Episode 62: Professor’s academic research on racial strife leads to his first novel
In Episode 62 of Sno-Isle Libraries Check It Out podcast, co-hosts Ken Harvey and Tricia Lee talk to local author Stewart Tolnay and learn how he has used his study of American racial history to create interesting fiction and nonfiction.
Tolnay is a Ph.D. professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Washington. His first fiction novel, “Less Than Righteous,” features a Black Vietnam War veteran, his white girlfriend and the struggles they face as an interracial couple in Everett in 1969.
Tolnay is also the author or co-author of nonfiction works that include “The Bottom Rung: An African-American Family Life on Southern Farms”; “A Festival of Violence,” which analyzes Southern lynchings from 1882 to 1930; and “Lynched,” which studies the victims of Southern mob violence.
Tolnay’s work resonated with Harvey, the Director of Communications for Sno-Isle Libraries. Harvey is Black. He grew up in Mississippi at the dawn of the civil rights movement when white supremacists killed Black people with near impunity. Lee, the Director of Inclusion, Equity and Development for Sno-Isle Libraries, wanted to know more about Tolnay’s work and research and how it dovetails with the library district’s goals and objectives.
Tolnay said it took him years of his own academic work and encouragement from his wife before he could sit down and “write a novel.”
“Actually, it had been brewing in my mind for years as I was doing my academic research and realized there are some really important stories, interesting stories here, that might take us into dark corners of the American past that many people aren’t familiar with,” Tolnay said. “That’s what got me motivated to try my hand at fiction.”
Harvey wanted to know which writing was harder: creative fiction or academic nonfiction?
Academic writing is “kind of formulaic almost, a template of here’s the research question, here’s the evidence, here’s my interpretation of the evidence, here’s my conclusion,” Tolnay said.
It’s nothing like writing fiction.
“You start with a blank slate,” he said. “You have ideas about plot and characters in your head, but you somehow have to bring order to that chaos. I understand some authors begin with a very detailed outline of their novels. That didn’t work for me, so I had to kind of search and find my way along this story as I went from chapter to chapter.”
Lee wanted to know how Tolnay translated “some very heavy topics” on racial violence into fiction. “Are there things that you found you couldn’t express fully in nonfiction that you can express at a whole different level in fiction?” she asked.
“The academics, especially those like me who typically do highly statistical, quantitative work can be sometimes accused of, ‘Well, you’re leaving the people out of this.’ We’re talking about patterns and trends and data, and where are the people? Where are the personal emotional experiences behind this?” Tolnay said. “That’s what writing ‘Less Than Righteous’ allowed me to do, is to take those conclusions that I had drawn from my nonfiction writing and research and bring it down to a personal level, to try to highlight it in a way that is really more accessible to most readers I think.”
Tolnay knew he had to tread carefully as he wrote the novel. He’s white and privileged, and he didn’t want to be accused of cultural appropriation by telling a story of an oppressed social group. That happened to “American Dirt” author Jeanine Cummins earlier this year.
“I will admit, I’d be a fool not to, that I don’t know intimately the African American culture. I don’t know what it’s like to experience the fears, concerns and discrimination and prejudice of the African American population. That’s just a deficit,” he said. “But I spent 36 years trying to familiarize myself with the African American historical experience in my non-fiction books and my journal articles. I don’t know how else I could compensate for that deficit other than by what I’ve tried to do over the last 36 years.”
“Less Than Righteous” also has stories of working-class whites based on his own family experience, and white supremacists that are not his experience.
“I think it is acceptable to write about social groups to which you don’t belong, with two important caveats,” Tolnay said. “The first is that you recognize the potential risks and limitations of your work because of that deficit, and I do. The second would be that you’d make a serious, intense effort to educate yourself about the group’s experience, which I have.”
Tolnay’s fictional story of the Booker family’s move from rural Georgia to the Pacific Northwest has historical roots in the second Great Migration of Black Americans from the South after World War II. Tolnay set the Bookers in Everett, where he was born and graduated from high school and community college during the height of the Vietnam War protests.
