What were they thinking? The question troubled Attica Locke as she watched a couple exchange wedding vows on a Louisiana plantation. “How could you start a marriage between a white man and a black woman on a plantation? My husband – who is white – and I kept waiting for the moment where we were going to have some reading, some acknowledgement that this was an act of healing. They never said a word. People – thank God they weren’t black – were dressed as mammies to let us in. A guy was dressed up as a Confederate. I asked how long he’d worked there, and he said he didn’t, he’d just decided to wear that to the wedding. It felt like we were in a fun-house of craziness.”
The American south-east is peppered with exquisite plantation homes that now serve the tourist trade as hotels and event venues, many offering a menu of ghost tours and tame historical re-enactments. As this wedding emphasised, most visitors don’t give the South’s less picturesque history its due, but for Locke, the awareness that enslaved blacks worked – and suffered – on plantations was almost suffocating.
“It’s hard to put this into words, but I didn’t feel anger. At times I felt disgust, but there was [also] a strange feeling of ‘I come from here’, so in a way this is a kind of ancestral homecoming.” On her website she writes, “I immediately felt sick to my stomach . . . but also a deep and unexpected feeling of love and filial longing, at an almost cellular level, as if I were coming face-to-face with a distant relative for the first time.”
That unease found an outlet in her new novel, The Cutting Season, processed through the character of Caren Gray, who works as site manager back on the plantation where her late mother worked as the cook, and her ancestors before that, as slaves. Already uncomfortable entering the old slave quarters, her equilibrium is further disturbed when the body of a migrant worker is found next to the fence separating the plantation from the still-active sugar cane fields. As she joins the detectives in their hunt for the killer, Caren discovers links to the eerily similar murder of one of her own forebears, and puts her own life – and that of her daughter – in danger.
The Cutting Season has been keenly anticipated because Locke’s début novel, Black Water Rising, was short-listed for the Orange prize here in the UK. In the US, where she’s published under author Dennis Lehane’s imprint for Harper Collins, it was nominated for an Edgar Award, an NAACP Image Award, and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize. The reviews were superb, with everyone from Val McDermid, James Ellroy, and George Pelecanos admiring the dexterity with which she spun out a crime thriller while examining the dissatisfactions and disconnections felt by African Americans during the post Civil Rights era.
Success couldn’t have happened to a nicer writer. In person Locke is friendly and outspoken, her ideas underscored with warmth and intelligence, rather than stridency. The former screenwriter, who still lives in Los Angeles, is worth listening to on the state of her nation, America’s first black president, and her Houston upbringing as the daughter of a lawyer and a businesswoman – both former activists – who divorced when she was two. She’s joked that her mother named her after the New York prison – infamous for the 1971 prisoner uprising – “to remind me to be able to say no and to stand up for myself. But mostly I stood up for myself by demanding to go to the mall.”
That’s understandable in context. Born in 1974, she came of age when her parents had entered their “Cosby” phase, and were no longer professional activists. “The truth is that both my parents are seriously middle class in their bones. I come from land owners. My sister and I are the first generation to not have an advanced degree. Even my grandmother, born in 1911, had an advanced degree. So when the movement ended, [my parents] did not have to make some kind of psychological leap to the middle class – it’s just that they did it very swiftly, and on the surface, seamlessly.”
Prior to that, for instance, her mother worked in a factory even after she’d earned her Masters degree, “because she was a Marxist”. Her father had been an associate of Stokely Carmichael – who’s credited with popularising the term “black power” – and initially turned down law school. After his marriage and the movement fell apart he was emotionally at sea. “Some of the stuff that I got from Black Water Rising is because of that. He used to be the guy in grey overalls, with the black lunch box that flipped over, with the coffee. He was a worker. But he somehow convinced Shell Oil to pay for him to go to law school and he went at night.” In 2009 he ran for mayor of Houston.
Did she ever feel that her parents had sold out? “No, but my dad has had moments where he thought he sold out. It’s not like they abandoned the politics, more that it wasn’t a vocation any more. Changing the world was no longer their daily job but their politics remained the same. My father worked [as a lawyer] for a community centre and helped settle a lot of Haitian refugees in Houston. He’s done court cases against police brutality. It’s just shown up in different ways. But I think that having children was when it all kind of petered out.”
