That’s not to say the preceding 458 aren’t great. They are. You don’t get to be a globally best selling author without the writing chops and Picoult has them in spades.
Small Great Things is a cracking moral dilemma tale – the type for which Picoult has become renowned. It centres around Ruth Jefferson – a midwife of 20 years who finds herself in the middle of a racial firestorm when a baby boy dies in her care. Ruth is a person of colour. The baby’s parents are white supremacists and before their little boy’s death, the father, Turk, had told the hospital that Ruth was not to touch their baby. Cue the court trial.
I inhaled this book in three days. I was gripped. Compelled. The pacing is excellent and the writing itself is mostly very good.
But I was troubled.
The topic was supposed to be ‘Community and Belonging’. But Shriver demurred. ‘You have to hand it to this festival’s organisers: inviting a renowned iconoclast to speak about “community and belonging” is like expecting a great white shark to balance a beach ball on its nose.’
Instead, the topic Shriver pursued was ‘Fiction and Identity Politics’, in which she railed against political correctness and expressed a hope that the concept of cultural appropriation be a ‘passing fad.’ As to the question of whether writers (the white ones, basically) have any right to tell the stories of marginalised people, Shriver answered thus: ‘I would argue that any story you can make yours is yours to tell, and trying to push the boundaries of the author’s personal experience is part of a fiction writer’s job.’ (Read the full speech here)
The response was immediate. Australian author, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, walked out of the festival and wrote a passionate response, condemning the speech. ‘It was a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension. As the chuckles of the audience swelled around me, reinforcing and legitimising the words coming from behind the lectern, I breathed in deeply, trying to make sense of what I was hearing. The stench of privilege hung heavy in the air, and I was reminded of my “place” in the world.’ (Read the full response here)
The question of who owns a story or who has the right to tell it is one with which all authors must grapple.
Personally, I am fascinated by the experience of post-war migrants to Australia and have toyed with the idea of writing a short story collection around these experience. But I am not a migrant. My family is 6th or 7th generation Australians – a fact that makes me fills me more with unease than pride. I have a quiet sense that perhaps these are not my stories to tell.
From the Small Great Things author’s notes on page 459, it’s clear that Jodi Picoult faced the same dilemma. She had attempted, earlier in her career, to write a book about race. ‘I couldn’t do justice to the topic, somehow. I didnt’ know what it was like to grow up Black in this country, and I was having trouble creating a fictional character that rang true.’ Then, a few years ago, Picoult read a new story about a white supremacist in Michigan who demanded an African American nurse not touch his baby. ‘Suddenly I knew that I could, and would, finish this novel. Unlike my first, aborted foray, I wasn’t writing it to tell people of colour what their own lives were like. I was writing to my own community-white people-who can very easily point to a neo-Nazi skinhead and say he’s a racist… but who can’t recognize racism in themselves.’
As with all her novels, Picoult conducted extensive research and interviews and wrote a book that is educational and entertaining and treats her characters (even the supremacist) with understanding.
I learned a lot from Small Great Things (which does get a little preachy at times). Racism is not simply the overt practice of discrimination. Racism is the power structure that allows white people to get a better education and better jobs, at the expense of people of colour. Racism (particularly as it relates to publishing) is also about access – who gets it, and how they get it at the expense of others.
Considering all of that, I wonder if Jodi Picoult considered mentoring a black author to write this book on racism? Would that have gone some way to re-dressing the power and access issue? Or, as she says, is it about white people using their privilege ‘for good’? That is, writing from a place of sensitivity, compassion and understanding, with the aim of bringing about change?
Perhaps, as Shriver says, it is about writers trying harder: ‘Efforts to persuasively enter the lives of others very different from us may fail: that’s a given. But maybe rather than having our heads taken off, we should get a few points for trying. After all, most fiction sucks. Most writing sucks. Most things that people make of any sort suck. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make anything. The answer is that modern cliché: to keep trying to fail better.’
Or, maybe as Yassim Abdel Magied says, it is simply about ‘respect’ and listening to ‘Anyone who will ask us to be better, not demand we be OK with worse.’
In a way, I think all three women are probably saying something similar. We, as writers, must aim for authenticity, we must try harder and we must show respect for each other, both in real life, but also in the fictional world, via the characters through whom speak. And, of course, the publishing industry as a whole must allow more opportunities for writers from marginalised backgrounds to tell their own stories, in their own voices.
The title of Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things is inspired by a Martin Luther King quote – “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”
Of course, he is saying that all of us have a part to play in reversing racism, but to me, it is an apt description for the job of a writer – to do small things, to put words/sentences/paragraphs together, but to do these little things in a great way and thus achieve great change.