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Author Attica Locke: In America, We Walk 'Side By Side' With Our Past

Attica Locke is the author of <em>Black Water Rising, The Cutting Season</em> and<em> Pleasantville, </em>and has written for the Fox drama, <em>Empire</em>.
Ulf Andersen
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Attica Locke is the author of Black Water Rising, The Cutting Season and Pleasantville, and has written for the Fox drama, Empire.

Attica Locke's new novel Bluebird, Bluebird unfolds in rural East Texas along a stretch of U.S. highway 59. She describes it as "a thread on the map that ties together small towns like knots on a string."

During the Great Migration — the period during the 20th century when millions of African-Americans left the Southern U.S. — highway 59 was the road north: "That was the road to get out of Texas," Locke says.

The author is a Texas native herself and she wanted to write a story that took place on 59. "Every member of my family on my mother's side and my father's side is from towns along highway 59 going back to slavery," she says. "So I know this area, its red dirt, I like to say, it is in my veins."

Locke's own family's story was the flip side of the Great Migration — they didn't leave Texas, they stayed. "We are defined by the fact that we stayed," says Locke. "That we said: No, Texas is ours, too. Other people can go, we will not judge you for going, but we are going to stay and fight. This is ours.'

Locke's new novel is set in one of the small towns along the highway. One day, the body of a black man turns up in a bayou, followed three days later by the body of a white woman. The state police detective hero of the novel finds that odd.

"Southern fables usually go the other way around," Locke writes. "A white woman is killed or harmed in some way, real or imagined, and then, like the moon follows the sun, a black man ends up dead."

Interview Highlights

On the story's main character, a black Texas Ranger named Darren Mathews, and how he feels about his home state

I think he feels that it doesn't belong to its worst impulses, that the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, that the Klan, that people who hold racist views, don't get to decide what a state or a country is — that as long as he is present there too, as long as he is wearing a badge, there is a chance there is hope that he can define the state as being a place that is fundamentally hospitable to black life.

On her own feelings toward Texas

Darren's ambivalence about his home state is a mirror for my own and I also meant it to be a stand-in for black folks' ambivalence sometimes about where we fit in America — to what degree is this place truly our birthright and to what degree can we afford to feel passionate patriotism for a place that frequently shows us such disdain?

On the relationship between America past and America present

I remember after Donald Trump was elected — and I think I've been very public about my feelings about his administration — I remember thinking my book changed overnight. I'd already written it, but I knew without me having changed a word, the effect of this book was really different, that it was suddenly entering into a different country in some ways. We walk side by side in America with our past. We walk with these ghosts and I think I tried to capture the ways in which present-day drama, racial drama, is so deeply infused by the past.

Danny Hajek and Jacob Conrad produced and edited the audio of this interview. Sydnee Monday and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

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Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.