Q&A: Maurice Carlos Ruffin on how his dystopian future novel reflects being black in America today
“My name doesn’t matter,” proclaims the narrator of Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s debut novel, “We Cast a Shadow.” “All you need to know is that I’m a phantom, a figment ….” The first words of Ruffin’s book seem to be a tribute to the opening of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” which begins, “I am in invisible man … I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
Ruffin’s inventive and shocking novel follows the unnamed narrator, a lawyer in a Southern city decades in the future, as he withstands a series of indignities at the hands of his co-workers and police officers. He puts up with the treatment because he’s desperate to earn money for a “demelanization” surgery for his biracial son — he can’t stand the thought of his child undergoing the treatment that he’s had to endure his whole life.
Published by One World, an imprint of Random House, “We Cast a Shadow” has earned raves from authors such as Roxane Gay and Kiese Laymon.
Ruffin discussed his book with The Times via telephone from his home in New Orleans. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I do think that ultimately literature is an empathy generator.
— Maurice Carlos Ruffin
What was the origin of “We Cast a Shadow”? How did that premise initially occur to you?
It was several things. One is “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison, which I read in my early 20s. I remember reading the book and thinking, “This is the first time I’ve seen the experience of a black man depicted in fiction so well.” As a writer, I always wanted to do that myself somehow. And then I had this character who had appeared in some vignettes I had written, not complete stories, and I loved his voice and his perspective so much, his way of approaching the world, but I didn’t have a story for him. That was No. 2. No. 3 was poor Trayvon Martin, and that whole era when America is seeing what happens to this kid, and me watching the divided perspectives on what happened: people saying that he deserved what he got, and [other] people saying he was just a child who was murdered by an adult. So those things all together just triggered in me this desire to write a story that would tell the complexities of being a black person in America, trying to live your life.
The book takes place in an unnamed city, but there seem to be some hints that it might be inspired by your hometown. Was the setting of the novel influenced by New Orleans at all?
There’s an influence there, because I’m from here, so it’s impossible for me to do anything that won’t have some of those flavors to it. I think that this city is so specific in people’s imagination, but there are also some erroneous stereotypes, so I just wanted to have more freedom to be able to create something that would speak to the work without getting in the way of it. I’ve always said that New Orleans has become an imaginary city, because everybody has their own vision of what it is. Even once they get here, it’s still in their head, and in some ways, we sort of play to that, because we are a tourist city, so we want to give people what they expect. And I suppose in a way the book is kind of doing that as well.
It’s also a city with a really rich literary tradition. Would you say you’ve been influenced by any New Orleans, or any Louisiana, authors in particular?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the history of African Americans in New Orleans producing books with the big publishers, books that could go international, so to speak. And the strange thing about is that, we had Faulkner who lived here for a while, we had Tennessee Williams who lived here for a while, we had Truman Capote, we had John Kennedy Toole, who’s a favorite of mine. But in terms of black writers, it’s not that many people. It strikes me as really surprising that with our history and our great love of art and storytelling, that there aren’t more writers like me. I kind of see myself as part of this hopeful vanguard of storytellers that have come out of here. I will say that one thing that’s happened since Hurricane Katrina is that a lot of writers have moved here, and many of them are friends, so it’s been interesting to watch their processes play out. And growing up here, I never would have expected to have, for example, at least five friends who have moved straight from New York within the past five or 10 years. And then there’s also this burgeoning scene of poetry, including slam poetry, and people who are essayists and playwrights. It’s percolating. I sort of dream in my head that we’ll be kind of like Harlem in the 1920s, or Paris around the same time.
The novel has been referred to, in advance reviews, as being dystopian. But the world you’ve created looks a lot like actual present-day America. How different do you think the America in the novel is from America today? Are we on the road to becoming the country in your novel?
It’s a strange thing, and I don’t know if I could have planned this out, but looking back on it, we have these strict definitions of dystopian versus normal life. But I think the best way to describe it is that for many people in America today, they are living in a dystopia right now. If you are a black man, a black woman or child, and you’re going about your business, and a police officer pulls you over because they just think you’re suspicious, you’re going to go to jail. And maybe the charge is bogus and it gets thrown out, but you lose a month in jail and $20,000 paying for the attorney, and you’ve experienced this dystopian thing that a lot of Americans can’t imagine experiencing. So I guess in a way the technique of setting it in this future setting is a way of saying, “For some people, the future is now.” It’s strange how we see time, because we always think the future’s so far off. For me, time isn’t so vast.
The narrator of the novel is the only major character whose name isn’t revealed in it. What was behind that decision to have that character remain nameless?
