A Conversation Between Jodi Picoult and Celeste Ng, Author of Everything I Never Told You
Celeste Ng: How has this book changed you as a writer? As a reader? Jodi Picoult:
To be honest, this book made me take a good hard look at myself and not ﬁnd a very ﬂattering portrait. I’d spent nearly ﬁfty years of my life not talking about racism . . . because I don’t have to. I would never have considered myself a racist. And yet, doing research for this book involved looking into my own beliefs and actions and ﬁnding myself ignorant. Okay, so maybe I wasn’t a white nationalist— but I also hadn’t really considered what it might mean to be a person of color; what historical and current struggles are faced; what it means to not ﬁnd representation in everything from literature to television to publishing contracts to police departments. I came to see that inaction is an action, too, and not one I was particularly proud of. I had to not just learn about the privileges I have that come with white skin—I had to own them, and to ask myself what I could do now with this knowledge that might make the world more equitable for those who were not born white. Every day, since writing this book, dismantling racism is part of my consciousness, my dialogue with others, and my actions.
CN: You have discussed the importance of reading books by writers of color. What authors top that list for you?
JP: So many! Toni Morrison is, of course, the queen of all things literary. I heard her read from Beloved as a work in progress and it nearly stopped me dead. Other favorites: Colson Whitehead, Jesmyn Ward, Jacqueline Woodson, Nicola Yoon, Brit Bennett, Ta-Nehesi Coates, Jason Reynolds, Zadie Smith, Cristina Henríquez, Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Díaz, Ellen Oh, Sabaa Tahir, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Lisa See . . . and Celeste Ng. (And, no, I’m not just saying that because you asked the question. I really, really, really have been a fan for a while, and your new novel knocks it out of the park.)
CN: Has anything about readers’ reactions to the book been a surprise for you?
JP: I was expecting a lot more criticism from the African American community than I received. I thought there might be a lot of side-eye for a white author writing about racism—after all, there is an argument to be made that it’s not my story to tell. Believe me, I thought a lot about that before writing the book, because cultural appropriation is a real and awful thing. Ultimately I had to ask myself why I was writing the book: Was it to proﬁt off someone else’s pain? Or was it to tell a story to people who look like me, and the best way to do that was to use a voice of color? I did so much research and worked with sensitivity readers to “get it right” when I was writing Ruth’s voice, and I guess it paid off, because to a fault, the African American readers who have contacted me have said that the voice of Ruth was spot on, and that they themselves had experienced acts of microaggression as had Ruth. And then they’d tell me their stories. One woman, I remember, had been a sign language interpreter in a white church. She had to sit across from the front row and sign, and a white elderly woman said out loud, “Can you make her stop? I can’t look at her black face anymore.” And this reader had to sign those words. Imagine the humiliation she must have felt, and then she had to get up and go to work the next day again. The stories I heard from my African American readers brought me to tears. It reminded me why I so badly wanted to write this book—so that more white people would see what they’ve been ignoring. Another reaction that surprised me: there was a young African American in LA who stood up and started to cry because she had been a fan for years, but never imagined my main character would look like her. That was pretty humbling. The reactions of white readers have also been interesting. Largely, those who read the book ﬁnd it uncomfortable, but in a really important way, and realize they have some work to do. The few who have written to critique me and tell me I am wrong, and that we live in a post-racial society, have mostly been white men.
CN: What has the response been from readers in other countries?
JP: Although I think it’s sometimes hard for foreign readers to under- stand the racial climate of America, every country I toured has had their own seedy story of racism. In Canada and Australia it is indigenous people. In the UK, it’s Muslims and, interestingly, white people who were not born in the UK, thanks to the Brexit vote. So even what seems to be a very “American” story has had resonance in their own lives and their own spaces.
CN: Do you feel that where we are as a culture regarding race and racism is different now from where it was when you started writing this novel?
JP: Yes, but not in a positive way. I believe that the Trump candidacy was built on divisiveness and racial stereotyping, and the presidency seems to be continuing in that direction. I know of many friends of mine, people of color, who were the victims of active racism in the days after the election—from nooses being hung in their yards to signs left on the lawn saying “Go back where you came from.” I hope that everyone who reads Small Great Things will make the active attempt to do at least one “small great thing” that will support a person of color in their community, whether that is making them feel wanted and welcome, or writing to a congressman to oppose legislation, or working on an up- coming political campaign, or attending a Black Lives Matter rally. The options are endless.
CN: Can you discuss the idea of parenthood as it is reﬂected in the experience of the three point-of-view characters in the novel?
JP: We parents want the best for our children—whatever it takes. It can be argued that Kennedy, Ruth, and Turk all abide by this standard: from Kennedy trying to sweep “embarrassing” questions about race from her child under the carpet, to Turk’s active persecution of Ruth, to Ruth’s decision to live in a white neighborhood and send Edison to a white school—without any say from Edison himself about what he might want. What I ﬁnd interesting about the trope of the “good parent” is that although it can create division (as seen in the novel in all three cases), it also can provide the foundation for understanding those who are different from us. Ultimately, what all three characters have in common is that they are parents, and their love for their children causes them to act in a certain way. Parenthood is the great equalizer that cuts across differences and ideologies. Certainly Kennedy’s inter- action to save Edison from his actions toward the end of the novel speaks volumes to Ruth, who has already ﬁred her. And Turk’s change of heart, as well, is motivated by both the death of his child and the birth of a new one, who he doesn’t want to grow up in a life of hate.