Her parents sent her to an all-white school – deliberately. “Houston still had bussing in the Seventies, one of the last cities to integrate. By the time I was going to school in 1979 an element of the bussing was coming from my own house! I could have gone to the neighbourhood black school. My parents were not having that: it wasn’t good enough. They pulled all kind of strings. It was completely for the education, and they didn’t really prepare me for the other part of it – mainly because I don’t think it even occurred to them. They went to coloured schools; they had no concept of what it would actually feel like to arrive at the school and be the only one.”
I read out a comment she made, saying that Obama’s election and presidency “rewrites the age-old narrative about race in the United States”. But since so many of the younger generation have forgotten their parents’ and grandparents’ struggles, what is it that she feels has changed?
“I don’t believe that a post-racial America should be a goal – post-racial being this idea that we’ll somehow not be talking about race. I object to this idea that we wash ourselves of our races. The goal shouldn’t be that you have to not acknowledge that someone’s a woman or black or an Indian, in order for us to all hang out. The point should be that everyone can be what they are, in its fullness, and then we can hang out together. I don’t think we’re beyond all the racism, but it’s not possible to say that things have not changed. My five-year-old daughter’s life grounds me in that reality. She has absolutely no concept of the fact that there has ever been another president. So the blueprint of her psyche has no ceiling on it. Period. Everything is available to her.”
When Locke was her daughter’s age, she recalls, “My grandmother was telling me – I mean, I was called nigger – she was telling me her war stories from East Texas, telling me white people think that you steal, that you’re dirty. You need to be prepared for all this stuff. She was born before women could vote, and before black people could vote in the south.”
Despite everything, Locke is an avowed optimist. “I think the human race is evolving in a positive way. I just refuse to believe that things are not different. I’m voting, I can pretty much live where I want to live. . . That everyone has not come up with me doesn’t negate the fact that there has been change. If there are still big pockets of inequity, it still doesn’t change the fact that what it means to be black in America has expanded.”
She once identified three great moments in the psychic history of race relations: Emancipation and Reconstruction, the Civil Rights movement, and now. Why – and how – now? “There is an opportunity here, should we take it, to start that third big transformation about race. One of the last scenes in The Cutting Season finds Caren, the descendent of a slave, standing in the room with Raymond Clancy, the descendent of a slave owner. Neither of them asks for the baggage they’ve come into the room with. You have two choices. You can hang on to the script where you’re always the oppressed and I’m always the oppressor, or you can let it go and see what happens. And I, frankly, don’t know a way forward without holding on less tightly to these fixed scripts. I understand why people hang on, but I don’t know how helpful it is going forward.
“The last chapter is my favourite; I get so emotional about it. What I hope people are left with is this: we’ll have to figure out which parts of our history we’re going to take with us in our pocket, and the rest of it, you kind of need to tear it down. It’s not so much that I think the plantation had to be torn down, but there’s something about the plantation mentality that is not helpful. You take [away] the parts that are precious and you never want to forget.
“I don’t want to do to my daughter what my grandmother did to me. She was trying to prepare me to go out in the world, so I always was clean, so I always did say the smartest answer, so I never stole anything. She told me all this stuff and then I got sent to a white school – it was like sending me into the belly of the beast, in my imagination. She was preparing me but the country had already shifted. I want to prepare my daughter for the future and the world she’s going to live in, not the one I grew up in.”
If she’s so optimistic and cheerful, why is she writing crime novels? That makes her laugh, and tell me the saga of her college room-mate, who invented detailed and believable stories about childhood abuse, and fabricated a terrifying stalker. The legacy of that experience is that Locke won’t be fooled again.
“I can’t decide if she was sick or evil – probably very, very sick. What was bothersome was wondering how someone can look you in the eye and say terrible things have happened to them, that aren’t true.
“Part of me is fascinated with watching documentaries, particularly true crime stories. I want to know that I could tell if someone is lying. I watch all the shows, and it’s the interviews with the person who says, ‘Yeah, I dropped her off at home. Why, what happened?’ that give me chills. I feel like I can work on a muscle, so that if I’m ever confronted with it again, I believe that I’ll be able to really figure out who the liars are.”
It’s comforting to know that in these duplicitous times there’s a woman as sassy and smart as Attica Locke dedicated to telling us the truth.
• The Cutting Season is published by Serpent’s Tail, priced £14.99. It is also available as an e-book.