“I wanted to include an experience from the Great Migration in the story, and so (Booker patriarch) Mose had to go somewhere from Oconee County, Georgia. And the most likely place for him to go, based on my own experience, was the Pacific Northwest,” Tolnay said. “You often hear that writers should write about what they know. I think that’s very true of ‘Less Than Righteous’ with the setting in Everett. It’s also true with respect to the content of the story, and as (Lee) mentioned, this is a dark story. The disturbing scenes, many of them, are drawn from actual events.”
While the South has struggled with racial equality for centuries, the Pacific Northwest isn’t innocent, Tolnay said.
“The original Oregon State Constitution written in 1851 actually prohibited ‘Blacks and mulattoes’ from moving into the state,” he said. “But it wasn’t actually repealed until 1926. In 2002, when the words were removed from the Constitution of Oregon, 30 percent of Oregon voters chose to retain the language. We can try to sit on our high horse and be very judgmental about the ignorant, racist Southerners, but it’s important to look closer to home as well.”
Tolnay has seen that kind of discrimination here. In 2014, he moved to a Shoreline neighborhood that was developed by William Boeing in the 1940s. In 2005, the homeowners’ association rejected an amendment to the original covenant that prevented “people of the non-Caucasian races and Jews” from living there. The racial restriction was removed in 2006 because it was unenforceable.
“Now, that’s not that all that uncommon,” Tolnay said. “There were racial restrictive covenants for many, many neighborhoods in Seattle and elsewhere. So, it’s something that strikes very close to home and something that I think it behooves Pacific Northwesterners to be aware of.”
“It doesn’t surprise me, and I think it is a nice reminder that these things, they’re still things today,” she said. “I think a lot of the things that we’re hearing today in the news and elsewhere, it’s a direct correlation to the history. It’s a deep wound that’s a hard one to fill and a hard one for us to reconcile our history as a nation and the impacts it has long term on the communities that were targeted with these policies. We sometimes forget about that. Or it wasn’t in history books. I think it wasn’t until I went to college and spent some time in the African American studies department that I was like, ‘Whoa! There’s this whole history that we were never taught and didn’t realize.’”
Part 2: Self-Help Shelf
“This is Sarri Gilman with the Self-Help Shelf for Sno-Isle Libraries. The book I have for you today is a children’s book for ages 4-7 years old, “Amazing Grace” by Mary Hoffman and illustrated by Caroline Binch.
“The illustrations in this book are timeless. And though the book was written more than 25 years ago, the words and pictures are completely relevant today as many of us are having conversations about racism. This is a book to bring your child into those conversations.
“The book is about a girl named Grace who likes to dress up and play different parts from movie and book characters. Grace is in costumes on several of the pages, and your children are going to recognize many of these costumes.
“She tries out for the school play and is told by another child that she can’t play Peter Pan in the school play because she’s a girl and because she’s Black. I recommend this book for boys and girls and for children of all colors. I think all children will be challenged by the questions raised in this book, and it’ll allow for a really good conversation.
“I love the illustrations in this book. They are large and they’re focused on Grace and her creativity. You can see Grace’s imagination and genius in these illustrations. Grace could be friends with any child.
“ ‘Amazing Grace’ is available digitally from Sno-Isle Libraries. Take good care of you and remember: Some books are almost as good as therapy.”
Ken Harvey is Communications Director for Sno-Isle Libraries. Ken brings broad professional experience from his service with Community Transit, Sound Transit, Reno, Nev., and several positions in radio and TV.
Tricia Lee is Assistant Director of Inclusion, Equity and Development for Sno-Isle Libraries in Washington State. She has combined her experience and education in cultural anthropology and library science to center and anchor her passion for equity, inclusion, racial and social justice into library services.
The Sno-Isle Libraries Foundation proudly supports the innovative work of Sno-Isle Libraries through private donations.