CN: You’ve pointed out in several interviews that racism is perpetuated—and dismantled—by individual acts. What are some acts individual readers can do to help combat racism and improve under- standing between different racial groups?
JP: Find a Showing Up for Racial Justice group near you (SURJ). It is a great space for white people to talk about racism and to become allies and activists for people of color. Donate to Black Lives Matter. But on a more personal level, ﬁnd a way that you can, in your own personal life, make a difference. Maybe you’re a businessman or business- woman—at your next meeting, if you notice that it’s mostly white people talking, turn to someone of color and metaphorically pass the microphone (“We haven’t heard from Sue yet, I’d love to hear her take on this!”). If you have a second grader, go to your child’s teacher and ask if they’re teaching about Heroes of Color this year—or is the entire curriculum about people of color limited to their victimization? If so, help do the research to ﬁnd examples past Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King of people of color who should be celebrated for their achievements, their inventions, and their words. If you are a reader, check your bookshelf. Are you only reading white authors? Make the conscious effort to read an author of color for every white author you read. Or start a book club that reads authors of color and addresses racial issues through their writing. And if you can, reach across the racial aisle to ﬁnd people of color who might join your group and offer new and interesting perspectives.
CN: What advice do you have for white readers who want to “have this discussion” about racism among themselves, as you put it in your Author’s Note? How do we start those uncomfortable but important conversations?
JP: Just dive in. Talk about race when there are no people of color around—which is a space in which racism is rarely addressed. Talk about race with your kids at the dinner table. Talk to your 102-year-old grandma who uses racial slurs and explain why she shouldn’t. Now, I know that when you approach someone who thinks differently from you when it comes to racism, and you announce you want to discuss it, things usually go downhill. I suggest ﬁnding a book or a movie that has some connection to understanding racism, and going to see it with that person. Then ask questions: “How did you feel when that happened to Character X?” From there, segue into a more broad discussion: “Oh, that reminds me of something that happened in the news!” That way your conversation about racism is organic and a little less confrontational. Look, there are always going to be people who are not ready to listen. But you’ll never know if you don’t try.
CN: Do you think writers have a responsibility to write about social issues? What do you see as the beneﬁts of approaching social issues through ﬁction?
JP: I think that’s the whole reason for ﬁction: to get readers to address a topic they might shy away from non-ﬁctionally. You get readers in- vested in characters and plot, and if you do your job right, you leave them thinking about greater issues. I believe that I am lucky to have a platform—people want to read what I write, and hear what I have to say. What a gift that is! For that reason, I’m going to continue to address social issues. If you change even one mind, you’ve made a difference.
CN: You’re active on social media (in fact, we “met” on Twitter). What do you like about using this platform to engage with readers? What challenges has it brought?
JP: I love Twitter because it allows me to be political—to be the human behind the byline, so to speak. I love that social media provides an easy way for my readers to get in touch with me, and for me to thank them for picking up my book in the ﬁrst place. But of course, Twitter is also full of people whose political views are different from mine. Some write very politely to say they love my books but not my stance on politics; I thank them for reading and tell them they should probably not follow me. Others write horrible racial and homophobic slurs against me and my family—when you write about racism, you attract those who are neo-Nazis, after all. That’s what the block button is for.
CN: Will you write explicitly about race in America again?
JP: I don’t know if I will write explicitly about race again, but I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. And more important, I think my books— regardless of subject matter—will show more of a rainbow of characters in all races. I’d like them to accurately reﬂect the world in which I prefer to live.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Which of the three main characters (Ruth, Turk, or Kennedy) do you most relate to, and why? Think about what you have in common with the other two characters as well. How can you relate to them?
2. The title of the book comes from the Martin Luther King Jr. quote that Ruth’s mother mentions on p. 173: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” What does this quote mean to you? What are some examples of small great things done by the characters in the novel?
3. Discuss Ruth’s relationship with her sister, Adisa. How does the relationship change over the course of the novel?
4. Kennedy seeks out a neighborhood in which she is the only white person to help her gain some perspective. Can you think of an example of a time when something about your identity made you an outsider? How were you affected by that experience?
5. All of the characters change over the course of the novel, but Turk’s transformation is perhaps the most extreme. What do you think contributed to that change?
6. Discuss the theme of parenthood in the novel. What does being a parent mean to Ruth, to Kennedy, and to Turk? What does it mean to you?
7. Why do you think Ruth lies to Kennedy about touching Davis when he ﬁrst starts seizing? What would you have done in her position?
8. Why do you think Kennedy decides to take Ruth’s case? What makes it so important to her?
9. Discuss the difference between “equity” and “equality” as Kennedy explains it on p. 427. Do you think Ruth gets equity from the trial?
10. Was your perspective on racism or privilege changed by reading this book? Is there anything you now see differently?
11. Did the ending of Small Great Things surprise you? If so, why? Did you envision a different ending?
12. Did the Author’s Note change your reading experience at all?
13. Have you changed anything in your daily life after reading Small Great Things?
14. Who would you recommend Small Great Things to? Why?
About this Author
Jodi Picoult is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of twenty-four novels, including Leaving Time, The Storyteller, Lone Wolf, Sing You Home, House Rules, Handle with Care, Change of Heart, Nineteen Minutes, My Sister’s Keeper, and, with daughter Samantha van Leer, two young adult novels, Between the Lines and Off the Page. She lives in New Hamp- shire with her husband and three children.
JodiPicoult.com Facebook.com/JodiPicoult Twitter: @jodipicoult Instagram: @jodipicoult