I think that we all have a tendency to see tragedies unfolding, where there’s a war going on overseas, or the way people are being treated at the border right now, and we’ll see them like it’s just a mass of people. And then we’ll get this one story of a small child who is unfortunately killed, or a single story of a mother who had a problem getting across the border, and how it affected her life, and we tend to sympathize. I think that maybe with this character, it was kind of going both ways. You’re going to get to know this person intimately, even more than you know some of your best friends. But at the same time, giving you his name is almost cheating. I wanted people to maybe think that his story is specific but also applies to a lot of people. And hopefully we can bring ourselves to have sympathy for people that we don’t really know that well.
Hopefully we can bring ourselves to have sympathy for people that we don’t really know that well.
— Maurice Carlos Ruffin
Do you think that, as a nation, maybe our level of empathy is rising? You mentioned Trayvon Martin earlier, but also with people like Alton Sterling, Michael Brown, other African Americans who have been killed, do you think Americans are becoming more aware of this stuff happening, or are we still ignorant as a nation about it?
I think it’s a mixed result. I think that people are developing more empathy for people within their own tribe. If you roughly divide us into two halves, you have the half who hear these stories about shootings, including the people who were killed at Mother Emanuel church by that terrorist, and they say, “That’s the most terrible thing that ever happened.” And then there are folks who see it, and they’ll kind of go, “Oh, that’s terrible,” but they won’t see any connections to the larger story of American history. Or if somebody says that this is one of the worst tragedies, they’ll say, “Oh, no, clearly it’s not the worst tragedy ever. There’s much worse things than these nine African Americans being shot in their church, and here’s why.” So I just think that because the different sides have dug in more, it really depends on how a story is spun. You can have somebody tell you, “I’m part of your tribe, therefore I’m going to tell you this story, and you should have empathy for what I tell you next.” And it’s kind of disturbing but it’s not really that’s surprising.
Did you start writing this book before the 2016 election?
Oh, absolutely. By the time the election happened, I had already. It was about to be sold. My agent had it and I think I had finished my final draft that summer.
Do you think the election results confirmed what you might have suspected all along? I read your essay in Literary Hub, where you kind of say that the election wasn’t necessarily a huge surprise.
I tend to think that my subconscious is a lot smarter than I am. I’ve heard writers like Philip Roth say that his lead characters are smarter than he is, that they understand things he doesn’t. Even with that Lit Hub essay, for example, I wrote that essay four days before the election, it was published the day before election day, and it says [President Trump] was going to win, and this is why it should not be a surprise. I think with the novel, I was very specifically trying to predict the future, and I even had in the back of my head that the novel takes place in a time after a sort of fascist-type figure takes over, and it sort of plays out that things haven’t quite recovered yet, so things have gotten worse than they are now. And the novel was finished, and I’m looking around, saying, “I should have set it even further in the future, because it’s happening in front of my eyes.”
Was that a disorienting experience, feeling like, in a way, you kind of predicted some of this?
I think artists have a tendency to be these sort of oracles, and we’re channeling because we’re paying attention. All of a sudden you become that Cassandra, screaming out into the void. People are kind of, like, “Oh, you’re crazy, that would never happen,” and then they say, “Oh, Cassandra, you were right.”
Would you say you’re hopeful at all about the possibility that literature might play a role in healing America at this point, since we’ve become so divided?
I do think that ultimately literature is an empathy generator. And I think that it even has the power to smash through tribalism. And my great hope is that people will read books like mine and have a new mind-set.
This is a really dark novel in a lot of ways, but there are several parts that are really funny. What do you think the role of humor is in a book like this, one that tackles that extremely serious issues?
You know, I’m not sure. I almost feel like it’s a New Orleans perspective. I feel like New Orleans has some relationship with “Casablanca,” the movie, where we sort of experience a lot of dark things, like Hurricane Katrina and the federal failure during that period. We have this history of racism and racial violence, and other violence as well. But at the same time, we have a great time here. People just really enjoy themselves. It doesn’t matter what part of the community you’re from, whether you’re wealthy or whether you’re poor, people just love life. And I think that in my writing, I’ve found that particularly through the dark topics I was much more effective if I allowed that person’s sense of humor, that person’s sense of the absurd to come through. Because that’s how a lot of us see the world. We really see the absurdity. If you’re a New Orleanian who works in the French Quarter, and you’re working at a bar on Bourbon Street, and you see your 10th tourist of the night come in and get drunk, it just gets kind of ridiculous after a while.
Even after Katrina, which obviously was horrible, the people I knew there approached it with a sense of humor. Not like they were taking it lightly, but they still joked around about it. It was, like, “Now we got plenty of water for gumbo.” It was almost a gallows humor sometimes.
Maurice Carlos Ruffin
One World: 336 pp., $27
Schaub is a writer in Texas.
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