Ahead of the Arkansas Literary Festival, a recent UALR Public Radio profile stated that there are two things to know about Maurice Carlos Ruffin: “This man is bold, and he is funny.” Ruffin’s debut novel, “We Cast a Shadow,” gracefully balances these elements amid its setting in a mid-distance futuristic Southern city, where heightened disparities in wealth control by whites and racism morph the book’s landscape into a disturbing satirical reflection of the present. It’s told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator and father obsessed with getting his biracial son a costly operation to whiten his skin. His preoccupation with the surgery and the removal of his son’s birthmark overrides all over aspects of his life, and he’s driven to extreme ends by the racist norms that dictate society: “The world is a centrifuge that patiently waits to separate my Nigel from his basic human dignity. I don’t have to tell you that this is an unjust planet. A dark-skinned child can expect a life of diminished light. This is truth anywhere in the world and throughout most of history.”
We corresponded via email with Ruffin, a writer from New Orleans and recipient of an Iowa Review Award in fiction, about versions of love and the disruption of time within the book and what he hopes readers take away from “We Cast a Shadow.”
On Twitter, you recently posted and pinned a tweet that read: “Write the book that only you could write because no one else carries your obsessions, your point of view, or your version of love.” How do you see this idea translating into your writing for this book, particularly when it comes to versions of love? The narrator in “We Cast a Shadow” is driven by his identity as a father, but I wonder how else you see versions, or visions, of love operating in this book.
I’m not embarrassed by love. I’m not afraid of saying the word “love” or of holding hands in public or of telling people how much they mean to me. I understand that many people don’t like displays of affection because they believe it’s sappy or maudlin. In art, creatives seem to default to coolness and distance. My Narrator is not cool in that sense. Many readers have remarked on his overt love for his family. He has significant problems, but he’s always trying to show his wife and child that he cares. The Narrator’s parents, his friends best friends (Jo Jo Baker and Dinah Dinh), even his boss (Octavia) all take actions that prove that on some level they really care. It’s a theme.
You mentioned in other interviews that the novel’s narrator had appeared in portions of your writing beforehand and you found your way to the story after you realized you loved this character’s perspective. How did “We Cast a Shadow” evolve out of the works you’d previously written or fragments of this character into the larger story you’re telling?
When I was younger, I read a lot of the titans of mid-20th century literature. Writers like Updike, Roth, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, and I noticed that they all wrote male protagonists who were trying to make good: get the job, find romance, deal with their personal demons. My character was formed with many of these concerns. But those writers are all white males. I also read Ellison, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Chinua Achebe. I realized that first set of writers were not dealing with race, racism, white supremacy, which are issues I live and breathe daily. So I combined those perspectives because those perspectives are me.
What was your creative or writing process like for “We Cast a Shadow?” You started writing the book in 2012 and mentioned that you’d sold it by 2016.
My process was use whatever works! I’m not an everyday writer. I don’t see the point, and I grow bored with repetition. I like to write what excites me. If I start a chapter or scene that excites me, I will finish it. These are peanut butter and jelly scenes, which is to say I may have a sandwich when I’m done, if I’m pleased. If I can’t finish the scene, then that scene shouldn’t be written. My readers want my best. I won’t waste time on anything less than my best. That may sound extreme, but remember that we writers literally have an unlimited supply of words. There’s always more to say!
The book is sometimes labeled as satire, but it’s also your prediction of the future and a reflection of racism in the current moment. How much were you consciously thinking about time or its disruption when you were writing this book?
It’s human nature to obsess over time because none of us get to live forever. But when I take a step back and look at the behaviors of people just trying to live their lives versus people who are bigoted, racist, or, at least, raised very poorly, I noticed that there’s really nothing happening today that isn’t related to what came before. If you were to hand my book to a Chinese immigrant in 1890s California or a Jewish American in 1940s New York, they would not be surprised by my dystopian “future.” They would recognize that oppressors are not that creative. They’ve been using the same playbook for thousands of years. Viewed through this lens, time is just a symptom of our limited view. The fight against our darker angels is eternal.
Since “We Cast a Shadow” has come out into the world, what has it been like to experience conversations or reactions to the book? What do you hope comes from people reading the novel?
People who show up to my events have been very encouraging. They say the book is fun and disturbing, but honest. I hope people read the book and open their eyes to all the things they were not taught in school. I hope they feel revived by the truthfulness of the story, which is the opposite of what we often find in stale cable news programs. I hope they go out and learn things that I don’t know. I hope they share that knowledge with the people they love.