Walking into the Festival Theatre’s auditorium, there was something different about the book launch about to take place. Rather than the usual two chairs and a table with water waiting onstage, instead stood a lectern right in the middle. Next to it stood a display of Picoult’s new book, and the hashtag #readwithoutprejudice. It was then that I realised that this was not going to be a typical book launch: Picoult was here on a mission.
That mission is to educate her readers about racism. Despite feeling under the weather, blaming the Scottish climate for making her sick, Picoult didn’t let her cold get the better of her. Instead, she came out as strong and determined as ever to explain to her devoted fans why Small Great Things was the hardest book she had written.
Picoult has approached a number of difficult topics in the past: issues that she says keep her up at night, to the point where she realises it is a sign that a good book is waiting to be written. Teen suicide, mass shootings, children with cancer, the list goes on. What sets Small Great Things aside, however, is how prevalent racism is in America, and how we as the powerful and privileged fail to fully recognise the hardships that people of colour have to experience.
Picoult admitted to having attempted to discuss racism before in her work, failing miserably. Part of this was because she had failed to understand that, as a White woman, she had grown up ignorant of just how much power being White gives an individual. In order to “unpack” her own biases, the months leading up to writing the novel were spent attending a Racial Justice workshop, followed by over 100 hours of interviews with 10 people of colour. Hearing some of the fears shared with Picoult regarding their children’s education and futures was difficult and worrisome, undoubtedly due to the recent election in America and the never-ending news of shootings in the US of innocent Black people.
Like a number of her earlier works, the story is told through three perspectives. The first narrator is Ruth, a Black nurse with 20 years midwifery experience. The second is the father of one of Ruth’s patients who, after a tense first meeting, quickly reveals himself to be a White Supremacist. Following an incident involving the father’s newborn, the final perspective is from a White public attorney defending Ruth. The novel is in fact based on a true story, one which took place in Flint, Michigan in 2012, where a Black nurse sued a hospital for allowing the prejudices of patients to prevent her from doing her job.
In order to further the authentic feel of her narratives, she got in contact with two former White Supremacists, who exposed the practices of a group of individuals who are no longer easy to spot within society (gone are the days of shaven heads and leather boots, and instead viral figures spreading hate on social media).
Picoult is very clear about what her motive was for writing this book: she wants to start a conversation about racism amongst those who are not affected: amongst those who are privileged and have power. As she rightly stated, “not talking about racism does not excuse you from being part of the problem.” Racism is systematic and institutional, and is rearing its ugly head more than people would like to admit. However, leaving the event, Picoult came off as preachy rather than positively spreading her message. Effectively guilt-tripping those who “look like me” because of the way they look, her series of Dos and Don’ts felt somewhat hypocritical: because she had written a book about racism she was qualified to talk about it as an authority. This air of superiority she had over the audience was certainly unappealing. She also criticised people for not reading enough literature written by people of colour, suggesting that people read an author knowing they are white. By emphasising the need to read literature of all races (which I absolutely agree with), by telling people to look out for these particular felt like singling out authors because of their race, which felt contradictory to her message.
Small Great Things is definitely a step in the right direction. However, Picoult’s approach to educating her readers further shows how the privileged feel the right to control those around them.
Photo credit: Margaretwmiller