my feet were standing on the grounds of a plantation, I started crying.
And I was there with my husband, who is white. And we were there for a wedding of an interracial couple, of a white man and a black woman. And so we kind of said a prayer, me more so than my husband, who's not super religious. But I said a prayer that I needed to somehow kind of acknowledge the souls that had lived and died here in order to walk on the ground. I couldn't just walk there and start drinking champagne and eating shrimp on passed trays. I wanted to acknowledge where we were.
And I held out hope that, oh, I know what's going to happen tonight. They're - this interracial couple, at some point, someone's going to get up and make a beautiful speech that we are on this troubled land, but we've come here for love. We've come here for an event that celebrates love and that shows how much time has passed, how we, you know, are remaking this history in some way - there'd be some acknowledgment of where we were. That actually did not happen. And that's what messed me up about the wedding most. That it was - it was clear that this space had been rented because it was pretty, that there was no acknowledgment of what the land represented. And I remember when I left there, several glasses of champagne in, I was like, I could write a Ph.D. about what this night was. And instead I wrote a novel. I wrote a novel about historical tourism and who gets to tell the story.
BRIGER: Did you ever talk to that couple and, you know, say, what did you feel about this?
LOCKE: First of all, they're not married anymore (laughter).
BRIGER: Oh, OK (laughter).
LOCKE: They're not married anymore, and in fact, the cutting season opens with the idea of that a snake fell out of one of the old oak trees. And that actually - there was a rumor going around when we arrived at the wedding that a snake had fallen out of one of the trees earlier, and I thought, well, this is...
BRIGER: That is a bad sign.
LOCKE: This is a bad sign. And they are not married anymore. And I never - and I wasn't friends with the black woman. I was friends with the white guy. And I was so embarrassed. I was so embarrassed by my reaction to it. And sometimes I get really embarrassed to ask people questions I think are really obvious. Like, why did you marry a black woman on a plantation? I just couldn't bring myself to answer - to ask that. I did send them a copy of the book and I tried to...
BRIGER: Yeah, I was wondering if they'd read it, yeah.
LOCKE: I know. He's never spoken to me since, so maybe he hates me. But I basically sent a copy of the book with a lovely note saying, you know, look at what this experience kind of birthed. I, you know, I really - this, you know, stirred up so much thought, and I still think about you, and I still think about the wedding. And then I just kind of left it at that, and then he never said a word ever since so...
BRIGER: You know, a lot of this book is about forgiveness. One of the main characters, Leroy Page, says to Darren a couple times, black folks are the most forgiving people on Earth. And the first time he says it, Darren can't quite tell if he's saying it with pride or shame. But the next time he says it, it's clear that there's a lot of bitterness in his voice. And you write that Darren's uncles, these two very supportive people who raised Darren, often debated ferociously whether forgiveness made black folks saints or stooges. Why were you thinking about forgiveness?
LOCKE: I was thinking about the fact that Donald Trump will one day be gone. He won't be around forever, but I still have to live with the people who put him in office. I still have to share this planet and this country with people who showed such a profound disregard for my life, and the life of other people of color. And I don't know what to do with that. And I think I was asking myself, could I and should I, when all this is said and done, forgive the people who put Trump in office? Is that safe to do? Or do you forgive people at your own peril because you give them then license to keep this up? Because like the passage I read earlier, I was one of the people who thought when Obama was elected, not that we were going to wipe history clean, but there was a willingness in my heart to start new. We could remember what happened before, but we could start new today.
So I was so profoundly hurt to realize that there were still so many people in the country for whom they were fine electing someone who said such hateful things about people who look like me just because it made economic sense to them. I don't know what to do with that, and I'm still wrestling with forgiveness. I don't know how or if to forgive.
BRIGER: You originally went to LA to try to be a screenwriter, I believe, and...
BRIGER: At first, it wasn't going the way you wanted to. You have gone on to be a very successful screenwriter, but you followed - people say, follow your dreams. You literally were inspired by a dream that you had that made you take a turn away from screenwriting to writing novels.
BRIGER: Can you tell us about that?
LOCKE: I moved to LA to become a director.
BRIGER: Oh, a director.
LOCKE: That was my dream. That was 100% my dream. I did the Sundance filmmaker labs. I had a movie deal. The movie deal fell apart. I was, like, 25 years old. I was just this little baby. And I didn't know there was a such thing as professional heartache. I was just devastated. And I didn't know what to do with myself, but I knew I could write and I needed money. And I was newly married. If you can believe, my husband and I have been married forever. And he was starting law school, so I said, OK, well, I'll write scripts. I'll write scripts for movies they're going to make. Like, you know, that way I don't have to have my whole soul on the line. It doesn't have to be my story. I just will be a hired gun. And I did that for over a decade. And the joke was on me because none of those movies got made either. And I had a very vivid memory being in New York on a research trip. And I had a dream that I was on a film commune, which was kind of like the Sundance experience I'd had at a lab. And it was the night of a huge premiere. And we all lived on this commune. We made movies. And we all, you know, helped each other out. It was the night of a huge premiere, but I was on janitorial duty that night. And I was sweeping...
BRIGER: (Laughter) That's so terrible.
LOCKE: ...And I looked at another maid, and I said to her, I don't want to do this anymore. I think I quit. And she said, what are you talking about? You're going to have to go tell Marlon. And it was Marlon Brando. Because Marlon Brando was running this film commune. But it was Marlon Brando from "On the Waterfront," so he was in black and white.
LOCKE: And of course, I - you know, my psychological studying of this says that I was already thinking about "Black Water Rising," and there's a big subplot with longshoreman in that book.
LOCKE: So I go to talk to black-and-white Marlon Brando to say, I don't want to do this anymore. It's not what I thought it was going to be. And he said, are you sure? You know, I've heard really great things about you. And I said, no, I think this is it for me. And I woke up in a hotel room weeping. I was crying in my sleep, and I woke up. And within a year, I'd walked away from Hollywood completely, and I borrowed money on my house to write a book.
BRIGER: Oh, that's amazing. Well, Attica Locke, thank you so much for talking with us.
LOCKE: It was an absolute pleasure. Thank you.
GROSS: Attica Locke spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Her new novel is called "Heaven, My Home." After we take a short break, I'll talk with the writer, director and co-star of the new satirical film "Jojo Rabbit." It's about a 10-year-old boy in Nazi Germany who's just joined the Hitler Youth Organization where he's being indoctrinated. The boy's imaginary friend is Hitler, played by the filmmaker Taika Waititi. This is FRESH AIR.
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