NEW YORK (Reuters) - Based on the Tawana Brawley case that shocked the United States in the late 1980s, Joyce Carol Oates’ latest novel, “The Sacrifice,” is eerily prescient.
The story concerns a 14-year-old black girl, Sybilla Frye, who accuses white men, including a police officer, of a shocking act of racial violence.
The book also explores the issue of mistrust and includes the execution of two policemen by a troubled black man, similar to the December shooting deaths of two officers in Brooklyn.
Oates, 76, spoke with Reuters about the novel, civil unrest and racism.
Q: What made you want to write something based on the Tawana Brawley case?
A: I had wanted to write another novel about civil unrest in American cities. I had written “Them” in 1969, and I had lived in Detroit at the time of the Detroit riots. In subsequent years, I found out so much more about relations between black people and the police.
Q: What did you think as the issues in the book flared up in recent months?
A: The novel was all finished. I probably didn’t think too much about it. The whole novel seems to be prescient, but it isn’t prescient if you’re aware of American life, because these things happen all the time.
Q: Do you think this novel, as a work of fiction, can add something more to this issue than journalism?
A: I think novelists always hope someone will read their book with sympathy for their characters. I felt such sympathy for all of the characters, some less so than others. But if you think about where they’re coming from, some of them are so oppressed. To be walking down the street as a black man and see a squad car slow down can be terrifying. Even though what Sybilla says may not be true exactly, it’s true symbolically, and it’s true in terms of racial history.
Q: What do you mean with this theme of certain characters being a “sacrifice”?
A: I think it’s very clear that racism exerts a tremendous toll on any society ... In a way, the white police themselves are casualties of racism.
I remember being in a limousine driven to the airport by a black driver. A New Jersey state trooper pulled over what they saw to be this attractive town car driven by a black man. They had no reason to pull over that town car.
They took him out of the limo, and took him about 30 feet away. I don’t know what they said to him, but they kept interrogating him. That’s a situation that is replicated around the country all the time, but not always with a white woman watching.
Then after a while he came back and drove away. He didn’t talk much about it ... But they could have killed him if it escalated.
If a society is somewhat racist, policemen have power that some of them can’t resist. If there were limits to their power, they wouldn’t do it. They’ve gotten away with it so many times. The fact is, they can do it. Even if they beat him up and killed him, they probably wouldn’t have to pay for it that much. In a racist society, everybody pays for it.
Editing by Patricia Reaney and Lisa Von Ahn